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Sunman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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Robocco Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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DinoCity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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The Adventures of Little Ralph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Castlevania III (Japan)

I’ve wanted to do a thorough review on this one for quite some time. For years I’ve read about the differences between Castlevania III and its Japanese counterpart, Akumajou Densetsu. Most of that information was concerning the music but rarely ever went into the gameplay changes between the two versions of the game. Some of the alterations are significant and worth noting and I will admit if given the choice I would definitely pick Akumajou Densetsu. But like Contra it’s not as though we received a broken version of the game. But the little differences do make it that much better.

Structurally this is no different than the game we received. As Trevor (or Ralph in this version) Belmont it is your job to stop Count Dracula and forces around the country of Wallachia. As the last game in the series for the NES this featured a host of improvements to the series standard formula and is commonly held up as one of the best games for the NES and the notable differences between the western and eastern versions are pretty striking, starting with the music.

Dracula’s Curse had an amazing soundtrack, one of the best on the NES. It’s hard to believe but its Japanese counterpart has even better music thanks to Konami’s custom VRC6 mapper. This custom chip added 3 additional sound channels to the system, two square wave channels and a pulse wave. What this means to the common man is a much richer sound filled with digital instrument samples and percussion. The difference is immediately apparent and worth checking out just to compare the two. Once you’ve heard the music in AD the missing instruments really do stand out. I will say though that Konami’s composers did an excellent job of recreating the music for the NES and even without chip it is still the compositions are fantastic.

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Compared to the sound there aren’t as many graphical changes. The most prominent are slight bits of animation here and there such as in the intro and backgrounds. There are some small bits of scenery that were censored in the US release, mostly naked statues and the harpy sprites. I’ve always been amazed that the series has been able to get its religious imagery past Nintendo’s strict censors back then but then again Konami was no ordinary third party at the time either. Some of the enemies are slightly different like the flea men but are no less annoying. I’m actually kind of surprised there aren’t more differences but I suppose the game was already pushing the system pretty hard as is.

Next to the music the one key area that Akumajou Densetsu differs from Castlevania III is in its challenge. The series is known for its crushing difficulty and this third installment was no exception. However passwords made it more manageable (and it should be noted the original Castlevania came on an FDS disc and allowed saving). Here all enemies inflict a set amount of damage from start to finish which evens out the difficulty curve considerably. For its worldwide release Konami made it so that enemies started off weak but became incredibly strong by the end making the final levels particularly nightmarish. Now however you can predict how tough a section might be. It also makes your supporters more viable; they all take more damage when hit and in US release would die in 3 or 4 hits near the finale. I’m not saying you’ll use Grant to fight Dracula but it’s actually a possibility.

Speaking of Grant, wow what a difference. In this version Grant’s default attack is a throwing dagger which is infinitely more practical than his weak melee dagger in the US version. For whatever reason Konami changed it and made using Grant for anything other than shortcuts not feasible. You still have to accurately target enemies and it is still weak but attacking from long range at no extra cost really is a god send at times. I actually kept him as my partner for the entire game rather than swapping him out for Alucard and it was probably my favorite run through the game.

I should note that this review was mostly to pique my curiosity. In no way shape or form did we get hosed; Castlevania III is still a great game and like our version of Contra worth whatever cheap price you’ll pay. But situations like these were rampant in the 8-bit era and are worth examining. Now if you had the choice of course I would say go for the Japanese version but you can’t go wrong either way.

9-out-of-10

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Chiki Chiki Boys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Faussete Amour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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Rockman & Forte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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the Addams Family

While I have thrown my share of vitriol at Akklaim and LJN for their terrible licensed games I would be remiss if I didn’t get around to Ocean. In many ways Ocean were LJN’s European counterpart as they flooded the market over there with garbage. Thankfully we were spared the vast majority of their output and let me tell you, it was bad. However like the previously mentioned parties occasionally a good game would emerge from their stable. The Addams Family was tie in to the film that brought the characters back into the spotlight and while derivative is actually a pretty good game, especially as the movie doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to a video game.

While it doesn’t necessarily put it front and center the game is based around the film of the same name released in 1991. In the film Abigail Craven launches a plot to steal the Addams’ family riches using an imposter Uncle Fester. Since the game was created in a scant four months it only loosely follows that plot. Abigail has kidnapped the members of the family and hidden them around the estate. As Gomez you must save five members of your family and recover the stolen riches. Given Ocean’s output when it came to licenses the fact that the game is solid considering the accelerated development cycle is a god damn miracle. While it isn’t exceptional it is better than it probably should be.

Gomez moves with a nice little pep in his step and is a very controllable protagonist. His momentum can be an issue at times but the fact that you can stop on a dime and retain full control even when airborne offsets that. Offense wise your main attack is the staple butt bounce. A sword and golf balls occasionally show up but are lost when hit. In my opinion these items should have appeared more frequently given that you are moving in tight spaces so often and butt bouncing isn’t an option.

Although this is a platformer structurally it is a little different. As a squat version of Gomez the entire Addams mansion is available to you from the start. From the Hall of Stairs you have access to every corner of the house as well as a few outdoor areas. While the structure would suggest an adventure along the lines of Metroid it isn’t that. You’ll gain no new abilities or items aside from heart containers along the way and the order you go about rescuing each family member comes down to preference. Some paths are more difficult than others and you might want to stock up on extra lives first.

The level design, aside from the non-linearity, is the game’s greatest strength. Each section of the house is pretty long and broken down into multiple named sections that each seem to focus on a specific idea. Firing fish will challenge you to navigate large gaps using conveniently placed enemies and the projectiles said fish spew. Jester’s Jump is one giant hall that will test your leaping skills as you activate switches to progress to the exit. Some parts drag on but there are a ton of secret and more importantly shortcuts that will warp you around the “map” and cut down on travel. The game can be difficult but at the same time it is extremely generous with extra lives, almost as if the creators knew and were doing you a solid. Death will respawn you a few feet away so even that isn’t a deterrent. For a platformer that isn’t Super Mario World this is a bit long but I feel it ends before it wears out its welcome.

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I’m actually surprised at how much work was put in to the visuals considering this is a licensed game. The many different rooms of the house are all visually varied and packed with plenty of detail. The backgrounds are well drawn and can range from the creepy to silly. The scrolling is often three layers deep for that extra visual punch. That being said even in a game that takes place primarily in a mansion they still manage to incorporate some of the platforming staples such as an ice level (the freezer) and the fire stage (firing fish and the furnace). I can’t really knock it for that as nearly every platformer drew from that well but they really stick out here.

While the two games are nearly identical in terms of layout the graphics differ heavily. It is apparent that the game was built for the SNES first as the color choices used tend to blend together perfectly. The Sega version has taken a significant hit in this area with the choices used looking pretty garish. The scrolling backgrounds have been either toned down or outright removed which doesn’t make sense. It really comes across as though it were an afterthought rather than a priority.

Overall the Addams Family is a good game in a crowded genre. It is a bit generic but compared to Ocean’s typical licensed output but that is actually a positive in this case. This isn’t the first platformer that I would reach for to get my fix but it is solid nonetheless.

7-out-of-10-1

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Metal Force

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Go Go Ackman 2

Go Go Ackman was something of a surprise for me. Much like in the rest of the world licensed manga and anime games are usually garbage in Japan yet GGA bucked that trend and was a surprisingly well done platformer. Especially considering the manga is only about 60 pages long and mostly consisted of disparate short stories. So imagine my disappointment when the sequel turned out bad. While it appears to be more of the same great platforming you loved originally there are plenty of small flaws that make Go Go Ackman 2 fail to live up to the modest standard of the first game.

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Just like its predecessor Go Go Ackman 2 has the same silly sense of humor. After his humiliating defeat at the hands of Ackman the angel Tenshi enlists the aid of the Metal Angels, an angelic rock band. That doesn’t sound so out of the ordinary except the band contains Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix as their members! The ridiculous story is one of the game’s best aspects as the antagonists are incredibly funny in their look and attacks. The Metal Angels definitely fit the tone established by the manga and are indicative of just how sound the manga’s premise is. Now if only they were in a better game.

The first was an enjoyable romp if a bit simple and the sequel aims to rectify that by adding some depth. Someone recognized the absurdity of having a sword strapped to your back that you can only use sometimes as you can now use it anytime with its own dedicated button. This leaves melee attacks on a separate button and the distinction is important for reasons I’ll get into shortly. The boomerang and gun return but are far too weak and limited in their actions to be worth using. Weapons can be temporarily upgraded to a second and third level but items are so sparse you’ll rarely get the chance to see these in action.

Where it succeeds in some ways it largely fails in others. A number of hand to hand moves have been added but they are largely irrelevant because they don’t work. There’s a melee rush attack that I still don’t know how to activate consistently. You can catch enemies in midair and throw them but outside of one boss battle it is never needed. Besides why risk taking a hit when a simple sword slash can do the same? Luckily you can completely ignore all of these additions and play the game exactly like the first.

For all of the game’s similarities to its predecessor there’s been a step back in its controls. The controls are not as responsive this time around which makes no damn sense in my opinion. Most of the issues lie with using weapons. There’s a delay when using weapons and sometimes your actions won’t perform at all. I would say 80% of the time it works fine but it’s that 20% that is incredibly annoying, to the point where you’ll simply use your fists and feet during boss battles.

The level design is less interesting this time around which is honestly a shame. The stages are much shorter and seem designed to herd you toward the next boss battle rather than provide nooks and crannies for you to explore for items. In fact there are far less items lying around in general which defeats the purpose of the expanded weapon system. The boss battles themselves have become a bit more elaborate and complex with a few that might actually make you sweat this time. Despite that however this is an incredibly easy game.

Possibly the game’s biggest crime though is that it is way too short. I hate to constantly compare it to the first game but it can’t be helped. The original was a good length at seven levels with multiple sub stages that made it feel like a complete experience. But at five measly levels the game is over far too quickly. All of the new additions to the game have no time to be fully explored as a result leaving the game feeling as though it was put out as quickly as possible to capitalize on the first game’s popularity. If true it shows as the game seems to lack the free spirit of that game and seems like a by the numbers sequel.

Out of the three Go Go Ackman games this second installment is definitely the weakest. With its short length, wonky controls, and lacking content there is no reason to bother with this game and I say that as someone who actually likes certain aspects of it. The fact that the third game was released a mere 5 months later also shows that the developers were disappointed with it as well. Your money is better spent elsewhere.

6-out-of-10-1

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Pulseman

I really love seeing the period at the end of a console generation when developers have more or less fully tapped each system’s potential and can produce truly phenomenal games. Donkey Kong Country 2 is one of my favorite platformers of all time; Resident Evil 4 might be in my personal top 10 games list and who could ever have imagined God of War 2 could be squeezed out of the PS2? Pulseman like Ristar and Vectorman was both creative and technically brilliant, the type of game that comes from years of working with the same hardware. While it only came to the states in a limited fashion that is no longer a barrier to anyone seeking one of the best 16-bit platformers ever made.

The story certainly is something else. In the future Doc Yoshiyama created the world’s most advanced AI, dubbing it C-Life. The C-Life was so advanced the good doctor fell in love with it and uploaded himself unto the internet so they could be together. Through unknown means the two combine their DNA and Pulseman is born. Unfortunately Yoshiyama becomes corrupted after so many years in the digital world and comes back to Earth as the evil Waruyama, ready to conquer the world with his Galaxy Gang. As the only being who can travel between both worlds freely it is up to Pulseman to stop his father.

As much as I love Pokémon I have to admit I miss seeing developer Game Freak put their unique spin on the platforming genre. Nearly every time they have stepped outside that monster brilliance has followed; HarmoKnight is excellent and 2005’s Drill Dozer might be the most underrated Gameboy Advance game ever. Pulseman was only released through the Sega Channel meaning very few had the chance to sample its innovative gameplay. There is a fan translation but that is completely unnecessary as the game was completely in English anyway. With its Virtual Console release now is the time to discover why Game Freak is a force to be reckoned with.

Obviously the game is all about manipulating electricity and as such Pulseman is armed with a wide array of abilities. Your basic punches and kicks are lightning infused but that is not all. By building up a little speed you will create a static charge which can be discharged as a pulse arrow. The distance needed for this is incredibly small and if need be double tapping left or right will accomplish the same. More importantly however that charge is used to power your Volteccer ability.

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The Volteccer forms a large crux of the game. Jumping into the air while holding a charge and pressing A will change you into a bolt of lightning that will fly through the air briefly. More importantly however smacking a wall will see you bounce around like a pinball, able to smash through walls and blocks. Tapping A next to a power line will also transform you into a bolt of lightning and allow you to “ride” it across distances. Needless to say the Volteccer is used heavily throughout the game in a large variety of ways that are insanely fun. I would say it is akin to Sonic’s speed or Ristar’s arms.

In many ways Pulseman does remind me of Sonic the Hedgehog. Not the speed aspect but the way in which the game delights in coming up with new ways for you to use your abilities. Almost every level introduces some new mechanic, whether it is zipping along a massive network of power lines, using your momentum in Volteccer form to smash bricks and squeeze through tight spaces or figuring out how to clear simple platforming challenges amidst a level of electricity cancelling water. That variety is the life blood of the game and never stops all the way up to the game’s conclusion. Sometimes the creative level design can be a bit too clever for its own good as you struggle to squeeze into a small gap or have to make blind leaps of faith yet the designers have kept these instances to a minimum. At seven stages with multiple sub levels the game is the perfect length but is so good you’ll still want more.

And the difficulty curve is perfect! Since you can only take 3 hits you have to be a bit careful as life restoring hearts aren’t in great supply. As a whole the worlds aren’t full of fodder enemies as the game would rather challenge you to apply your powers in navigating the levels instead. Yet it is still easy to run headlong into enemies or spikes if you try to treat this like Sega’s other IP. The boss battles are highly creative and offer up their own unique twists on the standard platforming formula. By the end of the game you’ll probably start to blow through the stock of extra lives you will have no doubt built up yet it always seems fair.

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The production values here are absolutely stellar. Ken Sugimori’s art direction has created a world bubbling with personality, whether it is the real world or cyberspace. All of the characters have very likable designs and Pokemon fans will notice all kinds of references to this game. Character sprites are large and have a more “grown” up appearance than most of Sugimori’s other work yet still remain appealing. This is an incredibly colorful title, more so than most games on the system and while it doesn’t make a push for out there special effects the art design, especially of the virtual worlds is fantastic. The electronica soundtrack makes excellent use of the system’s FM synth to deliver a score that is mechanical in feel and matches the half real world/half internet action. There’s even a decent amount of voice clips, surprisingly all in English with subtitles!

This truly has it all. Pulseman is not just a great game but one of the best platformers of that era. We truly missed out on an exceptional title. At least initially. Thanks to its re-release on the Virtual Console in 2009 gamers around the world can see that Game Freak are more than just a Pokémon factory. Buy this game.

9-out-of-10

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Superman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Hammerin Harry

I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese games that manage to retain their heavily localized flavor when brought to the US. There was a silly notion in the early days of the industry that gamers would be turned off by anything too foreign which is why publishers went out of their way to hide the fact that the games came from Japan. It was really stupid; you could have told children of the 80s that Super Mario Bros. was made by aliens and they wouldn’t have given a damn. That aside certain series like Konami’s Goemon would skip the 8-bit era in the US entirely for that reason. Then you have titles like Hammerin Harry, an innocuous arcade release from Irem in 1990. One look at the game and you can see that it is steeped in Japanese culture and apparently it didn’t do well enough for them to bother publishing the NES port in America. It did see a release in Europe however and is an enjoyable little romp that won’t set your world on fire but is still solid.

The story is so unmistakably eighties it hurts. The Rusty Nail Construction Company bulldozes Harry’s house. Why? Because fuck you that’s why. In response Harry takes up his only possession, a large hammer, to get some civilian justice. Originally released in the arcade in 1990 while Hammerin Harry’s “theme” of a disgruntled construction worker is universal the game is heavily Japanese flavored in its presentation similar to Konami’s Mystical Ninja series. I would imagine that is why the series has largely stayed in Japan.

The NES port of Hammerin Harry isn’t an exact match to the arcade game as some stages have been shifted or outright removed while new ones take their place. Aside from a few gameplay tweaks this maintains the same spirit as the original and is an enjoyable if short-lived platformer that somehow was released everywhere but the US. Speaking of which, dear god what were they thinking with that European box art? It’s nearly up there with the original Mega Man in terms of being a ghastly misrepresentation of the game inside.

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For a simple construction worker Harry is pretty bad ass. The hammer is a pretty effective weapon as it has decent reach and is large enough that hit detection isn’t a problem. It also doubles as a shield and can pound the ground to stun enemies. New to this version of the game is a life bar; no single hit deaths here although I don’t know if that is a good thing but more on that later. The one element that didn’t carry over is the ability to smack objects into enemies which sucks. There are still boxes and such lying around but they only carry the occasional power-up.

Items are few in number but incredibly strong. Chili peppers allow you to swing the hammer in a circle which is almost game breaking. The rare POW icon grants a massive hammer (seriously its comically huge!). The hard hit will absorb one hit and another new addition is a medicine bottle that restores health. If you have OCD and smash everything in sight you’ll rarely go without at least one item which does have an effect on the game’s balance.

While the power-ups are few they are extremely strong and unfortunately make the game incredibly easy. The 360 hammer means you’ll no longer have to time your swings or even aim properly. It is the most frequent and rarely will you ever be without it. The giant hammer is really cool but grossly overpowered but luckily it only appears in a one or two stages. Regular enemies are easy to deal with but even the bosses have simple patterns that you can outright ignore and spam attacks. The three hit life bar is probably the biggest contributor to the game’s ease though. The arcade game was designed around single hit deaths and while this isn’t a 1:1 conversion it still follows some of the same sensibilities.

The ease of difficulty wouldn’t be so much of an issue if the game were not so short. The game diverges from the coin op the most in terms of its levels. There are only five levels instead of six with two of them being completely original. They come at the expense of two of the arcade game’s levels which have been excised unfortunately and had they all been included this would have been a much stronger title. With 2 or 3 more levels it would have been the perfect length. It’s a lot like Panic Restaurant in that regard, another game with excellent gameplay that was also over far too soon. As it is you’ll blow through it in less than half an hour; you’ll enjoy that time but it is brief.

While the journey to take down the Rusty Nail Construction Company is brief you’ll enjoy every step of that process. Hammerin Harry is a good “loose” port of the unconventional arcade game and a solid title in its own right and makes a good second tier release once you are done with the classics of the genre.

 

7-out-of-10-1

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The Adventures of Batman & Robin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Super Turrican 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9-out-of-10

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Granzort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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McDonalds Treasure Land Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Bio Senshi Dan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Ardy Lightfoot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dahna: Megami Tanjō

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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Super Return of the Jedi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Adventure Island III

While I was not a humongous fan of Adventure Island the second game in the series went a long way toward making me appreciate what Master Higgins had to offer. It also helped that it also distinguished the games from the Wonder Boy series from which they were derived. After a solid second outing Adventure Island 3 came along and to be honest felt really unnecessary. There’s nothing wrong with the game per se other than it bearing too strong of a resemblance to its direct predecessor. Ultimately this is a solid venture but one that feels like a cash grab than a product with some heart behind it.

Adventure Island 2 did a firm job of establishing the mechanics of the series and for the most part this third installment follows its tenets to the letter. The inventory screen makes its return, allowing you to store extra hatchets and helper animals for future use. The lone new additions to the game come in the form of a boomerang which loops around before coming back and a crystal that grants temporary invincibility. Master Higgins has also befriended a new animal as well, a triceratops who can roll into a ball as a means of attack.

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Aside from the ability to crouch and attack however Adventure Island 3 feels like an expansion pack rather than a brand new installment. Level themes are brought over wholesale to the point where if you were to make a quick glance you could very easily mistake this for the second game. The underwater levels in particular are so blatantly copied and pasted that Hudson should feel ashamed of themselves. To an extent you could lobby this same criticism at the Mega Man series as they all followed the same template however each robot master provided wildly different levels with uniquely appropriate traps and enemies. Here the gameplay is so simple and the graphics so identical to the prior game that you can’t help but feel like they didn’t try as hard this time around.

As damning as that sounds however it also means the game is extremely solid. There are smaller mechanical changes that make working your way through the game much more enjoyable. There are less levels per map meaning each themed “world” doesn’t become tired by the time you reach its boss. Adventure Island 2 seemed to pack its islands with far too many levels just for the sake of it so I’m glad Hudson also took note of this as well. Speaking of bosses they also don’t move around the map Mario 3 style if you lose; no more trudging through some of the more difficult stages to get another shot at a boss. I found the length of the individual levels to be perfect as well. They are just long enough to harbor numerous secret rooms and a few tricky platforming areas while also allowing you to breeze through a decent number in shorter gaming sessions.

One area that I found surprising is the game’s challenge. The difficulty curve ramps up pretty quickly and I think will be off putting to anyone not familiar with the series. By the time you reach the end of the second island fruit is noticeably less abundant. Combined with hazards such as rolling boulders and carefully placed moving platforms that require you to slow down you’ll experience quite a few close calls before making it to the exit. Its sets a different pace than the other games and I like it. Boss battles on the other hand are exceedingly easy with simple patterns that offer little challenge.

While I’ve painted a picture of a game that seems to simply reshuffle its predecessor’s assets that would be far from the truth. The forests, caves, and undersea themes are definitely the same but these are joined by deserts, pirate ships, lava, and other standard platforming fare. The game simply doles them out throughout the length of the adventure rather than front loading it. The game has a slightly more angular look that is different but I wouldn’t say superior. For a game released in 1990 it definitely lagged behind its contemporaries.

There you have it. Adventure Island 3 is another solid entry in the series but is also uncomfortably similar to its predecessor. I hate to call any game a lazy cash in as even the most terrible games still require some effort to produce but in this case it definitely applies. If that doesn’t seem all that bad than you could do far worse than AI3.

7-out-of-10

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Mickey to Donald: Magical Adventure 3

Looking back it sucks that Capcom took such a huge bath on the console ports of Super Street Fighter 2 and as such began to cut back on their cartridge based titles as we missed out on a few cool games. If you would have told me at any point in the 90s that a Mega Man would not be released worldwide I’d have called you crazy. Yet Rockman & Forte would take 7 years and a new platform to come to the US. The Magical Quest series was hugely popular and excellent even though they targeted the younger set. Unbeknownst to most a third game in the series hit Japan exclusively in 1995 and while it isn’t as refined as the first two is still a pretty damn good game.

It seems Donald Duck’s legendary bad temper has caused more trouble than necessary this time around. After losing his composure over falling to one of Huey, Dewey, and Louie’s pranks the boys hide in the attic to get away from him. However there they find a magical book and are sucked in to Storybook land by King Pete. When Mickey and Donald come looking for the boys they are informed by the fairy of Storybook land that they will need to overthrow King Pete to get the boys back.

Either Mickey or Donald are selectable and this time around the choice is more than cosmetic. Both characters can grab and throw objects in their base form as well as butt bounce but their costumes differ in functionality. Mickey dons a full suit of armor, complete with a shield to block attacks and a lance that can attack in multiple directions. Donald’s large ass (the game’s words not mine) means he can’t wear armor. Instead he dons a cheap barrel with a hammer. However the barrel is pretty awesome as it can float in water and be used as protection from most hits. The magic suit has the same differences: as Mickey’s magic birds fly instantly whereas Donald has to charge his magic first.

With their unique abilities comes a slight change in level design as both characters will at times take different paths. Since Mickey will drop like a stone in water when armored the bottom half of the Harvest Festival is not a good choice for him. This aspect of the game isn’t taken as far as it could have been however. If every level had separate paths for Mickey and Donald it would have been a good reason to play through the game twice. In coop you can throw each other around, perfect for finding hidden items. But once you’ve played World of Illusion, which has entire levels designed exclusively for two players you’ll want more from this.

While the game largely has the same feel as the two previous games the controls are not as responsive and the costumes are a bit of a retread. The frustrating controls are most prominent with the climbing suit. For the most part they’ll automatically grab any tree or pillar than can be ascended however performing an accelerated jump to another pole or ledge seems to randomly work and unfortunately this skill is mandatory in the final levels. As far as the costumes go the climbing suit is a slower and less responsive version of the Mountaineer costume from Magical Quest and the magic suit is a less versatile version of the magic turban.

Where the general gameplay is largely the same as its predecessors some of the same criticism can also be lobbied at this game. Once again the quest is incredibly easy, with life restoring hearts and extra lives in ready supply. If you find one of the bonus rooms you can potentially stay there and accumulate items as long as you don’t pick a Pete card that throws you out. The majority of your deaths will come from dealing with the odd control quirks surrounding some of the suits. Boss battles can be tough but by the midpoint of the game they are literally tossing out extra lives in pairs. Despite being one level longer than the prior entries this still feels just as short which sucks as it is still enjoyable game regardless of its few flaws.

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The Magical Quest series has always featured exceptional artwork and this installment is no less impressive. The backgrounds are gorgeous and the game still features the same wide range of animations for literally every enemy. This is not a huge leap over its predecessors as it is obvious that Capcom are reusing the same engine however the art direction and variety in environments are what carries it. The soundtrack this time around is sadly not as memorable as new composers were brought in. The music isn’t bad, it kind of just lingers in the background.

Mickey to Donald: Magical Adventure 3 is not as well-honed as its predecessors but will still provide a few hours of entertainment for those that seek it out. Honestly this should have been released in 1995 but what can you do? The Super Famicom game received a fan translation by RPG One however the Gameboy Advance port was released here and is dirt cheap for those who need more Disney in their life.

7-out-of-10

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Syd of Valis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Go Go Ackman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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Mugen Senshi Valis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Rocketeer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Ren & Stimpy: Stimpy’s Invention

I’ll admit that I wasn’t the biggest fan of Ren & Stimpy back in the day. That type of weird gross out humor just wasn’t my cup of tea. But I could recognize a brilliant show despite my lack of interest and Ren & Stimpy was great for what it was. So it came as no surprise when the licensed videogames began lining shelves with no less than five or six games released in a 2 year span. Stimpy’s Invention however is the best of the lot, staying true to the show while also using the dynamic between the two characters to create an awesome platformer irrespective of its license.

The title of the game comes from one of the most popular episodes of the show. In Stimpy’s Invention the titular cat decides that he is tired of being a moron and somehow constructs a machine that will supposedly make you happy all the time. It was a trippy episode (those faces!) but it worked and also saved the show from cancellation. The game follows the same premise except the invention is destroyed, leaving you to collect its scattered pieces.

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More than anything else the game captures the look of the show as well as the Genesis will permit. This is an exceptionally pretty game with deep scrolling backgrounds full of activity. There is some dithering going on as the game is really stretching the system’s color palette but that is a minor fault. The true stars of the presentation are both Ren and Stimpy themselves. Their range of animations is staggering and gets across the odd camaraderie the characters share with one another quite well. The only soft spot would be the music, which is simply unremarkable. It stands out even more considering how stellar the rest of the presentation is.

Rather than picking one of the two you actually control both at the same time. Sort of. One is the lead and the other follows. Both characters have the same controls but the difference comes in their team up attacks. Using different button combinations you can use your partner to perform a variety of functions needed to get through the levels. Ren will squeeze Stimpy to jump higher, Stimpy will use Ren as a shovel to dig, hell he even uses him as a boomerang. While the moves are more or less the same for both characters their workings differ and require more nuance. When you use Ren as a helicopter to reach higher ledges you have to consider Stimpy’s placement to land properly. The Ren boomerang is more effective than Stimpy’s spitballs since it does damage on the way back. You can switch between both characters at any time which is part of what makes the game so fun.

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The excellent controls make guiding the duo simple but the game really shines in multiplayer. With a skilled friend the communication performing combinations engenders is really awesome. Multiplayer has never been my cup of tea (yet I play World of Warcraft, hmm) but I thoroughly enjoyed every second of this, deciding who will take point, positioning, and execution. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had in coop.

There’s a great deal of variety from one segment to the next with no two levels feeling the same. There are plenty of cameos from even minor characters in the show. One minute you’re hopping on the backs of hippos in a zoo then you’ll fill up with helium and use you farts to propel yourself through the air. There’s a nightmarish bike ride through traffic and then the game gets really trippy leading up to its conclusion. I’ll say this: while the majority of the game is relatively normal by series standards it goes completely off the rails when you have flying eyeballs, floating noses, and then you actually get to go inside Stimpy’s dumb ass device.

There’s just one problem: it’s too short. With a mere six levels the game is over far too quickly which is a crime as it is so enjoyable. Though each of the levels comprise multiple parts I can’t see anyone having trouble blowing through the game in a little over thirty minutes, especially since it is so easy. Aside from a few frustrating sections (namely bike riding in the city) the game offers very little challenge which makes it even worse. With just a few more levels this would have been among the best action games for the system.

If only the game were longer this could have been a classic. As I mentioned before even if this were divorced from its license it would still be a great game in single or multiplayer. It’s rare to find a licensed game that uses its source material so well and turns out to be an awesome game at the same time but Stimpy’s Invention accomplishes both with aplomb. Buy this game.

8-out-of-101

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Captain Silver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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X-Kalibur 2097

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Risky Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Ushio to Tora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Dinosaurs for Hire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Batman – Revenge of the Joker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Adventures of Dino Riki

The Adventures of Dino Riki is a game that should have been decent but instead suffers from the types of bad game design and balance that most early NES efforts grappled with. For a game released in 1987 you could maybe overlook its problems but it took two years to make the trip overseas. By 1989 classics were being released left and right and old games like Dino Riki simply could not compete. What should have been a unique on the shooter genre instead is just a subpar effort.

Dino Riki is a top down shooter rather than the standard platformer you would probably expect. To me the game looks as though someone wondered what Adventure Island would be if it played from an overhead perspective. Riki vaguely resembles Master Higgins and even uses similar weapons like a hatchet, boomerang, and fire. Like Elemental Master and other similar titles the game auto scrolls as you dodge enemies and collect power-ups. Aside from the previously mentioned weapons there are a number of secondary items such as boots for speed, hearts to increase your life bar, meat to restore health, and wings that let you fly for a bit. Flight might seem out of place in a game of this type but that’s because Dino Riki adds a healthy dose of platforming into the mix and unfortunately it completely ruins the game.

A scrolling shooter apparently wasn’t good enough and so Hudson Soft decided some Mario style platforming that simply does not work. Most ledges are simply too small and thin to balance on and the addition of the constantly moving scrolling means you have little time to line up your jumps. Disappearing platforms are a nightmare and unfortunately moving lilypads don’t carry you with them, meaning you have to try and adjust so you don’t fall off. All of this while the game decides now would be a good time to throw some flying enemies at you. It is utterly broken and your stock of lives will drain fast dealing with this crap.

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Good luck with that.

For such a short game the difficulty is off the charts. Enemies attack in relentless waves a good 30 seconds into the game and truth be told it almost never lets up from that point. If you have the fire it’s easy to deal with and maybe you can skate by with the boomerangs. But if you go below that you might as well get ready to reset the game. Taking hits and downgrading your weapons wouldn’t be so bad if it also didn’t drop your speed too. What sick bastard thought that one up? It makes gathering power-ups to avoid the death cycle nearly impossible.

Somehow the game finds even cheaper ways to kill you other than just hordes of enemies. Indestructible enemies abound and I find their placement extremely dubious. There’s nothing like trying to avoid a torrent of instant death fire only to be met with some unkillable dinosaur in a tight hallway while also trying to avoid falling into a sand pit. Yes, that is a real scenario that crops up frequently.   It leads to cheap hits that will more than likely leave you facing a boss with nothing but rocks and I’ll tell you right now; don’t even bother trying. Who knew that behind the game’s simple façade lies one of the most vicious games of that era?

Despite their technically being four levels the last one is simply a remixed versions of the initial three split into multiple parts. The stages tend to run pretty long and by the middle of it you just want it to be over. And for all of the trouble you might potentially go through if you play this game there is no conclusion, it simply loops again. Yay.

Even if all of Dino Riki’s flaws were amended it would still be a mediocre game. Some of this stems from the time of its release; in 1987 most developers were finally getting a handle on this video game thing and we would soon be graced by future classics such as Mega Man, Castlevania, and Metroid. By 1989 when this was released here the NES was on a roll, leaving first generation efforts like this looking like relics. You are better off playing Guerilla War, a similar title released the same year.

5-out-of-101

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Sparkster (SNES)

Konami’s Rocket Knight Adventures was one of the few mascot platformers to truly bring something new to the table back in 1993 and was able to rise above the sheer overload of terrible, generic platformers to achieve greatness. In a year filled with numerous excellent Genesis titles such as Ecco the Dolphin, Gunstar Heroes, and Shinobi III it still managed to stand out so it should come as no surprise that a sequel would appear the following year.

However this time both the SNES and Genesis would get a piece of the action in two completely separate games. While his Sega outing would carry the moniker Rocket Knight Adventures 2 the SNES game is actually closer in style to the splendid first outing. While the Super Nintendo game is accepted as the superior game both are great titles and you won’t lose out either way.

The kingdom of Eginasem has enjoyed a period of peace but is now beset by Generalisissmo Lioness and her wolf brigade. As if this threat weren’t enough Sparkster’s rival Axle Gear is working with them and kidnapped the Princess Flora as well. Now Sparkster must singlehandedly fight these forces to save Eginasem from a potential nuclear (!) attack.

Sparkster returns largely unchanged from his last outing. The sword can fire long range beams of fire and the sole addition to your offense comes in the form of a spinning slash that can be chained together multiple times. It seems trivial at first but is a game changer in a few ways. With careful timing you can completely slash through an enemy and avoid a hit but more importantly it can be used to change direction in the middle of a rocket burst or slow your descent. Veterans of the first game will remember that after a rocket burst Sparkster would drop like a flailing mess; not so here.

Of course the rocket pack is the real star of the show and remains just as fun a mechanic as the first time around. It only takes a second or so to build up a full charge at which point it can be utilized in a number of ways. Whether it’s flying through the air or as a means of attack next to Super Joe’s arm in Bionic Commando this might be one of my favorite play mechanics. There was some trepidation as to whether or not the SNES could keep up with the fast paced action that was established in the first game but those fears can be put to rest. At times the game seems to move too fast but that is hardly a complaint.

The best gameplay “hook” in the world is nothing without excellent levels to support it and in that regard Sparkster has it in spades. The levels are a lot more open with large vertical spaces to give you more room to play around with the jet pack. When you do find yourself in a tight space it’s usually because the game is about to throw in some hazard that you must avoid or face instant death such as crushing water or a collapsing ceiling.

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There’s a great deal of variety from one level to the next. Stage three takes place on the back of a bird like robot who hauls ass at neck breaking speed, leaving you to try to keep up with the constant flow of enemies that appear. The pyramid features shifting walls underground and a big open desert on its surface with both featuring their own set of problems. You’ll even take to the skies in a shooting level reminiscent of Pop n Twinbee which ends in a duel with Axle Gear. Though there are less auto scrolling segments than in the prior installment this single level is more refined.

This is a fairly balanced game on normal and this time around there are passwords to chart your progress. But just like the original to see the true ending you’ll have to finish the game on hard as it unlocks the true final level. Trust me this is no small task as continues are extremely limited. At nine levels long you definitely have your work cut out but the game remains fun regardless of the difficulty level.

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Konami were at the top of their game towards the end of the 16-bit era so it should come as no surprise that Sparkster is a beautiful piece of work. The SNES’s larger color palette has done wonders for giving the world a richer look with some breathtaking backdrops that grab your attention. To a certain extent I do kind of miss the dark and harsher look of the first game but when you see a level like the pyramids that has up to eight layers of scrolling it’s a worthwhile tradeoff. The sprites are noticeably larger than in its Sega counterpart making the intricate animation work stand out that much more.

It’s a god damn shame that Sparkster went unnoticed as it was one of the few bright stars during a dark period in platforming history. Because of its lack of success the series would lay dormant until 2010 when it received a next generation remake. Decent game, but it lacked the heart and soul of this truly excellent slice of gaming nirvana. Sparkster has more depth than many of its competitors combined and will provide many hours of entertainment for those gracious enough to pick it up.

8-out-of-101

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Gimmick!

Sunsoft continually raised the bar as to what was technically possible on the NES with all of their work seemingly culminating in Batman: Revenge of the Joker. But as brilliant as that game is graphically there was one other unknown Sunsoft gem that can compete in a different sense. Gimmick! was once scheduled for a worldwide release but cancelled, which is unfortunate as gamers missed out on a truly unique game for the time. While its execution isn’t completely flawless there is still plenty to love in this criminally overlooked classic.

At first glance Gimmick! resembles an even cuter version of Kirby but the gameplay is as far to the left as possible. Yumetaro’s only means of offense is his star attack. By holding B you will charge up his star which can be unleashed as a bouncing projectile. Although this is your only attack the star has plenty of functions. Aside from bouncing along the ground it will rebound off walls and can be used as a makeshift platform. There are a few bottles that alter its properties to that of flame or a bomb but they aren’t in great supply so you’ll spend the majority of the game with the default star. It’s definitely not easy to get the hang of and this is what will turn off most since the game has no real learning period.

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But those that stick with it will be graced with some of the most unique gameplay in an 8-bit platformer. The game’s physics are far more advanced than any game of that generation and are a joy to play around with. Your star attacks are affected by the physics; releasing a star from a large height will cause it to bounce higher. Depending on the walls and obstacles it hits it will also move faster and actually slide along a surface realistically. Slopes and inclines also affect everything, from your stars to the enemies as well. It is both terrifying and hilarious when you think you’ve gotten away from a particularly troublesome foe only to see it slide down a hill, build momentum and leap at you with its accumulated speed.

All of these aspects play a role in the game’s meticulous level design.   Every platform and slope is placed there for a reason, even if it isn’t immediately obvious. Although there are only six levels each is relatively huge and full of secrets and sometimes more than one path to its conclusion. Since there is no time limit it frees you up to explore every nook and cranny; chances are if you see what looks like an unreachable platform there is something there, it’s just a matter of how to get there.

The excellent level design does its best to mask the Jekyll and Hide nature of the game. At its best moments the game is insanely fun. Just the simple act of sliding around with 3 or four enemies following close behind and keeping pace due to the game’s physics is incredibly fun to see in action even if it usually ends in death. The times where you’ll randomly happen to land on one of your rebounding stars and ride it through a particularly rough segment are awesome. But these are underscored by bad enemy placement and traps, the kind where a cheap hit is unavoidable. This is perfectly embodied in the stage five boss. Here you have to time the angle and trajectory of your stars to properly reach it, something no other game at the time even attempted. But this is just the opening salvo in a grueling three stage boss battle, one that doesn’t pull any punches and can quickly sap your lives and continues.

If it isn’t already apparent this is an incredibly difficult game. The enemies are incredibly aggressive and will rarely stop their pursuit unless impeded. The charge time on your star attack isn’t so bad but you are helpless until it disappears which can be a killer. Extra lives aren’t rare but you’ll have to survive long enough to find them. You only have three continues to see this through to its conclusion which will take a few days for most gamers I imagine. You’ll definitely get your money’s worth out of this.

Speaking of which as if the game wasn’t hard enough to see its true conclusion requires a level of skill that I don’t think most can muster. In each stage is a hidden item that is needed reach the seventh and final stage. Not only do you need to find these thoroughly hidden items you have to collect all of them without continuing, otherwise the game ends after the sixth boss. Between the aggressive enemies, interesting but frustrating physics engine, and suspect enemy placement not many will have the patience or fortitude to replay the game and memorize every aspect it in order to meet those insane requirements.

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Gimmick has a clean visual style that is highly reminiscent of Super Mario Brothers 3 and Mega man yet still feels uniquely its own. The visuals are bright and colorful yet can still evoke a darker tone when necessary. The animation in particular is incredibly well done for an 8-bit game even if the enemies are a bit generic. Where the game truly excels however is in its sound. The game uses a custom chip that added three more sound channels to the NES, enabling one of the richest and varied soundtracks for the system. This is one of the best soundtracks ever produced for the console bar none.

Though the game is slightly flawed Gimmick! hits enough high points that the extreme difficulty isn’t as much of a deterrent as it should be. If you are in the market for something different Gimmick! will scratch that itch, just be prepared to pay an arm and a leg as it is incredibly rare.

8-out-of-101

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Congo’s Caper

I loved Joe & Mac, both in the arcade and at home. I wasn’t too fond of the many caveman platformers that seemed to spring up out of nowhere back in the day but I’ll tell you one thing, Joe & Mac was far better than pap like Chuck Rock. A sequel was inevitable but would skip the arcade and debut as an SNES exclusive although most Americans would be completely unaware of this. Congo’s Caper was vastly different from its predecessor and unfortunately it went the way of a generic platformer rather than the interesting action of the first game.

The game’s story is certainly not traditional. Congo and his girlfriend Congette are a monkey couple who come into contact with a mysterious jewel that transforms them into cavemen. Before they can comprehend just what the hell has happened a devil kidnaps Congette, starting our adventure. Yes, a devil during prehistoric times. It’s so absurd it’s downright hilarious.

While this is technically the second game in the series it is a far different beast in terms of gameplay. For one there is no life bar. If you take a hit Congo devolves back into a monkey with shorter reach less and jumping power with a second touch resulting in death.   There are plenty of orbs lying around that will change you back so that it isn’t much of an issue. Collecting three orbs without being hit will transform you into Super Congo, who is the prehistoric equivalent of Superman. Super Congo is able to leap the tallest platforms in a single bound and can sustain three hits before reverting back to normal and as a bonus this mode persists from one level to the next. Sadly there are no extra weapons meaning you’ll have to make do with the lame ass club for the length of the entire game. Being forced into melee combat is certainly different but I don’t know if I would say it is better.

The level design is the weakest area in the game. For the most part the game does a good job of avoiding the stereotypical platforming tropes of an ice level, fire level, etc. and instead sticks pretty closely to its prehistoric theme although it does take a turn for the weird as you visit a pirate ship and a haunted house. The problem is everything done in Congo’s caper was done better in Joe & Mac. Dinosaur chases, battles against oversized tyrannosaurs, even exploring the insides of a beasts stomach, it has all been done already and much better. There’s a decided lack of inspiration that makes the game feel average above all else as you are simply going through the motions established by better games.

It is quite clear that this is a game aimed at children as extra lives rain down from the sky like candy. Items that activate the roulette wheel for extra lives are frequent and even the bosses drop diamonds worth a few. Speaking of which, the only real challenge in the game comes from the boss battles. But in all honestly they are more of an endurance test than a skill check. Their life bars are pretty long and at most you can get off two hits in succession meaning you’ll have to cycle through their few tired mechanics over and over to whittle them down. It turns what should be a highlight of the game into a boring and repetitive exercise, one that you’ll dread when the time comes.

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The sparse presentation of Congo’s Caper is in contrast to the vibrant and detailed world of Joe & Mac. It isn’t fair to compare the two necessarily but CC is part of the series, albeit tangentially. The backgrounds are incredibly barren despite the setting with the game sporting a more cartoony art style. Having said that it pales in comparison to Joe & Mac, which does owe a lot of its graphical prowess to the fact that it was originally an arcade game. After seeing the level of detail in the SNES and Genesis ports of that game Congo’s Caper can’t help but feel lacking in comparison.

One area in which the game does excel is the music. The soundtrack is fantastic all around and full of tunes that would almost seem more at home in an RPG than a platformer. While generally excellent the music is recycled heavily throughout the game.

Congo’s Caper is an inoffensive platformer that seems more geared toward the younger set but even when taking that into consideration it can’t escape being an average game. Although it isn’t necessarily a direct sequel to Joe & Mac it does still pale in comparison to that game and when you can simply play that instead the question becomes why bother?

6-out-of-10-1

 

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Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle

Sega Master System fans are intimately familiar with Alex Kidd, the Sega mascot who tried to carry the company to fame years before a certain blue hedgehog was born. Let’s not mince words, Alex Kidd was no substitute for Mario no matter how much you lied to yourself and tried to say otherwise. The monkey boy in a jump suit look was just not very appealing although being fair neither is a fat Italian in overalls. The games were not technically bad but far from the type of blockbusters that would make people buy the system in droves which is why the character was retired once Sonic came along. But not before he had one last 16-bit adventure under his belt.

Alex Kidd learns that his father King Thor is still alive and has been kidnapped on the planet Paperock so he sets out to save him. Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle is a return to the gameplay formula established in his initial outing. Although there were five total games in the arcade and for the Master System each was radically different and were of different genres. This is a straight platformer through and through and unfortunately not a very good one either. With its simplicity and floaty controls there isn’t much to endear anyone to the character and game. There’s a reason this game is all but forgotten and this was Alex Kidd’s final outing. There’s no spark of creativity that drives the game leaving it feeling like a soulless cash-in.

Alex is armed with his big hands and an unreliable jump kick for offense. There are a bunch of secondary items and vehicles that can be equipped which will grant you new abilities. The most prominent is the bracelet which grants a long range projectile attack. There’s also a motorcycle, pedicoptor, and even a pogo stick. These are only good for a single hit before they are lost but luckily you can stockpile them, not that the majority are worth a damn beyond acting as a shield.

The money dropped by enemies and found in chests is used to challenge the various denizens of Paperock to a game of Janken (rock, paper, scissors). Janken was one of the more unique elements of the older games and I’m glad it has made a comeback although it doesn’t feel very satisfying here. There are so many doors scattered about that you can easily cap out your list of items provided you have the gold. Although your opponents don’t have “tells” or patterns to their choices you can reasonably guess what they’ll pick and counter it. The only challenging round of Janken is against the final boss.

Unlike the buttery smooth controls of most platformers of the day Alex Kidd’s controls are very sloppy. Alex slides around like he is on ice skates which leads to many cheap deaths as he slips off platforms or into enemies. You still have a degree of control over his movements while airborne but it still feels floaty. The collision detection is spotty with the default punch and jump kick failing to register on a regular basis. That god damn jump kick. It activates randomly while leaping and is completely unreliable.

Despite the less than stellar controls the game is still incredibly easy. Even with one hit deaths I rarely ever died and only lost lives during the random games of rock, paper, and scissors. The difficulty picks up slightly towards with more aggressive enemies and a very frustrating pedicopter level but it’s nothing that platformer veterans will have trouble overcoming. Even accounting for the controls most will probably complete the game in a little over an hour with no incentive to go back.

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The visual style is incredibly simple and feels like the older games except “grown” up. The sprites are much larger and more detailed. Each of the game’s eleven stages cover a variety of backdrops with few ever repeated. For a title released in 1990 it looks okay but even earlier launch window games such as Ghouls N Ghosts and Thunder Force 2 are much more visually exciting. The modest soundtrack actually contains a few jingles that are memorable although these standout tracks are few in number.

The best way to describe Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle is that it is an average game in an average series. Few remember the character at this point and when looking at his games it is easy to see why. There are far too many excellent platformers for the Genesis to bother with this one.

5-out-of-101

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Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally

Once Sunsoft gained the Looney Tunes license we all knew the usual suspects would be first at bat in terms of videogame adaptations. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck starred in games of varying quality but it was the less famous of the bunch that would receive the most interesting titles. Taz-Mania used a unique perspective and was a fun if simple game. The Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally is interesting in that it manages to successfully capture the back and forth nature of the cartoon shorts but completely fail at everything else video game related.

Like the cartoons Wiley E. Coyote is on the Roadrunner’s trail in order to score a quick meal. The game is broken up into 5 main levels that are presented as episodes with 3 sub levels each and a boss battle. The object of each level is to simply reach the flag at the end, a task that is easier said than done as Wiley is there to harass you throughout each stage with some new contraption. Many of these will be familiar to anyone that has seen one of the shorts such as the bat suit, steamroller, and catapult. Since he is invincible Wiley has to be avoided at all times which becomes more difficult the deeper you progress. It’s an interesting take on a traditional platformer and one that mirrors the show, complete with each Acme gadget backfiring once you’ve completed a stage.

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Aside from mirroring the content of the show the game does an excellent job of matching its look. The game uses large sprites that are full of personality and enriched by the system’s vivid color palette. Although the game takes place primarily in the desert they’ve done a good job varying the settings with an eventual mine and outer space (!) thrown in for visual diversity. The numerous sight gags involving Wiley’s devices failing have also been recreated pretty well. The only downside to the presentation is the repetitive music.

While comparisons to Sonic might seem apt aside from speed the two games have little in common. The Roadrunner completely relies on its speed to blaze through levels and has few offensive moves. Once you’ve built up speed coming to a sliding stop can take out weaker enemies and a quick press of the Y button enables a burst of speed like Sonic’s spin dash. Unlike that move however it is limited by energy. Pecking can be used to eat bird seed or attack enemies but is largely ineffectual. Honestly outside of boss battles what few enemies you’ll encounter can be avoided. The game’s focus is squarely on dashing through levels and collecting flags but it fails spectacularly in that regard.

You won’t find any loop de loops but there are plenty of nice long stretches and inclines where you can build speed and rocket forth in a blur. However the level design and enemy placement practically discourages it. Whether it’s the Coyote or some other obstacle nearly every attempt to simply enjoy the game’s speed is ground to a swift halt. That leaves a square focus on Mario style platforming and the game’s sloppy controls and collision detection weren’t built for that. The roadrunner moves to fast and is incredibly floaty; trying to navigate a series of narrow platforms is aggravating as a result and unfortunately that makes up the majority of the game. It’s as if the controls were designed for a completely different game and shoehorned in because they barely work.

As you can imagine the game is incredibly difficult as a result. Absolutely no one will complete these levels on their first try as there seem to be no rhyme or reason to object placement. Unless you’ve memorized each level completely you are going to smack into something at every turn and life restoring hearts are exceedingly rare. By the latter half of the game each stage is a massive labyrinth of recycled ramps and hills. Luckily the timer exists only to grant a point bonus since it would make the game impossible otherwise.

Wiley E. Coyote’s end level machines are big on the spectacle but it isn’t immediately obvious how to damage them no matter how long you stare at their blueprint. With limited continues I can see many being forced to start over trying to suss out their patterns if they even make it that far. Honestly I don’t even know why I soldiered my way through the game back in 1993 and I don’t have the excuse of no other games to play.

The developers managed to recreate the look and feel of the show pretty well but failed to provide any reason for you to want to do anything other than stare at it. Death Valley Rally is a bad game from start to finish and should be avoided.

5-out-of-101

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Ninja Crusaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Bubble Bobble 2

1992 saw many late classics for the NES and allowed the system to go out with its head held high. Or it would have if the flow of games didn’t keep coming. As the last full year the system was supported 1993 had many gems that have now gone on to become highly sought rarities with Bubble Bobble 2 among that list. There is some ambiguity as to whether it was even sold in stores or rental only but that is irrelevant. As a sequel it not only expands on the gameplay of the first game but refines it as well. If you are even a slight fan of the single screen platformer Bubble Bobble 2 is worth tracking down.

Those familiar with the series can jump right in as little has changed. Bub and Bob both blow bubbles (Wow) to entrap enemies at which point a vicious head butt will knock them out. New to their arsenal is the ability to inflate themselves to float and release a torrent of bubbles when done. Inflation is an invaluable skill, especially for those who found it tricky to hop on bubbles in the original. The new bubble blast (my name, don’t’ steal it) is handy for the new stronger enemies who require more hits to defeat. Both skills see extensive use, especially in the latter half of the game when time is a commodity. The number of items has been pared back significantly but the stronger level design means you won’t miss them at all.

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Perhaps the most striking aspect of Bubble Bobble 2 is its visual overhaul. The first game was stark in its simplicity but was still able to properly convey what it needed to. But in the wake of games like Snow Bros. and Joe & Mac 3 it no longer sufficed. The plain black backgrounds have given way to fully detailed landscapes that change every 10 rounds. The sprites are larger and more expressive and the game seems to have been given a jolt of color. The change of scenery every 10 levels helps in staving off the repetition so inherit in this particular genre and has the game fall in line with other late era releases.

The graphic overhaul is more than just for show as it has also affected the level design. The stages are no longer a simple collection of long and short platforms but also sport more wide open expanses and are actually themed. The world is no longer strictly static as there are now moving platforms, vehicles, and even a few levels that span multiple screens. It has a huge impact on how you approach getting all the enemies within the invisible time limit and is much more dynamic. There are new enemies joining the roster this time around, the most dangerous being the larger beasts and mechanical contraptions that require multiple hits to destroy. These are the assholes who will waste your time and end up summoning the grim reaper at the last possible minute.

Every 10th round ends in a boss battle that unfortunately aren’t as creative or challenging as the last battle in the original. Most simply involve blowing a bunch of bubbles in rapid succession, sometimes before they even have time to act. That simplified difficulty extends to the rest of the game as there are less enemies to contend with overall in favor of more gimmicky levels that affect gravity or place one major enemy in a precarious position (round 45 is probably the hardest in the game). Unfortunately there are no passwords so you’ll have to play through the entire thing in one sitting. Who thought that was a good idea?

The structure of the game is identical to Snow Bros. and in my opinion that is a plus. A change of scenery every 10 levels with a boss battle to cap it off is excellent not just because its good design but because it eases a bit of the monotony. This is a long game at 80 rounds and regardless of how fun it is the repetition will eventually set in. Having something new to look forward to is a blessing in that regard.

One curious absence that makes no sense is the omission of coop. I’m not much of a multiplayer gamer but I thoroughly enjoyed playing the original with friends as it was tremendously fun to tackle the game with a buddy. Requiring two players to see the ending was stupid but whatever. Whether it was done in response to that is irrelevant but the lack of coop is a huge blow to the game as the multiplayer was probably the biggest selling point.

Despite that glaring flaw Bubble Bobble 2 is a worthy sequel to the excellent original. The only problem is finding it. This is one of the rarest NES carts around; whether it’s a butt naked cartridge or CIB you’re looking at spending a few hundred dollars like the rest of Taito’s late Nintendo titles like Little Samson, Panic Restaurant and The Flintstones Surprise at Dinosaur Peak. Good luck is all I’ll say.

8-out-of-101

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Klonoa 2: Lunatea’s Veil

2001 would prove to be a crucial year for the PlayStation 2 as the software that truly showed off the system’s potential and made early adopters proud of their purchase would finally arrive. While the early months after launch were barren by June 2001 games like Gran Turismo 3, Twisted Metal Black and Klonoa 2 made Dreamcast owners jealous. Klonoa 2 in particular is interesting; despite Namco’s hopes it flew under the radar which is a shame as it is one of the system’s best games.

Not much has changed when it comes to the core gameplay which is good as the series already had a solid foundation. Klonoa can grab enemies with his crystal ring and carry them around to use as a projectile or as a stepping stone to jump higher. For the most part the game doesn’t evolve any further than that with the exception of a few new enemies that can be used as a propeller or time bomb.

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While Klonoa’s moveset is simple the level design is definitely the game’s strongest point and provides a multitude of unique situations to apply your skills. The level design incorporates far more switch pulling basic puzzle solving and interactivity than before which is great as it makes the beautiful backgrounds more than just set decoration. One of my favorite levels, the Maze of Memories, employs a gravity switching mechanic that will also invert the level. You’re still in the same rooms but a simple mirroring can cause confusion and loss of direction, which sounds insane since you are on a linear path. It really shows just how strong each individual level has been crafted and while it is true that not every level has been created with that much precision (the surfing levels in particular are weak) as a whole Namco has done a fantastic job of instilling a sense of variety in the game.

To a large extent the game employs the same constantly changing camera angles as a Sonic Adventure but succeeds where that game fails by always adhering to its strict side scrolling format. Any changes in perspective are strictly for spectacle or are a crucial element of a given segment. The boss battles are a prime example of this. The battle against the Mobile Tank heavily relies on skewing the perspective so that you can properly target its head once you are airborne. And then there are times where it’s just to create those great “holy crap” moments that are just awesome to see in motion.

The only area Klonoa 2 comes up short is in its challenge and length. The game is incredibly easy to the point where you would have to go out of your way to even die. Life restoring hearts are spaced out perfectly and extra lives can be found at a decent clip which negates the impact of death. The boss battles are the rare exception as each goes through multiple phases with little chance to recover in between. But these encounters aren’t abundant. Although there are close to 20 levels (or Visions as they are called) I wager any decent player will finish the game in a few hours. That being said the entire experience is so enjoyable you’ll revisit your favorite stages multiple times.

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Visually Klonoa 2 looks spectacular. The use of cel shading truly allows the world of Fantasia to come to life as the set pieces are bigger and more fantastical in their design. Namco’s art direction deserves a lot of credit as this shares a lot of the same level themes as the first game yet it never feels like a retread. The camera work especially serves to highlight some of the game’s best graphical moments; there are plenty of cannons that send Klonoa rocketing into the air with the entire level sprawled out below. It’s breathtaking at times and assists in showing that despite the visual complexity of each stage they still naturally loop around and make sense. Klonoa and his enemies are highlighted with a slight black border to stand out from the backgrounds but not to the extent of say Jet Grind Radio; it’s just enough that they are easy to spot without completing blending in. At times the game does have a low polygon look that gives away its first generation roots but the entire package has withstood the test of time extremely well.

Klonoa 2 is blessed with an excellent soundtrack, one that is both bright and happy yet ambient and menacing when dealing with bosses or in caves. The music varies in tone throughout the game with the Volk City levels evoking a carnival like atmosphere perfect for its setting. The few “vehicle” stages are manic to get your heart racing but by the final few levels the music has become incredibly somber for reasons I won’t spoil. The denizens of Lunatea speak a gibberish language that is incredibly goofy in retrospect. I can see what they were going for but it isn’t as charming as Banjo Kazooie or the Panzer Dragoon series.

Every game in the Klonoa series has been spectacular with this second outing being its greatest. And yet time and time again these brilliant games struggle to find an audience. Klonoa 2 is one of the PlayStation 2’s best platform games and an underrated gem in its library. If you consider yourself a fan of the genre you owe it to yourself to track this down as soon as possible.

9-out-of-10

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Spyro the Dragon

Spyro the Dragon was something of a landmark title for the PlayStation. For years it was assumed that the system was not capable of a free roaming 3d platformer like the Nintendo 64 was inundated with. While Crash Bandicoot might have been Sony’s franchise player in that battle it was confined to a straight path; a thoroughly beautiful path but still limited. So in that light you can look at Spyro as something of a statement about the system’s capabilities. That isn’t important however as above all else Spyro the Dragon is an excellent platformer that is still fun today.

The dragons of the various realms are celebrating their many years of peace and prosperity. When asked about Gnasty Gnorc, a fiend who was imprisoned long ago, they respond by calling him ugly and a non-threat. Unfortunately Gnorc just so happens to be watching and casts a spell that transforms all of the dragons to stone except for young Spyro, who is small enough to dodge the attack. Now it is up to the headstrong Spyro to save his friends and the Dragon World.

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More so than anything else Spyro is a technical achievement. The use of simple textures and gouraud shading gives the game an insanely clean look and helps avoid the typical warping associated with so many PS One games. The lighting and draw distance are fantastic and the game has minimal loading time throughout. All dragons feature excellent facial animation and detail that was unnatural for that era. Although it was released in 1998 Spyro is still one of the strongest games graphically for the platform due to its engine and art direction. There’s an extensive amount of voice work throughout the game with the dragons of each world speaking with specific accents. Though it is easy to identify when certain actors are voicing more than one role the effort in variation supersedes that.

The controls are simple and intuitive with both a regular controller and a dual shock. Nearly every button is used but not necessary although it will make your life easier to become acclimated to their functions. Unlike most platformers the camera here is excellent and awards you full control; both L2 & R2 rotate the camera and triangle will immediately swing it behind your back. The only times it doesn’t obey are in tight spaces which is understandable and manageable. It’s a similar to Banjo Kazooie and largely sidesteps the problems that plagued most 3d platformers in that period.

Spyro has two attacks, a short burst of flame and charging with his horns. The game provides plenty of reasons to use both as there are plenty of enemies who are immune to either attack.   Though Spyro can’t fly he can glide short distances. A few more advanced techniques open up during the course of the game such as the super charge but for the most part the game keeps it pretty simple.

The Dragon World is broken down into 5 massive realms, each with portals that lead to different areas much like Mario 64’s paintings. Like nearly all platformers the game is basically a collectathon but thankfully keeps its various doodads light. Spyro’s dragon brethren need to be freed from their curse, gems need to be collected in massive quantities and there are 12 dragon eggs total that need to be retrieved. The game keeps track of your collectables via a handy subscreen. Primarily all of these are to meet specific requirements before you can move on to the next world. What’s cool is that you don’t need to collect everything in a given area and can leave as soon as the exit chamber has been found. Certain hard requirements such as retrieving five dragon eggs are a bit more hard capped but for the most part the game leaves allows you the freedom to progress at your own pace.

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The various worlds you’ll visit present their own specific challenges. The Magic Crafters world has plenty of wizards who use the elements to harass you in numerous ways such as raising the ground to block your progress. The Gnorcs in the Beast Makers realm utilize electricity for various purposes, most frequently to electrify the ground you walk on. While these threats change from world to world the game does become repetitive in short order, the only real criticism I can lobby. No matter your surroundings you are still only freeing dragons and collecting gems, with the occasional dragon egg sprinkled in here and there. Some of the items requires some forethought to reach but you can largely avoid the more complicated treasure if need be. The few free flight levels are a welcome bonus; I would love to have seen more of that thrown into the main quest. While my complaints might seem harsh the game is of medium length so that the repetition isn’t that big of a deal but enough of an issue that it needs to be addressed.

The difficulty is about perfect for this type of game. The first half is incredibly easy as enemies rarely seem willing to attack and actually run away from you. Most of the items you need to collect are in plain sight and the individual sub realms are pretty small. At about the Beast realm the game seem to develop a vicious streak and sees a significant spike in challenge. Extra lives come less frequently and it seems most enemies can kill you in seconds. It’s a bit surprising since the game’s cheery exterior and easy early moments would have you believe it’s targeted at kids. But I think it hits the sweet spot at the right time where you’ve gained experience with what the game expects of you and now need to apply it.

There were many platformers released for the PlayStation in 1998 such as Gex: Enter the Gecko and Jersey Devil but Spyro is far superior to those games. Spyro the Dragon still holds up admirably and is worth a few hours of your time.

8-out-of-101

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Sparkster (Genesis)

It will forever remain a mystery to me as to why Konami’s Sparkster became a forgotten relic of a time long past. Rocket Knight Adventures was fantastic, both highly original and just an all-around great game. Sequels followed a year later but then nothing for close to 16 years until the decent 3d game. While it isn’t up to the level of its extraordinary predecessor Sparkster is still a good game and worthy follow-up.

After the defeat of the Devotindos empire peace returned to the kingdom of Zephyrus. However it wouldn’t last as the Gedol Empire has invaded, kidnapping Princess Cherry with the help of Axl Gear. Sparkster is once again called into action. The enemies this time around are lizards rather than the pigs and wolves of the other games which is pretty interesting. It would have been interesting to see other kingdoms based on different animals if the series had continued but oh well.

There have been a number of significant gameplay changes made that result in a faster paced game. The most vital is the rocket pack. Rather than holding down a button to charge it now does so automatically with the A button activating it. The meter fills quickly and can be used in rapid succession to stay airborne almost indefinitely or for split second rocket attacks. It also fixes one of the few flaws of RKA where you were left flailing in the air after a boost.

One change that isn’t welcome is the sword. Sparkster’s sword is now melee only and is effectively useless. The attack is achingly slow and the hit detection is suspect. Because of this you’ll rely on the spinning sword attack far more or the weaker boost attack. It also makes the flaming sword power-up worthless since you’ll lose it in seconds. This all sounds damning but the automatic boost makes using it for offense much more palatable but not ideal.

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The level are more wide open to allow you to more freely rocket around each stage but not to the same extent as the SNES game. With the change to the boost this is more of a straight action title than one of exploration, with the game constantly shuffling you from one set piece to the next. There is notably less of the slower paced, almost puzzle like stages of RKA and the game suffers for it. Don’t get me wrong there is still plenty of fun to be had ping ponging through tight corridors and such but the sheer variety of Rocket Knight is what made it special. The one new addition comes in using the rocket pack to function like a screwdriver. The game makes excellent and extensive use of it, from loosening pieces of the environment to unraveling bosses piece by piece. If they had shown this much ingenuity throughout the game would be much stronger.

There is some incentive to explore the levels in the form of the golden swords. On each level is a golden sword that will change you into golden Sparkster once all six have been assembled much like Super Sonic. To see the true ending you must collect them on normal or hard; easy mode ends early and even cuts out chunks of its few levels.   Overall this is a shorter game with about the same difficulty as the original so most will complete it in an afternoon. But you’ll have a hell of a time doing so.

Of the two Sparkster games the Genesis version is the only one to be branded with the Rocket Knight Adventures 2 moniker (at least in Japan), implying that this is a direct sequel. From a story standpoint that is true but funny enough it is the SNES game that stays true to the gameplay of the original. The changes made in the Sega game are interesting but come at the expense of the creative level design that made RKA so damn amazing. However even in spite of that the core concept of an anthropomorphic critter with a rocket pack is still there and you would have to actively try to make a terrible game with that premise.

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Graphically this is both a step forward and back. Sparkster himself has been redrawn and is less bulky; he looks more aerodynamic. The sprites overall have been reduced in size but exhibit a greater range of detail and animation. The backgrounds however have suffered the most. For every six layered slice of heaven there are an equal number of completely flat backdrops that really seem out of place. Special effects are kept to a minimum so luckily the game’s strong art picks up the slack but the game does seem a bit lacking compared to other 1994 releases.

The soundtrack once again is generally excellent, both in quality and range. A few of the tracks are shared with the SNES game which makes for an interesting comparison. Depending on where you fall in the FM synth vs orchestrated argument your preferences are being catered to. This is one of the few cases where I actually like both interpretations and can’t really say one is better than the other, which I attribute to the strong composition.

It doesn’t quite measure up to its legendary predecessor but at the end of the day Sparkster is still worth a purchase. While I personally prefer the SNES game that doesn’t diminish the quality of its Sega counterpart.

7-out-of-10-1

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Kirby’s Adventure

After his initial Gameboy outing it has become somewhat of a tradition that Kirby’s best outings are released toward the end of given platform’s lifespan. Kirby 64 was one of the last Nintendo 64 games and Kirby’s Return to Dream Land was also one of Nintendo’s last Wii games. Kirby’s Dream Land 3 was released so late for the SNES most probably aren’t aware it exists. Kirby’s Adventure was Nintendo’s last major release for the NES in the US and boy what a sendoff. Kirby’s Adventure not only pushed the system harder than nearly any other game but is in the running for best platformer for the system.

In light of that fact it’s actually pretty surprising how far under the radar Kirby’s Adventure has been. By 1993 the 16-bit was in full swing and any NES game, no matter how brilliant just couldn’t compete for attention. I think it wasn’t until the Gameboy Advance remake in 2002 that everyone would realize just how amazing the game truly is. You could make a strong case that this is the best overall NES game but I’ll simply say that the number of platformers for the system that are better can be counted on one hand with missing fingers.

Kirby comes fully equipped with a versatile set of abilities. By holding B he can inhale to suck in enemies, blocks, and even air which can then be expelled as a projectile. Taking in air will allow you to float indefinitely although you can’t attack at the same time. These basic powers mean that the default Kirby is never powerless regardless of the situation although it is less than ideal, especially during boss battles.

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The defining mechanic of the game and the series going forward however comes from the over 25 abilities that can be copied from the various enemies throughout the game. There’s a great deal of variety to the different powers from a sword, a laser beam, a tornado, to the more esoteric like turning into a tire or fireball. While most are offensive in nature there are plenty of defensive and movement related powers to play around with as well. Every level has at least 5 powers that can be copied and generally it is a good idea to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each since you never know when you’ll be stuck using a less than ideal ability.

Beyond the fun of exploring the depths of all the abilities you can utilize is how they are integrated into the game. Every level has multiple paths, hidden doors, bonus areas and secrets that can only be found using a particular power. Sometimes the necessary enemy is in the vicinity, other times you might need to carry it over from a prior stage. It would have been very easy to pack the game full of different powers for the sake of it but the fact that the game literally encourages you to play around and experiment is one of its greatest charms.

It’s astounding just how much depth and variety there is in the game, even rivaling Super Mario Brothers 3. While there aren’t as many levels here as in that game there are just as many secrets. Plus you can revisit any prior level at any time. One plus in Kirby’s favor is its battery back-up. Regardless of how easy it is this is still a pretty long game and the fact that you won’t have to start from the beginning every time is a point on Kirby’s side over SMB 3. I love that game to death but someone needs to be shot over that.

If there is any one criticism I can lobby at the game it is that it is far too easy. Extra lives aren’t doled out so commonly throughout each stage but the various minigames and such you can participate in between levels award them like candy. Beyond having ample stock of extra lives the life bar makes it incredibly easy to brute force your way through even the toughest circumstances. I can’t believe I’m even thinking this but if the life bar were capped at three hits it would have introduced some amount of tension outside of the boss battles. Despite the seven worlds and around 40 levels most will breeze through this in one afternoon with little trouble. But I can guarantee you’ll enjoy every moment of it.

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At 6 megabits Kirby’s Adventure is the largest NES game released in America and the extra space is not wasted. There is no question that this is one of the most visually fantastic titles for the system with very few games on the same level. The smart use of color defies the system’s 16-color limit as the presentation is more vibrant and detailed than any other platformer on the system. There are even a few special effects such as the rotating towers that were the defining feature of other technical beasts such as Ufouria and Gimmick. After seeing Kirby in motion I doubt the system could be pushed any further; this is what 10 years of programming experience on one platform can produce. Even the soundtrack is fantastic although a bit cutesy but I don’t care

In spite of the game’s ease of difficulty and slightly short length I have no hesitation in recommending Kirby’s Adventure to anyone that is a fan of the genre. This is easily one of the best NES games of all time.

9-out-of-10

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula (NES)

1992’s Dracula movie was one of the biggest film events of the year. With the insane amount of hype behind it Sony Imagesoft were keen to cash in the following year with a series of video games for every conceivable platform available at the time. Seriously even the Sega Master System received a version of the game. Regardless of the platform all of the games were flawed in some way and while they aren’t as bad as your typical licensed product a little bit of balancing would have gone a long way towards making them decent titles.

All of the 8-bit versions of the game share the same structure with the primary differences being the presentation. The Master System game is far and away the best in terms of graphics and overall game balance. The NES version, which was also one of the last games released for the system, is a weaker game overall not just in terms of aesthetics but due to unwarranted gameplay changes that make it a more frustrating game overall.

Although the comparisons to Castlevania can be made since the two games share the Transylvania setting and Dracula as an antagonist this is far removed from that game. Dracula is as bog standard a platformer as you can get, to the point where you collect items from question mark blocks like Super Mario Brothers. The only thing that would have made this more blatant would be if you had to bust them open with your head but I see someone wisely chose not to go that far.

Jonathan Harker has a knife as his default weapon but can upgrade to various projectiles such as axes, rocks and torches. In place of coins are diamonds that help your end level score to receive extra lives. The only other “item” comes from Van Helsing, who is hidden in each stage. If you find him (good luck) you will receive a more powerful weapon to use against the end level boss.

Each of the game’s five levels (eight if you play on hard to see the ending) are split into a daytime and nighttime segment not that there is much difference between the two. In spite of the abundance of weapons available combat is kept to a minimum, with the game having a heavy emphasis on platforming. The level design isn’t at all complex with the only complex action involved being how to reach the occasional switch. Having said that the controls are relatively sharp and you’ll be able to hop about the environments with ease, not that you’ll want to as the game just feels bland. With platforming that doesn’t rise above the first Super Mario Brothers and very little action outside of the occasional bat and ghost there’s not much excitement to be had that isn’t better in dozens of other games.

The changes made to this version of the game have made it much more difficult overall. You take twice as much damage from attacks and life restoring hearts aren’t in great supply. The time limit has been reduced compared to other versions of the game leaving you with little time to explore each level for items. The most aggravating change however is the placement of the ghost enemies. There is very little visual cue whenever they are about to appear and their placement is almost always in front of a pit or platform where you can’t quickly adjust to avoid taking a cheap hit. The cheap hits leave you with very little health if you even make it to the end level bosses which are already hard as is. Not to say that the game was a masterpiece in the first place but it at least wasn’t this bad.

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The graphics are decent if nothing special. There are very few outdoor environments with the majority of the game taking place in a number of different castles. These all seem to share the same basic design only with a different color palette which is lame. John Harker’s sprite is flat out terrible, especially considering this was released a few months shy of 1994. In stark contrast the various incarnations of Dracula are more detailed although lacking in animation. The music is absolutely terrible, ear splitting and repetitive; it is not often that I’ll mute a game’s music or listen to my own but this game’s “soundtrack” was a prime candidate.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula isn’t as bad as some of the drek LJN pumped out but as a late 1993 release it pales in comparison to other NES releases such as Kirby’s Adventure. There simply is no reason to bother with this average game.

5-out-of-101

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Demon Sword

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Psycho Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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Turrican

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Mega Man X7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4-out-of-101

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Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Amagon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Akumajou Special – Boku Dracula-Kun

As one of the biggest supporters of the NES in America Konami released a host of titles in nearly every genre. They had so many games in fact that they created a second label (Ultra Games) to get around Nintendo’s 5 games a year limit. But even that wasn’t enough and many of their best titles remained overseas. Like they did with Gradius Konami created a parody of their ultra-serious Castlevania series titled Boku no Dracula which was scheduled for release here but ultimately cancelled. And just like Parodius Boku no Dracula manages to surpass its status as a spoof to become an excellent game in its own right. For some reason I confuse it with Drac’s Nite Out, another game starring Dracula except he was wearing Reebok Pumps for some god forsaken reason that was cancelled. I obviously never played that game but I’m pretty damn sure this turned out better.

The Demon King Kid Dracula has awoken after 10,000 years of sleep only to find a challenger to his rule. The Demon King Galamoth has taken over his kingdom and now Kid Dracula has to get it back. Those who have played Symphony of the Night will remember Galamoth as the lightning wielder bastard who was the most difficult boss in the entire game, with this marking his first appearance (albeit in cutesy form).

Calling the game a parody of Castlevania is a bit of a misnomer as they share almost nothing in common. This is a more light hearted action game starring an exuberantly happy young Dracula who looks more likely to have a sleepover than bite your neck. The first stage is clearly an homage to that series, mixing in elements from almost every level of the first adventure to give you a feeling of nostalgia before veering off into unknown territory.

Dracula’s offense is at first limited to a single multi-directional fireball that can be charged up for a bigger blast, inviting comparisons to Mega Man. While you aren’t stealing weapons from your fallen foes you do gain a new power after every level. These new abilities are pretty varied, from the homing shot that sacrifices power for tracking, the explosion which detonates on impact (and is a bit redundant as most enemies die in one shot) or the freezing shot which does exactly what the name suggests. Not every ability is offensive; you’ll gain the power to change into a bat for brief periods and to walk on ceilings as well.

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You’ll get the chance to use everything in your arsenal thanks to the excellent level design. It should come as no surprise the game excels in this area as Konami are pros. You won’t explicitly need to use whatever new power you’ve gained in each successive level outside of a few outliers but they certainly make things easier. The difficulty is near perfect as the game isn’t so challenging that you’ll get frustrated but also isn’t a total cakewalk. The last level in particular is a bit insane considering you’ll have to face no less than three bosses before fighting Galamoth himself, all with a maximum of five hearts if you are lucky.

Though most of its gameplay elements have little to do with its (loose) Castlevania roots this does share some of that series’ traits. Getting hit will cause you to recoil which can lead to many a frustrating death. You still maintain some control when you jump but many of the game’s platforming sequences require expert timing.

There’s a certain charm to the game that just makes it so enjoyable that it’s hard to describe. The journey to fight Galamoth covers nearly every platforming trope and you would think Dracula underwater or fighting headless mummies in Egyptian pyramids would be ridiculous but somehow it works. There’s a certain whimsy to the proceedings as you ride a hellish roller coaster, fight Ku Klux Klan ghosts (!), and even travel to space for the final showdown.

The entire New York City level is a giant what the fuck moment. The primary antagonists are UFOs that spawn power ranger looking aliens. As you combat them you’ll also deal with random gorillas and other aliens that do their best to imitate Spider-Man. This is followed up by a train ride from hell and culminates with game show style quiz from the Statue of Liberty. I swear I did not make any of that up.

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The presentation is solid if a bit simple. Everything has been given a cheery veneer despite the danger they pose with big sprites compensating for the lacking background detail. The animation is the real star of the game with exaggerated reactions from hits and smooth moves. The music features is generally pleasant with some remixed tunes from Castlevania making it over however the rest of the soundtrack stands on its own.

We’ll never know why Boku no Dracula was cancelled but its absence overseas is definitely missed. It’s a sight better than crap like Top Gun and Bayou Billy; I would have trashed those games long before this if it were up to me.

8-out-of-101

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Tiny Toon Adventures – Buster’s Hidden Treasure

I’ve never envied developers who have to create games based on licenses. Some like DuckTales practically lend themselves to an epic adventure due to the nature of the show. But then there are the likes of the Little Mermaid and Chicken Little; how the hell do you make those compelling? Tiny Toons could easily have fallen into that same category however Konami turned out a few gems with the property. I found the NES game fairly generic but Buster Busts Loose was excellent. For Sega fans Konami produced Buster’s Hidden Treasure, a fun romp that takes more than a few cues from Sega.

Buster Bunny finds a treasure map in Acme Looniversity but is sideswiped by Montana Max, who enlists the aid of Dr. Gene Splicer to hold him off. Splicer has brainwashed all of Buster’s friends to aid him in this endeavor but that won’t stop Buster from saving his friends and finding the treasure before his arch nemesis.

Whereas Buster Busts Loose could almost pass for a lost episode of the cartoon Konami went in a different direction for its Sega counterpart. It’s not a stretch to say that Buster’s Hidden Treasure borrows heavily from Sonic the Hedgehog except it stars a blue rabbit. While normally such derivative titles pale in comparison to their source material (Socket) there are enough unique elements here that help the game stand on its own two feet. Buster’s Hidden Treasure doesn’t reinvent the platforming wheel but greases it enough to entertain for you for a good few hours as it is pretty long.

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As much as I want to avoid the comparisons to Sonic it can’t be helped. Buster Bunny builds up speed as he runs like a certain blue Hedgehog although not as fast and can execute a slide attack at full speed. In some ways I wonder why the slide was included as I almost never used it. While blazing through the stages at a brisk clip sounds nice the level design was not built with that in mind, to the point where I question why you even have the option. At almost every turn there is a shovel, can of soda or some enemy to trip you up, as if the designers are wagging their fingers and saying “this is not that type of game.” The end level bosses see Gene Splicer controlling one of the other Tiny Toons and piloting some new contraption; sound familiar?

Luckily the level design is where the game really shines. The 33 or so stages cover a wide spectrum with each new area presenting some new obstacle to deal with, be it lava, ice or spikes. The carrots strewn about don’t grant extra lives but instead an extra use for your helper character not that is ever necessary. There are a ton of secrets at every turn and if need be you can revisit prior levels to stock up on extra lives or life extending hearts. The tight controls mean if you die it was your own fault although I noticed later in the game there are more leaps of faith than should be normal.

For the most part the game is of median difficulty as there are frequent hearts to restore health and a decent amount of checkpoints. At the halfway point the difficulty is stepped up as enemies appear in greater numbers and are more aggressive. The level design becomes far trickier with more instant death spikes and such and the boss battles feature more involved mechanics. Some of the later areas such as Montana Max’s factory tend to run a little too long for my taste but I suppose it does succeed in creating the sense that it is leading to an epic finale. Between the game’s length and increasing challenge you’ll certainly get your money’s worth.

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The game does an excellent job of recreating the look of the show despite being set outside of Acme Acres. The sprites are large and expressive with Buster shamelessly stealing a few of Sonic’s animations. Most of the principle cast from the show make cameo appearances as bosses or can be called in for an assist which is pretty cool. Too bad most of the enemies you’ll face are generic fodder. While the environments run through most of the standard platforming clichés they are at least backed up by Konami’s awesome art. Even the music is pretty cool; Konami was on fire at this point and as Rocket Knight Adventure and Castlevania Bloodlines showed they had the Genesis hardware dialed in.

Buster’s Hidden Treasure is a solid platformer that while derivative is fun above all else. It brings nothing new to the genre but hits all the right notes to create a game that even those who have never watched the cartoon can enjoy.

7-out-of-10-1

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Vectorman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9-out-of-10

 

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Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Blowout

Capcom worked wonders with the Disney license for NES gamers around the world, creating some of the best platformers money could buy. No small feat considering the stiff competition. Unfortunately we were still a few years away from Sunsoft and Sega doing the same for the Looney Tunes in the 16-bit era. Interestingly enough there were only a handful of such games made for the NES, all of which were average at best and Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Blowout is among that number.

It’s Bugs Bunny’s 50th birthday and he has been sent an invitation to a birthday party held in his honor. But not everyone was invited and the jealous Toons are going to do everything in their power to keep Bugs form reaching the celebration.

For the most part if you’ve played any platformer in the last 20 years than you know what to expect. Instead of the familiar butt bounce Bugs is armed with a mallet to smash enemies over the head. It can also be used to destroy blocks and as a make shift see saw but that is about it. The carrots you collect in each level won’t give an extra life at 100 but instead chances to earn lives in the minigames after each level.

This is as bog standard a side scroller as it gets and does very little to separate itself from similar games. In fact were it not for the Acme license you could easily mistake it for something like Kid Kool or any other generic platformer. The enemies consist of a random collection of oddities such as guys with hammers for a head, clocks that explode, and what looks like walking milk cartons. You’ll be seeing these same enemies in every level for the length of the entire game too with very few new baddies spicing up the roster in later levels. At the end of each stage you face off against the likes of Daffy Duck, Sylvester, Foghorn Leghorn and the like in a vain attempt to remind you this is still a licensed product.

The level designs are relatively simple with very few hidden areas or items to collect. Once you’ve collected a carrot you can use its block as a platform and strangely you can stand on nearly any enemy’s head without taking damage. These elements could have been used for some complex and challenging scenarios and the game will occasionally show a spark of creativity but these moments are rare. The game’s simplicity and lack of challenge are exacerbated by its repetition; at six stages with four rounds each it becomes a chore to maintain interest as you face the same enemies, platforming scenarios and even bosses over and over again.

The game is ridiculously easy and super generous with extra lives; by its midpoint I had over 50 lives without even trying. That is thanks to the bingo style game you play after each round in which you only have to match three numbers in a row to gain 1-ups. Line up four and you get five lives; if by chance you line up five you get ten lives. I suppose the game was intended for the younger set and so it lavishes extra lives so as not to deter them but they could still have been lenient. It goes hand in hand with the life bar; there’s only three hearts but you can take three or four hits before one will disappear except from the strongest enemies.

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The graphics are pretty ugly and reach the bare minimum to represent its characters. The sprites are pretty small and lack detail for a game released in 1990. Most of the backgrounds lack any kind of detail until the second half of the game where it picks up considerably and becomes a shade above visually bearable.  But what’s even worse is the jerky animation and scrolling. The game’s framerate is piss poor and it chugs with barely any enemies visible. The jerky scrolling interferes with the game’s controls as there is a slight delay when buttons are pressed which just comes across as lame. It’s clear this was a lazy effort on the level of a LJN game when it didn’t have to be.

There really are no redeeming qualities to this game. As platformers go it is as average as they come and is loaded with a host of technical issues for no good reason. Even if you are an Acme fan you’re better off playing one of Sunsoft’s 16-bit efforts to scratch that itch.

5-out-of-101

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Cocoron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Taz-Mania (Genesis)

Of all of the Looney Tunes characters I am genuinely surprised that the Tazmanian devil exploded in popularity in the early 90s. The cartoon series ran for a number of years and would eventually lead to a slew of loosely based games. The Genesis version, produced by Sega and Recreational Brainware is probably the most popular and was definitely one of Sega’s biggest releases that year. This was heavily promoted on TV and I certainly don’t blame them. But for all of its marketing Taz-Mania isn’t a particularly good game.

One day Taz’s father Hugh tells the family an interesting story about a race of giant seagulls that once inhabited the Tazmanian islands and the eggs they produced, eggs so large they could feed a family of devils for over a year. Being the greedy bastard he is Taz sets out to find these eggs in hopes of a delicious meal.

Taz is known for two particular traits: his voracious appetite and his temper which usually leads to his signature tornado. Taz can eat nearly everything in the game, the copious amounts of food littering the levels, bombs, and even enemies. Hell you can even eat the extra lives and continue boxes. Obviously food restores health but bombs are almost always instant death. The spin is incredibly powerful, allowing you to mow your way through just about anything unscathed. Unless you are incredibly careful Taz will eat everything directly in his path, including bombs and the game has a habit of hiding these behind background objects. Chili peppers give you the ability to breathe fire for brief periods. The platform staple butt bounce is here but the game’s hit detection makes it unreliable.

While the game has a solid set of mechanics the controls has its share of problems. The controls are loose with Taz feeling stiff once in the air. The spin move is wild like it should be but also finicky to handle once you start to move. Collision is spotty so anytime platforming is involved it becomes a crapshoot as to whether or not the game will recognize that you’ve landed on a ledge. The levels that see you hopping from log to log are a nightmare because of this. Despite these issues the few boss battles are incredibly easy by comparison.

As a result of the game’s myriad issues it is incredibly difficult. Well not so much difficult as frustrating. . The level design is a bit of a mess with far too many leaps of faith needed to ascertain where to go. Two of the worst levels in the game take place in the mines. There’s a mine cart sequence that should be thrilling but instead is aggravating. By default it moves way too fast for you to keep up with incoming obstacles. You can slow down which helps but it also leaves you ill prepared for the times you’ll need speed to cross gaps. Memorizing level layouts isn’t inherently bad however when it is done this poorly it is. The following stage highlights everything wrong with the controls as you make your way through a maze of elevator shafts. There are many areas throughout that give no indication where to go and in fact towards the end there are a series of moving cages that were so spaced apart I questioned if I had missed something. Nope, and the ensuing series of leaps lead to many instant deaths due to not being able to see as much as I should have.

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I will say this about the game, it looks fantastic. This was definitely one of the most visually arresting Genesis games at its release. Even more so than similar licensed games such as Castle of Illusion and Quackshot Taz-Mania resembles a cartoon come to life. To a degree the backgrounds are drawn in a minimalist style that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the cartoon series with a vivid color palette and are only let down by heavy repetition towards the end of the game. The sprites are pretty large and the animation is incredible and coming off the heels of Sonic the Hedgehog you’ll recognize more than a few similar traits here and there.

What isn’t so great is the game’s sound design. Most of the music is fairly forgettable but you won’t have time to bother listening as the game has some of the most irritating sound effects I’ve had to experience in a game. There isn’t a moment when some obnoxious sound isn’t blaring over the music whether it is Taz’s own footsteps or the sound of the generic enemies. I’m not one to mute the sound while gaming but I strongly considered it in this case, it’s that bad.

The game’s heart was in the right place but it falls flat in the execution. Taz-Mania was a pretty popular game for some god forsaken reason but it doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny.

6-out-of-101

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Wai Wai World 2

Konami’s Wai Wai World was one of the most interesting imports that never made it to the US. As a crossover starring their most famous intellectual properties it had many good ideas buried under some slight missteps. Though flawed it was still a solid game with fantastic graphics. Wai Wai World 2 came three years later and completely tossed aside everything that made its prequel unique. But in its place is a more focused quest that is truly excellent and, thanks to the work of fan translators can be enjoyed by everyone (not that it was necessary).

Wai Wai land is finally at peace after the brave Konami heroes saved the world. One day however the evil sorcerer Warumon steals the Parsley Castle along with the Princess Herb. Dr. Cinnamon escapes and does his best Dr. Light impression and creates an android named Rikkuru, who can transform into several Konami characters, to save the day.

With Rikkuru as the protagonist the Konami twins are relegated to a cameo role. Rikkuru is a far more capable protagonist since his default attack is a mid-range sonic boom. Along with his double jump there is very little that he isn’t equipped to handle. There are very few power-ups to pick up, one for invincibility, extra power bombs, and health kits. The most important are the C icons that will allow you to transform into one of your chosen heroes.

Unlike the first game the selection of heroes has been cut down to just five: Simon Belmont from Castlevania, Goemon from Ganbare Goemon, Bill Raizer from Contra, Fuma from Getsu Fūma Den, and newcomer Upa from Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa. The returning heroes are mostly unchanged with the exception of Goemon, whose pipe now functions as a boomerang. Upa is a baby whose rattle transforms enemies into clouds that can be ridden but suffers from short range. Bill is possibly the all around best character as he can shoot in four directions which breaks the game.

You have a choice of 4 groupings of three characters that you’re stuck with until the end. Curiously Upa is featured in three of them which sucks as he is the worst character. He has the shortest range and riding clouds isn’t as useful as you would think. Personally my go to team would have been Goemon, Simon, and Bill but alas, I have to work with what I’m given. You can’t freely change whenever you want; whenever you collect the C power-up it cycles between your chosen trio until you hit Up + A . The transformation lasts sixty seconds and you are functionally invincible, with any hits taken subtracting five seconds from the clock. It comes around often enough that if you choose you can stay changed indefinitely. It’s different but the restrictions imposed make sense and are so trivial that they don’t even matter.

The Metroid style adventure element of the original is gone and in its place is a straightforward platformer. While I do miss the freedom to futz around in the levels as I please the move to a dedicated action game has certainly done wonders for the game’s action. You won’t get that impression from the game’s first level though as it is an overly long forward scrolling stage that will at least introduce you to the game’s mechanics. After this initial stage however it picks up considerably and at various points you are given a choice between two stages with wildly different gameplay styles. As far as variety this might even have the original beat despite featuring less characters.

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Each subsequent level after the first is a trip down memory lane as they revisit popular levels from each protagonist’s respective series. The familiar jungle from Contra makes an appearance as well as Dracula’s castle, an Edo era village, a land made of candy (from Bio Miracle Upa) and Hell itself. Some of these references are lost on US gamers as those games never made it to our shores but they can be enjoyed just as easily as the rest. What makes these tributes/mashups work so well is that they’re still just as fun regardless of the hero you’ve currently chosen. Can you imagine trying to play Super Mario Brothers using Simon Belmont as he is in Castlevania? Yeah.

Stages 3 and 6 are both different from the rest in that you have a choice at both points. Both levels are homages to Twinbee and while I’m not too fond of most of the games in that series it’s actually a pretty nice recreation of that game’s action. Stage six offers you a choice between a weird ass sliding puzzle and a terrible bump n jump clone. It’s the only weak level in the game and unfortunately you can waste a good number of lives on either one. Stage 8 is a send up of Parodius except you control the Vic Viper, not that it’s too far-fetched.

The original Wai Wai World was unfairly difficult due to some bad design decisions and it is apparent Konami set out to rectify that. This is a far more balanced game but I think they leaned a bit too far left as it is very easy to cheese your way through the entire game outside of its shooter segments. Since you are technically invincible when transformed you can keep another roulette going to change once again as soon as your current one ends. Certain heroes are literally game breaking; Bill Raizer and his ability to shoot in four directions makes most boss encounters trivial. Watch as the final boss goes down in less than 15 seconds without needing to move around.

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As much as I liked the graphics in the original Wai Wai World I think the sequel is even better. All of the sprites are larger and have been stylized for a more uniform look and the consistency elevates the game tremendously. The backgrounds are insanely detailed and extremely colorful and yet somehow maintain a serious tone. The music is also better with cleverly remixed tunes from each game it draws from alongside nicely composed original selections.

Any way you slice it Wai Wai World 2 is a much better and more focused game than its prequel. Aside from its ease it is easily one of the best action games for the platform and very easy to muddle through without knowledge of Japanese.

9-out-of-10

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Adventure Island II

As much as I wanted to like Adventure Island it skewed a little too closely to the platformer archetype laid down by Super Mario Brothers. It was also a reskin of Wonder Boy, a game I was never too fond of. However while it was fairly unremarkable there were the kernels of a good game and Adventure Island II makes good on that initial promise. Adventure Island II goes a long way toward giving the series its own identity and is the game the first should have been.

Master Higgins has succeeded in saving island princess Leilani however her sister isn’t so fortunate. The surviving minions of the Evil Witch Doctor have kidnapped her and so Master Higgins sets out to make his girl happy.

Where the Wonder Boy series would eventually evolve into a series of action RPGs and confuse the shit out of gamers and the press alike with its numerous ports under different names Adventure Island has remained a pure platformer. Not much has changed with Master Higgins but his mechanics have been refined. The annoying high jump from the first game has been changed so that now Master Higgins will always reach the same height. The depleting life bar returns however fruit restores more health so there are fewer instances of really close calls due to bad game design.

Unfortunately you can no longer upgrade the basic tomahawk to fireballs. While the skateboard returns it is now joined by four animal helpers that hatch from eggs and will lend you their power. Each has a specific specialty such as the Pteranodon’s ability to fly (which is damn near game breaking), the Elasmosaurus’ faster swimming and the two Camptosaurus who attack with their tail and fiery breath respectively. If you complete a level with any of these allies they can be banked and stockpiled for later use which definitely comes in handy for some of the trickier stages.

The game uses the same setup of eight islands with multiple sub levels except this time there are more than just 4, oftentimes as many as 7. This time out however the levels are significantly shorter; I would say about half the length of any in the first one. With this there are no checkpoints but it doesn’t matter since you can retrace your steps so easily. With shorter stages each is more to the point, usually focusing on a single platforming element such as springs or navigating spikes underwater with the occasional tricky enemy placement thrown in. The layouts are tighter with less frequent enemy ambushes from behind or sudden pitfalls. The entire game seems as though a list of flaws in the first adventure was compiled and stamped them out, producing a more solid game overall.

There’s a greater amount of level variety since there are eight separate islands to explore. The first game only had 5 or 6 themes that were repeated throughout its 32 levels with very little variation. True the islands span nearly every platforming trope such as forests, ice, and desert but you can hardly hold that against it. When a theme is recycled it is done tastefully, with new enemy placement or even traps to contend with.   There are hidden items all over the place, most of which can be found in a more sensible manner this time around. If you hit a secret area it will play a sound and whisk you away with the rewards being extra lives, animals you can stock or my favorite, completing skipping the current island altogether.

It’s funny to compare the two but Adventure Island II has a lot in common with Super Mario Brothers 3. Both have eight individual worlds, let you stockpile items for later use and feature end level bosses that move to a new location if you happen to die. It makes sense as SMB 3 was released years prior and had a heavy influence on any platform game going forward. Of course it isn’t anywhere near that game’s quality but Hudson should be commended for not simply creating what would essentially amount to an expansion pack.

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The gameplay overhaul turned out well enough but they could have done more with the graphics. This could very easily pass for the first game as they both share an almost identical look with some graphical elements carrying over wholesale. After staring at the same damn forest, cave, and plain blue skies for the length of the first adventure seeing them all over again is a friggin nightmare. At the very least the bosses of each island are unique and actually put up a fight. This was released in 1991, a year in which the very best NES developers were on fire with the hardware and this looks like a game straight out of 1986.

Adventure Island II is a solid platformer that corrects all of the flaws of its predecessor and introduces elements that would go on to further define the series. While more could have been done with its presentation that does little to diminish its value.

7-out-of-10-1

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Plok

The 16-bit generation certainly didn’t need another mascot platformer but any game that at least tried to do something different was appreciated. Plok is a little known platformer from that era that went unnoticed yet managed to introduce elements that would show up in far better games a year or two later. While it has its flaws it does enough right to endear itself to fans of the genre.

Plok is the king of Akrillic Island and wakes up one day to find that his grandfather’s flag has been stolen. In anger he goes in search of it on a nearby island but this is merely a distraction. Fleas take over in his absence and colonize Polyesta, replacing his flags with their own. What’s a Plok to do? Kick some ass of course.

Criminally overlooked during one of the SNES’s slow years in some ways I can see why. The Claymation cover art is eye catching but who or what the fuck is Plok supposed to be. No seriously, what the hell is he? He looks like a blanket with arms and boots and certainly not cool, especially during the era in which Sega were successfully appealing to preteens who wanted to feel older than they really were. Many games have suffered similar fates but it was especially sad in this case. While Plok won’t win any awards for character design it was an excellent platformer with a phenomenal soundtrack that deserved better.

Years before Rayman burst on the scene (okay one year) Plok did it first. Like Ubisoft’s limbless hero Plok can also fire his hands as projectiles but takes it a step further, with all of his limbs serving as ammunition. It does come with a drawback, as you have to wait for your body parts to come back and suffer from lessened mobility. It’s pretty hilarious to see the guy reduced to a hopping torso but the fun stops when fleas or other enemies are kicking your teeth in, so to speak.

The levels have been designed with this in mind as limb tossing is used to solve puzzles as well as attacking. Many times you’ll have to sacrifice a body part temporarily to activate a switch needed to progress through a given level, sometimes even all of your appendages. The initial phase of the game is relatively simple as your only goal is to make it the flag at the end of each stage, much like Mario. There’s a balanced difficulty curve as more is expected of you and new mechanics are introduced.

About a third of the way through the game the pace picks up considerably and the game shifts in focus form flag collecting to flea extermination. New gameplay elements are introduced at a rapid clip at this point that go a long way toward relieving the game’s repetition but aren’t always completely successful. The optional suits such as the firefighter outfit, hunting gear, and even a boxing costume appear more frequently and Plok even receives a few new abilities such as a screw attack like Metroid and an amulet that converts sea shells into a mobile attack. Later in the game you’ll even get to drive a few vehicles like a tank, helicopter, motorcycle, and even a flying saucer. These vehicles are hard to control and result in many cheap deaths. All these items add some variety but can’t hide the fact that a large number of its levels are near identical and you are simply going through the motions. Hunting fleas gets old fast and you spend far too much of the game doing just that and the final levels in the Flea Lair blend together in one long unenjoyable sequence.

The game doesn’t take itself seriously and has a kitchen sink like approach in its design. It works to some degree but it isn’t perfect. As much as I like the variety in gameplay the level design isn’t as tight as it should be. The entire game world seems to be composed of interconnected islands built on hills and inclines. This leads to issues on almost every level where there are no immediate paths, leaving you to take far too many leaps of faith. There are navigational prompts that are supposed to direct you but they don’t take into account any barriers that stand in your way and will often lead you in the wrong direction.

Trying to hit enemies is also frustrating. You can only fire straight ahead and with the uneven terrain your attacks either can’t reach or fly over the heads of enemies. The first half of the game sees little combat but the balance swings the other way by its end. To some degree you can simply avoid most enemies but that completely defeats the point of having so many options and weapons.

Plok is noticeably harder than your typical platformer due to these flaws and in general. Although your life bar looks pretty lengthy in reality you can only sustain four or five hits before death. Life restoring fruit isn’t common but it’s at least easy to build up a decent stock of extra lives. What doesn’t sit right with me is the lack of passwords or battery backup. This is a pretty long game at close to forty stages and while a decent chunk last a scant minute or two it’s asking a lot to expect everyone to want to complete the game in one sitting.

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Plok’s world is bright and lively to a degree not too common during the 16-bit era. It resembles a cartoon with its emphasis on bright colors and weird character and world design. The backgrounds are drawn in a hand painted style that allows the foreground to really stand out and are exquisite although repetitive. Of special note is the flashback sequence which takes place completely in black and white. As I’ve mentioned the character design isn’t the most appealing yet somehow the game is still endearing in spite of it. The soundtrack is fantastic, one of the best composed on the SNES. The music spans a range of genres, from upbeat dance to mellow, peaceful arrangements and even guitar riffs. Tim Folin, a name with a long association with some of the best soundtracks of the era along with his brother Geoff were behind the music and together they knocked it out of the park.

While it isn’t perfect there are many aspects of Plok that you’ll grow to love. It’s interesting to note that some of its ideas would make it into far better games (vehicle transformations were used to great effect in Yoshi’s Island). Plok is a flawed yet fun experiment that I’m sure some absolutely adore.

7-out-of-10

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TaleSpin (Genesis)

TaleSpin really can’t catch a break when it comes to video games it seems. The NES game was heavily flawed but had the kernel of a good game buried underneath shoddy execution. The Turbo Grafx game…..the less said the better. There was reason to hope the Sega Genesis game would turn out okay as Sega consistently did right by the Disney license but that simply isn’t the case here. Whereas the red carpet was rolled out for Donald and Mickey Mouse Baloo received no such treatment as this game is just as bad as the others.

At the very least the game’s plot wouldn’t seem out of place in a random episode of the TV series. The mayor of Cape Suzette is holding a flying contest with the winner receiving a lifetime contract with the city. Unfortunately Higher for Hire has a stiff challenge ahead of them as they must beat Shere Khan’s time in under 7 days to win.

I don’t know if Sega should be commended for creating a platformer rather than the obvious shooter that the show’s premise would suggest. There’s nothing wrong with going against the grain so to speak but only if the game has the proper execution, which in this case TaleSpin doesn’t. Aside from the terrible hit detection and repetitiveness lies a game that is too hard for the younger set and too frustrating for the average gamer to deal with.

The controls are pretty simple with Baloo using a paddle ball as his offensive weapon and Kit is equipped with a slingshot. Random unmarked crates can be picked up and later stacked to climb unreachable areas. The differences between Baloo and Kit are slight; the slingshot has a longer range however in the game’s few shooting stages Baloo pilots the Sea Duck. If you chose Kit the computer controls the plane while you are tethered by a cable and I’ll tell you right now that the AI is borderline retarded and will actively fly you into enemy ships.

The object of each level is to collect crates of cargo to open up the exit and move on to the next country. Each individual stage is pretty massive in size and is littered with cargo, more than enough that you don’t have to track down every single box before progressing. The cargo crates can be anywhere; behind walls, underwater, etc. so if you’re having trouble reaching a particular area chances are you can skip it and find an easier catch. Technically there is a time limit as you have 7 days overall to make it to the end of the game however the clock is so slow that I made it close to half way through the game before it ticked down to day 6.

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The list of flaws are pretty significant and weigh the game down almost from the start. The main one is the terrible, terrible hit detection. Most enemies can only be damaged during very specific frames of animation; the fodder enemies don’t pose much of a threat as they go down in a single hit. It’s the game’s bosses that are the most frustrating when it comes to this. Smacking Don Karnage’s henchmen in the face 10 times only for one hit to register is flat out bad game design. Having to wait until they attack in order to damage them when you should be trying to run away to avoid trading blows is not fun at all.

When you aren’t dreading each boss encounter you’re going to get sick of the overabundance of snakes and crabs at every turn. Seriously its overkill. Nearly every time you take a dip in even ankle deep water chances are a tiny crab will attach itself and drain your health. Granted there’s usually a burger nearby to restore your health but god damn, show some restraint.

As much as I like how wide open the levels are it does get repetitive after a while. Aside from dealing with the same snakes and crabs time and time again there are only three bosses that are recycled until the end of the game with their means of attack being the only difference. They even take place in the exact same room each time (well sometimes there’s a crack in the floor for no good reason). The shooting levels are all exactly the same with the only change being the number of enemies you face and their level of aggression. The controls are loose in these segments but somehow still workable but you would think they could at least get the shooting portion of the game right (as that was the main focus of the show).

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Graphically TaleSpin is decent but could have been better. There’s a high level of detail in the game’s backgrounds but they are a bit generic. This is a shame as the show took place in the 30s and had an art deco influenced style. There’s none of that here and it could have been used to really distinguish the game from everything else on the shelf, let alone Sega’s other licensed titles. As it is the grainy color scheme places it below the Castle of Illusion series.

TaleSpin isn’t completely terrible but its flaws are frustrating enough that I imagine most won’t put up with it for long, leaving the game without an audience. TaleSpin deserved better than this.

6-out-of-101

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the Lion King

Once upon a time Virgin Interactive were one of the hottest development studios in the industry.  With the likes of Dave Perry, Tommy Tallarico, and Doug Tenapel on their roster they turned out some pretty awesome games, especially with the Disney license.  After Capcom and Sega Virgin would continue the quality streak set forth by those two titans using their Digicel process.  The Lion King was one of the biggest movies of 1994 and so the red carpet was rolled out for its video game debut, turning out one of the best platformers of the year, even if it’s a little too hard for its intended audience.

The game follows the plot of the movie, chronicling Simba’s journey from a young cub to an adult and future king.  There are no cut scenes but most of the film’s most important events are touched on in-game, though they wisely shied away from some of the film’s more “adult” themes.  The dichotomy between young Simba and his adult form’s abilities is used to great effect to provide gameplay variety as the game’s focus changes almost completely.  That variety extends to the rest of the game’s 10 levels forming a 10 level adventure that is rarely boring.

Young Simba is fairly weak and cannot face enemies head on.  As such most of his moves are used to set them up to take them out unhindered.  Since his claws are too small to inflict real damage he can only pounce on enemy heads.  His roar is also only strong enough to frighten smaller creatures like insects for a few seconds.  The roll is useful for bowling over tougher enemies like porcupines and beetles who have immune to your pounce when upright.  It also doubles as a nice speed boost in pinch.

For the first half of the game the events are more whimsical in tone as Simba stumbles from one level to the next in what almost feels like a slice of life tale rather than what will eventually become a story of revenge.  The levels are heavily focused on platforming with pinpoint accurate jumps more at home in a Mario game than a Disney adventure.  Many of the animals you’ll come across will actually help propel you from one location to the next such as monkeys, hippos, and even ostriches.

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But the good times don’t last forever.  There’s a gradual shift in tone that is handled excellently as you progress.  The bright tones of the Pridelands and Can’t Wait to Be King are a far cry from the Elephant Graveyard with its decaying skulls and wild hyenas lurking about, a clear sign of what’s to come.  The stampede is fairly menacing as Simba tries to avoid being squashed by rampaging wildebeests in a pretty thrilling second person chase sequence that is a nice change of pace.  The game gives you one last glance at happier times in Hakuna Matata before the dark times ahead.

As an adult Simba is a force to be reckoned with.  As the literal T-Rex of the jungle you can slap the shit out of anything in your path with your claws and your roar will terrify just about everything.  You can no longer roll but if timed correctly you can throw enemies around.  The pace of the game shifts accordingly with far more combat involved now that you are better equipped to handle it.  There’s less platforming now but in comparison these levels are more maze like in their construction.

Overall the game is excellent but there are minor issues that add up and bring the game down a notch.  The challenge is high; far greater than I expected leading me to wonder who the intended audience is.  The hit detection isn’t perfect which becomes frustrating in the late portions of the game where hyenas and other animals attack frequently.  The timing of your jumps leaves little margin for error as young Simba and I honestly question if younger gamers would have the dexterity to manage some of the more intense levels like Hakuna Matata.  That waterfall segment towards the end and the gorilla boss battle almost made me punch a wall and I’m an something of an expert.  The maze of Simba’s return is confusing, as it should be, but gives no hints as to whether you’re on the right track or not.  Even as early as the second level the game pulls no punches; there are a series of jumps off the back of an ostrich that (anyone who has played the game will know exactly what I’m referring to) are infuriating.

There are some gameplay differences between the SNES and Genesis game that slightly favor the Sega version.  As a whole its better balanced; certain enemies are less aggressive and the timing of your hits on enemies (especially bosses) is more forgiving.  It isn’t so pronounced that it makes that much of a difference however; the factors that make the game challenging still exist in both games.

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The Lion King featured some of the best animation during the 16-bit era and used the same process employed in creating Sega’s Aladdin except taken even further.  Simba and his antagonists animate with a grace rarely seen to that point and the backgrounds recreate scenes from the movie exceptionally well.  The perspective used during the Stampede was also a first in that period; Mickey Mania was the only other game to use it to my recollection.  Not only is it still an amazing technical feat to watch but It also drove home the danger of the situation quite effectively.

Once again both versions of the game have their differences in presentation but it’s quite evident that the SNES version is superior.  The Genesis game is darker in tone which works beautifully later in the game.  However the early stages of the game have noticeably less colors and dithering in the backgrounds.  It does feature a few more layers of scrolling in its backdrops at times.  The SNES version is more colorful throughout with no dithering creating smooth, exquisite scenery.  The sprites are also slightly larger.  In terms of music there’s no comparison.  The SNES game recreates the movie’s soundtrack excellently and features more instruments and background vocals missing from its counterpart.

The Lion King stands as one of the better Disney games during the 16-bit age and had the potential to be the best if not for its off kilter balance.  For the younger set it may be too hard and older gamers will find it frustrating but persevere and you’ll be rewarded with a long and involving quest.

8-out-of-101

 

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Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti

Namco’s Splatterhouse was a significant arcade release for a few reasons.  The protagonist with his vaguely Friday the 13thesque mask was an imposing figure and the gobs of gore spilled left and right was definitely unheard of at the time.  But forget about the violence, it was an arcade beat em up that didn’t focus on bashing street thugs or mutants.  It doesn’t sound particularly exciting now but back then?  It was a god damn revelation.

While most are familiar with its Turbo Grafx port or Genesis sequels the first actual home game in the series was a Famicom exclusive.  Obviously a straight port would never have worked (and considering Nintendo’s strictness would never have been approved) so Namco instead took a page out of Konami’s handbook and created a parody of it.  Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti took the gory arcade game and instead turned it into a parody of Hollywood cinema and it actually works.  Not only is Wanpaku Graffiti pretty damn hilarious it actually might be the best game in the series from a gameplay standpoint.

Rick is dead, with Jennifer in mourning beside his grave.  Suddenly a lightning bolt strikes the grave and brings Rick back to life.  Curiously he was buried with the mask on but that detail is glossed over.  Jennifer’s elation is cut short when a second bolt of lightning reanimates the Pumpkin King who takes her away and sets Rick on his quest.

Forget about fisticuffs as Rick is always equipped with a meat cleaver, a strange choice considering the wacky nature of the proceedings.  While the variety of melee attacks is missed let’s be honest, up until the series third installment they were largely ineffective.  The game has been balanced around this as most enemies will explode in a shower of goo in one hit.  The number of weapons has also been stripped down to just the shotgun, which doesn’t make an appearance until the second half of the game.

What evens the odds in your favor is the level up system.  There’s a counter that keeps track of the enemies killed and at set intervals your life bar will increase in size.  It makes killing enemies completely worthwhile, to the point that you should probably spend some time cheesing the system, especially in the first boss encounter.  There probably is a limit to how much the life bar can grow however right until the end of the game there were still new plateaus to hit.

It’s a far cry from the relative stinginess of the arcade game and makes the game much more balanced.  Health power-ups are also far more abundant, with hamburgers and sodas dropped by enemies and also hiding in the environments.  To a degree it does make the game a lot easier but I’ll gladly take this over the artificial constraints the series would eventually adopt.

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Each level is a thinly veiled parody of a Hollywood movie with many references blatantly on display.  The first boss you face doesn’t even engage you directly; he first performs a dance ensemble right out of Thriller before sending his zombie hordes after you.  There’s even a girl who has an alien bursting out of her chest, an obvious reference.  In a self-referential nod there are two levels based on Friday the 13th, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering how closely Rick resembles Jason Voorhees.  The parodies aren’t reserved for only popular films as even obscure films like Evil Dead are a target.

While the game is funny it definitely doesn’t lean on the comedy to save it.  This is more of a platformer than a beat em up as evidenced by Rick’s permanent possession of an axe.  It’s definitely a weird shift but welcome as the first two games became repetitive in short order.  There are very few bottomless pits to worry about as most will simply take you to an alternate path.  Speaking of which nearly every level has multiple routes with some far easier than others.

The seven levels take you to a variety of locales from the traditional Splatterhouse graveyards and haunted houses to Diamond Lake, and for some god forsaken reason it all ends in an Egyptian pyramid.  Well there IS a reason but I won’t spoil it.  Suffice it to say that it all makes sense within the context of the game.  Due to the leveling system the game is a bit easy and with passwords most will complete it in one or two sittings.  But I guarantee you’ll have an awesome time while it lasts.

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Though presented in the super deformed format Wanpaku Graffiti is a powerhouse in terms of graphics.  Most levels feature one or two layers of scrolling which was practically unheard of at the time of the game’s release.  The sprites are extremely large and detailed with suitable animation to match.  Despite its cute exterior there’s still a decent amount of gore in the game; this is still called Splatterhouse of course.

Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti is one of the best Famicom games of all time and one well worth tracking down.  Even if you aren’t a fan of parodies there’s enough good gameplay here to keep you interested.

8-out-of-101

 

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Ristar

Releasing a new IP or sequel in a long running series towards the end of a console generation is equal parts risk and reward.  On the one hand you have potentially millions of gamers to sell to but also have to worry that said fans aren’t already awaiting a new console.  When it pays off the rewards are great; Grand Theft Auto V and the Last of Us have both done inhuman numbers.  But when it doesn’t great games are overlooked and forgotten by history and such was the case with Ristar.

Released at a point where Sega was already gearing up for the Saturn launch and simultaneously confusing the hell out of consumers with the 32X it received little marketing support and landed with the impact of a wet tissue.  Ristar’s creation is actually pretty interesting; his original design was created before Sonic but as the game’s design changed we wound up with the spiky haired protagonist still delighting children today.  No good idea goes unused however and with a retooling the concept of a character that attacks with his elongated arms was reborn.  Too bad no one played it.

Although he was the precursor to Sonic Ristar plays and controls nothing like him.  Your primary means of offense are your stretchable arms which can extend in eight directions.  Your arms can grab just about everything from enemies to every surface in the game.  Grabbing an enemy will pull them in to deliver a vicious head butt.  Seriously it sends the bastards flying all over the place.  The numerous poles that dot the landscape can be used to swing and build momentum to send Ristar rocketing in whatever direction you choose.

While they tried hard to distance the game from Sonic the Hedgehog there are still plenty of similarities despite Sonic Team’s best efforts.  Each planet follows the same general structure of the original Sonic, with two individual stages on a themed world followed by a boss level.  Unlike that game both levels are rarely ever just variations of each other but wholly separate.  The graphics are far better but still appear to share tile sets from those games.  It even has poles that whisk you away to bonus levels that allow you to gain extra items.  You aren’t collecting rings or any such trinkets and in fact have a life bar which does set it apart.

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Luckily the level design is Ristar’s distinguishing factor.  The greatest asset of Ristar is its gameplay variety.  Although you are equipped with a solid set of mechanics each planet is wholly unique and offers up a different set of challenges to contend with.  The first world is a nice introductory planet with plenty of trees and poles to swing on to acclimate you to the game’s controls.  The second planet is filled with water however Ristar is still able to attack while submerged which is convenient as these stages are more combat focused.  In fact you move faster underwater.  Possibly my favorite is the planet Sonata.  This music themed world tasks you with delivering metronomes to four songbirds in order to grant passage.  However the levels are constructed so that there isn’t a straight path and you’ll often have to interact with various parts of the environment to reach your goal.  The levels are massive in size, often with multiple routes to its exit.  To some degree they can be too large and lead you to getting lost but I feel that is a minor complaint.  It offers some incentive for replay value and I’d rather that than a boring single path for every stage

Even the boss battles exhibit the same degree of variety.  Nearly every boss goes through multiple phases with ever changing tactics that make these battles fun and engaging.  It’s definitely a far cry from the simple fare the genre is known for.  The fact that the game manages to keep up this level of variety for the length of the adventure is mind boggling but shouldn’t be surprising.  After all the designers had plenty of years of experience to draw from in this regard.

All in all while I don’t like making the comparison again it still rings true; the game is a bit easy like Sonic.  The strict life bar does mean you aren’t perennially invincible but life restoring stars can be found in chests everywhere and head butting random parts of the environment.  Only the bosses are immune to this kind of tuning as you’ll have no choice but to learn their patterns and execute to survive.  There are a few choking points obviously but nothing too severe; getting to the end of the game is a matter of course, not skill.

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As a late 16-bit release Ristar has fantastic presentation worthy to reside up there with the best of the generation.  Through some voodoo magic the game exhibits a level of vivid color that defies the system’s limitations.  But even more impressive than that is the attention to little details.  Diving deeper underwater causes the screen to get darker as you get further away from the sun.  There’s an insane degree of parallax scrolling, up to 7 or 8 levels with some absolutely beautiful backdrops.  The game can’t help but occasionally show traces of its Sonic Team roots but those games have exceptional art direction which was also brought over here.  The music is pretty excellent with appropriately catchy tunes that only suffer from terrible sampled speech.

Ristar is one of the best platformers of its generation, one that that very few have played.  Fortunately it has been rereleased on numerous platforms and can be found dirt cheap.   If you are a fan of platformers you’d be a fool to pass it up.

9-out-of-10

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Krion Conquest

Krion Conquest is one of the most blatant rip-offs you’ll more than likely ever come across.  That’s a strong statement but one only has to take a cursory glance at the game for a few minutes to see the rampant similarities to Mega Man.  There’s nothing wrong with, ahem, taking inspiration from a popular source but Vik Tokai went a step too far in my opinion.  Although Krion Conquest has the look and feel of Capcom’s venerable platformer it isn’t as polished and when combined with the brutal difficulty I’m sure most won’t have the will to see it through to the end.

Originally released in Japan as Magical Doropie there’s a bit of an elaborate back story to the game that was all but stripped out of the game.  In the year 1999 war breaks out between the Krion Empire and the Planet Earth.  The robots of Krion are completely immune to all convention weaponry but magic.  With this in mind the witch Francesca is drafted to end this threat and save the world.  It’s not completely original but there was consistent plot development with frequent cutscenes in between levels that at least gave context to the war.  Aside from the intro it was all removed, leaving a hollow shell of a game in its place.

It can’t be stated enough just how blatantly Vik Tokai have stolen from Capcom.  Replace Mega Man’s helmet with a witch’s cap and his mega buster with a magic wand and you’d be left with Francesca.  Even the way she extends the wand to fire shots is the same!  It should be noted however that Krion Conquest debuted the ability to charge shots and duck years before the blue bomber would gain those powers.

Pausing the game will bring up a familiar weapon menu except in this case you start off with all of your powers rather than earning them gradually.  Four of these spells can be used freely (Normal, Freeze, Ball, and Shield) with the Fire spell being the only one that drains precious health.  As if they hadn’t gone far enough Francesca even changes color when you switch spells!  That note aside, each spell has its share of situational uses but it is the broom you’ll lean on the heaviest.

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The broom is this game’s equivalent to Rush and while that might conjure up images of well nuanced platforming sequences you’ll get none of that here, just a ton of frustration.  Controlling the broom is more trouble than its worth; you have to press in the desired direction and attack to move which has its share of problems.  If you stray too close to the edge you’ll fall.  If you jump to avoid an enemy chances are it will keep going, leaving you to fall to your death.

Playing through Krion Conquest is an exercise in frustration but not the way you’re expecting.  For every good idea it has there is usually some element that is ruined in its execution.  Stage three takes place underground in the sewers, with Francesca having to surface every so often for air.  It’s a neat concept but in practice falls apart.  Due to bad enemy placement you’ll often barely make it by the skin of your teeth unless you decide to zerg rush.  The second half of the game is nearly focused entirely on flying with the broom, specifically all of stage 4 and it shines a light on just how bad the flying controls really are.  It sucks that the controls are more of a hassle than they should be as the level design, though derivative, is pretty sound.

Krion Conquest was already difficult in its original form and unfortunately that has only worsened for its American debut.  Most enemies require multiple hits regardless of the spell equipped and the game loves to put you in situations where cheap hits are unavoidable, namely anytime you are riding the broom for an extended period.  Health items are inhumanly rare and the game doesn’t even have the courtesy to refill your life bar after every stage.  The ultimate slap in the face comes with no continues.  With extra lives in short supply you’ll have little opportunity to practice the game’s harder segments before seeing the title screen once again.

Oddly enough as cruel as the individual levels can be the few boss battles in the game are relatively simple in comparison.  Their patterns are easily identifiable within minutes of each encounter (at least for me but I admit I’m not normal) and it merely comes down to execution.  Even the final stage and its three phase fight comes down to sheer perseverance rather than an excruciating finger exercise.

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It’s not enough that the game plays near identically to any of Mega Man’s various adventures but it looks like it as well.  The tiles used to compose the levels sometimes look as though they were ripped from those games and wouldn’t look out of place at all.  There are plenty of enemies that are merely palette swaps of Capcom’s creations and bad ones at that.  I don’t mean to point out the similarities so much but when they are this blatant it can’t be helped.  The few times the designers decided to be original are the game’s best elements; many of the backgrounds are highly detailed and the bosses are creative both in looks and attack patterns.  I just wish there were more of this and less copy and pasting.

Ultimately Krion Conquest has its heart in the right place but fumbles it in the execution.  While it does a decent job of trying to separate itself from the series it draws inspiration from in reality its flaws will make you reach for those games instead.

6-out-of-101

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Wai Wai World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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Panic Restaurant

Jumping to conclusions and making assumptions about video games is common nature when there are so many to choose from.  This was especially prominent in the 8-bit era where there were few video game magazines aside from Nintendo Power and EGM providing coverage of the games released.  By the latter years of the generation as the 16-bit war was ignited NES titles slipped through the cracks, which sucked as some of the best platformers conceived were hitting left and right.

Panic Restaurant is a game I’m sure I passed over at Blockbuster Video and the flea market due to its ghastly cover.  As a late 1992 release it received very little coverage; I only remember Nintendo Power giving it the time of day but this was after the fact.  I wrote it off as a Burgertime clone when in reality it was exactly what I imagined that game to be when I first heard of it.  In reality Panic Restaurant is one of the best NES titles of all time, only limited by its brevity.

Cookie, the owner of the restaurant Eaten is dealt a harsh blow from falling fruit by his rival Ohdove (obviously it should be Hors D’Oeuvre in keeping with the food motif), who knocks him out and takes over his business.  Now it is up to Cookie to battle Ohdove’s army of foodstuffs to win back his restaurant.

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As the name suggests the game is based wholly around food.  Each level is named after a dish on a menu such as Appetizer, Meat, Fish, and Dessert.  The stage titles give somewhat of an idea of what to expect in terms of enemies and such but that is only half the tale.  The food motif permeates not just the enemies but the environments themselves with the locations you’ll visit taking place in a freezer, an upscale restaurant, a kitchen, and even the sewers for some god forsaken reason.  At least they’ve largely avoided the standard platforming tropes.  Admittedly the game doesn’t break any new ground within the genre but its central conceit of a chef in a mad world full of living food stuffs is so well realized that it rises above that.

You are armed with a frying pan that is quick but suffers from short range.  There are four additional weapons that radically alter your attack but are immediately lost upon taking a hit.  The spoon is the least exciting but functionally the best as it is essentially a longer range frying pan.  The fork is used like a pogo and turns cookie into Scrooge McDuck.  Permanently, as you no longer walk but hop around.  It is situationally useful but makes any precision platforming near impossible.  Dishes are your only long range option however they are thrown in an arc.  The rare cooking pot turns you into an invincible whirling dervish for a few seconds.  There are other items, such as food to refill health, chef hats for extra lives but the most important are the coins dropped by enemies.  These coins are used in the slot machine for a chance to win various prizes, extra lives, points (which grant lives), but the best are extra hearts to extend your life bar.

The game resembles a giant food fight gone badly as skating ice cream, headless chickens, exploding apples and machine gun like boxes of fries run rampant.  The bosses are even wackier. Witness a microwave oven that opens up to release fried chickens in rapid succession or a frying pan full of popcorn which loses its marbles when hit too many times and releases its contents.  Some of these battles are entirely unique, such as stage five’s massive ice cream cone which devolves into a race against time as it seeks to destroy the floor from under you.  The final battle against Ohdove throw out everything for a

Panic Restaurant is a bit on the easy side due to its near perfect difficulty curve.  Initially you only have two hearts but chances are if you’ve been picking up every coin dropped you’ll have enough to gain at least one or two more on the slot machine between levels.  This allows some leeway for sloppy mistakes but that ends at about the fifth stage.  Here the challenge ramps up considerably with devious enemy placement and more of a focus on carefully timed jumps.  The last two levels also suffer from heavy slowdown which is also confounding but nothing you won’t be able to deal with.

Really the only negative patch on the game is its length.  The six levels fly by in the blink of an eye and because of its steady ramp in challenge plus infinite continues most will have it licked in an hour or so.  But in that time you’ll have an insane amount of fun.  There are a few bonus levels in not so hidden areas that only makes it easier; if the game had two more levels it would have been near perfect.

Panic Restaurant differs slightly from its Japanese counterpart with a redesigned protagonist.  In its Asian incarnation Kokkun is a young chef who attacks with a mean headbutt.  For its American debut he was redesigned and now looks like the love child of the KFC Colonel and the Chef Boyardee, uh, chef.  The change had to be deliberate but has very little impact on the gameplay.  The game was made easier by having fewer enemies and more power-ups.  We definitely won out in this regard.

Man Taito were truly on a roll in 1992, with the likes of Kick Master, the phenomenal Little Samson, Power Blade 2, and now Panic Restaurant under their belt.  These were all gems that deserve a higher profile.  Panic Restaurant in particular is hard to find as it suffered from a low print run and I say if you are a fan of platformers and can find it at a reasonable price go for it.

8-out-of-101

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Banjo Kazooie

Once Super Mario 64 revolutionized the industry we all knew, it was only a matter of time until the clones came running.  And boy did they!  Collectathon 3d adventures replaced the generic 2d mascots of yesteryear and most were just as insipid as Bubsies, Zools, Awesome Possums, and every other furry animal you can imagine.  There’s nothing wrong with using the framework of a popular title so long as you put your own spin on it but they didn’t even bother going that far.  Who the hell remembers tripe like Jersey Devil or Croc?

Banjo Kazooie was announced along with Conker’s Quest in 1997 to some trepidation.  As dual platformers starring bright eyed animals they were criticized for ripping off Mario 64.  Both were delayed, with Conker undergoing a massive overhaul as an f-you to critics that actually worked.  Banjo Kazooie however stayed the course and was able to overcome its stigma as a copycat with fresh ideas and fun gameplay; it even betters Mario in many respects.  This is one of the strongest titles in the N64 library and an absolute must buy.

The evil witch Gruntilda wants to be the most beautiful in the land.  Unfortunately she learns of Tooty, Banjo’s sister who currently holds that title.  Not one for competition Gruntilda kidnaps Tooty while Banjo is sleeping, prompting him to mount a rescue with bird companion Kazooie in his backpack.

The similarities to Super Mario 64 simply can’t be denied as it is very clear Rare used that game as their template.  Banjo replaces the stars with jiggies (which are basically puzzle pieces) and coins with musical notes while also adding an assortment of other items to collect along the way.  Gruntilda’s lair acts as the hub world in much the same way Peach’s castle functions.  Both share similar themes for their levels although to be fair ice, fire, desert, etc. are simply universal video game staples.  You also don’t need to collect every jiggie in the game to reach its conclusion.

However there are just as many differences.  Although you primarily control Banjo Kazooie shares equal billing in the gameplay through the use of numerous abilities throughout the length of the game.  This team-up aspect is at the heart of the adventure and what really sets BK apart.   There’s a large selection of maneuvers that utilize either Banjo or Kazooie or sometimes both in different ways, from basic attacks to item usage.  The game’s control scheme makes use of nearly every button on the controller yet still feels intuitive.  The only control quirk that is annoying would be the camera’s tendency to move while aiming an egg shot.  Speaking of the camera you’re going to have to babysit and finesse it more than I would have liked although the addition of an auto facing button alleviates this somewhat.

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There’s quite a collection of items to find and while I’m sure those that grew to hate Rare’s penchant for collectathon bullshit (I’m having nightmares of Donkey Kong 64 as we speak) are wincing they all serve a purpose and there is some restraint.  In every level are 10 jiggies gained through various means, some simply lying around while others will require a bit of thought to obtain or completion of a task.  Jiggies are used to fill in the missing pieces of each world’s painting to gain access, with each requiring more pieces.  There are 100 musical notes which are used to unlock new areas in Gruntilda’s lair.   Mumbo tokens are currency to pay for transformations.  Lastly the five jinjos are usually hard to find but will also cough up a jiggie once saved.  Any other items such as feathers and eggs are completely optional and if necessary in any parts the game will usually provide them.

Each of the nine worlds are designed in a nonlinear fashion so that you can collect the jiggies in any order you decide.  There’s so much to see and do that it is almost overwhelming as each world is simply bustling with activity.  No two jiggies are obtained the same way with variety being the name of the game. There’s a bit of everything in here, from straight platforming to action with loads of hidden areas to discover.  The various minigames are worthwhile diversions and not merely filler designed to pad out the game’s length with their added diversity being a welcome addition to the game.  The best aspect of collecting jiggies would be that you aren’t teleported out of the world upon collecting one; you are free to keep going.  And like Mario 64 if you become bored you can just as easily go visit some other stage.

To be honest the only annoying aspect of the game is accessing each level.  The paintings representing each level are not located in the same area as the world’s entrance outside of Mumbo’s Mountain.  You’ll spend just as much time finding each stage as you will collecting jiggies because the overworld is too damn big for its own good.  Whoever decided to place Freezeazy Peak toward the back of the damn hub (while its painting isn’t far off from the entrance) deserves to be shot.

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Banjo Kazooie was a technical showpiece for the N64 in 1998 and is still fairly impressive even today.  Rare ditched the flat shaded polygonal look of Mario 64 for a fully textured mapped adventure, an area that the system didn’t necessarily excel do to hardware constraints.  However through some creative programming techniques Rare were able to overcome that.  Banjo Kazooie exhibits a level of texture design and variety that few games of that generation could match.  The animation is equally as brilliant in spite of Rare’s, uh, lack of creative character design.

Probably even more impressive than the seamless blending of textures is the games draw distance and frame rate.  Climb to the highest point in any given level and you can see the entirety of the map with no fog.  Seeing the whole island of Treasure Trove Cove with its numerous mountain peaks and various smaller beaches is simply magical.  The sizes of the maps are absolutely gargantuan which makes this even more impressive.  By having smaller objects such as notes and jiggies fade in as you approach they’ve managed to keep the frame rate high even in the most strenuous instances.  It’s a near perfect balance that was sadly tossed aside in its sequel for grandeur which caused the game to suffer.

The collection of tunes range from somber and moody to vibrant and happy depending on the situation as the music is dynamic, subtly blending from one track to the next.  For a cartridge title the number of instruments used in music is fairly complex, especially considering the large number of sound effects the game also employs.  Nearly every individual character, from the random NPCs down to the jiggies and items you collect has their own unique “voice” in a Charlie Brown style manner.  Considering the length of the adventure it’s a wonder that they were able to make them all distinct.

Banjo Kazooie is one of the best N64 games of all time and one that is still worth tracking down even today.  Whether it’s the cartridge or its enhanced re-release on Xbox Live fans of platformers would do well to track down one of the genre’s greatest entrants.

9-out-of-10

 

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Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest

Donkey Kong Country hit the industry with a level of hype not seen since the release of Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Brothers 3.  With its revival of a long forgotten gaming icon, tight gameplay, arresting visuals, and oh yeah, the insane graphics no one was prepared and it became a monster hit.  And while it is an excellent platformer it was definitely overrated at the time with many perfect scores.  Donkey Kong Country 2 however really is that good.  With more of everything that made its predecessor a hit except more refined it is the game that signified in my eyes Rare’s status as a top tier developer.  In the era where the 2d platformer ruled DKC 2 is still easily one of the best games of the 16-bit era.

After the defeat of King K. Rool Donkey Kong settles down to enjoy his recovered banana hoard but is kidnapped by the returning King, now going by the name Kaptain K. Rool to go along with his pirate attire.  Diddy Kong is joined by girlfriend Dixie and an expanded Kong family to mount a rescue from the now pirate themed Kremlings.

You might be fooled into thinking both kongs are identical since their physical characteristics are similar however Rare has done a great job of differentiating the two.  Using her ponytail Dixie can float by spinning and also use it to pick up and carry objects.  Diddy is more adept at taking out enemies with his cartwheel plus he holds his barrels in front of himself, useful for head on collisions.  He gets extra range on his jumps by tumbling off a platform first.  There are a few team up moves you can pull off such as piggy backing on your partner or using them as a projectile.  Since they’re both small the larger Kremlings still pose a threat, a nice little touch.

The list of additions is simply staggering with many more items to collect (all with a purpose), secret areas to find, and just more of everything in general.  Aside from the standard bananas and balloons for extra lives there are banana coins which function as currency around the island.  The various members of the Kong family offer many services at a cost; Funky Kong will allow you to revisit prior worlds, Wrinkly Kong gives basic tips about the game and saves, Swanky Kong hosts a game show where you can earn extra lives, and finally Cranky Kong offers cryptic clues on the whereabouts of the rare DK coins.

The Kremcoins found in the bonus areas are used to access the Lost World, the DK equivalent of Super Mario World’s Star Road.  These 5 levels are some of the toughest in the game and have the steepest requirements to access.  You’ll need to find all seventy five Kremcoins in the game (15 per level essentially) which is a task in itself.  Aside from the satisfaction of knowing you’re a truly great player to have done so you’ll also get the best ending if you can muster the skill needed to reach the true final boss and the best ending.

The main game has a pretty steep learning curve that I feel is near perfect.  It is assumed that you are familiar with the series (and the mechanics are simple enough anyway) and so the game throws you into the deep end and never lets up.  When comparing the two games Donkey Kong Country is definitely where Rare sort of established the series play mechanics but were careful not to push too far.  Here every so often a level such as Bramble Blast and Red Hot Ride are thrown in to keep you from settling into a rhythm.  Even the terribly boring boss battles of the first game have been overhauled.  Where they seemed to be included simply as a matter of course DKC2’s mayors constantly evolve in their attack patterns throughout each fight making them a worthwhile part of the game.

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The pirate setting may seem limiting but it in fact has given the game far more variety than most platformers combined.  Each locale is its own separate themed world with very few themes repeated throughout the length of the game and even so there are significant changes to make them feel fresh.  Glimmer’s Galleon which you must navigate using only the light provided by Glimmer’s proboscis is wholly separate from Lava Lagoon, where Clapper the Seal must cool down the water for short periods in order for you to progress.  Amazingly the game keeps up this level of variety right up to its climax with new mechanics introduced at every turn.  Even the signature barrel blasting sees new life with the addition of new barrels.  Steerable barrels allow you free movement while inside for a limited time, while rotatable barrels allow you to choose your firing direction, once again within a limit.  My personal favorite are the plus and minus barrels which are only used a few times but each is memorable. In the Haunted Hall you must hit these barrels to increase (or if you aren’t careful, decrease) the amount of time you are invincible lest Kackles the ghost catches you.

It’s almost overwhelming just how many secrets are hidden throughout the game.  I honestly doubt most will ever complete the game 100% without the use of a guide.  The best kept secrets will require you to pay close attention to the environment for hooks or barrels slightly off screen or cleverly blended into the background.  The expanded number of animal companions also play a large role locating the game’s most well hidden trinkets.

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It’s hard to believe that in the span of a year Rare were able to surpass their work on the original Donkey Kong Country but it’s true.  The more consistent theme and varied worlds produce a visual feast for the eyes that I feel is superior to its predecessor.  Crocodile Island is darker and moodier than the cheery jungles of the first game and host to a larger assortment of wonderfully designed creatures even in spite of Rare’s sometimes questionable art.  The multilayered backgrounds host a ridiculous amount of detail for a 16-bit title with some of the best character animation from that generation.  There are very few SNES games, let alone 16-bit titles that are in the same league.

The game’s orchestral soundtrack is some of the finest music produced for the SNES.  The soundtrack for DKC was largely tropical themed but that would be inappropriate tonally with this game’s setting.  The music is moodier and tense but can swing back to joyous and upbeat when necessary.  There are more instances where the music will fade to put the sound effects in focus and it works wonderfully.  Even the comical sound effects are a perfect match for the music.

Nothing more needs to be said.  Donkey Kong Country 2 is possibly Rare’s finest hour and certainly one of the best platformers ever made.  There’s no higher praise than that.

10-out-of-10

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Bubble Bobble

With the advent of games like Pitfall and Super Mario Brothers the days of the single screen platformer were numbered.  Popular at a point in time where consoles and arcade hardware were not equipped to handle scrolling backgrounds 1985 marked a turning point for the genre.  However even in spite of the brilliance of the previously mentioned games developers were able to find new ways to spark interest in what was once a staple of the industry.  Bubble Bobble from Taito would go on to become a phenomenon and it’s easy to see why with its pick up and play gameplay and hidden depth.  As a simple game it was ported to every format known to man but it is the NES version that I have a fondness for, and time has not diluted that one bit.

As either Bub or Bob your main weapons are the multi-functional bubbles you can blow.  Bubbles can be used to trap enemies at which point a mean head butt using your head spikes will send them flying.  Technically you can blow as many bubbles as you want but after eight or so the earliest ones will disappear.  Aside from offense you can also use a bubble as a stepping stone, bouncing on it to reach higher platforms.  This technique becomes mandatory in the second half of the game when elevated ledges become scarce.

There are a ton of special items that appear either randomly or on set levels when needed.  Special bubbles come with three elemental properties: water, lightning and fire.  Water bubbles release a stream of water that will suck in any enemies caught in its flow and defeat them, producing crystals worth massive points.  As a bonus you can get swept in and become an invincible death dealing dino!  Fire drops a single flame that will engulf the area in touches.  While you won’t die from stepping in it it does slow your movements.  The lightning bubble is the most frequent and the trickiest to time.  Popping one will send a bolt of lightning in the opposite direction you are facing.  This bubble is used to defeat the game’s lone boss so practice makes perfect.

All defeated enemies will spawn fruit (or other condiments) for points or other items that will enhance you in some way.  Food gives points which will net extra lives at set intervals.  There are numerous criteria that cause certain fruit to spawn such as the number of enemies you pop simultaneously to the order in which you do so.  They are also tied in to your score, with the type dependent on the number your score ends in.  While there are unlimited continues and passwords to save progress no one likes to start from square one so racking up extra lives by any means is the way to go.

There are a ton of items that produce a variety of effects in addition to food.  The different flavors of bubble gum will enhance your bubbles to fly farther or shoot faster.  Shoes (a dinosaur with shoes!) boost your walking speed which isn’t always a boon.  The necklaces will cause E-X-T-E-N-D bubbles to appear which award an extra life once spelled out.  The most important is the umbrella, which will skip you up to 5 levels ahead.  If it shows up do everything in your power to get it!  A sizable amount of items were removed in the transition from the arcade but there’s more than enough in the game that they aren’t missed.

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As compensation the NES version has 12 additional levels for a grand total of 112.  There’s a steady progression in terms of technique needed to trap and defeat all of the enemies on each level.  The first 10 levels or so are relatively straightforward and introduce most of the enemies you’ll be dealing with, their patterns of movement and attacks if any.  Soon enough you’ll need to use your bubbles as mobile platforms to reach them or contend with environmental factors such as shifts in gravity that will affect your movement or the behavior of your bubbles.  All of this while trying to beat the invisible timer which will spawn the Bubble Bobble equivalent of the grim reaper and send every remaining enemy into overdrive.

When examining the level design it’s amazing how the addition of a single platform or element can radically shift your approach.  As an example, round 58 places all of the enemies at the top of the screen, forcing you to build a tower of bubbles to reach them.  However your bubbles are pulled toward the middle of the screen and you have to contend with invaders who drop missiles from above.  Even the type of enemies that populate the levels will cause you to change tactics.  Over 100 levels of bubble blowing action has the misfortune of becoming repetitive however the game does a good job of throwing something new in the mix at regular intervals.  Plus each round is only a minute or two long.

Aside from requiring two-players to beat the final boss to see the true ending Bubble Bobble is an NES classic deserving of that status.  Time has done nothing to tarnish the gameplay and it remains just as enjoyable today as it was back then.

8-out-of-101

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Bonk’s Adventure (NES)

Like Mario and Nintendo Bonk was the closest the Turbo Grafx-16 ever came to having an official mascot.  While Bonk’s Adventure wasn’t the pack-in title it was the one of the first games to garner the system widespread attention.  His judiciously large noggin was also heavily used in ads trying to sell the system.  But by the end of 1993 the platform was all but dead in the US.  Hudson Soft saw an opportunity to introduce the character to a wider audience and ported it to the NES in late 1993.

The question is why?  Not that Bonk’s Adventure was a terrible game but it did have some flaws that were corrected in the amazing Bonk’s Revenge.  Though the good will that game mustered was squandered with the uninspired Bonk 3 I think a completely original game tailored for the NES would have been a better fit rather than a port of a game released in 1989.  The NES market had completely dried up by 1992 with 16-bit in full swing leaving this port ill timed.  All things considered it is good for what it is but isn’t even in the same galaxy as something like Kirby’s Adventure.

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Taking into account the technological gap between the two platforms this version of Bonk’s Adventure holds up surprisingly well.  The simple art style of the original release is a perfect match for the NES’s technical constraints.  Though slightly smaller all of the character and enemy sprites are just as expressive and as a bonus Bonk is sporting his redrawn look from the sequel.  The one area that has taken the biggest hit would be the overall color palette.  16 colors max is no comparison to over 400 but Hudson has done a pretty good job compensating.

Bonk’s main method of attack is his massive head which can be used to bonk enemies, smack projectiles and even juggle enemies for more points.  While it is effective it’s better to dive bomb them like a missile which will also propel you in the air for repeat attacks.  In the Turbo version Bonk had some measure of control while airborne by spinning which was easy due to the turbo option.  Here you’ll wear out your thumb trying to perform the same maneuver so thankfully it’s rarely ever necessary.

The hit detection is still just as screwy and presents problems on numerous occasions, most specifically during boss battles.  Each boss has a very particular hit box and while the first few are easy enough to hit later ones such as the demon tank are a nightmare to target.  It isn’t always obvious how long there period of invincibility will last and so you’ll take many cheap shots as a result.  There are some standard enemies that seem to possess much longer range than it would seem as I took damage no matter how early I initiated my attack. It’s very uneven and something you’ll eventually adapt to but it should have been fixed.

All five levels have been recreated for the most part but shortened.  Bonk’s Adventure wasn’t the longest title on the market and this version almost feels like a guided tour of it.  Every level is broken up into multiple segments but some have been removed and the level order shuffled around.  Stage four in particular suffers the most as it is one straight path to the end.  While not at the same level as a Mario or Sonic Bonk was a varied adventure but you’ll only get brief snippets of that here.

The game is incredibly easy, far easier than its big brother.  With less enemies on screen you’ll spend large amounts of time alone exploring the barren environments.  Food and flowers that took to you the bonus games were in abundance but have been scaled back considerably.  The game is far too generous with meat with chunks available at every turn turning an already simplified adventure into a cakewalk.  Even with the bad hit detection I was able to zerg rush the bosses, especially since you awaken right where you left off after death.  I can’t see anyone having difficulty completing the game in less than an hour.

Bonk’s Adventure was a decent title in 1989 but better platformers were available for every console in the years following its release.  In light of stiffer competition it can’t compete, especially as it is one of the most expensive games on the market due to a limited print run.  It’s admirable that they were able to bring most of what made the game good over to the NES but it simply isn’t enough.  Trust me this is not worth the hundreds of dollars it sells for used or brand new.

6-out-of-10-1

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Robocop 2

Licensed video games going as far back as ET have been terrible regardless of the quality of the product they are based on.  Movie licensed games in particular it seems have a 90% chance to suck especially if the source material is bad.  Robocop 2 falls in this category; the movie was so bad even the actors didn’t enjoy working on it.  While the first game wasn’t a video game classic by any means it at least made an attempt to incorporate many of Robocop’s unique facets into a game.  They succeeded and failed and the game was ultimately above average.  Robocop 2 ditches that and becomes a standard platformer of the era except its design fails in that regard.

Right off the bat you’ll notice Robocop is far more nimble than he realistically should be.  The lumbering pace of the original is gone leaving a Murphy who zips along as if he has roller skates soldered to his feet.  To go along with his newfound agility he can also jump (not very well but it’s something).  That right there introduces a radical shift in gameplay as the prior game was designed around using your limited energy/power to reach the end of each stage in spite of your slow gait.  With the power to leap comes a heavier emphasis on navigating platforms, a move that ultimately dooms the game in the end.

Rather than a straight left to right jaunt to the end of each level the game loosely mirrors the movie’s plot and is mission based.  You must collect 60% of the Nitro ruining the streets as well as apprehend 60% of the criminals of each level.  I use the term apprehend loosely; most of the time they’ll walk right up to you and you’ll have to resist shooting them.  Other times these “criminals” are actually people in distress.  I guess the design team was too lazy to create another end level graphic.  Failure to complete either objective will send you to a shooting range where you’re given two chances to pass otherwise its back to the beginning of the prior level.

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I can’t believe I spent enough time playing the game to get this good.  I feel ashamed.

Catching crooks is easy enough but for the first half of the game it’s nearly impossible to collect enough Nuke to earn a passing grade without finding the hidden areas in each stage.  Of course there’s no indication or even a hint as to where they are; they are literally anywhere.  My second time through the third level I accidently missed a jump and fell into what I thought was sewage but turned out to be the entrance to an underground bunker.  Now if I had not stumbled across this by accident I would never have found enough Nuke.  Hell if the game even gave you some indication as to how much Nuke is needed to pass I might have been able to forgive its shortcomings in this area.

The level design leans heavily on your new leaping prowess and this is where the game fails the hardest.  Robocop controls like a brick in the air, which he should I guess, but the game’s physics and controls aren’t up to the task of navigating the many floating platforms you’ll encounter, especially in the last third of the game.  Robocop’s momentum is screwed up due to his seemingly permanent ice skates so it’s difficult to judge how far you’ll actually fly once airborne.  Near the end of the game you’ll have to execute a series of near pinpoint accurate platforming in rapid succession with no margin for error and the controls simply aren’t up to the task.  The game even has the nerve to throw in sequences where your controls are reversed, making an already laborious task that much harder.

And another thing, what the hell is up with Robocop dying anytime he comes in contact with almost any other metal object?  Riding a floating platform and come in contact with another?  Death.  Slightly graze any of the various metal contraptions and its back to the beginning of the level since there are no checkpoints.  Who thought this was a good idea?  It makes no god damn sense whatsoever and only makes an already frustrating game that much harder.  Imagine if Robocop blew up every time he tried getting in his police cruiser in the movie……..that would actually be pretty funny but you get my point.

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The limited NES color palette was used surprisingly well to convey the decaying and corrupt streets of Detroit in the original game.  That has all gone out the window as it seems a mad clown was let loose on the city and spray painted everything in bright pastel colors.  The game’s overall color scheme is gaudy and a drastic mismatch with the tone the game is aiming for.  There’s an obvious increase in detail over the first game but the background tiles are reused three or four times in a row with a slight change in palette being the only difference.

Robocop 2 is just as bad as the movie and maybe even worse since you’re the one controlling it.  If you have any common sense you’ll avoid the game just like audiences should have avoided the movie.

4-out-of-101

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Chameleon Twist 2

With Mario 64’s impact on the market we all knew it was only a matter of time before a legion of imitators would follow.  While most were generic trash there a few that were particularly inspired.  Chameleon Twist marked Sunsoft’s reentry as a publisher and although it did not live up to their past exploits it was certainly interesting.  It was definitely a case of gameplay over graphics as it resembled a first generation effort.  Regardless of its production values it must have sold well enough to warrant a sequel that expands on its ideas but also brings with it further complications that ruin the experience as a whole.

The story is so saccharine it almost hurts.  Davy and his pals are having fun playing on a see saw when a giant rabbit falls from the sky and lands on it, sending him to another world.  Whatever, it doesn’t need to be Shakespeare to give you an excuse to explore a new set of worlds.

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Though his appearance has changed not much else has.  Davy and his friends Jack, Fred, and Linda control exactly the same as in the first game enabling veterans to jump right in.  It should be noted that character choice is purely cosmetic.  Your elongated tongue can be unfurled and controlled with the analog stick for a number of purposes.  The most common is to suck in enemies to use as ammunition (like Yoshi) but it also has many utility functions such as clinging to objects, hand stands, and even functioning as a makeshift pole vault.  The tongue mechanic is what truly makes the game and is intuitive and most of all fun to play around with.

New to the game are the vertical swing and the umbrella.  The parasol can be unfurled to slow your descent and glide across gaps.  If there’s wind in the area you can catch a ride on the updraft, a mechanic I wish saw more use.  The vertical swing is more complex as you build momentum to swing across vast distances.  Both see extensive use through the game, more so than most of the other techniques combined.  They’re both great additions and were it not for the game’s major flaw would have made the game a very solid package.

The world’s you will visit have been given a visual overhaul, eschewing the standard ice, fire, forest tropes for more varied themes.  Sky Land, Carnival Land, Ice Land, Edo Land, Toy Land, and Pyramid are far more interesting thematically than Jungle Land and Desert Land.  Well there is still an ice level but it’s awesome so you can’t really hold that against them.  At only 6 levels the game is a bit short however each is considerably long and well-paced.

With a more diverse set of themes the level design is more adventurous in scope as each covers a vast expanse before reaching its boss.  I think a bit too adventurous; it always clear which exact direction you should go and its apparent even the designers realized this as there are arrows guiding you at every turn.  You’ll have plenty of opportunities to think outside the box in order to progress past some of the game’s many obstacles and when it works the game is pretty fun.  However outside of its bosses it is still pretty easy.  I can’t see anyone struggling to complete the game in under 3 hours if they possess a modicum of skill.

Or a low tolerance for frustration.  In spite of the strides made to fix the original’s flaws the camera in Chameleon Twist 2 is so bad it nearly ruins the entire game.  You have no manual control over it and can only pan from side to side which is borderline useless.  It tries to give you the best view possible but the inability to place it over the shoulder to better line up jumps is almost game breaking.  The problems are really apparent whenever vertical swinging is involved and it sucks that a potentially cool new move is more frustrating than engaging.

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The first game’s crude visuals could be excused due to its release early in the N64’s lifespan.  There is no excuse for the average presentation this time around.  With the likes of Banjo Kazooie, Spyro the Dragon and Rayman 2 on the market with stellar graphics (for the time) it’s simply unacceptable that more wasn’t done to spruce up the visuals.  The new worlds are visually more vibrant than its predecessor but still suffers from low poly counts and blurry textures.  The game does have its moments of course but the bad definitely outweighs the good.  The music is below average and grating to the point you might consider turning the volume down to avoid hearing it.  This screams first generation but it was released in 1999.

The music is bad and the graphics are ugly yet somehow Chameleon Twist 2 is still compelling on the strength of its tongue swinging mechanics.  Unfortunately it’s not enough to overcome its flaws and with better execution could have been worth checking out.

6-out-of-101

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Valis II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Adventure Island

I’ll be the first to admit I was never a big fan of the Wonder Boy series.  It was one of the first Master System games I ever played and it just rubbed me the wrong way.  So it’s really odd that I found myself overly hyped for Adventure Island.  Mind you all I had to go off of was the game’s box art I saw in a magazine and the name.  But that was enough to send my imagination into a tizzy; it’s an island!  Full of adventure!  So did it live up to my imaginary hype?  No.  What does this have to do with Wonder Boy?  They’re both essentially the same game and share the same flaws.

The quick and dirty version: Wonder Boy was created by Westone and published by Sega.  Hudson obtained the rights to create their own version of the game for the Famicom/NES but replaced the title character with Master Higgins, a caricature of their spokesmen Takashi Meijin.  While the Wonder Boy series would evolve into a string of action RPGs (whose lineage gets even more complex when you add the PC Engine games into the mix) Adventure Island remained a side-scrolling platformer until its fourth NES outing and second SNES installment.

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As a platformer Adventure Island follows the Super Mario Brothers mold quite thoroughly.  Both games involve rescuing a princess and both are 32 levels long, split between eight worlds.  They both, uh, star rotund protagonists in red caps too.  I want to say that last point wasn’t deliberate but you can never tell.  However the similarities end there.   There won’t be any butt stomping here as Master Higgins can instead throw stone axes (and eventually fire) once found to defeat enemies.

There aren’t too many power-ups available although the ones present are more than enough.  The eggs scattered about can yield the axe or longer ranger and more powerful fireballs which can destroy those pesky rocks and even boulders.  The skateboard allows you to move faster and absorb one hit at the expense of control since you can’t stop.  The rare fairy grants temporary invincibility but not everything is perfect in Adventure Island.  It’s easy to trip over the spotted rotten egg which spawn a grim reaper that will drain your stamina quickly.

The primary difference between this and Super Mario Bros. is the life bar.  You start each level with a full life bar however it isn’t there to protect you from hits but instead acts as a timer, always ticking down.  The mounds of fruit littering each level will refill it nevertheless the mad dash to collect more never ends.  This in essence makes the game far more fast paced as you can’t really afford to dawdle in one area too long as the danger of running out of health is ever present.

There’s an odd dichotomy between needing to constantly replenish your health and stay on the move before time runs out.  The way the levels are setup it’s more prudent to take it slow as you can never tell if an enemy will come running from behind or the exact arc frogs and bats will move.  It’s very easy to misjudge a jump, land on a rock and bounce into a snake or campfire.  But at the same time your life ticks down fast enough that it is a concern and unless you are constantly throwing axes everywhere to find hidden fruit or items you might not make it to the end on your own merits.

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Overall Adventure Island is pretty solid with frequent checkpoints to chart progress and unlimited continues.  It does have a few flaws though.  The game’s controls are a bit slippery; Master Higgins has a tendency to slide around before coming to a complete stop.  The game is heavily repetitive and recycles its stage themes frequently and as early as the second round.  You’ll see variations of the same forest, cave, and cloud themed worlds up until the end of the game and it gets old fast.  The end level boss of each world is basically the same boss with a new head which is pretty lame.  Some of these same criticisms can be lobbied at Mario however it did set the mold with which everyone else followed and has more variety.

Regardless of Adventure Island’s origin as a Nintendo port of Wonder Boy it laid a foundation with which its sequels would build from.  There’s an old school charm to the game but not one strong enough to overcome its repetition.

6-out-of-10-1

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Little Nemo the Dream Master

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9-out-of-10

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Alisia Dragoon

Years before Lunar and Grandia Game Arts collaborated with animation studio Gainax to create a pretty kick ass action game that went unnoticed by everyone.  I can’t possibly imagine why, I mean it went through the same Boris Vallejo filter that so many of Sega of America’s other obscure products went through, how could anyone resist?  Phantasy Star IV, seriously?  Who the hell thought changing Chaz from a 16-year old anime teen to a buff barbarian was a good idea?  All jokes aside Alisia Dragoon is an awesome action game with a pretty unique hook that deserved better than to sit in obscurity and is still a fun yet challenging adventure today.

Alisia’s father fought against the dark God Baldour when she was a child and managed to imprison him in a cocoon and send it into space.  However he was defenseless against Baldour’s followers, who torture him to death in front of her eyes.  Rather than kill her too they let her go; big mistake.  Once the cocoon returns many years later Alisia is now an adult and sets out to stop Baldour’s resurrection.

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Unlike pretty much every other action game you won’t accrue a massive list of weapons or magic during the course of your journey.  Alisia’s only weapon is a thunder bolt that will automatically home in on the nearest enemies.  Holding down attack will produce a steady stream of lightning that will auto target any villains in your path but this is regulated by a power meter that charges on its own.  At full power it produces a rolling blast that covers a 180 degree arc in a more powerful strike.  Depleting the meter fully leaves you defenseless for a few seconds but it recharges pretty fast.

Aside from the thunder you have four familiars that can be summoned to fight alongside you, each with their own life bar and form of attack.  The Boomerang lizard shoots….boomerangs.  The Dragon Frye spits fireballs, the Thunder Raven produces a stream of thunder that targets distant enemies, and the Ball of Fire burns enemies on contact and acts as a shield.  Managing your familiars is key as there are power-ups that will permanently increase their health and attack power.  Like TMNT you can switch them out when necessary and considering the odds against you it is well advised.  Allowing a pet to die leaves it unavailable until you collect a revival item which unfortunate resets them back to level 1.

The main conceit most will have to adapt to is that this is not a typical action game and should not be approached as such.  Due to the nature of your attack and the amount of enemies that attack you have to take things slower.  The power bar usually resets back to about 75% after each attack so it does not take long to reach the max and its worth waiting.  There’s no time limit to worry about which further reinforces this point.  There’s an even mix of weak fodder alongside the stronger heavies that take a little bit of a pounding before going down.

This is not an easy game and in fact I can see most gamers dying in the first few minutes until they adjust to its pace.  In the early stages it’s easy to keep a full charge and stay on the move but by the third stage all hell breaks loose and the attacks come nonstop, with enemies appearing out of thin air or attacking in groups of 7-8.  It’s at these points that you’ll possibly exhaust your magic meter and be left vulnerable.  Despite being able to increase your attack power up to eight levels the homing thunder does feel underpowered at times, which is where the pets come in.

Your choice of pet can have a significant impact on how difficult your travels will be.   Although you don’t have direct control over their actions they are generally smart enough to attack anything in their vicinity.  Using the right one as the situation dictates makes the difficulty bearable; as an example the Boomerang Lizard can destroy the turrets on the airship of stage 3 in a single hit whereas you’ll more than likely drain your meter trying to do the same.

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Graphically Alisia Dragoon is solid but not spectacular.  The world is heavily influenced by Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind with its blend of high fantasy and advanced technology.  It might seem silly to have demons roaming around a high tech airship but somehow it all fits.  The animation and design of the enemies is superb; for an early 1992 title it holds up pretty well.  The bosses in particular are the game’s highlight and wouldn’t look out of place in a Treasure game.  The soundtrack is suitably excellent; Game Arts were not slouches when it came to making the Genesis’s sound hardware sing.

Alisia Dragoon is slightly more challenging than most gamers are accustomed to in the genre but rewards players with unique gameplay and a long quest.  Due to its low profile it can be hard to find but in my opinion is well worth tracking down.

8-out-of-101

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Tiny Toons Adventures 2: Trouble in Wackyland


While there were many truly spectacular NES titles released in its waning days not every game was a lost classic.  The original Tiny Toons Adventures was a fun if average platformer that could just as easily have been any other game outside of its license.  Whether they were trying to squeeze as much as possible out of their license or genuinely wanted to create a sequel Konami took a different tact for this game, turning it into a series of minigames rather than a straight platformer.  If the game were a little meatier it could have been special but as is it is too brief to warrant a purchase.

Buster and his friends receive an invitation to the newly opened Fun House at Acme Acres theme park from a “secret” admirer.  But things aren’t as easy as they seem.  Before they can get in they must collect 4 golden tickets to gain entrance and find out who has been watching them from afar.

The object of the game this time around is to collect tickets, both normal and gold.  Regular tickets are used to play each “ride” at the park with different amounts necessary for each.  Gold tickets are awarded after you’ve completed each of the four main attractions or accrue fifty normal tickets.  Although each game costs tickets you can earn more by trading in your points at the ticket booth.  In a sense the game you are free to play the game however you like; if you find the bumper cars easier to deal with you can simply do that over and over, especially as it’s the cheapest.

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More of the Tiny Toons cast has been brought in as active participants rather than side characters or in adversarial roles.  Hampton, Babs Bunny, Plucky Duck, and Furball each have their own individual game to complete at the park with Buster taking over for the finale in the Fun House.  This is not a straight platformer like the original; in fact only Hampton’s train ride and the Fun House qualify.  Aside from the train ride Babs has to survive a roller coaster ride from hell, Furball must endure a log ride, and Plucky must knock the rats from Perfecto Prep (watch the episode the Acme Bowl, it’s awesome) in a game of Bumper Cars.

For the most part the controls are solid all-around which you’ll need as the challenge varies wildly from game to the next.    The most difficult is the roller coaster.  For a game that seems to be aimed at children this segment is far too heavy on rote memorization like Battletoads for success.  There’s nothing wrong with that type of approach so long as you are given the tools to succeed, in this case time.  The coaster varies its pace randomly with the most perilous sections moving so fast that you have literally a second to decide if you should jump, duck, or flip it upside down to avoid damage.   It’s a pretty long level that you’ll have to try multiple times to complete and unfortunately you’re better off spending your tickets elsewhere.  This in stark contrast with Furball’s log ride which follows the same basic premise but is far more measured in its pacing and therefore more fun.

The bumper cars are equal parts fun and frustrating.  Its split into three rounds with the layout changing each time with the object being to send your opponent hurtling into the hole.  You can brake to reduce speed and charge up to go rocketing forward.  Due to the placement of the various bumpers and springs the enclosed spaces it takes place in will leave you rebounding uncontrollably most of the time.  Usually sending your opponents into the hole feels random, not that I would complain about success.  It isn’t outright terrible, just weird.

The sole platforming stages of the game are the most solid.  It really shouldn’t come as a surprise as they follow the framework of the first game.  But as fun as they are it’s not enough to salvage the game’s major critical flaw, its brevity.  With just five “levels” in total it’s possible to complete the game in under an hour with no reason to bother to go back.  It’s fun but it isn’t that fun.

Tiny Toons Adventures 2: Trouble in Wackyland made strides to use its license to separate it from the glut of platformers available for the NES and in that regard it is successful.  However it isn’t compelling with enough content to warrant tracking down.

6-out-of-10-1

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Clockwork Knight 2

The original Clockwork Knight was an above average platformer that offered new 32-bit owners a tantalizing glimpse at what the new platforms of the time had to offer with its insane rendered graphics mixed with polygonal elements.  It may not have lived up to its potential due to shallow gameplay but was still fun in short bursts.  It was an ambitious title; so ambitious in fact that it had to be split into two parts.  One would expect Clockwork Knight 2 to follow in its predecessor’s footsteps but it actually offers many improvements that make the game a more well-rounded experience.

With Chelsea rescued all should be well but unfortunately she refuses to wake up after her capture.  Even worse an unknown assailant has kidnapped her again, meaning you’ll once again have to explore the confines of the house to save the princess once again.

Pepperouchau has the same core abilities as last time so those familiar with the first game can jump right in.  As the original Keyblade wielder he can attack with his sword, pick up and carry items, and push and pull objects.  His jump is still a flailing mess and can be hard to time because of his lack of momentum however there aren’t too many instances where platforming is a life and death matter.

Like its predecessor the game is broken down into another set of four rooms with two sub stages and a boss battle to cap it off.  Though it shares the same premise Clockwork Knight 2 does far more with its gameplay accoutrements, fulfilling the promise the first game had.  The level of interactivity in each stage has been significantly increased with far more items to toy around with.  Books reveal enemies or platforms, toys in the distant background launch attacks in you direction, and other static objects spring to life to either help or hinder your progress.  Each room in the house feels alive in a way that the first game never achieved.

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At times there are dual planes like Guardian Heroes and you’ll need to switch back and forth constantly to reach the end of each level.  The more complex level design is a welcome addition as the base mechanics are so simple.  The game gives you more opportunities to use your abilities with far more blocks and books to push and pull to reveal optional paths and items.  Using your key to wind up toy boxes or other activate gears plays a larger role in the proceedings this time out aside from its extra damaging function.  You’ll have to utilize all of these tools to find hidden items such as the added cards which gives you a secret code to hidden option screen once all 32 are collected.  Good luck on that, they are well hidden.

In addition to the improved level design there are a few levels that finally allow you to slap a saddle on your trusty steed Barobaro for some auto scrolling action.  The “horse’ if you can call it that might look silly but these stages are anything but, filled with some of the game’s best moments.  As you navigate a toy race track, dodging falling pins and destroyed rails at every turn you’ll realize this is what the original should have been.  Or how about octopi on sail boats trying to assault you from behind while toy sharks try to take a chunk out of your ass through broken segments of track?

Overall the game is about the same length as the original which means experienced gamers will finish it in a few hours at most.  Thought it has its moments this is not a challenging title.  Sega seemed to be aware of this and as such have grafted a wealth of additional content, most of which offer even more rewards for completion.  Bosses galore turns the game into a Treasure style boss rush featuring every end level boss from both games.  Earning a master ranking unlocks some pretty fun minigames that are definitely worth the trouble.  Movie mode lets you watch all of the game’s FMV cutscenes as well as a few extras.  The quality of the video isn’t the greatest but it’s an excellent feature; as prevalent as FMV was during that generation you’d think more games would have provided such a feature.

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The same basic engine is being used however Clockwork Knight 2 is a far more interesting title to look at thanks to a sharper resolution and better art direction.  The rooms you’ll visit this time out are far more varied, from the toy laden kid’s room, the steamy bath to the darkly lit and more serious study.  Even after all these years the way the game uses its polygons to build each environment and how it rotates as you move from section to section is amazing to see in action.  The bosses as well are better designed; no more ugly low resolution rendered sprites here.

This is a better title in every category that counts and a platformer worthy of being a part of the 32-bit era.  It has its slight flaws but those are outweighed by the sheer fun and variety the game has on offer.

8-out-of-101

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Shockman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

 

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Snow Bros.

Any dedicated shooter fan probably knows the name Toaplan.  Even during the 8 and 16-bit when information about the developers of games wasn’t too common I noticed their name in the credits of many of the shmups I played such as Tiger Heli, Sky Shark, Hellfire, and the infamous Zero Wing.  But their output wasn’t completely relegated to flying ships and in 1990…..they completely ripped off Bubble Bobble.  Let’s not mince words, Snow Bros. is Bubble Bobble with a wintery theme.  However there are enough unique traits within the game to set it apart from Taito’s classic.  The NES port released by Capcom is an excellent rendition of its arcade big brother that is also hard to find for some reason.

The Evil King Scorch has his sights set on the kingdom of Whiteland and as such turns its two princes Nick and Tom into Snowmen.  Without the princes the princesses Teri and Tina are easily captured.  King Scorch would have been better off offing the princes since his magic has simply given them super powers, abilities they will now use to end his reign.

Replace the bubbles with snowballs and you have a good idea what to expect in Snow Bros.  The snowballs you throw will slightly cover enemies and stop them in their tracks for a few seconds; you need to completely freeze them to make a complete snowball.  At this point you have a few options.  Frozen enemies can be used as a platform to reach higher areas.  You can also push them around for a better vantage point but to completely defeat them you can kick them at which point they’ll go hurtling around the screen and smashing any enemies in its path.

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Despite sharing a similar premise as Bubble Bobble the level design in Snow Bros. is what truly sets it apart.  While they are both single screen platformer the levels are smaller and more compact in order to force confrontations with enemies.  A single well timed snowball can completely clear the screen in seconds and there are many levels designed to facilitate this.  Rather than simple flat platforms there are far more sloped surfaces to build momentum and send rolling enemies to all corners of the screen.

Take too long on any given floor and the Pumpkin Head will come down to light a fire under your ass.  Although he is invincible he can be stunned for a second or two.  Pumpkin Head won’t aggressively follow you at first but if you dally too long he will spit out ghosts that will.  Different floors seem to have shorter time limits before he appears which leads me to believe they were designed to be cleared as fast as possible.

Clearing all enemies or multiples in one toss will grant many bonuses such as various kinds of food or other items such as dollar bills for points.  The most important items are potions that will enhance your abilities.  The red potion increases your movement speed, blue lets you trap enemies faster, and yellow increases your snow’s range.  The rare green potion will double your size and make you invincible for a short time.

There’s a large amount of variety among the enemies you’ll face and their tactics.  Some like the Blue Tornadoes can move through walls while Yetis breathe fire.  Many of them are just as agile and mobile as you are and will even try to avoid your attacks.  The game does a good of varying their appearances to keep things fresh and will introduce one or two new enemy types after every set of ten levels.

This is a shorter adventure than Bubble Bobble at only fifty floors however every tenth floor ends in a boss fight.  It’s a bit strange to fight massive bosses such as these considering the levels aren’t so spacious but it actually works.  The bosses can’t be directly damaged by your snow (aside from the final boss) and so you must rely on the adds they spawn to do so.  You might think this would be easy as they are large targets but it isn’t that simple.  The second boss randomly teleports between the top and bottom portions of the screen while the pair of birds waiting at the top of floor thirty are significantly faster than you are.  It’s a nice challenge and suitable book end for each group of floors.

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The presentation is considerably better than in Bubble Bobble and in fact better than most single screen platformers.  Despite the frosty theme each set of ten floors has a particular theme to its background and tiles.  The game is exceptionally colorful by NES standards and the sprites are large and expressive.  The music is average however and did not leave an impression on me.

Snow Bros. could very easily have coasted on its Bubble Bobble inspired roots but instead uses its theme to rise above that.  This is a fun alternative that I would recommend to anyone unfortunately tracking down a copy at a reasonable price is a task in itself.

8-out-of-101

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Frankenstein – the Monster Returns

For as much as I harp on bad licensed videogames in the US it’s not as if Japan and Europe were not subjected to the same rash of cheap product.  In the UK Ocean were generally the first to jump on any movie license and usually flooded every PC format with sub-par pap.  And Japan has had to deal with Bandai for over 30 years, or as I call them the Acclaim of Nippon.  For years they put out some of the worst Dragonball and Gundam videogames but every so often one of their releases would buck the odds and nearly reach the cusp of greatness.  Frankenstein – the Monster Returns is a flawed action game along the lines of Castlevania and while it never reaches that plateau it is far better than crap such as Dragon Power and Chubby Cherub.

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The villagers thought the dark times were behind them until one day Frankenstein rises from his grave and lays waste to the country.  With his army of demons no one stands a chance and just to prove how much of a dick he is he kidnaps a young girl named Emily.  As the protagonist it is your job to rescue Emily and put a stop to Frankenstein once and for all.

Like their previous bastardization Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde Bandai has once again completely lost the plot.  For God’s sake the fucking monster wasn’t called Frankenstein; it’s like they based their interpretation of the story on a Hollywood movie.  Ignoring that the game is heavily inspired by Castlevania but is let down by a number of flaws that had they been fixed would have left this a solid title rather than the flawed experience it is.

You start off with nothing but your gimpy fists and a jump kick that honestly seems out of place during the period the game is set in.  Seriously you look silly trying to kick demons in the face like Bruce Lee in a medieval setting.  The short range of your punches is frustrating but it isn’t long before you’ll pick up a club from random enemies that for some strange reason is dropped when you are hit.  The club is eventually upgraded to a permanent sword with even greater range at which point the game picks up.

As a primarily melee based game the game’s hit detection leaves much to be desired.  You can never be sure of the distance needed for your attacks to connect; even projectiles seem to randomly pass through enemies unfazed.  Some of the bosses are pretty damn large and watching your sword slashed pass through them is just flat out stupid.

There are a few segments in the game with a focus on platforming and collision issues do not make them easier.  The swamp toward the end of stage 2 is incredibly frustrating in this regard and is made worse by the fact that you have to face off against a boss if you fall in; this sea monster epitomizes everything that is wrong with the game.  I almost shut the game off in anger when it was time to swing from rope to rope.

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There are only four levels in the game and in some ways this almost resembles a Treasure game since you’ll face a few brief enemies before fighting a bevy of bosses per stage.  The bosses run the gamut of movie monsters from Medusa, the werewolf, vampires, and even the Grim Reaper shows up, and on the first level no less.  There are a number of original creations as well such as the demon horse and he and she monsters and when the collision issues aren’t getting in the way these encounters can be pretty fun.

Despite the game’s short length this is one of the toughest NES games to finish since you only have one life and 2 scant continues.  There are passwords for each level but the odds aren’t stacked in your favor.  There are cheap hits aplenty at every turn and the game doesn’t even have the common courtesy to refill your life bar between stages.  The final level features an insane jump in challenge as you not only have to contend with innumerable flying enemies but random potions that can kill you and about four boss battles before the fight against Frankenstein.  Two continues is simply not enough.

There’s a lot to like about Frankenstein but there’s just as much to hate.  With just a few minor tweaks it could have been a really good game to spend time with in between Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden but as it is only the most dedicated with stick with it.

6-out-of-10-1

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Socket

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Mario should be blushing red as a beet at this point.  The success of Super Mario Brothers inspired the video game industry to spawn a sea of blatant clones.  Amongst the mascot platformer rush of the 90s Sonic the Hedgehog became the most popular due to its focus on being everything Mario is not.  So it stands to reason that he would get some clones of his own.  Bubsy, Awesome Possum, Rolo, they were all just a precursor to platform gaming’s greatest achievement: a duck with an electrical plug in his ass.  Yes folks, they were truly scraping the bottom of the barrel with this one.  Socket is a 100% Sonic clone in every sense of the word and nothing else but doesn’t completely succeed at that and as such is a flawed game.

There is a little backstory given to provide context to your actions, not that it is necessary.  The Time Dominator is traveling to various points in time to steal artifacts and wreaking havoc with the space/time continuum using his newly constructed time machine.  The Time Warp Patrol , who apparently are guardians of time, send Socket, a robotic duck to stop him.

Not you too Vic Tokai.  One by one nearly every third party in the industry decided they needed a mascot and it was a sad sight to see once proud stalwarts such as Sunsoft and Tradewest succumb to the mascot menace.  This is how the likes of Aero the Acrobat, Plok, and Rocky Rodent were unleashed upon our unsuspecting minds.  While Vic Tokai were never one of the 8-bit elite I enjoyed many of their releases such as Golgo-13, the Krion Conquest, and Clash at Demonhead, a nice hidden gem.  To see them fall in line with an only slightly above average platformer of their kind of hurt man.

Socket is pretty fast and can build up to a decent speed when given a straight path.  Unlike Sonic the Hedgehog your lone means of offense is a kick attack and is the first instance where the developers didn’t study Sega’s gameplay choices.  You can’t roll into a ball or pounce on enemy heads, meaning if there’s an enemy in your path (which is most of the time) you’ll end up taking the hit full on.  It’s a pretty stupid design decision to allow you to run (or get propelled) so fast

As an android Socket is powered by electricity and each level begins with him plugging himself into an electrical socket and charging up for the adventure ahead.  Your energy meter serves as both your time limit and life bar as it constantly ticks down.  Collecting the lightning bolts strewn about will refill the meter but does not grant an extra life as they are not counted.  Taking hits from enemies will remove a chunk of energy although the bar is generously long.  Technically there is no clock but since there are only a finite amount of lightning bolts any exploration has to be curtailed with this in mind.  The levels are pretty large in scope and it’s very easy to lose track of time and die due to no lightning bolts in the area.

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Like the Original Sonic the Hedgehog each of the game’s seven acts are split up into three levels.  The first is a high speed area that serves as a transition to the next specific locale.  These levels are designed with minimal enemies present and (ideally) allow you to blaze through at top speed.  The second is the athletic area which focuses heavily on platforming in uniquely themed zones.  The final stage of each act is the labyrinth which changes the course design to a maze like series of areas that are hard to navigate and ends in a boss battle against the Time Dominator, who uses a different gimmick each time, the only exception being Act 6.  Does any of this sound familiar?

Thematically this could have been used to further differentiate the game from Sega’s classic however the developers opted to copy Sonic to the letter.  It’s like they compiled a list of elements present in Sonic installment and made it a point to include them somewhere in the game.  There are springs and bumpers that send you flying around the screen (literally sometimes), random drills and spikes poking out of the environment to slow you down, hell even the few power-ups in the game are gained by smashing orb like devices that might as well be TVs.  There’s even a mini game that tries to emulate the trippy bonus level of the original Sonic in terms of its psychedelic visuals but it instead interferes with navigation.

It’s as derivative as it gets but never quite reaches the same heights as the game it’s trying to emulate due to a lack of polish.  The game’s physics aren’t at the same level and it shows.  Building up speed to ascend an incline or loop requires more space than should be necessary; this is one area where curling up into a ball as Sonic increased your momentum at a natural pace and was pretty fun to see in motion.  Because the levels are so large it’s easy to become lost and waste precious time finding the correct path.  There are many dead ends and small platforms that are tough to land on and all the while your energy is winding down.  Once you reach the Time Dominator at the end of each act you have a finite window to beat him as there are no lightning bolts to collect.

It sounds challenging but the game is anything but.  The few enemies that populate each level don’t seem the slightest bit interested in your presence.  There are no bottomless pits to fall in but an abundance of spikes that are easy to avoid.  The Time Dominator is just as easy to fell as Dr. Robotnik since you can generally ignore whatever mechanic he’s wielding and zerg rush him.  Usually the only time you’ll die is when your energy runs out.

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In terms of production values they’ve certainly nailed the look they were going for and the game definitely has its moments.  The backgrounds usually scroll four to five levels deep and the overall color palette is far more vivid than the average Genesis title.  There’s an insane amount of detail to all of the environments to the point where it is distracting and unfocused at times; they should have reigned it in at points.  The music is solid but the sound effects are ear gratingly bad.  When your energy is low you are treated to a pinging alarm that is worse than Zelda and only seems to get louder in intensity.  If the point was to make you seek out energy as soon as possible they succeeded but dear god my ears.

Socket is a game that aspired to be a Sonic the Hedgehog clone and nothing more but falls short of that lofty goal and suffers as a result.  Since it isn’t as good as the games that serve as its blueprint the question becomes why would you bother?  It isn’t an outright terrible game but could certainly have been better.

6-out-of-101

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Whomp’Em

Whomp’Em huh?  I’m sure there is someone out there patting themselves on the back for that one.  “Clever” name aside Whomp’Em is one of many titles that were changed during the localization process to something that would be more recognizable to an American audience.  Sometimes these changes were for licensing reasons; the anime that Shatterhand was based on never saw a US release while Dragon Ball became Dragon Power since no one even knew what a Dragon Ball was (and wouldn’t for many more years).  Originally based on the legendary Journey to the West Whomp’Em’s original Chinese theme was ditched for a Native American one but that does little to hide its foreign roots.  Get past the silly box art and you are left with an excellent action game that takes a few cues from Mega Man to stand out from the crowd.

Originally released in Japan as Saiyūki World 2: Tenjōkai no Majin Whomp’Em seems to draw inspiration from a number of sources.  As its original story was based on the Journey to the West the protagonist was Son Goku, of which you can take your pick from any of the numerous incarnations of the character.  Though it bears a slight resemblance to Capcom’s arcade game Son Son it is closer in style to Mega Man, albeit with an Indian protagonist.  As Soaring Eagle you are on a quest to find the missing totems from your magic pouch; that’s it.  Technically you are also aiming to stop an ancient evil and save a princess as illustrated in the rare cut scenes but the game makes no mention of these anywhere.

Your primary weapon is an all-purpose spear that has a variety of functions on its own.  The spear has decent range and can be used to perform a downward and upward stab attack.  You can also hold it above your head to guard against debris and other objects.  You can even hold it out in front of you to bludgeon any idiot stupid enough to walk into it.

There are quite a few items to pick up, some defensive, and some offensive.  The most important are the gourds which function like the bullets in Bionic Commando.  Collect enough and your life bar is increased by another heart up to a max of 12.  Technically you only have one life however magic lanterns perform that function and you can carry three.  Little spearheads increase your next four attacks while the head dress will protect you from four hits.  The spear power-up is the most useful as it nearly doubles your attack length which is insane.

The Mega Man similarities show up in a few ways.  After a brief introductory level you have your choice of six levels that are considered “tests”.  You won’t find any cleverly named antagonists christened after the elements or other such nouns but there are bosses who will drop a totem that will grant you a new ability.  There isn’t necessarily an optimal order to complete the game like Mega Man although certain totems will make other levels easier to traverse.

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The powers granted by the totems come in a few flavors and outside of one have unlimited use.  Most will upgrade the spear in different ways while others such as the magic cloud will allow you to fly for brief periods.  The spinning spearhead can block projectiles and destroy certain walls but is not an offensive tool.  Another will allow you to throw spears, weak offensively but mainly used to create platforms.  The fire wand will produce a brief stream of fire from the tip.  The two worst are the ice crystal and web.  The ice crystal can only freeze enemies in place at which point you have to switch to another weapon to finish them off. The web can only tangle up a small number of enemies in the game which makes it useless. The Death Breath is the only totem that will drain your life with each use but is worth it to shorten boss fights.

The totems are interesting and make the game fun when opportunities to put them to use crop up but for the most part are irrelevant to the rest of the game.  Because the levels had to be designed so that they could be completed regardless of what abilities you possess you can largely ignore them and still complete the game which isn’t that far-fetched since the default spear is so powerful.  It stands to reason that the fire wand is useful in the Ice Ritual but you won’t really have to use most of your arsenal until the overly long final level.

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As a whole the game isn’t too hard even with a single life.  You’ll usually find at least one magic potion so even the more difficult bosses will go down since you continue the fight uninterrupted with potions.  There are unlimited continues anyway although it sucks that there aren’t checkpoints in the levels.  Despite beginning with only three hearts you can roam back and forth for gourds to increase that as much as you want, a process I recommend.  The final test sees a significant spike in difficulty due to several cheap elements such as toxic clouds to close together and a zero gravity segment that is infuriating.  It’s a fitting challenge although platforming veterans won’t have too much trouble with it.

Whomp’Em is a pretty great title that is underrated even to this day which is sad as it deserves better. It looks great and has excellent gameplay to match although the music can go die in a fire.  Fans of platformers or great 8-bit games in general should definitely check it out.

8-out-of-101

 

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Predator

As much as I’ve had a good laugh publicly shaming the terrible licensed games of the past occasionally there is one that hits a little close to home and Predator is one of those titles.  Folks what I’m about to write hurts; Predator for the NES sucks.  I saw Predator in the theater in 1987 (having older brothers who will take a 7 year old to R-rated movies was awesome) and it blew my mind.  The premise of the movie was practically made for a Contra clone but what we got instead is anything but.  How the developers managed to go completely off the rails with some of the weird shit in this game I’ll never understand but one thing is clear: stay the hell away!

At the very least it follows the plot of the movie.  After Lt. Dutch Schaefer and his team of operatives rescue a member of the president’s cabinet from guerilla’s in South America the team is slaughtered one by one by an alien assailant until only Dutch is left take revenge.  Surprisingly this was not by Acclaim/LJN but is still just as terrible.

Don’t let the opening cutscene fool you however.  Once you start the game it bears little resemblance to any of the events in the movie aside from the occasional jungle.  Your pink jump suit clad Dutch begins every level sans weapons and has to rely on his meager fists until proper ordinance can be found.  It’s a terrible design decision for a number of reasons.  Nearly all enemies you’ll encounter are knee height and you can’t crouch and punch.  The first two levels will provide some form of weaponry immediately but after that in most cases you’ll go nearly half a level before gaining some means to properly defend yourself.

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If the game had been designed with this in mind it wouldn’t be a big deal however the proliferation of enemies at every step says otherwise.  I’m sure the level designers thought they were being clever in forcing you to travel half way through a level to get the grenades needed to destroy the boulders blocking the laser which you’ll need to defeat the predator (who is also wearing pink long johns) in front of the exit.  But it fails in execution due to the terrible level design and busted controls.

This is a very platform intensive game, more so than most games of the 8-bit era and unfortunately the controls are not up to the task of navigating floating platforms.  Dutch seems to have way too much momentum behind him and will slide a little after performing any action.  Once you see the maze of inch wide platforms that comprise most of the levels you can see how this gets annoying fast.  Like every eight bit hero he also gets knocked back when touched; you’ll be revisiting the start of every level many times I can assure you.  I don’t know if it was intentional or by accident but you can also commit suicide by pressing any button while the game is paused; think about that for a second.

I’ve already mentioned how most levels seem to consist of an array of platforms arranged in different formations but I haven’t gone in depth at the creative license they’ve taken with the, uh, world it takes place in.  There seem to be only two different “themes” for the levels, ambiguous jungle and rocky caves.  The enemies consist of scorpions, butterflies, floating amoeba, rolling blobs, killer plants, and random demons with teeth that I can’t even name.  I realize a game with only one enemy, even if it’s a Predator, would get boring fast but holy shit this takes the cake.  They even have sentient rocks for god’s sake!

Speaking of the Predator you’ll encounter him many times during the course of the game although it’s never clear if it’s the same one or multiple different Predators.  Throughout the game’s 28 levels sometimes a Predator will guard the exit and is a pain in the ass to defeat.  The other encounters occur in the game’s six Big Mode (their words not mine) stages.  Here Arnold finally resembles the character from the movies as an oversized sprite.  The excitement around the graphical upgrade for these parts quickly fades as you realize you’re spending all of your time shooting bubbles before fighting a Predator with a different set of attacks each time.  Lame.

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This is an exceptionally ugly game outside of Arnold’s pink pants with the same jungle and rocky cave schemes repeated over and over with the only changes being the color palette.  The Big levels are a slight improvement but lack backgrounds and suffer from flicker.  On the other hand the music is actually pretty good and catchy which is small consolation for the rest of the package.

This is a terrible, terrible game that should never have been made.  The Predator license deserved better than this and so I’ll simply pretend Contra was the game this should have been.

4-out-of-101

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Jackie Chan’s Action Kung-Fu (TG-16)

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

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