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DJ Boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4-out-of-101

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Dick Tracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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Bimini Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4-out-of-101

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Dynamite Cop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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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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Space Harrier (Famicom)

While I found it strange growing up to see bootleg cartridges of Sega arcade games for the NES I will admit there was something pretty cool about playing the “other” guys games on your platform of choice. Alien Syndrome turned out pretty cool and Fantasy Zone was decent. It wasn’t all gravy however; the less said about Afterburner the better. Of all of Sega’s arcade games from the 80s I certainly never thought they would even try to port Space Harrier but they did! At least in Japan. The even bigger shock is that it’s actually pretty good all things considered. Why couldn’t this have been released here instead of that awful, awful version of Shinobi?

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The most important question is how does it look? The scaling tech Sega used in the arcade machine was pretty advanced for its time and there is no reasonable way the NES/Famicom could reproduce that faithfully. However that being said Takara has done an admirable job of simulating the game’s look. The checkerboard pattern of the floor has been simplified and all of the sprites have been shrunken dramatically. Otherwise the scrolling is some of the smoothest I’ve seen on the system and far better than something like 3D World Runner. It also beats the pants off the choppy mess that is the Sega Master System version which comes as quite a surprise.

There are some drawbacks to the presentation however. The game is prone to some truly awful slowdown and flicker which can be game breaking at times. The Harrier moves noticeably slower than the arcade which has an impact on playability. None of the voice samples have made it intact and the music isn’t the greatest either. In the grand scheme of things some of these problems are unavoidable while others are reasonable sacrifices to even get the game on the system.

Space Harrier was known for its blazing fast speed in the arcade and that element has been significantly toned down here. This is downright leisurely compared to the coin op and that is both a blessing and a curse. Since the game is slower you can actually react to bullets and avoid the random pieces of the environment that come speeding by. Unfortunately you also move a lot slower and I can almost guarantee will die to some not so random bullet far too often.

This was already a pretty difficult game due to the viewpoint and lack of any power-ups but this Famicom version takes it a step further. The slowdown and flicker really are pretty terrible and has a significant impact on the game. Although the game is less populated (be it enemies, bushes and stone columns) it still manages to be pretty intense which is a testament to its design that even when the elements that practically define it have been compromised it still turns out good. While I can appreciate the diversity in the game’s environments it does start to repeat itself by the halfway point. There are only a few bosses and standard enemies and the game simply shuffles them around the deeper you progress. Sometimes less is more.

For a rail shooter this is pretty long and I doubt most will see the end of this version of the game for a myriad number of reasons. Aside from the reasons outlined above you only have three lives to complete the game and that’s it. There are no continues, passwords, or battery back-up. The chance of getting any extra lives throughout the course of the game is practically non-existent; on my best run I received one extra life. One. Considering they managed to cram all eighteen levels into the game every stray bullet is terrifying; imagine reaching the 15th level only to die because a bullet that looked like it should fly by you hits you square in the face. I don’t because that’s exactly what happened to me. Its soul crushing on a level only old 8-bit video games can achieve but also makes this slightly less attractive as a package.

Considering the gap in technology this version of Space Harrier shouldn’t even exist. Yet it does and for what it is it’s actually pretty good. I’d have certainly played it had it left Japan.

7-out-of-10

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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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Outrun

I love Outrun and it’s funny to track my history with the series as I came to it in a backwards fashion. The pretty good Master System conversion was my first exposure to it and while good my mind was blown upon seeing the arcade game. The ridiculous number of scaling sprites was practically a revelation. Upon learning about the Genesis version years later my expectations were tempered; games like Afterburner 2 and Hang-on (which used the same tech) turned out pretty bad. My trepidation was unwarranted however as Sega did a bang up job with this port. Obvious technical shortcomings aside you would be hard pressed to see a better job on this hardware.

Creator Yu Suzuki billed outrun as a driving game rather than a straight racer. The exotic locations and especially the Ferrari Testarossa help sell the idea that you are on a leisurely drive at nearly 200 mph with your lady in the passenger seat. It’s a lot like Rad Racer (well I guess it’s the other way around) except far cooler. The deluxe sit down cabinet replicated the interior of the vehicle complete with gear shift and force feedback and is a machine I count myself lucky to have experienced once or twice. The game was a significant leap forward in the genre thanks to its technology that helped sell the idea of hills and undulating tracks convincingly. There were many ports of Outrun for nearly every platform but the Genesis version for the longest time was the best money could buy. Although stripped down this is still a pretty damn good game and one that is still incredibly fun today.

The goal of the game isn’t to come first against a set number of competitors but to simply reach one of the five end goals before time runs out. There is no set route but instead a massive number of branching paths with set checkpoints in between that you can choose from as you go along. These branches correspond to an easy or hard path with a suitable amount of traffic and lurching turns to match. All told there are 15 tracks with a single game comprising five stages. The nonlinear nature of each run gives the game far more replay value than your average racing title and is part of what makes the game so fun. While challenging there are six difficulty levels which makes this extremely accommodating.

The course design is generally excellent with a great amount of trackside detail and enough wild turns that will really test your driving skills.   Outrun more so than any other racing game taught me the value of switching from high to low gear in order to better navigate turns. I was the type of guy who preferred to barrel into corners at top speed and just barely avoid crashing by mildly tapping the accelerator to avoid losing too much speed. That approach can work here but isn’t optimal, especially as the game is pretty ruthless when it comes to time. There is very little margin for error and once time runs out it is immediately game over. While soul crushing any given run takes about 20-30 minutes on average so it doesn’t feel too punishing. The game is so fun that more than likely you’ll be itching to jump back in for one more game!

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Any home port of Outrun was going to suffer in translation however all things considered the Genesis version turned out better than expected. All of the crazy twists, turns, and hills from the arcade have been recreated in exacting detail. The numerous routes are all visually varied with some pretty unique settings that weren’t typical in games such as the Swiss Alps, rolling wheat fields, and even Stonehenge. While the look is faithful the scrolling is incredibly choppy in motion. The Super-Scaler tech Sega used at the time was pretty advanced so it is amazing that they were able to approximate the look at all. The choppiness is noticeable but not distracting; this conversion fared a lot better than Galaxy Force 2 and Super Thunder Blade in that regard.

You can’t talk about Outrun without mentioning its fantastic soundtrack. All 3 classic tunes (the dubiously named Magical Sound Shower, Splash Wave, and Passing Breeze) are here in their synthy glory with the genesis producing bass heavy renditions of each. There’s even an exclusive new track (Step on Beat) that is pretty good and fits in with the other three. The only negative in the sound department would be that the sound effects cut out at times which is distracting.

The Genesis version of Outrun is an amazing conversion of a legendary game, one of its better ports, and easily one of the best racing games for the system. While I would recommend Outrun Coast to Coast first to anyone interested in the series Sega did a spectacular job and the game is still worth owning today.

8-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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Daytona USA: Championship Circuit Edition

The anticipation for the Saturn port of Daytona USA was only matched by the disappointment of its technical shortcomings. For those that stuck with it the gameplay was more or less accurate but it’s kind of hard to appreciate when the game is damn near building the track right in front of your face. The message reached Sega loud and clear and so Daytona USA: Championship Circuit Edition was created as an apology in the same way that Virtua Fighter Remix made an already good game better. However unlike that title CCE doesn’t complete address the original’s flaws. Whether you can overlook that comes down to personal preference.

Forget about all of the other additions for a second, the primary reason for this version of the game to exist was to fix the first game’s technical flaws. On that front there is some good and some bad. The frame rate has been raised to a more consistent 30 which is amazing all things considered. Daytona pits you up against 19-39 other competitors and for the fps to still be that high is a miracle. Considering the vast majority of racing games from that era only bothered to fill their tracks with 5-8 rivals it makes the work Sega did here even more impressive.

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It does come with a cost however. The ridiculous clipping and draw-in returns and is just as bad and in some cases even worse than before. I’m not exaggerating when I say large chunks of geometry will magically appear within seconds and the effect is jarring. Sega’s AM3 division did the majority of the grunt work on this and it’s disappointing they did not apply some of the technique’s they employed with Sega Rally (smart placement of background objects and such) to reduce or hide it.

The wealth of additional options and content make up for it in my opinion. The additional handling options really open the game up to novices as the arcade’s controls took a bit of an adjustment. Now you have the option of Slow, normal, and quick steering. The quick option lets you drift a little more, not to the extent of a Ridge Racer but less rigid. The braking is still a damn mystery to me but it could just be that I’m not very good at the game. Four new cars bring the roster up to a total 9 with some obviously performing better on certain tracks. Curiously the original Daytona car is not part of the starting lineup but once you unlock it you’ll why, its game breaking. The last piece that was missing from the original was multiplayer and that has been added in the form of two-player splitscreen Mario Kart style. The frame rate takes a hit which is to be expected but it is still playable although less than ideal.

The main attraction is of course the courses of which there are five. The previous three return but are slightly remixed enough that they seem familiar but also have new routes. The two new courses however are amazing. National Park Speedway takes place alongside an amusement park complete with Ferris wheels, a moving roller coaster and seaside buildings. Desert City is a narrow pass that features some of the most daunting turns in the game. It also has some nice scenery such as hot air balloons and a train running throughout the course.

As an extra kick in the nuts the Japanese version of the game was significantly improved over what we received the US and UK. The clipping was reduced significantly alongside new background textures. The option to race at different times of day is present which, while minor, does add to the atmosphere. Especially nighttime driving, it is awesome! For those that missed the fruity vocal tracks from B-UNIV they are present along with the remixes for a full audio package that gives you a choice no matter your preference. Not that many actually bought it but this version of the game also had Netlink support for online play. It should be noted that the Netlink edition of the game released in 1997 had all of these extras but it is also possibly the rarest Saturn game in the US.

While a slight misstep (at least in the US) to create the definitive home version of Daytona for its time the CCE version of the game is still a significant improvement over the original. With the better handling the game plays a lot better, enough that I imagine some will be able to overlook its technical flaws, especially if it’s the Japanese version.

7-out-of-10

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ToeJam & Earl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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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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Fantasy Zone

Fantasy Zone is a strange case in my video game playing history. Like After Burner I played it on the NES before ever learning that these were originally Sega games repurposed semi illegally by Tengen in those weird black cartridges. While I certainly was not a console fan boy (or even would have known what that meant at the time) I do think it would have felt kind of scandalous or seedy playing the competition’s games on your platform of choice. Fantasy Zone is a more than competent port of the popular arcade game but also pales in comparison to its superior Japanese counterpart.

Despite the Twinbee inspired look of Opa Opa Fantasy Zone has far more in common with Defender than that series, only cuter. Each level is free roaming as you pick off all the enemy generators before fighting the end level boss. The controls are simple but also take some adjusting to; even when you aren’t manually moving around the ship is still in motion. The screen doesn’t scroll until you get close to the edge which is annoying but due to the reduced enemy count it isn’t an issue. All enemies drop coins that can be used to upgrade your ship since there are no traditional power-ups.

The game keeps its weapon selection light and relatively cheap which is a bit disappointing but what it does have is particularly effective. There are only two additional weapons you can purchase, the laser and the wide shot, both of which have a limited duration. What’s actually pretty cool is that you can buy both and when one runs out a balloon will appear that will allow you to outfit your ship with parts again. The different engines and wings affect your movement speed which is important; the turbo engine is the fastest and allows you to scoop up coins quickly but is a detriment when it comes to dodging boss fire. You’re too fast and can slip up easily. There are bombs but truthfully I’ve never used them and have even forgotten they were in the game at times.

There is no time limit so you can spend as much time as you like picking off enemies to build up money for upgrades. Or you would if the game weren’t so sparsely populated. There are very few enemies at all times which is a sharp decline from the arcade game’s intensity. You have to actively seek them out and they’re in such small groups that there is very little challenge to be found. It doesn’t affect your ability to make money however since the generators give $10000 each and you’ll end up with more money than you know what to do with in little time.

The balancing in this version is completely screwed since it is very easy to destroy all the necessary targets within minutes due to a lack of enemies. Buying items in the shop will increase their price in the following level but you are so flush with cash it makes little difference. The only challenge comes during the boss battles which can be pretty intense, especially if you die since you lose all power-ups. But if you have played any shooter that is nothing new. The game’s eight levels fly by pretty quickly and I reason most will finish this in less than thirty minutes which is disappointing.

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When it comes to the game’s presentation things become a lot more interesting. There are two versions of Fantasy Zone, one by Sunsoft in Japan and the other by Tengen. Sunsoft’s version of the game is pretty incredible given the disparity in hardware and paints a much more accurate picture of the arcade game’s bright visuals. Aside from resolution the level of detail is similar and generally excellent. Tengen’s port is shoddy in comparison. The color palette is way off and the backgrounds do a poor job of approximating the arcade’s look. Worst of all is the heavy flickering that occurs when even a few enemies are on screen. It’s still playable but certainly less than ideal.

I am far from being a weaboo but in this case it certainly applies; the Japanese version of Fantasy Zone is far better than Tengen’s reprogrammed port. Why they simply didn’t bring that version over if possible we’ll never know but at this point you can find arcade perfect editions of the game for nearly every console dirt cheap, making this extremely expensive game redundant.

6-out-of-10-1

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Virtua Racing

As early as the beginning of the 90s it was obvious that 3d and polygons were the future of the industry and Sega were one of the main players pushing technology forward with their big budget arcade titles. Virtua Racing was not the first 3d racing game but it is probably the most important. The relative complexity of the game in terms of its visuals and handling compared to earlier efforts like Hard Driving was simply astounding and really drove home the idea that this was the future. All hope of a home port seemed to rest on the Saturn until Sega created the Sega Virtua Processor, which much like the Super FX chip allowed the Genesis to output polygons. The Genesis port of Virtua Racing is an admirable attempt at capturing what made the arcade game so special that is ultimately let down by its lack of content and exorbitant price.

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It is immediately apparent that the SVP is a technological wonder as the game is incredibly fast. While not at the level of its arcade big brother the game moves at a consistently high frame rate (for the time anyway) that makes Stunt Race FX look embarrassing. It should be noted that it did come with a high cost, literally. The SVP was incredibly expensive to manufacture and the cost was passed on to consumers as the game cost $100 at launch.

I like Virtua Racing and all but that was a damn rip off. Those of us that grew up during the 8 and 16-bit era probably paid $70 or $80 for fighting games and RPGs but those genres are giving you tens of hours of content. VR has 3 tracks and a free run mode. No matter how well the conversion turned out it wasn’t worth that price and consumers agreed as this was the lone title to use the SVP which in hindsight was probably wise as the 32X and Saturn would soon launch, killing the novelty of its innovation.

Once you hit the track there’s a lot to like about this version of the game. I’ve already mentioned the speed but the handling is also well done. The arcade’s four camera angles have been retained although I found the first person view and the high angle camera to be useless and more of a novelty. Despite its brevity this is an incredibly tough game with very little margin for error. Even slightly clipping a competitor at a decent speed will send your car flipping or into a 360 spin out. During the first lap it’s possible to mount a comeback but anything past lap 3 will relegate you 7th place or lower guaranteed. Its soul crushing to have a near perfect run demolished by one random screw up. Free run mode is there for a reason, use it.

No matter how well designed the courses are and tight the controls Virtua Racing still can’t get around the fact that there is very little content. Three tracks and a 2-player mode is not enough to justify that hefty price tag, especially when compared to other racing games of that era like Top Gear and Rock N’ Roll Racing. It will take some time to truly master the courses on offer but once that is done you’ll find very little reason to revisit the game. As an arcade game it works perfectly, as a home release it is a bad value proposition.

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Back in 1994 Virtua Racing was a technical achievement but even then the presentation still had issues. The system’s low color palette simply wasn’t up to the task of replicating the bright visuals of the arcade machine and gives the game a very grainy and dithered look. Objects tend to blend together when viewed from a distance due to the low color palette and jagged polygons. This is most notable with the drone cars which leads to many an unfortunate collision. The draw distance is low with major track elements popping up a few feet away depending on the course. I’ve ripped on the graphics pretty hard but these are all factors that need to be taken into account once the game begins. There is a certain amount of adjustment required to enjoy the game but once you do it is possible to appreciate the fact that they were even able to make an actual playable version of the game for such old hardware.

Curiously there is very little music in the game. At the start of each race and beginning of a new lap a brief 5 second jingle will play but aside from the attract mode and menu tunes that is all. It reminds me of older arcade games from the early 80s in that regard. You’re left to listen to the engine sounds, sound effects, and announcer which makes the game feel a bit empty.

When compared to the rest of the racing library on the Genesis Virtua Racing is far better than most. But this version of the game was made obsolete in short order by the 32X and especially Saturn editions with their vastly expanded content. This is still a good game and it can be found dirt cheap now but I would still say you’re better off finding one of the other versions of the game.

7-out-of-10

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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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Crazy Taxi

With the exception of fighting games and the occasional sports title most arcade games are not built to be a lasting experience. Most offer quick thrills to occupy your time for a few minutes in between activities and while fun it becomes a hard sell when ported to a home console. Then there are games like Crazy Taxi that transcend that and are infinitely replayable by sheer virtue of its gameplay. Crazy Taxi is not only one of the brightest in the Dreamcast lineup (and by extension PS2 & GameCube) but is also just an all-around excellent game as well. Simple yet incredibly deep, most games wish they were a fraction as fun as CT is in small doses or even extended sessions.

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Crazy Taxi certainly lives up to its title. The only goal in the game is to get your passengers to their destination by any means necessary and it doesn’t matter how much death and destruction you cause in your wake. Okay I’m exaggerating with that last bit but the fact that you can ram straight into a bus at full blast and only lose a little bit of speed while that bus has gone on to cause a massive pileup on the freeway means somebody has to have died. But that doesn’t matter. Getting your fares to their stop in as little time as possible increases your monetary reward and extra time depending on the mode. Shortcuts, makeshift detours, cutting off cars in traffic, hell even a quick trip under water, all of this is encouraged by the game and psychotic people who really need to get to KFC ASAP.

You could play Crazy Taxi as straightforward as possible but there is plenty of depth to be found if you dig a little deeper. Learning the layout of the city is one but also paying attention to the colored markers that are a giveaway as to the distance you’ll need to travel. Min/Maxing is necessary to make the most money possible in the time allotted; it’s very easy to waste all of your time busing two fares and only earning a pittance to show for it. Weaving through traffic, sliding around corners, and hopping off ramps will earn small bonuses and even something as simple as how you come to a stop can earn a nice chunk of change on top of your guaranteed fee.

There are a number of advanced techniques to learn and master. The crazy dash allows you to go from zero to 60 (so to speak) in a second. The crazy stop is simple but effective in shaving a few seconds off dropping off customers. The crazy drift once mastered will spin the car and begin a combo racking up extra tips the longer you keep it going. You can take the crazy dash even further and perform a limit cut which sends you rocketing even faster. Most of these are incredibly difficult to pull off but if you can apply them during the main game will make you an expert. These techniques are really used in the exclusive crazy box added to the game.

Aside from playing by arcade rules (where extra time is gained by dropping off customers as fast as possible) there are three, five, and ten minute modes for quick bursts that are excellent for multiplayer sessions. Original mode is a smaller, compact version of the arcade city that has been remixed and can be played using the same modes. The breadth of the game’s extra content comes from the Crazy Box, a pyramid style selection of 16 minigames that test your skill at the game’s advanced techniques. While short they are extremely fun and difficult and add longevity to the game, not that it needs it.

If there is one criticism that is true about the game it’s that it is light on content. The game definitely has that unspeakable “it” factor that drives you to play one more game only to realize that a few hours have passed. But at the end of the day there is still just the one city that while large, does grow old after a bit. As much as I like the Crazy Box it is strictly for the more dedicated players as the techniques needed to succeed are out of the reach of the casual gamer. It wasn’t an issue for me as the core gameplay is so strong but is something I feel the average gamer will take note of.

You can’t talk about Crazy Taxi without mentioning its rock influenced soundtrack. The selection of songs chosen for the game match the madcap antics so perfectly it is unbelievable. I’m not a fan of rock music but even I found myself rocking out to the sounds of the Offspring and Bad Religion. At least initially. As great as the soundtrack is you will come to hate it due to its repetition. The overall variety is very small and certain tunes repeat incessantly; the Offspring’s “All I Want” drives me into an uncontrollable rage from its first few notes because it is really overplayed here. There’s a ton of funny chatter from customers and occasionally your chosen driver but it won’t keep you from turning the volume down to avoid hearing the repetitive soundtrack unfortunately.

I’ve been playing Crazy Taxi for close to 14 years now and I’m still not tired of it. It has the same pick up and play appeal of Tony Hawk and is simply timeless. This is one of Sega’s greatest games and a jewel in the Dreamcast library. Don’t pass this up wherever you play it.

9-out-of-10

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Last Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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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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Android Assault

Next to the Saturn and Turbo Duo I wish the Sega CD had found some measure of success in the US. By 1995 the system had managed to build up a respectable amount of titles that made the cost (at that point anywhere between $50-100) worth it. In Japan it was a different story as the CD drive enjoyed more wide spread support. Good support too, with many incredible RPGs and such. Meanwhile Sega of America saw fit to unleash a barrage of assy FMV games on us that we did not deserve. For this reason games like Android Assault stood out more. While it isn’t the best use of the added CD space ultimately that doesn’t matter as it is a good game first and foremost.

Like a sizable chunk of the Sega CD’s library in the US there isn’t much in Android Assault that couldn’t be done on a Genesis cartridge. Aside from the fully voiced intro and soundtrack it has nothing over the likes of Lightening Force. However a game doesn’t have to be innovative to be good and in that regard AA succeeds. There weren’t too many shooters for the Sega CD and so Android Assault has little competition and despite being a little derivative it’s a solid game. More of this and less crap like Ground Zero Texas would have gone a long way toward painting the Sega CD in a more positive light.

The list of weapons is kept relatively light however the four available cover most of the popular tropes. The Thunder Cracker is the standard which upgrades to a wide spread shot at full power. The Chase Cannon fires a volley of homing missiles straight out of Macross; incredibly useful but weak. The Burning Wave is the stereotypical laser which will produce five asymmetric lasers when fully upgraded. The Satellite bombs are flat out terrible. These missiles fire in a straight line and is too slow to be effective. Once a weapon is powered up a third time your ship will transform into a flying mech which serves no purpose other than to look cool and increase the size of your hit box. That’s not true, it allows you to sustain one hit before death.

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All of these weapons are supplemented by an R-Type style charge shot. When you aren’t firing it charges up to three levels pretty quickly and unleashes a modified burst of power depending on your current weapon. The changes are pretty dramatic in some cases; while the satellite bomb is terrible on its own a fully charged shot will unleash a cluster of smaller bombs that explode in a wide radius. The chase cannon actually becomes a fiery snake that lasts until the bar is depleted and particularly devastating when timed right. The fact that you have to sit defenseless for it to charge is a nice compromise for the power it offers although most will use every opportunity to spam it when possible.

This is not a fast paced game which is in stark contrast to a good portion of the shooter genre in which twitch action is its reason for being. The slower pace doesn’t mean the game is not full on tense moments however as massive humanoid robots are your most frequent opponents and they don’t go down in a single hit. The game uses the same elevated playing field as later Thunder Force and Darius games so you can easily choose a more aggressive lane if that is what you seek. But even then outside the occasional boss battle and trying to crawl back after dying you won’t find much of a challenge here.

Unlike the majority of shooters I found Android Assault to be far easier than is usual in the genre. For the most part the weapons are overpowered with the exception of the stupid satellite bomb. The charge attack reaches full power pretty quickly so you can spam it if you want with little consequence. Extra lives are awarded regularly and if you have even some modicum of flying skill you’ll have little to worry about. It does pick up a bit at the halfway mark but is nothing too drastic. As someone who is used to getting his ass kicked in these games this came as a welcome change of pace.

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The game’s artwork gives it a unique visual style with its awesome mech designs. The mechs resemble something out of a mid-90s anime OVA like Tekkaman Blade or Escaflowne. Large and imposing these robots comprise the majority of the enemies you’ll face. The backgrounds are a parallax fan’s wet dream, often going as deep as six layers and makes excellent use of the system’s limited color palette. Although its environments are reminiscent of other games in the genre they are still creative and not many match this level of detail. The CD soundtrack is comprised of generally excellent rock music; hell even the little bits of voice acting are well done. The entire presentational package is a first class effort which is surprising for what was a low profile release.

While Android Assault does not break any new ground within the genre it is a well done shooter on a console that could use every quality title it can get. Copies of the game might be hard to find but generally it is inexpensive and worth a play through.

7-out-of-10-1

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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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Phantasy Star IV – End of the Millenium

All good things must come to an end and it’s with this axiom in mind that the Phantasy Star team created possibly the series finest hour, Phantasy Star IV. Such was the damage caused by the third installment’s lack of quality that there for a while it looked as though that would be the series final installment which would have been a sad end to such a storied franchise. But when given the green light the team realized this would be there last shot and so poured all there resources into creating a sprawling adventure that pays homage to past games, answers all lingering questions, and wraps it up in a satisfying manner. Phantasy Star IV is one of the greatest RPGS of the 16-bit era and one that anyone with even a passing interest in sci-fi RPGs should seek out.

A thousand yeas have passed since the end of Phantasy Star II and the lush green fields of Motavia have given way to ever expanding deserts after an event called the Great Collapse. With this comes an increase in biomonsters leading to the creation of hunters who specialize in exterminating them. Two such hunters, Alys and Chaz will unwittingly become caught up in the machinations of the evil Zio and his master, an ancient evil that threatens the Algol Star system once again.

Phantasy Star IV pulls in elements from every prior game in the series to create one last sprawling adventure that spans multiple planets. For long term fans of the series there are numerous cameo appearances and bits of fan service that leave me impressed at just how thorough they were in crafting this epic. The fact that they not only acknowledge Phantasy Star III but manages to tie it in with the rest of the series despite its drastically different tone is a testament to this team’s skill.

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The plot is far more character driven than in prior installments with nearly everyone, including the party members who are only with you a short time seeing some form of growth. Chaz begins the game a wide eyed rookie hunter but certain events force him to grow up fast and shoulder the responsibility of saving the universe. Rika is a source of never ending elation as she sees the outside world and all it has to offer with her own eyes rather than what she was taught by a computer. Rune’s ribbing of Chaz hides a deep seated burden as he is the bearer of ancient knowledge and power. The coolest aspect of Generation of Doom, its introduction of cyborgs continues as you’ll come across many during the course of your journey, most specifically Wren. The overall plot is nothing revolutionary however it is well done as mysteries unfold at a regular clip with the game doing a very good job of answering all questions that arise during your quest.

Gameplay wise there are no revolutionary features to speak of, just more conveniences. The lethargic walking speed has been increased enabling your party to literally zip through towns and more importantly dungeons. While random battles still occur a little too frequently for my tastes at least you can walk more than 4 steps before the next battle. The nightmarish dungeons full of warp pads and pits that needed to be explored has been toned down thankfully. The dungeons aren’t as complex but can still be confusing mazes to navigate that can be completed in a reasonable time frame. The talk feature starts a party conversation that will remind you of the most recent events and what your current objective is. The individual party loot system has been replaced with a universal inventory that makes it easier to keep track of item

Battles return to the third person view of the second game and move at a faster clip. Issuing commands through the icon based system is instantly familiar and all of the spells from prior games return. The weird ass naming convention for Techniques (PS equivalent of magic) returns so if you aren’t familiar with this system you’ll need to consult a FAQ or make your own. Each character has a secondary list of skills that have limited uses but are just as powerful as magic, especially when combined. Like Chronotrigger you can combine your powers to create devastating spells. Unfortunately you’ll have to figure them out on your own as the game will never tell you or keep track. The other major addition to the battle system aside from vehicular combat would be macros.

Macros function as a programmable series of commands you can use in lieu of giving out orders to each party member every turn. The game comes with a preset macro that will auto attack just to give you an idea how much they value your time. With the ability to save up to 10 macros combat is a literal breeze if there are certain actions or spells you tend to rely on. Once you out level an area these become a god send in getting you back to the world map.

The difficulty curve is far smoother than in the brutal Phantasy Star 2. There are very few instances where you’ll need to grind for progression, mostly because the encounter rate is so high that you’ll generally be within the right range provided you don’t constantly run from battle, which is actually possible this time around. Dungeons are more compact and as a result there are more of them. That’s not to say the game doesn’t have its fair share of nightmarish mazes to navigate; the Air Castle and Zio’s Fort will make you tear your hair out. But compared to the four dams in Phantasy Star 2 my blood pressure is a lot more stable.

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Graphically this is one of the most beautiful games ever released for the Genesis. Forget the overly realistic fantasy style of Generations of Doom as the game is more in line the with anime style of its more popular second installment. The overworld is more colorful and slightly more detailed but it’s in combat that the game flexes its muscles. The art is top class and the enemy animation is particularly well done; remember it wasn’t until Dragon Quest 6 and Final Fantasy’s 7th installment that they even bothered animating enemy attacks. The spell effects aren’t over the top and are rather subdued with the exception of combination techniques which look spectacular.

Important story events are narrated using comic book style panels and they look fantastic. While not at the level of Sega CD cutscenes they still do an excellent job of moving the story forward and there are a ton of them. It makes me wonder why there weren’t more RPGS (hell games in general) that experimented with this storytelling format as it seemed a good fit for cartridge based games.

For fans of the traditional Phantasy Star series End of the Millennium is everything you expected and more and is the ultimate love letter to the fans from a developer. While I would have loved to see them continue the series rather than its Online spinoff I can at least rest easy knowing that this is as satisfying a conclusion as you can ever expect to a series.

9-out-of-10

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Phantasy Star III – Generations of Doom

And now we’ve come to the black sheep of the family. Many volumes of vitriol has been written about the missteps Sega took with Phantasy Star III, most of it true. Coming off the success of the seminal second installment one would think a sequel containing all of the elements that game got right would follow. Well in the end what we got was something……different and while I can respect them for not resting on their laurels what they created is as far from the conventions of the Phantasy Star series as you can get. There are some good ideas buried underneath the game’s lackluster execution but I doubt most will stick around long enough to bother.

Long ago war between the Orakians and the Layans rocked the planet but ended when the leaders of both factions disappeared. All communication between the two sides collapses as they evolved in different ways, with the Orakians relying on technology and Layans taking up magic. Rhys, the prince of Orakia, is set to marry Maia when she is taking by a Layan demon. With war threatening to erupt again Rhys vows to take her back and sets out on his journey.

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While Phantasy Star III has many issues its greatest feature would be the Generations referred to in the title. Though the quest begins with Rhys it isn’t long before his leg of the journey is over and he is presented with a choice from two possible future wives. The offspring produced in these unions will inherit traits from their parents, informing their abilities. This generational shift happens twice, ultimately leading to four different protagonists for the final showdown with Dark Force.

The concept of future generations continuing the fight their parents started is an interesting one and the game does a good job of making each quest somewhat unique for each one. All roads will eventually lead to the same place but the events leading up to it is what makes replaying the game unique. I’m surprised at the lack of game’s that utilized this storytelling technique in some capacity and despite its faults Phantasy Star III is the game that introduced it to the world.

If the game didn’t say Phantasy Star on the cover you would never associate it with the series upon first impression. The world presented in PS III is more medieval fantasy rather than the hard sci-fi of prior installments. In fact were it not for the cyborgs and traveling between the individual ships that make up each world you would never know this takes place in the future. In a way it harkens back to the original Phantasy Star but It’s such a radical departure from the heavily anime influenced second game that it’s too jarring to fit. The US instruction manual tries to rationalize it by having it take place concurrently with part four but that only makes it worse.

The traditional setting goes hand in hand with the game’s mechanics. You visit towns, fight monsters, and explore the various dungeons throughout albeit very slowly. The pacing of the game is very methodical and not in a good way. Random battles come frequently and your characters walk maddeningly slow, always a recipe for controller throwing rage. Rather than separate planets the entirety of PS III takes place on a colony of seven ring worlds linked by tunnels that you’ll unfortunately have to trudge through each time. It’s certainly distinctive but due to the game’s art style there is little variation from one world to the next.

The battle system returns to the first person view of the original game but doesn’t seem to move any faster than that game. While the attack animations have somehow regressed in the years between their releases they are just as slow and plodding. For those that can’t stand the repetition inherit of turn based combat there is an auto battle function for the times you don’t feel like clicking through menus. Magic has been given a slight tweak; only characters who have some Layan blood can use the series typical techniques and in addition they can be powered up in towns. Depending on the generation your decisions has led to relying on magic might not be an option, making the game harder as a result.

For as much as I like the generation system the game’s plodding pace completely saps any will to want to explore each possible generational shift. Even by RPG standards of the time Phantasy Star III is slow. You walk slow, random battles are slow even on the highest setting, and simply getting from point A to B is a laborious task. Combat is frequent with as many as 6-8 enemies becoming the norm about a quarter of the way in. Unfortunately there is no teleportation spell or stations so you have to trek through every dungeon or cave again if the story calls for it. Honestly this isn’t a long game; each generation is only about 5 hours or so of content but the obvious padding makes it feel longer. By the time you make it to the final group if you’ve lasted that long you’ll simply want it to be over.

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As I mentioned previously the more realistic art style simply doesn’t work the animeish character design. The game heavily recycles its few assets; despite their being seven worlds most are simply palette swaps of the same generic template. About 90% of the dungeons use the same metallic background with no changes other than the layout. The amazing battle animations from the first two games is almost completely gone; in its place is the most bare ass minimum that is so pathetic they shouldn’t have even bothered. When you see a massive titan whose means of attack is to wiggle a finger you know they simply didn’t’ care. About the only bright spot in the presentation is the soundtrack.

I’ll give Sega points for not shoving out another generic sequel after the success of Phantasy Star II but that doesn’t mean the game is compelling in any way. Phantasy Star III is a case of good ideas but bad execution and while some might grow to like it I can’t recommend it in goof faith.

6-out-of-101

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Phantasy Star II

I count myself truly blessed to have been able to play Phantasy Star not long after its original release and experience just how far above it was from its contemporaries, Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy. In a fair world it would have received the recognition it deserved but alas. A year later Sega would deliver a sequel that in my eyes became the quintessential sci-fi RPG for its time. As the first 16-bit RPG released Phantasy Star 2 is everything a sequel should be with improvements in every category. With it comes a level of difficulty that I don’t think most gamers of today are ready to handle but that does little to detract from the excellence at hand.

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1000 years have passed in the Algol system and its inhabitants enjoy peace under the governorship of the Mother Brain computer. Mother Brain regulates the weather and all other facets of life for its inhabitants but recently something has been off. At the same time a young man named Rolf is suffering from nightmares of a maiden fighting an ancient evil. Little does he know that the two are linked and his quest for the truth will have dire consequences for every planet in Algol.

What a difference a year makes. Phantasy Star was definitely ahead of its time with its features and story and that continues in its sequel. Phantasy Star 2 has an extensive plot that deals with some pretty heavy topics such as suicide, terrorism, and mass destruction of life years before other such games would deign to go there. It’s a sprawling tale that will once again see you visit other planets to solve the mysteries at hand and is heavily character driven, although not in the way you expect.

Where Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior’s characters at the time were mostly blank slates used to fulfill a role Phantasy Star’s heroes are an eclectic bunch. Rather than a set of battle hardened veterans you’ll encounter in the field each of the game’s six protagonists aside from Rolf and Nei will actually come seeking you out as they hear tales of your exploits. These members are ordinary citizens who have been inspired by your heroism and their “class” is actually the job they perform in their day to day life. Sure it’s convenient that Anna is a hunter who tracks renegade hunters so she kicks ass but even unlikely characters such as Kain (a wrecker good against robots) and Amy (a medic) will have their uses.

This follows traditional RPG mechanics so you’ll spend lots of time visiting towns upgrading equipment, speaking to townspeople, and grinding for experience. The battle system has seen the most changes since you no longer fight a single enemy type in each battle. Enemy parties are comprised of an assortment of biomonsters and later cyborgs in many configurations. You can now choose to auto battle and target specific enemy groups though you still can’t focus on one target. You’ll also notice that battles take place on a static grid rather than the beautiful location specific backdrops of the original. It sucks but sometimes you can’t have everything.

The hellish first person dungeons of the first game have been replaced by the standard overhead view maps of most RPGs but before you celebrate know this; these are just as nightmarish. These dungeons can reach as high as thirteen floors deep and aside from confusing layouts full of dead ends will also have pit traps and holes that you actually have to fall into at the right angle and position to continue onward. Imagine climbing to the sixth floor of a lab and falling into a hole only to realize you weren’t on the right side and have to do it all over again. Doesn’t sound too pleasant does it?

Make no mistake, Phantasy Star 2 is one of the most difficult RPGs you’ll ever encounter, full of all the excesses and trappings old school RPGs were subject to. The grind is heavy with this one and even the basic enemies at the start of the game can be vicious; I wouldn’t move more than a few inches away from the first city until I’d reached level 3 or 4 just as an example. New equipment is expensive and the rewards from battle aren’t proportional so be prepared to fight a lot. Which is going to happen anyway as the encounter rate is really bad. It’s not an exaggeration when I say nearly any random battle can be fatal within a dungeon, especially when magic users are involved. Nearly every RPG has its fair share of grinding but it borders on tedium here. Bottom line, you are going to see the game over screen a lot.

The game’s high challenge was apparently evident at Sega and so the game came packaged with a mini strategy guide that took you through the whole game and had full maps of every location. It also showed you how to obtain some of the most useful items in the game such as the Visiphone, which allows you to save anywhere. Some people bitched and moaned about its inclusion; ignore them they’re stupid. It doesn’t break the game and only barely alleviates some of the difficulty.

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The art direction of the series underwent a massive shift, abandoning the fantasy meets sci-fi look for a 100% futuristic art style. And it works.   The art is highly evocative of 80s anime with multi-colored hair and a definite cyberpunk vibe. It’s so drastically different from everything else at the time that it stands out. The first person dungeons are missed as they were a technical achievement; the foreground overlays might look cool but the overhead view doesn’t really lend itself to exciting vistas. The battle graphics have been significantly improved with excellent animation and spell effects making up for the static background.

The difficulty is off putting however Phantasy Star 2 has so many other factors working in its favor that it is worth sticking it out. We’re close to 25 years since its original release and their still isn’t much like it on any console. There’s a reason this is commonly placed on many best of all time lists and I urge everyone to give it a try to find out why.

8-out-of-101

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Phantasy Star

If there were any justice in the world the Phantasy Star series would be held up in the same light as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. As the quintessential sci-fi RPGs of the era Phantasy Star was the opposite of its two main competitors, going for an anime infused brand of science fiction rather than the typical swords and sorcery motif popular at the time. These days the brand is carried on by the Phantasy Star Online run of MMOs but once upon a time they were single player RPGs every bit the equal of Square Enix’s offerings and in the case of the first game vastly superior.

The Algol star system is composed of three planets, all ruled by King Lassic. Lassic was once a fair and just king but suddenly became a tyrant who ruthlessly killed any who opposed his rule. Pockets of rebellion spring up throughout the Algol system but are cut down, and one such group was led by Nero. Nero is slain by Lassics forces (who resemble Stormtroopers) in front of his sister Alis who vows revenge.

Phantasy Star was a victim of circumstance. Released in 1988 for the Sega Master System it predated the US release of both Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy by 1 & 2 years respectively. If you were to compare the three games side by side Phantasy Star might as well have been a SNES game in comparison. The game was light years ahead not just in presentation but gameplay as well.

Unfortunately this was an era in which Nintendo ruled the market with well over 90% market share so its release went unnoticed. The $80-90 price tag also didn’t do it any favors. Phantasy Star would go on to become one of the greatest unsung heroes of the time, respected by those fortunate enough to play it at release. In the decades since then it has finally gained the respect it deserves and is one of the best retro RPGs, no games period that I’m honored to have played at release.

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First of all the graphics are insane. When taken as a whole Phantasy Star might have been the most impressive 8-bit game of all time. Although the overworld graphics are the same chibi sprites we were accustomed to they served their purpose. The overworld has a surprising amount of animation, from waves crashing against the shore to scores of ant lions with pincers gnashing in wait.

The first person battles feature full attack animations, all excellently rendered. Every enemy from the lowly slimes to the massive Octopi and vampires were brought to life through great art and animation. This was a feature that Final Fantasy would not incorporate until its seventh installment; Dragon Quest lagged behind until the sixth. The battles featured location specific backgrounds as well. The number of little touches like these went a long way toward bringing this sci-fi universe to life.

Perhaps its most well-known attribute are the 3d dungeons. Like Wizardry and Might and Magic before it dungeons are explored from the first person but Phantasy Star was leagues ahead of those games with its smooth scrolling. It was a major technical accomplishment back then and is still impressive to this day.

Phantasy Star broke ground by having a female protagonist with Alis. At a time where when most games were content to put you behind the gun of a Stallone or Schwarzenegger knockoff this was a bold move but you’ll quickly forget about that once the game starts. PS mixes sci-fi with traditional swords and sorcery elements to create a universe that was decidedly unique for the time. What is most impressive about the game is its scale; this is an adventure that plays out across three entire planets with their own separate towns and dungeons to explore. The closest comparison at the time would be Ultima IV but that game was just plain weird.

Although you begin the journey alone you’ll soon build a party of 4 characters who each bring something to the table. The cat/rabbit hybrid Myau is the fastest party member who requires next to no items to keep up with the rest of the group. While Odin might come across as the typical strongman of the group his biggest contribution is the ability to equip guns. Guns are not strong but hit every enemy each turn and inflict the exact same damage regardless of defense. Noah is the requisite magic user with little defense but strong magic to make up for it.

The first person battles are surprisingly speedy initially as you’ll only face one or two enemies when alone. With each party member the game scales up to accommodate your increased offense, with groups of enemies reaching as many as 7-8 despite only one visible on screen. A unique feature of the game is the ability to talk to humanoid characters and possibly avoid battle altogether. This would go on to be a key feature of the Megami Tensei series but Phantasy Star did it first.

In spite of the battle scaling Phantasy Star is still one of the hardest RPGs of all time. RPGs created in the 80s were typically grind heavy as developers had no base to scale from but even taking that into account Phantasy Star exemplifies why the genre was so niche for many years. Equipment is expensive and meseta does not increase exponentially to keep up. Once you have a full party more than likely someone will have to make do with hand me downs or you’ll have to spend hours grinding to equip them.

It’s a vicious cycle as you need better gear to defeat more powerful opponents but you need to kill those same stronger enemies for the money to buy said equipment. Groups of 8 enemies are quite common and slow down battles due to the animation. Aside from weapons and armor there are numerous vehicles that are mandatory to progress that have to be bought and are insanely expensive, once again grinding the game to a halt.

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The nightmares…somebody hold me!

These balance problems come to a head in the game’s punishing dungeons. The first few are simple single floor affairs that are easy to navigate but the game quickly descends into 6-12 level monstrosities that require mapping to survive. Because every wall is exactly the same I can guarantee you’ll get lost. The ability to save anywhere might actually screw you rather than help; if you save in the middle of a dungeon with little supplies chances are you’ll have to die and lose half your money to progress.

Even in spite of these old flaws I would recommend Phantasy Star in a heartbeat. There are few RPGs from that era that stood the test of time but Phantasy Star has the advantage of being ahead of the curve in terms of features and presentation. Sega created a brilliant series that has endured the ages, why not see where it all started?

8-out-of-101

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Die Hard Arcade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Streets of Rage 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Batman Returns (Genesis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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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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Shining Wisdom

While I love the Shining Force strategy RPGs I have a love/hate relationship with the various attempts made at branching out of that genre.  Shining in the Darkness was a decent attempt at a dungeon crawler which would lead to the beyond awesome Shining the Holy Ark years later.  The Shining Soul games for GBA were decent for what they were and the less said about Shining Force Neo the better. “Hot stuff coming your way!” No, just no.  Years before those action RPGs Shining Wisdom took the series down the Zelda inspired route.  While it has some frustrating interface issues it still manages to be charming and entertaining overall.

Mars is the son of the legendary hero Sir Jiles, who saved the kingdom of Odegan once before.  Now that he has come of age Mars now has the opportunity to follow in his father’s lofty footsteps.  That chance comes very quickly as the dark elf Pazort has kidnapped the Princess Satera and plans on summoning a demon to destroy the world.  Through a series of unfortunate lies Mars ends up the only knight capable of stopping him.

The story takes place years after Shining Force 2 however this is not a direct sequel and only slightly references past events.  Unfortunately these story connections as well as other naming conventions had to be changed due to Sega refusing to allow Working Designs to use anything pertaining to localization of past games in the series.  It’s an odd decision to make but not one that affects the proceedings all that much.  Some of the character’s personalities were changed, most notably the characters Sarah and Kazin, which means nothing to those that can’t read Japanese; for “purists” the European version is closer as Sega handled that themselves.

As first impressions go Shining Wisdom does an exceptional job at dissuading you from continuing beyond the first hour.  The beginning of the game is excruciatingly slow as you are spend copious amounts of time wandering back and forth in a castle that is way too big for its own good.  The game soon picks up and consistently sends you to new locations to find equipment and items at a nice pace.  The cast of characters is actually pretty small however the story takes many turns and still manages to seem larger than it initially appears.

The similarities to Zelda can’t be denied.  It adapts the same overhead perspective and features many similar items although there are some differences.  The game’s dungeons and other locales do not follow the strict room by room structure of that game, instead opting for wide expanses that present the entire floor for you to explore.  The game is non-linear to an extent as you are only limited by the items needed to access new areas or delve further into dungeons.  That isn’t to say they don’t fall back on established tropes.  Most dungeons will have at least one new weapon that is necessary to complete it as well as simple block pushing puzzles and such.  Anyone who has played at least one entry in Nintendo’s series will be right at home here.

Since you are not gaining experience it is largely pointless to kill most enemies outside of the few random items they drop (gold, herbs, and life restoring bubbles).  Combat is actually frustrating since enemies respawn as soon as you move a few meters off screen and they can parry attacks, with no rhyme or reason as to how this is determined.  Having said that it is pretty fun to experiment later on in the game as you amass a large arsenal of weapons and items that can be combined with the various elemental orbs to create new attacks.

Shining Wisdom was originally designed for the Genesis before its last minute upgrade and it shows in its interface.   Despite the Saturn controller having six face and two shoulder buttons the game still only uses A,B, C for all of its actions, an obvious concession in case gamers did not own the Genesis six button controller.  All other buttons are simply used as secondary dash buttons.  It’s a stupid move as nearly all item use is relegated to the C button including basic attacks. As your inventory builds you’ll constantly swap items in rapid succession which gets old fast as there is a second or two of loading to leave the menu.  Even something as simple as using L+R to cycle through items would have gone a long way.

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I’m not one to harp on a game’s graphics too much but it can’t be avoided: Shining Wisdom is an ugly game.  It wears its 16-bit origins a little too strongly and certainly pales in comparison to Magic Knight Rayearth, its closest relative released around the same time in Japan.  The rendered sprites are short and fat with a heavy black outline that does them no favors.   There are some pretty imaginative locations later in the game as well as a few epic boss battles but in the end this would only been a slightly above average Genesis game in terms of graphics.  The music on the other hand is generally fantastic and benefits from the Saturn’s better sound hardware.

While there was certainly more that could have been done to take advantage of the Saturn hardware Shining Wisdom manages to overcome its flaws and slow start to become an entertaining game overall.  The main quest is of medium length however there are numerous optional labyrinths and other hidden items to find.   In that time its story and gameplay will charm the hell out of you.

7-out-of-10

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Beyond Oasis

It was a well-known fact during the 16-bit era that if you were into RPGs the SNES was the system to own.  With the likes of Square and Enix dedicating their entire output to the console the SNES was graced with some of the most legendary RPGs, no, games period, of all time.  In their absence Sega were forced to supply Genesis owners with their own home grown efforts and I must say they did them proud.  The Phantasy Star and Shining Force series were true classics and in 1995 Yuzo Koshiro and Ancient studios would grace the system with Beyond Oasis.

Prince Ali of the kingdom of Oasis spends his free time treasure hunting rather than staying cooped up in a castle.  One such expedition yields the golden armlet, an artifact that belonged to a wizard who used it to protect the world from the owner of the silver armlet.  Now that both armlets have been awakened it is only a matter of time before the two will come in conflict again.

Calling Beyond Oasis an action RPG is a slight disservice.  While it has stats it completely eschews typical RPG conventions such as experience points and leveling up.  Your hit points increase by collecting hearts dropped by random enemies and food is used to restore your health and magic.  You don’t collect any kind of currency, negating the need for shops of any kind.  All of your equipment is found out in the field and dungeons.

This might be light on the RPG aspect but it’s heavy on the action.  Beyond Oasis has more in common with Streets of Rage as Ali is graced with a large arsenal of combat techniques executed fighting game style.  This is fitting as Ancient are also responsible for that series.  The various battle techniques keep the combat from becoming stale throughout the course of the adventure.  Ali is a nimble protagonist but some of his movements like jumping take some getting used to.  If you have a six button controller the controls become even more fluid since certain actions will now have their own dedicated button.

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You’ll lean on certain techniques such as the dashing slash since Ali is equipped with a little dagger by default.  There are a large number of secondary weapons you can stash for later use but these degrade and disappear after a set number of uses.   Outside of a few hidden weapons the dagger is the only weapon you have that will never break.  It’s a bold move to force you to rely on an item with such short range but the expansive battle system is successful at shoring up its weaknesses.

The primary thrust of your various adventures around Oasis is to find the four elemental spirits used to defeat the Silver Armlet in the past.  The 4 spirits are probably BO’s most well-known gameplay element and each is equipped with a variety of spells to help you as you solve puzzles and fight enemies.  The four elementals, Dytto of water, Efreet of fire, Shade of Darkness, and Bow of Earth are summoned by blasting a part of the environment endemic to their element once collected.  So long as you’re magic doesn’t run out they will follow you and assist in attacking enemies.

That isn’t why you’ll keep them out however. Aside from using their powers in the typical ways you’d expect (extinguishing fire with water, lighting torches, etc.) they also have other benefits as well.  Dytto can heal you, Shade acts as an extra layer of armor as well as saving you from pits.  Efreet will aggressively attack any enemies that come to close to you while Bow…..actually sees the least amount of use since he can’t move far from where he has sprouted without teleporting first.  The gems collected throughout the game increase their power and reduce how fast they drain your magic meter, handy as later dungeons will require numerous spirit swaps for progression.

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Beyond Oasis is an absolutely beautiful game, with a level of detail and art direction not many games from that era can match.  Despite the top down view the stunning animation still manages to stand out.  Every sprite is larger than in most similar games and the bosses are a true sight to behold.   There’s a level of vibrancy to the game’s graphics not common on the Genesis, with the game almost resembling an SNES title at times in terms of color.  If there is a downside to the presentation it would be the soundtrack; while it isn’t terrible it’s so ambient that you’ll barely remember any of it, a far cry from Yuzo Koshiro’s other works with this sound chip.

The stellar presentation comes at a price however in the game’s length.  Whether you’re a novice gamer or a video game wizard Beyond Oasis will last a scant 5-6 hours at most before the credits roll.  Since the game is light on story you’ll spend most of your time in dungeons and the puzzles aren’t so complex that you’ll need to consult a strategy guide to progress.  There are tons of hidden rooms that will lead to extra power-up jewels as well as infinite weapons for those willing to seek them out and extend the life of the game.  These challenges probably make more use of your Spirits than the main story dungeons so for those who want to maximize their use the extra content is worth it.

There are very few action RPGs available for the Genesis and Beyond Oasis is probably in the top 3.  Had the game been double the length this would have been an absolute classic but will have to settle for exceptional.

8-out-of-101

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Burning Rangers

The last days of the Sega Saturn were a dark period for Sega of America as it meant the end of their North American presence for close to two years until the Dreamcast.  While the releases were sparse in 1998 the few titles Sega brought to market were spectacular with the likes of Shining Force 3 and Panzer Dragoon Saga still highly sought after.  Burning Rangers in the eyes of many was supposed to be the final send off with the considerable pedigree of Sonic Team behind it.  While it isn’t the absolute slam dunk it should have been it still is a solid title that shows the might under the Saturn’s hood.

Though primarily about firefighting you’ve never seen it like this.  Burning Rangers take place in a highly stylized future where its “firemen” use the latest scientific equipment to better put out blazes and rescue civilians.  As one of its two youngest recruits it is your mission to rescue as many people as possible and put out fires as they sprout on the way to completing each level.

There are very few games about firefighting even to this day and so Burning Rangers is still unique in that regard.  With Yuji Naka and Naoto Oshima behind it expectations were high but the game doesn’t quite match them.  As a technical showcase for the Saturn it succeeds but those same accomplishments are what bog the game down in the end.  However even in spite of its flaws BR is still fun to play in short bursts though it will leave you wanting more when it’s over.

As either Shou or Tillis the game’s mandatory training sequence will acclimate you to its mechanics.  Your futuristic suit is equipped with a jetpack that allows you to double jump and glide for in short spurts.  You can perform a variety of defensive maneuvers such as quick side steps and dashes but the most important is the back dash, which allows you to quickly avoid the sudden bursts of flame signaled by an alarm.

In many ways Burning Rangers has the DNA of Sonic the Hedgehog and Nights incorporated in its structure.  Players are equipped with freeze guns that turn errant fires into crystals that function like rings in Sonic.  When hit you lose all of them but have a chance to recover some and so long as you have at least one you will never die but if struck with zero crystals, game over.  Crystals are also used to transport the people you rescue.  Charging up the freeze gun will produce a larger explosion however you gain no crystals from this so it’s a balancing act, especially when it comes to managing the blaze level.

When exploring the pressure level will always tick upward and is reduced by putting out fires and saving civilians.  At every 20% a number of explosions will rock the environment and permanently raise the limit.  At 100% it’s pretty much a game over as these explosions will occur so frequently you can’t survive.  It’s pretty nerve wracking and will affect your overall grade at the end of the level.  Like Nights your performance is graded in a number of categories such as total victims evacuated, crystals collected, time to completion and how well you’ve managed the pressure overall.  It is a little bit of an incentive to go replay the levels for a higher score.

At four stages it doesn’t seem as though there is much content but each mission is absolutely huge!   So huge in fact that one of your team members will help you navigate each environment.  You don’t have to follow here directions of course and there’s plenty of fire victims waiting to be saved if you wander off the beaten path.  Sadly the game’s localization isn’t the greatest and you are frequently given the wrong directions meaning you are largely on your own in memorizing the huge maps.  While it is fun to sight see your sense of adventure has to be tempered as the pressure is always rising.

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The missions cover a number of environments with only the first being somewhat conventional.  After that you’ll visit an undersea aquarium, an abandoned space colony and one last area I’ll leave you to discover on your own.  Though you’ll mainly deal with backdrafts and the numerous colors of flame there are security drones and other malfunctioning equipment to contend with as well as bosses.  The sci-fi aspect of the game is heavily played up and makes for some spectacular set pieces such as the Zero-G segments in space and the equally spectacular surroundings of the game’s last mission.  As the environments explode in flame and transform as bridges collapse it makes for a pretty thrilling experience but one that has its fair share of problems.

If you don’t have the Saturn analog pad don’t even bother.  Navigating with the D-pad is simply too painful during extended sessions while the controls feel more natural with an analog stick.  The other issue is the camera.  Utilizing a static camera that doesn’t try to follow your movements and adjust works in the game’s tight corridors but anytime you enter a large open area it needs to be babysat far too much.  There’s no way to manually target or lock-on so you can only point in the general direction and hope for the best.

While the game’s four missions are pretty long it still doesn’t change the fact that the game is short overall and can be completed in 2-3 hours.  Earning higher scores on each mission can be fun and checking the e-mails from the people you’ve rescued (108 in total) is nice but it doesn’t make up for the lack of content.  Once completed the game will randomize each level but remixes aren’t the same as fresh new content.

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Burning Rangers garnered a lot of attention for its graphics and Sonic Team should be commended for what they were able to pull out of the Saturn but in the process they’ve literally broken the system.  The real time lighting effects are at a higher level than in most PlayStation and Saturn titles and is striking in motion.  The true hardware transparency was not thought possible on Saturn and is used extensively.  This all comes with heavy price as you can literally hear the system straining to keep it together.  There is an excessive amount of pop-up and the frame rate dips into the single digits at times.  The art direction is solid but can be ugly at times as there is a heavy level of screen tearing going on.  If they would have tempered their technical ambitions slightly this could have been something special.

It isn’t the grand finale most were expecting of one of the Saturn’s final titles but Burning Rangers is still solid.  If ever a game screamed for a remake on more powerful hardware this is it.

7-out-of-10

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Altered Beast (NES)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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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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Alien Syndrome

Somehow even as a child I knew about platform exclusivity although I’m sure I never used that phrase.  As one of the lucky few who got to play the Sega Master system on a regular basis I knew that Sega games would never appear on a Nintendo platform and vice versa.  Fast forward about 15 years later and that one sacred truth would be shattered but it actually happened even sooner than that thanks to Tengen.  Tengen published a few ports of some of Sega’s best arcade titles for the NES and while Afterburner suffered in the translation Alien Syndrome turned out pretty damn nice and was far better than its Master System counterpart.

Very little was done to hide Alien Syndrome’s obvious Alien inspired roots.  Our two protagonists resemble both Sigourney Weaver and Michael Biehn and the plot is similar.  Aliens have infested various Earth colonies and trapped the humans inside, prompting Earth to send in Ricky and Mary to rescue as many survivors as possible.  As insurance that the threat is neutralized each installation is set to blow whether you are successful or not.

Although it shares the same viewpoint as other overhead shooters such as Commando and Heavy Barrel this is closer in style to Gauntlet.  Unlike the arcade game the goal here is to save all twelve hostages rather than a set number per level.  Once that is accomplished you must find the exit before time runs out and defeat the mother alien barring your escape.

New weapons are few in number and scattered around each colony.  All three seem to deal the same amount of damage but make up for it in functionality.  The laser will pierce multiple enemies in a row but has the slowest firing speed.  It works great for your typical mutants but its lack of speed makes boss battles a grueling process since you need to hit specific body parts.  The flamethrower

With the entirety of each colony open to exploration it’s up to you to plot out the best route to finding the prisoners in as little time possible.  Compared to the coin op the levels are more compact and not as confusing in their layout but there are still points late in the game where you’ll constantly refer back to the map.  Speaking of, scattering multiple maps around the levels is a smart decision rather than forcing players to backtrack to one location.  It makes tracking your progress simpler rather than drawing your own maps.

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The difficulty curve is near perfect in my opinion as the early colonies are simple enough in their design that you’ll have plenty of time to spare even if you dick around.  By the third colony the layouts become more complex and enemies are more aggressive in following you and actually attacking.  There were more than a few times where I barely made it to the exit with about 20 seconds left on the clock.  Even with the ramp up in challenge the game still feels easy, especially since all enemies die in one shot.

The only real challenge comes from the bosses.  Here it seems as though your dude is a gimpy moron in comparison to the speedy monstrosities you face.  They move relatively fast considering their size and have very specific weakpoints that are hard to target depending on your weapon.  Whatever time you have left once you reach them is added to the clock during each boss battle and it’s possible that it won’t be enough if you have terrible aim.  They sure do look cool though.

As much as I do like the game I will admit that it’s pacing could have used a shot of adrenaline.  Your walking speed is slow and hoofing it from one end of each compound to the other is a long, laborious process with very little to keep you engaged.  Enemies rarely attack in groups larger than three and you can out run (if you’ve played the game you’re aware how silly that sounds) them if it becomes too dangerous.  They could have upped the speed a smidge without breaking the tension of the clock ticking down in my eyes and created a more interesting and diverse set of aliens to fight.

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They’ve done a fairly decent job of stuffing the arcade experience into an NES cart but the downgrades are definitely noticeable.  Most levels use a duo tone color scheme that is pretty ugly.  The sprites are smaller but the game’s credit there’s also no flickering or slowdown.  It doesn’t hold a candle to the Master system version but that game was set up more like Zelda and is completely different.  The music is also unremarkable and forgettable as are the sound effects; presentation clearly isn’t this game’s strong suit.

Even with its pacing issues and general lack of excitement Alien Syndrome is still a solid game.  It’s certainly turned out better than Shinobi and Altered Beast that’s for damn sure.

7-out-of-10

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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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Michael Jackson Moonwalker

Of all the major stars Sega signed licensing deals with in the early 90s to support the Genesis Michael Jackson was undoubtedly the biggest name possible.  This was MJ near his absolute peak in popularity; Bad was stilling enjoying success years after its release and Moonwalker had hit theaters and enjoyed success, although honestly I don’t know why.  Signing him to star in a game is one thing but how do you go about creating a game based around Michael Jackson?  Though it bears the name of the movie it’s not as if the film had an actual narrative that lent itself to awesome gameplay. Yet somehow Sega did it and while the game certainly isn’t a classic it is still enjoyable yet bizarre.

Mr. Big (who was played by Joe Pesci, ironic I guess) has kidnapped children and hidden them all around the city, leaving Michael Jackson to find them and try to catch him in the end.  Curiously all the children are girls who resemble Katie from the movie; I’m sure certain legal troubles had something to do with that but I digress.

If Michael were alive today and the game made now I’m sure it would be a generic rhythm game.  But Sega had no such luck and would have to go along a different tact.  Sega’s solution was to take the basic framework from the “movie” and a pinch of Shinobi to the proceedings.  Seriously this is Shinobi with a dancing Michael Jackson instead of a bad ass ninja.  It’s a bit shameless to copy your own work but hell why not?  This was the equivalent of a killer app and I’m sure they wanted to get something out on store shelves as soon as possible.

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Decked out in his smooth criminal garb the thought of Michael Jackson flashing a gun is so silly that I can’t imagine it.  Rather than flashy weapons you’ll take on the bad guys using what MJ is best known for; his dance moves.  Your primary offense is a kick or punch that gives off a little fairy dust as long as your life bar is 80% full.  The dance button performs a number of functions; when tapped lightly you’ll spin which can take out enemies.  Hold it down longer and you’ll spin and throw your fedora like a boomerang.  Keep it held even further and you’ll perform an ensemble dance number with all on screen enemies joining in and dying at its climax.  Using these moves takes up life but all it takes is rescuing one child to nearly refill it.

While some of the children are in plain sight most are hidden in some pretty fucked locations.  The children can be almost anywhere, behind doors, windows, in the trunks of cars (!) and even behind gravestones.  The levels are relatively compact in the early going but start to become larger in scope as you progress making it harder and harder to find the children.  The empty doors of the initial stages give way to bombs and other such oddities that will take away health, this time like Revenge of Shinobi.

Comparisons to Shinobi aside you have to admit Moonwalker is a strange game when you step back and look at its constituent parts.  Dancing around and flinging fairy dust at gangsters, zombies (yes zombies) and spiders is as silly as it gets.  There’s only one power-up, a shooting star that will appear under set conditions and will transform you into mecha Michael Jackson, able to fly around and shoot lasers.  Granted it’s useless since you can’t save kids in that form and the enemies will respawn anyway but you can at least get a feel for the levels.  Once you’ve found all the kids Bubbles will sit on your shoulder and guide you to the exit of the level where you’ll face an onslaught of thugs before continuing onward.  And in the final level you turn into a spaceship at which point the game becomes a shooter. Yes, seriously.

As solid as the controls are the game cannot overcome its repetition.  The enemy AI is beyond dumb with soldiers who have you dead to rights instead simply staring.  Because the AI lacks intelligence each level is filled with tons of them and it becomes tiring to fight the same bad guys repeatedly and it only becomes worse by the midpoint.  Even the music, and I love Michael Jackson’s hits, repeats on an endless loop.

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Speaking of the music, it’s pretty fantastic.  Each level, which is split into three parts, features one song off the Bad album and the Genesis does a pretty good job replicating each song minus the lyrics.  It’s a pretty nice audio treat for fans of the movie and album.  The backgrounds might not be all that great but the animation is spectacular, replicating Michael’s dance moves to the letter.  Unlike Atari with ET Sega spare no expense when it came to the game’s production values.

Weirdness aside Moonwalker turned out better than it probably should have given the game’s source of inspiration.  It’s still not a title that I would recommend over the platform’s best but you could certainly do worse.

6-out-of-10-1

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Cyber Speedway

Sega’s racing game history in arcades probably stretches back farther than anyone with the likes of Outrun and Hang-On putting them on the map.  They were even one of the pioneers in pushing 3d with Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter.  Their original home efforts usually didn’t receive as much fanfare. While everyone remembers Daytona and Sega Rally next to no one ever mentions Cyber Speedway (known as Gran Chaser in Japan), an early Saturn effort from the creators of Ranger-X that could be viewed as the Sega equivalent of Wipeout (before they got a version of Wipeout themselves) minus that game’s quality although it is a semi-competent game in itself.

In the future alien planets across the galaxy have decided to end all hostilities, instead airing out their grievances in the intergalactic Cyber Race tournament.  With planet Earth at “war” with Kaladasia it falls on your shoulders to represent Earth in the CR tournament and win for the sake of peace.

I’ll say right now that the story is the highest grade of cheese.  Told through cutscenes in between each race your character is the unlikely hope of humanity as he competes against rivals from each planet the Cyber Race stops.  These cutscenes, if you can call them that, are just a series of pixelly still images with hilariously bad voice acting.  Even worse than the extreme grain in the backdrops are the cut and paste character portraits layered on top of them; it’s as if someone who had just received photoshop created them with their jagged edges.

Outside of the story what about the rest of the game?  Story mode consists of five races across numerous planets.  In Standard Mode you only have to place in the top three to move on while those seeking a challenge can try Advanced where it’s come in first or go home.  With 5 continues per each leg of the tourney only the most terrible drivers won’t be able to complete the game.

Rather than cars you control sleds and all that entails.  Each planet has a unique sled with all possessing unique properties in terms of handling, speed, acceleration, cornering and such.  Aside from each crafts’s characteristics you have a number of factors you can alter prior to each race like Wave Race 64. The engine can be tuned for power or speed, steering can be adjusted to light or heavy and the pressure of the brakes can be tuned.  For those that are unsure you can leave it at neutral which at the bare minimum is workable.  The terrain of each planet poses its own challenges so tailoring your craft appropriately can yield fantastic results when done properly.

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Once you hit the track the controls aren’t perfect but manageable.  Regardless of how you’ve tricked out your sled relying on the normal brakes to power through corners is useless and the Ridge Racer school of power drifting does not exist in this game.  The air brakes will be your life line as they enable sharp, almost 90 degree turns.  Most of the tracks don’t have much in the way of really out there corkscrews and curves but considering the number of drone cars littering the track who absolutely love to ram you the air brakes are needed.  The focus is largely placed on avoiding the many obstacles that populate each track such as the large icicles of Glacies or the random fireballs of Evoflammas.  There are rockets you can use to destroy some of these as well as temporarily stop other sleds but actually hitting anything with these is a pain in the ass due to the erratic frame rate.

The functional controls are almost ruined by the game’s inconsistent frame rate however.  When you are alone or only facing one competitor it seems fine but once 3 or more cars are on screen the game starts to stutter and screw up your timing.  The “jumpiness” is noticeable and can lead to slamming into walls at the worst moments.  Each race is 5 laps long and can feel excruciatingly long and its nerve wracking to feel as though your hard earned first place run can be lost at a moment’s notice because the game can’t keep up.

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From a graphics standpoint Cyber Speedway has its moments but lacks the graphical polish and flair of Wipeout.  Famed artist Syd Mead as the visual lead and his artistic touch is evident in the design of each world.  The sleds themselves are sleek and futuristic and designed in such a way that a minimum number of polygons were used in their creation and they still look great.  The worlds themselves are full of pretty artsy elements such as the dragons and centipedes of the sky planet or the icy stalactites of Glacius.  However the game lacks the lighting effects and especially the awesome transparencies in Wipeout and it shows.  The ugly morai pattern used in Saturn games in place of true transparency is ugly and sticks out many tracks.  There’s some nasty pop-up on many of the tracks although it isn’t Daytona USA bad.  I found the game’s soundtrack to be pretty bad; it tests your patience for butt rock and is really inappropriate.

The unreliable framerate hampers the games controls but even then I’m sure most will have completed the story mode in one sitting.  Outside of Time Trials and multiplayer Cyber Speedway has no unlockable content, meaning you’ll have seen everything it has to offer in about two hours.  With better racing games on the market (and same platform) I can’t really recommend it no matter how much I wanted to like it.

6-out-of-10-1

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Quackshot starring Donald Duck

We all remember Capcom pumping out a stream of hit Disney titles during the 8-bit era followed by Virgin who also did the license proud with the likes of the Lion King and Jungle Book.  But Sega seems to be forgotten constantly when reminiscing about those halcyon days when a licensed game could be good.  With the likes of the Castle of Illusion and of course Aladdin Sega continued the tradition of Disney excellence.  One game that seems to get lost in the shuffle is Quackshot, an entertaining platformer starring Donald Duck that is usually glossed over but is one of the best licensed titles of that era.

While Uncle Scrooge is busy napping Donald uses the time to peak through his collection of books and finds a map to a hidden treasure.  With dreams of being as rich as Scrooge Donald dons his best explorer gear (a throwback to the old Carl Banks strips) and sets out to find it but not before Pete and his goons overhear his plans.

Sega’s stable of Disney games were notable for being darker and more palatable to a teen audience in terms of play mechanics than most of Capcom’s kid friendly fare.  That’s not to say that Mickey and friends are going to bust a cap in your ass; their games were more willing to put up a challenge.  It’s a fact that is evident in Quackshot’s design.   Rather than the typical platformer of the time Quackshot shares a few traits with Metroid as it has you gallivanting around the world for items needed to overcome obstacles impeding your progress and solving light puzzles.  It was a breath of fresh air when it came to these titles and allowed the game to stand the test of time beautifully.

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Donald’s primary means of offense is his plunger gun.  The plungers lack power and only stun enemies for a few seconds, something you’ll have to get used to in the early going.  Most of the upgrades you’ll receive from other characters such as Goofy and Gyro will improve its functionality so that you can use them to scale walls or attach them to birds to cross gaps.  Eventually you’ll gain ammo that can actually take out enemies in the form of the popcorn shot, which is basically a spread gun, and the explosive bubble gun.  They have secondary functions as well, such as the bubble gun’s ability to destroy certain blocks.  Ammo for these more powerful armaments is limited but is replenished frequently enough that it isn’t an issue.  The last power-up available is Donald’s legendary temper; feed him six chili peppers and he’ll fly into an invincible rage that is honestly useless despite its prominence on the HUD.  Chili peppers aren’t common so activating it happens infrequently and on top of that there are no situations where it is actually necessary as a result.

The controls are pretty solid overall but there are a few quirks you’ll have to come to grips with.  Donald doesn’t run, it’s more like a waddle that isn’t fast.  It can be tricky to line up your jumps considering you aren’t building up much momentum beforehand.  He also slides a little bit before coming to a complete stop.  The slide maneuver and the areas it’s used can lead to cheap hits as you’ll stand up sometimes when you meant to keep sliding.

Rather than progressing through each level in a linear fashion Donald has access to every country after gaining the true treasure map early on.  It’s a bit deceptive in that there’s usually some obstruction that will force you to backtrack to a different country to find an upgrade or item needed for progress so in a sense you’re kind of being led down a set path.  You can visit the 10 or so countries in whatever order you choose so you at least have some control over how you tackle the game.  It matters very little in the grand scheme however as Donald will set up a convenient checkpoint that will warp you to that spot once things are in order.  Over the course of the game you’ll accrue a decent sized inventory of items such as keys, mystic staves, and clues to the puzzles in the game.  All items have a specific purpose and will be used eventually somewhere in the game, lending to the big adventure feel.

Every country is divided into two halves, its overworld and dungeon.  The overworld is usually a short bunch of platforming sequences that will inevitably lead to someone informing you of the item needed to progress and its location.  Although brief the designers have done a good job of varying each locale; Duckburg is filled with tall buildings that require the red plungers to traverse as well as zip lines for fast travel.  Mexico is heavier on the floating platforms while the South Pole is trickier with its poor footing.

The actual dungeon portions of each country ramp up the difficulty slightly since you’ll be using nearly every item and move in your repertoire to complete them.  The level design can be maze like if you aren’t paying attention but nothing that will have you tearing your hair out.  There’s some light puzzle solving to be done and there are usually clues to their solution if you’ve been paying attention.  As a whole while Quakshot tries its best to challenge you it does fall on the easy side which isn’t a crime so long as you enjoy the ride.

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It’s pretty obvious Quackshot was made using the same “engine” as Castle of Illusion and matches that game’s visuals easily.  The worldwide trip leads to more varied environments and there are some pretty incredible vistas at every turn.  Mexico and the Southpole in particular sport up to six or seven layers of parallax backgrounds all scrolling smoothly.  The sprites are quite large and animated, especially Donald.  While the overall color palette is a bit dark the game still manages to look vibrant in spite of that due to careful use of colors.  For a game released in 1991 it still pares up favorably against some of the console’s finest.

Those who are expecting a 16-bit version of Ducktales will probably leave disappointed but for the rest of us Quackshot is an excellent platformer that manages to combine elements of some of the most popular games to create one entertaining package.

8-out-of-101

 

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Shinobi

In the inevitable transition to 3d during the PlayStation era many beloved classic franchises either went into hibernation or suffered immensely as the technology/designer’s level of skill were not up to the task of accurately representing their gameplay.  For every Super Mario 64 there was two or three Contra Legacy of Wars or Sonic 3d Blasts.  When Shinobi Legions failed to catch on Joe Musashi and company were added to the pile until 2002 when a group of wise designers within Sega decided he was ripe for a comeback.

Shinobi stars Hotsuma, a new ninja within the Oboro clan.  While Joe Musashi is missed it won’t take long before you taking a liking to this new badass.  In terms of his feel and skill set Hotsuma ranks up there with Alucard in Symphony of the Night.  There’s a level of fluid grace to all of his movements seldom seen in gaming, making the simple act of running in an environment a joy.  The ability to run along nearly every surface really opens up the levels in terms of exploration.  The series infamous double jump returns although it isn’t as much of a pain in the ass to activate.  The shuriken also appear but are now used to merely stun enemies to allow you to get in closer with your sword.

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Two of the most important gameplay mechanics added to the game are the stealth dash and Tate kills.  The stealth dash is an insanely cool technique that allows you to quickly move in a designated direction so swiftly that it leaves an after image behind.  This is probably the most important technique to master as it allows you to slip behind enemies, break through defenses and also becomes critical to the later platforming sequences.  I liken it to wall jumping in Ninja Gaiden; you won’t get far without it and it just looks so god damn cool.

Tate kills reward you for quickly stringing together multiple chain kills using the stealth dash with a brief cut scene as the enemies simultaneously die in a shower of blood while Hotsuma poses.  After the first kill has been you have a two or three second window to perform another to keep the chain going.  Aside from looking cool it generates extra souls to feed the sword Akujiki.  Early on in the game the sword awakens and will drain Hotsuma’s life if he doesn’t constantly kill to feed it.  Tate kills are the fastest method to prevent this and a further incentive to keep it sated is the increased damage with a full life bar.

As you can see the game is armed with a raft of features that make combat and traversal interesting but falls apart when it comes to level design.  Most levels follow a linear path filled with repeated architecture and enemies.  Each environment is fairly small and doesn’t leave much room for you to use some of the more interesting mechanics such as wall running.  The game is at its best when it presents you with opportunities to use your full skill set, such as executing repeated stealth dashes to cross long gaps or chain running multiple walls.  These moments are damn near picturesque when executed properly and it’s a damn shame there aren’t more of them.  A lot of this stems from the game’s Dreamcast roots; by keeping the levels small they could keep the frame rate high as groups of enemies swoop in for the attack.

Combat suffers from similar issues as the level design.  In spite of the various techniques available it isn’t until the second half of the game that you are presented with enemies that actually put up a fight.  Fighting the same zombie ninjas and dogs that are more apt to stare at you than attack becomes repetitive fast.  Contrast this with the modern Ninja Gaiden games that do an excellent job of marrying its play mechanics with suitable challenges to use them; almost any encounter can lead to death if you aren’t paying attention in those games.

That’s not to say the game isn’t challenging but mostly it’s for the wrong reasons.  All eight levels are broken down into two sections and a boss, with each lasting up to 15 minutes.  Unfortunately there are no check points, requiring you to more than likely play through each multiple times.  If the level design were more interesting it wouldn’t be such a chore but running down the same hallway 8 times per level gets old fast.  Late in the game you’ll encounter foes that require you to break their guard using a Tate kill, a feat that becomes increasingly difficult when 8-10 of the bastards swarm like killer bees.  Most of the bosses also have this requirement, with lesser adds spawning to give you chance to build up your attack power.

The bosses are the highlight of the entire package and are a throwback to prior games in the series.  Deducing their attack pattern and pulling off a near perfect kill for a high rank is a fun challenge along the lines of Devil May Cry.  Shirogane and Akagane present an interesting challenge in terms of prioritization while the four armed Buddha statue is a lightning spewing beast.  Keeping Akujiki at full power is the key to surviving these encounters although I will say that if you can defeat the final boss without tearing your hair out or cheating you are truly a god amongst men.

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Shinobi certainly didn’t win awards for its graphics at release and it’s only gotten worse as the years have passed. The art direction is solid; Hotsuma is well designed as a modern day ninja with some trace elements of the past.  His scarf is insanely pretty to watch as it trails your movements and the destroyed Tokyo streets and various temples all have a unique look but the cut and paste environments ruin the illusion.  Most character models have low polygon counts that are noticeable at times although later bosses buck that trend.  The sacrifice in detail allows the game to run at a high frame rate which you’ll notice immediately as the controls are ultra-responsive.  The soundtrack is excellent all around and continues the series musical legacy.

Though it stumbles at times Shinobi is a solid reimagining of the series.  There are a ton of extras, from art work to 3 more playable characters.  If you stick with it you’ll be rewarded with a challenging and long quest that will truly test your skills while staying true to the series foundation.

7-out-of-10

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Guardian Heroes

By the mid-90s beat ‘em ups had run their course in terms of popularity.  The once popular side scrolling brawler could not bear the burden of mediocrity that had infected the genre on the 16-bit platforms.  Most of these games were content to implement the bare minimum in terms of play mechanics with no innovation and even the standard bearer at the time, Final Fight, suffered in the process.  Ironically Capcom’s own Dungeon & Dragons series was exactly what the genre needed.

Along came Treasure who in one fell swoop created one of the best brawlers of all time, Guardian Heroes.  And it was their first Saturn game!  Guardian Heroes took the best of every game that came before it, the RPG mechanics of River City Ransom, the branching paths in Final Fight 3, and combined it with a battle system with more depth than most fighting games to create a game that is more fun every time you play it.  It didn’t receive the popularity and sales it deserved due to the Saturn’s fortunes in the US but thanks to its recent rerelease on XBLA a new generation of gamers can experience greatness at its finest.

The spirits of Earth and Sky waged war long ago and in an effort to win the war the Sky spirits granted humans the use of magic.  The Earth spirits were defeated however in fear the Sky spirits imprisoned the new wizards along with them.  One of these wizards, Kanon manages to escape and take over the kingdom in secret to search for the legendary sword said to be able to end his reign.  Four warriors (Han, Ginjirou, Randy and Nicole) have found the legendary sword but before they can celebrate their success Serena, a former knight informs them that the knights of the kingdom are coming for it in force, enveloping them in the struggle between the Wizard kingdom and the true royal family.

Every character has their strengths and weaknesses but you have the opportunity to fix their flaws or enhance their strengths through leveling up.  You gain one point per level gained and at the end of each stage can assign points to strength, defense, agility, vitality, magic and luck.   The maximum level you can reach is 200 but that won’t happen in one session.  Technically you can completely ignore a character’s given niche, such as building up Randy’s strength rather than spell power but honestly that would be dumb.  Don’t put so much stock in my words however, the system is there for you to explore!

At first the sheer chaotic nature of the game’s combat will seem overwhelming.  In the opening moments of the game as many as 6-8 enemies will attack at once, a far cry from the days of two antagonists assailing you with one waiting their turn for an ass whipping.  Guardian Heroes uses a three plane system similar to some of the Fatal Fury 3 to help manage the ensuing chaos.  It takes a few minutes to adjust especially as the enemies will use it to their advantage and flank you.  It quickly becomes second nature to switch lanes and wait for them to follow or to take a breather.  Some of the most devastating spells in the game can only be avoided this way; if you’re unfortunate enough to face the likes of Kanon G. Grey you won’t survive unless you use this tactic.

Every character has an array of special moves with different priorities depending on whether you’ve used a weak or strong attack.  Special moves are executed using Street Fighter style commands and in fact the controls are near identical to a fighting game.  Han is powerful but slow with most of his attacks knocking back enemies and inflicting large slices of damage.  His overwhelming strength covers up his near lack of magic.  Ginjirou has average strength but excellent speed making him a combo powerhouse in concert with his selection of spells.  Randy is fun to use since you’ll focus almost exclusively on his spells which is in contrast to Nicole, whose magic is purely defensive.  It sounds lopsided in favor the melee combatants but using your Undead companion to shore up your weaknesses is key.  The only issue is finding a moment to bring up his command menu in the heat of battle.

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The single most important skill you’ll learn when playing Guardian Heroes is crowd control.  Most stages are only a few minutes long but in that time you’ll face upwards of 20-30 enemies total, sometimes as many as 10 at once.  Prioritizing the largest threat will go a long way towards staying alive and it doesn’t always pay to be a hero.  The undead hero is invincible so there’s no shame in hanging back and letting him do some of the work for you.  Just as you can string together a long series of combos and clear the screen in moments it’s possible to be the victim of a chain of juggling attacks that can wipe you out with no chance to retaliate which is unfair.  That’s perhaps the game’s only major flaw; it shows little restraint in regards to its insanity and can be hard to keep up with.  It sucks to waste your limited continues due to random string of cheap attacks; the large mechs and trolls will be the bane of your existence.

Those that master the battle system will be rewarded with a long quest by genre standards that takes close to two or three hours to complete the first time through.  The game has insane replay value through its multiple paths and endings.  There are thirty stages total but you’ll only see nine or ten each run.  After certain levels you are presented with three to five choices as to how to proceed with each one affecting the eventual outcome.  Depending on your choice of hero and the paths you take you’ll face one of five final bosses and receive one of seven endings.  To see everything will take at least 10 hours which is more than you can say about most brawlers in general.

Once you’ve exhausted all of the single player content the multiplayer mode offers a ton of variety as nearly every enemy you’ve come across in the Story mode becomes playable for up to six people.  Having said that it doesn’t resemble anything you would call balanced but for the number of options available it’s fun in a Super Smash Brothers manner.

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Guardian Heroes’ graphics have a unique look that no other game can match.  The graphics are heavily pixelated since all of the sprites need to scale from the distant background to the foreground.  It’s off putting at first but the level of detail poured into the animation and special attacks makes up for it. The spell effects become a problem when magic is used by more than two or three characters, engulfing the screen in pyrotechnics and making you lose sight of your character.  The character designs were done by the same artist as Gunstar Heroes with a few villains making a cameo.  The huge limbs/small joints combo is certainly weird but unique and gives the game its own visual identity.  The music uses a wider range of instruments than what was possible on the Genesis and is generally excellent.

What more is there to say about Guardian Heroes?  It takes the beat ‘em up genre and gives it a swift kick in the ass, showcasing more inventive play mechanics and ideas than the majority of these games combined.  Not only is it one of the best Saturn games of all time but one of the brightest stars in the genre next to Streets of Rage 2 and Double Dragon.

9-out-of-10

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Space Harrier

It’s safe to say that Space Harrier was one of the most popular arcade games of the 80s.  With its impressive use of Sega’s Super Scaler technology and unique viewpoint there wasn’t anything else quite like it.  It would inspire a few similar games on competing formats such as Square’s 3-D World Runner but honestly there’s nothing better than the original.

Naturally ports were soon to follow but that presented an issue: no console or computer at the time could compete with the arcade game’s tech so hefty sacrifices would need to be made.  Space Harrier was ported to nearly every format known to man at the time with varying degrees of quality.  The most popular port at the time would for the Sega Master System.   For its time it was a more than adequate adaptation, retaining much of the look but at a slower speed.  The numerous computer formats around at the time were bigger in Europe than the US so few were ever able to sample these…..quirky versions.  Like Altered Beast before it the Famicom would also see its own rendition that is better left unspoken of.  It would be the Turbo Grafx-16 version that fared best and would be the best console version for a long time.

The best technology in the world means nothing if it isn’t used properly and in this regard Sega has gifted Space Harrier with some of the most bizarre collections of alien creatures you can imagine.  The cyclopean wooly mammoth you see in all of the game’s press material only scratches the surface giant mushrooms, space squids and flying Moai heads along with a smattering of giant robots and other technological craft.  Each of the game’s 18 or so levels has its own color scheme and background elements to set them apart with the checkerboard pattern used for the ground and sometimes sky being one of the game’s most distinctive elements.

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The gameplay of Space Harrier is remarkably simple.  As the Harrier you run or fly through the many imaginative worlds on display to defeat the alien invaders threatening the inhabitants of each world.  There are no power-ups or items of any kind to collect meaning you’ll have to make do with the simple blaster you start with.  Viewed from a third person perspective you can either run along the ground or fly anywhere on the screen as enemies pour in from all sides.  It’s like playing After Burner with a dude instead of an aircraft essentially.

Aside from the scaled sprites Space Harrier’s most notable aspect is its speed.  The game is fast, almost too fast in my opinion.  You’ll fight with the environment just as much as aliens as the terrain shifts and background objects scale in at ridiculous speeds.  Nearly everything in the game is destructible, something you’ll have to take advantage of in order to survive longer than a few seconds at any given moment.  In most cases you’ll only have a scant second or two to move if a unbreakable pillar or rock is coming your way.  Since you don’t collect items there’s really no point to trying to blow up everything in your path aside from boosting your score and maybe gaining an extra life.

As you’ve probably discerned by now this is not an easy game and most of it stems from unavoidable factors.  You can only take one hit before death and at the blinding speeds some of the later levels run at death comes in rapid succession.  With skill you’ve eventually learn how to manage the chaos on screen but a life bar or some other mitigating factor would have made this a fairer proposition.  Part of the game’s high challenge also comes from the viewpoint.  The Harrier is a large sprite and due to the scaling it’s very easy to misjudge exactly where a projectile or approaching enemy will come from.  It’s very easy to misjudge and end up dead in the process.  The control has also taken a hit but this was inevitable.  The arcade unit used an analog flight joystick for movement, something that no home console at the time could replicate.  This version is serviceable but the difference in movement speed is noticeable for any veteran of the coin op.

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This version of the game retains much of the arcade game’s look and fares better than the Master system port.  The choppiness inherent in that version is pretty much gone leading to a far smoother experience overall.  The increase in color is also notable as well.  It isn’t perfect however and there are times when some background element will seemingly pop up out of nowhere and kill you.  Perhaps the biggest downgrade in the visuals would be the missing checkerboard pattern used on the ground for each stage.  It sounds minimal but it went a long way towards making each new level visually distinct.  The fact that even the pathetic Famicom version managed to include it stings a bit and makes me question why it was even removed.

Back in 1989 this version of Space Harrier was exceptional but has since been eclipsed by perfect conversions on more powerful platforms.  As much as I like Space Harrier it is a simple game that becomes repetitive despite its short length and one that I don’t think will hold most gamer’s attention for very long.

6-out-of-10-1

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Golden Axe: the Duel

Sure why not?  Everyone else was doing it.  Golden Axe: the Duel is another in the long line of franchises that ditched their original genre and took to the streets to settle their differences.  After the dismal Golden Axe 3 I suppose anything is an improvement.  The Duel is a decent Street Fighter that simply isn’t good enough.  Around the time of its release SNK were firing on all cylinders with the King of Fighters series and their other fighting game franchises, Capcom had unleashed Street Fighter Alpha, and I haven’t even mentioned the 3d fighting games that were emerging.  Sega could easily have ported Revenge of Death Adder to the Saturn rather than creating this decent but derivative fighting game.  Ultimately that is the Duel’s biggest flaw; it tries to cram in so many features from other games that it doesn’t have an identity of its own.

Years have passed since Death Adder threatened the world during his reign of terror.  But just as soon as the memories of those times have passed a magical axe is discovered, sparking a new war for its power.  With the promise that this new Golden Axe can grant anything its owner desires 10 combatants step up to see who will ultimately possess the weapon and have their heart’s desire granted.

Thematically and stylistically the Duel resembles Samurai Shodown on more than one front.  It features the same scaling technique when fighters are further apart, it’s primarily a weapons based fighter, and some of the roster wouldn’t look out of place in SNK’s slasher, most notably Green and Jamm.  I don’t fault Sega from patterning the game after such a bonafide classic.  Samurai Shodown practically revolutionized the genre with its weapons based combat and slightly historical roster.  The similarities end there however.

Although you don’t get to choose any of the familiar Golden Axe heroes their descendants have picked up the slack.  Kain Blade takes after Stern Blade and is analogous to Ryu and Ken.  Milan Flare is a lot like Chun Li and the rest of the cast falls into some of the same tropes.  Having said that there are a few that have a unique play style such as Keel and Zoma with their magic. There are a few that are call backs to some of the popular enemies from the series; Panchos resembles the hulking twin bosses in the first stage of the original Golden Axe and Death Adder is…Death Adder.  It’s not as though the series had a long line of memorable characters to draw from so in that respect I think Sega did a good job of creating a cast that fits within the Golden Axe universe.

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With the same familiar six button setup if you’ve played nearly any fighting game over the last decade or two you can jump right in.   Although the controls are responsive the combat doesn’t have the necessary “flow” that you would expect from a top tier title.  Stringing together a series of well-timed blows to form combos feels more like an accident than natural result of the combat system.  The game’s slow speed is the culprit in my opinion.  The original arcade release came in late 1994, still a year or two away from the manic Vs. series.  But even taking that into consideration you have to remember the 16-bit renditions of Street Fighter 2 Turbo and Super Street Fighter offered various speed settings and accommodated gamers of all stripes.  The few speed settings available do little to make combat feel fluid with the game still maintaining the same lethargic pace.  The computer’s AI can be cheap at times but nothing that will result in controller throwing rage.

The game’s sole original feature is a nod to the series roots.  The sneaky little elves that would steal your items between levels make an appearance throughout each match.  By kicking them they drop potions or meat to restore life. Collecting five potions allows you to power up and dole out massive damage and activate your super move.  The elves are a constant presence so that either you or the computer can take advantage of this feature with regularity.  A well-timed power boost can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat but the same applies to the AI.

Despite this The Duel is amazingly light on options.  There’s only the standard arcade mode and a versus mode to beat up on your friends.  Even in 1996 this was spartan.  Tekken 2 was released the same year with a ton of extra characters, an extended practice section and numerous versus modes.  With no hidden characters, artwork or any other unlockables the game is only interesting for an hour or two before you’ve seen all it has to offer.

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The game’s content (or lack of) is disappointing but the visuals aren’t.  These are some of the largest 2d sprites from that era and each are exquisitely animated.  The backgrounds are excellently drawn and feature some minor bits of fan service for those looking closely.  The special effects when performing super moves are the game’s graphical highlight.  What isn’t are the ugly pixelated closeups when the game decides to zoom in to better capture the action.

Golden Axe the Duel was originally released in the arcade like Return of Death Adder so there was the possibility of a perfect conversion of that gem.  Why Sega chose to convert this ho hum fighting game that lacked the features and graphics of its competition at the time (Street Fighter Alpha & King of Fighter’s ’95) we’ll never know but it stings knowing there was a far superior game begging for a home port.

5-out-of-101

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Ranger-X

I wonder how many are aware how badly Sega of Japan was trounced overseas during the 16-bit era.  While the Genesis fought neck and neck with the SNES in America in Japan it was a distant third.  While most of the most popular third parties would eventually develop for the system due to its status in the US, the situation forced Sega to create partnerships with smaller, lesser known developers to create exclusive games.  This resulted in many fantastic, genre defining games that sadly went unnoticed due to bad advertising (or a lack thereof).  One such case was Ranger-X, a phenomenal side scrolling action game with more creativity than the majority of its competition combined.

The Homeworld has been invaded by a legion of Edgezone terrorist, who unleash a series of plagues and mechanical creatures on the populace. Outfitted in the high tech Ranger-X mech suit it falls on your shoulders to clear each area and save Homeworld.

Where did Ranger-X come from?  Like Gunstar Heroes it seemed to come completely out of left field from an unknown developer.  No one had heard of Gau Entertainment but those of us fortunate enough to Ranger-X would certainly keep an eye out for their future works.  Despite the game’s quality Sega of America were too busy promoting their terrible FMV Sega CD lineup in 1993 so it flew under the radar with other 16-bit legends such as Shinobi III and Gunstar Heroes.

Although it has the styling’s of a typical side-scroller Ranger-X is anything but.  The path to the end of each level is rarely a straight line and in most cases there are primary targets that need to be eliminated in the order of your choosing.  In many ways its similar to the Assault Suit series of games, with the same mind numbing difficulty and all.

There’s a wealth of play mechanics that are fully explored within the confines of the games’ 7 levels.  The default control scheme might take some getting used to; you can fire in both directions but need to press a button to change the direction you’re facing.  The suit is equipped with a jet pack for flying and hovering but will gradually overheat with continued use, necessitating a brief stop on solid ground to recharge.

Perhaps the greatest tool in your arsenal is the two armored vehicles that assist you in each level.  The Ex-Up Indra is a motorcycle that your suit can combine with to form one unit that has a mix of the pair’s abilities, such as long jumping and homing fire.  As a bonus those with six button controllers can control Indra using the X and Z buttons independently.  The Ex-Up Eos is a mobile aircraft carrier that only appears in a few levels but aside from docking to switch weapons is useless.  It randomly fires lasers at moving targets but with no way to directly control it is more of an afterthought.

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In combination with the Ex units the levels have a wide range of gameplay variety.  Almost every mission seems as though it were designed to highlight some aspect of the gameplay and does so brilliantly.  Mission 4 is a vertical ascent outside a high rise building, forcing you to manage your thrusters to avoid dropping to the beginning of the level consistently.  There are convenient floating platforms to recharge when needed but between the constant barrage of enemy mechs and the need to stay on the move (it’s a long, slow climb to the top!) it tests your resolve.

Missions 2 and 3 will challenge you to pay attention to recharging your weapons lest you end up with no means of offense.  All weapons recharge in light, with mission 2’s underground cavern providing numerous sun shafts to those who closely examine the level layout.  As an added bonus the light will also destroy weaker enemies with enough contact.  Mission 3 takes place both in the sky and on the ground.  Your targets all reside in the forest but the dense trees prevent sunlight from reaching you, forcing a retreat to the Eos to recharge.

When taken as a whole Ranger X is more difficult than most are probably used to.  Even on Easy the attacks rarely stop and life restoring recharge stations are only available on a few stages.  With limited continues you won’t finish this in one evening.  While the controls eventually become intuitive it takes time to get to that point.  I feel the game’s overall quality trumps the more advanced difficulty but some might feel otherwise.

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You can complain the game is too hard but absolutely no one can whine about the presentation.  Ranger X stretches the boundaries of what you think the Genesis is capable of and is one of the most technically impressive games for the system.  Every level opens with a wire frame model of the map that simulates polygons pretty effectively.  Through smart use of the Genesis’s limited color palette the game has a level of vibrancy that is nearly unmatched by any other game on the platform.  The line scrolling effect used on the floors in Street Fighter 2 has been applied to some of the backgrounds, giving them a warping sense of 3d depth I can barely describe.  All of this technical tomfoolery would mean nothing without good art and Ranger X is no slouch in that department as well, especially the bosses.  Any way you look at it this is the complete package visually.

Outside of the high challenge there is no reason any fan of action games should pass up Ranger X.  With its varied gameplay, exceptional graphics, and decently lengthy quest there are few action games for the Genesis that meet its level of quality.  While Sega’s lack of promotion meant it went unnoticed by the general populace now is the time to unearth this lost classic.

8-out-of-101

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Dragon Force

I wasn’t always a fan of strategy games, I‘ll freely admit to that.  I was raised in a simpler time where big dumb action movies starring Sly and Schwarzenegger were released practically every week.  The games of the time reflected that leaving me with little reason to flex my brain muscles.  But as I became an older and wiser gamer games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Ogre Battle gave me a new appreciation for the strategic gameplay.  But it was Dragon Force that would truly make me a fan of the genre.  To this day it still remains one of the best strategy RPGs ever made.

Long ago the world of Legendra was saved from disaster from the evil god Madruk by the star dragon Harsgalt.  His chosen warriors, the Dragon Force let their pride and personal disputes get in the way of their alliance, leaving the dragon to face Madruk alone.  Lacking the power to destroy him Harsgalt instead sealed him away to one day be destroyed by a new Dragon Force should the need arise.

300 years later Legendra is governed by 8 monarchs.  The peace enjoyed throughout the world is shattered when Fandaria’s Goldark declares war on the rest of the world, spurring the remaining seven into action.  But this is just the beginning of a much larger threat as Madruk has begun to stir….

Although the premise is strong enough to propel the game ultimately Dragon Force isn’t story heavy.  The important story bits occur only when you’ve subdued one of the eight members of the DF and at other set points within the game closer to the end.  Every ruler has a few character and story events  that are unique to their quest which avoids making replaying the game monotonous.  Working Designs did an excellent job instilling some amount of personality into each general, no small feat considering the sparse dialogue they have and their jokes are well timed.

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Dragon Force is unlike any other strategy game you’ve ever played barring Brigandine, an obscure PlayStation release I doubt most have heard of.  Initially you can choose from any of 6 monarchs who all occupy a certain region of the map.  All leaders have 5 generals and 3 castles to start and the object of the game is to unite the Dragon Force, which basically means taking over each kingdom the order left to your devices.  Some emperors have it tougher than others; Leon is situated in the middle of the continent and will have to fend off attacks from all sides to expand.  Mikhal is on the border of Fandaria and Tradnor, making it tough to branch out since he is attacked relentlessly.  Conversely Junon is located to the far north and can see an encroaching force coming a mile away, not that most will bother to come that far.

The game is split into two halves.  The Risk style world map can be scrolled to observe each region, something you’ll want to do as every kingdom has the same goal and will make their own moves to accomplish them.  It’s fascinating to watch as nation tries to muscle in other territories and observe the wins and losses since it can benefit you at the same time.  Waiting for the moment that say Leon is left with one castle and no generals will make your job easier.  This is only scratching the surface of the depth available.

The administration phase will occur every 10-15 minutes and will freeze everything as you hold court.  Here you can bestow awards on your generals, increasing the max number of troops they can command as well as keeping their loyalty.  You can speak to each general to see their state of mind and suss out who is currently thinking of leaving or which castles to search as well as try and recruit any captives you might have picked up in the field.  Lastly you can search your castles for items and weapons to pass out.  There is no limit during this phase and once you’ve built up a sizable number of generals it does become tedious but beneficial to take your time and do everything.

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With over 150 Generals in the game many share the same sprite but that’s for a reason beyond budgetary concerns.  All generals have a class that informs their special abilities.  These special abilities can turn the tide of battle when used correctly and have to be taken into consideration when choosing who to face off against.  A spirit user might be terrible in a duel but can decimate your troops with a spell such as holy shield; ninjas can completely shut down mages with assassin star, etc.  Class also plays a factor if a battle comes down to a duel.  Dragons and samurai make excellent duelists while any magic user will most likely lose.

Attacking or defending a castle will initiate combat.  Its’ very Street Fighter like in its presentation, allowing you to choose which general to face the current opponent, the battle quotes, and the timed combat functioning as a sort of round system.  Should both sides use up all of their soldiers it becomes a duel.  You can either choose to fight without any direct control or retreat which might lead to that unit’s capture.  Once the timer runs out in a battle it’s a draw with both characters unavailable for the remainder of combat.

All generals and leaders command a particular set of troops, be it soldier, monks, mages, archers, cavalry, harpies, samurai and dragons.  There’s a hierarchy of strengths and weaknesses between all types, with dragons at the top.  Samurai for instance decimate dragons while mages drop harpies like a knife through butter.  Not that these can’t be subverted of course; with the right battle formation it’s entirely possible for 20 soldiers to destroy 60 beastmen with few casualties.

Speaking of formations, there’s an almost overwhelming number at your fingertips once battle starts.  The different forms under defense and offense will grant bonuses to your troops such as increased strength or speed.  Depending on the formation an enemy chooses different options become available such as squad or breach.  There isn’t any one formation that will assure victory every time and in fact choosing incorrectly can and will have disastrous results.  You can issue commands on the fly so long as you don’t choose melee, which turns your army into a free for all.

Perhaps Dragon Force’s greatest strength is its accessibility.  The game’s menus and presentation belie its depth. You start off with a small but capable force and the game eases you into its mechanics.  As your army grows in size it becomes much easier to send out smaller forces to seize new castles.  Not to say that the game is easy but unless your emperor is killed in battle you’ll never see the game over screen.  I mentioned that there isn’t a set strategy that you can use to win every battle but there is one or two that prove a bit too effective in 90% of the battles you’ll come across.  Towards the end of the game once you’ve conquered most of the known world it does feel a bit routine as you invade other lands but I’d prefer that to feeling like an underdog every time considering the military might I’ve built up.

And the replay value is completely off the charts!  Playing the game as a different member of the Dragon Force will give you a new perspective on certain events and in combination with their starting zone a somewhat different experience.  Once you’ve completed the game once the last two emperors become available and will change your views about the true nature of the “war” being raged in Legendra.  Exploring out of the way locations on the world map will yield hidden characters or items with some unique to each scenario.  While your first play through might take 15-20 hours based on the fact that you’ll need time to come to grips with the game’s numerous systems as well as constantly taking and defending strongholds each subsequent run will only take a third of that time.  When the game is this good its more than worth it and most of all fun to play it multiple times.

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The Saturn was designed to be a 2d powerhouse and Dragon Force makes ample use of its power.  Watching as 200 mid-sized sprites clash is still impressive today without a hint of slowdown.  The spell effects are pleasing to the eye without being over the top.  There’s some pixelization going on in the backgrounds and sprites but considering the scale of the battles you won’t even care.  The cut scenes use high quality 2d art and there’s quite a bit of it illustrating the most important story bits.  Between the 8 characters that’s a lot of artwork.  The game also has an incredible and varied soundtrack but sparse voice work.

There’s no question in my mind that Dragon Force is one of the best strategy Rpgs ever released.  For the amount of depth the game offers it is accessible to nearly anyone with even a slight interest in the genre.  Unfortunately it’s hard to find as Working Designs no longer exists. The PS2 re-release never hit our shores so prepare to possibly pay a high amount to sample gaming greatness.  I don’t know what your pricing threshold is but I can guarantee Dragon Force is worth your while.

9-out-of-10

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Shinobi

Jesus what a terrible game.  Shinobi in the arcade was hugely popular and one of Sega’s biggest quarter crunchers of the time.  The original arcade game was markedly different from the exclusive home console Shinobi games, resembling Rolling Thunder more than the straight up action games on the Genesis.  It saw many home ports to nearly every computer format you can imagine and in a surprising twist was released on the NES through Tengen.  They really shouldn’t have bothered as the NES version is a truly awful piece of crap.

The criminal organization known as Zeed have been kidnapping children all around the world and Joe Musashi is here to save the day.  Shinobi was just in time to cash in on the ninja craze of the 80s and was a decent clone of Namco’s Rolling Thunder, proving that the two companies were guilty of copying each other long before Virtua Cop/Time Crisis in the mid-90s.

Why Sega would go nuts and grant a license to release some of their most cherished properties of the time on a competing platform is a mystery.  Tengen were responsible for all of the NES versions of Sega games and each was poorly programmed and instantly recognizable by the oversized black cartridges.  The entire Tengen saga is interesting to read about but if you want more insight as to the behind the scenes this episode of Retronauts explains it all: www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3/podcast.the1upnetwork.com/flat/Retronauts/R041610.mp3

Admittedly I was never a fan of Shinobi; the stop and go action didn’t jive with what a ninja was supposed to be in my eyes back then.   Silly, I know.  The NES port of Shinobi is based on the Master System version, itself a well done conversion considering the hardware differences.  However due to incompetency, lack of skill, and the weaker hardware it turned out worse and qualifies as one of the worst games of all time.

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 Split up into 5 stages with numerous sub levels the goal of each stage is to find the kidnapped children and reach the exit in one piece.  “Find” is a bit too strong a description as they are all in plain sight.  Rather than a straight action romp Shinobi borrows from Rolling Thunder.  All enemies are deliberately placed and there are numerous boxes and other such objects to take cover behind and wait to attack.  Like that game you can jump between multiple levels to avoid enemies or grab items.  The level design was above average in the way certain enemies were placed and how you would try and deal with them without getting hit.

The NES version is missing a significant chunk of all of this, to the point where it’s almost a different game.  All of the secondary weapons are missing, leaving you to rely on shuriken and basic kicks to survive.  You can only fire a single projectile at once, which impacts the game severely.  Most levels consist of wide open spaces leaving the enemies in plain sight.   As long as you crouch and walk you’ll avoid getting hit the majority of the time.  The awesome vertical scrolling levels of the arcade game have been redesigned as horizontal stages.  Why all of these changes were made is a mystery as they were completely unnecessary.

The epic boss battles of the arcade have made it over but not without flaws.  The one projectile limit makes these fights nearly impossible, especially the battle against the Black Turtle helicopter.  Although the number of ninja attacking has been capped at 3 they move so fast and unpredictably that you’ll be bounced around and die without a chance to fight back.  Even worse you can’t see your life bar during the fight either.  The hit detection on each boss is so terrible that that it’s impossible to discern whether you are hitting the correct target or not.  Wailing on a massive demon for minutes at a time with no feedback is not fun at all.

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As if ruining the bosses weren’t enough the game is ungodly ugly as well.  The color choices chosen to replicate the arcade’s graphics are so far off the mark it’s unbelievable.  Joe Musashi does not resemble his arcade counterpart in the slightest and looks like a generic army grunt.  The music is an affront to your eyes with its one looping music track and grating sound effects.  Nearly all of the unlicensed Tengen games were in a special class of terrible but Shinobi is in a league of its own.

Normally at this point I would say don’t buy this under any circumstances but like most of the black Tengen carts it’s in short supply and the few that are out there are priced so high no one will bother.   As well they shouldn’t.

4-out-of-101

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Gungrave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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Shinobi Legions


Coming off the heels of Shinobi III Sega basically could do no wrong when it came to the ninja action genre.  They OWNED that shit.  After creating what could be viewed as the quintessential action game of the 16-bit era they had a tall order on their hands in terms of one upping themselves.  Just how do you follow up a game that good?  With the 32X and Saturn on the horizon there were many options on the table but it’s safe to say no one expected them to go the digitized route in creating Shinobi Legions.

Kazuma, Sho, and Aya are three adopted students raised as siblings and trained in ninjitsu.  When Kazuma becomes power hungry and leaves Sho and Aya remain and learn the ultimate technique of their art.  Years later Kazuma returns with an army and kidnaps Aya in a bid to learn the secrets from his adopted relatives.

Why Sega of Japan went with digitized sprites in their first and only Saturn outing for the franchise will forever remain a mystery.  I suppose they wanted to show off the system’s strengths but could have done a better job with hand drawn art.  This was 1995 and while Mortal Kombat and digitized graphics were still en vogue the procession of terrible FMV games that killed the Sega CD in the US still lingered, so much so that Sega of America passed on releasing this.  I suppose one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and Vik Tokai would pick it up but I question whether they should have bothered.

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While it might seem similar to Shinobi III on the surface the gameplay focus has shifted to sword play rather than the heavy shuriken tossing of prior games.  Now that the sword has its own individual button it opens up a number of new gameplay possibilities.  You can reflect projectiles with the right timing and there are a number of sword techniques to break up the monotony of melee combat.  Shuriken are almost completely useless since they are weak and in rare supply.

The melee heavy gameplay would actually work if the game didn’t feel so slow.  There’s a sense of clumsiness to Sho’s movements and the game in general lacks the responsiveness established by prior games.  While the katana techniques try to add variety they don’t make up for the elements that were scrapped; the 4 or 5 ninjitsu spells have been paired down to one and the POW item that massively boosted your attack power is replaced with a Bushido Blade, which oddly creates shadowy Buddha statues when swung.

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Any of this seem familiar?

The level design frankly is poor and comes across as pandering to longtime series fans, especially the later ones that are call backs to Revenge of Shinobi and Shinobi III.  Most levels drag on longer than they should and don’t have the assets necessary to pull it off, resulting in the same background elements being recycled three to 4 times in succession.  You’ll cover a lot of familiar territory such as a forest, bio lab, ancient Japanese temples but they look a bit silly and dated due to the digitized graphics.

The graphics never seem to come together as a cohesive whole.  The digitized actors might look impressive but animate like puppets on a string.  The costumes certainly don’t help either and come across as cheap.  The enemies in general are a disappointment; the human opponents are passable but anytime the designers throw in supernatural elements that don’t exist the dichotomy is instantly noticeable.  The dinosaur in the bio lab and the demon that follows are prime examples of elements that don’t gel.

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I will say the backgrounds have their moments and are the best parts of the overall visual package.  There are a few genuine points where you’ll stop and marvel at their photo realism despite the low resolution.  The digital process had only been used on sprites for the most part to this point so seeing another implementation of the technology was welcome even if it was short lived.

The cut scenes more than anything else are the most egregious misstep.  The production values are below TV standards with bad costumes and fight choreography abounds.  It’s on the same level as an old episode of Power Rangers just to give you an idea.  The dialogue was left untouched and is subtitled which for a game released in 1995 was a ballsy move.  I don’t speak Japanese so I won’t comment on the acting but considering the rest of the package I’ll err on the side of caution and say is bad.

Shinobi Legions isn’t a completely bad game but comes across as sloppy.  Had the gameplay been tightened than the issues with the presentation could be overlooked but as is this is a case of a good ideas executed wrong.

6-out-of-101

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Zombie Revenge


In the mass exodus to 3d one genre that was oddly left behind was the side scrolling beat em up.  Once as prolific as the shmup outside of a few notable exceptions such as Guardian Heroes and Fighting Force no one seemed interested in exploring its conventions outside of Sega.  As they had done previously with Streets of Rage Sega took brawlers to new heights with Die Hard Arcade and used that expertise in the creation of Zombie Revenge.

The government has decided to bolster their army by using the dead using a system called U.D.S (Undead Soldier).  Unfortunately an unknown force throws that plan in disarray and within a year cities are over run by zombies.  Three AMS agents, Stick Breitling, Rikiya Busujima and Linda Rotta are sent to eliminate the leader of the zombie rebellion, known only as Zed.

Zombie Revenge is a spinoff of the House of the Dead series but outside of the AMS agency and zombies the two series have nothing in common.  With a large number of moves per character, an insane amount of weapons to smash heads with, and a number of original modes the only thing stopping Zombie Revenge from excellence is exactly what it was made to be: an arcade game.  As such it brings with it all that entails, cheap hits, insane damage ratios, and a short quest.  Had some of these flaws been worked out this would be a top tier game that I would recommend to everyone; as it is I can only do so with certain reservations.

Like most beat em ups each protagonist specializes in a different area, be it Lisa’s increased damage with guns or Busujima’s hand to hand expertise.  Stick is the stereotypical well rounder for those too neurotic to simply make a choice and stick with it.  Since you’ll always have a hand gun by default knowing when to go straight up melee or shoot it out is key to survival.  Your choice of character makes little difference in the game’s arcade mode but they each come into their own in the various Original modes added to the game.

The game’s combat mechanics are solid and extremely deep.  Aside from blocking and rolling there are a huge number of combo’s and throws you can perform on enemies depending on the situation.  Charge attacks are equal parts risk/reward While not up to the same level as Dynamite Cop the variety in moves is extremely welcome, especially considering most games in this genre are content to arm you with a punch, kick and a throw and call it a day.

But even deeper than the fighting system however is the number of weapons available in the game.  In many ways this almost feels like a precursor to Dead Rising as nearly anything that isn’t bolted down can be picked up and used as a bludgeon.  From axes, drills, flamethrowers, and even laser guns to the assortment of different firearms you might spend more time fighting from a distance than bothering to get your fists dirty.

At 6 episodes Zombie Revenge is only an hour or so long.  The game is short and does tend to be repetitive as each area is more or less the same, clear out the zombies and follow the glowing path to the next area, rinse and repeat.  Although each section is timed ideally unless you suck you should have enough time left over to smash objects or find hidden rooms with overpowered items.  Continues are limited unless you bother with the VMU minigames which actually do serve multiple purposes within Zombie Revenge’s framework.

The replay value though comes in the form of Original mode and battle mode.  The Original modes are three variations of the arcade mode designed to emphasize different aspects of the game.  Normal mode increases the amount of items dropped aside from the standard weapons, bullets, and antidotes.  In essence this is basically easy difficulty in everything but name.

Battle mode…..they certainly tried.  Any items picked up in any of the original modes can be used in this one on one brawl to see who can kick zombie ass the hardest.  The VMU minigames are used to train your character and boost their stats in five categories and surprisingly the games are fun.  But at the end of the day it’s obvious this wasn’t built for Street Fighter style gameplay.  You can only use the 3 heroes and one lucky combo can end a match in seconds.

My personal favorite is Gun Mode.  Here all guns inflict twice the normal damage while melee attacks are weakened.  To offset this you can only carry two clips rather than the standard five.  This essentially turns the game into a shooter, albeit one that forces you to carefully consider each shot.  Learning the intricacy of the game’s aiming (here’s a hint: only fire when the targeting circle turns red) and which enemies to prioritize is a key factor in whether you’ll live past the first episode.  Although bullets are dropped with reckless abandon the enemies attack in sufficient enough numbers that bad aim will leave you a sitting duck. On the other hand if you’re good enough you can even kill bosses in 3-4 shots.

Bare Knuckle Mode takes away your gun and pumps up the power of your fists and feet.  Weapon drops are also gone as well, meaning you’ll have to familiarize yourself with the numerous attacks to live.   Personally while I appreciate the game’s fighting engine I wasn’t enamored enough to want to play through the game using nothing but that.

Part of the reason being the shoddy collision detection and auto aim.  Zombie Revenge can’t seem to decide which enemy you are attacking in most cases and so whether it’s a gun or a fist your attacks will inevitably seem to hit air rather than the zombie in front of you.  The auto aiming in particular is frustrating as there are numerous cases where armed enemies need to be dealt with first but instead you’ll hit the guy behind them.  Although short this is not an easy game and cheap deaths don’t make it any easier.

If the hit detection were ironed out and a few more episodes added to the game this would be rank as one of the best beat em ups of all time.   The flaws are significant enough that only the most forgiving gamers will be able to overlook them and see the game’s potential.

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Christmas Nights

Say what you will about Sega but at the very least they’ve always shown that they care about their fans.  The period between 1995-1998 was tumultuous for them to say the least but even in spite of their sinking fortunes they still found time to throw the fans a bone.  Nights into Dreams was their major holiday release in 1996 once Sonic Xtreme was delayed but its initial release was rushed.  Rather than charge full price as a separate release Christmas Nights as it was called was instead bundled with various magazines back in 1996 as a demo/thank you to the fans.

Both Claris and Elliott are celebrating the holiday season after their adventure in Nightopia but can’t shake the feeling that something is amiss.  The two discover that the Christmas Star that lights up the Twin Seeds Christmas tree is missing and set out to Nightopia to recover it.

Despite the story taking place after Nights into Dreams this isn’t a sequel.  As a sampler disc intended to give gamers a taste of what the full blown version of Nights has to offer the game more than succeeds but it also has enough content to stand alone as an individual release.  For those that were enamored with Nights’ gameplay Christmas Nights has a number of extra modes that extend the life of the game.  If the gameplay wasn’t your cup of tea than there isn’t much to change your mind.

The primary thrust of the game is the two separate paths through Spring Valley for both Elliot and Claris.  Since Spring Valley was exclusively Claris’ dream Elliot’s version has a new layout.  Even if you’ve played the original release the Christmas version of the level feels completely new thanks to the holiday decorations strewn throughout.  The Ideya Capture is a Christmas tree, items have become Christmas presents, and the Nightopians now resemble elves.

The goal is still the same, to collect enough Ideas to destroy the Idea Capture and use the remaining bonus time to accumulate the highest score possible.  Prior knowledge of Spring Valley will come in handy to maximize your score, something that actually has an actual tangible bonus attached now.  After beating GIllwing your score is tallied up and used to determine how many chances you have to open presents.

A simple match making game will unlock a large number of extra features, most of it high resolution artwork.  However hidden underneath the cards is a selection of extra modes all accessible through the Presents menu.  If you’re good enough it should only take 4-5 runs to unlock everything.  The Karaoke mode simply allows you to sing along with the series theme song Dreams, Dreams with lyrics on screen so you don’t embarrass yourself.  In fact the entire soundtrack for the original game is here for your listening pleasure with tools to dissect and manipulate each song.

The three most substantial extra are Sonic into Dreams, Time Attack, and my personal favorite, Link Attack.  Sonic into Dreams casts you as Sonic the Hedgehog, free to explore Spring Valley as you see fit since the alarm clock no longer exists.  You still have to collect ideas and blow up the idea capture except Sonic can only run and jump extremely high.  His limits were taken into consideration so that any stray ideas will automatically come to you once close enough.  The boss is a Robotnik skinned version of Puffy complete with final boss theme from Sonic CD to boot.  Personally it’s a minor curiosity for those interested in what it would be like to control Sonic in a full 3d world.

Time Attack is a smaller section of Frozen Bell which tasks you with collecting all of the items in the area and reaching the goal as fast as possible.  Link Attack arranges a set number of ideas, rings, and stars along the course and seeing how high of a streak you can build up and keep going.  It’s a short course but there are definitely a number of minor tricks you can use to keep that number climbing higher, especially as the window to get the next link shrinks the longer you progress.  My only issue with these extras is that it’s only the one course for each but this is only supposed to be a sampler after all.

But there’s more!  Although it’s called Christmas Nights playing around with the Saturn’s internal clock will release even more extras.  Outside of Christmas the game defaults to just the regular versions of Spring Valley.  During November and January the game will have a winter theme minus the Christmas story to match.  Finally April Fool’s Day will unlock Reala as a playable character who is sadly only a reskinned Nights.  I guess we can appreciate the gesture.

Finding an original Christmas Nights is all but impossible but fear not!  The recent rerelease of Nights into Dreams on XBLA, PSN, and  PC includes Christmas Nights meaning you get the full game as it was originally intended.  At $10 or $15 you’ll more than get your money’s worth with this excellent package.

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Clockwork Knight

For all of Sega’s misfortune in the gaming you have to give credit where it’s due, they were always thinking ahead of the curve.  The Sega Channel can be seen as an early form of the digital distribution system we enjoy today.  They were one of the first to embrace CD technology in video games along with NEC.  Sega were one of the pioneers of 3d gaming with their Model 1 and 2 arcade games.  A year before Toy Story would shock the world Sega released Clockwork Knight, a platformer that loosely shared the same ideas.

Every night Chelsea the Clockwork Fairy Princess awakens the toys of the house with her voice at midnight.  Sir Pepperouchau III is in love with her along with his rival Ginger.  When a mysterious force spirits Chelsea away Pepper springs into action to save her.

In 1994/95 Clockwork Knight was something of a showcase for the 32-bit Saturn. Its mix of rendered graphics with polygonal elements was unheard of at the time and visually shocking.  Granted Donkey Kong Country managed to squeeze rendered graphics into an SNES cartridge but not to this level. But for Clockwork Knight’s entire technical prowess it is ultimately an above average platformer that is more content to play by the numbers than really use its premise for exciting gameplay.

As Pepperouchau you are toy soldier armed with a keyblade (suck it Kingdom Hearts fans Nomura didn’t invent that shit!) for offense.  The keyblade can be used to directly attack enemies or twist it for extra damage.  The standard jab is weak but will daze enemies, allowing you to pick them up and toss them.  Twisting the keyblade can also be used to open boxes or passages by inserting it and winding it like a gear.  There are a few items to collect, such as clocks for extra time (not that it’s ever necessary), gears for health, and invincibility but for the most part you won’t be needing them.

The entire game takes place inside the house of Pepperouchau’s owner with each set of levels taking place in a different room of the house.  The first thing you’ll need to come to grips with is that Clockwork Knight is not a Mario or Sonic game; the platforming is slow and deliberate.  Pepper is not the most agile protagonist as evidenced by his slow sprint and flailing jumps.  Although the levels are timed there is more than enough time to explore each level for extra lives and health.

As you move through the house the varying toy themed hazards change as you progress.  Clockwork Knight does take advantage of the fact that all of the enemies and hazards are composed of simple items, much like Monster in my Pocket.  Pencils serve as spiked pits, stove tops are furnaces, and books serve as blockades that need to be pushed out of the way.  The level design can be clever at times, such as navigating the train tracks of stage 5 or exploring a castle made of Lego bricks. Had Sega not been so conservative in terms of the game’s design this could have been a blockbuster.

Despite its premise Clockwork Knight is ultimately boring.  As hard as it is to believe the fact that it comfortably sits in the sweet spot of not too hard but not too easy is a detriment.  Most enemies don’t seem the slightest bit interested in attacking you and are easily dispatched.  Most levels can be completed by making a bee line to the exit with little opposition, ignoring the myriad floating platforms if you like.  Extra lives are frequent, and with a little luck can be amassed quickly in the bonus stages after every boss.  What little challenge there is available comes in the boss battles.  While their patterns are easy to recognize the bosses such as the toy Transformer move faster than you.

The argument of hand drawn art versus rendered graphics raged for many years and while certain games made a case in favor of the rendered plastic ultimately hand drawn art proved timeless.  Clockwork Knight is ultimately a victim of this war, with its low resolution rendered backgrounds looking dated today.  The color palette is extremely drab and off putting as well.  The polygonal background objects stick out like a sore thumb with little attention given to make them look as though they belong.  The full motion video cut scenes suffer from the terrible video compression used in the Saturn’s early years and barely look better than a Sega CD game.  At least the soundtrack still holds up.

It’s hard to think of any game that does a better job of being slightly above average.  Maybe Sega spent so much time on the visuals that they forgot they had to build a compelling game around it.  Who knows.  In the end while Clockwork Knight isn’t a bad game there’s little reason to come back to it.

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Daytona USA

There’s no polite way to say it: the Saturn version of Daytona USA is one of the most disappointing home console ports of all time.  As the 16-bit era waned and magazines were flooded with all kinds of technical details of the upcoming consoles the dream of owning arcade perfect ports of the most famous quarter crunchers was starting to become a reality.  Even considering Sega’s long history in the arcade Daytona USA caused quite a stir as the first game to use Sega’s new Model 2 arcade board.  It would be a tall order for any system to faithfully replicate the game’s graphics but even when taking that into consideration the Saturn version is a massive disappointment.

Released in arcades worldwide in 1994 Daytona USA was a graphical powerhouse, with a full 60 fps and fully texture mapped graphics for a level of detail unheard of for the time.  When compared to Virtua Racing which was released the year prior it might as well have come from another planet.  Beyond the graphics the tight controls and intricate course design made the game a sublime experience for anyone lucky enough to have sampled it.

With the impending launch of the Saturn in Japan Daytona and Virtua Fighter were viewed as the system’s killer apps.  While both games were rushed to meet the system’s release date Virtua Fighter managed to be a more than worthy port outside of a few niggling issues.  Unfortunately Daytona suffered heavily missing most of the arcade game’s graphical flourishes which also affected the gameplay.

The botched graphics were also a sticking point when compared to the PlayStation version of Ridge Racer which by all accounts was near perfect.  Although it didn’t affect Japan as much in the US Daytona and Virtua Fighter’s graphics seemed less than adequate in the face of Battle Arena Toshinden and Ridge Racer, a fact that I’m sure played a role in the PlayStation’s dominance in the US.

Daytona USA was indicative of racing games of the time in terms of content.   You have the choice of 2 cars that offer manual and automatic transmission with some differences in terms of handling and top speed.  The Saturn mode offers 2 more cars and another 6 unlockables based on your performance.  These new cars all feature some mechanic that will benefit you such as higher speed but low grip, better performance on grass or averting slowdown when crashing into walls.  Some would say it’s kind of cheating but considering you’ll have to master the courses available to receive them you more than deserve a little compensation for your trouble.

In terms of handling Daytona sits in the middle between the drifting of most popular arcade games and more complex simulation racers.  You won’t be power sliding around corners but the more punishing aspects of sim games are mostly absent.  Smashing into walls, which will happen frequently at first, will lead to car damage and require a pit stop lest you risk falling too far behind.  All 3 tracks have a varying number of laps and competing cars based on difficulty.  Once you’ve grown accustomed to the nuances of manual or automatic transmission tackling the 3 courses slightly easier.  The track design is marvelous and along with the controls is one of the few aspects this port did right.

All similarities to the arcade stop there however.  The graphics have suffered a massive hit; more than necessary even considering the quirks of the Saturn’s architecture.  The smooth 60fps was downgraded to around 20, with further dips when the screen is crowded.  The overall look is extremely pixelated which is to be expected but makes the claims of pixel perfect conversion on the back of the box laughable.

These downgrades would have been forgivable if not for the atrocious pop-up.  It was common practice in most console games of the time to use fog or clever level design to hide background details fading or “popping” into view due to the low RAM of the consoles.  Daytona doesn’t bother to hide this, with nearly 25% of the track magically appearing before your eyes at times.  This affects the gameplay considerably since you won’t be able to plan ahead at times, and the city track especially becomes near unplayable at points.  This was already a hard game at points but the terrible graphics aren’t doing it any favors.

At this point there’s no reason to revisit Daytona USA, let alone this version.  For its time it was ground breaking but the lack of options and content simply don’t hold up today.  Appreciate it as a necessary step in the evolution of racing games and nothing more.

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E-Swat

As much as I liked E-Swat in the arcade I have to admit, its resemblance to a poor man’s Robocop is undeniable.  You have an armored police officer protected a shit hole of a city from thugs and while the officer in question wasn’t blown to bits by Red Foreman from that 70s Show you can’t deny the similarities.  Non license aside, Sega took the time to make the Genesis version of E-Swat a much better game than its arcade counterpart, creating one of the more enjoyable action games from the system’s early years.

An organization armed with new high tech weaponry names E.V.E threatens to take over the city.  Officer Duke Oda, a rookie cop, vows to take them down but not before earning his stripes first.  The Genesis version is missing the arcade game’s 2-player coop but let’s be honest, if the city were really in a pickle they should have had a whole division full of these bad boys ready to clean up the streets.

As much as I liked E-Swat in the arcade I have to be honest and admit it is derivative.  It’s basically Shinobi with a new coat of paint.  While that may have worked in the first two levels once you’ve been given the armored suit the slow measured gameplay doesn’t jive with a hulking mech suit.  And while it’s billed as giving you increased firepower the reality is most of the special weapons are just too slow to be useful.

The home release is almost an entirely different game that only uses the basic premise and goes in its own direction.   As a much more action packed blaster the Genesis version fixes a lot of the arcade game’s flaws and truly makes the armor the bad ass suit it should be.  It isn’t on the same level as other games Sega released in the same period like Revenge of Shinobi but E-Swat was a more than welcome addition to the system’s library.

The first two levels are rough territory since you are still in uniform.  As a normal human Oda is extremely vulnerable, only able to fire one shot at a time and with a short life bar.  If they were driving the point home it works.  Thankfully it’s only for a short period as you’ll receive your combat suit by the third mission.  It’s here where the game takes shape.

Once in the suit the game becomes more fast paced.  Most normal enemies are replaced by robots and other armed antagonists.  Your life bar is extended and you are given a after burners that let you fly for brief periods.  More importantly a number of secondary weapons become available, all with unlimited ammo.  The super machine gun enables rapid fire, the Pulse Cannon which has to charge first but releases a powerful burst of energy, and the rocket launcher.  One last weapon, Fire, completely drains your afterburners to damage all enemies on screen.

With the number of changes this version feels more like a sequel than a port.  Aside from a few bosses all of the levels are new.  Like I said earlier, hiding behind cover to take pot shots at targets really didn’t fit a game starring an armored combatant.  Now you can power through most situations thanks to the redesigned weapons but there are a few sticking points that weren’t well thought out.  Many of the levels such as the bio lab have numerous points where taking hits is unavoidable.  You lose whatever weapon was equipped at the time upon death and switching to the default hand gun isn’t always an option.  It can throw off the game’s balance most noticeably in the boss fights, where certain weapons are almost essential to survive.

It doesn’t completely break the game but it occurs frequently enough that it’s worth mentioning.  Otherwise E-Swat is a solid action game, one that was needed during the days of next to no third party support.  E-Swat will only set you back a few bucks and is good for an afternoon of fun.

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Space Harrier 2

I loves me some Space Harrier 2.  As an original launch title for the Sega Genesis Space Harrier 2 might have been the best of the bunch.  Well, that’s not exactly saying much considering what it was competing with.  Yeah the world was waiting with baited breath for Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle and Altered Beast.  Anyway, as a technical showpiece it delivered but more importantly it still holds up as an enjoyable game despite its steep difficulty.

In the distant future (the year 6236 in fact, none of that 20XX stuff here!) Harrier receives a call for help from a distant corner of the galaxy.  After arriving via Cosmic Gate he finds Fantasy Land overrun by monsters and resolves to eliminate them on his own.

The original Space Harrier was both an original and enjoyable game back in the mid-80s with its super scaler technology allowing for a ridiculous number of sprites to fill the screen and scale smoothly in and out of the playing field.  While it saw ports to nearly every computer format of the time the Sega Master system version is the one most familiar to gamers.  While it wasn’t perfect it was a well done approximation of the arcade game.  Space Harrier 2 takes all of the elements of the original and dials it up to 11, creating one of the most intense rail shooters of all time.

You have free reign to choose which of the 12 levels to start with, and in many ways this might shape your perception of the game going forward.  Every level moves at a different pace, some more laid back and slow such as Stuna Arena and Zero Polis while others are mind numbingly fast such as Hot Palace and Yees Land.  Only the initial level changes, after that you’ll plow through the remaining 11 in order before facing off against all 12 bosses again before Dark Harrier.

Space Harrier is an incredibly simple game on its face.  All 3 buttons perform the same function: shoot.  There are no power-ups whatsoever and collision with most background objects and enemies will kill you.  Some obstacles can be destroyed, such as trees and bushes while others will trip you up for a few seconds, which is literally a death sentence.  You can run along the ground if you so choose but wise gamers will use the full screen real estate to try and avoid the chaos thrown in your face.

It’s in the level design that Space Harrier 2 shines.  With its checkerboard floor and second person view you might be reminded of 3-D World Runner but SH came first, and Square’s blatant rip off can only wish it were half as good.  Every level introduces new enemies and obstructions to contend with, each with their own patterns of attack.  Due to the changing pace of each level you can never settle into a comfortable rhythm and try to coast through the game.  This is exemplified in each boss battle.  The speed of each boss is shocking to say the least and will often times leave you wondering what the hell just happened.  Despite the brevity of each level the waves of enemies, their forms of attack and the punishing bosses mean you’ll have to be quick on your feet in order to react and avoid death.

A little too quick in fact.  I wonder just how many are prepared for the game’s speed.  While Space Harrier 2 isn’t overly challenging it does have its moments.  The one hit deaths feel a bit cheap and the later stages of the game are inhuman in terms of the sheer number of pillars and bullets.  True, you can avoid a significant chunk of the enemy fire but the at times confusing viewpoint will throw you off.  You only have a few lives and zero continues to brave the storm and those Bonus Stages only help somewhat.

Even in spite of that Space Harrier 2 is still an enjoyable ride almost 25 years later and holds up better than most of the Genesis’ early fare.  There aren’t many games created in this style and Space Harrier 2 is certainly one of the better efforts.

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Shadowrun (Genesis)

Of all the settings that I have experienced the Shadowrun universe ranks among my favorite.  Something about the cyberpunk setting and mix of future technology captured my imagination like nothing else when I first became aware of it in 1993.  This made it optimal for use in the videogame space and in the 90s Sega and Data East responded in kind.

Developed by Blue Sky Software for Sega this version of Shadowrun was released in the fall of 1994.  Unlike the pseudo PC adventure that comprised the SNES game this version stuck more closely to the source material, weaving nearly all of the major elements of the fiction into the game.  As Joshua you are on a mission of revenge.  After viewing your brother’s death on the news you spend your last bit of cash to visit his last known transaction, setting in motion a string of events that will eventually lead to saving the world from an ancient evil.  In many ways this version of Shadowrun is a top down Grand Theft Auto years before that game existed.  For fans of the Shadowrun mythos everything they love about the pen and paper RPG is represented in some form, and for RPG fans a hard but satisfying quest awaits.

The 3 character classes, Street Samurai, Decker, or Mage specialize in a specific field although it doesn’t mean they won’t be able to utilize the skills of the others.  I say this for one reason: with enough karma points you can build your skills in the necessary fields to become just as adept in a matter of time.  Distributing your karma points in the 20 or so skills will allow you to tailor your character however you want, to a ridiculous degree.  You can completely circumvent the limitations of your class with enough points, becoming a weak combatant with excellent negotiation skills or even laser focus in one area.  It’s a pretty comprehensive list that covers nearly every facet of the game, from individual areas such as SMG or throwing skills to electronics, computers, and even reputation.  Nearly every skill has a tangible and immediate impact on your performance which makes the choices even harder.

Some thought needs to taken into consideration since you cannot respec and the amount of karma needed to raise your skills increases.  It’s entirely possible to screw up, raising skills that aren’t necessary for your immediate task and forcing you to spend large amounts of time grinding repetitive quests for karma.  To offset this you have the option of hiring 2 additional runners at any time, temporarily or permanent and can make use of their skills in a necessary field if you find yourself lacking.

Aside from retrieving your brother’s stuff you have unbridled freedom to explore almost any one of Seattle’s numerous districts as long as you have money for the trip; sometimes a little too much freedom to be honest.  Despite giving you clues as to how to advance the story, you can complete many of the events out of order.  The only things stopping you the majority of the time are money and equipment and it is here where the game’s many different options to gain both opens up.

The runs you receive are where the comparisons to Grand Theft Auto begin.  Scattered around the world are Johnsons who will offer you work for nuyen and karma, with the amount differing based on the difficulty of the run and your own charisma.  Johnsons also offer contacts who can offer you many illegal upgrades not sold in the streets.  Shadowruns fall into many categories, escort, retrieval, data theft, ghoul runs, etc.  You aren’t tied to any one Johnson and can leave to find work with someone else at any time.   The money offered loosely gives you an idea how much you should advance your character before attempting the job.  These runs are where the meat of the game occurs.

In the beginning the runs start out simple enough.  Escort a client here, deliver a package there.  You’ll need the money so you’ll bear the tedium.   In short order you’ll want to tackle the larger runs where the real cash can be found.  Ghoul runs offer decent money for a large number of kills. Corporate runs will make the hairs on your neck stand on end as you move from room to room in search of your objective.  Matrix runs could have been a separate game entirely in terms of the options and depth involved.  The higher the reward the tougher the job in most cases but with few exceptions anything beyond simple escorting will present a challenge.  There is very little middle ground; go big or go home more or less.

Your attributes govern success or failure in fields such as aiming, manipulating computers or even negotiating payments.  The effects of these have a tangible impact on the game, with mag locks opening almost immediately with a high enough skill or your shots missing less.  There are tons of random events that crop up that can be beneficial or harmful.  These range from someone needing help, Lone Star accosting you, to the run specific events.  How you react when they happen will have an effect on the outcome.  Sometimes you’ll get away none the worse for wear; other times it’s an ambush leading to an all out brawl.  If you’re negotiation skill is high enough, you can bullshit your way out of it.  The corporate runs prove the most harrowing, where nearly everything that can go wrong happening if you are unlucky.  These prove the biggest test of your preparation.

The many ways to tackle these and every other situation produce the best moments in the game.  Just as an example:  you are in the Renraku building and are stopped by a company man.  You can try to cover up and avoid eye contact, yell at him, or make up a fake story.  If your charisma is high enough, not only will he ignore you, he might believe your fake story and actually tell you what floor your objective is.  My favorites are the security tiles you step on.  If you spend too much time reading the description the game will inform you that you took too long and tripped the alarm.  Finding the easiest runs that offer the most money will make you feel godlike when you reach the point you can breeze through them.  By the midpoint of the game my tricked out Street Samurai was able to enter any corporate office, hack the security cameras, open every mag lock on the first try and complete the mission without any conflict whatsoever.  That is the epitome of bad ass.

My biggest issue is that the game as a whole is very difficult. The beginning stages are extremely grind heavy as you work for little money and have to spend most of it buying more clips or resting to restore health.  I’ m talking 40 to 50 nuyen per run whereas most decent weapons or armor are in the thousands.  Because equipment upgrades tend to be very expensive you’ll spend hours repeating the same boring quests.  The shadowruns that offer decent amounts of money will require decent equipment before you can even dream of completing them.  Even when you are relatively maxed out all it takes is one random hell hound attack to leave you dead.  Luckily there are so many ways to make nuyen that you can avoid a lot of this stress but only if you are prepared to grind a bit.

Also, and this might just be me, the story can be obtuse and hard to follow.  You are only given basic directions where to go in most cases and as I mentioned earlier can complete them out of sequence.  This wouldn’t be a problem if certain story events were not designed for you to tackle later on when you have had the chance to power up, so to speak.  Because you might not know any better you could lose progress and money by dying needlessly.  Which is soul crushing as the game is extremely difficult.

It can be daunting in the early stages but the game is so good it will hook you.  You won’t care about the grind as you immerse yourself in the world.  This version sticks to the pen and paper rules of the fiction closely and benefits from it.  With a world as ripe as the Shadowrun has become it’s a damn shame that there haven’t been more games in the series.  But due to the magic of Kickstarter fans have another adventure to look forward to.  In the meantime I recommend a trip down memory lane with this classic.

8-out-of-101

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Astal

At the end of the 16-bit era the platformer had been perfected.  With nearly the entire industry cranking them out for the better part of a decade the mechanics typical of the genre were honed to perfection and gamers were treated to some of the finest games ever made such as Donkey Kong Country 2, Yoshi’s Island, Vectorman, and Sonic & Knuckles.  So it stands to reason that most of us expected that legacy of excellence to continue on the 32-bit platforms; boy were we naïve.  I won’t go into a rant about how terrible many of those early 3-d games were; I’ll just say that it made us appreciate the rare 2-d platformer like Astal more than ever when they were able to escape the cell the industry decided to box them in all in the name of progress.

The Goddess Antowa created the world out of a jewel, including the sky, earth, sea, and air.  To inhabit the planet she created two humans, Leda from a green jewel, and Astal from a red jewel.  Astal was created to protect Leda while the goddess slept, a job he seemed a little too eager to fulfill.  When the evil Jerado and his creation Geist kidnap Leda Astal nearly ruins the world in anger and is imprisoned on the moon.  Although Jerado is dealt with Geist is still alive and kidnaps Leda once again.  Astal breaks free to save her once again.

We should have gotten more of these damn it!

Astal was a victim of circumstance.  Sega’s decision to release the Saturn early without telling retailers meant it wasn’t well stocked.  The industry had begun its infatuation with 3-d and Astal’s beautiful 2-d art was seen as antiquated by many in the press although it still received positive reviews.  And that box art sure as hell did no favors.  However despite all of these factors Astal is a lost gem from that era and while it isn’t on the same level as the classics I mentioned previously it did offer a tantalizing glimpse as to what was possible with the new hardware.

Astal has a simple set of play mechanics.  He’s strong as hell and can thump anything in his path or throw it away, whether its enemies, trees, or boulders.  With his strength he can pound the ground, stunning most enemies for a second, even bosses.  And like Superman he can inhale and unleash his super breath.  After the first level your bird companion can be used to attack all enemies on screen or retrieve health items in a pinch.  As a nice bonus a second player can control the bird and he is armed with a nice suite of abilities although I doubt this feature saw much use.

The implementation and use of Astal’s powers are what makes the game so fun.  The pace is noticeably slower than most platformers but it doesn’t impact the action.  Although the levels are short there are enough of them that you get to exploit each of Astal’s abilities.  Entire levels are built around his powers, such as the River of Dreams, where pounding on the dragon will propel you in the air and is crucial to avoiding the spikes in your path.  Or Volanic Valley, where blowing out the flames is necessary for progress as well as defeating the fire dragon at the end.  Boss battles will challenge you to pay attention to animation cycles and use your powers in unexpected ways in order to win.

At 16 levels or so there is enough content to last quite a few hours but the game is kind of short overall.  Each level is only a few minutes long and once you’ve figured out the hook for certain stages it becomes a breeze.  Astal is not a hard game by any stretch although it can be tricky at times.  Most of these problems stem from the wonky hit detection which seems to conk out at the worst moments.  It isn’t so bad that it ruins the game but it is enough of a problem that I would be remiss if I did not mention it.

You only need to glance at a few screenshots to know that Astal is a beautiful game.  The crystal theme makes for some mesmerizing set pieces and the overall artistic direction is a literal explosion of color in your face.  It’s almost as though Sega was over compensating for the Genesis’ lack of expertise in that area. Whatever the reason Astal is a perfect example of why the Saturn was built to be a 2d powerhouse.  While the music is similarly excellent the same cannot be said of the voice acting, which is flat out bad.  The cutscenes scattered throughout the game are painful to listen to due to this.

It’s a god damn shame we didn’t receive more 2d goodness on the same level throughout that console generation.  It would have served as a counter balance to all of the terrible 3d games most developers crapped out however it did make us appreciate them even more whenever they were released.  Astal isn’t rare but it isn’t readily available in heavy supply.  Regardless of how much you pay you are in for a treat.

 

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X-Men (Genesis)

For a long time licensed comic book games sucked horribly.  This never made much sense to me.  How hard can it be to take the action depicted on the colored page and spin that into gaming greatness?  Apparently too hard seeing as how 90% of them were terrible.  I should preface this by saying most of those games were made by Acclaim but the point still stands.  The X-Men especially could not catch a break, starting with the absolutely dreadful game for NES.    Sega however were one of the first to treat the license with respect in creating this game so let’s see how it holds up nearly 20 years later.

X-Men was released by Sega in 1993. A virus has infected the Danger Room, releasing the safety controls and creating random dangerous environments.  It’s up to the X-Men to brave each scenario and eliminate the virus from each to unveil the mastermind behind it.  Fan favorites Gambit, Nightcrawler, Cyclops, and of course Wolverine are the playable leads with a cornucopia of cameo appearances from the comics.  Next to the Konami arcade game this was one of the few respectable games starring these characters and while the problems that plagued it back then is still annoying it’s still an enjoyable title.

The game makes heavy use of its license to great effect.  Each character has a standard set of melee attacks complemented by their unique mutant powers governed by a mutant power bar.  Cyclops optic blasts not only allow him to attack from long range but also rebound his blasts while   Gambit’s playing cards track enemies. Wolverine’s claws enhance his attack strength but his most useful ability is his healing factor which makes him the proverbial tank of the group.  Nightcrawler might be the useful of the bunch since his ability to teleport is potentially game breaking in parts.

If 2-player coop isn’t cutting it you can call in your teammates for help.  4 additional X-Men (Rogue, Iceman, Archangel, and Storm) can be summoned for assistance while Jean Grey will save your ass from bottomless pits for a little health.  Iceman will create bridges to cross gaps; Archangel will make 3 passes and attack whatever is in his line of sight.  Storm and Rogue serve the same purpose, however whereas Storm will hit all enemies Rogue only attacks one, useful during boss battles.

Setting the game in the danger room allowed Sega the opportunity to explore a number of different environments.  For any fan of the comics these locations will be instantly familiar, such as the Savage Land, the Shiar Empire, London, etc.  The levels are non linear and spacious, giving you ample opportunity to look for power-ups.  There is no one set route to the end and exploiting certain abilities like teleportation could potentially allow you to skip bothersome areas.  The bosses will bring a smile to your face as they are a virtual who’s who of the X-Men rogue’s gallery.  Sabretooth, Juggernaut, Magneto, even lesser known characters like Deathbird make an appearance.

The major flaw holding the game back is the difficulty.  You only have your 4 dudes and that’s it.  No continues, no passwords, no battery backup.  This isn’t a long game by any stretch however it is disingenuous to have to start at the beginning due to the insane amount of cheap hits that lead to quick deaths.  You really have to comb through the levels for extra health since they are in short supply, so more than likely you will make excessive use of switching characters out.  Wolverine is invaluable because of his healing factor for this reason so protect that mofo.

The other problem and this was stupid back then too, is that to access the final level you have to reset the Genesis when the game prompts you to “reset” the computer.  You read that right.  You had a few second window to do this; if you held the reset button too long you would really reset the entire game.  Trust me, if you soldiered through to that point only to fuck it up because some ass hat thought it would be cool to reset your console to progress you might just chuck the cartridge out the window.

The graphics aren’t as nice as I remember and the difficulty is a bit insane nonetheless X-Men has aged gracefully.  It isn’t at the top of the X-Men game heap anymore but is still fun for a few hours and it paved the way for the much better X-Men 2.

 

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Nights into Dreams

Inspiration for game ideas can come from all walks of life.  Allegedly Yuji Naka came up with the concept of Nights while on a flight back to Japan and in that moment a star was born.  Or should have been if Sega had not spent the following years doing their best not acknowledge his existence.  Nights is every bit a classic of that 32-bit era like Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot but doesn’t get the respect it deserves.  Well I’m here to give it it’s just due.

The dreams of humans reside in two worlds, the peaceful realm of Nightopia and the twisted land of Nightmare.  The Ideya that populate Nightopia are in distress however as the ruler of Nightmare, Wizeman has been stealing all of the dream energy to conquer both worlds.  His twisted Nightmaren are the antithesis of the Ideya however one lone Nightmaren named Nights rebels and is imprisoned but not before contacting two humans with the rare attribute of courage to help save Nightopia.

It sounds hefty for a game of this type however the world building is crucial in making you care about the protagonists’ plight.  By helping Nights both Clarice and Elliott are helping themselves realize their dream which is what the game is all about.  With its unique setting and infinite replay value Nights was critically acclaimed but never reached the level of success it deserved due to the inner turmoil at Sega at the time.  However true classics never grow old and Nights remains just as fun today as it was in 1996.

While the game offers promises of free flight that isn’t completely true.  As Nights movement is restricted to a set path with numerous deviations and can fly anywhere within that zone.  While it may sound disappointing at first it works to the game’s benefit.  Offering a free roaming experience would completely kill the game’s focus on memorizing the level layout and scoring as many points as possible within the set time limit.

Each level is massive level is broken up into 4 timed sections  and a boss battle with the goal of each being the same: collect 20 Ideya and destroy the Idea Capture as soon as possible then use the remaining time to score points return to the palace at the start.  Failure to do so results in turning back into your chosen hero, losing all of your collected Ideya, your points, potentially failing the stage by being woken by the ever present clock and receiving a failing grade for that sequence.   That’s some tough shit.

The true genius of Nights in its elaborate level design.  At any given time you can see rings, Ideya and other objects in the distance that you can’t reach.  The individual segments are laid out in such a way that if you’re good enough you can chain together long strings of links and increasing your score multiplier.  Like many of the best shmups taking advantage of the scoring system will require many little tricks, such as using Nights’ paraloop maneuver to scoop up large masses of stars and Ideya in one shot rather than individually.  The vacuum basically turns you into a magnet and dragging objects behind you is necessary to create bigger chains.  There’s a risk versus reward structure to it in that the longer the chain the shorter the window to keep it alive but the rewards are justified.

For those that like to min/max Nights is basically a dream come true.  The initial run through each level section is to learn object placement and determining the best “route” for later.   No matter how many times you try there’s always some way to improve and shave a few precious seconds off each run through, thereby creating more time for another run.  I put “route” in quotations for a reason: although you are limited to a predetermined path you are not given a full view the screen and there are multiple paths in each, some less optimal than others.  So in a sense the game still manages to give you the feeling of free flight within its set parameters.

If you had to lobby any one criticism at the game it would be that there is no real sense of danger outside of running out of time.  There are very few enemies and direct collisions only result in a -5 second penalty.  Even the boss fights give you a generous 2 minutes to complete and there patterns are beyond easy to decipher.  You only need an overall C grade to unlock further stages and you’ll really have to go out of your way to screw up.  I view this as a plus to be honest as it places the focus squarely on scoring and leaving failure down to whether you can avoid being greedy and running out of time as a result.

Nights was one of the prettiest Saturn games released and even today is still beautiful.  The art direction is simply astounding and the mix of 2d backdrops and 3d objects is a perfect marriage of the Saturn’s strengths.  The heavily pixelated look adds to the game’s charm.  A number of effects not prevalent in most Saturn releases are on display such as heavy light sourcing and gourad shading.   This tight engine comes at a cost though as there is some nasty popup and that ugly mesh pattern used in place of true transparency in Saturn games rears its ugly head.  The soundtrack might be more amazing the visuals as the OST spans a range of genres such as classic music, jazz, and ambient tracks.  Hell there are a number of vocal tracks that are actually good!

So there you have it.  One of the best Saturn games released and also one of the best games of that generation Nights deserves to be experienced by anyone even slightly interested in videogames.  Sadly the Playstation2 remake is a Japan only exclusive so you have no choice but to hunt down a Saturn and a copy of the game but in my opinion it’s worth the meager amount you’ll pay.

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Score: 9 out of 10

 

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Charge ‘N Blast

 

I’ll say this:  Sega’s Naomi arcade board was a versatile piece of hardware and one of the most widely used, and its synergistic relationship with the Dreamcast allowed for a large number of home ports of arcade favorites.  But that also begs the question should you port everything just because you can?  In the case of Charge ‘N Blast not really unless you fully flesh out the experience.

Originally released in the arcade Charge ‘N Blast places you in the shoes of one of 3 marines in powered armor charged (heh) with clearing out each level of enemies before moving on.  The game wears its arcade heritage on its sleeve with quick stop and go action perfect for short bursts of play.  However that does not make for a compelling home experience, especially with how short the game is.  With no additional modes or extra levels and because of its brevity Charge ‘N Blast wouldn’t even cut it as a rental much less a full priced game.

Played from a third person perspective it echoes classic arcade games such as Cabal or Nam 1975 or now that I think about it the Earth Defense Force series.  The basis of the game revolves around the 3 weapons each marine possesses.  Each weapon has different rankings in terms of speed, power, and radius which is important to clear each vignette as fast as possible.  Rather than allowing you to spam each you’ll have to charge each first before attacking, hence the name.  Each level is broken up into short single screen segments that are timed and tasks you with clearing out all enemies before moving on.

With its intuitive control scheme and satisfying weapons it can be a rush to pull off a last minute attack before getting hit or a chain kill for more points.  There’s a certain amount of skill needed to know when to employ each weapon as well judging the distance of your attacks o you don’t waste a shot or more importantly time.  Auto aim is for sissies.  With time in short supply every shot needs to count.  Experimenting with each character’s weapons to find who you identify with is essential.  But right when you begin to enter the zone and everything clicks it’s all over.

It’s no exaggeration to say that most will finish this in about an hour.  And unlike most arcade ports there are no extras like artwork, hidden levels or characters to entice you into playing again.  It’s uncharacteristic of Sega to produce such a bare bones port, especially when the base game is lacking in content.  Something as simple as alternate routes through each stage would go along way towards increasing the game’ s replay value.  While the Time Attack mode is a nice gesture it simply isn’t enough.  In an arcade where you have limited time and probably want a quick fix Charge “N Blast was perfect.  As a home game it’s severely lacking.

The Dreamcast oddly enough lacked a stable of pure action games; off the top  of my head I can only think of Expendable and Cannon Spike.  This could have gone a long way toward expanding the options in the genre for the system.

Back in 2000 when it was a full priced release this would have been a rip off.  But if it were re-released as a downloadable title with online leader boards and a versus mode maybe it could find a second lease on life.  However the aforementioned Earth Defense Force games are everything Charge ‘N Blast tried to be and more.  I would recommend any game in that series before giving this a shot.

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Panzer Dragoon Zwei

The beginning of the 32-bit generation was interesting to watch.  Most developers had never worked with 3d so it was interesting to see the experimental games that were created.  Sega had a huge advantage in that they had extensive experience with 3d due to their many arcade games, so when Panzer Dragoon sprang from one of their numerous development teams it wasn’t a surprise.  Sequels are always expected to expound on what made the first game great while offering more.  Even bearing this in mind the leap in quality between Panzer Dragoon and its sequel is astonishing.  To this day it remains one of the greatest rail shooters of all time.

In a rural village the superstitious townsfolk kill any mutant cooliats born with a green glow.  Lundi discovers a cooliat with wings and forgoing village tradition hides and raises it in secret.  Years later while teaching his dragon Lagi how to fly the Empire destroys Lundi’s village in an attempt to eradicate Lagi.  The chase begins to catch the Empire’s flying fortress Sestren and enact revenge.  Better than its predecessor in every way Panzer Dragoon Zwei is one of the best titles in the Saturn library with excellent graphics and deep gameplay to match.  There is literally no reason anyone with even a passing interesting in shooters should pass this up.

Unlike the original you start out on the ground.  That’s right, as cool as your dragon is he does not have the capability to fly immediately.  These ground levels serve as a welcome introduction to the game’s play mechanics without holding your hand every step of the way.  You still move along a fixed track and have free reign to position the camera in all 4 cardinal directions.  The lone addition to your arsenal is a berserk meter that slowly fills up as you wreak damage on enemies.  At any time you can cause your dragon to go ape shit and release a continuous stream of lasers at everything under the sun until it runs out.  It’s highly effective against bosses or those oh shit moments when you’ve ignored your radar.  Between your standard blaster, lock on lasers and berserk meter you are more than equipped to deal with the forces of the empire.

The action is even more intense this go round; it’s assumed that you’re at least somewhat familiar with the series but not to the point where it’s overwhelming.  Whereas the first game was a bit reserved with its enemy waves no such qualms exist this time out.  You’ll need to watch the radar like a hawk because a group of indigenous life can spawn behind you at a moment’s notice.  The level designs also show less restraint; the majority of the time the road to the end level bosses is full of many twists and turns which are also part of the game’s added depth.

Nearly every level has one or two alternate routes which not only affect the enemies you’ll face but the evolution of your dragon.  At the end of every level you are graded on a number of factors and awarded evolution points.  The number of points amassed as well as the paths taken through each level affects how your dragon will evolve in terms of size and strength.  Not only does it encourage you to do your best on at all times it adds to the replay value as well.  The only black mark I guess would be the brevity of the adventure; at 7 levels it doesn’t last too long but with separate paths as well as the Pandora’s Box that is unlocked you’ll revisit this classic many times.

By 1996 developers were settling into working with 3d and so the technical leaps in quality were a sight to behold.  Even taking that into consideration Panzer Dragoon Zwei is a generational leap in quality. The bio-mechanical enemy designs have increased in size and scale while the sharper texture detail caused no hit to the frame rate.   The Saturn’s 2-d capabilities are used in conjunction with the 3d to great effect, most notably the forest of level 3 and the snowy plains of level 5.  There are some weak effects here and there; the Saturn’s lack of hardware transparency rears its ugly head at different points such as light shafts or what is supposed to be transparent water.  But compared to the flawless art direction it’s not worth mentioning.  The atmospheric soundtrack matches the action perfectly, and fades out at select moments when necessary to emphasize crucial moments.  I would say it matches Panzer Dragoon Saga artistically but not in scale.

This is hands down one of the best games released for the Sega Saturn.  It shouldn’t run you more than a few bucks so there’s no reason to skip one of Sega’s finest endeavors.  If more rail shooters were released and of this quality I would be a happy man.

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Panzer Dragoon

Of the Saturn’s early lineup one game garnered more attention than everything else; no not Virtua Fighter, I’m talking about Panzer Dragoon.  With its distinctive art style and world it dazzled gamers on both sides of the Pacific.  Luckily it also had the gameplay to back up its pretty graphics and was one of the system’s few bright stars in the console’s early life.

Set many years in the future after an unnamed war has ravaged the planet, Panzer Dragoon tells the tale of an unnamed youth who through circumstance becomes the rider of a blue dragon. This dragon and its previous rider were on a quest to stop the ruling Imperial government from accessing a Black Tower and unleashing a power that could destroy the world.  The world and back story of Panzer Dragoon is incredibly detailed, unnaturally so for a shooter.  But that attention to detail pays off since you’ll become immersed in the lore which provides impetus and context for your actions.

Released in America in 1995 Panzer Dragoon was the strongest title available at the Saturn’s surprise launch and as such gave gamers a reason to consider taking the plunge in spite of the system’s high price due to its gameplay and graphics.  If anyone seriously considered buying a 32X to experience what 32-bit hardware was capable of I’m sure they changed their mind once they caught a glimpse of Panzer Dragoon.  The game was that good.

A rail shooter like Star Fox except on steroids, the forced scrolling allows you to focus on the many enemies that want you dead.  Although you have no control of your forward movement you can move freely within your viewing area as well as switch the camera to look to the left, right and behind you.  The bio mechanical creatures come from all sides and taking quick action to see where the hits are coming from will save your life.  To prevent death from cheap hits your radar will show which direction the enemies are coming from.  The boss battles really ratchet the intensity with mechanical behemoths that will bombard you from all sides and attempt to catch you unaware by switching sides.

Your primary form of attack is your blaster but you can also use the targeting reticule to mark up to 8 enemies to kill with the dragon’s homing lasers.  There are no power-ups, just the careful balance of power between your two weapons.  Firing shots individually is extremely effective since you can shoot rapidly.  Manual targeting is reserved for groups of weaker enemies or hitting specific weak spots effectively.  There are very few enemies that stay stationery for long periods of time so alternating between the two is mandatory for survival.

It’s a testament to Sega’s designers that the game is so compelling considering how simplistic it is at first glance.  But between the way the game effortlessly weaves in packs of smaller fodder to distract you from the large warships and beasts and the rhythm you develop to control the chaos it is most of all fun.  At 6 levels it is a bit short but you will almost certainly work to get to the end.

The beautiful graphics that were the game’s selling point haven’t aged well unfortunately.  The inconsistent frame rate takes some getting used to as well as the overall heavily pixelated look.  What does stand the test of time is the art direction.  Sega hired French artist Moebius (R.I.P)to provide artwork for the game and also drew inspiration from Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausica of the Valley of Wind, creating a dystopian future different from most interpretations of the past.  The mix of science and fantasy in the game’s universe is still unique in this day and age.  The levels range from ancient temples submerged in the ocean to sweeping desert expanses full of prehistoric beasts waiting to make you their next meal.

And I can’t forget the atmospheric soundtrack and the made up language all of Panzer’s natives speak.  They really went all out in terms of production values and seeing as how 3 sequels were eventually released the world building paid off.

It isn’t easy to play this classic of the past these days.  There’s always the original Saturn version its just a matter of finding a working system.  It was released for the PC around 97 or so but that version is hard to come by and can be a bitch to get working on modern versions of Windows.  The PS2 port was only released in Japan but that remains an option.   Panzer Dragoon Orta for Xbox includes a port of the PC game but you have to finish the game first to access it.  However you come across Panzer Dragoon it is more than worth your time.

 

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Golden Axe 2

Creating a sequel is a tricky proposition.  You want to retain the elements that fans loved and made the original popular while adding new components that bring them back.  Many times this tends to back fire and can kill a series.  It’s a balancing act that not too many developers get right.  But there is a way out!  If all else fails you can always rehash the first game, which is exactly what Sega did with Golden Axe 2

Golden Axe 2 was released in 1991 as a home console exclusive for the Genesis.  Dark Guld has risen and filled the void left by Death Adder, stealing the Golden Axe and terrorizing the people.  Tyris Flare, Gilius Thunderhead, and Axe Battler return to stop this evil menace.  Standard stuff but its not as if the plot needs to be Lord of the Rings caliber to give us an excuse to bludgeon skeletons over the head with pointy objects.

Although a direct sequel in name from the looks to the gameplay Golden Axe 2 is a carbon copy of the original game, for better and worse. Golden Axe was a solid brawler for its time but standards change and to release the next game in the series that is basically identical to its predecessor seems like a wasted opportunity.  There were so many interesting directions they could have taken the basic premise and in fact they actually did with the arcade sequel Revenge of Death Adder.  If the majority of their effort was poured into that game I guess you could view this as a consolation prize, in which case we got hosed.

If you are at all familiar with Golden Axe you can jump in immediately as there is very little different.  The same basic move set returns for all three characters with some slight additions; this is more about refinement than revolution.  You can now throw enemies in any direction and execute an attack that will nail all sides simultaneously.  The timing of your weapon combos has also been improved slightly, reducing the lag when executing the final hit that used to leave you open.  It doesn’t sound like much but each of these elements was kind of frustrating in the original.  They were at least aware of what annoyed gamers the most and fixed those flaws.

Magic has seen the largest overhaul.  Rather than having to spend all of your potions on one spell you can determine its power by holding down the button and charging it up.  This adds a strategic element to the game and one that can save your life during a challenging boss fight.  In addition to the way magic is used all three combatants have seen changes to their powers as well.  Gilius Thunderhead has lost his proficiency in lightning and now harnesses earth magic.  Axe Battler now sports wind magic while Tyris Flare keeps fire magic with new spell animations.  The cute little gnomes have been replaced with wizards who aren’t going to take any shit from you and will fight back.

golden_axe_2_jue_002 golden_axe_2_jue_065 golden_axe_2_jue_058 golden_axe_2_jue_044

But for the little effort they put forth it’s irrelevant.  Rehash is putting it lightly.  The six levels look eerily similar to the first game; for god’s sake there’s even another stage that takes place entirely on the back of a giant animal again.  The enemies are also exactly the same, with only palette swapped variations changing things up visually but least that’s a problem nearly every game in this genre suffers from.  While I might harp on the similarities between the two games Golden Axe 2 is visually superior.  There are many details added to the sprites and the backgrounds are sharper and visually much more interesting.  The soundtrack is also more menacing and dramatic.

You could make the case that Golden Axe was a good game and this is more of the same but in the three or so years since its release new games such as Final Fight raised expectations as to what to expect from this genre.  The same year Sega released Streets of Rage, a beat em up in the same genre that put this game to shame.  With releases like Revenge of Shinobi, Madden, and the bombshell, Sonic the Hedgehog there was far more choices available to Genesis owners, leaving little reason to bother with this retread.  That’s not to say it’s bad, just decidedly average.

I suppose diehard fans of the series will still find much to like in Golden Axe 2 but for the rest of us there are much better games on the system, let alone genre.  They really should have done more to distinguish the game but instead settled for mediocrity.  And things would get much worse for the series on the home front from this point on.

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Sonic Adventure 2

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog Sega pulled out all of the stops in creating Sonic Adventure 2.  Though their venerable mascot had seen many highs and lows there was a resurgence in popularity due to his previous adventure.  Keen to capitalize on that his second Dreamcast adventure was given all the time needed to become a classic.  In the end does it reach that lofty goal?

Sonic Adventure 2 was released in each respective territory on the anniversary of the original Sonic the Hedgehog’s release.  Told from either the Light or Dark perspective, Dr. Eggman has discovered a secret weapon created by his grandfather, which turns out to be Shadow the Hedgehog.  Teaming up the two plan to take over the world using the power of the Chaos Emeralds.  Far more plot heavy than previous games the story serves its purpose in propelling the action forward but is the least of the additions to the game.


Choosing the Light or Dark path shows the game for each perspective but the gameplay remains the same, just with different characters.  Shadow, Rouge, and Eggman play identically to Sonic, Knuckles, and Tails respectively.  With just 3 characters a lot of the extraneous bullshit from Sonic Adventure has been removed, such as fishing with Big the moron and the game is much better for it.  Instead of a hub world the game is chapter based and switches between the 3 characters after every level.  In addition you can also change between the Light and Dark path at any point.  Much like the Trinity Sight System of Suikoden 3 this will allow you to see where certain events fit in the overall story and is actually pretty cool.

The Sonic levels are exactly what you expect; a roller coaster ride of action set pieces only now the levels are bigger, more tightly focused and as a result fix most of (but not all) the flaws of the first game.  All of your moves are available from the start and the levels are designed with speed runs in mind.  Knuckles and Rouge search for pieces of the Master Emerald, reminiscent of his levels in the first Adventure.

Tails and Eggman don mecha suits and turn the game into a pseudo Panzer Dragoon style shoot em up.  Sega kept the varied gameplay styles from Sonic Adventure while ditching the lame characters and created one contiguous adventure as a result.  It can be jarring to switch right when you’re getting in the groove with a particular character but largely it works.

Despite all of the additions Sonic Adventure is a largely uneven journey.  The Sonic /Shadow levels are undoubtedly the highlight, with extremely awesome scenarios and expert level design.  The unacceptable number of glitches that marred Sonic Adventure are mostly a thing of the past, leaving one of the strongest quests in the 3D iterations of the series.

However unlike the first game the quest is split evenly between all 3 characters; you’ll spend at least 60% of Sonic Adventure as Sonic or Shadow, which is the way it should be.  It wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t so many problems with the remainder of the game but they serve to highlight its biggest issue: once again, the camera.

Because you can climb any surface as Knuckles the camera has no idea what the hell it wants to do and tries to follow you as best as it can which isn’t much.  Another complaint in these levels is the confusing directions.  You have a gem that beeps when you are close to a shard and that’s it.  It’s up to you to determine what direction to follow, leaving these levels as long tedious distractions at best.

As Tails or Eggman you spend the majority of the time in cramped spaces, with the camera unable to decide how far away or close it should be.  Luckily it isn’t so crucial in these parts that it leads to unnecessary deaths but there was a very vocal contingent among the press and fans about the camera and they ignored the complaints.  You can’t tell me everyone at Sega failed to notice it; its blatantly obvious.


As beautiful as Sonic Adventure was part 2 smokes it in every category, textures, framerate, speed, effects, it’s no comparison.  The crisp 60 fps rarely ever dips and you’ll be grateful for that as you blaze through the eye popping scenery.  The effects have also seen a similar jump, with exceptional lighting and texture work.  This is clearly one of the pinnacles of Dreamcast development.  The soundtrack however is not as strong, with next to no vocal themes (a plus depending on which side of the fence you’re on) and more guitar heavy tracks.  The voice acting has also been improved and is competent, if not decent.  You won’t see as much dodgy lip synching thankfully as well.

Final Thoughts

Even with all of its flaws Sonic Adventure 2 is one of the strongest 3d platformers in the series.  There are a ton of extras, with an extensive amount of multi-player modes and optional secrets to uncover once you’ve learned new moves for each character.  Plus the true ending is absolutely worth pursuing, something you can’t say about most games.  Altogether it will take anywhere between 12-20 hours to complete and that’s minus the extra content.  Can you really ask for anything more than that?  This was  a fitting swan song for the franchise on the Dreamcast as it moved on to rival platforms and I’m glad Sega did their mascot proud.

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Sonic R

It only made sense that Sega would follow in Nintendo’s footsteps and branch Sonic out into other genres.  The public couldn’t get enough of him and spinoffs allowed them some breathing room while working on the next major installment in the series.  This goes back as far as Sonic Spinball but it was still disappointing when Sega announced Sonic R, a racing game for the Saturn instead of the platformer gamers wanted.

Sonic R was developed by Traveller’s Tale once again and released in 1997.  Plot?  You don’t need any plot, it’s a racing game.  Sonic and friends hit the tracks to see who is the fastest that’s all you need to know.  This was not the first time Sega attempted to make Sonic lace up his shoes; the two Sonic Drift games for Game Gear preceded this but they were terrible.  Is the third time the charm?  I won’t keep you in suspense and simply say no, it is not but not for a lack of trying.  With just a little more work this could have been a decent game but is instead a forgettable misstep in terms of Sega’s handling of the character.

If you are at all familiar with Super Mario Kart then you know what to expect.  Up to 5 characters compete at the same time among a selection of 10.  On the surface the gameplay is almost exactly like SMK however Sonic R does enough to forge its own identity.  Rings collected around the track serve two purposes: speed boosts along the tracks consume 50 rings for a massive boost and certain gates require set amount of rings, granting access to shortcuts or hidden items.  Platforming is also implemented to a degree with each character possessing unique abilities that can spell the difference between a win or loss.  This would have made for a decent overall package if not for the numerous issues.

My two biggest beefs with the game are the pathetic controls and its brevity.  I can understand the developers wanting to convey the sense of speed but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the controls.  You don’t steer Sonic and pals so much as fling them around.   You move entirely too fast, making the simplest turns an exercise in frustration.  Most tracks have no boundaries so you’ll be spending more time out of bounds than finishing the race itself.  Sadly Sonic R is seriously lacking in substance as well.  There are only 5 tracks in total along with a time trial and a 2-player mode for longevity.  I guess 5 tracks was slightly more than the standard 3 most racing games of that era peddled but the vast majority of kart racers have always provided a greater selection that this game is missing.  But that simply isn’t enough.  You can see all of the content in the space of 1 hour.  6 of the 10 characters have to be unlocked but they are mostly lame robotic versions of the principle cast.

Sonic R was something of a technical powerhouse on the Saturn.  Much was said about the transparency technique employed to hide pop up and simulate hardware transparency and for the most part it works.  Sonic R has a very clean look unmatched by a significant portion of the Saturn’s library and they were able to hide the system’s deficiencies pretty well.  I can’t go any further without mentioning the music.  All of the tracks have vocal themes associated with them and the music was composed by Richard Jacques, of Sonic 3d Blast fame (or infamy).  Opinions vary from brilliant to fruity and cheesy; I fall somewhere in the middle.  The actual songs are well composed but the lyrics are cheesy.  But in the end it grew on me over time.

At this point there is no reason to even bother with Sonic R.   Hell it wasn’t worth it back in 1997 as anything other than a technical curiosity.  Less than an afternoon’s worth of content and shoddy controls mar what could have been a decent racer.  As it stands this is a reminder of Sega’s incompetency during that console generation.

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Sonic Jam

In this day and age of constant retro compilations anyone can experience classic gaming from years past.  It’s hard to believe but at one point such collections of old games were not very common, with the main standout being Super Mario Allstars.  In 1997 Sega graced us with Sonic Jam, a set that was more interesting for its extras than the games it compiled.  That really sounds like I’m dogging the original quadrilogy but I’m not.  The bonus features included really make this package special as it was the rare peak behind the curtain behind the internet really became so ubiquitous.

Sonic Jam was released for the Saturn in the summer of 1997.  A collection of the 4 main Sonic the Hedgehog games on Genesis, Sega did not stop there and added a host of extras, with a 3d overworld that leads to each one.  This was part of a two pronged assault, with Sonic R following later that year.   While the emulation is spot on and the extras are nice Sonic Jam mainly served as a reminder of what we should have received on the Saturn; a fully fledged 3d platformer.  With such a ridiculously good engine made specifically for its overworld I find it hard to believe that Sega of Japan didn’t have something in the works.  What could have been…..

All 4 games here are represented fully intact so those of you that weren’t born during Sonic’s heyday could experience the magic all in one package.  In addition to the ports customized versions of each game are available.   These offer easier difficulty, slightly redesigned levels and for those that are weak sauce the removal of harder zones.  Honestly if you need the game to baby you by removing what are considered “hard” stages you suck at video games but I digress.  The real meat of the package comes from the extras.

Rounding out the collection are a ton of extras, from advertisements, artwork, a retrospective of the series, and a jukebox to listen to the classic tunes.  The jukebox is a really awesome feature as the series has always had exceptional music and video game music CDs were still not common outside of Japan.  You can even view the animation sequences from Sonic CD, which should have been part of this collection as more people needed to experience its greatness.  Granted now you can find all of the information provided by this collection on the internet but for its time it was interesting to see what was included from Sega’s archives.  The star of Sonic Jam would have to be Sonic World though.

Sonic World

Sonic World as it’s called was the overworld map used to access all of the content.  A full 3d engine was made specifically for the game and it is impressive.  While not on the level of Mario 64 or Crash Bandicoot it was close and showed that the Saturn was capable at 3d when in the right hands.  The detail of the world is incredible for the time and would have made an excellent base for a platformer but sadly that would never happen.  The only activities you can partake in here are minigames such as collecting rings for missions, reaching the various markers, and locating Tails.  You kind of have to question why they would make such a good engine and only use it for such a minor project but I’ve long since stopped questioning Sega’s wackier decisions.

This was an interesting collection back in the late 90s but now you can get all of the same games plus almost 40 others in the Sonic Ultimate Genesis Collection.  Now Sonic Jam is a cruel memento of the period when Sega did not have its shit together during the Saturn era.

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Sonic 3D Blast

Volumes can be written about the various missteps Sega made with the Saturn.  From the surprise early release, exorbitant price point, and lackluster offerings Sega of America focused on instead of bringing Japanese exclusives it was an unmitigated disaster.  Probably the biggest crime was never releasing a pure Sonic game.  Oh there were Sonic games for the Saturn but almost all were externally developed and the exact opposite of what gamers wanted.  One of those was Sonic 3D Blast.

Sonic 3d Blast was developed by Traveler’s Tale and released in the fall of 1996 for both Genesis and Saturn.  Dr. Robotnik has discovered the Flickie’s power to teleport by using large rings and decides to exploit it for his own benefit.  Sonic discovers what is happening and decides to help.  Released simultaneously Sonic 3d Blast was something of a technical marvel for the Genesis.  The Saturn version while slightly enhanced does not dismiss the fact that it was a lame port to cover up the delay of Sonic Extreme, which was eventually cancelled.

Played from an isometric perspective, Sonic 3d Blast has you collecting Flickies from defeated enemies.  The Flickies have fall into 4 types with differing behavior once released.  They also serve secondary purposes such as helping you reach higher items but their primary function is to grant access to later sections of every act.  The Special Stage is accessed by finding Knuckles or Tails with 50 rings intact, with the level varying depending on which version played.  In many ways this resembles the SegaSonic arcade game released everywhere but the US.  But despite that the main problem is that this doesn’t feel like a Sonic game at all.

Uh Oh…….

I’m not even referring to the perspective, although that presents its own set of issues.  Running around collecting birds is not the slightest bit fun and the pace of the game is plodding at best.  There are usually only 5 enemies in each area and they don’t seem the slightest bit interested in you.  Because of the perspective each area is small and doesn’t give you any opportunities to build up speed.  More than likely this is so you don’t go careening into walls and unseen enemies.  Sonic without his speed might as well be Mario in this case.

The loops and bumpers endemic to every Sonic game seem shoehorned in at best and are token gestures to tie in with the rest of the series.  While later levels ratchet up the number of hazards it doesn’t change the fact that you’ll do the same thing every level: kill 5 enemies, collect the Flickies and jump through a giant ring, 3 times per level.   With 6 Zones composed of 2 Acts and a boss level it gets tiring quickly.

On the Genesis Sonic 3d Blast was unique in that rendered graphics and full motion video were not too common on the platform.   The environments are highly detailed and full of color (well as much as the Genesis can muster).  While the FMV intro was never pretty to look at props to Traveler’s Tales for even cramming it in there to begin with.

The Saturn version is enhanced but not to the degree you would expect.  The amount of colors has been increased, numerous environmental and weather effects have been added but for the most part it still shares a similar look to its 16-bit counterpart.  The Special stage is a true 3d version of the half pipe from Sonic 2, a look at what could have been.  What did get upgraded is the music: it’s awesome.  A variety of composers contributed to the soundtrack and its excellent all around with themes that match each Zone perfectly.

While it isn’t terrible it is boring.  You could just as easily drop any other character in this game and it would have made no difference.  As the last Sonic the Hedgehog game for Genesis and the Saturn’s Christmas holdover in 1996 Sonic 3d Blast fails in both respects.

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Sonic & Knuckles

It was a lot easier to surprise gamers in the 90s since the internet was not readily available.  Most of us received our info from magazines that were usually 2-3 months behind current events.  So in mid 1994 when Sega announced Sonic & Knuckles it came as a surprise to everyone since Sonic 3 had just released a few months earlier.   Next to Donkey Kong Country and the 32X it was the surprise of the year and packed an extra surprise as well.

Sonic & Knuckles was released in October 1994 worldwide.  Continuing the story began in Sonic 3, the Death Egg has fallen but is still operational leading Sonic to chase Robotnik before he can steal the Master Emerald and repair it.  Knuckles is pursuing Robotnik after having been deceived by him as well.  Initially conceived as one massive adventure Sonic & Knuckles was created when Sega realized their plans for Sonic 3 were too ambitious for one massive game.  But in a roundabout manner their original goal was still achieved thanks to Lock-On technology.

Playing as Sonic is exactly the same as ever, with all of the new moves and power ups carried over from the third installment.  The real star of the show is Knuckles.  Much like Tails he is not as fast as Sonic but has special skills to make up for it.  With his dreadlocks and spiked fists he is a different beast entirely, able to glide for short distances and use his fists to climb or break walls.  Playing as Knuckles is a different experience altogether since you can power through most obstacles or even avoid them if you so choose.  Accommodating these differing play styles are the expertly crafted levels.

Because of their skill sets the levels have been designed to accommodate both play styles.  Many paths are unreachable to Knuckles even with his climbing skills due to Sonic’s higher jump.  Conversely there are sections where Knuckles can glide for long stretches or sectors that are blocked off to Sonic.  It’s incredible that they were able to design such large levels so tightly and cater to both characters without making it seem unfair.

Because of the large levels both Sonic and Knuckles are afforded numerous opportunities to strut their stuff; in Sonic’s case moving at break neck speeds and for Knuckles using his skills to explore.  In many ways this represents the Sonic formula perfected.  The stages are large but not to the point of frustration and challenging as well.  It can be very easy to get trapped by hazards or ignore the clock, which is omni present and serves to curtail your curiosity when necessary.

The big innovation that S&K brought to the table is the lock on cartridge.  By combining Sonic 3 with S & K you get one massive adventure the way Sega originally intended.  Playing through both Sonic 3 and S& K also justifies the battery backup included in both games.  The main bonus of locking on is to collect all 14 chaos emeralds from both games and unlock Hyper Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles, each with even better abilities than their Super counterparts.

Combining the game with Sonic 2 allows you to play through that game as Knuckles and while it is a novel concept it’s obvious that it wasn’t fully designed with that in mind.  And for those that are curious doing the same with any other game doesn’t work or only grants access to infinite variations of the special stage.

As good as the game turned out there is the sinking feeling that it’s more of the same.  New elements have been added but at its core this is still the second half of Sonic 3 and it shows.  The new levels are nice and don’t recycle any visual themes from Sonic 3 but the fact is the two games were released less than a year apart.   It reminds me of Street Fighter 2 with all of its incremental updates that wound up pissing off the fans despite the games being exemplary when judged on their own merits.

Regardless of whether that bothers you or not the fact remains Sonic & Knuckles might be the best Sonic game for the Genesis.  For almost half a decade this would remain the sole bright spot for Sonic as a series.  The game has been re-released on almost every major console since so it’s just a matter of picking your poison.

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Sonic the Hedgehog 3

After missing the crucial 1993 holiday season and leaving us with the subpar Sonic Spinball, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 had a lot to live up to.  Sonic 2’s release was a worldwide event with its simultaneous launch around the world so the expectations were high to live up to or surpass that standard.  The question on everyone’s mind became whether or not Sega had the creative juice to continue the series winning streak.  So did Sonic 3 live up to the hype?

Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was released in the first half of 1994 worldwide.  The Death Egg has been knocked out of orbit but not destroyed and instead lands on Angel Island.  There Dr. Robotnik encounters Knuckles the Echidna and the Master Emerald.  Hatching a plan to harness the Master Emerald for his own uses he tricks Knuckles into attacking Sonic and stealing his chaos emeralds with the 2 in pursuit.  Originally planned as one monster platformer Sonic 3 was instead split in two with its other half releasing later in the year.  The game does not suffer in the slightest however as it introduces many new innovations to the series and continuing the winning streak the series had become known for.

As either Sonic or Tails, or alone or together you’ll travel through six levels with 2 sub stages each.  Both are armed with new moves making traversing the levels easier.  Tails has the ability to fly or swim for short periods and Sonic can generate an Insta Shield for a split second.  The shield motif is taken even further with the addition of 3 new shields: lightning, fire, and water.  Each of these provides an additional benefit, such as breathing underwater or attracting any nearby rings.  Battery Backup has been added, correcting one of the biggest flaws part 2 had.  Despite featuring fewer zones Sonic 3 dwarfs both prior installments in terms of length and content.

Far more story driven than before Sonic 3 makes use of cut scenes to further the story.  I use the term “cut scene” literally.  Your encounters with Knuckles are frequent and you get to see just how much of a bastard he is.  There are many scenes that wreak havoc on a level and cause active changes.  The transitions between acts are smoother as well; rather than a fade to black they continue directly from the end level goal post.  It helps to give the game a sense of continuity rather than a disjointed series of stages.

Each level is gargantuan; I would even go as far as estimating 2-3 times larger than the largest in Sonic 2.  All of that space is crammed with content, from rings, shields, and access to the revamped bonus rounds.  The 3 new shields definitely receive a workout, with many of the multiple paths designed with specific shields in mind.  The speed has been increased and there are wide assortments of new contraptions to marvel at as they fling you at breakneck speeds.

The new bonus stage features a three dimensional globe filled with spheres that need to be collected, increasing the pace as time goes on.  This was a welcome change from the terrible half pipe of Sonic 2 that required new perfection to complete because of stupid ass Tails.  While it added many new elements Sonic 3 is a sequel of refinement, taking the elements that worked and making them better while excising the bad.

That sentiment carries over into the game’s graphics.  Sonic’s sprite has been rendered this time, a change that is divisive among the fan base.  The backgrounds exhibit an insane degree of lavish detail; it’s incredible to see Sega beat the standard they set with Sonic the Hedgehog 2.  The soundtrack is phenomenal with a wide range of themes that perfectly match each zone.  Even coming on the heels of Sonic CD the soundtrack fares admirably to that classic.

So there you have it.  Probably the best pure Sonic game released on the Genesis and one of the finest games for the platform.  Crammed full of secrets and options Sonic 3 delivers in a way few sequels ever match.  And even better, combining the game with Sonic & Knuckles makes an already fantastic game even better, but that’s a story for another time………………..

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Sonic Spinball

………I reaaaaally hate this game.  I hate it so much I’m not even going to review it.  It’s Sonic, its pinball, that’s all you need to know.  It was hastily created to fill a hole in Sega’s holiday lineup because of Sonic 3’s delay and it shows.  Those screenshots?  That’s about all I could tolerate of this POS.  If you’re really interested in a “fair” review of Sonic Spinball, here you go: http://www.sega-16.com/2004/09/sonic-spinball.

 

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Sonic CD

For all of its successes there was still a vocal contingent who felt Sonic the Hedgehog 2 somehow strayed from its roots.  Honestly I don’t see it but there are nutty people in all walks of life.  Some attribute this to its development in America but regardless something was off.  The remaining members of Sonic Team in Japan after Yuji Naka’s departure for the US started work on their own Sonic game which would become Sonic CD.

Sonic CD was released in Japan and Europe first with North America to follow months later.  The little planet that appears in orbit near Mobius once a year has appeared and Sonic, with Amy in tow journeys to see it.  It isn’t long before Amy is captured by Robotnik’s newest henchman, Metal Sonic.  The race is on to save Amy and stop Robotnik from collecting the 7 Time Stones.  Sonic CD from its graphics to its gameplay is very much in the style of the original while offering its own innovations and twists to the series.  As such it is one of the best Sonic games as well as probably the best overall Sega CD game.

Comprised of seven acts with 3 levels each Sonic CD is a very deceptive game.  The spin dash from Sonic 2 has been added and is joined by the Super Peel Out, which allows you to dash from a standing position.  All of the familiar power-ups make an appearance but the newest additions that you’ll come across are the Time Posts.  And it is here where the added depth and the use of the CD’s added space come in.

Present, Past, Good Future, Bad Future

Signs labeled Past and Future are in abundance and by tagging one and building enough speed you can travel to, surprise, past or future versions of each level with the exception of the boss stages.  The Future levels are dark and decrepit versions of the present, full of enemies at every turn and fewer rings to collect.  The Past is where the fun lies.  By destroying the robot generator in the past you create a good future where robots no longer exist and you are free to explore (within the time limit) with no interruptions.  The objective then becomes to travel to the past and create a good future in both Acts to ensure the Zone has a good future overall.

Effectively there are over 70 levels total but all of this is completely optional.  If you don’t care at all about time travel you can simply play the game as normal.  Time travel isn’t the only way to a good future; the all new bonus rounds can save you a lot of the trouble if you’re good enough to complete them.

The bonus rounds make use of the Sega CD’s scaling capabilities to mimic the Mode 7 effect.  Here you destroy UFO’s in small arenas designed to keep you on your toes.  The main hazards are traps that trip you up and waste time and water which lops time off the clock.  The pace is frantic as the game speeds up, with water becoming harder to avoid as time goes on.  These stages become progressively harder as you go along but never to the point of obnoxiousness like Sonic 2.  By collecting all 7 Time Stones you assure a good future for all levels, negating manipulation of time.

The level design is where Sonic CD destroys many games in the Sonic franchise.  Although not as large as the stages in 3 Sonic CD has massive playing fields that present ample opportunities to build speed.  In some ways they come across as slap dash since you’ll see many instances of rings within walls you can’t reach and other anomalies but traveling in the past will eliminate those obstacles.

Creating essentially 3 versions of every level is no small feat so it’s a wonder that Sonic Team were able to make them distinct while still feeling familiar.  The challenge is progressive; as you progress it becomes harder and harder to build up enough speed to time travel since Sonic isn’t fast enough on his own.  Too bad the same can’t be said for the boss battles.  Robotnik is a pushover; it’s almost as if Sega simply gave up despite some of the creative mechanics involved in some of the fights.  But that’s only a small blemish on an otherwise fantastic package.

What does hurt the game however is its most controversial aspect: the soundtrack.  The US version was delayed to create new music for whatever god damn reason and the results are mixed.  On the whole the original soundtrack is superior but when one version is better it’s by a significant margin.  The Japanese/European edition feature many vocal themes and even some sampling of American music.  The past versions of the music are the same in all versions but still, there was nothing wrong with the original soundtrack aside from some fruity tracks so why Sega of America decided to tamper with it is anyone’s guess.

If the Sega CD had launched with Sonic CD maybe its fortunes would have been slightly different.  It certainly needed more games of this caliber instead of the FMV junk Sega of America were fond of.  This remains a retro gaming classic and thanks to its upcoming release on Xbox Live Arcade, PSN and a new PC port finally more gamers will get to sample its awesomeness.  This is not one to be missed.

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Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Sonic the Hedgehog did the impossible: give Sega its own mascot and to also showcase just how different they were from Nintendo, in the process achieving god tier status.  Everyone knew it was just a matter of time until a sequel would come and it sure did.  Its release would become an event around the world as everyone was anxious to see how Sega would follow up such a brilliant game.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was released on Sonic 2sday, November 24, 1992 worldwide.  Its release became an event.  The story follows Sonic on his mission to stop Dr. Robotnik from collecting all of the Chaos Emeralds to power his Death Egg.  Following on the heels of the revolutionary original expectations were high and amazingly enough Sonic 2 met and exceeded all of them.

Right from the title screen the changes and additions are obvious.  You have a sidekick in the form of Tails who follows you throughout every level.  Tails is invincible and generally only serves to pick up loose rings you might miss, take enemy bullets for you (heh) and occasionally free you if you are stuck in a trap.  A second player can control him but honestly it’s pointless; as soon as Sonic leaves the screen they’ll lose control of him.  A 2-player competitive mode is available in which you race to the finish line in shortened versions of some of the regular zones.

The bonus stages from the original have been scrapped in favor of a 3d tunnel that has you collecting a set amount of rings in 3 parts.  Rather than having to wait until the end of the level anytime you touch a checkpoint with 50 rings or more you can access them, however you lose all of your rings as a result.  The biggest addition by far is the spin dash.  By ducking and pressing any button, you “rev” up and charge straight forward in a burst of speed.  This fixes a lot of the instances in the first game where you would come to a dead halt and have to venture backwards to build momentum.  It’s funny that if you keep pressing jump you’ll increase the velocity of the dash to a degree but it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference.  Nice touch though.

Rather than a small amount of zones with 3 acts each this time each only has 2 with a few exceptions.   The upside is that there are far more of them, each with its own distinct look.  The levels are absolutely massive and the degree of exploration is insane.  Every level has more than 1 path to the exit and a multitude of hidden items to discover ensuring no 2 runs through the game will be exactly the same.  The visual variety in the game is remarkable and since there are only 2 acts per zone you’ll never tire of them.

The pacing of the game is also well done.  For the most part it seems to fluctuate zone to zone between fast moving levels that allow you to build up a continuous streak through a level at ridiculous speeds if you’re good enough and slower paced stages with more contraptions to block progress and switches to press to move on.  I feel this was deliberate so the game wouldn’t feel one note and spice things up.  The Sonic games have a reputation, justified or not, of being completable by just holding right and jumping occasionally.   This game proves that wrong.

The challenge in the game has been stepped up mildly.  You’re invincible so long as you have 1 ring but there are more obstacles such as spikes or enemies that spring up abruptly to cause you to lose your rings.  The boss battles are still an afterthought with very easy to cipher patterns.  Collecting all 7 chaos emeralds this time around is much tougher as you have to put up with Tails in the special stages.  Although he mimics all of your movements, there’s a delay in his actions that will have you pulling your hair out.  The later ones have zero margin of error and honestly it’s better to play through the game as just Sonic if this is your goal.  I can’t count how many times dumb ass Tails ruined what should have been a perfect run.  It’s impossible to keep him from collecting some rings so that danger of fucking up is always present.

The bigger, better, badder axiom applies to Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in every way.  It’s natural to expect a sequel to outdo its predecessor in every category but sometimes that isn’t the case.  Here though Sonic 2 trounces the original.  The graphics are absolutely amazing in terms of their diversity and color palette and once again Sega has blessed a Sonic game with a superb soundtrack.  I’ve played through the game many times and still enjoy it to this day.  Many times developers lose sight of what made the original game in a series a hit but Sonic Team wisely stuck to the blueprint they created and made a game that undoubtedly carries on the legacy of its progenitor.

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Sonic the Hedgehog

The videogame graveyard is littered with the bodies of failed mascots from publishers past who tried to get a piece of that sweet Mario platforming pie.  In their eyes it should have been easy to replicate that success:  create a cute character, give him some floating platforms to jump on and call it a day.  But seldom did that formula work.  It seemed the Mario series would stand alone on top of the hill until a spiky blue hedgehog came speeding into the limelight and helped spark a legendary console war.

Sonic the Hedgehog was released in 1991 worldwide and it’s safe to say it changed Sega’s fortunes (at least in the US) in the video gaming landscape.  Sonic was created as the antithesis of Mario and it shows throughout the game design.  Whereas the Mario series are slower and more measured, the Sonic games to a large extent are about blazing through the levels at breackneck speeds collecting as many rings as possible.  That simple concept of speed was the creative spark needed to differentiate the game from all of its contemporaries.

Divided into 6 zones with 3 acts each you follow Sonic on his journey to save his friends who have been imprisoned inside by Dr. Robotnik.  The first thing that hits you at the start: the visual design.  No other game looked like Sonic at its release and to a degree since.  From their use of color down to the stylized look of the world the game had a unique visual identity of its own.  The sense of speed emanating from Sonic is apparent right from the start but it’s when you hit your first loop de loop that you’ll crack a smile.  You know, we take it for granted nowadays but the first time you experience the perfect physics as you loop and come out barreling with more speed is just……exhilarating.  It’ll make you want to do it again and continue that streak to see how fast and how far you can go.

The sense of danger from the enemies themselves is almost nil; you’ll worry more about being crushed to death or losing rings more often than not.  You’re invincible so long as you keep 1 ring and while you want as many as possible for extra lives and a higher score you won’t really care sometimes if it means you’ll be able to press onward.   Some exploration is there but not to the extent that the sequels would take it.  This pairing down of the game’s fundamentals to the bare essentials both helps and hinders the game.

Each zone possesses its own theme and traps as you advance.  The third act of every zone is usually shorter than the preceding two because of the boss fight at the end that caps off each zone.  You’ll appreciate this; as great as the levels are by the third act you’ll become sick of it and want to move on just to see something different.  The boss fights are very simple with the exception of the Labyrinth zone (where you don’t actually fight Robotnik at all) with the most basic boss patterns.  To me they come across as concessions to standard game design clichés that dictate a boss battle at the end of every level.  The graphics obviously are fantastic and just when you think the game can’t throw anything more impressive at you the following stage will blow you away and is more remarkable than the last.  The special stages that house the chaos emeralds are psychedelic with their constantly shifting backgrounds and frequent rotation and serve as a nice treat at the end of a stage.

Games like this are very rare.  The kind that possess that intangible oomph that sets it apart from everything else.  It’s odd to think that such a simple concept would be so universally loved but the technology simply wasn’t there to fully utilize and properly showcase it until the 16-bit era.  It changed Sega’s fortunes in the marketplace and empowered them to embark on an aggressive marketing spree that some still talk about today.  We formally call them events, and this game very much belongs in that category along with Super Mario Brothers, Final Fantasy VII, Mario 64, Halo, etc.  Not bad company to keep at all I say.

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Aladdin (Genesis)


Disney’s Aladdin was a phenomenon the likes of which hadn’t been seen in quite awhile.  Even I was a fan and got swept up in the marketing blitz, and I was more or less indifferent to most of Disney’s offerings by that point.  The videogames that followed were almost all excellent with the Sega Genesis game the most high profile of the lot, achieving classic game status.

Aladdin was released for Genesis in the summer of 1993 by Sega.  A 3-way collaboration between Sega, Shiny and Disney the story of its development is just as interesting as the game itself.  The animation work was completed in conjunction with the Disney animators using a technique to adapt the animation cells to the Genesis limitations.  That they were able to create such a technique for an old console like the Genesis is miraculous, especially more so with how quickly the game was done.  Between the parties involved the game was done in 3 months.  Despite the protracted development schedule the game turned out excellent and would be the flagship for all console adaptations of the movie.

Like the SNES game Aladdin is a side scrolling platformer that takes you through a variety of set pieces inspired by the movie.  Although you can throw apples like that game your primary means of attack if your sword.  Versatile to a fault the sword is quick and has decent range enabling you to face most threats head on.   Versatile to a fault, you can even block or return most projectiles if your timing is correct.  All of these tools are necessary to complete the at times maze like levels.  While the animation is the biggest talking point when it comes to this adaptation the gameplay also deserves the same credit.

The variety in the levels and the pinpoint accurate controls are what make this game so enjoyable.  Using the framework of the movie to the fullest effect you are presented with a range of action set pieces that have you doing something different at every turn.  Navigating the numerous platforms in the caves is tricky while The Rug ride is recreated here in all its glory.  Even the minor fetch questing does not slow the game down like so many lesser platformers.  While the controls in general are tight there is a bit of slipperiness when it comes to controlling Aladdin’s jumps.  The challenge is very fair overall with few spikes in difficulty.  The boss fights are more or less a joke and there are enough bonus levels for chances at extra lives that it isn’t a concern.

Let’s get it out of the way right now: the animation is astounding.  We were accustomed to Sonic and his idle antics but this is in another league.  The digicel process allowed the animators to shrink the film’s animations to fit within the Genesis’ limitations and the results speak for itself.  From Aladdin himself to the lowliest enemies everyone single is loaded with numerous sight gags and quirks that never get old to watch.  The fluid animation and quality backgrounds set a high benchmark for the system that would take a while before being bested, ironically by Dave Perry and company creation, Earthworm.  The system’s limited color palette is a non factor with graphics that are just as vibrant as the SNES edition if not more so.   Dave Perry and his team were very familiar with the Sega hardware and that experience shines beautifully here.

It isn’t very often that a licensed product is given the star treatment that this edition of Aladdin received but when it does it becomes an event unto itself.  Aladdin joins Goldeneye, Batman Returns and the Chronicles of Riddick as an example of how to turn the limitations of a license into a strength and has aged gracefully.  There aren’t many licensed retro games that are still worth your time but this is undoubtedly one of them.

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Altered Beast

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most people think the Genesis launched with Sonic the Hedgehog.  Sega’s mascot completely redefined that platform and it’s hard to imagine life without him.  But the reality is Sonic didn’t show up until 1991, 2-3 years after the system had been on the market.  Instead we were all forced to suffer through Altered Beast as the pack in game.

Altered Beast was first released in the arcades in 1988 and the following year for the Sega Genesis as the pack in title.  Although created by Sega it has the distinction of being whored out to nearly every platform with a screen, from the master system, the commodore 64, and even the Famicom.  Seriously were they really so hard up for money that they helped out the competition?  Anyway what little plot there is in the game casts you as a fallen warrior resurrected by Zeus to save Athena from the demon Neff.  1 or 2 player coop is available as you smash your way through the underworld to fulfill your duty.

Across 5 levels you battle the denizens of the underworld.  A small assortment of enemies make up the opposition with your only means of attack being your fists and feet.  That is until you collect spirit orbs dropped by blue oxen.  These orbs buff your character, increasing your attack power.   Collecting three will transform you into that level’s designated Werebeast.  The five different beasts you change into possess their own unique powers that make the already weak enemies trivial as the action ratchets up.  Until you reach the bosses there is very little chance of dying.  Here your powers are crucial to defeating whatever form Neff morphs into.  You’ll have to reach the boss in Were form; running into Neff without full powerups causes the level to loop infinitely to give you another opportunity to transform.

This was all mind-blowing back in the late 80s for those of us raised on a steady diet of 8-bit games.  But even back then it didn’t take long to realize how subpar the game is.  The game is criminally short and can be beaten in as little as 20 minutes.  The levels serve as little more than an appetizer for the bosses and will piss you off with their cheapness.  The hit detection is spotty with your attacks missing demons that are right in front of you, I mean practically between your legs.   This extends to the bosses as well, with miniscule hit boxes despite their size.  Enemies swarm like killer bees and it’s easy to find yourself with little to no health in seconds because of one slip up.  There are no health powerups so there is no way to heal the retarded amounts of damage inflicted upon you.  These are all relics of the game’s arcade heritage but should have been excised for the home version, not that it would have made much difference.

The Genesis version of the game is not arcade perfect but is perfectly serviceable considering when it was released.  Aside from some minor loss of color and detail the graphics are the same.  What didn’t make the transition intact was the digitized speech from the arcade.  This was always a problem with Genesis games and here it produces hilarious results, with the opening “Rise from your grave” sounding more like Elmer Fudd, “Wise fwom your gwave!”  That didn’t stop our 9 year old minds from going ape shit when hearing it though.  Ah youth.

Time was not kind to this game as it was quickly eclipsed not long after release.  They made the right decision packing it in as I feel it wouldn’t fare that well at retail.  This remains nothing more than a relic of its time.


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Mystic Defender

Ah the early days of the Sega Genesis.  In those early days Sega was the only one supporting the system so they could not afford to be picky with the games they brought over.  These would also encompass games based on anime or manga that next to no one was familiar with.  In the case of Mystic Defender, it was based on the manga Kujak Ō.

Mystic Defender was released in 1990, part of a second wave of Sega Genesis releases.  The story takes place in an alternate Japan where demons and magic exist.  The sorcerer Zareth has kidnapped a woman named Alexandra to use as a sacrifice to resurrect the god Zao.  Apprentice sorcerer Joe Yamato (god that is generic) is dispatched to keep this from happening.  I didn’t make the connection at the time I saw it but the anime Peacock King, itself an adaptation of the manga Kujak Ō depicts the same events as this game.  A sequel to little known Master sytem game Spellcaster, it ditches the role playing elements of that game for straight action.

A platform action game, you control Joe through 5 stages of maze like action as you slay demons on the way to the exit.  Your only means of attack are the spells you receive as the game progresses.  All spells need to be charged first, represented by a bar.  The power, range, and duration of a spell are determined by how long it was charged, adding an element of strategy to the proceedings.  Since Joe is still learning you’ll either receive magic after clearing a level or find them as you go.  Some end up being worthless (rebound spell) while others are insanely overpowered like fire.

The only power-ups available are health items, a screen clearing lightning spell, and an item to shorten casting times.  I said the levels were maze like; although most of the levels are rather short, they are full of twisting hallways and looping architecture that require some navigation.  Luckily there isn’t a time limit so you can explore at your leisure.

There’s nothing wrong with the game so much as it shows its age.  The controls are a bit stiff, which is at odds with how fast you move.  The rigid jumping will frustrate the hell out of you as you try to make precision jumps.  One missed platform will drop you back as far as the beginning of the level.  While the magic you have is useful I wish there were more spells to liven up the action.  There is some variety in your spells but it’s very easy to use one spell for the entire game.  The bosses are the only things that pose any real challenge in the game and that is being generous.  Combine the short length with no real challenge and you can probably finish the game in 20 minutes.

There are far better action games on the system but that is to be expected considering the platform was viable for 7-8 years.  I can remember thinking this was the coolest game in the world back in 1989 but now it doesn’t stand the test of time.   You would be better served playing something Gunstar Heroes or Dynamite Headdy.  This game sort of acts as proof of just how far developers were able to push the Genesis over the years, something that I miss seeing.



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Yes she’s completely butt ass naked.  They didn’t give a damn it seems.

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Streets of Rage 2

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Streets of Rage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Revenge of Shinobi

Early in the Sega Genesis’ life the system was dominated by arcade ports.  The reasons for this are numerous of course, but not as overt as you would think.  Sega has always had a strong arcade heritage which continues even today.  With the release of the Genesis they now had a home console powerful enough to reasonably convert most of their more demanding arcade cabs and did so with aplomb.  Another reason came as a direct result of Nintendo’s strong arm tactics.  Third parties were locked up by stringent contracts and could not directly support Sega so they had to license their games to Sega who would then do the conversions themselves.  It’s actually mind boggling how many of these they programmed but if you loved arcade action games you were happier than a pig swimming in its own..you know.

But that’s the rub!  Arcade ports are fine but they mostly only appeal to people who were already fans to begin with.  Also arcade games are designed for one purpose: suck as many quarters as possible out of every pocket.  You can see this in games like Ghouls & Ghosts with the frustrating amount of cheap deaths that occur.  Original games designed for the home market were needed, and it’s here that Revenge of Shinobi comes in.  First of all, the intro.  For its time the intro starring Sonny Chiba as Shinobi was mind blowing.  And that music!  The whole soundtrack for the game represents Yuzo Koshiro at his peak.

A direct sequel to the arcade game, Revenge of Shinobi Joe Musashi running afoul of the Zeed organization once again, except now they have christened themselves the “Neo Zeed”.  They kidnap your girlfriend, kill your master as revenge, and you set off in pursuit.  Released in 1989, this quite possibly was the first major release that turned heads and made everyone take the system seriously.  I would even go as far as to call it a killer app.

Gameplay is split into 8 stages with 2 sections each capped off with a boss fight.  Your journey to destroy the Neo Zeed will take you from the ancient ruins hidden in a bamboo forest to a Zeed military base.  You even stop by the ship docks of New York as you finally assault the Neo Zeed marine fortress to save the girl.  Your arsenal of moves has been greatly expanded compared to the original and you’ll need every single one of them.  You still have your traditional ninja stars and when in close use your sword to conserve ammo.  The two biggest additions are the double jump and the rainbow shuriken throw (well at least that’s what I call it).  The double jump is absolutely essential to the game which is why it’s so infuriating to activate.  You have to jump at the apex of your previous leap with no margin for error.    The rainbow throw is activated in conjunction with the double jump and covers a wide area of the screen at the cost of more stars.  It’s a cool visual but will clean you out if abused.

The ninja magic system has also been overhauled completely.  You have your choice of 4 spells to use with all serving a function.  You only get 1 use per stage with 2 exceptions: collecting a power-up or using the last spell, Mijin, which sacrifices one of your lives to inflict damage and refill your life bar.  You get a point bonus for not using them at all, but you know what?  Fuck that.  The game is already hard as it is, there’s no sense punishing yourself even further.

That difficulty I just mentioned is absolutely insane.  There’s no battery backup, no passwords and limited continues.  Its all or nothing as you pursue the Zeed leader to rescue the girl.  Enemies come in waves at times with some devious trap placement.  There is a heavy emphasis on platforming and in combination with the finicky double jump will lead to many cheap deaths. The frequent bottomless pits demand near perfection of the double jump or you face death, something that the controls aren’t up to the task of handling.

It’s very easy to burn through your stock of shuriken forcing you to rely on hand to hand combat.  Hell, the boxes that contain power-ups even try to kill you in the form of explosives.  The fucking boxes try to kill you too!  The last stage consists of a maze of doors that will break the sturdiest of gamers.  I freely admit I had to cheat to find my way through it, a fact that I’m not the slightest bit ashamed of.

Sega you naughty bastards!

The bosses are in a word, awesome.  All of the bosses have unpredictable patterns and require lightning reflexes to survive.  In addition to their Sega’s own creations you will fight Spider-Man, Batman, Godzilla, and depending on the version, Devilman.  Or at least representations of them.   The licensing arrangements regarding these characters has resulted in at least 4 different versions of the game out in the wild.  The final boss battle is a controller breaking experience as you struggle to prevent Naoko from being crushed to death while fighting the Zeed leader at the same time.  There are 2 endings depending on whether you are successful or not and chances are you’ll fail.  Yes I’m predicting that you’ll fail but I speak from personal experience.

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If you’ve made it this far good luck, you’re gonna need it.

The legacy that Revenge of Shinobi has left behind is many.  The soundtrack has been performed at numerous video game music concerts and composer Yuzo Koshiro even uses some of the tracks when DJing at clubs.  Whenever Sega releases retro compilations it’s a sure bet that Revenge of Shinobi will be included in the list of classics.  It was a much needed shot in the arm for the Genesis and gave the series a boost in the public eye.

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Buy Revenge of Shinobi



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Gunstar Heroes

Look at those screenshots.  You’re looking at them and probably wondering what the hell is going on?  This my friends is Gunstar Heroes in a nutshell.  A balls to the wall action game that makes no apology for the sheer amount of chaos it thrown in your wake because it knows you have the tools to overcome all of it.  And eventually you will.  Not because it’s the point of the game but because the game is that damn good.

Developed by Treasure and released by Sega in 1993, none of us knew just what was about to hit us, partly because of Sega of America’s terrible marketing of the game.  They were too busy ramming god damn Sonic Spinball down our throat to bother rolling out the red carpet for a game that deserved to be put on a pedestal and personally, I know which one of the two deserved the marketing dollars.  But I’m going off on a tangent.

The Treasure logo upon booting up the game was unfamiliar, but would soon become associated with some of the most creative and technically brilliant action games the Genesis would play host to.  Comprised of former staff from Konami, elements of their previous work were very evident in terms of the graphical techniques they employed.  My first exposure to Gunstar Heroes came through the numerous spreads and accolades EGM heaped on the game throughout 1993.  I wouldn’t get the chance to play it until the very end of 93, where it won action game of the year from EGM.   Right away my expectations were high and when I finally got the chance to play it I was not disappointed.

The game gives you so many different attack options from the outset that it’s almost overwhelming.  Fixed or Free sh…….you know what I don’t know a single human being who has ever chosen fixed.  The weapon system is simple in appearance yet deep in implementation.  Each of the initial four weapons has specific properties; the flame is effective at close range, lightning passes through enemies, the Chaser is a homing projectile, and Force is the standard rapid fire pea shooter.

By combining any pair you can create a unique weapon that drastically more powerful and in some cases almost game breaking; homing lightning I’m looking at you.  That means there are 16 possible combinations available with weapon drops appearing frequently enough that you can experiment until you find a favorite.  In addition, hand to hand combat is also available in the form of jump kicks, belly flops, slides, and even throws.  To take it a step further in multiplayer you can even toss your partner!  Hell you can even throw a lot of the mini-bosses and end level bosses!  How fucking cool is that?

Most levels consist of brief encounters with cannon fodder enemies as you collect power-ups in between boss fights.  At times the screen will descend into utter chaos as all everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in your path.  Gunstar Heroes is not afraid to litter the playing field with enemies at a moment’s notice because regardless of the weapon(s) equipped you can clear them out in seconds with basic combat moves.  While the game attempts to overwhelm with numbers they are only an appetizer for the bosses.