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Sengoku

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Metal Slug

 

Does anyone remember Cyber Lip? It was the pack in game for the Neo Geo and let me tell you it had nothing on Contra. For the price you were paying for the system they really could have packed in a better game to show off the hardware. Now if Metal Slug was that game, oh man, I imagine legions of preteens holding their parents at knife point in hopes of getting a Neo Geo. Metal Slug was a breath of fresh air among a fighting game and shooter heavy lineup and this Saturn port is pretty much arcade perfect thanks to the required 1 meg RAM cart.

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Like any good shooter Metal Slug is packed with numerous weapons of mass destruction. The most common is the heavy machine gun, which spits bullets at a rapid fire pace in 64 directions. The rocket launcher is the most powerful by far but is has the least ammo while the shotgun isn’t too far behind but appears less frequently. My personal favorite is the flame thrower, which flambés multiple bad guys in one shot. Weapon drops are pretty constant whether it’s from some ruined background element or a hostage awarding it as thanks. It’s a wise decision as the game would be impossible if you had to rely on the standard pistol for too long.

The metal slug in the title refers to the bad ass armored tank that shows up in almost every level that can be ridden to cause mass havoc. Its Vulcan cannon comes with infinite ammo and a powerful artillery shells that can trivialize some boss encounters. It runs on gas that can be replenished but if you take advantage of the brief moment of invulnerability when exiting (hint, hint) you can pretty much avoid all damage and breeze through even the roughest sections of the game.

Compared to later installments in the series this first game seems pretty restrained in comparison. It has its moments of sheer chaos however outside of the occasional slowdown (which was present in the original) it isn’t that far above the 16-bit Contra games. The sheer spectacle of it all can be overwhelming but once you adjust you’ll find a game that despite its gore actually doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are moments of hilarity throughout such as innocent civilians taking a bath while you blow up their house or interrupting enemy soldiers roasting marshmallows over a fire. Its these little touches that give the game personality and SNK/Nazca would further expand on this in future games.

Metal Slug can be a tough beast to conquer as the sheer chaos at times can be hard to follow. You can set the starting number of lives but continues are limited and I’m pretty sure most will burn through them halfway through the game. However this Saturn edition allows you to pick a level among any you’ve conquered once you have exhausted your continues, all with a new stock of credits. Unfortunately this is a pretty short game at six stages so even novice gamers can brute force their way through it in about two hours. As a bonus this version includes an art gallery and the combat school from the Neo Geo CD which is a bunch of missions that challenge you to complete prior stages under certain conditions. It’s definitely fun but limited; Soul Edge did it better.

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The main reason you will keep returning to the game will be the graphics. Anyone familiar with In the Hunt, Undercover Cops, and Gunforce II will recognize the art style used in the game as they were all made by the same staff. There is an exquisite attention to detail in even the smallest of background elements that borders on insanity. Destroying buildings and other fortifications will shower the screen in debris that is almost mesmerizing to watch. The amount of situational animations lavished on the protagonists and even the enemies is incredible; new games in the series are still being released today using the same sprites and they still don’t look old almost 20 years later.

Porting the game intact to any system would be a tall order, least of all the PlayStation and Saturn. For the Saturn game the 1 meg Ram cart is required which bumped up the game’s price but was worth it. The game is more or less arcade perfect outside of some minor slowdown in the most extreme of circumstances. For all I know it might have been the same in the arcade, it’s been so long I don’t remember. The only concession made are 7 or 8 second load times in between levels and menus but I’ll take that over the midlevel pause breaks that plagued the PlayStation version.

Metal Slug is a near flawless conversion of an excellent game and one worth exploring for those looking looking to expand their Saturn library. While it is true that the Metal Slug Anthology exists that does not make this home port any less incredible.

8-out-of-101

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Alpha Mission

Going to Sears and Toys R Us to buy new games in the mid to late 80s was practically a religious experience growing up. Video game magazines were still in their nascent stages if they even existed at all so perusing the back of the box was still enough to get excited. Occasionally however there was always that game that seemed like it would be awesome but left you with nothing but crushing disappointment after you’d endured the 30 minute/car bus ride home. Alpha Mission was one such disappointment and is definitely a product of its time.

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Originally released in the arcade in 1985 Alpha Mission bears more than a few similarities to Xevious. There are a mix of air and ground targets that need to be destroyed and it also shares a similar graphical style. Alpha Mission comes from that old school mentality of trying to attain the highest score possible as there is no definitive end to the game; once you’ve beaten the equivalent of a final boss the game simply loops back to the first level. There’s nothing wrong with that except the game needs to be compelling enough for you to even bother completing the first loop which AM isn’t.

I freely admit part of my disillusionment with Alpha Missions stems from the fact that I played it after Gradius. While it wasn’t the greatest game in the world Gradius represented a significant step in the evolution of the shooter and going back to something so quaint in comparison is a bitter pill to swallow. SNK would eventually find their “voice” for a lack of a better term on the NES with games like Guerilla War and Crystalis but until then we had to endure crap like Ikari Warriors, Athena, and this. Like 1942 I can respect a game that was probably exceptional at release but find little reason to revisit it today.

The standard cannon isn’t very powerful but is more or less functional with your slower missiles reserved for ground targets. These aren’t simply enemies; there are a ton of background objects that can be bombed to reveal any number of power-ups. The most important would be E for energy which is what powers your secondary weapons. There’s a plethora of shooter staples present, from the Sheeld (SNK Engrish dating all the way back to the 80s holy crap), homing shot, thunder, and octo. The more powerful the armament the more energy it uses. There’s a bit of an oddity when selecting a weapon in that the game resets back to a few seconds ago, even in boss battles.

The game has a nasty side in the form of power downs that will affect you in different ways, all denoted by backwards letters. The reverse energy will sap your energy reserves while the reverse K will take all of it away. There’s even one that will set you back a third of the way through a level. For the most part these items are easy to spot but in the heat of the moment it’s easy to make a mistake and have to retread prior ground. The worst item will completely strip you down to the equivalent of a newborn baby at which point you’re going to die in seconds.

Even with these negative items the game is fairly easy. Most levels last a little over a minute and most enemy waves are so sedate that you can see them coming a mile away. The warp item appears on a regular basis meaning you’ll bypass a good portion of the already short levels. The bosses put up a little more fight but considering the game’s 1987 release you’ve more than likely faced tougher. Once you’ve completed the sixth level the game loops and might be slightly harder; I wouldn’t know because I wasn’t paying attention nor cared.

In 1987 there was some choice in NES shooters with the likes of Zanac, Stinger, and of course Gradius; all superior alternatives to Alpha Mission’s relative mediocrity.

5-out-of-101

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Ikari III – the Rescue

I have a love hate relationship with the Ikari Warriors series; I liked them in the arcade to a degree but absolutely cannot stand them in their NES forms.  Both Ikari Warriors and Victory Road are two of the worst games in the system’s library and I’ve more than made my disdain for them public.  So it is reasonable to see how I could have had low expectations going into this third installment.  It’s nice to be pleasantly surprised.  Ikari III: the Rescue completely throws out nearly everything established in the first two games and is better for it.  There are still a few niggling issues of course but this is still a solid title in the end.

First on the agenda is bringing it back down to reality.  The game wisely ignores the fact that Vince and Paul took an intergalactic detour (seriously what the fuck was up with that?) and pits them against an organization named Crime Ghost.  These evildoers have kidnapped the President’s daughter, prompting the best soldiers in the world to be drafted to save her, namely you.

Rather than a scrolling shooter the action has switched to a beat ‘em up.  Things are kept simple as you can only punch, kick, and jump kick.  The kick in particular is a bit weird as it is a full roundhouse kick that I’m sure was designed to be able to take out a group of enemies in one go but that ain’t happening here.  The jump kick is trickier to land but can be abused as you are invincible while airborne.  Secondary weapons are scarce; there are occasional items in the environment you can pick up and throw and you can get a rare machine gun with limited ammo but the focus is squarely on fisticuffs.

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What the hell are they doing?

Considering you are up against an international crime organization who seem to employ nothing but soldiers in camo gear it’s really odd that no one seems to have a gun.  This has to be the poorest army I’ve ever seen in a videogame as they have apparently invested their money in kung fu lessons rather than weapons.  If there is one criticism I have of the game it’s the lack of varied enemies.  You are going to see the same generic green guys about 90% of the time which gets old fast.  To its credit it doles out new enemies in each level but you can probably count the entire rogues gallery on two hands.

The pacing in the game is really odd.  Most of the time you’ll be swarmed by groups of 3-6 soldiers who all go down in one hit or seem more interested in their own acrobatics than attacking you.  The collision detection is suspect with the roundhouse kick being the most glaring example.  When you’re surrounded and use you should clearly take out everyone within a 360 degree radius however it completely misses most of the time.  Punches that should clearly land have no effect and it is at its most infuriating dealing with the twin bosses in the third stage.  It’s apparent someone realized this as there are life restoring hearts every few feet.  It helps but if they realized their mistake maybe someone should have fixed it rather than offering a band aid fix.

The constant hearts don’t help avoid cheap deaths however.  The game has a bad habit of throwing in tougher enemies that require more hits among the fodder; these bad asses are indistinguishable from everyone else and chances are you are going to take a few punches as a result.  If you are hit with a projectile or any other thrown object it equals instant death.  As you can imagine these instances usually happen to come out of left field.  It certainly makes most boss battles more interesting that’s for sure.

Even in light of these issues however the game still isn’t overly difficult, mostly due to infinite continues.  As a bonus you begin exactly where you left off, meaning you can simply force your way eventually with some perseverance.  The NES port has an exclusive undersea level that is basically a shooter and a highly competent one at that.  Overall this isn’t the longest adventure at just six levels but it’s fun while it lasts.

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In the arcade Ikari III was pretty stunning with large sprites and plenty of background animation in its world.  The NES port obviously can’t match it but does a decent job replicating the look of the game.  It helps that SNK did the port themselves instead of hiring god damn Micronics so it at least runs at a double digit frame rate.  It has a similar look to Guerilla War except more vibrant and with more varied environments.  Next to the solid gameplay the graphics are probably the second area I’m the most surprised by.  Both of its prequels were flickering, slowdown filled messes that seemed as though they were programmed by a team with broken fingers.  It is a bit uneven however as the earlier stages are artistically sound before the game devolves into a series of warehouses and such that all look the same.

There you have it.  Ikari III is better than I could possibly have imagined which is a miracle all things considered.  It isn’t the first action game I would go for but at the end of the day it is a solid title with a few rough spots.

7-out-of-10-1

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Fatal Fury (SNES)

I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that the vast majority of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s did not have the money to buy a Neo Geo.  At $600 you would have to hold your parents at gunpoint if they even had the cash to spare.  So the only way to experience that high quality arcade gaming at its finest would be to plunk down all of your spare change in a coin op or hope for 16-bit ports.  Takara would make a name for themselves by publishing ports of the best Neo Geo fighting games to the SNES and Genesis.  On average they were generally pretty good to excellent considering the gap in hardware but in spite of their track record they did not get off to a good start.  The SNES version of Fatal Fury is an absolutely dreadful game that robs the Geo original of all its charm, leaving a pale copy in its stead.

Allegedly Fatal Fury began development before Street Fighter 2 so there’s always been a what if scenario about the impact the game would have had if it were released first.  I don’t doubt that Fatal Fury would have been more popular but the fighting engine in SF2 was so much more advanced than every fighting game that the outcome would still have been the same.  Though it lacked the combos of that game Fatal Fury still had a colorful cast of characters with interesting special moves, great graphics, and a multi plane system that was at the least unique.

Remove pretty much all of those and you’re left with this pathetic SNES version.  From the bad controls to the missing features something went terribly wrong here.  The SNES Fatal Fury is the same game in name only and should be avoided at all costs.

The single player mode only allows you to choose between Andy, Terry, and Joe Higashi which makes sense as the rest of the cast are hired by Geese to stop you.  The heroic trio are the most versatile of the cast in terms of move set so it isn’t a loss in that regard.  You can choose your starting opponent of four who once defeated lead to the four bosses; if the formula sounds familiar that’s because it mirrors Street Fighter 2.

The home version loses a lot of what made the arcade game fun.  During single player Geese Howard kept track of your progress in cut scenes but here you only get a lame framed image with a brief quote.  The arm wrestling minigame between matches has been replaced by a tire beating game which once again is similar to the barrel busting game in Street Fighter 2.  It isn’t all bad however, all 8 boss characters are selectable in multiplayer but only for player 2; whoever thought limiting player 1 to the same three characters needs to be shot.

Neo Geo arcade cabinets only had four buttons so the control scheme is kept simple.  Just a punch, kick, and throw button.  Combos don’t exist in the game so battles feel more like brawls.  In the arcade the game operated on a dual plane system; certain attacks will knock your opponent into the background and if they jumped to the back attacking would let you follow.  That has been removed in this version removing some of the game’s unique flavor.  Being able to maneuver around your opponent added a light strategic element to combat and bouncing them off background objects was just plain sadistic fun that is nowhere to be found in this version.

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You have NO idea how hard that was to pull off.  None.

The controls are sluggish and simply aren’t responsive.  There’s a delay whenever a button is pressed that becomes frustrating to deal with in short order.  The hit detection is also suspect; I’ve seen many a direct blow go completely unregistered.  Executing special moves just flat out doesn’t work.  I’ve been playing Street Fighter for over 20 years now, I know my way around a quarter circle motion and the recognition of your input is spotty at best.  With a computer AI that is aggressive as a hornet you’ll be kissing the pavement in record time every round.  This is almost as bad as Eternal Champions.

It would be foolish to expect the SNES to match the Neo Geo game but it at least compares favorably.  The sprites have only seen a slight reduction and the color palette is nearly the same.  Some background detail has either been reduced or removed but otherwise they’ve nailed the arcade game’s look.  The music and sound effects on the other hand are absolutely butchered.  The sound effects are heavily muted and actually cut out completely over the screeching music.  Fatal Fury had a pretty good soundtrack so hearing it mangled like this is a shame; the SNES can do far better than this.

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I don’t know if it was a lack of budget or simply time constraints but Takara’s stab at Fatal Fury turned out pretty poor.  The few unique elements the game had in the arcade being removed has left this just a generic fighting game with poor controls which is the kiss of death in this genre.

4-out-of-101

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Crystalis

Looking back, for all of the Legend of Zelda’s popularity in the US there were not as many action RPGs available that were worth a damn to follow in its footsteps.  At least in America.  The Hydlides and Deadly Towers of the world far outnumbered quality games like Willow and the Magic of Scheherezade.  Before SNK caught fighting game fever they crafted a number of original titles for the NES such as the Baseball Stars series and Iron Tank.  The last thing anyone would expect to see in their gameography is an RPG but Crystalis showed how versatile they truly were.  In many ways similar to Zelda Crystalis manages to surpass it in a few categories to become one of the best NES titles of all time.

In the year 1997 (considering this was released in 1990 the developers sure were cynical about the future) Earth has been ravaged by war, causing the planet’s axis to shift and cause mutations in the populace.  After mutants have run amok across the world for years the survivors create a tower to watch over the world with enough power to protect or destroy it to prevent future chaos.  100 years later a hero awakens from cryogenic sleep to find the world teetering in the balance and must save it.

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Crystalis is a game that benefitted from years of game design refinement.  By 1990 developers had made their mistakes and discovered what did and did not work for each genre and pumped out quality titles left and right with hindsight in mind.  The adventure isn’t as free form as Zelda but moves at a faster pace, is less obtuse in its clues for progress, and in many ways is the game Zelda II should have been.

For an NES title the game’s story is fleshed out pretty well.  During the course of the journey you will meet a large stable of recurring characters such as the four sages who teach you magic, the hero Stom, and another hero who was frozen like you were.  The motivations of the people fighting against the Draygon Empire are examined and there’s even a little bit of backstory regarding the protagonist thrown in.  Throughout the game’s ten or eleven towns you will meet many NPCs that you will have to revisit from time to time.  There are even a few touching moments regarding deaths in the game which wasn’t all too common back then.  It’s nice to play a game where the townspeople serve as more than just a means to get from point A to B, especially in an 8-bit title.

The game shares the same top down view as Zelda but veers off from there.  There are a full complement of items and armor to buy and you gain levels by earning experience.  The controls are kept simple one button for attack and the other for item use.  Like A Link to the Past you can move diagonally which is a god send for games of this type.  Certain items such as the rabbit boots will allow you to jump which is necessary at set points within the game although you can set aside your fears of any forced platforming.

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The prime thrust of combat revolves around the five element swords you will eventually gain by the end of the game.  Each sword comes equipped with a charged attack that produces different attacks but at the cost of movement; you must stand still to charge.  These can be further upgraded by finding the corresponding orb and bracelet to produce devastating effects.  Obtaining a new sword never makes the old ones obsolete as there are many enemies that are immune to certain elements and weak against others.  Level 3 attacks use up MP, which needs to be used sparingly as magic plays a heavy role in the game.

Magic is learned at set points in the game, with each spell seeing heavy use.  The most important would be telepathy, not healing.  With telepathy the sages will guide you toward your next objective and provide clues if you are lost.  What I would have given to have that in both Zelda 1 or 2.  Some help to solve the puzzles in the game such as shape shifting and the requisite healing spells.  The change spell by itself is interesting to see how people react to you and what new information you can glean.  Even an otherwise useless spell such as paralysis has its story based uses.

This is a far more combat oriented game than in Zelda and truth be told the “puzzles” if you want to call them that rarely stray further than having the necessary item or using the appropriate spell at the right time.  The level 2 charge ability of each sword has secondary functions such as the sword of water’s ability to freeze lakes to create a bridge or the sword of thunder destroying iron walls.  The game is linear until its latter stages at which point there are optional areas to visit to find important power-ups.  The dungeons and caves continually increase in size, to the point a complete idiot such as myself can wander around the same four hallways for 30 minutes before noticing something’s wrong.

My only criticism are things boil down to the game’s interface and balancing.  Late in the game you will frequently run into groups of enemies that require specific swords to beat and the constant weapon switching becomes annoying in short order.  Granted the NES has limited buttons but design wise it could have been avoided.  The game gates its content by level; if you aren’t at a specific level at each point you won’t be able to damage the enemies, let alone bosses.  It’s great as it means you won’t face challenges you are unprepared for but it also means you have to grind at regular intervals to meet the minimum requirements of each specific area.  Crystalis can be challenging at times and it is unfortunate that they didn’t’ avoid the grinding pitfall of so many 9-bit RPGs.

In the end however they do little to keep Crystalis from excellence.  This is one of the best eight bit games of all time in spite of its low profile and one that I give one of my highest recommendations.  I would stay away from the Gameboy Color remake as it changes enough of the content to feel like a different game.

9-out-of-10

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Ikari Warriors

The glory days 80s, home of the big dumb action movie were a pretty glorious time.  While the cinema saw an endless list of action vehicles starring functionally retarded actors the video game world would soon see the fallout of that success.  Capcom, Konami, Data East and eventually SNK would all flood arcades with games intended to mimic those movies to varying degrees of success.  When Capcom had a hit with Commando SNK followed suit with Ikari Warriors, a series that for some god awful reason is remembered fondly.  By now you can tell I’m not a fan and this NES port certainly did not help in that regard.  This version of IW is a terrible game through and through and should be avoided at all costs.

The back and forth between Capcom and SNK has stretched as far back as the 80s and usually when the two would create competing projects in the same genre they were of comparable quality, such as Street Fighter Alpha vs. King of Fighters.  Capcom won this bout as their port of Commando is a decent game at least.  The NES port of Ikari Warriors was handled by Micronics, fine purveyor of many a hacked up NES port and suffers many of the same problems their other works have had such as insane flicker, slow frame rate and bad controls.

As the titular shirtless duo Clark and Vincent (never understood why they changed their names) as they plow through their way through the jungle to the enemy stronghold where their commanding officer is being held.  Your bullets and grenades are in limited supply but fortunately the game does a decent job of keeping you stocked.  There’s a fair amount of weapons to be had but most of it does not feel effective.  You actually have to collect a power-up to shoot long distance which is bananas to me.  The three way shot is over-powered but rare.  You can commandeer tanks and the occasional helicopter and pilot them so long as you have fuel; do everything in your power to keep the tanks as long as possible as it makes the game somewhat bearable.

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Right away you’ll notice this game has problems.  The entire game seems to be moving through molasses with sluggish movement in abundance.  You walk slowly, you fire slowly, and even hopping in a tank is slow.  Alright that last one is how it should be.  The game’s lackadaisical pace can be infuriating, especially considering how speedy the enemies are.  This will be the biggest thorn in your side as they swarm in groups of 3-5 and your gimpy dude has trouble properly aiming at two of them before they are on you.

One of the oddest bits about the game and one that unfortunately ruined this port was its system of movement.  Moving in any direction other than upward would cause you to rotate in place before moving.  It worked in the arcade as cabinets made use of a rotary joystick that made rotating a fairly smooth process.  For whatever reason the developers tried to emulate this on a home console with terrible results.  Turning is an agonizingly slow process with a d-pad, one that you can’t afford when tanks and other such obstacles have a bearing on you.  As if the slow walking speed weren’t bad enough wading in water makes you even slower and there are long stretches of this.

With all of these factors working against it Ikari Warriors ends up being one of the most difficult NES games ever.  You are going to die pretty frequently, most of the time to cheap shit you can’t avoid.  Random land mines, stray bullets, and the blast radius from grenades are the main culprits.  When your tank runs out of fuel or is about to explode you can expect to die since you move too slowly to escape the radius of the explosion.  Anytime you have to enter the water you can expect to lose a few lives before it’s over.  Continuing is done through a code that you have a brief window to input after death and even then is limited.

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Ikari Warriors was a decently long game in the arcade and unfortunately the home port is a victim of excess.  Rather than individual levels it was one extremely long stage that culminated in an assault on the enemy fortress and one of the strangest final boss fights of all time.  Micronics decided to make the game longer by splitting the game up into four areas.  Splitting is the wrong word, they’ve added three more stages that are each just as long as the entire arcade game itself.  By the time you’ve made it to the end of the first one alone (a grueling process, trust me) any motivation to keep going and do it all over again three more times will disappear in a heartbeat.

These new levels mostly recycle and remix the same assets which defeats the purpose of adding this supposed new content.  There are a few new enemies that end up being bigger pains in the ass then the normal blue soldiers such as the large club wielding bad elites who are all but invincible. There is a new final boss that pales in comparison to the dead alien (I swear to God) of the arcade.  I can’t completely knock the sentiment of offering new content but they should have worked on actually making the game playable first.

This wasn’t a very good game to begin with so any port was already working at a disadvantage.  The fact that it is racked with technical issues makes it that much worse and a game that is best left forgotten.  Why did publishers keep hiring Micronics?  Did they work for a six pack of beer and corn nuts or something?  I just don’t get it.

4-out-of-101

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Athena

When you think of mascot games they’re usually extremely polished affairs that put their best foot forward to present their home company in a positive light.  Mario, Sonic, Crash Bandicoot, even Gex managed to star in some pretty awesome games (that’s not a slight against Gex, but honestly he was in the C-tier of mascots).   But then there were the minor leaguers who weren’t fit to carry the A-listers luggage.  Once upon a time SNK, long before fighting in the streets became popular, pushed Athena Asamiya as their corporate face.  Yes, that Athena from King of Fighters.  Nothing wrong with using a Greek goddess to show you mean business but guess what?  All of her games were terrible with the NES game classified as a hate crime against children everywhere.

Athena is the princess of the kingdom of Victory and bored.  Palace life sucks when everything is perfect and so she opens the “Door Which Shouldn’t Be Opened” and lands in a new world full of danger, Earth.  Just kidding.  Athena lands in Fantasy World and with its monsters ruled by the Emperor Dante it’s everything she could have asked for as she prepares to fight for her life.

Originally released in the arcade Athena had aspirations of being a deep platform with adventure game elements but it never came together in the end.  There was a hit gauge and strength meter that served no real purpose other than to look pretty. There were a ton of different weapons and armor to collect but in the end the game’s fatal flaw is that it completely botches the fundamentals of gameplay.  The controls and hit detection are flat out bad, leading the rest of the game to fail as a result.

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I wailed on this bastard for 15 minutes once only to realize I was somehow missing his stupid hit box.

And somehow the NES version is even worse.  The hit and strength meters are gone and simplify the game in the process for the better.  At least it should.  Frankly, this version of Athena has some of the worst hit detection I’ve ever experienced in the thousands of games I’ve played.  No matter the weapon used to attack there’s never a solid sense of connection.  Most games use hit sparks, knock backs in combination with sound effects to let you know your attack was effective.  Not so here.  Something as blatant as the ball and chain will clearly pass through multiple enemies with no effect.  Even projectile weapons seem to lack punch.

Because of this it’s very easy to get killed in seconds.  Since there’s no moment of temporary invincibility enemies that touch you can drain your life bar in seconds.  There’s no visual or audio indication when it’s occurring so prepare to die with no knowledge how numerous times.  Your only choice is to move since weapons are unreliable but the jerky animation and input lag make even this simple task a chore.  There’s a sense that the game is either incomplete or poorly programmed and looking at the credits Micronics once again completely ruined an NES port of an arcade game.  Seriously these guys must have been dirt cheap to hire considering their piss poor track record.

A good portion of every level will find you smashing blocks either for items or to continue progress and the hit detection makes this more of a hassle than it should be.  Another issue I have is that not every weapon can crush blocks and the game just loves to drop these at random.  It’s actually pretty amazing how determined the game is to saddle you with a lesser weapon.  Level 3’s World of Sea is especially bad at this as new enemies spawn endlessly as you try to bust the blocks that lead to the level’s exit.  In fact I found most of the weapons and armor in the game to be superfluous.   I suppose the different armor colors represent increased defense but fuck me if they seemed to make any difference.

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Graphically this is actually a pretty good port from the arcade but it falls apart in motion.  The animation appears to be missing significant frames and there’s tons of flicker and slowdown for no apparent reason.  And the game is as glitchy as one of those Tengen or Wisdom Tree unlicensed games.  Items and enemies seem to disappear at random and the bosses function as though they were programmed incorrectly.  If I could actually remember any of the music in the game I would comment but alas it was entirely forgettable.

This ranks up there as one of the worst NES games of all time.  How did we get suckered into buying it back in the day?  Well the box art looks pretty cool actually but that wasn’t anything special back then.  If you go back and look at the cover art of any Atari 2600 game you’d be led to believe your about to go on some epic adventure when in reality it was just a bunch of construction blocks.  I guess with experience we should have known better.

4-out-of-101

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Art of Fighting

At the time of SNK’s fighting game renaissance Art of Fighting was one of its most unique series and next to World Heroes less popular.  As the next game to follow Fatal Fury and to also back in Street Fighter 2’s light it had its fans but its gameplay systems were probably a bit too far out of the norm for most to take a shine to.  Takara, who had started making a name for themself publishing the 16-bit conversions of SNK’s games turned out a pretty damn good SNES port which was surprising considering the technical gap between platforms.

Yuri Sakazaki has been kidnapped leading her older brother Ryo and his best friend Robert Garcia to hit the mean streets of Southtown in search of clues to her whereabouts.  Their search will eventually have them run afoul of the local mafia of Southtown as they uncover the mastermind behind the plot.

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Art of Fighting stood out in the arcade for a number of reasons but the most important would be because of its scaling effect and large characters.  These were some of the largest fighting game sprites at the time, literally occupying ¾ of the screen when in close.  They’re so huge in fact that the game has to zoom out to keep everything in perspective.  In the arcade it was an eye catching effect, one that would later be used in Samurai Shodown as well.  Surprisingly the SNES port keeps the effect by slightly reducing the size of the characters but it’s all there although it isn’t as smooth as the arcade.  The fact that they were even able to squeeze the game relatively intact for the SNES was a god damn miracle in and of itself.

The game’s single player mode is limited by the fact that you can only play as Ryo or Robert which makes sense.  It’s not much of a choice when it comes down to it as they both play identically and even share the same moves.  The game tries to offer flimsy reasons as to why you have to kick in the teeth of each member of the cast but let’s be real, no one cares.  I wouldn’t exactly call it an extensive story mode but there were cut scenes in between matches that this port lacks although the inane pre fight dialogue has been kept.

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While the single player is constrained to two choices multiplayer gives access to the entire roster plus the two bosses via code.  The variety is appreciated but I’ll be honest, this is one of the most generic casts of pugilists assembled.  Ryo and Robert fulfill the Ken and Ryu archetype.  Lee Pai Long is a Chinese version of Vega, John Crawley might as well be the love child of Arnie and Guile, and Mickey is your Balrong stand in. You know the cast wouldn’t look out of place in Double Dragon, especially Jack.  Thankfully the game brought some interesting ideas to the table to help cover up its lack of interesting characters.

In terms of gameplay AoF is not your ordinary 2d fighting game.  While all characters have special moves they’re governed by a spirit gauge that depletes when they are used.  Spirit slowly refills as a match goes on and can be replenished manually but this leaves you open to attack.  A well placed taunt will deplete your opponent’s spirit as well although the same applies to you.  Managing spirit adds an extra tactical element to the proceedings since you’re more likely to save your special moves than spam them uncontrollably.

The spirit gauge could have slowed the gameplay but Art of Fighting added a few mechanics that have since become standardized within the genre.  Dashing helps to keep the pressure up on players who try to turtle while back dashes enable quick escapes.  Wall jumping allowed you to close the gap relatively quickly and when you’re life bar dips too low desperation moves were enabled although I will say you’re a better man than me if you can pull them off.  I have my gripes with the controls; strong attacks are enabled by pressing the throw button after using punch or kick.  This limitation made sense as Neo Geo cabinets only had four buttons and here the last is used for taunting.  The SNES controller has six; they could just as easily included the option like World Heroes to map them separately.  Hell I don’t even know why there needs to be a throw button; every sensible fighting game enables them once you’ve gotten in close.

This is not a combo heavy game and in fact stringing together more than two hits in succession is an accomplishment.  Most hits result in a knockdown and in fact attacks inflict so much damage that a single three hit combo would probably end the match.  The damage from attacks in general seems off, a problem SNK had with many of their other arcade games.  Combine that with the vicious AI and you have one tough nut to crack.  Art of Fighting has the early symptoms of SNK boss syndrome as Mr. Karate is insanely cheap and will chain multiple Zanretsukens if you are knocked down at any time.

This SNES port is a more than respectable version of a solid game.  It has its fair share of gameplay innovations and frustrations but in the end Art of Fighting is still a decent game today.

7-out-of-10

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King of Fighters ’95

When you think about the King of Fighters was such a great idea I’m surprised no one else had attempted before.  The idea of an inter-company crossover is the stuff of fan boy dreams when you get right down to it, that’s why Super Smash Brothers is so popular.  Applying that to a fighting game was downright genius; I honestly thought Capcom would have done it first rather than SNK.  The King of Fighters ’94 was an awesome but flawed game that resonated with fans and lead to the far superior 1995 installment, the game that I believe truly put the series on the map.

Rugal Bernstein, organizer of the prior tournament, has apparently survived the events of the first tournament and sent invitations for the latest King of Fighters.  While standalone the events of KoF 95 would be retconned into the Orochi Saga not that this fact is important to 90% of fighting game fans.  What matters the most is that the game is back and better than ever.  Both the Saturn and Playstation versions of Kof ’95 were released closed to each other in Japan however it would be SCEA who would secure the exclusive US rights along with Samurai Shodown III.  Normally this would be a good thing but in this respect we got hosed out of the superior conversion.

At the time King of Fighters had the largest roster available in the genre at 24 characters.  Consisting of pugilists from 4 prior SNK games (Psycho Soldier, Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, and Ikari Warriors, yes really)every team from ’94 returns with the exception of the terrible, stereotypical Sports  squad.  Taking their place is the new rival team consisting of the too cool for school Iori Yagami, fan favorite Eiji Kisaragi, and uh, Billy Kane.   The team is a great addition and makes the series feel “complete”; the rivalry between Kyo and Iori would be one of the main forms of conflict for the duration of the series.

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With such a large roster pretty much all of the bases are covered in terms of fighting style.  All of the returning characters such as Terry Bogard, Joe Higashi, and the Art of Fighting crew play identically to their respective series while the newer combatants fall into familiar niches.  The King of Fighters has many subtle elements that help distinguish it from Street Fighter such as the evasive dodging and manually charging your super meter outside of taking damage.  The rigid team structure has been loosened up with the addition of team edit, allowing you to create your own three man squad.  This was the most glaring omission from the first game and possibly the most requested feature.  The freedom to mix and match to create custom teams allows gamers of all stripes to settle on a group composition to their liking without being saddled by one or two characters they simply have no affinity for.

New to the series are desperation moves which become active when you are left with 25% health.  If you can pull off the ridiculous button combination you’ll be granted an extremely cheap attack that will more than likely win the match if it connects.  The level of damage from attacks in general is exceptionally higher than normal and something that was becoming an issue in many of SNK’s fighters.  A quick 3 hit combo can drain up to 60% of your life making each round a relatively quick affair.  I suppose the fact that you have 3 party members does soften the blow a bit but it does mean you have less time to really enjoy the combat system.

It does also mean you’ll have to deal with this port’s biggest flaw: the load times.  In between every round are 5-6 second load times as well as the end of each match.  Considering you can decimate an opponent in as little as 10-15 seconds you’ll be staring at that loading screen quite often and it really breaks the flow of combat.  Even Capcom managed to keep the loading to a minimum with their port of Street of Fighter Alpha, meaning they could have done better.  Unfortunately outside of owning a Neo Geo or importing the stellar Saturn version this was the only option available at the time.  I remember hoping and praying for an SNES port (back when I knew nothing of RAM limitations and animation frames) so this was the next best thing.  I don’t know that anyone would have the patience to sit through an extended session with this port when there are superior options available.

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There were some sacrifices made to fit the game within the PlayStation’s confines.  The animation has taken a step down and is noticeable to arcade aficionados.   The backgrounds however are identical.  This series lacks the clean look of the Street Fighter Alpha series with its pixelated sprite art but it’s strangely appealing.  The arranged soundtrack is fantastic and one of my all-time favorite fighting game OSTs off all time.  The music spans a wide range of genres from hard rock and jazz to the more classical.

At the time of its release this port was a more than solid rendition of a classic quarter muncher.  These days it’s been surpassed by numerous arcade perfect ports on the various digital download services.  There aren’t enough extra features available to overcome the gap in quality, leaving this a relic of its time.

6-out-of-10-1

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World Heroes

At some point SNK fell completely head over heels with fighting games.  Seriously, if fighting games were your favorite genre you needed a Neo Geo, as much as 50-60% of its library is comprised of just that.  Had the Neo Geo been reasonably priced (you think the PS3 was bad?   Try $600 dollars back in 1989 when the majority of the gaming audience was still barely teenagers) I don’t doubt for a second that it would have made a bigger splash in the market simply based on how insane the fighting game craze became in the 90s.  With so many of these games being cranked out of their factory SNK had to be pretty creative in making each one stand out and one of their better attempts came in the form of World Heroes.

While World Heroes borrows a lot from Street Fighter it at least has an original premise.  A scientist named Doc Brown has created a time machine and organizes a tournament of the 8 greatest fighters in history to see who was the strongest of all time.  How’s that for a plot?  Yeah I know, there are plenty more interesting things you can do with a time machine but as far as fighting games are concerned World Heroes at least tried to be different.

Most of the 8 fighters are based on or associated real world and fictional characters.  Hanzo and Fuma are based on real ninjas who were at odds with one another and play a similar role in the game.  Rasputin is based on Grigori Rasputin, an alleged mystic from the 19th century; it is this aspect of the character that is drawn upon for his video game counterpart.  Janne is inspired by Joan of Arc.  Muscle Power…….is Hulk Hogan.  Any of you kids not familiar with Hulk Hogan and his real American phase go look it up on YouTube.  Kim Dragon is the stereotypical Bruce Lee clone nearly every fighting game has to includ as a prerequisite.

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While the characters were actually interesting individuals based on their historical back stories gameplay wise each is virtual carbon copy of someone on the Street Fighter roster.  Dragon is quick on his feet and has similar moves to Fei Long, although he was created first.  Muscle Power has similar special moves to Zangief and Hanzo and Fuma fulfill the Ryu/Ken roles to a tee.  Brocken is a mix of Blanka, M.Bison, and Dhalsim.  The few who don’t follow a well-worn mold such as Janne and Rasputin present a bit of a challenge to utilize efficiently since their move priorities are different.

World Heroes control scheme was simplified in many ways.  There is only one punch and kick button, with a third for throws.  The buttons were pressure sensitive to give you control over when you launch a weak or strong attack.  Personally I found it stupid as the Neo Geo arcade units had 4 buttons, leaving one button useless.  Many special moves are simple back, forward + A or B combinations, taking advantage of the simple controls.  For the most part though if you’ve played Street Fighter or any similar game you can jump right in with the skills you’ve honed.

Although World Heroes is derivative it does have one unique feature: Death Match.  Choosing Death Match will replace the typical fighting arenas in each country with a wrestling ring filled with different hazards you have to avoid while facing your opponent.  As a bonus you can force your enemy into these same hazards for extra damage.   These take many forms, from simple oil puddles that cause you to slide, to spiked walls or electrified ropes.  It was an interesting addition and one that made 2-player versus matches even more fun.

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The SNES version is simply put terrible.  While it mimics the looks of the MVS unit pretty well it’s missing some of the voice samples as well as some background detail.  It wasn’t exactly a stunner compared to Art of Fighting or Fatal Fury 2 but World Heroes was easy on the eyes and ears, and sadly the SNES port loses some of that.  But the biggest flaw is the game’s lethargic pace.  The entire game seems as though it’s moving through molasses and it throws off the “feel” of the game.  I also found the special move prompts to have spotty recognition; for a genre that lives or dies by its responsiveness this is the kiss of death.

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The Genesis rendition, licensed and reprogrammed by Sega, wins by virtue of the fact that it ‘s closer the arcade game’s speed.  Everything feels right and the game moves at a brisk pace.  As a bonus, for those that have a six button controller the game will automatically switch the controls so that light and hard attacks have their own individual buttons.  You could also do this in the Nintendo version but it was nice to see the six button pad supported.  Sadly the Genesis version is even worse than the SNES game when it comes to production values.  I will give Sega credit for trying but the 64 color limit really hurts the graphics.  Nearly all of the voice acting from the arcade is missing and don’t get me started on the sound effects and music.  Special Champion Edition sounds like a symphony compared to this.

So there you have it.  Both ports suffer from their share of problems and although there is a clear victor it doesn’t mean much.  World Heroes was only slightly above average to begin with; take two ports that both don’t even match that subpar standard and you have a bad game that shouldn’t be bothered with.

5-out-of-101