Freedom Planet Review

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Sonic The Hedgehog. He’s seen a number of ups, and downs over the years. The consensus seems to be his earliest adventures on the Sega Genesis, Sega CD, Sega Master System, and Game Gear were his greatest glory days. Fast, frantic, platforming action that involved any number of paths to victory. But after the Dreamcast faded into obscurity Sonic went in all kinds of directions. Many of them terrible. A few of them average, and a few that were pretty good. But I’m not here to talk about Sonic this time.

PROS: Really amazing pixel art, chip tunes, and the game play you remember.

CONS: The shortcomings you remember. Padding.

BIKES: If running fast isn’t enough you can speed around like Chris Pine in Star Trek.

When Sonic The Hedgehog was released it was only a matter of time before the imitators would come about. People dump on Bubsy, but that game was far from the worst clone. Awesome Possum, Aero The Acrobat, even The Road Runner had a Sonic inspired game. So with so many others that didn’t hit the mark, what makes this game stand out in the sea of Sonic contenders?

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For starters, Freedom Planet absolutely nails the feeling of Sonic The Hedgehog. The physics, the sense of speed, all of it. If you’re a big Sonic fan who longs for a return to the 16-bit glory days of yesteryear, buy it. I could end it there. I’m serious. This is bar none, one of the best Sonic clones you can get. But there are a lot of things that set it apart from its biggest inspiration.

Freedom Planet has a deeper, darker, storyline than the Sonic games. Most of the Sonic games feature Dr. Robotnik/Eggman imprisoning animals, stealing emeralds, and holding the world hostage. Freedom Planet instead involves a much more detailed plot. It opens up with a King being killed by a despot in cold blood in front of his son. Who is then taken hostage, and forced to fight for the despot. It wasn’t something I was expecting going into this. But it got my attention for sure.  From there you discover that there is an all-powerful stone that three kingdoms on the planet safeguard, and of course the despot wants it for himself.

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From here the game opens up, and you can choose to play either an adventure mode or a standard mode. Playing the adventure mode, will let you experience cut scenes, and the stages are played in different orders depending on which of the three characters you choose. Going with the standard mode eschews the cut scenes, and you play every stage in order. Like a traditional platformer from the era the game pays homage to.

The interesting thing with the adventure mode is that you’ll get a slightly different experience each time you play through it. That’s because the game is played through the eyes of each character. The three characters are: Carol, a green wild cat. Lilac, a purple dragon, and Milla (an unlockable character), a dog. Each of the characters has their own attacks, and abilities making each play through a little bit different. Carol has some speedy punches, and kicks. She can also ride a motorcycle if you find gas can power ups. Lilac has a useful double jump. Milla has a shield, and can throw cubes.

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Once you start playing though you will immediately be reminded of Sega’s most popular mascot platformer. The same sense of speed. The same loops, twirls, and crazy tracks fill the game’s 14 stages. With all of the collectibles, 1-Ups, power ups, and health items in each of them you can opt to try to find everything, or you can try to clear everything as fast as possible. I know I’ve waxed on about how many Sonic influences there are, but the game also has a surprising number of similarities to Capcom’s Mega Man X series too. This becomes apparent in the game’s combat, and enemy designs. Instead of jumping on bad guys to defeat them, you’ll punch, kick, or hit them several times to take them out. Freedom Planet is also a big fan of putting in multipart stages, and mini-bosses. Some of these are really imposing, and lead you to believe you’re at the end of a stage. Only to discover you still have a way to go.

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Boss fights themselves are grandiose in Freedom Planet. These moments feel more like playing an arcade beat ’em up than they do a platformer. Although you’ll discover they have attack patterns, again in the vein of a Mega Man X title. But some of these, especially toward the end of the game can be really impressive in both challenge, and visual flair.

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Freedom Planet also has the courtesy to grant players four different difficulty levels. If you’re absolutely horrible at this sort of platformer, or even platformers in general the Casual setting is for you. It is nearly impossible to lose a life if you’re even remotely good at these kinds of games. But from there you have Easy, Medium, and Hard difficulty settings. With the latter going very much into the “Get good!” end of things. Aesthetically, everything in the game is beautiful. Galaxy Trail’s pixel artists should be commended for just how well they’ve recreated the look of games of the early 90’s. As you play through this one, you’ll be constantly reminded of those days on the Genesis, and Super NES. It really is a beautiful game to look at. The soundtrack is just as good, going for the twinge lo-fi synth of the Sega Genesis, and early computer sound cards like the AdLib. The tunes themselves are filled with hooks, and melodies you’ll want to hum along to. If you want a game that will satisfy your nostalgia, while giving you something new, this fits the bill.

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There are also some other small galleries you can visit when not playing the main game. Throughout the main game are cards you can find, and these will unlock sound files, songs from the soundtrack, and concept art in these galleries. Not something that the average player might get into. But for players who become big fans of the story, characters, and lore, it gives an incentive to replay the game a few times.

Of course, I did have a few minor complaints with this one that may be bigger concerns for someone else. First off, because it adheres so closely to many of Sonic The Hedgehog’s rules it has some of the annoyances. There are times you’ll have to make blind jumps, only to land on an enemy or a hazard. This can lead to some moments of trial, and error. While not a major problem that ruins the game, Some might feel it detracts from an otherwise enjoyable experience.

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Another issue is near the end of the game there is a shoot ’em up stage, and it doesn’t feel up to the same standard as the rest of the game. The bigger issue is there is no checkpoint after completing it. It is considered a part of the following stage, which is a pretty long one. So if you run out of lives, shut off the game, and come back to it later you’ll have to play the entire shmup part again. So unfortunately, instead of feeling like some variety, it ends up feeling like padding. Again, not a problem that makes the game unplayable by any means. But it really could have used a checkpoint at the end.

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Overall though, Freedom Planet is a wonderful platformer. It feels like an homage to Sonic, and Mega Man X while also being unique enough to stand on its own. It has some of those mechanics, but it adds enough of its own original ideas, and tweaks thus avoiding becoming a forgettable wannabe. In fact, the game did well enough when it launched three years ago that a sequel is around the corner. So whether you play it on the Wii U, PC, or the recent release on the PS4 you won’t regret it.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Time Soldiers Review

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While the world was getting hyped about E3 last week (and yeah, there are some cool looking games coming down the pike. I’ve been peeking in on conferences when I can.) I was hunting for some additions to my collection. I stumbled upon a Master System cartridge I’ve rarely seen outside of conventions, and it was pretty cheap so I thought “Why not?” The box art alone was worth the price of admission. But I got a fairly compelling action title in the process.

PROS: A really cool take on the classic top down run n’ gun.

CONS: Difficulty spikes, occasional collision issues.

WOAH: Giant dinosaurs with laser guns. What’s not to love?

Originally a twin-stick arcade shooter by ADK (The folks who gave us World Heroes), Time soldiers was ported by Sega to the Master System.  Before you even open the box to put the game in you’ll marvel at the artwork. It has everything a child of the 80’s was into. Dinosaurs, rocket launchers, and tanks. Once you start playing, you’ll see it lives up to the lofty promises the box advertises.

The setup is that in the distant future, a despotic, intergalactic Warlord decides to conquer the Earth. To do this, he traps many of the world’s best soldiers in different time periods throughout history. The guy basically looks like the Anti-Monitor from The Crisis On Infinite Earths, and probably has a lot of the same powers. So “Why couldn’t he just destroy the world with antimatter?” seems like a good question to ask.

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Anyway, you have to go on a quest to rescue each of these warriors from their cells throughout history. On paper, this seems pretty straightforward. Go kill bad guys, and blow up stuff in a sequential order, and roll the end credits. Time Soldiers takes inspiration from earlier run n’ guns like Ikari Warriors, and Commando. You play from a top down perspective, and do just that. Kill hundreds of enemies who come charging at you guns blazing.

But what makes this game stand out from almost every other game of its ilk, is the fact that it is never the same game twice. Time Soldiers, places each of these hostages in a different place every time, and you have to kill a boss in order to proceed. Often times, the game will not place you in the proper time period from the get go. So you’ll play the first stage, and then be sent to a new era.

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Each of the eras has a few different versions, and these will vary depending on when you’re sent to that era. So if you get sent to the Prehistoric era on stage two, it will have one version. But get sent there again a few stages later, and it will be a variant. The game will also make you fight a mini boss if you’re in the wrong era for the current hostage you’re tracking down. Defeating the mini boss will then either open another time machine (which look suspiciously like the portals from Stargate) where you’ll have to go to another time period or it will summon the actual boss.

The bosses are pretty cool. They’re not nearly as difficult as the stages are. But they’re large, and interesting sprites. They remind me a lot of the encounters of Alien Syndrome, though the patterns are much easier to learn than in that classic. But don’t be fooled by a lower difficulty. Time Soldiers only affords you two continues  on the Master System. Since you die if ANYTHING touches you, this game still isn’t an easy one. Especially since the game may send you on longer paths during certain rescues. The saving grace are some boss warps that can skip you ahead to a boss fight. On the other hand, if you aren’t powered up, taking them down with a pea shooter makes things more intimidating.

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Time Soldiers does offer a wide variety of weapons. In that respect it can feel like Contra. The thing is, these armaments aren’t permanent. After so many shots, or so many seconds they run out of ammo. So often times you’ll want to conserve them for taking down bosses, or mini bosses. You get these, power ups, and boss warps by shooting specific enemies in any given level. Basically, you’ll want to shoot as many targets as possible, because as the game goes on things will only get tougher.

Time Soldiers has a really nice look to it, and embraces the absurdity of everything. Dinosaurs shoot lasers. Ancient Romans have shields that can take a ton of bullets before going down. The mini bosses continue the weirdness, with cutesy, pink helicopters just being the tip of the iceberg. Everything is colorful, and some of the backgrounds are interactive in a sense. Going over tall grass or mud will slow you down. There are a few catchy chip tunes to thump along with the action, and the sound effects stand out against some of the other titles in the genre.

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Overall, it’s a really good action game for the Master System, and easy to recommend you add to your collection. It’s also one of the more affordable obscure games out there. It was also available on some computer formats, but as I don’t have any of those versions, I can’t really comment on them. Still, if you have a chance to check one of them out, you just may want to. If I had any major issues with this Master System version, it would be the occasionally weird collision detection. Most of the time things go the way they’re supposed to, but I did notice a few occasions where I passed through enemies I shouldn’t have, or got stuck on a piece of scenery in one game, but not on a repeat attempt. It isn’t enough to ruin the game, but it is something holding it back a little bit. Otherwise, it’s a solid addition to any collector’s library.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Mecarobot Golf Review

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At a recent retro game trade event I saw something too peculiar to not pick up. It was a golfing video game. The fact it was a golf game isn’t the odd part. The oddity comes from the giant robot on the artwork. Plus it was published by TOHO. The folks behind Godzilla. At that point, how could I not pick it up on the cheap? The Atari 7800 graced us with a ninja themed golf game. Could the Super NES top it with a killer robot armed with golf clubs? I decided to investigate.

PROS: A pretty good console golf simulator. Great use of the Super NES’ mode 7 effects.

CONS: Single player only. So you’ll REALLY have to like golf to get enjoyment out of it.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY: The TOHO characters you love are nowhere to be seen.

Originally called Nobuo Serizawa’s Birdy Try in Japan, Mecarobot Golf is a pretty good golf simulator. The original version had a setup where Nobo Serizawa would play 18 holes against stiff competition. This version is mainly the same except the characters were all changed for the North American market. One of the most peculiar being the switch from a famed Japanese golf star to a robot.

To go along with these changes, there was a back story created for the game. Apparently, in the future robots aren’t allowed to play golf. So an eccentric billionaire builds a special course for Eagle. He’s the robot you see on the game’s cover art. You’ll be playing 18 holes against Eagle, and that’s pretty much it.

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Mecarobot Golf is a pretty good golf game though. You have three main modes to choose from. You can practice driving balls to your heart’s content. You can play with tutorials through the game, and you can play the main mode. Which is really the reason to pop this Game Pak in.

When starting the game, you’ll name your golfer, and select a set of clubs. These also act as the difficulty level, as the set you choose determines your handicap. Once you’ve done this, you’ll have a character file that keeps tabs on all of your stats. You can also save your current game if you don’t want to play all 18 holes in a single sitting.

Visually, the game is quite nice. Sprites are really colorful, with a lot of smooth golfing animations. The use of mode 7 scaling is great too, making for some nice Outrun feeling drives, as you watch the ball zoom above the course. The golfing sound effects are pretty good too, conveying the feel of hitting the ball, and the sound of the ball rolling into the cup. Musically, there isn’t much to write home about. Some soft tunes to go along with the quiet, solitary golf experience.

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The golfing experience here is pretty good though. You can alter you footing, and the viewing angle of the course. You’ll get important information on your HUD, like the distance, and wind speed. Or the number of strokes for par. The ball physics are even pretty nice, and the game does a good job of simulating the feeling of golfing on different terrain.

Honestly, if you are a big fan of golf games, you’ll probably want to pick this one up. The underlying simulation is a commendable effort. However, there are a few missed opportunities that drag the experience down a bit. First off, the lack of any of TOHO’s major film characters. There’s already a cool robot your golfing against. Being able to play as Godzilla, Mothra, or another giant monster would have been awesome. Weird, but awesome. But the biggest strike against the game is a complete lack of multiplayer. Sports games are always more fun to play with friends. If you’re coming into this for a multiplayer experience, or a monster movie experience, you’re going to be disappointed.

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Nevertheless, if you collect obscure, silly, or just plain absurd games, and you like golf check this one out. It’s not terribly expensive, and it’s a solid game to boot. Golf purists may want to import the Super Famicom version as giant killer robots might not be their specific interest.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

 

Mirage: Arcane Warfare Review

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It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Torn Banner’s Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. Oh it has some issues. Weird bugs that don’t affect game play. Advanced tactics the community is split on how fair or unfair they may be. But overall it is a good game that a lot of people loved. Seriously, it’s done fairly well over the last few years. While things are tapering off of it now, it was a great example of a big game from a small studio. If you never played Chivalry, give it a spin. It goes on sale on Steam a few times a year, for a really low price. It basically took the Battlefield style of game play, put it in a Medieval setting, and gave it a deep melee system. The unique controls are a cut above most any other sword attacks in other First person shooters. Letting you “steer” your attacks. Mirage takes these swinging mechanics, and implements them into a different setting.

PROS: Improved mechanics. New magical abilities. Character designs. Customization.

CONS: Server connectivity issues. Team Objective mode isn’t as deep as it is in Chivalry.

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: The swords, and sorcery bring many reminders of the IP.

On the one hand, you can think of Mirage: Arcane Warfare as Chivalry with spells. But on the other hand, you really can’t. Mirage does carry over the mouse swinging sword fighting of Chivalry. You can swing overheads, swing horizontally, and stab. You can still steer the swings (The community calls this “dragging”) in any direction. This gives you a way to fake people out. Turning vertical , and horizontal swings into diagonal, or curved swings. Or speeding them up a bit. Or slowing them down a bit. The difference here is Torn Banner has altered the system mildly. In Chivalry it was possible to move the camera so wildly, skilled players could do helicopter swings, or arch so far back, their swords could hit people behind them. Of course equally skilled players could see this coming, and either block it properly, or even back pedal, and tire the tricksters out.

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But here some of the really extreme stuff is toned down. You still have plenty of depth, but you won’t be doing some of the over the top stuff. However, Mirage adds spells into the mix. This alters the combat significantly, and while many had their doubts, it works. In fact it works so well, that it really does accent the sword fights nicely. Each of the game’s six classes, can choose three of six spells. Each unique to the specific class. To keep the game from being spam heavy these have RPG style cool down periods. So if you use a spell, it’s going to be awhile before you can use it again. The cool down periods vary depending on the spell. Spells can also complement another spell, and sometimes that means complementing a spell cast by one of the other classes on your team. This adds all kinds of depth to a pretty cool system. On top of that, blocking has been beefed up a bit over Chivalry too. Not only can you block the melee attacks that come your way, but the spells as well! Just like Torn Banner’s last game, blocking requires knowing the timings, and aiming at the tip of the attack. So becoming proficient will take a lot of practice.

Each of the classes suits a different play style. There are six, each of which has their own pros, and cons.  The Taurant is a big brooding tank character. He gets heavy swords, and axes. He dishes out a ton of punishment on enemies, and his spells continue that theme. The Vigilist takes a lot of inspiration from the Knight class in Chivalry. She gets a shield, and pole arm. Her spells are focused a lot on defending the team. Like the giant dome she can put down, that is temporarily impervious to enemy spells. Then you have the Entropist. This class acts as a combat medic, while also being a great backup. He has spells that are centered around healing teammates, as well as some nice ranged attacks. The coolest spell he has will summon a magic carpet he can fly on, and attack from.

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Rounding things out are the Vypress, who is a faster, attack-heavy class. She can dual wield weapons, and she has spells focused on movement, and misdirection. She’s one of the weaker classes, but a skilled player can avoid, and parry a lot of stuff coming their way. The Tinkerer is speedy, and has spells that are great for booby traps. The Alchemancer is Mirage’s ranged class. You can either play him as a purely ranged character, who casts fireballs from afar. Or as a melee attacker. The thing to remember though is he is even weaker than the Vypress, and doesn’t have the speed on his side. Still his spells are great for supporting teammates, and quietly sneaking around.

One departure the game makes from Chivalry is in the weaponry. Where that game had a ton of weapons for each class to unlock, and debate over placing in a load out, this game doesn’t. There are still a lot of cool weapons in the game, but each class can only choose from a primary or secondary weapon. You can’t be swinging a mace, and then decide to switch to a hatchet. This is due to the importance of the aforementioned spells. Still, the weapons you can choose from, are all pretty interesting, and have their own stats. Some have better range, while some weigh less, and can be swung faster. Some do more damage, but are slow. And the weapons can be paired with spell combinations to some great effect after you’ve experimented, and practiced enough.

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Mirage has a lot of modes to choose from as well. There is the traditional Team Death match mode, where teams compete for frags. As well as a Last Team Standing mode called Arena. Here, teams go head to head until only one of them has any survivors. There are also a variant of Capture The Flag, where one team has to grab their randomly placed Jinn, and get it to their designated spot to have it planted. While this is going on, there are control points called Demiglyphs that can be held for bonus points.

Then there’s an actual Control Point mode, where you capture Glyphs, and Demiglyphs. If you hold the point long enough, you’ll get 20 or 10 points depending on the size. Glyphs are the larger of the two, so conventional wisdom would say to go for those. But sometimes grabbing the smaller point can turn the tide too. Then there is also a push cart mode, like the ones you’ve played in other games.

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The Team Objective mode in Mirage isn’t quite the same thing as it is in Chivalry. It still works a bit like a Rush mode in that attacking, and defending teams are given objectives to perform. And they’re still a combination of game types. But it isn’t as well concealed here, as the objectives don’t have the same compelling trappings, and the variety isn’t quite as nice.

That doesn’t mean that Mirage doesn’t have anything to grip you in terms of setting or story. It just doesn’t have the historical intrigue Chivalry did, or some of the Battlefield, Medal Of Honor, Joint Ops, or even some of the Rainbow Six games did. This game goes much more into the realm of high fantasy. So think more along the lines of Hexen, Heretic, Ziggurat, or classic CRPGs in terms of setting. Though there is a lot of inspiration from ancient Arabian architecture, and design here.

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All of this does mesh together really nicely. The swords, and sorcery will likely remind you of stuff like Masters Of The Universe, Willow, or even KRULL. The story centers around two civilizations who use magic to better their societies. Upon discovering one another, they begin to have reservations about their counterparts’ ethical standards in using magic. Eventually, tensions rise, and the two go to war with one another. Again, the design on display is beautiful. Where Torn Banner’s last game went for a more realistic look, this game goes for a cel-shaded look that is neither cartoonish or complicated. It feels closer to something like Borderlands than it does something like Team Fortress 2 or Overwatch. I just wish the game showed off the story through the tutorial rather than being something you had to read about on the game’s website. The tutorial isn’t much to write home about. It does give you a quick series of battles that get you acclimated with the basic controls. But that’s about all it does. If you’re coming into this for a campaign, you’ll want to be moving along. But if you like competitive multiplayer read on.

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Another really cool feature in the game is the customization. It isn’t quite as intricate as something like a WWE wrestling game. But it does have a fair amount you can customize. You can choose different helmets, headdresses, hair styles, skin colors, tops, accessories, and more for each of your classes. On top of that you can do this for each class in both factions. So if you want your Taurant to look one way on team purple, but a different way on team orange, you can! This gives the game a lot of personalization as you can try to make characters look the way you want. Again, not quite as deep as something Yukes would do in a wrestling game. But far beyond what many modern competitive shooters would do these days.

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When actually playing the game, most of the time things are a blast. The fine tuned swinging mechanics are wonderful, and they do combine with the new magic abilities quite nicely. Getting into a game with a group of people who communicate, and strategize can lead to some really gripping, competitive match ups. It’s one of the most fun experiences you’ll have. Mirage also supports LAN play, which makes it a great game to play with friends privately.  The audio here is also really good. The voice acting fits the look, and motif of the characters well, and the soundtrack has a nice orchestrated arrangement. It feels like the sort of thing you’d hear in an old black & white serial.

There is one big problem with the game though, and that is the unreliable servers. Most of the time you’ll connect to a game, and have a great time. But after a couple of rounds, you’ll find your ping inexplicably spiking. Going from a ping of 60 to a ping of 300 leads to a sudden rash of rubber banding, unsynchronized animations, and generally bad performance. Eventually, you’ll notice things smooth out, as your ping sinks back down to an acceptable level. But this can really turn off a player. On a day when you experience it once in a while, it is merely annoying. But on a day where it happens every other game, it will make you put the game down, and play something else. One can only hope Torn Banner can work this problem out sooner than later. Now it doesn’t appear to be as bad as what was reported about Ubisoft’s For Honor when that game launched (as that game didn’t even use dedicated servers). But it is still a blemish on an otherwise splendid game.

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As far as performance goes, it uses Unreal Engine 4, and seems fairly well optimized as of launch. My aging 760 card, and i7 4770k was able to run the game maxed out, and still crack 60 frames per second except in really frantic spots. Setting things lower made things get above 90. The biggest drain on resources appears to be the number of blood pools left by dead bodies, and the length of time corpses stay on the map. Regardless of your other settings, you can lower both of these things in the options, and you’ll see a noticeable performance gain. Obviously if you have a fairly old setup, you’ll want to move other things like texture quality, and draw distance down. As well, as shutting off Vsync, and lighting effects among other things. If you have something mid tier or higher though, playing on or near the highest settings shouldn’t be too much of a problem in most cases. Obviously, there may be some setups where this isn’t the case. But at least in my experience, performance really hasn’t been an issue.

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Overall, Mirage: Arcane Warfare is a really good game. I can certainly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Chivalry’s melee combat, and is still open to playing other kinds of competitive first-person action games. Likewise, it’s a cool game for those who want to take a break from something like Overwatch, or a modern warfare themed shooter. It’s not character focused the way Overwatch is, and it plays completely differently. Likewise, coming from a more traditional experience is also a chance to be surprised. Mirage may share some similarities with these titles, but there are far more differences to be found. Good ones.

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Be that as it may, the server issues can be a bit of a turn off, and one can only hope Torn Banner is able to iron them out sooner than later. Otherwise, as fun as it is, it could be the realm of a niche player base rather than the fairly large following its pseudo-predecessor had. Still, even if the worst case scenario came to pass, the LAN play makes for an exciting game to play with friends.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Commodore 64 mini-guide, and a concert I went to.

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Sorry for being a little bit late this week. I was able to see a fantastic concert for the first time in many moons. I had to take full advantage of that fact. I got to see The Dollyrots for the second time ever (They don’t get out to New England very often), and it was awesome. An area band, Chaser Eight opened for them, and had an absolute killer set. Then the Dollyrots got on stage, and crushed it too. If you’ve never heard either band, and you like rock n’ roll, do check them out. Chaser Eight is pretty great, with elements of Alt-Rock, Glam, and straight up rock. It just works. The Dollyrots on the other hand, are an amazing Pop Punk trio led by Kelly Ogden, and Luis Cabezas. They have a really great blend of the sound of the early Rock groups like The Ronettes, and 1970’s Punk bands like The Ramones. Over the years they’ve grown as musicians but the roots are still apparent. It was a great show. Both bands were very approachable, and kind. They hung out with everyone at the bar after playing for a bit, and visited with fans like family you love, but don’t get to see all of the time. It was awesome. If either comes to your area, go see them. If they’re in your town as you’re reading this, just stop reading, and go see them. What are you waiting around for? Go!

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Okay, you’re back? Good. I hope you had as great a time as I did. Anyway, lately I’ve talked a lot about the mighty Commodore 64, its library, and a great C64 peripheral. It’s one of the best platforms of all time. It was sold more than any other computer in its day, and there are a plethora of great games on it. With those, the demo scene, and even a few great bands using its sound chip, you may have thought about getting one. As a lifelong fan of the computer, I can point to some facts, and information you’ll need to know if you’re going to collect for the C64. Now this isn’t going to be the most in-depth look at the platform. There are books that go into the detailed information over the course of several hundred pages for that sort of thing. But these are some key things to look for, and some things to be aware of. There may even be a few things that intrigue a casual reader. So feel free to read on.

First of all, there were a few models. The first version is often called the bread bin model. This came in a couple of variants. The silver label variant is the earliest version, and is sought after by the most devoted Commodore fans. These have the logo in a silver style paint. The drawback with this variant is it has a 5 pin DIN connector for video, where the later models (which had a rainbow of colors next to the logo) used an 8 pin DIN connector for video. Later models also added support for S-Video which is a major jump over the stock RF cable, and switch box that all models can use. The image will be much cleaner, and clearer. Provided of course you track down one of the cables.  After the bread bin model, Commodore released the C64c, which has many of the same updates as the rainbow variant of the bread bin. It also has a couple of chip refinements, and a redesigned bezel.  It should also be noted that while you gain the S-Video, and slightly better power connector in later models, you lose the ceramics for heat reduction on chips. To remedy this, later models have a metal shield inside to draw some heat, but this still isn’t always an effective solution. In Europe some later models didn’t have a metal shield, but a metal coated cardboard one, which trapped heat in some cases.

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Aside from the revisions to the standard Commodore 64, there were alternate versions altogether. The SX-64 was one of the earliest portable computers, as it had a built-in screen, and floppy drive. These things weigh a good 20 lbs. though, so they’re not portable in the sense you’re used to.  In Japan, there was a short-lived version of the C64 called the Commodore MAX. But this cut some functionality. So it didn’t compete on the games or business end, and quickly disappeared. There was also the C64 Game System. But this cut out all of the computer aspects of the computer to play cartridge games. Unfortunately this also broke compatibility with most of the game library as by 1990, the best titles were on tape or diskette.  All three of these variants are considered collector’s items. But unless you just have to have a conversation piece in your collection, I would focus on a regular C64 instead. These alternate versions can also be expensive.

The one noteworthy alternate Commodore 64 is the Commodore 128. This doubled the amount of memory in the computer, and could run all of the C64 software. The catch is it has to be run in C64 mode, as some of the revisions to the hardware led to some incompatibility in 128 mode. But the 128 did well with business, and productivity users, as there were applications that did take advantage of the extra memory. There were two versions, the standard C128, and the C128D. The latter made the keyboard an external peripheral, and included a built-in 1571 floppy diskette drive. The C128D can get expensive as a result, as finding one with a working drive is getting harder.

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There are a couple of risks involved when getting into the platform. But these can be mitigated if you’re wise enough to do a couple of simple things. First, when you find a potential C64 purchase, confirm it is working. If it’s a store, they should be willing to hook it up, and confirm it’s operational. Second, make certain the Power Supply Unit not only works, but is in great shape. The PSU actually has two rails inside. One powers the motherboard, and most of the system, while the other powers the sound chip. As a means to control costs, it is encased in a resin material. However there’s a chance even a working PSU can overheat. Depending on the problem, a bad PSU can fry components inside the computer. That’s why it’s imperative you get a plug-in as pristine condition as possible. You’ll want to make sure it sits out in the open where heat can escape, and if you’re paranoid, you can always have a small desk fan blowing on it. Also keep in mind some of the later bread bin releases may have heat issues from the cost reduced RF shield. These are mostly in PAL territory releases. But again, keeping things cool can help mitigate a problem.

With that out-of-the-way, you’ll want to start gaming. But what else will you need? This depends a bit on what territory you’re in, and whether or not you plan to do any importing. Since I’m in the US, I’ll focus on that, but I’ll touch a bit on other parts of the world in a bit. When the C64 arrived on the scene, games for it started out on cartridge. They had about as much space as the ones found on consoles that were out at the time. Not every user had an external drive right away either, so it made sense for publishers to put games on cartridges. Some of the earliest software also came on cartridges, and this even includes diagnostic software, which may or may not work depending on the hardware issue. If applicable you can turn on the computer with a diagnostic cartridge, and it will let you run simple tests to determine if a chip has gone bad.  But this isn’t always a sure thing, since some hardware failures won’t give you anything other than the blackness of space on your screen. More on that later.

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So a lot of the earliest stuff was out on cartridge. Activision ported many of its console games to the C64 including H.E.R.O., Beamrider, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, and River Raid. But there were a number of great games on cartridge. Eventually however, publishers found alternatives that gave developers more space at a lower cost. The first of these were cassette tapes. Games, and other programs could be published on audio cassettes. These were also cheap, and so many titles started being released on cassette.

In order to run these programs you’ll need a datasette drive. These are basically old school cassette decks. If you want an in-depth look at how these worked, I highly recommend this video from the 8-Bit Guy. In European territories this is the format nearly all of the biggest titles came on, due to the lower production costs. There is one thing for newcomers to be aware of though, and that’s long load times. A lot of larger games on tape can take minutes to load. In the grand scheme of things it isn’t that big a deal. Even today’s console games can take eons to load if you’re playing them off disc, rather than installing them. Still, if you’re short on patience, you’ll need to learn to gather some if you need to run a game off of cassette.

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In North America, prices of writable media began to fall after a while though, and so many games began the move to 5.25″ Floppy Diskettes. these eliminated the storage concerns for a long time. When they cropped up again, many developers simply made games that took multiple disks to get through. To play these games you’ll need a 1541 or a 1541-II floppy diskette drive. There were a few aftermarket drives as well like The Enhancer 2000. In the USA, nearly every notable game came on floppy diskette. Even games that were previously released on cartridge or cassette tape. Most games released on floppy take a lot less time to load over cassette releases. However they’re not quite as fast as one would hope due to a slow port speed. To help with this, there are a number of Fast Loader cartridges you can get. These take some of the load off, and do shave some time off of loading. Again, 8-Bit Guy has a great video on the specifics of how this worked that I won’t go into here. Just know, that an Epyx Fast Load cartridge, or equivalent is something you want if you’re going to play games on Floppy Diskettes.

Once you have all of those in order, you’ll probably want to look into controllers. Most games took advantage of joysticks, though many also had keyboard binds. Almost any controller with a DB9 connector will fit the ports. Atari 2600 joysticks, Sega Genesis pads, and so on. However, it is NOT recommended you use a Sega Genesis pad, because the Sega Genesis pad draws more power than the controller ports need, so there is the chance you can blow a controller port in the process. So it’s best to stick to controllers built with either the C64, or Atari 2600 in mind. My controller of choice is the Slik Stik by Suncom. But there are no shortage of joystick options. Note that some games still utilized two button schemes, at a time when nearly all controllers were one button controllers. The work around most developers went with, was using the space bar.  Depending on the title it may take a little getting used to. In slower paced games it’s rarely a problem, in action games, you’ll want the joystick right in front of the computer so you can easily press the space bar when you need to.

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Now the thing to remember is, this is still a computer platform. So you can do more than game on it. In fact if you’re willing to learn the Commodore variant of BASIC, you can code your own homebrew games for the machine. Which a lot of people did. So you may even have fun tracking down old, defunct Commodore 64 themed magazines. Some of them have been archived like the entire run of Ahoy!. Not only do you get the sensation you feel when looking at an old Nintendo Power, you get programs. Long before the advent of getting a CD full of demos with your game magazine, computer magazines had program articles. You could type in these programs, save them to a diskette, and run them whenever you wanted. Many of them were written entirely in BASIC, although some were written in machine language, and you typed them into a HEX editor program. But you could save them to diskette! Some of these were really good too, like Mystery At Mycroft Mews, where you had to go around a town as detectives, solve murders, and bring the right suspect to trial.

Aside from gaming, there are a wealth of old productivity, and business programs you can find, but honestly, they’re not really going to be much value beyond the history. It is nice to see the original Print Shop in action, or some of the word processors of the time. But you’re probably not going to send your masterpiece novel to a literary agent on a 5.25″ Floppy these days. Still, you can still find old dot matrix printers, and the ribbons though they’re getting scarce.

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But in the more interesting range you can find things like the Koala pad, which is one of the earliest graphics tablets. You could draw with a stylus, and save your art to diskette. There were a bunch of clones that came afterward. But if you draw on a modern Wacom graphics tablet, and wonder where the earliest versions of the tech came from, their infancy took place on 8-bit home computers. You can also find the original 300 baud modems, that let users connect to services like Quantum Link back then (LazyGameReviews did a wonderful video on that service.) But these days, there are homebrew network cards, and browsers tinkerers can invest in.

One of the craziest things I have in my collection is the Hearsay 1000. A cartridge, and software combo that reads whatever you type, back to you. In a kind of creepy robot voice. The software is far from perfect, it doesn’t account for pronunciation, so it can only read things as they are spelled. So if you type in the name “Barbara” it will say it back as “Bar-Bar-A”. But this is where stuff like Dragon Naturally Speaking got its start. Building off of this early tech, or properly doing what it was trying to. If you find a Hearsay 1000, don’t use it while playing games with voice samples. It will yell “HEARSAY ONE THOUSAND!”, and then crash the computer. Then you’ll have to turn it off, disconnect the module, and turn it back on. Then load your game again. Considering you’re going to wait a while for Ghostbusters to load again, best to know that up front.

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Of course not too long ago, I reviewed the SD2EIC. This is a must own peripheral because you can make disk images, or download images of stuff you own to an SD Card. It’s also great if you do happen to have old disks with personal files on them, and want to save those along with your other programs. Plus the load times, are dramatically cut down.

One also needs to take into account the difference between PAL, and NTSC territories If they plan on importing. A lot of really great games including some of the best were exclusive to Europe. While most of these are playable on a North American C64, the speed differences can often lead to all kinds of glitches. Random characters popping up, graphics showing up in grayscale rather than in color, some extreme cases will involve lock ups, and crashes. One can convert their computer via modifying it, but this isn’t recommended if you don’t know your way around altering a circuit board. My advice is to either deal with the glitches if you import a game or follow the purist. Purists will import a PAL C64, peripherals, and either a PAL monitor or else using a scaler with their HDTV to run a native 50 hz signal from the computer. You’ll also want a power converter as the electrical outlets, and standards are different. If you’re in a PAL territory, and you want some of the NTSC exclusives, you’ll see similar issues. So again, purists will want to import an NTSC setup, and use a power converter.

While some of this may get a little complicated, it is worth the plunge. Once you have a fully functional C64 setup, there really isn’t anything else like it.  The unique sound of its sound chip (known as the SID) is popular to this day. The wide, and varied library gets you a large variety of original games, multi platform games, and arcade ports. As is the case with every platform you’ll find a lot of good games, some truly great games, and a fair number of bad ones. I highly recommend visiting Lemon64 for its wealth of information, and its game archive. Plus they have a very helpful community if you do run into issues. Thanks to them I discovered a wonderful hobbyist who does repairs, and builds a lot of high quality homebrew accessories, and power supplies. When my C64c gave me a dreaded Black Screen Of Death last month I got in contact with Ray Carlsen, After some back, and forth messaging I ended up sending him the machine. Having some background in PC repairs, and upgrades I had taken it apart, checked the motherboard, found no bad capacitors. The fuse was intact, and working. I didn’t see any corrosion on chips. But I had no way to test them, and I was stumped. Well he was able to determine I had a minor issue with my power connector, and that my PSU was on its way out. He installed a breaker to prevent the components from frying from a bad PSU. I also ordered one of his homebrew PSUs. When the computer came back, not only was everything working the way it is supposed to, but he somehow got it looking much newer than when I had sent it in. Now he isn’t a traditional business, so he doesn’t do bulk jobs. Don’t go looking to send him 50 broken C64 computers. That isn’t what he is about. But he’ll charge you a fair price to fix a single machine, and take a look at some of his PSU models. With the originals drying up, it can’t hurt to have a spare.

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The Commodore 64 may have been a home computer, but it was one of the most important platforms in video game history. It’s where many games went after the infamous crash in North America, and even after the rise of the NES it still retained a viable market share. In Europe it was also a major contender throughout the 80’s, and 90’s. Although there are some things to be aware of if you want to begin collecting for one, it can be a rewarding experience. Prices fluctuate constantly, but expect to spend between $50 – $150 for a working model with a good PSU. With that alone, you’ll be set for any cartridge games. But chances are you’ll want some of the higher profile releases. A 1541 Floppy drive will set you back about $50. There are deals out there to be had, but many of the cheap ones aren’t tested, so you may be buying a worn out drive. On the budget end though, Datasette drives are fairly inexpensive. So keep an eye out for one of those.

Then, you’ll be ready to pick up some C64 games! Just like on retro consoles, some games are cheap, and common. Some are rare, and expensive. A lot of times you can make out well, by buying lots. A lot of games don’t require anything beyond a floppy diskette, cartridge or cassette. But there are games that have manual protection. So do some research on a title before you buy it. For example, you’ll want to look for complete copies of certain RPGs as they require a code wheel, or manual as a means of copy protection. (IE: Type in the first word in the third paragraph on page 13.) Plus it’s nice to have the manuals, and keyboard overlays for flight sims, RPGs, or point, and click adventure games. Action genres usually didn’t have these vast control schemes requiring hot keys. But a handful did use manual protection so make sure the game you’re interested in isn’t one of them if you’re looking at a loose copy.

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Also be sure to keep your disk based games in sleeves when you’re not using them, and don’t let them get too hot or cold. Definitely keep them away from magnets, as that will corrupt the disk, and destroy your game. It was a lesson we children learned quickly back when home computers were first gaining prominence.  Finally, the Commodore 64, and other computers of the era were powered by variants of Microsoft BASIC. So you’ll need to know a few basic (Ha, ha!) commands. The most important being LOAD”*”,8,1 which for all intents, and purposes tells the disk drive to load the first file on a disk (Usually the executable) into memory. Then when the computer says ‘READY” you can simply type “RUN”, press RETURN, and fire up your game.

That should about do it this time. But keep in mind how many great things the retro games, and computing scene keeps pumping out for the mighty C64. Here’s hoping the new motherboards, network cards, card readers, and even homebrew games continue preserving one of gaming’s most iconic platforms.

 

 

Jumpman Review

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You wouldn’t know it at face value, but you’re on a mission to defuse bombs on another world. A world of bombs, killer robots, and a lethal pixel. In addition to a host of other horrific adversaries. It all sounds like a side scrolling action platformer or run ‘n gun. But you’d be wrong. Jumpman is one of the strangest, yet greatest puzzle games ever made. Debuting on the Atari 8-bit family of computers, it appeared on the Commodore 64 soon after, along with the IBM PC, and Apple II.

PROS: Excellent gameplay. Fun animation. Great musical numbers.

CONS: Bland graphics.

APOGEE: The Duke Nukem publisher felt the ire of Epyx.

Jumpman may seem a bit esoteric today, but there was a time when he was almost as popular as Bomberman. That’s because he starred in two of the most fun arcade puzzle games to ever grace a computer screen. As I mentioned at the start, the storyline of the game doesn’t accurately describe what is going on at face value. You really have to start playing the game before you realize that it does.

The goal of Jumpman is easy to grasp. Defuse all of the bombs in the level before losing all of your lives for big points. If you manage to do this, you’ll move onto the next level. You’ll also get bonus points for having more Jumpmen in reserve. So a high performance level is key. Created by Randy Glover, and released by Epyx, there is a wonderful use of the easy to learn, lifetime to master principles behind many great games.

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The game eases you in, with a couple of pretty simple to understand levels. You’ll go about your goal of defusing bombs, and slowly notice changes to a given stage. Pieces of scenery disappear, creating new gaps to jump over. A floating pixel will chase you down, and kill you if you get in its line of sight. But the obstacles only increase as you complete levels. It isn’t long before you see killer robots that change position every time you defuse a bomb. Or a plethora of bombs falling from the sky. Or flying saucers. Or rabid bats. Sometimes the challenges aren’t adversaries. Sometimes they’re things like moving ladders or other scenery.

Every one of these attempts to impede you can be overcome with enough practice. Over time, you begin to recognize patterns, and figure out what you’re supposed to do. But it doesn’t become a cakewalk, because actually doing what you’re supposed to still requires dexterity. When you clear a level, you’ll hear one of a multitude of cheery carnival tunes. These go along with the circus-like feel of the game’s introduction animation.

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Jumpman gives you nine lives to get through the stages. You can choose from several difficulty settings which will start at a stage where the appropriate difficulty jump occurs. You can also select Grand Loop which does all 30 levels in a row. Or you can choose the Randomizer, which plays the levels in a random order. Beyond that, you can also choose a game speed. The center value of 4 will run the game at the standard speed. The max speed of 8 is probably too fast for all but the most devoted player, and the minimum speed of 1 makes the game exceptionally slow. The speed setting is a nice option though because it can make the game a bit more interesting. The game can also be played by up to four players alternating turns.

Visually, Jumpman isn’t much to look at.  stages are made of simple shapes, and a handful of colors. Jumpman himself, is little more than a stick figure. But the gameplay in Jumpman is amazing. Moving about the levels is very smooth, and the controls are tight. One interesting thing the game does is allow Jumpman to climb anything he touches. If you go for a jump, and your hand nabs part of the scenery, you’ll climb it! There are also some cool navigational variables thrown in, in the form of ropes. Green ropes can only be climbed up, while blue ropes can only be climbed down. Between this, and the other mechanics introduced through enemy character types Jumpman becomes surprisingly deep for such a simple game.

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There are a few minor differences between the different versions of Jumpman. The original Atari 400/800 version features some really slick transition animations between levels as you clear them. It also has a pretty cool stage destruction sequence when you run out of lives, and get a Game Over.  The Commodore 64 version has a little bit more detail in the graphics department. It gives our hero a shirt, and pants through some simple colors. The music sounds a tiny bit better too. It is missing the stage transitions, and if you lose you don’t see the level explode. Instead, you get a harmonious musical number as the backgrounds, and characters slowly become the same color.

Over on the Apple II, you won’t see the transitions. Visually, it’s somewhere between the Atari, and Commodore computers. It has the Commodore’s background colors, but the Atari’s blank Jumpman. The IBM PC port was outsourced to another developer. It pretty much plays the same as the other versions although the terrible PC speaker sound, and CGA color scheme make it the worst in terms of visuals, and sound.

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Jumpman was also followed up by Jumpman Junior, which is really a companion version of the game. It was made for Commodore 64, and Atari 8-bit users who didn’t have a 5.25″ Floppy drive. Being a cartridge game makes it one of the more sought after games for collectors. It’s pretty much exactly the same game as Jumpman, except it has only 12 stages. At the time cartridges didn’t have as much storage capacity as the floppies, and cassettes did. Still, for many retro fans,  it isn’t the full Jumpman experience unless you have both games. It was never available for other computer formats, although it was ported to the Colecovision.

Long after Randy Glover left the game industry, A programmer named Dave Sharpless ported the game, and it’s expandalone to MS-DOS under the title Jumpman Lives! The game was published by Apogee in 1991. The thing is, that while Epyx had long been a shell of its former self, it was still around. The remake caught the ire of Epyx, and Apogee would cease selling it immediately. Epyx wouldn’t be around much longer though, after getting out of bankruptcy, and focusing on Atari Lynx development the company was sold off, and dissolved.  Jumpman Lives! Is a fairly rare computer game as a result.

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In the end, Jumpman, and Jumpman Jr. are games that really deserve more recognition than they get. At least when compared with other retro games. Things may look more like a carnival than a space station, and the bombs may look more like flowers. But once you get past the rudimentary look of everything you’ll be engrossed in one of the most addictive puzzlers of all time. If you can find the original floppy disk, the cartridge based companion edition, or even the unlicensed, unofficial, Apogee remake, give it a go. Jumpman Junior was also included in the C64 DTV, as well as the recent Colecovision Flashback by AtGames. So if you don’t have one of these old computers or consoles, there are other legitimate ways to add this masterful game to your collection in some capacity.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

10 Sodas that pair well with video games

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Last time we looked at beer. This time it’s all about the soda. As someone who has far too much of it in his short run, I think I can pick out a few good ones. And I have. Just don’t house more than a couple of these. You’ll probably be up all night, long after your marathon of every mainline Super Mario Bros. game has ended.

What makes soda such a great companion to games, is also its greatest curse. The copious amounts of caffeine, and sugar. It’s wonderful while you’re playing. Keeping you alert, and being delicious. But man, the crash. I’ve had jobs where I’m embarrassed to say I’ve put away more than 2 liters by myself on a few shifts. And STILL made a trip to Starbucks on the way home. The lessons? 1.) This will get you through overnight inventory, and any tournament with ease. 2.) You’re not going to wake up on time the next day, and will be draaaaaaaaagging.

So while too many beers, may kill your kidney, liver, and give you alcohol poisoning, too many sodas can kill your kidney, pancreas, and probably activate diabetes. The point is too much of anything is not a good thing for us. Come to think of it, after this is written, I should probably go for a jog to burn off the Venti Vanilla Latte I just gulped down.

With that morbid thought out-of-the-way, here are 10 tasty combinations of carbonated water, and high fructose corn syrup for that next afternoon of Street Fighter II. Again, this is not a *TOP* ten. Just ten that I can highly recommend. All of them are pretty good, and you can probably get most of them. Soda is a little bit less regional. Though there are still some that are.

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10. RC Cola

Forget Pepsi, and Coke for a minute. They’re the Mario, and Sonic of soda. Everybody knows, and adores them. How about rolling with the Alex Kidd of soda? RC is somewhere between the sweet Pepsi, and more bubbly Coke. It’s also a bit cheaper (around here it’s always in 2 liters for 99 cents.), and has a taste a cut above all of the other budget colas. It may have gotten a funny mirage joke in Family Guy, but that doesn’t make it bad at all. It’s nothing crazy, or over the top. But if you want something simple to drink while playing in the Miracle World, this one will suffice.

09. SURGE

Coke recently brought this one back to the States. In their never-ending quest to dethrone Mountain Dew, they’ve tried many formulas. This one is honestly their best attempt. It’s a bit more citrusy than Pepsi’s juggernaut. It also has the edge when it comes to warming up. Let’s face it. As much as we all like Dew, it gets gross if you don’t finish it while it’s cold. That doesn’t make warm Surge good. But it isn’t as bad. Plus it still has all of the 1990’s ad campaign art on the can. Making it go along with any EXTREME game or franchise. NBA Jam, Smash T.V., Mortal Kombat II, and Killer Instinct all pair well with this one. This may be another one of those limited time comebacks though, so get it if you see it.

08. Virgil’s Root Beer

This one is going to seem like it doesn’t belong. It doesn’t have the artificial flavors, and colors of mass market cola. It won’t keep you awake as there isn’t much in the way of anything of caffeine in it. It DOES have a lot of sugar though. So you’ll still get that burst of a sugar high. But it is one of the few craft sodas that nails it in flavor. Forget IBC. Forget A&W. Virgil’s is going to be your go to soda for Tapper. It is really awesome root beer. Definitely not cheap compared to some of the other sodas here. But it is worth the extra couple of bucks if you can swing it. Virgil’s is insanely good at what it does.

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07. Freaky Dog Barkin’ Birch Soda

Freaky Dog is a regional soda, so you may have trouble finding it locally. But if you can find some online, or you visit Connecticut, stock up. Freaky Dog makes a lot of pretty good soda. But the Barkin’ Birch is one of the best. It’s so good, that even an area bar in town serves it to designated drivers. So what makes this one so good? It gets the Birch flavor down perfectly, and balances it with just the right amount of  cane sugar, and carbonation. There is nothing quite like old-school hand crafted soda. Plus Birch beer goes well with anything full of fast action. I find it’s something I roll with during shmups. In fact, if you’re firing up some Giga Wing, Ikaruga, or Deathsmiles, you’re going to break a sweat. Cool down with Barkin’ Birch. You won’t regret it.

06. Mountain Dew Dewshine

Even Pepsi is trying to mix things up with premium soda. So they introduced Dewshine. Honestly, it’s worth the extra money. What you lose in yellow color, you make up for in flavor. Dewshine is sweet. Dewshine is citrusy. Dewshine tastes better than any of the other versions of Mountain Dew, and I’ve had far too many of all of them.  It also goes for pure cane sugar over other sweeteners.  This one goes great with many games, but I’ve probably had it mostly in competitive multiplayer. Mario Kart 8, Splatoon, and Overwatch matches have been washed down with Pepsi’s moonshine themed soda. Check it out if you haven’t already. It’s pretty great.

07. Mountain Dew DEW S.A.

We all loved Mountain Dew Voltage when it came out. Code Red, some loved. Some were lukewarm on. White Out quickly became the soda for the Smirnoff Ice fan. (Seriously they taste very similar.) So now someone at Pepsi got the bright idea of mixing the three of them. The end result is delicious. One wonders why they didn’t think of this sooner. It kind of tastes like letting your favorite stick of Flavor-Ice melt, and then carbonating it in a Sodastream. Pairs really well with Rocket League. Which just beckons a soda that will make you alert. I’ve been enjoying this one a lot over the past couple of days. I’ll miss it when I go back to drinking water after it’s gone.

06. Flathead Lake Gourmet Green Apple Soda

I hesitate to call this one “Gourmet”. One look at the ingredients made me wonder why on Earth the folks at the grocery store put this in the health food aisle. Really. They did. But the peculiar art still grabbed me, and I gave this stuff a shot. The folks at Flathead Lake, do know confectionery flavor. Because upon sipping this, you will immediately remember what a sour green apple Jolly Rancher tastes like. That’s what this is. Jolly Rancher, as a soda. Which is pretty awesome. I proceeded to drink two bottles during some Toxikk matches. This was after drinking the first two at work. I had a sugar crash. But Flathead Lake is pretty damn delicious.

05. Trader Joe’s Vintage Soda

This is another one for folks that want just a great all around cola when playing through Shovel Knight, or classics like Mega Man II. It’s light, tastes sweet, but not too sweet, and has the body one would expect a standard cola to have. They’re a little bit more expensive than a mass market soda, but they also undercut sodas from healthier alternative brands. If you live near a Trader Joe’s, stop in, and try this one. It’s pretty good.

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04. Red Rain Energy Soda

This is made by an outfit out of Canada. I can’t speak for other countries, but here in the US, I’ve only ever found it in dollar discount stores. But when you only cost a dollar, AND you taste better than Red Bull, AND you’re just as effective, well it’s worth the run-on sentence. It’s got the tartness most energy drinks I’ve tried also have. But where things like Monster feel like a golf ball in my stomach, Red Rain doesn’t. So if you’re going to try to play through a 40 hour JRPG in a couple of sittings, check it out. It’s sure to keep you awake through your favorite Final Fantasy, or your Chrono Trigger speed run.

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03. Shasta Orange Soda

There’s a reason this one was referenced in Futurama. It’s timeless. It’s also inexpensive which is why it’s found seated alongside Red Rain around here. Plus who doesn’t like a good orange soda? This one goes great with all of the classics. Space Invaders, Dig Dug, Galaxian, Asteroids, Centipede, and Berzerk! Just don’t forget that all Rush mix tape.

02. Virgil’s Cream Soda

Virgil’s makes it on the list a second time with its excellent cream soda. Honestly, this one is as enjoyable as their Root Beer. It’s light bodied, has mild sweet notes of vanilla, and is refreshing. When you’re firing up some Forza, Gran Turismo, or Assetto Corsa, it’s a nice way to celebrate your big win.

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01. BAWLS

This stuff is one of the best energy sodas of all time. It’s made with guarana, which has caffeine in it. It’s delicious.  It also doesn’t feel heavy. You can drink a couple of them (though you really shouldn’t), and not feel sick. It has enough of a kick to keep you awake for hours. After having just one of these, it’s easy to see why it was so popular at LAN parties, and tournaments. Ask any veteran of Quake III Arena, or Unreal Tournament, and they’ll attest to how tasty, and effective Bawls is. Within the last decade though, the company behind Bawls has had its ups, and downs. As such, you can’t find it in every 7 Eleven anymore. These days you almost only ever find it online by the case. But if you haven’t had Bawls, it’s worth ordering one for the experience.  Pairs well with just about any competitive arena shooter where reflexes are key. It also goes nicely with any RTS. Warcraft, StarCraft, Dawn Of War II, you name it.

So that’s my soda list! Again, not a top ten, just some really good stuff I’ve had gaming over the years. I hope you’ve enjoyed the list, and my sad attempts at advertisement parody. Is there something from your neck of the woods we should chug down? Talk about it in the comments below! Next time we’ll be back with a proper review!

10 Beers that pair well with video games

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This time around I wanted to do something a little bit different. Every now, and again Mark over at Classic Game Room has reviewed beer in between some of his regular episodes.  This gave me an idea a while ago. Since I work with beer, and I review video games on this blog I’ve thought about the kinds I’ve tried over the years, and which ones really seemed to hit the spot during a gaming session. Don’t worry, I’m not transitioning the blog into a weird Cracked clone, that nobody will read. Rather, this is a part one, of a two-part one-off project. I haven’t abandoned reviews. So you can calm down, and breathe a sigh of relief. After this article, I’ll go down a list of sodas. Because not everybody enjoys beer, and even those who do like to switch it up from time to time. Obviously this entry is geared to those who are over 21, so if you’re underage you should skip this article, and check out the list of sodas when that comes out instead.

Keep in mind this is not a *TOP* ten. These are just ten that I happen to really like. There are a TON of really good ones not on this list that are just as good. Again there are also a ton I’ve never had. Also, not all of these will be available in your area. Many breweries are regional. So unless you’re able to go all over the world all of the time, you won’t see some of them. But hey, the inverse is also true. There are thousands of beers I’ll never see in my lifetime. I also apologize in advance, I don’t have photos for every entry on the list. Be that as it may, I’m going to kick things off.

10. Ballast Point Commodore Stout

Seeing how I’m a big Commodore fan (I mean come on, my blog title is a C64 reference!) The name automatically drew me to the bottle. But the art will show you that the brewery was referencing the Naval rank, as evidenced by the skeleton sailing a ship. Be that as it may, this stout really does go nicely with a play through of The Great Giana Sisters, or a few games of Mail Order Monsters with a friend. It’s got the heft you would expect the texture of a stout to have. Plus it has a delicious roast coffee aftertaste. There are some vanilla notes in there too, but not enough to overpower the flavor of the beer. It’s also around 6.5% ABV, so while it’s above the 5% ABV of a typical beer, you aren’t going to be unable to function after one. It’s not one of the cheaper options here, as Ballast Point tends to command a premium. But it is pretty nice to break out once in a while.

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09. New Holland Hoptronix Double IPA

They should have called this Hop Invaders. Because the first thing you will see on the box is a love letter to Space Invaders. It features some really fun pixel art, with hops replacing the aliens, and an 8-bit beer bottle in lieu of a cannon.  As for the beer itself, this is a Double IPA. As such there will be some bitterness as that is indicative of the style. However, this goes neither the ultra-bitter route nor does it go the dry, yet juicy route. Instead, as the description on the box says, it goes for a dank approach. It has elements of bitterness, and dryness. It stands out for being different. At 9% ABV it’s a bit more potent than some of the other ones in the list. But still complements Atari 2600 night wonderfully. Grab the paddles, and that copy of Warlords!

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08. City Steam Naughty Nurse Amber Ale

Here we go. Sometimes you want a great all around beer. A big cut above the mass market stuff you can have any time. But also not something overly complicated. Naughty Nurse fits that bill perfectly. It’s an amber-colored ale, giving you a rich flavor thanks to the combination of English hops, and crystal malt. It has a very distinct aftertaste, and it is neither too heavy or light feeling. It’s just good. Sometimes good is all you need. And, at 5.5% ABV you can have a couple of them whether you’re going for the high score on Centipede, or exploring the countryside in The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild.

07. Lagunitas The Waldos Ale

This one is kind of cheating because you can’t get it all of the time. Lagunitas puts this one out under their One Hitter series which means they make one small run, and then they don’t make it again until the following year. It’s out now of this writing, but since it’s a small run, you may have to check a few places before finding it. Assuming you can find it. If you do though, it’s worth picking up. It has a fruity quality to it, and tastes like nothing else. At least nothing I’ve tried. There is also a very mild burn to it which may sound weird until you realize it has an 11.9% ABV. Suffice it to say, you’ll really only want to have one of these on game night. But you’ll enjoy nursing it along to many rounds of the re-release of Street Fighter II on the Switch on game night in a few weeks. That is if you don’t drink them all before then.

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06. Bear Republic Racer #5 IPA

This is one of the ones Mark Bussler reviewed, and it isn’t something distributed in my area. But luckily for me, going over the State line brings me to an area where it is. Upon having some, I have to say Mark was spot on in his review. It is light, crisp, and delicious. it’s got a nice balance of bitterness, and citrus notes. It isn’t potent. It is a good, reliable Californian IPA that goes very well with a game of Ribbit King against your friends. Distribution for this one is spotty, (unless you’re on the west coast) but if you do see it in your area, check it out.

05. Thomas Hooker #NoFilter IPA

This. This is something you’ll want to check out if you’re in CT, MA, or PA (They’re small, and don’t have a massive distribution right now) but the hashtag beer is splendid. It has a very citrus fruit flavor profile thanks to the fact it isn’t filtered. It’s very cloudy. If you pour it in a pint glass you won’t see through it. It’s really good, and punches you with its juicy flavor. It’s also the perfect thing to break out when you have your next BYOB LAN party for hours of Unreal Tournament, Quake 3 Arena, death matches, and Serious Sam in 16 player co-op. Unfortunately, it’s short packed. So  a store might only get 1 case of the #NoFilter. But if you can find a six-pack, check it out. It’s pretty great.

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04. Alpine Maharaja Double IPA

Here’s another rare one on the list. But it’s one of the few unicorns worthy of the hype. At 10% ABV The King will probably get you drunk pretty fast. But it tastes great doing it. It takes a similar route the Hoptronix does, being neither too bitter or too citrusy. But between the unique blend of hops, and spices it comes off as completely different. The higher ABV does make it a tad hefty. But not enough to ruin it.  This one could potentially be popular with Entropist mains in the upcoming Mirage: Arcane Warfare. Assuming the final game is as fun, and addictive as Chivalry: Medieval Warfare was when it came out.

03. Pipeworks Blood Of The Unicorn Hoppy Red Ale

Pipeworks is a great outfit out of Chicago, and pretty much everything they make is pretty good. This one stands out though because it has elements of both a red amber ale, and an IPA. As such you’ll get some bitterness, as well as some nice malty flavor. it’s also around 6% ABV so this is something you can have a couple of without knocking yourself out or making yourself sick. The package art is also really cool. Perfect beer for a summer day on the deck trying to get that high score in Robot Unicorn Attack.

02. Relic Dreamrise Double IPA

Relic is a very small outfit out of Plainville CT, and not every beer they make is always available. They change-up the line up every few months, presumably to not over produce any one beverage. That said, most of them are pretty good like their Dreamrise Double IPA. It veers more toward the citrus end of IPAs, with a very rich taste without feeling too heavy. At 8% ABV it isn’t overly powerful, allowing you to enjoy it while playing through the classic Mega Man game of your choice.

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01. City Steam Naughty Nurse IPA

This one is my current favorite beer, and has held that title almost as long as it’s been out. It is a terrific IPA. It has just the right amount of bitterness. It has some crystal malt like its amber sister. It has a citrusy aroma, and after taste on the back-end. Similar to the Racer #5, it too, has a light body. It’s a refreshing IPA. It won’t be everyone’s favorite. I’ve shared it with some who feel it’s good, but not great. But I’ve also shared it with many who loved it as much as I do. It’s around 6.5% ABV too, so it strikes a nice balance of profile, and potency. If you come out here for Retro World Expo be sure to visit City Steam’s brewery pub, and have some. It pairs well with everything from Berzerk to Super Mario World to The Wonderful 101. It’s also a nice companion to any party game. Like Dokapon Kingdom or Wario Ware Smooth Moves.

So there you go! Again, half of these you may not be able to find in your area, but if you do see any of these, give them a spin. And if there’s a beer you really enjoy cracking open during a marathon of Overwatch matches, let the world know below! Next time, we’ll go over some really good colas!

SD2EIC Drive Review

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It’s no secret I’m a huge Commodore fan. As a child in the 80’s, I started gaming on the seminal Atari 2600. It’s a timeless system for many reasons, and I still fire it up a lot today. But when my father came home with a Commodore 64 bread bin it quickly became the de facto platform in our household. When the company redesigned the computer, and sold a cheaper junior model, my father bought one, and donated the old one to relatives. But from the moment I saw Forbidden Forest running off a cassette tape the first time, I was hooked.

Through the years I played tons of awesome games on it. It wasn’t until I was a Junior in High School that we would move to a modern MS-DOS X86 PC. Because that is how versatile the King of 8-bit computers was. The C64 launched in 1983, and wasn’t discontinued until 1994 when the company went out of business. It’s fondly remembered as a games machine, because it’s where many companies went during the console market crash, and where many indies that became today’s majors got their start.

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It was a big deal here in North America, but it was even bigger in Europe. There are countless games that never officially made it Stateside.  So the platform is also an importer’s dream. Provided of course you’re willing to wade through the landmine of PAL Vs. NTSC concerns.

But whether you’re a North American or European Commodore 64 owner, there’s no denying that over time some of our floppies, and cassettes are slowly wearing out. A lot of our disk drives, and datasette drives are going kaput. With only so many in the wild, it’s going to get harder, and harder to rebuild our beloved collections. But fear not! Thanks to The Future Was 8-bit there is a way to keep the memory alive, on the original hardware.

PROS: An SD Card reader that emulates Floppy, and Cassette drives exceptionally well!

CONS: Not quite everything is compatible.

BUT: Far more than enough is compatible.

At first glance, the SD2EIC just looks like an SD card reader in a cute 1541 floppy drive shaped casing. But it’s no ordinary SD card reader!  This device emulates an actual 1541, and datasette environment. It plugs into either the tape drive slot or the floppy drive slot (depending on the version you order), and the serial DB port.  From here you can put in an SD card with your Commodore 64 program files , and run them natively on the computer!

This can be done a few ways, you can download images (assuming you own the programs in question), or if you have the means, you can back up your files to a computer, and then transfer them to a card.  You can also migrate disk images from the 1541 floppy drive to the SD2EIC. This is a little bit more involved, since you’ll need a couple of extra cables, and you’ll need to find a Compression software that works with the platform. Once you’re set up though, you will be so glad you have one of these.

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The device utilizes a file browser software file you can download which lets you go through a DOS like directory system. This makes it easy for you to organize files, and set them up in an order you feel most comfortable with. The documentation included with the SD2EIC gives you a pretty detailed set of instructions on using it. For basic file browsing though, it is pretty straight forward. You can navigate using either the CRSR Up/Down key, or a joystick in port two. If you don’t feel comfortable configuring the software, you can order a preconfigured card with it. The card has the file browser, and a bunch of programs on it.

If that weren’t enough, the device also has three buttons on it which are used when using programs that require multiple disks. This is handy when running a game or other program, that would normally involve flipping a diskette over, or putting in the next diskette when prompted. Here you have forward, backward, and reset buttons which you can press in these situations. Two of the buttons also act as the power, and load/save LEDs on the 1541 floppy drive. It’s really cool, and a nice touch to an already great experience.

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The SD2EIC can read all kinds of C64 file images. It can run D64, T64 files as well as PRG files. Again, it can also run them sequentially. But the device can also save files. This makes the unit very attractive to budding BASIC programmers. If you know your way around code, you can use this in lieu of a floppy diskette drive. This is a great way to save your projects without fear of a 1541 drive dying, or your diskette wearing out, and your data going with it. Plus even a relatively small SD card can house thousands of programs, and files due to the small file sizes on a typical 5.25″ Floppy Diskette. It’s compatible with both NTSC, and PAL machines too, though if you put PAL files on your card, and run it on an NTSC machine you’ll likely experience the same random glitches, video issues, or occasional crashes you would if you were to run an imported game on floppy.

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One of the things that really impressed me was the build quality. Most commercial SD card readers, even ones made by big industry names can be flimsy. The SD2EIC I received is superb. It’s built with plastic made by recycling broken Commodore 64, and 128 computer cases. It’s sturdy, and even the cabling feels secure. It isn’t something you can be careless with, but it can withstand shuffling around your set up.

There are a handful of minor issues with the drive. The first is that you do not want to accidentally grab the wrong controller if you have two of them plugged in. Doing so will exit you out of the program, and drop you back to the BASIC prompt. The second is that the SD2EIC doesn’t emulate a 1541 drive at 100%. That’s because the 1541 floppy drive is powered by another MOS 6502 CPU just like the stock Commodore 64 computer. So there are a handful of programs that won’t work due to being written in a way that utilizes the 1541 floppy drive in a specific way.

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Nevertheless, I can still tell you that the SD2EIC is a must own peripheral for any Commodore 64 collector. The wealth of pros outweigh the cons of a few incompatible programs out there. Especially when you consider just how versatile it is. The ability to run backup images alone, is something that should put this on your radar. With 5.25″ diskettes drying up, breaking down, and working 1541 drives dying from old age, this is a very welcome peripheral for preservation. Plus, budding indie developers have a means for their BASIC, and Assembly language projects to be stored on a modern format.

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It’s amazing how many wonderful homebrew products keep coming out for this legendary machine. Over the last three decades there have been Ethernet cards, a web browser, and even a new motherboard! But this drive is going to be more, and more sought after as time goes on. And, as these are made from recycled Commodore computers, you may want to get one before they dry up. It is truly a must own peripheral for anyone interested in Commodore.

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Now it should be noted there are other ways to get the SD2EIC. You can buy the circuit board, and daughter board from NKC Electronics. It’s nice if you’re good at assembling your own casings, and doing your own electronics assembly, or repair. But going with this specific one makes things very convenient. Plus the use of recycled computers to make the attractive casing is a nice touch that keeps them out of the landfill. I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s true. TheFutureWas8Bit has really outdone themselves with this one. Whether you’re a long time fan, or new to Commodore. Get yourself an SD2EIC from them. You won’t be sorry. Even the care put into the shipping packaging will astound you.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Black Belt Review

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Throughout the history of video games, we’ve seen many cases where the same game can look markedly different between regions of the world. Probotector is one of the most memorable of these, as censorship in Germany saw Konami replace the soldiers in Contra with robots. Other than that, same game. Probotector was released in its robot, and non robot state throughout Europe on many computers as Gryzor.  But there are countless other examples. Today’s game was originally an anime tie-in.

PROS: Cool sprite effects. Solid controls.

CONS: Strange changes.  Poorer artwork than the alternate game.

LAZY: The box art. At least draw an entire character!

Hokuto No Ken, (more famously known as Fist Of The North Star) is one of the most recognized anime franchises of all time. But it wasn’t always so. Centering around a warrior in a post-apocalyptic future, it was widely known in Japan. It started life as a manga, and was later adapted into an anime. When anime became huge in the US in the 90’s it was one of the most popular shows newcomers gravitated to.  But in the early 1980’s it never officially came stateside. Only the most die-hard American anime fans knew about importing shows. Beyond that, the handful of shows we did get, were heavily cut, edited, or combined with other shows to make new shows.

Anyway, in Japan Fist Of The North Star would see a few releases across multiple platforms. It wasn’t until 1989 when we would see an official game by Taxan on the NES. But, believe it or not, we did see one before 1989. We would see Sega bring us a Fist Of The North Star game in 1986 on the Sega Master System. Albeit without the license intact.  In Japan it would retain all of the likenesses to the show it was based on. But since we wouldn’t get the show until 1989, Sega reasoned we wouldn’t know what was going on. Which is weird considering we got Zillion in all of its anime glory a year later.

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Be that as it may, they gave us the game under the alternate title Black Belt. Black Belt is the exact same game, except that nearly every piece of artwork has been altered, or replaced. Enemies. Background art. Our main character. The bosses. Everything. But this is still something you may want to check out. Whether you’re a fan of Hokuto No Ken or not.

Black Belt is a lot like early beat ’em ups like Irem’s Kung Fu Master. You’ll move in one direction killing, or avoiding enemies until you get to the end. What makes the game a bit different is the addition of mini bosses, bosses, and some violent imagery to boot. Granted, the original version is darker. But Black Belt’s grunts still explode when punched in the face, or kicked in the stomach.

So you’ll continue along blowing people up, and occasionally super jumping into the air to catch sushi, and kanji symbols for health. Every so often you’ll come across a mini boss. These guys are 1 on 1 match ups, that rely on memorizing patterns to win. Start going at them all fists blazing, and you’ll probably lose a life. But taking some time to learn when to strike will make these fights more manageable. A couple of stages have several mini boss fights in them. After defeating them, you will continue fighting waves of  grunts until you reach the boss.

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Boss fights change the game play a bit. The perspective in these matches is zoomed in, so the action resembles a tournament fighting game rather than a brawler. Just like the mini boss fights, each of these has a bit of a pattern to figure out. Boss fights are a bit harder though, because they won’t always use the same attacks in the same sequence. So there is a bigger importance on patience. Some runs through the game, you may take down a boss quickly, but other times you’ll be doing a lot of hit, and run tactics. Keep in mind that you’re also on a time limit too, so you’ll have to work smart.

Visually Black Belt isn’t half bad most of the time. Backgrounds are bright, colorful, and detailed. Most of the standard enemy characters have really cool designs too. The mini bosses are pretty awesome most of the time, with only a couple of them getting rather silly. The Bosses are a different matter. All of them pale in comparison to their Japanese counterparts. Garish, and corny these guys are some of the silliest bad guys you’ll ever see in a game. Things fare better on the musical front with some honestly catchy chip tune melodies in the soundtrack. Not all of it is great, some of it is banal background noise. But when the music is good, it’s good.

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It’s a short 5 stage run, but it controls well through it all. I still recommend using a Genesis pad or the Sega Control Stick over the stock Control Pad. Everything feels pretty solid, and responsive. The stock controller will sometimes have you going in the wrong direction or crouching when you don’t want to due to the mushy directional pad. But not often enough to ruin the experience either.

Even though the shift to generic characters, and backgrounds makes for a less exciting environment, Black Belt is still one of the better early brawlers. It manages to be interesting even though it looks uninspired. There isn’t much of a story outside of rescuing your girlfriend from a street gang. The usual B movie plot device of most brawlers. Be that as it may, if you’re collecting for the Master System, pick it up. It’s inexpensive, and has an interesting history behind it. Especially if you’re a fan of the anime that inspired its original Japanese release.

Final Score: 7 out of 10