Splatoon 2’s competitive scene map debate.

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Recently, one of the top European Splatoon 2 players did a couple of video episodes on their thoughts about how they felt they could grow the community. Ways to help not only the top players keep their knowledge of the game ever-growing, but to welcome more people who are new to the multiplayer aspect of the game into playing more competitively. One of the major thoughts he had about this was to have the tournament scene agree on reducing the number of maps to use.

ThatSrb2DUDE argues that due to the fact that there are four major modes in the game (five if you find the odd tournament that includes the base Turf War mode) there are north of 100 maps in the game when you consider that there are small changes to each map for each mode. For example, if you fire up Shellendorf Institute on Splat Zones, you’ll notice some slight alterations to the basic Turf War version of the map. And that this added complexity could potentially turn off some people from getting into the competitive side of the game because of it. Instead of knowing 23 basic maps they have to know the 23 basic maps plus the four variations of each. So in a way, yes that’s 92 if you count variations. 115 if you’re also counting the basic Turf War mode as well. As he points out, most of the tournaments don’t play Turf War, but a handful of tournaments do play them so it’s worth noting.

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I want to start out by saying I do see where this movement comes from. If you’ve never played the game or you’ve only played a little of it and then decide you’d like to see what competitive gaming is like,  that is a lot of nuances to get by. Many of the changes to the maps between are true, minor, but they can greatly change the methods of which you traverse your way to the goals.

Be that as it may, I think I have a unique perspective on this, as from 2002-2009 I played a lot of competitive Unreal Tournament games. Now while I was never anywhere near a top dog in terms of getting out to scores of tournaments and racking up wins, I was in a clan and we had a lot of scrimmages. UT, UT 2k3/2k4. and UT3  all featured a scene with far more maps than Splatoon 2. That’s because not only were there whichever maps came with the game but also multiple modes and the community created thousands of maps and mods. Many of these also were played in tournaments.

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He brings up the point in the video that some may cite a lack of variety if some map/mode combinations were ignored but that all 23 base maps would have at least one of their variants played so there would still be variety. And that is true. But from my time in UT, the map variety could be endless depending on the given tournament you were in. But many would point out and rightfully so, that in UT most of the maps were made for specific modes. Facing Worlds was made for CTF for example.

Still, it was possible for the community to alter maps for other modes or even invent entirely new ones. I know my clan had a hell of a time playing 2k4 Freeze Tag, a fun take on Team Deathmatch where everyone was frozen in place when killed, and a teammate would have to revive you. The round would end when one side was entirely frozen. It’s the vast kind of variety that I became accustomed to. If my memory serves me right a number of contests implemented some of this community content. Modes, maps, bright skins, the list goes on. But of course, some of these events had their own specific rules. It wasn’t just one wholesale ruleset across the board. On our server, we kept a large swath of maps going in the UT2k4 rotation. Ask most veterans of the game, and they’ll tell you as great as a map as it was, playing only Rankin could get old quick. (It was the lone map on many of the demo servers that let you try the game out.) That isn’t to say there weren’t favorites. Every UT had a variant of Deck. The original version had Conveyor, the iconic Facing Worlds and the beloved low gravity map Morpheus. UT2k4 gave us the aforementioned Rankin, Citadel, Albatross, and many more. UT3 had a few memorable ones too like Shangrila, Tolan, and Rising Sun. And it wasn’t long before each game would see ports of each other’s maps showing up in addition to the slew of community content.

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And I think that’s where my opinion would lie. I think every tournament should be able to decide on their own which maps and mode combinations are permissible. The exception being a Nintendo backed tournament, where Nintendo would probably decide that. But since they generally do their own World Championships I don’t think that would be an issue. This way one show might allow for say Clam Blitz on Walleye Warehouse when another show might not.

I think within those organizations though they should hear all opinions because not everything the top players want is going to be appreciated by the lower-ranked players until they get to that level. At the same time, sometimes someone who is starting out can bring a perspective the more skilled players hadn’t considered before, and the organizers can try to find a ruleset that they feel best fits the needs of the different player levels.

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Having said all of that, I know the current professional players have a much different perspective than I do being on a different (ie: higher) level. They’re going to know things about the game that I don’t. They’re going to have a larger range of experience and knowledge seeing they have played thousands of hours more than someone at my level. Against the best players in the world, I should add. They are going to have information that is invaluable. So that isn’t to say I’m completely dismissing the idea of a mode reduction should all of the shows adopt it. And if I were to enter a tournament with three friends I don’t think any of us would suddenly not play because Arowana Mall‘s Tower Control variant wasn’t included.

But opinions were called for across the spectrum. And because I religiously played a game that called for an insane number of variations at the time,  I have no problem personally, with the maps in Splatoon 2. Or their variants. Although I will concede that ThatSrb2DUDE’s point about clams spawning near goals in Clam Blitz could be seen as cheap. If you have someone stocked up on Ninja perks, and speed perks, they could conceivably sneak into enemy territory, and rack up a bunch of free points before getting noticed with little effort. Maybe that’s something Nintendo could look into with a future patch.

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In closing, I will say one thing I absolutely do not want to see happen is barriers being placed in between skill levels. Let me explain what I mean, using a game I loved playing as an example. Near the end of its peak, Chivalry: Medieval Warfare had a lot of beginners pick it up during deep discounted Steam Summer Sales. And they weren’t being retained due to the high skill ceiling. Now part of the turnoff obviously were some of the indifferent or even sometimes cold veterans whose attitudes were “Git Gud” rather than ask “What are you needing help with?” But worse than that, the developer didn’t address their concerns either. Instead of helping to cultivate a better environment they created “Beginner” servers where only low-skill number players could play together. In doing this it didn’t enable any of them to learn any nuance or meta-strategy. So when they got too high a level to play on the beginner servers they were just thrown to the wolves and slaughtered where many just stopped playing altogether. As wonderful as that game was, It was a huge problem that ended the life of that game far sooner than it should have. I don’t see that happening in Splatoon 2, at least on Nintendo’s end. They’ve always been good about trying to make games interesting for dabblers and enthusiasts alike.

But I don’t want to see that happen in circles of the community. You don’t want to have a system that coddles new players. They’ll never grow without challenges to overcome. But you also don’t want to inadvertently create a gatekeeping scenario where only people already way into the game will want to get invested. It is a video game after all, and most of us, even the competitive ones want to have fun. More importantly, we want people to play against, and those people are only sticking around if there’s some fun to be had in doing so. So if you do see someone new playing the game on stream or at a convention or your house, be welcoming to people. One thing I’ll never forget about Unreal Tournament III was a loading screen tip that rings true. “Practice good sportsmanship. You were an n00b once too.”

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Again I’m not a top dog in Splatoon 2 by any means. I’m just a big fan of the game trying to grind his way to X rank if it’s possible. I’m not in a clan and I’m probably one of the older fans as I have the salt and pepper on my chin as I crack open my can of IPA. Still, I think for a geezer in the “A” ranks, I hold my own most of the time. And no I don’t think the game should be UT, I very much enjoy it for what it is. It’s an excellent and unique take on one of my favorite genres. But I see parallels at times. Having a wide range of modes and maps is one such example.

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Anyway, if you play any Splatoon 2 or even if you don’t, what do you think? ThatSrb2DUDE posted a link to a survey, that I’ll put below! It runs to 11/8/19 so you have a few days to look it over and make your voice heard. And hey, again, I am not a top-level player by any means so don’t take my opinions as facts here. But if you do happen to be at the top of the mountain reaching for the brass ring, I hope something I’ve talked about is at least useful to some degree. Either way, it’s definitely an interesting topic to weigh in on whether you’re a top-level player, a fan like me who plays regularly, or even an occasional dabbler.

Competitive Splatoon Survey.

The Legendary STARFY Review

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Nintendo has always been known for its platformers. Most would argue they’re the Kings. Super Mario Bros. Donkey Kong and Kirby are three of the most popular franchises the world over. Each of them involves going through a plethora of themed worlds on a quest with a playable mascot. And while that premise may sound similar the execution is different within each. Often to well deserved critical acclaim. It’s very rare to come away from one of their titles visibly upset with it. Other M notwithstanding, and even that game was far from the broken mess so many other games turn out to be.
But way back in 2009, another game was quietly released here in the United States featuring a new character that appeared to be a cuter Ristar.

Maybe it was the fascination with other games at the time. Maybe it was the mass market fascination with Nintendo’s Wii or the Call Of Duty sensation Activision struck proverbial oil with around that time. But in any case, this was probably a bad time for us to have crawled back under our rocks and gone back to whatever we thought was hip. Because in the process we missed a cool newish IP at the time.

PROS: Terrific graphics. Fun level design. Humor.

CONS: Probably takes more cues from other Nintendo platformers than it should.

HEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!: Everything Starfy says sounds like this.

I say “newish” because Starfy is actually a long-running series in Japan that started out on the Game Boy Advance. For whatever reason Nintendo didn’t think the series would translate to the North American market very well. But suddenly they changed their tune when the Nintendo DS was striking it big.
In this game, you take the Star Prince on an adventure (I forgot to mention Starfy is royalty.) when a mysterious rabbit in an astronaut costume crashes through his ceiling. The rabbit freaks out and runs away. So Starfy is sent on a quest to figure out just who the heck this bunny is and where he came from. A few stages in you’ll figure out that his name is Bunston and that the long-eared mascot has amnesia.

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The Legendary Starfy is in many ways its own animal, but it does borrow a couple of things from Nintendo’s better-known platformers. You’ll have the Super Mario Bros. 3 map structure. Each of the worlds you play through has an environmental theme and you’ll clear areas on the map to progress. Things on the maps often change when you clear a stage. But, it also will draw many comparisons to Kirby because of the cuteness factor of it all. Starfy looks like he could come from one of those HAL powered games. From the adorable smile to the cute “HEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” he’ll exclaim. And there are secret rooms as well in many of the stages.

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Finding these rooms will often give you an arcade challenge to complete. If you can do so there are a number of rewards for your success. Sometimes it’s new cosmetic items to dress your Starfy in. Other times its chat logs that explain more of the backstory. And in other cases, they lead to secret exits that open up new hidden levels on the map, which have secrets of their own.
Over the course of the game’s worlds, you’ll find most of the stages feature a lot of underwater sections. That’s due to the fact that many of the game’s mechanics are centered around swimming. Starfy starts out with some light twirl attacks, and there’s even a bit of jumping you’ll need to do when you’re not submerged. Most of the stages are surprisingly large with a lot of health pellets to collect. There are also hidden gems you can find that extend the number of hearts on your life meter. A big chunk of the fun in this game is exploring stages to find these items and the aforementioned secrets.
The combat in it does open up over time though. You’ll get upgraded swimming attacks, jumping skills and more. Plus as time goes on you’ll find items that allow Bunston to merge with Starfy. These mergers turn the two characters into different creatures you’ll need to use in order to solve puzzles, defeat certain enemies, or even access secret areas.

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In fact, many early stages have sections you can’t access until much later in the game when you have collected all of Bunston’s merger items. This fosters a sense of replay value as on top of the secret stages, these areas are more content for you to go looking for on a second run. Adding to this replay value is Starly, Starfy’s Sister. Throughout the game, you can call on her for help, and there is a two-player mode you can access through the DS’ local wireless option where you each can use a character. But if you clear the game, there is a bonus world that opens up where you play as Starly. Starly also plays a little bit differently than her default Brother does. So you can have a largely different experience using her.

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The game doesn’t have the high challenge of the Super Mario Bros. tougher entries, nor does it have the lower bar set by the Kirby games. It’s pretty easy going although there are a few moments where the game does surprise you with a puzzle or a boss. And most of the bosses here are really cool. A few of them even take advantage of the Nintendo DS dual-screen setup to give you a little bit of added depth. The final confrontation at the end can actually be a bit cheap at times, but once you master the pattern it isn’t too much of a spike.

One thing The Legendary Starfy does exceptionally well is its visual style. It’s a blend of 2D sprite work and 3D backgrounds. In a way, it’s a lot like Falcom’s releases of Ys on Steam. But it’s even better here taking advantage of a lot of colors. Even when you’re in kind of dreary areas in the game it’s still very colorful. A lot of bright reds, blues, greens with terrific gradients. Sprites are crisp and feature a lot of great details as well as a simulated cel-shaded look. It’s a beautiful game. Even though the 3D graphics aren’t the most exciting or detailed models, they still fit the world well and don’t really clash with the sprite work.

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The game also has full-motion videos that resemble animated comic book panels. These push the story along as you meet up with certain characters, fight bosses, and discover key areas that trigger them. Fortunately, you can press Start to skip these if you do get stuck on a certain boss or puzzle so you don’t have to watch a 2-minute segment every time you have to continue. And while I can’t say there are a lot of songs that stay in your head long after you’re done playing, they are all something that fit in the environment well.

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When you get done with the main game’s campaign and the bonus world you still aren’t fully done because you can go back to replay old stages to find new areas you didn’t find previously. Among some of them are minigames you may not have already found during your campaign. There are five of them. Once you’ve found these you can play these separately from the main game alone or with friends using the DS’s wireless functions.

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Overall, Starfy is a rather fantastic platformer. It may borrow a little bit from Nintendo’s mainline platformers at times giving an impression it might be derivative. But it really is far from the case. The majority of the game’s water-themed levels leads to some unique gameplay. Plus the bright, cheery, optimism of the game’s environment is a change of pace. Even from something like Mario or Kirby. It’s too bad the earlier games were never localized because Starfy is pretty great. It’s lighthearted, it’s fun and genuinely funny. Tose’s little Star has an infectious charm about himself even if the only thing he ever says is “HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”. The Legendary STARFY is one legend you’ll want to add to your Nintendo DS collection.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

The Art Of Splatoon Review

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For those who don’t know, I’m not someone who has the privilege of making any considerable income off of my online endeavors. Like most of you, I have another ongoing job while this is largely a hobby with the potential to become a side hustle. And to be frank, never go into a passion with the express purpose of being the main gig. If it happens, great. But you’ll more than likely make nothing, or worse, get paid in exposure and burnout faster than a cashier dealing with murderous hyenas on a Black Friday.

But fortunately, one perk in my pedestrian work is a paid week of time off. Usually, I use it during a convention week or to maybe, actually go somewhere. But with the need to replace my car, get a phone, and some unforeseen expenses cropping up I couldn’t really afford to see much of the world, or much beyond my State. So I went with what we call a “STAYcation”. A week where we stay up all night, sleep in or do nothing at all. And we LOVE it.

PROS: 320 pages of assets and artwork associated with Splatoon.

CONS: If you’re not a Splatoon fan you might appreciate it slightly less.

ASPIRING: Artists and developers may want to look into this book as well as fans.

Anyway, if you followed me at all online you would have seen I used a big part of my time moving the needle ahead, then behind, and then ahead again in Splatoon 2’s Ranked Modes. I streamed a large amount of it on my Twitch channel and had a blast most of the time. I even titled them “Staaaaying Fresh on STAYcation.” I thought it was rather clever. Although there was one point where I had a severely bad run and became more tilted than a five-year-old who wasn’t allowed to get an overpriced Superman figure at CVS. At least it wasn’t the breakdown GunstarHeroes had while playing through Battletoads on the Game Gear. Also, you should follow GunstarHeroes because he’s a really swell guy who runs a very entertaining stream whether he’s having a stellar run or not.

But it’s no secret I’m a big fan of Nintendo’s competitive shooter. It has a unique take on the idea and some great implementation of its ideas in more traditional modes. On top of a fantastic single-player campaign. It’s no wonder over two games the new IP has slowly been building a competitive as well as an involved community of fans of all stripes. This is especially true in Japan, where there are even physical releases of the games’ soundtracks. As well as live concerts, albums of those concerts and even a number of behind the scenes books of sorts.

Imagine my surprise when I found out Dark Horse Comics actually published an English translation of one of these books. I found a lone copy on one of my STAYcation days when I went from my area of Connecticut to the Shoreline for a change of scenery and pace. Frankly, it’s amazing. And I don’t only say that as a fan of these video games. Even if you don’t care about the franchise, this is a very insightful book because you can see the amount of love and talent the artists behind the game put into it. There are almost 400 pages of concept art, sketches, preproduction art, postproduction art, test renders, promotional art, animatic layouts, you name it.

Considering how many things go into a game these days the amount of stuff here is staggering. And this focuses solely on art assets. That’s before the soundtrack, sound effects, voice acting, or the coders or animators or the other load of things involved. Unfortunately, I can’t show off a lot of it here seeing how I don’t know how much would get me into hot water. But suffice it to say as a fan of videogames this is something you may consider picking up.

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I would also recommend it to anybody who is an aspiring artist because of the peek behind the curtain. You can get a glimpse into some of the techniques that were used for the game and again, you can really appreciate the amount of care and detail in every piece of it. Even seemingly small things like the billboard art and logos for fictional brands, or a texture used for the world’s streets, or a backdrop used for a skybox have an importance you don’t always get to appreciate when you’re busy trying not to get killed by an Octarian sniper as you’re playing a stage.

These are the kinds of hardcovers I wish there were more of, especially for games or other creative endeavors I become a big fan of. But many games don’t foster enough of an audience for publishers to see the return of investment on. While I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to see a multitude of things like this for Fortnite, or Final Fantasy or Grand Theft Auto or Overwatch see the light of day, even popular games like Splatoon have often been seen as not quite popular enough.

Thankfully, this one has done at least well enough that Dark Horse appears to be releasing a translated edition of The Art Of Splatoon 2 later this year. In any case, those who have been interested in seeing just how much goes into the average Nintendo game’s artwork would do well to give this book a look. Or anybody interested in making art assets for any video game for that matter. When we play a game it’s easy to miss a lot of this sort of thing because to take your eyes off of a goal can often lead to a fail state.

Likewise, I would recommend this to artists, or anybody who just appreciates great artwork in general. There are all sorts of styles, techniques and more to be seen here. Watercolors, acrylics, line work, T-poses, even a bit of the bubble method. And even as a novice one can see that any given piece of art in this book took hours, possibly even days to get the way the creators wanted or needed it to be. If this book does nothing else for you, it will make you appreciate the work that goes into games just a little bit more.

Obviously, for fans of Splatoon, this one really is a no brainer as you’ll get to see the artistic evolution of the character designs, world-building and many of the ideas born during the creation of the original Wii U title. Everything imaginable is here, even including the fonts and typefaces used in the Inkling and Octoling languages throughout the game.

The presentation is great too. Not only is this printed on a very high-quality paper stock but there are even little clear screen printed textures on the hardcover background that only show up in certain angles of light. The Art Of Splatoon may be the art book with SPLATtitude. But the book is one of the best of its kind even rivaling Tim Lapetino’s Art Of Atari which is another fantastic artbook fans of video games ought to check out. If you’re a video game fan interested in seeing the level of work that goes into a game these days, The Art Of Splatoon does indeed, stay fresh.

Final Score: 10 out of 10

Retro World Expo 2019 recap

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Now in its fifth year, Retro World Expo is slowly growing into one of the best conventions in New England. There are consistently good guests and panels. There are always plenty of things to keep you busy. And there are a lot of vendors with a variety of games, collectibles, and other stuff waiting for you if you’re out to shop.

Some of the layout concerns of previous years appeared to have been taken to heart. Checking into the show was easy. Just like last year, it was easy to follow the line to the window for people who paid ahead of time. Traffic for people paying for entry seemed straightforward as well. Going onto the show floor, everything was more condensed. There were as many vendors, guests, and events as last year, but it was less spaced out. But not so crammed that one couldn’t move.

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Getting there on time was impeded by some road work on Interstate 84 on my way in. So I missed about a half-hour of the morning festivities. This year, the convention moved all of the panels to the afternoon so that actually allowed some of the other events and attractions to shine a bit more.

 

This year Big Bucks Entertainment was back with their fantastic game show recreations. These events are great as Davira is able to get pretty good facsimiles of popular game shows going in a convention setting. This year he brought back Press Your Luck, and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? I caught the Press Your Luck show in the morning, and it featured one of the closest contests I think I’ve seen. The contestants were two guys and an older woman who didn’t really play many games. Her children did. Despite this fact, she managed to get enough questions right in the two rounds to earn a lot of spins. She went on to get a score in the tens of thousands before moving along. At the end of the second round, however, one of the other contestants had no money and only a final spin. They somehow managed to land on a streak of money and free spin combinations to nearly overtake the woman. But they couldn’t quite pull it off.

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Over the course of the contest, they had a charity tie in where audience members would be called upon some spins. If the contestant landed on a prize space the audience member would get a free prize. If they landed on a Whammy, the contestant would not only lose all of their money but the audience members’ prizes as well. Except for two of the audience members who were called up. They were kids, so even though they didn’t win they were given the free prize anyway.  Somehow there was enough time left that three other audience members were able to play a couple of Whammy rounds. This wasn’t as close as the primary round but it was still fun.

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I got in some time with a couple of Coin-ops. I played some Centipede, managing to beat the high score. Sadly, the machine didn’t save my score but Centipede is always a fun arcade game to play. This year the KRULL machine was back and it was in working order! Not only is KRULL a wonderful Sci-Fi action-adventure movie it also saw two licensed video games. One was on the Atari 2600, and the other was this cabinet. It’s a twin-stick shooter that is composed of different waves inspired by scenes from the film. You have to find the pieces to your Glave while avoiding boulders one wave. Then you have to recruit an army in another. Then you have to defend and protect your army in another. and so on and so forth. It’s also brutally difficult. But one of those brutally difficult games you keep putting quarters into because it’s just so cool.

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I browsed around the floor a bit looking to see if I could find anything on my list or any surprises. I actually found one vendor with a lot of random games and toys. While I didn’t find any games, I did see some Masters Of The Universe figures in pretty respectable shape. They were all loose, and most of them were incomplete. But they were selling everything ridiculously cheap. I found a Spikor in excellent shape. He was missing his cudgel but the figure itself had little to no paint wear. When I asked how much they wanted for it they said “Six dollars.” I bought it on the spot. I bumped into “Pixel” Dan Eardley and had a short conversation about MOTU and some gaming. PixelDan had missed last year’s show but was glad to be back out for this fifth show.

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I ran into another YouTuber shortly after that, Rewind Mike! He had come to the show scouring the floor not for games, but for albums. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with him but it was fun checking out a few booths and talking about our lack of luck finding what we were looking for. We also saw my pal TheReNesance! He’s also known as The Gamescape Artist and he is a fantastic painter. He does phenomenal artwork based on iconic scenes from video games past and present. He also does commissions! And he also has a YouTube and Twitch channel where he has footage and live streams of games as well as his work! Be sure to check him out!

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I then hit up PixelDan’s panel. It was an interesting one because he gave us not only a sneak peek of his upcoming Toysplosion episode (a series where he goes over the history of a different toyline each episode.) but he also let everyone in on some details about his upcoming project with Dark Horse Comics! He has helmed a comprehensive guide on all of the past Masters Of The Universe toylines. Masters Of The Universe (1982-1988), Princess Of Power (1985-1987), He-Man (sometimes called New Adventures) (1989-1992), Masters Of The Universe: Commemorative Edition (1999-2001), Masters Of The Universe: Modern Series (often called 200x) (2002-2004), Masters Of The Universe Classics (2008-present) The book won’t include things on upcoming lines or the erroneous merchandise. But it’s being designed to appeal to the casual fan who may remember a few of the toys they owned as children as well as giving hardcore fans a lot of the details they’re looking for. Personally, I can’t wait to check it out because I’ve been waiting for a guide like this for some time. So I hope it does well for Dark Horse and PixelDan. Dark Horse has put out similar books in the past for other properties including Nintendo’s.

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After PixelDan’s panel, I went to the XVGM Radio Panel where Mike Levy and Justin Schneider talked a bit about the differences between the Sega Genesis and Super NES in terms of sound. The Sega Genesis had two chips. Texas Instruments’ SN76489 and a Yamaha YM2612 for backward compatibility with Sega Master System titles. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System had a custom chip; the S-SMP which was made for Nintendo by Sony. The technical differences led to very different sounds. So after going over each sound solution, they compared the same tracks on both consoles, as well as play some of the most notable songs from each. The audience got to vote of course, and the matchups were mostly evenly matched, although there were a few decisive victories too. XVGM Radio is a pretty cool, and informative podcast where they talk about game music and often even get interviews with composers. So definitely check it out.

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I went back down to the main floor after the panel and ran into some other people. Peter Lazarski and Juu Hachi of Imaginary Monsters were at the show. Unlike last year they weren’t there to show off any of their game. They were just there as regular attendees. I saw some of the Cosplay contest with them before looking around the floor some more. There were some upcoming indie games there, however.

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Jumpmen Gaming was back with Sentinel Zero. Except that the game is no longer called Sentinel Zero it’s title has been changed to Cardinal Conclave. It has also changed focus. Instead of being a traditional horizontal Shoot ’em up, it has taken a page from Studio MDHR’s Cuphead by becoming more of a boss rush game. It still utilizes a shmup feel though. You’ll be going over a map much like Cuphead, choosing a stage based on your current level, and going into a boss fight. To be fair, a few of these still have a traditional lead-in where you mow down small enemies before contending with a boss. But for the most part, it’s a boss rush shooter. The game does play much better than the early build from last year and the graphics have been sharpened up nicely. I was informed it has entered Early Access on Steam. Just remember when buying Early Access games you’re buying something that isn’t done. That said, it does look promising.

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There was also an interesting game called Cloak And Dasher by a developer called Spirit Stone Studio. It’s a puzzle-platform game that puts you in the role of a cloaked fellow who can jump and dash. You have to play in these maps that are often a single screen where the object is to escape a maze. Unfortunately for you, there is a smorgasbord of death traps and enemies to contend with. The demo at the show was timed and you had to get through 23 maps before time ran out. You had unlimited lives. And what I saw was honestly quite fun. It has a visual style that is somewhere between Broforce and Super Meat Boy. The comparison is apropos because some of these stages could become pretty difficult. It had elements of several games, Super Meat Boy, Boulder Dash, Mega Man X, and Battle Kid all came to mind as I went through the demo. It too has an Early Access release on Steam.

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Joe Granato was back with NES Maker, and it is now a full-fledged product you can buy. If you didn’t read any of my previous recaps, he has been to a few previous RetroWorldExpo shows with it as it was being made. The utility was made during the progress of an NES game he was making called Mystic Searches. A vintage Action RPG made in the mold of games like The Legend Of Zelda, and Ys. In any event, working in 6502 assembly language and HEX editing was proving exhausting. So he and his team created a GUI mapper program that would let them design their game worlds on their desktop and then the program would convert everything to 6502 (The class of CPU in the NES and a host of other consoles and microcomputers of the 1980s) language. This would vastly speed up the production of their game. But in the process, they found they could also offer the utility they built as a standalone product for budding indie game makers interested in the homebrew scene. NES Maker is that utility. With it, you can make almost anything you want on the NES within reason. Of course, there are limits based on how the team designed the tools. But after only a fairly short time on the market it’s been a success. And there are already a lot of new games being made with it. It even has the ability to flash your games to physical NES Game Paks. So if you’ve ever dreamed of making your own games you can play on an original NES, it might be something you want to look into.

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Another returning studio was Giant Evil Robot who made Mecha-Tokyo Rush. It was an on-rails, auto-scrolling Mega Man clone that took elements of endless runners along for the ride. It seemed like a decent enough game, even with it taking a free-to-play model shortly upon release. However, this new game is a Mega Man clone that could prove to be one of the better ones out there. Star Girl Proxima has none of the endless runner stuff from their previous effort. It also looks a lot nicer, with a much better color palette. The controls in the demo they provided felt somewhere between Mega Man and Mega Man X. It doesn’t have quite the weight of the classic series, but there is a heavier feeling when jumping than in the X series. Your Star Girl can also dash like X, which is good because some of the jumps will require it. That said, it’s still a work in progress and while they said they’re shooting for a 2019 release, the build they showed off still had no proper end to it.

Still, even if it doesn’t make it out this year it is clear it’s already an improvement over their previous game. The demo had several sections where one had to have pixel-perfect timing to get around projectiles as well as one where a giant octopus robot destroyed parts of the scenery as regular enemies attacked you. It was a challenge, yes, but it felt good. About the only complaint, I had with it when asked by the rep was that in the early goings it wasn’t always clear where the backgrounds and foregrounds were. I kept accidentally jumping into pits as a result. They said it was something a few people mentioned so the final product will likely make platforms more obvious. Overall, I was pretty impressed with the demo. Hopefully, it will be indicative of what we can expect from the game at launch.

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As the first day winded down and the main floor closed it was time to get some food. My friends from Imaginary Monsters are also fans of Craft Beer like me. So we ended up going to City Steam Brewery which is a short walk from the Hartford Convention Center. Last year they picked up a new brewmaster who has been making a number of new and sometimes experimental beers. The three of us each ordered a flight, and the one interesting thing we all decided to try was their new sour beer. It’s called Our Princess Is In Another Castle. It’s made with peaches and jalapenos and it’s amazing. When they brought over the flights we could smell the peppers from the glasses. The spiciness from the jalapenos balances with the sweetness of the peaches really well. And while it isn’t a particularly potent beer, it is light, crisp, and delicious. The food there has also been very good. No place is perfect. But I have yet to have a bad experience. I was a little bit disappointed to see their menu has been simplified, but the quality of the meals were as good as ever. I had a Bratwurst to go with my Oktoberfest, Sour, IPA, and Porter flight. Then I ended up getting a pint of Our Princess Is In Another Castle. Peter got the Nachos, and as you can see in the image, he got his money’s worth. I ended up getting a growler of the Sour because it was that impressive. And I’m someone who generally prefers IPAs or Stouts.

After getting food we headed back to the convention center and caught the tail end of the afterparty. There’s about an hour-long lull after the day ends and then they put on an event where you can drink, listen to live music, and more. Falconeer was finishing up a set of Neo New Wave dance tracks. I proceeded to get destroyed by my buddy Aldo at a Street Fighter II arcade cab. (It wasn’t entirely my fault. The buttons were messed up.) while it was going on. And then I competed with Imaginary Monsters for a high score on After Burner. After that, I would see Mike Levy take on Aldo in broken Street Fighter II, and also lose. But it was still fun. Davira from Big Bucks Entertainment had also been running Celebrity Press Your Luck with some of the guests as contestants but unfortunately, I didn’t get back from the brewery in time to catch that.

With that, the first night ended, and I made the hour trek home. I caught some of my pal Sirhcman’s Livestream of Jackbox Party and then went to sleep. The next day, I would return for day two.

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Day two was considerably shorter but it was still packed with some interesting things. FRAG was there this year again, and they organized the various tournaments during the show. There were the fighting game tournaments, and such that you would expect. But there was also a retro game competition where you had to play each of the old school games set up, and they would record your scores. You could replay all you wanted in order to replace your scores with higher ones until the qualifying time was over. The top six would go on to do an entirely new set of challenges with the winner of that tournament round receiving a $100 credit they could use at any of the vendors at the show! It was a pretty cool idea, so I took a stab at it. While I did alright on a couple of the challenges, some of the games on the list I was just terrible at playing. On top of this, they used the NES version of Q*Bert which while not quite as awful as some would have you believe, is still tough to master thanks to the confusing control scheme options in it. Why couldn’t Konami just go with the diamond layout Parker Bros. did on their Atari 2600 port? But I’ve begun to ramble. The game selection honestly, was pretty good. There were scoring and speed run challenges on games like Mappy, Super Hang-On, Warioware, Spelunker, Super Mario 64, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater II, and several others. Of course, what drew me into the whole thing was spying an Atari 2600 running Kaboom! I managed to get a respectable 1,255 points in the game. And while that may sound low believe me when I say that most people have a tough time getting more than 300 points. Kaboom! is quite the challenge.

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Anyway, I obviously didn’t even qualify to make the top six player bracket. But I did have fun making the attempt even if it proved feeble. But at this point, I realized I was running late to check out any of the panels. So I managed to get into Pam D’s panel. She does a YouTube show  Cannot Be Tamed. She was showing off some footage for an upcoming video that I won’t spoil here, followed by some Q & A. Some of the discussions were about giving games a second chance, finding comparable features between two very different games made by the same company, and the perception some have about video games being for males despite the fact that women and girls have been gaming since video games have existed. Definitely an insightful, and engaging panel.

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I managed to catch the last couple of minutes of Joe Granato’s panel. He was going over some of the details of NES Maker I talked about earlier. One interesting thing that came up was when someone asked about the most difficult part of making things for the NES. He talked about how the NES’ limited RAM meant that he had to code a Bank Switching routine so that information or content could be swapped into memory at just the right time. Otherwise, things would exceed the memory limits and crash. He talked about how despite the limitations of the utility, people have already done things with it he didn’t think would be possible. Graphical effects like Parallax Scrolling was one example. Another was a complete text adventure.

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After his panel ended, Mike Stulir VP of the American Classic Arcade Museum had a panel going over the history of the ACAM and an overview of what they do. A labor of love, it’s a non-profit that tries to salvage, save, and even restore vintage arcade games so that future generations can experience the history of the arcade business. One of the more fascinating aspects of this is how involved restoring some of these machines can be. He talked about how they received an incredibly rare Death Race 2000 machine. It was produced by Exidy and was one of the first games that ignited the video game violence controversy. Inspired by the Death Race movie, the internal name was called Pedestrian, and the goal of the game was to score points by running over people with your car. Even though games of the time had graphics composed of simple shapes the concept started an uproar and the game would fade into obscurity.

Unfortunately, the cabinet they received had come from a basement that had flooded and it wasn’t up on a pallet when it did. So the particleboard Exidy used had rotted, and parts of the cabinet were falling off. Moreover, the side panel was even split in half so the structural integrity was unsalvageable. But the game’s motherboard, chips, and every piece of electronics were fine. So they were able to create a template from the cabinet parts, and reproduce a proper cabinet out of plywood. But the other problem was the screen printing on the old plywood wasn’t something easily created. They had to send the old plywood to a company in Florida who would scan it into their software and then ship them new decals. They also had to fly in a specialist from the Pacific Northwest to properly apply them.

Of course, all of this stuff costs money, and being a non-profit run by volunteers they depend on donations to keep the venture going. If that sounds like something you can afford to contribute to you can go right to their website to find out how. I got to ask Mr. Stulir about how restoration may affect the value of these machines as in other collectibles and antique markets things will plummet when there aren’t all original parts there. He said that they don’t like having to restore cabinets in the manner they saved their Death Race machine. But in cases like that one, they have to decide if keeping a machine playable is more beneficial than retaining every last original part. Usually, they prefer to find new old stock or take good parts from another otherwise unsalvagable machine to fix a broken machine with. With Death Race having so few still remaining, keeping the machine alive was a better fit so that visitors can still experience the game.

But that was just the introduction. The rest of the panel was devoted to the life of Ralph Baer. Most people know he was the inventor of the Magnavox Odyssey and that pretty much everything we love about video games can be traced back to his work. But did you know his family barely escaped Germany in the lead up to World War II, emigrated to the USA, and that he’d be drafted to fight in the war effort? He thought of a lot of ideas that wouldn’t be realized until decades later by others. Like the ability to use a modem to buy things off of an infomercial or remote classes where a viewer could interact with a teacher’s lesson from home. And of course, before the Odyssey became a reality his Brown Box would lay the groundwork in 1968.

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The last panel was the Connecticut YouTuber Panel. So Mike Levy (DYHPTG), Russ Lyman, Culture Dog, and Paul of Retro Gaming Arts returned from last year. New this year were Dan and Nick of The Best Spuds. As well as Geeky Panda who I met on the floor last year. And Steven Christina Jr. of Super Retro Throwback was also featured! He interviewed me at last year’s show. Each of the guests briefly went over their channels and played their respective trailers. They also took a moment to talk about RAX The Great’s channel. He was originally slated to return to RetroWorldExpo this year but had gotten a bad head cold and was unable to attend. All of the panelists talked about their various setups involved in making their content. They also reminded the audience that like any creative endeavor, go into making internet videos out of passion. None of the panelists made much money doing YouTube if any. There were some humorous moments in the panel too with some slight references to each other’s respective shows.

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With the final panel over with it was time to leave the Hartford Convention Center and make the hour-long trek home. The show is becoming one of my favorite things to look forward to every year. I get to see people I don’t get to be around very often due to life, and work schedules. I get to geek out with fellow video game fans, and in a way, it feels like you’re going home.  And there’s a ton of stuff I didn’t even get to take part in because it’s impossible to see everything. There were the tournaments, there were a few guests I didn’t get the chance to see or see again. Game Dave was there, Adam and Shane of Rerez were there, Jay Hunter of the Game Chasers came back, Stop Skeletons From Fighting was there, there were bands like RF Switch playing sets.  I’m missing a bunch more, there is just so much going on. And it all feels very community-driven where some of the larger shows are more about seeing new games or media six to twelve months before it comes out.  I could complain about not finding much to buy, but honestly, that’s more on me for having found much of what I wanted anyway. And between the final two panels I attended I did end up going back to the vendor, I found Spikor from and it turned out he had a Fisto with the armor and sword included for $15. So two MOTU figures in great shape are still pretty good. Here’s hoping a sixth RetroWorldExpo continues the tradition.

 

Razer Phone 2 Review

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For years I’ve always gotten around with prepaid burner phones. I don’t generally spend much time on a phone. I’ve rarely used one for much more than emergencies, save for the odd trip or a convention visit. But my LG 305C Tracfone has finally gotten so long in the tooth it barely holds a charge. A battery costs more than the phone and when it does work it drops calls and gets texts sometimes days after they’ve been sent. Even the web browser support has been abandoned. It thinks all links are malicious. Good luck trying to look up directions on it if you get lost. At least the built-in Facebook app still works. Even if none of its basic features work properly anymore.

PROS: 120hz Screen. Powerful GPU. Cooling System. Gaming Performance. Funky light.

CONS: Slightly older CPU. Mid Tier cameras. Accessories are uncommon at retail.

GAMING: It’s still a phone, so you’ll have to search hard for games that aren’t freemium.

Why not get a smartphone a decade ago when they were commonplace? It was a combination of my limited need for one and having to be thrifty in some areas. I once worked in tech sales. I knew just how expensive contracts were back then. Many locked you into a device for two years, and they had caps on everything. Over the years prepaid solutions from carriers were cheaper. Yes, you still had to pay rates based upon what you did on the phone. But you only paid for what you used. If you were like me and mainly had it for a roadside emergency (or occasionally using it to check social media while getting coffee) paying close to $100 or more a month wouldn’t seem feasible.

Over the years though, the big carriers began offering their own no-contract alternatives which have only gotten less expensive. The smaller prepaid names have adopted better phones and even rent the lines from the big players. Ultimately, buying a phone unlocked and taking it to a carrier isn’t too much more of an expense. There’s also the fact that my friends and relatives have been haranguing me about getting a smartphone for what seems like forever.

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So these factors have finally led me to get a smartphone for myself. So I ended up rolling with the Razer 2 phone. It’s a phone many people have never heard of. It’s made by a company known for gaming keyboards, mice and respectable headphones. Somewhere along the line, they decided to make a phone. The original Razer was a cult hit. It competed well enough that many PC gamers picked it up and loved it. So a sequel went into production. So why rock the Razer 2 over one of the Apple or Samsung phones? Well, there are a few reasons. But first I’ll mention what may be obvious to some. If you already have an iPhone and love it,  some of those apps are First-Party. So you’re locked into that ecosystem. Coming over to this means there are some things on that phone that won’t carry over to this one or another phone powered by an Android OS.

The Razer 2 has some really cool things I noticed about it right away. Most notably the audio. The sound quality is excellent. If you put a lot of music on your phone and use it as a media player you will not be disappointed here. It has a clear, stereo audio with some nice bass and treble to boot. It also works with the SYNC software in my Ford Fiesta. So playing music in my car without having to plug in an Auxilary cable is great. It also means I can use the Google Maps GPS function on long trips and hear it through the car audio. But even if I was still driving my old car, the speakers on the phone are so good it doesn’t matter. You don’t even have to turn the volume up all that much.

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The screen is also the other major thing of note. With a 120hz refresh rate you really do notice it in movies and shows. While I don’t do that often on it, I can see watching YouTube videos and Twitch Livestreams on it if I go somewhere where there’s a public hotspot knowing I’ll be there a while. Both of which I tested out at the local Starbucks a mile away from home. They worked fantastically, especially Twitch. So much so that I was getting questions about it from employees and customers alike. The 1440 x 2560 resolution also ensures things look crisp.

Less important, but still fun is the customizable LED on the back of the phone. It comes with an app from Razer called Chroma where you can go in and tweak it. You can have it stay on a single color, fade between colors and patterns, or even tweak the frequency of time it stays on. You can even disable it entirely if you don’t care about it and want to save power consumption on your battery.

The phone also has something called Vapor Chamber Cooling. It’s basically an upper ended shield to displace heat evenly throughout the phone. More or less behaving like a heatsink. It’s something few users will ever open up to examine. But it does work toward improving performance a bit. All electronics heat up from intensive use. Ask any PC gamer with a water-cooled tower. Keeping them as close to room temperature as possible does help. Getting too hot can actually damage components. Which is why even my old Tracfone would shut off on its own if I forgot it in the car on a very humid summer day. Most devices will shut off in this case. But if they get hot enough during normal operation they can take performance hits. If you’re playing a game you don’t want random slowdown or drops due to heat.

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Can I say unequivocally that this one feature is going to give you a win over someone else? No. But it’s a small thing that shows they’ve tried to go the extra mile. Speaking of which, the packaging is over-the-top when it comes to trying to impress you. The box has a gatefold cover, similar to that of a high-end hardcover edition of a novel. You then get a screen printed greeting from Razer. Underneath that lie a few compartments for the included phone, USB C to mini cable, AC Adapter for said cable, and a USB C to audio cable if you want to use wired headphones or an auxiliary cable with it.

The phone itself has a great texture on it too. It’s smooth but with enough of a simple groove to keep hold of it. This allows for liquid to just run off of it. If it rains, the dog dries itself next to you, or you spill a soda in the car, there’s a very good chance the phone is still going to work. That said, I still recommend getting a good case and tempered glass screen protector for it. The Warranty is limited after all and won’t cover negligence or abuse. I obviously don’t recommend spilling things on the phone on purpose either.

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The phone also doesn’t come bloated with a ton of stuff in it. Other than Razer’s own utility you basically have the core features of Android OS and little else. That’s another thing you may want to consider when getting a phone. Much like an OEM computer from a company like Dell, for example, these come preloaded with a lot. Many apps run when the phone turns on, using up a big chunk of the memory. Some new phones run like a 4-year-old device out of the box as a result. In the time I’ve had this phone (a few days), I’ve only put on the Nintendo Online app, Steam app, Twitch app, Facebook app, tinkered with the Zedge app. and bought a game or two for performance testing.  None of this really impacted the performance of the phone that much.

I was able to move some stuff from my PC to it to personalize it fairly simply. It requires you pick up another USB C to USB cable of course. Do note you’ll want a good one that can also carry power. The cheap Dollar Store one I had knocking around wouldn’t work at all with it, so I had to buy something more substantial. Once I did, moving files was a breeze. Windows 10 just saw the phone as a storage device, and I was able to move pictures and music to the appropriate folders. Now I can customize my contacts to have different ringtones and images.

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The phone also supports wireless charging though I don’t have a dock to test that function out with. But the built-in wireless network card works very well. It works with every major 802.11 frequency and even has two Multi Input Multi Output antennas on it. The Bluetooth chipset worked like a charm in my car as noted earlier. The website shows the stock version of the phone comes with Android 8.1 but mine came with version 9 on it. So they likely haven’t updated the specs section of the page.

There are two small drawbacks with the phone though. The cameras in it are quite good, but if you’re into taking a ton of photos, and video you’ll find some of the Samsung solutions have better specs in the same range of phones. Mainly due to a more color-accurate image sensor. Be that as it may, I was still impressed with what I did get out of the Razer 2’s Sony cameras. I was still able to take a 4k video clip of my Sister’s Yorkie that looked impressive. And the regular photos are still so good all but the most discerning shutterbug who loves to nitpick won’t have anything to complain about.

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The other thing to be aware of is that while this does have a powerful Adreno 630 GPU for processing graphics, the Snapdragon 845 CPU in it is a little bit older than the SM8150 in the latest Samsung Galaxy line of phones. A couple of other things to be aware of is the fact that being a little more esoteric means the Razer 2 phone accessories you might want will have to be ordered online. It’s slim pickings at retail. I should also note that those looking for something lightweight might not be happy with the added heft some of the features add to the package.

Still, the phone has more than enough packed into it that it’s a fantastic option to consider. The phone has 8GB of RAM which can run multiple apps nicely and has a bit of headroom for some of the more demanding cell phone games. And it supports up to a 1TB microSD card. So if you are a bit of a power user who has gobs of apps, multimedia, and business files on your phone storage shouldn’t be much of an issue. It comes with 64GB internally.

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And while I am not a big fan of the practices of a lot of freemium games that are prevalent on tablets and phones, there are a few traditional games you can buy on a cell phone. So I nabbed a couple for the purpose of this review. VVVVVV (Which I reviewed forever ago on PC) and DOOM (1993) (A game that needs no introduction). Both games performed very well, with no real slowdown to speak of. VVVVVV’s amazing soundtrack continued to prove the Razer 2 has a winning sound. DOOM ran exceptionally smooth and was fairly responsive. One thing I will say is you’ll still probably want to find a compatible Bluetooth controller for traditional games like these. While the games ran wonderfully, using the touch screen gestures takes a lot of getting used to. In the case of DOOM even more so as Bethesda’s solution for controlling all of the various functions is kind of weird. You hold the phone sideways, as the case with most phone games. But the screen is broken up into three sections. On the left, you can swipe your WASD movements. On the right, you can swipe your thumb about for mouselook.

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You tap the upper center for activating switches or doors while the lower center pulls up a weapon wheel. If you want to toggle running you either have to double-tap the WASD section which it doesn’t always detect or go into a menu and set “Always Run” to “On”.  Double-tapping then holding down on the right shoots your weapons. This is a weird layout because you have to take your hand off of the right when you go to activate a switch or a door. Sometimes you may find you need to do this while firing which requires some contortion. This isn’t a problem with the phone, you’ll run into this on any phone that can run the game. But it’s something I’m mentioning here while it’s on my mind. That said, DOOM looks wonderful on the Razer 2. It does come up with the same log-in screen as the Switch version (You can tap “Later” instead of having to log into a Bethesda account) which tells me the Switch version is likely the same game as the Switch is essentially Android tablet tech inside.

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In any case, if you do play a lot of games on your phone, This one definitely has a leg up on other models out there as it plays them well. The graphics are sharp. The colors pop. The games can run at fairly high frame rates. The 120hz refresh rate even feels more responsive. It’s very noticeable on more demanding titles. If you’re looking for a phone that can play bigger budget experiences, it’s definitely one to consider. The thing is, I would still choose a phone based on the other things it can do over gaming at this point. Unless there’s a particular title you’re going to play a lot of as again, the vast majority of cell phone games are using some sort of free to start model, rather than a traditional experience you pay for once. Be that as it may If you want a phone that can handle that Fortnite itch without too many performance dips I think you’ll love the Razer 2. At the time of this writing, it’s also been halved in price by the manufacturer making it a very attractive alternative to some of the higher tier solutions by Apple and Samsung.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

Another Tag! Plus a challenge of my own.

Well, they’ve done it again. A while ago I was once again tagged by Red Metal to answer a few questions. Unfortunately for me, life was a bit busy and I was also playing through a lot of Astral Chain to get out the review.  But I’m ready now! so here we go. These are fun so I hope you enjoy them. And give Red Metal a follow. They put out some rather in-depth long-form reviews.

 

Here are the questions I get to answer:

  1. Have you ever been involved in an emergency situation (e.g. a burning building/an earthquake)?
  2. What is the worst film you’ve ever seen in theaters?
  3. What is the best film you’ve ever seen in theaters?
  4. What is the strangest method by which you discovered a work you enjoy?
  5. What do you feel is the greatest compilation of collected works in your collection (of games/films/music/books/etc.)?
  6. Have you ever re-experienced a work you enjoyed a long time ago only to determine it has not aged well?
  7. Have you ever re-experienced a work you hated (or were indifferent towards) a long time ago only to warm up to it?
  8. What is your favorite opening theme to a television show?
  9. Excluding Western comic books, what series with a single, ongoing narrative do you feel has (or had) gone on for far too long? In other words, I’m not counting shows or other forms of media with entirely self-contained episodes such as The Simpsons or anthological works such as The Twilight Zone with this question.
  10. Have you ever been invested in a series only to be heartbroken when it was cut short with no resolution?
  11. Do you prefer hardcover or paperback books?

 

1.) The closest thing I can say I’ve come to an emergency situation is coming home as a kid to find our home had been broken into. If it’s never happened to you, it’s an awful feeling. Not only did someone potentially take some of your most prized possessions, the feeling of violation really takes a toll on you. You feel your stomach sink completely out of yourself. You fear they may be around somewhere. Your mind really goes to dark places. Even though the second time there was evidence they were scared off by our arrival and they dropped something they stole from a previous robbery we still feared they may come back. It sucks and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

2.) The worst film I’ve seen in theatres? It’s probably a bit cliche to say at this point. But I’m going to say Mac And Me. You can find all of the YouTube rants in existence to go over how bad it really is. But even seeing it on TV isn’t nearly the same. Again, I was a kid. My Father thought, “Hey my kids liked E.T. this is being advertised as an E.T. like, let’s go see it.” When you’re a kid going to the movies is a thing of wonder. Even a mediocre movie is something you don’t experience the same way at home. We all came out kind of disappointed we’d essentially seen a 90-minute product placement vehicle with an uninteresting and sometimes incoherent story. While it isn’t the worst movie you’ll ever see, it isn’t good, and it’s made worse in a theatrical setting.

3.) By contrast, this is a very hard question. Because I grew up at a time when a lot of good things were coming out. Star Wars, Back To The Future, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. There were tons of great films. But I’m going to say The Last Starfighter for a few reasons. Is it the *best* movie I’ve seen? No. And from a critical standpoint, it might not be the best I had going to the movies. But from an entertainment standpoint, I think it probably was with The Neverending Story right behind it. I can still vividly remember the day I went to see it. We had been pretty good all week, and my parents had a little extra to have a family day out. We went to Chuck E. Cheese (this was at a time when the food wasn’t completely terrible and they had actual arcade games. Have you ever taken your nieces or nephews to one these days? It’s ticket redemption prize machines. Where is Berzerk? Where is Pac-Man? Hell, where is Street Fighter II?) After that we went to Toys R Us where I got a Roton for my Skeletor to grind heroes into gibs with. Then met my Aunt for dinner and saw The Last Starfighter on the big screen. And any child of the 80s will tell you, alien Robert Preston showing up to tell you that getting the hi-score on a spaceship rail shooter meant that you got to defend the universe from an army of reptoids with bloodlust was one awesome scenario. And even rewatching it today is one hell of a fun time. Sure there are some hokey moments. But on the whole, it’s a pretty fantastic popcorn movie. Perhaps since they tagged me to answer these questions Red Metal should revisit the movie and write about it? 

4.) The strangest method I’ve discovered an awesome piece of work? Probably the day I left on the TV as background noise on my day off several years ago now. I heard a funny line of dialogue and before long had become an instant fan of Regular Show.

5.) Best compilation? That’s tough to say because while a lot of them are great they come with some baggage. I’d love to say Unreal Anthology, as it gives you every major Unreal and Unreal Tournament entry as well as a partial soundtrack album. But, UT2004 is missing a major bonus content patch. It also came out ahead of UT3 so that game isn’t in the box. I guess in lieu of that I’m going to say the Metal Slug Anthology on Nintendo Wii. It truly does include every game in the series up to that point, the emulation is rather good, and it costs far less than buying each entry digitally on storefronts. It’s certainly cheaper than getting a working Neo Geo and all of the cartridges.

6.) I wouldn’t say they haven’t aged well, but their control schemes have been far surpassed so it takes some time getting reacquainted with them and for this spot, I’ll say Rare’s two groundbreaking console shooters Goldeneye 007, and Perfect Dark. Still fantastic games, but having spent decades on mice, keyboards, gyroscopic controllers, and thumbsticks these games take some getting used to. Other N64 shooters fared better using the D-pad or C- buttons as a stand-in for WASD, and the thumbstick as a mouse.

7.) A game I changed my mind on for the better? Again, going back to Frogs & Flies. My Grandmother gave it to me one year for my birthday as a child. I faked a smile and thanked her but inside I was disappointed by the lack of killer robots, spaceships, and lasers. But later that night after all of the other toys and games had been played I fired it up. Only to find that it is one of the most surprisingly cutthroat and challenging multiplayer games ever made. Even today you may think it looks primitive and the premise bland. But Frogs & Flies is amazing. Pure one on one competitive bliss. Honestly, if an updated version showed up tomorrow I wouldn’t think twice about trying it out.

8.) This is a two-way tie because they’re both so great. He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe because it’s MOTU. It sets up everything you need to know in 60 seconds, and that Shuki Levy penned music is just great. Right next to He-Man is Magnum P.I. You can put that Mike Post music as a backdrop to anything and it instantly becomes awesome. Don’t believe me? Put it on while doing your dishes. Driving to work. Taking out the garbage. Vacuuming. Dusting. And it was one of the coolest shows ever made to boot.

9.) I don’t know any serialized show has gone on too long, as long as someone behind it still thinks of compelling stories within the scope of its universe it’s fine. Really this question is about jumping the shark moments where things even betray the series in question with something so over-the-top it’s not even believable by its own standards. I don’t watch much TV these days though save for some Pro Wrestling, and reruns. And while there are some stupid things in Wrestling programs, it’s not enough to want the operations to stop doing shows altogether. Just to wrap up the bad stories, and get better bookers to tell good ones. That said, I personally do not see the fascination with these Reality TV shows.

10.) Who hasn’t? Nearly anyone who played the two Half-Life games and their episodic add-ons will know this pain. I can also throw The Conduit and Conduit 2 into this category. I enjoyed both of these and although the latter began to veer into the very silly, I still kind of wanted to see where High Voltage Software was going to go with it.

11.) I’m of two minds. I like Hardcovers. They hold up better. They stick out nicely. But Paperbacks are smaller, cost less and allow you to have more books in a smaller amount of space. I guess it depends on the book and if it’s tied to a series I’m heavily invested in or something that just really captured my imagination and got me to really love it.

And I suppose with that I’ll come up with some questions for a couple of people.

1.) When you’ve had 1 hour of sleep and need to do a full-time shift do you reach for: Coffee, tea, soda, or something else to stay awake and why?

2.) What is a video game/series you really wish had more attention than it does and why?

3.) Pair your favorite game with a proper wine or beer.

4.) Pick one game that came out “Before your time” that you think looks interesting and tell us why.

5.) Pick one game that is outside of your comfort zone that you think you might be willing to check out.

And I nominate:

Red Metal

The Otaku Judge

MoeGamer

PlayLegit

The Well-Red Mage

Yheela

HungryGoriya

Shameful Narcissist

Lightning Ellen

Esperdreams

Mike at XVGM

sirhcman

Whoever takes up the challenge, I await to see your responses!

ASTRAL CHAIN Review

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PlatinumGames has always been known for its fast-paced action games. MadWorld took the brawler in an interesting comic book meets film noir direction while implementing a scoring system based on how brutal you could be. (A location People Can Fly arrived in when they made Bulletstorm as well it would seem.) Bayonetta made for a great action hack n’ slash game that implemented guns, swords, and interdimensional mechanics as well as themes. The sequel improved upon all of that stuff. Vanquish was a terrific third-person combat game with great cover shooting mechanics. The Wonderful 101 was a quirky action game that had elements of all of these all while doing things on the Wii U gamepad that couldn’t be done on other consoles of the time.

In short, this is a studio that has always had a knack for making fun, action games that seem to go a step beyond similar ones. It’s rare they put out something nobody likes. Every project also seems to have something special about it. Even if there are a million other games of a similar vein, there’s something that stands out about it.

PROS: Brisk, rewarding gameplay. Replayability. Storyline & characters. Co-op.

CONS: Menus lag. Inconsistency reading chain jumps.

COPS: Fighting crime in a future time.

Astral Chain continues that trend of great action gaming with visual flair. When you start the game you’re dropped into a character creation menu where you choose to either play through the game as a male or female police officer. Once you choose one and customize them the game begins. Whichever you didn’t choose appears in the storyline as your twin. Once the game starts it immediately begins to feel like a big-budget action movie in the vein of Timecop or Robocop.  You’ll find yourself riding a motorcycle in a tunnel when you answer a call. This immediately transitions to a rail shooter filled with the kinds of stuff you’d see in a Dolph Lundgren vehicle.

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When you get through it you’re off to fight off a tough challenge, and this is when the game’s storyline picks up. As new recruits, you and your twin sibling have been sent to fight crime for NEURON the police force for the bustling city of Ark. Without giving away too much, the gist is these aliens from another dimension begin crossing the Astral Plane and kidnapping people, giving them diseases or both it’s time for our heroes to investigate.

 

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And investigate you will. Because even though this game is in many ways the action game you’d expect from the people who brought out those other games it is also a police serial. Over time you’ll begin to see the pattern the game has to offer. You’ll have a combat section, and that will be followed many times by a detective section. In these parts of the game, you’ll have a primary objective to perform or complete, but before you can do so, you’ll need to interrogate people to get information.

You don’t need *all* of the information to move on, but if you do go ahead and get everything there are bonuses to be had. During any of the sections, there are also side missions you can do. Sometimes these will get you items like medicine to heal with or a booster to increase your attack damage. Other times they will be things that can actually affect the storyline to some degree.

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Another cool thing they’ve done in these investigative sections is sprinkling a dash of Batman: Arkham Asylum in here. In its own way of course. You’ll have some sections where you’ll have futuristic recordings of events where, much like Batman, you have to deduce what happened to get more evidence or track a character down.

And throughout the game, you’ll have side missions that take you into the Astral Plane for some enemy closets to open up on you. Surviving these, as with other side missions, can net you some bonuses. Some of these aren’t just out in the open you’ll need to find them. How do you find them? In many cases, you’ll have to employ the use of a Legion. What are Legions? Well, you’ll discover through the storyline that the aliens from the Astral Plane are known as Chimeras. Among these Chimeras are Legions. These are more powerful aliens that have specific abilities. In fact, NEURON uses them as Police animals after taking control of them and using them to fight crime, there is a point where they get loose and go rogue.

 

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Of course, yours (a Legion with swords for arms) doesn’t escape. So this leads back to the structure. You’ll do detective work, then go hacking n’ slashing. Eventually, you’ll get to a fantastic boss, and upon defeating it you’ll go to the police station. The police station is a preparatory area where you’ll talk to colleagues, use a training room, buy or upgrade weapons, maintain your Legions, buy medical supplies and even use the bathroom.

It is also where you’ll be introduced to the game’s comic relief character; Lappy. Lappy is a giant mascot meant to keep youngsters on the straight and narrow. But they also show you around the station through a series of jump scares. They also narrate the training exercises as well as become a part of the storyline.

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You’ll want to listen to Lappy though. While they sound suspiciously like Sandy Cheeks they do cover some of the more advanced techniques for solving puzzles and getting around traps. All while getting accustomed to using the various Legions. After you leave the police station you’ll continue the cycle of missions. But the thing is the game is so engrossing with its story, characters and combat you will barely notice it. Even if you do notice it you won’t care.

Throughout the campaign, you’ll come across the other Legions. When you do you’ll have a bit of a fight on your hands because you also have to take control of them again. When you do, you’ll be using them not only in a combative role, but to solve puzzles too. They also add a bunch of replay value, because you can go back to previous areas with them to find secrets or side missions you might not have been able to before. You’ll also find items over the course of the game that you can add RPG like buffs to each of your captured Legions. You can add moves, or unlock new abilities or simply make them deal out more damage.

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You also can’t leave out the Legion all game long. They have a meter that empties, and if it does there’s a cooldown period before you can use them again. There are of course items you can find to reduce the consumption but make a good habit of putting them away for a little bit mid-battle for a few seconds. In each stage, you can also try to collect a bunch of the red matter poisoning the world to make your way toward other goals.

As for the combat itself, it feels classic PlatinumGames. There is a slew of elements that you may have seen in other games they made. Notably Bayonetta. The RPG elements can also feel a little like the ones implemented in Bayonetta, although I’m reminded more of The Wonderful 101. Be that as it may, they are expanded here. On top of that, the use of the Legions really makes this game stand out a lot. You’re essentially controlling two characters. One hand is your Timecop and the other is your Legion. You can do a bunch of different attacks between both of the characters. Plus you’ll eventually reclaim all of the missing Legions. You can switch between them on the fly, which you’ll need to do as some enemies are weaker to certain Legions. Plus as I alluded to before, some Legions can access some areas when exploring the others can’t. Or in some battles, you might need to switch between them depending on the form a certain boss may take.

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Among them is the Sword Legion you start with which fights with rather brisk sword swings, and can also be used for recon moments. There’s also the Arrow Legion which is a great option for airborne enemies or getting the jump on distant ones. The Armor Legion is basically a hulking beast of armor you can wear or send out to beat the tar out of bad guys. It can also be used to move things. Then there’s the K9 Legion which behaves like a dog. You can have it dig through things to find items or have it chase a scent. You can also ride it like a horse! And finally, the Axe Legion which can put out a forcefield, destroy key objects, or attack things with an ax.

If all of that wasn’t enough, you’ll want to use the IRIS system the game implements. This puts the visuals into a sort of wireframe mode which allows you to spot some objectives, items, or weak points easier. It’s also a handy way for you to use stealth tactics when necessary. It’s also a must if you want to measure that boss health. And it does all of this under some of the most appealing visuals on the Nintendo Switch. PlatinumGames has always had good looking games but they really push some great details in this highly stylized action game. There are some terrific vistas you’ll see. Some wonderful skylines. Some abstract art, and some unsettling yet minimalist sections as you visit parts of the city and Astral Plane.

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The characters are also splendid with a nice blend of modern, and futuristic themes. It shouldn’t be a surprise as they brought in Masakazu Katsura who is famous in Anime and Manga circles. He’s best known for Tiger & Bunny, but he’s been in those worlds for years. His character designs pop off of the screen here. And that isn’t to say everything in the game is top tier visually. There are some things in the background that are clearly enabling lower textures or details. Sometimes you may notice a certain wall or floor looks a little flat. But overall these decreases in visual fidelity are minor in the grand scheme of things. You’ll likely be too busy being mesmerized by flashy finishing moves, and trying to survive waves upon waves of enemies.

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And all of this is married to a storyline that is honestly quite good. It has characters you’ll get attached to. It has some swerves. Some you’ll see coming. Some you won’t. It has some terrific performances by the voice actors involved. And while the story does have some of the tropes you may expect to see in a tale like this, it still earns some genuine emotional responses. Going back and analyzing things in it is something you’ll likely find some depth in. It isn’t going to be as profound, and thought-provoking as some of the films or novels you’ve read. But it does go deeper than a simple “This is the antagonist. This is what they did. Stop them.” you might expect to get from most action games. And the fact your decisions impact how things play out a bit means you’ll want to go back to it for a second or third playthrough. And before I forget, the soundtrack is great too. There are some insanely good heavy metal tracks when the action heats up, and a few electronic pop tracks that fit the theme well when exploring, or sleuthing.

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There are a couple of problems I did have while playing the game though. Mainly with the chain jump mechanic, you’ll get to use at some point in the game. The problem with it is that in a couple of situations it isn’t clear where you’re going to land. Unfortunately, this means you may lose a ton of energy or even a life missing a jump that you (at least in your mind) should have made with no problems. These aren’t frequent moments. At least they weren’t when I played through it. But it is something to make a mental note of. The other thing is the game sometimes has inconsistent load times between areas. Again, nothing that makes you crazy, it’s just a strange minor annoyance.

Still, it’s a fantastic game overall. One I highly recommend picking up even if you think it might not be your cup of tea. There is a bevy of difficulty settings as well. There are your usual Easiest, Easy, Normal, Hard, scale. But there is also a separate option for using the Legions. You can either control them manually, or you can have the A.I. control them. Frankly, even though it might take you a level or two to get used to them (there’s a lot of functions you can do with any given one of them),  it’s far better than relying on the computer to do things. That said, it is a nice option for those who feel they need more time to figure out how their main character works.

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And if all of that isn’t enough for you it has a cooperative mode where one player controls the police officer and the second player controls the Legion whenever they’re needed. In an age where most any multiplayer option is online-focused, it’s nice to see a console game take the classic couch approach. That said, be prepared to have some classic arguments with your pals if they can’t keep up with you. Even on lower difficulty settings, Astral Chain is quite the challenge.

Ultimately though, Astral Chain is a must-play release. It’s classic PlatinumGames through and through. But it also improves on many of the features introduced in earlier games while giving you a bunch of new features and a wealth of content. This is a game you’ll complete and then want to replay to either find things you missed before or to see how different choices affect the story. There’s also the fun of turning up the difficulty as you replay it for an even bigger challenge. As contemporary action games go, Astral Chain is a keeper.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

ION FURY Review

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In recent years we’ve had a few high-profile games that hearken back to the early days of the PC FPS. There was a pretty great Rise Of The Triad reboot, a few years ago. Bethesda brought back DOOM, and New Blood Interactive has hit it out of the park by publishing DUSK, and AMID EVIL. But where all of these games bring back the elements of old using modern technology, Voidpoint went for the new game in the 1990s mold a different way. They actually went with technology that was released in the 1990s.

PROS: An excellent use of the 1996 3DRealms Build Engine in an all-new game!

CONS: There isn’t much for you beyond a terrific single-player campaign.

JON ST. JOHN IS BACK: But not as the gun-toting action hero he made famous.

Ion Fury had a few swerves on the lead up to release. When I bought it in Early Access eons ago it was called Ion Maiden. And it was one bug-ridden demo level. Once the issues were hashed out, it was one excellent demo level. But it hit other speedbumps like a potential lawsuit from a major record label and Iron Maiden because of the letter “R”.

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But a lot has changed since then and now that the game is officially out we have a new name, full-fledged campaign, and some other bonus content for good measure. Voidpoint also built this entire game on the very same technology 3DRealms used itself for Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior.  The game runs in a modified version of Build Engine that works under the modern Windows 10 environment. No need to fire up DOSBox, or write a batch file. It runs natively.

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But they didn’t just reskin a bunch of Duke 3D content. Everything here is all new. A cast of wild and inventive new enemies. A bunch of fun and interesting new weapons. A plethora of crazy new enemies to turn into gibs. A slew of stages that will have you really thinking about how things work in between volleys of enemy waves and hellfire.  They did a lot to push 23-year-old video game engine technology beyond what was thought possible. It even simulates some room over room scenarios with some clever tricks as Build technically was never designed to do so. We wouldn’t see that until iD Software created Quake.

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So the game is technically impressive, but how is the gameplay? Honestly, it’s quite good. If not for a few things I’ll get to later on, this could be the game people wanted Duke Nukem Forever to have been. You play as Shelly Harrison, the protagonist of the little-known twin-stick shooter Bombshell. Ion Fury is technically a prequel to that game. In any case, Shelly is after a mad scientist Dr. Jadus Heskel. Like many fictional insane villains with a Ph.D. Heskel has an army of twisted designs and is bent on taking over the world. He also has many acolytes in his group. So you can expect to go up against every sci-fi, and Saturday Morning Cartoon enemy trope you can think of.

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There are the cultists, zombies, cyborg ninjas, terminators, demons, death bots you would expect to face in a game like this. But there are a lot of other hidden surprises. But the game also gets points for being a bit more original with the designs of most of its rogues’ gallery. You’ve seen these kinds of enemies in many games over the last four decades. But they do have terrific, original costumes most of the time. Though there are a number of them that do not differentiate themselves from the henchmen in the late-night B-movies that inspired them. Though the ankle-biting enemies in this game will likely infuriate you as it can be impossible to see these heads with spider legs when they’re clipping behind 2D scenery sprites like trash cans or trees.

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Regardless of that annoyance, the stages in this game are very well thought out. As you get further in the game they become pretty intricate, rivaling some of the biggest maps from DOOM, Duke Nukem 3D, and Shadow Warrior. In late-game stages, you’ll often find the familiar color-coded keys bring you back to earlier areas or open up previously inaccessible paths. Simply trying to complete some of these can take you close to an hour. Possibly more. Then there are the secret areas. Some of them are obvious. If you’re going down a hallway, and see an air vent you may as well shoot the cover off and climb into the air duct. But others can be rather obtuse.

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If you’re just looking to blow through the game without worrying about finding every last secret and Easter egg, it will still take you a considerable amount of time to do so. As I’ve mentioned before, these levels are quite large with intricate paths. Then there are the set-piece moments peppered in. These are the times where you’ll hear Dr. Heskel taunt Shelly while the game introduces a major puzzle, new enemy group, or a boss encounter. These are done exceptionally well by the actor who brought Duke Nukem to life in Duke3D; Jon St. John. Here, he does a fantastic job of portraying a stereotypical supervillain. Even if the rest of the game doesn’t do much to flesh out the character, Jon St. John makes up for it a bit with some great delivery.

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And while Jon St. John isn’t reprising his most famous video game role, there is someone bringing you the snarky one-liners. That’s Valerie Arem. She’s the voice behind Shelly Harrison and Harrison brings the B movie quips as well as Duke Nukem did. Whether she’s blowing up cyborgs with bowling bombs, discovering new weapons or interacting with things in the environment you’re going to hear some great line delivery. Sometimes the game may replay them a bit too much. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. It really does feel like you’re playing a Duke Nukem 3D spinoff.

Of course, the modern standards that have been added here also make the game much easier to play than the old Build Engine games in their vanilla forms.  But it won’t be an easy game. When you’re not facing hordes from recently opened monster closets, you’ll rack your brain trying to figure out which path to take in the maze you’re currently in. And again, the visuals are all new in spite of running on modified old tech. The gritty textures and sprites will feel both new and familiar. For younger players who never experienced Duke Nukem 3D or Blood or Shadow Warrior back in the day, it might just give you enough understanding of why those games are considered classics while giving you a fantastic new experience.

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All told you’ll spend anywhere between 7 to 20 hours clearing the campaign, and for the completionists out there you’ll spend even further trying to get every last secret. All while jamming to some pretty great Electronica by Jarkko Rotsten that hearkens back to those 90s DTV films that used to adorn the video rental store walls.

When you clear the campaign there is a horde mode to play, but honestly, it feels pretty weak compared to the main game. Even if it can’t compete with the massive player bases of things like Overwatch I think a Deathmatch or Capture The Flag mode would have been much more fun. Barring that, an actual Co-operative campaign option would have been even better, giving players more replay value as they could play with friends on a second or third playthrough.

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Still, for what it is, it is a fun ride that gives you what it advertises; a fun, modern shooter built to appeal to the classics on a classic engine. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in playing, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy your time with Ion Fury. It’s a very well-made game that does what it does well. It pushes old tech to the limit while providing FPS fans with a new game. You’ve seen a lot of what it does before, yes. But it somehow doesn’t feel derivative. It’s a fun game with a cool protagonist.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Black Jewel Review

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Conan The Barbarian. The Beastmaster. He-Man, and The Masters Of The Universe. Swords and Sorcery were a staple of the 1980s  action genre in nearly every medium. Even in the realm of video games where we saw hits like Golden Axe and Rastan. The 8-bit powered computer scene had ports of these as well as games based on the aforementioned properties. The biggest being the Commodore 64.

PROS: Challenging. Recreates the look, and sound of a C64 Accurately.

CONS: Hit detection on traps could be a little more forgiving.

ONE LIFE TO LIVE: Like the title of a defunct soap opera, you have one life.

The Commodore 64 is one of the greatest platforms of all time. There were thousands of games released on it. Some are even coming out on it today. Black Jewel is not a C64 game, but it is a terrific sendup. From the moment you start the game you’ll see the unmistakable BASIC screen load the game. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear you were running an actual C64 image file in an emulator. But you’re not.

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The game’s developers were heavily inspired by the classic computer, and it shows. The game’s video introduction sequence mimics the classic loaders of the ’80s showing off flashing colors, a detailed splash screen for the title, and music. And immediately the soundtrack will enamor anyone who hears it. Gianluca Pappalardo is the name credited with the soundtrack and they succeed with flying colors here. The music not only fits the Barbarian action hero vibe the game goes for but accurately simulates the sound of the SID chip as well. Despite being a game for Windows, it sounds like it could have come from the Commodore 64’s Sound Interface Device.

So it’s been established this game accurately mimics the look and sound of a Commodore 64 computer. But how is the actual gameplay? Here, the game continues that Commodore 64 inspiration. Black Jewel is an action platformer that requires meticulous planning in order to get through each scenario. It’s got the exciting battles you’d expect from something like Rastan, yet you’ll need to treat each stage as if you were playing Another World. While there are no puzzles, you still kind of need to see each room as a puzzle.

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At the beginning of the game, you’re told the story. It isn’t very deep. But it doesn’t need to be. An evil warlord named Darkor has stolen a Black Jewel. A mystical artifact that has allowed him to terrorize the land and enslave its inhabitants. As Ryan, you take up arms and go on the quest to save the land by reclaiming the Black Jewel. Of course, this will involve killing Darkor.

This is all much easier said than done. Because Black Jewel is a tough game. As I’ve stated before this is heavily inspired by early computer games. The controls are simple enough. You move left or right with the arrow keys and press the *D* key to swing your sword. And you’ll be pressing up to jump because there were only one button joysticks in 1983. You can, of course, use a controller with the game, but you’ll still be pressing up for jumps.

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The game moves along at a perfectly fine speed. But keep in mind you’re a big, lumbering barbarian. So you’ll have floatier jumping than in something like Mega Man. The scenes are also modeled after the flip screen mechanics of early home computer games too. Remember, scrolling games didn’t become the standard until the latter half of the decade. The level design in Black Jewel is also built off of the history of the time as well as the appearance. And frankly, it’s very good.

Each stage is made up of several rooms, each taken up by a screen. Each of which will have an enemy to dispatch or an obstacle to overcome. When you’ve completed it, you can go to the next one. Some of these will be simple things like jumping over spikes. Other times you’ll be tasked with killing two bad guys while avoiding fireballs. This is the kind of stuff you would see even in adventure platform games in 1994. Black Jewel will not only test your action game skills but your puzzle-solving skills too. Again, despite not having what many would call puzzles.

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At the end of each stage, you’ll fight a boss. Each of them has to be dispatched in order for you to continue. Most of them can be pretty tough as they utilize a couple of attack patterns. They’ll sometimes throw you a swerve by switching them up when you least expect it, so you really have to be on your toes. Defeating them opens up the next stage. It’s here you’ll notice something. Stages do not get splash screens or other introductions. You will just see the scenery change. Also, it won’t take you long to notice something else. That giant sword at the bottom of the screen is getting shorter.

That sword is actually your health meter. When it’s gone, so are you. Game Over. You have exactly ONE LIFE to clear Black Jewel. When I said this game was tough, I wasn’t lying. Now that doesn’t mean that it is impossible. It can be beaten. It isn’t a long game. And it even has health potions to restore your meter to varying degrees. Some will fill it 25% others 60% and others will top it off. That said, one ought to pay very close attention to what is going on at any given time. Because you can take damage without realizing it.

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My one main problem with the game is it doesn’t quite go far enough in showing what is a background, or what is a deadly trap you shouldn’t step on. Oh sure, you’ll figure it out too late eventually. But that also means you’ll be back at the title screen. Now some things are obvious. Skulls and spikes usually mean trouble. But another object might seem innocuous until your sword starts draining. Also, you should keep in mind when something does hit you, to back away immediately. You do not get to take a hit, fly back, and get 3 frames of invincibility as in some of the classic action games you’re used to. If you’re standing on a spike, a pixel too deep into an enemy or a boss that sword will be a mere hilt in seconds. Fortunately, you’ll find you can skip over some of the bad guys instead of fighting them. But this does not work on bosses.

Still, considering that Oscar Celestini set out to make an homage to these early Commodore 64 action-adventure style games, Black Jewel is a success. The animation is phenomenal. The sprite work and backgrounds are amazingly detailed. Plus everything looks so true to the C64’s 16 color palette and aside from a full widescreen image, it’s almost 1:1 to the untrained eye. I won’t lie, at times the gameplay might feel a little rough around the edges for people used to faster-paced arcade slashers. But once you’ve died a few times, and gotten used to the mechanics it becomes a remarkable game.

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If you grew up gaming on a Commodore 64 this love letter will very likely appeal to you just from the look and sound alone. If you didn’t, it’s still a pretty fun game. The combination of action and adventure elements are great. There’s a balance between hacking up bad guys and planning out how to get through each room with as much health left as humanly possible. You can’t just rush into it like you would a Golden Axe machine set on Freeplay. And yet it isn’t so cerebral you’ll need to do math equations. It requires both approaches and a bit of patience.  It’s highly unlikely you’ll clear it on your first attempt or even four-hundredth attempt. But it doesn’t wear out its welcome by going on for hours either. Black Jewel may be tough, it may be esoteric. But to borrow a phrase from famous YouTube star Metal Jesus Rocks, it certainly is a “Hidden gem.” You can pick it up on Steam if you like what you see here. Overall, I can recommend you do.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Earth Defense Force 4.1 Review

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Sometimes you have a rather hectic day. When you get home you want to play a game. But you want to play a game that doesn’t require a lot of detective work or puzzle solving. You just want something fun. In many ways, that’s what this series really is. Starting way back on the PlayStation 2 with Monster Attack, and Global Defense Force this is a line of games that sees you shooting waves of creatures.

PROS: A lot of old-school arcade action. Camp.

CONS: It could become monotonous for some players.

EDF!: You will hear this war cry constantly.

Originally released as Earth Defense Force 2025 on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360,  4.1 is an updated re-release for the PlayStation 4 that later came to Microsoft Windows via storefronts like Steam. It has everything EDF 2025 did, plus some bonus content. And on top of that, there were some DLC missions released one can buy if they wish. But there are a lot of stages in the base game to cut your teeth on.

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So what is the objective in EDF 4.1? As is the case in the rest of the series, you’ll be tasked with entering large maps and killing waves of monsters. Frankly, the game controls like a champ. Everything is pretty brisk, smooth, and responsive to boot. Especially on the Windows version which allows you to play it with a keyboard and mouse.

Over the course of 89 missions or so you’ll be tasked with gunning down, incinerating, and destroying thousands of giant insects, robots, and more. Generally, that’s what each mission boils down to. Going into one of the game’s 16 maps, and killing the biggest hordes you’ve seen this side of Serious Sam. But where Serious Sam has a path in each level with a horde/power-ups/horde cycle it also lets you spend hours hunting for secrets in any given level. EDF veers even more toward classic golden age arcade games in its play. It’s fast, and constantly throwing things at you like Robotron 2084, but then has a bunch of Role-Playing elements to keep things fresh.

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For instance, the game has three classes from the outset with one appearing later. You can be a Ranger, which plays a lot like the characters in most First, and Third-Person Shooters. On foot, blowing away monsters. There’s also the Wing Diver who gets a jetpack, and laser weapons. She can be very effective. However, it takes some time getting used to dashing around. She also has limited time she can fly around with the jetpack before having to land and recharge it.

From there you have the Fencer who is a heavy weapons expert. This class has a risk/reward element due to the expanded might, but complexity, and slower speed. Finally, you have the Air Raider who can call in pilotable vehicles, forcefields, and healing stations.

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Each class has several weapons to choose from in the fight against the threats. But here is where the game sinks its claws into you: You have to get the new weapons by finding them as drops when killing monsters. Moreover, the best weapons are more commonplace on higher difficulty settings. So to get the best gear for later missions you’ll want to play the first few on tougher settings. This way you have a leg up on the tougher ones.

But where the game really shines is in the multiplayer options. You can play the game in split-screen, or you can play the game online. The game was clearly meant for multiplayer as the different classes can complement each other when coming up with a strategy in any given level. The Wing Diver can be useful against the areal enemies while the other classes can deal with ground threats. It’s much easier to coordinate battle plans with friends than it is trying to get the NPC Allies to do their jobs.

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While EDF isn’t the best looking game out there, it does look really nice. The maps are large and relatively expansive. The textures are fairly sharp, and while the geometry may not match that of other contemporary titles it does allow for better performance. Even my aging computer ran the game maxed out, at a relatively high frame rate. The audio department is more of a mixed bag. Most of the music is standard fare, but the sound effects and voice samples are quite good. Some of it comes off a little hokey at times, but that just plays into the Kaiju theme.

Really this game can be quite a lot of fun. Especially when you have a few friends to play it with. It might not be the deepest experience as you’re going to do variations of the same thing most of the time. But it does mix it up quite a bit with the focus on multiple enemy types, and grinding away to better gear. That said, it isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea because it can get a little repetitive. Especially for those who choose to go it alone. Still, it is fun enough to recommend. If you’re easily distracted you’ll want to play it in short bursts. Nevertheless, as time goes on and you open up more content you’ll likely find yourself going back to it, shouting your war cry with your fellow brethren.

Final Score: 8 out of 10