Pop the game in, and live to win.

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With all of the Splatoon 2 I’ve played as of late (It’s a great game, if you’ve got a Nintendo Switch you ought to check it out.) I got to thinking about previous multiplayer shooters I’ve gone back to again, and again, and again. I’ve reviewed a number of them on this blog, and in some previous ones I’ve had over the years. Obviously I talked a lot about the features, modes, how they work, and how these make for a good game.

But over my life growing up with games, I’ve found I get very competitive. More so with myself than opponents. Though I’ll put my best attempt at winning forward, I know, at least in the realm of video games, I can’t claim to be the top guy. If I were, I could be like the great Chris Jericho cutting amazing promos, and winning e-sports championships. (Seriously, Chris Jericho is one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. That’s one of my favorite of his promos. It’s great. That feud gave 2012 one of the best WrestleMania shows ever.)

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Where was I? Oh right. Competitive gaming. More particularly why do I find it so compelling? It’s hard to describe really. Depending on the game there could be one or many goals. You may have to fill a role on a team, and work well with everyone else while focusing on your task. But you have to be well-rounded enough to pick up the slack if someone else falls. In another game it could be a free-for-all where you only have to focus on your own performance, hopefully being a cut above everyone else in the match. It could be a one on one game like a fighting game, where you have to not only continually hone your own skills, but be aware of both your own weaknesses, and your opponent’s weaknesses.

Then you have the cerebral aspect of strategy. In an actual strategy game it might be about managing resources, properly placing units, and making contingency plans in case your current plan of action doesn’t pan out. But there are different layers of strategy in any game. In a turf war round in Splatoon 2, you may decide to paint your side thoroughly, and slowly push ahead with a defensive focus. Or you could decide to just rush ahead, and get early claim at the middle ground. Then hope you can hold it, while touching up all you’ve skipped at the start. Or you could send two people ahead, and leave two behind. What load outs does everyone have? You could create a plan of action around your armaments. There is a lot more to think about than you might realize.

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I remember way back in 2004, when I first got Unreal Tournament 2004. I had played the first game (commonly referred to as UT99) to death working at a OEM at the time. I loved it so much, I was excited to pick up the 2003 edition, and of course the 2004 version was lauded for ironing out some balance issues, adding new modes, and options. Though some weren’t fans of its omission of a few features in the process. But I digress. I had decided I wanted to get better at the game. Not to be a professional player (which wasn’t as common as it is today. There was no Twitch. There were a handful of major tournaments, and a number of smaller, regional ones. The major competitor back then was Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel, and chances were I was never going to go up against him on TV. Obviously, I never have.) but just to be able to get a win online occasionally. To not always be at the bottom of the scoreboard. Also to beat my coworkers.

Anyway, I decided that I was going to improve by focusing on one weapon in the game, and becoming proficient with it. That weapon was the Bio-Rifle. It was probably the least popular weapon in the original game, and so in the world of 2003/2004 not much more. People were enamored with stalwarts like the Flak Cannon, or the Mini-gun or the Shock Rifle (Those shock combos are known to clear rooms.). But I found the weapon to be pretty cool once I started getting a handle on it. In the Unreal Tournament games, every weapon has two firing modes. The Flak Cannon shoots shrapnel, or a bomb. The Shock Rifle shoots a laser, or an orb. You can shoot the orb with the laser to make an explosion. In the case of the Bio-Rifle you can shoot slime on the ground, walls, ceilings, etc. If people touch it, they get injured. But, you can hold the secondary fire, you can charge a single glob of slime. When you let go of the button, it shoots it off in an arc. If that glob touches someone, more often than not they’ll die, or be on their last 5% of health.

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Each version of Unreal Tournament has a different design, and physics for the weapon, so you can’t expect to be a whiz overnight going from UT to UT2004 or from UT2004 to UT3. But the point is it became my de facto weapon in the series. And I honestly became pretty good with it. I was no Fatal1ty by any means, but I started finding myself in the top 5 in a full death match game of 20 people more often than not. At least on public games. Well imagine my surprise when a couple of other players noticed this, and asked me to be on their team. I ended up not only improving my own skills for my own personal goals. But I impressed players who were even better than I was. As someone who has always had self-confidence issues, low self-esteem, and other problems this was a pleasant surprise to me. Anyway, for a good four years or more we frequently played against other teams in scrim, and had fun trying to master the game together. Improving trick jumping skills, getting better at other modes, and mods. At one point our head player rented server space where we had our own public server, where we hosted our own maps. They weren’t the best maps. But they were our own!

We disbanded after the UT series went dormant where others moved onto other games. Though from time to time I may see them online playing something else. But the bigger point is that competitive games can really drive you to want to keep playing them when their formulas gel with you. Some of the early Battlefield games were like that for me. Chivalry: Medieval Warfare was like that for me. It may have had some issues that kept it from perfection, but it was a blast to play, and the melee combat was, and still is quite novel. Not too many games make swinging a sword deeper than a left mouse button click. Toxikk was probably one of the better attempts to bring back the movement focused arena shooting that the Quake, and Unreal games gave us.

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But even long before these games I’ve found competitive games compelling. As a teenager, and young adult I gorged on Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, World Heroes, Tekken, Soul Calibur, Virtua Fighter, and other fighting games. I loved Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, and Rise Of The Triad campaigns. I loved calling my friend via a modem, and 1v1 deathmatching even more. I’m not the biggest sports fan out there, as a casual fan. But NBA Jam, NFL Blitz, NHL Hitz, and Sega Soccer Slam gave some of the most intense gaming moments ever when they were new.

Even when I was growing up, there were a plethora of great competitive games I played with my younger brother. And I’ll admit, I often hated it when he’d beat me. Here I was, putting in time to try to master stealth, and ricochet tactics in tank mode on Combat. He somehow just knew where I was on the screen. To this day, I cannot defeat him in Warlords, one of my favorite Atari 2600 games of all time. And this is a man who rarely gets the game time I do, due to the fact that he owns, and operates a small business. Sometimes you just end up with a sibling who picks a game up like it’s second nature.

Be that as it may, whether you’re going for a high score in Kaboom!, trying to place first on Rainbow Road, or blow up the enemy cache in Insurgency, there’s something enthralling about competing against friends or strangers. There’s the joyous feeling of riding high when you’re victorious. There’s the humbling nature of a soul-crushing defeat. There’s a stressful, yet entertaining feeling you get when it’s neck, and neck, and that last second, or last frag, or last goal is about to transpire.

Obviously, not all of us handle a loss like a civilized person. I would argue that at one time or another we’ve all been guilty of this. Flipping the chess board. Screaming like a petulant five-year old. But there’s no place for the awful stuff some spew over a chat microphone. You never know who is on the other end of a headset, so one really needs to behave as if they were walking through a crowded mall. Not be a nuisance who is going to regret saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Fortunately, in most cases you can mute all of the instigators. But in the end sometimes it pays to remind oneself to take the loss like a grown up. Set down the controller afterward, and go do something else for an hour or two. Competition should feel exciting, and even cutthroat at times. But it should also come with a feeling of enjoyment. If it stops feeling fun, it’s time to take a breather.

Of course, there are going to be those who get a rise out of getting others upset in any given game. And it ruins the experience. But this falls in line a bit with sore losing too. In the sense that after the round ends, stop playing, do something else. Don’t rage quit, and further worsen things for other people. Don’t flip out, and give the bullies what they want. You have to be the bigger person. Which is admittedly easier said than done sometimes. That’s what made this classic Family Guy moment so funny.

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In spite of these circumstances, I still find myself constantly going back to competitive games. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy solitary experiences. I like a single-player experience as much as the next player. And in some cases one could argue, you can even get competitive with yourself. Can you speed run a game faster than before? Can you get the best possible ending? Can you find every last item? Can you complete every side quest? Can you get a kill screen going for a high score? Can you speed run a kill screen?

But the point is competition is one of the highlights of gaming. Sure, not every game needs to cram a death match or tower defense mode into it. Especially in games where a story driven experience is the focal point. But competition can be its own reward. Giving players a drive to improve, little by little with every match. Learning more about the mechanics, or building a strategy with each setback. Getting that feeling of accomplishment waving over them with their first big win.

And you don’t have to be a professional player to get that kind of experience. You can find it in your inner circle of friends, and relatives on game night. Or on a holiday gathering. Or when you all get out of work at 9pm. Competitive games are also something anyone can enjoy. You don’t always have the time to devote to a 60 hour RPG, or a 10 hour campaign. But most of us can squeeze in an hour of ten minute matches into an otherwise busy week with friends.

But I’ve done enough long-winded rambling. Hopefully I’ve opened up a point of conversation, or have given someone something to think about. What about you? Do you have the drive to pop more balloons in Circus Atari than your siblings? Get more frags than your friends in Quake? Shut down your Aunt in Mario Kart? Sound off below.

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River Raid Review

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Released in 1982, River Raid was one of Activision’s earliest hits. Long before being known for controversial business practices, and publishing another Call Of Duty annually they were a fledgling upstart. One that took the unbridled creativity of ex Atari programmers, and gave them credit for producing games. Many of the early Activision names went on to have big successes on the Atari 2600. David Crane, Garry Kitchen, were two of the big names. But River Raid was made by Carol Shaw.

PROS: Tight controls. Game play innovations. One of the 2600’s marvels.

CONS: The complete lack of a soundtrack.

RED ALERT: The panic ensues at higher stages.

She had done other games while working for Atari, like 3D Tic-Tac-Toe which added an awful lot of depth to a simple game. But River Raid was, and still is one of the technical marvels in the Atari 2600 library. It was also one of the earliest games that would publicly acknowledge a woman for creating it. Not only does the River Raid manual include a short bio about her (the way all of the early Activision game manuals credited their games’ respective designers), future ports made her name the marquee.

As for the game itself, it may seem like any other simple arcade style shoot ’em up of the era. But River Raid, does a lot of things that were revolutionary at the time. For starters, when you fire up the game for the first time, you’ll see visual details that many other 2600 games simply did not have at that time. Most of the 2600 shmups up to that point took place on a black background, on a static screen. River Raid also bucked that trend, by being one of the earliest shooting games on the 2600 to scroll vertically. Many other titles would also show up around that time to do vertical scrolling like Data Age’s Journey Escape, or Parker Bros.’ Spider-Man. Players who weren’t around for those early years of console games, may not realize just how big a deal this was.

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That one feature would set it apart from many other games released on the market from 1977 to 1982. But a lot of vertically scrolling games made for the VCS in 1982 onward would now have to meet or beat this standard. Graphically, River Raid is also one of the most visually impressive games on the Atari 2600. The game makes excellent use of color to determine where there is water, where there is land, and even has some pretty cool enemy vehicle designs.

The object of the game of course, is to try to score as many points as possible without touching any land. Or crashing into vehicles or bridges for that matter. You’re flying along a river of no return. As such, you’re basically flying just above the choppy waters trying to shoot down targets. You’ll be blowing up tanker ships, helicopters, and higher altitude fighter planes. The river is broken up into sections. At the end of each of these sections is a bridge that needs to be destroyed in order to advance to the next section.

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All of this might sound pretty easy until you also notice there’s a fuel gauge on the screen. River Raid also utilizes a fuel system. If your plane runs out of gas, at any time you’ll fall into the river, and explode. How do you keep your aircraft fuelled, and airborne? By flying over fuel tanks. But the little touches that add complexity aren’t over yet. You see, you can also accelerate, and decelerate your plane. pushing up on the joystick will speed up your plane, while pulling back will slow it down. What complicates matters is the fact that the faster you fly, the faster you run out of gas, and it becomes harder to maneuver small areas.

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Moreover, the sections of river become more, and more complex the further you go. The game speeds up, and you’ll see branching paths in the river at the last possible second. Then you’ll have to start making split second choices. Do you take the path with more enemies, and try to go for points? Or do you take the path with a lot of twists, and turns? The latter might not have enemies, but it does have a lot of fuel. On the other hand, the paths are narrow. So getting through without crashing into a riverfront house is going to prove difficult. And of course the game’s scoring system gives you some respectable points for blowing up fuel containers. But if you do that, you won’t be able to get all of the fuel out of them. Unless you become a top-tier player who knows exactly when to blow up the container while refueling. One thing that is nice, is that the game sets off a warning when you’re almost out of fuel. You also get extra lives for doing well. Every 10,000 points will give you an extra plane, though you will max out at nine of them.

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Of course, River Raid did so well on the Atari 2600 Activision would port it to most of the popular platforms of the era. There were versions for the Atari 8-bit family of home computers, as well as the Atari 5200. There were also ports for IBM PC compatibles, the MSX, ZX Spectrum, and Commodore 64 computers too. Activision even put out versions for the Intellivision, and ColecoVision.  Nearly all of these versions look much better than the 2600 original, but the 2600 version is arguably a little bit more responsive than some of the others. A few of the ports do add a few arrows to the quiver like tanks that shoot at you from the bridges, and faster attack helicopters. Still, no matter which version of the game you pick up, you’re going to have a great time. River Raid stands the test of time because of the core game design. Every aspect of the game offers you some element of risk versus reward. It also does this with some airtight controls. If you’re collecting for a platform it appeared on, you really ought to pick it up. Especially if that platform is the Atari 2600. The 2600 original is a pioneer on many fronts, and it’s still a blast today. Classic game enthusiasts are still trying to speed run their way to the kill screen of exclamation. Whether you grew up playing shmups in the era of Space Invaders or the era of Ikaruga, chances are you’ll be able to appreciate River Raid, and what it did for the decades of shmups that followed.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Wild Guns Reloaded Review

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Every now, and again a previously obscure game ends up in the spotlight. Often times because it turns out to be pretty uncommon or even rare. Said game then begins to skyrocket in price in the aftermarket. Wild Guns, is one such game. Originally released on the Super NES by Natsume, it was an action game with a unique setting, and mechanics. It blended Run N’ Gun gaming with Rail Shooter gaming. All in an attractive steam punk western setting. Of course to buy it now is an expensive endeavor. But Natsume, and Atari have brought it back in an updated package.

PROS: New content. 4-player Co-op. Tight controls. Visual flair.

CONS: Multiplayer has some design choices holding it back a bit.

SUPER PETS: There’s a dog operating a giant drone.

Wild Guns Reloaded is a beefed up version of the original Super NES game. As I don’t own the original version, I can’t speak to every minor difference but upon doing some research there are a few big ones. On the positive end, the game now supports 4 players. So you can enjoy this with more people. They’ve added two new playable characters, and you get some bonus stages in cooperative play that the original release didn’t have. The game now renders in a full 1080p resolution, so you don’t have to decide between pleasing your purist friends who want original aspect ratios, or pleasing your other friends who don’t mind stretch-o-vision over black bars. There are sliders for you to scale the image though, so lovers of the 4:3 standard can also rejoice.

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On the flip side, you do not have any continues in multiplayer. Which is absolutely absurd considering you have unlimited continues when playing the game alone. It’s the biggest blemish on the package. But as disappointing as it may be, this is a game you still may want to pick up. Because there really is a lot about this game to love.

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As I mentioned before, Wild Guns Reloaded is a blend of two action genres. On the one hand, you move your character about as if you were playing Sunset Riders. On the other hand, you fight enemies as if you were playing Operation Wolf. If that sounds like a strange combination, that’s because it is. But it’s one that works really well once you become accustomed to it. You move around freely, able to jump, and avoid the incoming projectiles. You can also use a melee attack on enemies that get in close. Some enemies can only be taken out this way. But when you start shooting, you’ll instead move a cursor about the screen. Aiming at all of the different threats around you. While firing, you can perform a quick dodge to get out-of-the-way, and you can even throw electric laser lassoes around bad guys. The lassoes temporarily hold them in place so you can deal with other impending threats.

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The end result is a fast action game, that also requires a lot of strategic thinking on your feet. You also have to have eyes in the back of your head, as you can’t really focus on just one threat. You have to be able to react to every last interruption on hand. Is it difficult? Absolutely. But at the same time it feels ever so rewarding when you’re able to complete a segment. The game starts you out in an initial stage that sets up the formula. You’ll play through one section until a timer hits zero. Then you’ll move onto the next section, and then if you complete that section, you’ll move onto a boss fight.

Once you win the initial stage, you’ll then move onto a Mega Man styled stage select screen. Here you’ll go on to play through each of the next few stages in any order you wish. Most of these follow the same sequence as the first stage. Though one stage is an automatic scrolling stage. But even this stage follows the trend of using three sections. After completing these you get thrown into the final stage where you’ll go through a huge gauntlet of enemies, and bosses.

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Wild Guns Reloaded offers four playable characters with their own traits. Clint, and Annie return from the original game. They perform similarly with faster firing weapons, and movement. They’re not exactly the same, Annie seems a little bit more mobile. Joining them are Doris, who throws grenades in lieu of using ballistics, and then there is Bullet. He’s a Dachshund.  A Dachshund with a killer drone. So he plays with a lock on, but like everyone else, one hit takes you out of the action. Clint, and Annie are probably the best all around characters to use. But Doris, and Bullet are great new additions for those who may want even more of a challenge.

That being said this game has three difficulty settings to choose from, but I wouldn’t call any of these particularly easy. The lower tiers make bosses a little bit easier to take down, and some of the midrange enemies take fewer hits. But you’re still going to die if you get hit by anything. So again, expect a challenge. But as the case with Contra or Operation Wolf, the challenge is more or less the point. Interestingly the Nintendo Switch version also includes a Beginner difficulty that just gives the player unlimited lives. Handy for a first time play through. But it also makes the campaign feel hollow as there is no way you’ll be forced to overcome any of the game’s obstacles.

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Playing with other people is a mostly fun endeavor. Having backup means you don’t have to manage every last obstacle, as the other players can do some of the work. But the lack of continues is a puzzling decision. Especially if you’re playing with a group where there’s a considerable skill gap. Because not only can none of you continue from the last stage you reach upon a fail state, your lives are all grouped together. If you have a friend or relative that can’t cut it, you’re getting held back. If you’re the one who can’t cut it, you’re holding your team back. It’s also strange because you have unlimited continues when playing alone. The Nintendo Switch version also doesn’t migrate that Beginner setting to the multiplayer. So you won’t get any mercy in that version either. Despite the odd decision to remove continues, playing with others is a fun time because of the reasons outlined above. It really is great when you are all able to rake in a high score, and defeat a giant boss together. As with the one player game, every little inch you scrape further feels like an accomplishment. But you’ll really need to grow a thick skin when playing with friends because once your lives are gone, that’s it.

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Visually, the game now renders in a proper widescreen aspect ratio, and resolution. The sprites, and backgrounds sport an immense amount of detail. This shouldn’t surprise anybody who has played the original Super Nintendo Game Pak. It was visually impressive then, and it’s pretty impressive now. The little details in the backgrounds, the wonderful use of gradients, all work with its anime-styled designs. The steam punk influence is obvious as you’ll fight robots, vehicles, and cowboys armed with laser guns. The audio goes along with it nicely, as explosions, and screams sound great. There’s also a techno-western fusion going on in the soundtrack.

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Performance is pretty solid too, with the game maintaining a steady frame rate. Even during battles where the screen is completely congested with projectiles. Whether you’re playing the PC version, the PS4 version or the recent Nintendo Switch release. The Switch version looks great in docked mode on the TV or in tablet mode when taking it out on the road with you.  All versions offer a scan line filter if you want to simulate the look of an old CRT Television. There are also an online leaderboard you can try to shoot for.

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Overall, Wild Guns Reloaded is a really fun, and challenging update to a cult classic. It has a great look, really intriguing characters, and does a lot with its setting. The enemy design is great, and it’s an enjoyable arcade experience. It’s just unfortunate it is so inconsistent with its rules for single player, and multiplayer. It’s strange that one can continue at their leisure when playing by themselves, but not with friends. One would think the multiplayer would be given similar stakes. Be that as it may, playing with other people is still fun to do. But you’ll definitely want your guests to know what they’re in for before you start playing.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Halloween Forever Review

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In the world of indie games it isn’t uncommon to see games that try to emulate the titles that inspired them. But when taking into account how many of these games exist, being one of the games that emulates them well is a pretty big feat. Being one of the games that not only does the memory of classic games justice, but does so with unique personality, and original additions deserves commendation.

One such game is Halloween Forever, and I don’t just say that because I saw the game’s artist do a live stream creating pixel art on Twitch. I bought the game (yes, bought. It wasn’t given to me, and I wasn’t asked to review this.) after discovering the channel because his stream turned out to be quite informative. After downloading it, I fired it up to find that it really is a fun, and interesting game. Like the Arcade, computer, and NES games that it pays homages to, it’s a challenging action-platformer. The most notable, and noticeable inspiration here is Capcom’s Ghosts N’ Goblins.

PROS: Cute characters. Animation. Music. Humor. Play control.

CONS: Confusing menu navigation. Blind jumps.

SANTA: Putting demons on the naughty list.

Before you can start the game, you’ll have to go through an options menu. This is where nearly all of the faults in Halloween Forever lie. Unfortunately you’ll need to know how the controls are mapped in order to navigate them, which you won’t. This oversight is the sole glaring issue. Because you can’t simply use the arrow keys, or the W,A,S,D, keys in a way that you would expect.

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That’s because you can’t see the default layout – to get into the menu options – to change said layout. So you’ll spend a good ten minutes figuring out what keys do or don’t select. Or you’ll take a wild guess, and try clicking the options with a mouse to find it actually works. When you do get into the control settings you’ll find the default settings a bit weird. W jumps, A,S, and D move you left, right, and let you duck. The Left key shoots, the Up key lets you interact with doors, ladders, and other things. You can re-bind the keys to something you like better, so if you want to play with a more traditional two button lay out you can. Still, navigating with the mouse through the menu options is going to make life easier. Fortunately you can also use a compatible game pad like the Xbox 360, Xbox One, or Steam Controller.

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Rounding out the options are the choice between whether to play full screen or in a window, and some configuration menus. There’s an interesting option in here if you find the game too trying for you. You can enable a 99 lives setting. Keep in mind the game more or less considers this a cheat code. So if you turn this setting on, the Steam achievements will be disabled as long as the mode is enabled.

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When the game boots, you’ll see a short sequence of cinema screens that give you a concise understanding of what your goals are. An evil wizard who looks suspiciously like a robed Skeletor has cast a spell to curse the world, and make Halloween last forever. Thus throwing the world into chaos, as it is invaded by monsters, demons, floating Gorgon heads, and of course; Leatherface. This of course, doesn’t sit well with a certain pumpkin who rises from the patch, and decides that he will be playing the role of He-Man in this Halloween themed adventure.

Once you’ve started the game, and you’ve selected your options you’ll get to choose a character. I’ll come back to this in a bit. When you first start the game you’ll pretty much have the pumpkin man you’re introduced to in the opening cinematic. The other option is Santa Claus. Yes. Santa Claus. You’ll find out later on that there are a lot of folks who have a stake in this mission to take down this reaper.

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You’re then shown a map that lays out the order of the stages you’ll have to go through in order to win the game. Then you’re off to the races. Right away, you’re going to notice the way the game looks. Then you’re going to realize that the game looks much better in action than it does on its description page on the Steam store. The graphics are a little bit simplistic, for some. But the number of frames in the animation, and the little details in them are not. I have to commend Imaginary Monsters for this. Characters run around smoothly, and they have a lot of nuances you’ll appreciate if you pay attention.

Fabrics flow around. Projectiles have visual flair on them. Bad guys’ eyes animate while the fireballs they shoot from their sockets are also animating the aforementioned flair. The bosses you’ll run into continue these things. So while the game does have an aesthetic that falls somewhere between a Commodore 64 game,  and an early 90’s MS-DOS platformer it’s more complex. These are the little things that would have meant multiple disks or a longer download back then. Of course the gameplay itself comes right out of the early days of NES games.

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As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest influences is Ghosts N’ Goblins. You’ll move about a lot like Arthur did in that game, with an attack, and a jump. You can also double jump in Halloween Forever. Your attack has an arc to it. So you have to plan ahead when you attack enemies as you need to land your shots just right. But that isn’t to say Halloween Forever is a cut, and paste clone of Capcom’s arcade game. They may share some movements, and settings. But that’s about where it ends. It does have a couple of other influences, like Castlevania, and Mega Man. Perhaps even a dash of Monster Bash. But even this is largely just in the occasional trap. Or in ensuring the bosses have a readable attack pattern. Which they do.

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But beyond that, you’ll find an entertaining, and charming action platformer. One that has a lot of endearing character designs. Not just in the heroes you control, but in the enemies you’re forced to confront. There’s a cuteness factor in the super deformed style these characters are portrayed in. This continues even into your projectiles, like your pumpkin man’s candy corn, or Santa’s barfed up Christmas presents. It’s really something that will make you smile. Everything controls smoothly, and responsively. Climbing ladders, switching platforms, taking out baddies all feel tight.

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What won’t make you smile (aside from the options menu) are some of the challenges in Halloween Forever. A couple of the later boss fights are downright brutal. Even after you’ve figured out their patterns. Of course getting to those fights requires getting through a gauntlet of platforming challenges. Each of the five stages might seem straightforward on the surface. But each has a few secret paths through them as well. If you find these secret paths you’ll be able to collect a hidden rune. You’ll also find other characters that have been taken, and held hostage. Which you’ll really need to do. Because once you rescue these characters you can play through the game with them. Each of these characters plays slightly differently from one another. Some have better attacks for certain situations than others. One may make one boss fight a lot easier, but might have a tougher time getting through another part of the game. Also rescuing these people means that reaching their holding cells in subsequent play through sessions will net you 1-Ups in their place.

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If you beat the game, and see its ending though, the game isn’t over. Each playable character has their own ending, and chances are you’ll want to see each of them at least once. All in all, this has at least as much content as the titles that inspired it had. The chip tunes are awesome, and while this game may be short, and sweet it is pretty sweet. An absolutely terrific first effort by Imaginary Monsters, and I’m surprised it hadn’t caught my attention when it was originally released a year, and a half ago. The only major issue on display here is the screwy options menu you’ll be better served using a mouse for. Beyond that, one might complain about a blind jump or two. But that’s really about it. If you want something cute, entertaining, and don’t mind it being a bit esoteric, Halloween Forever is for you. It’s tough, but not insurmountable. It also has a lot of charm. It’s a really fun game you ought to check out.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Fast RMX Review

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F-Zero, and Wipeout are two beloved series that rarely seem to make an appearance anymore. Nintendo’s flagship futuristic racing series has a deep (for a racing game) storyline, a huge roster of characters, and of course, high-speed races. It used to be a guaranteed appearance on Nintendo hardware. The Super NES, Nintendo 64, and a slew of handheld releases kept futuristic racing in the limelight. Psygnosis, and Sony answered with their own futuristic racing series; Wipeout. Both of these may seem similar, because they are in premise. But each has their own nuances making them both stand out on their own. But, while not as dormant as F-Zero, Wipeout still doesn’t get the attention it used to.

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But in recent years some independent studios have answered the call of those who long for proper futuristic racers. I previously looked at RedOut which will see a port to the Nintendo Switch at the end of the year. In Nintendo’s absence, German developers Shin’en created a small game on the Wii U called Fast Racing Neo. Which did well enough that it spawned some DLC. With no F-Zero on the horizon, they’ve made essentially a re-mastered director’s cut for the Switch. It includes all of the content the old game had. Plus new content. It also has a considerable upgrade in visuals. Released last year, this new version is an excellent title you might just want to pick up.

PROS: High sense of speed. Tight controls. Performance. Track layouts.

CONS: Online multiplayer has a low population.

EXPLOSIONS: Expect to see many when you’re first learning tracks.

Fast RMX is pretty great stuff. Immediately you’ll be taken back by how great this game looks considering its smaller budget. Then you’ll be taken back by just how great it performs. Where some other futuristic racers take influence from a few different franchises, this one mostly takes inspiration from F-Zero. The thing is, it does so well with the formula that it nearly rivals F-Zero many times. How close does it stick to the F-Zero formula? Pretty closely, but it does just enough to keep it from being a 1:1 knockoff of sorts.

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The vehicles are very much of the F-Zero vein. The designs will instantly remind you of the hovercraft driven by the likes of Captain Falcon, Pico, Dr. Stewart, Samurai Goroh, or even Mr. EAD. Oddly enough, this is where there is a big departure from F-Zero. There are no characters. There isn’t a storyline. One of the hooks with the later F-Zero games, especially F-Zero GX, was the comic book soap opera on display. Every racer had interview clips. There was a set of difficult racing challenges that told more lore about Captain Falcon with each one you were able to win. Every driver had a theme song. There is a lot of back story in the F-Zero series.

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Fast RMX dispels with any attempt to tell a story. There are no bounty hunters chasing super villains or criminals. It’s just pure, adrenaline rushing racing. Which is the most important part of any racing game. It’s the part that this game absolutely nails. Fast RMX may have a generic title, but it is succinct. There is a huge emphasis on speed on display as you’ll be boosting around hairpin turns on a rocket. The settings, and tracks continue the homages to F-Zero. Throughout the 36 tracks are space stations, futuristic cities, mining operations, and desert planets with sand worms right out of Dune. There’s even one race that takes place on a track as a giant robot is walking around, ready to step on you. It’s a pretty wild ride. A couple of tracks even retain F-Zero’s ride along the outside of a tube track designs.

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So there is a lot of love thrown to Nintendo’s racer. Fast RMX looks great doing it too. The highly detailed textures on everything look great. Many of the courses take advantage of wind physics, and filters to add to the sense of speed on display. There are even some really great weather effects in this game like rain, and snow. One of the courses even has puddles that splash when you pass over them. The game even uses some Ambient Occlusion for lighting, and shading effects. Fast RMX is an impressive looking game for the Switch. The sound quality is quite good too. The humming of the engines, the bombastic explosions of wrecked ships are great. There’s even an eccentric announcer who has some quips to cheer you on when you’re doing well, or to essentially boo you when you come in dead last. The low-key Electronica fits the racing well, though personally I would have preferred some element of Rock. But that’s a minor nitpick on my part.

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However, as I mentioned earlier, this isn’t a 1:1 carbon copy of F-Zero. Fast RMX has a few entirely different mechanics. First off, the energy system deviates greatly from F-Zero’s. There are no pseudo-pit stops to refill the boost meter. Instead, you have to be proficient enough to collect orbs at high speeds. These orbs will refill your boost meter instead. Secondly, your boost meter is not tied to your vehicle’s damage meter. If you run out of boost, you’re not going to explode. Third, there are explosions, but you aren’t out of the game after three crashes. You can keep going until the end of the race. However each time you destroy yourself by flying off the course, or hitting a wall you put yourself further, and further behind. Fourth, there are boost strips on the courses. But this leads to Fast RMX’s unique mechanic. Every vehicle has two phases. An orange phase, and a blue phase. Pressing the X button changes between the two, and the exhaust from your vehicle changes color to reflect that. If you’re coming up on a blue boost strip, and you’re using the blue phase, you’ll boost. If however you’re using the orange phase, you’ll be slowed to a crawl until you either shift phases or drive off of the boost strip.

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This leads to all kinds of boost strip patterns, which gives the tracks a puzzle game element. Not only do you need to memorize each of the turns, branching paths, and booby trap placements (Yep, tracks have landmines, omega beams, asteroids, and turbine fans to avoid.) but you’ll need to know boost order. Orange, orange, blue, orange, blue, blue, orange on one track. The next it might be blue, orange, blue, orange, blue, orange. Suffice it to say, you’ll be playing many of these courses many times over. There are several modes in Fast RMX. The primary one being its Championship mode.  This mode starts you out with three cups, each with three races in it. You don’t have to win every single race to win the cup because every placement gives you a certain number of points. So it works a bit like Mario Kart in this regard. However, by the end you’ll need more points than everyone else to claim the top spot. So every track you do badly on, means you have to do better on the subsequent races. If you can place at least third by the end of the cup, you’re treated to a short victory animation. Then you’ll unlock a harder cup, and often a new vehicle to use.

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Each of the 15 vehicles in the game handles differently, and are rated on the top speed it can reach, acceleration to that top speed, and the size of the boost power it has. Unfortunately, one bad thing about this, is it doesn’t give you any information about handling. So you have to try each one as you unlock them to see which style you like best. On the plus side, it does force you to at least take a little bit of time with each of them. One thing the ratings do tell you is that if a vehicle has a high top speed, it will take longer to get to that top speed. So these are usually going to be better if you’ve memorized every nook, and cranny of every track. Making a mistake will slow you down considerably. So when you’re just starting out you may want to pick something else. Going for a high acceleration means you’ll get to top speed faster, but you’ll want to master hitting those boost strips to compensate. Going for high boost means you’re at everybody’s mercy if you miss running over those aforementioned orbs.

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Once you get through all 12 cups, you’ll be graced with the end credits. But that’s far from the end of the line here. The game has 3 difficulty runs of the championship. So you’ll have to do it again, and again. Each of the tiers gets a bit more cutthroat. Think of it like the cc ratings in Mario Kart. The courses themselves aren’t that much harder, it’s the enemy pilots who become that much more brazen. Be that as it may, even on the initial tier, the last three cups have a huge spike in challenge. Not just because of the enemies, but because of the precision some of the courses require. It will take you back to getting to the Diamond Cup in F-Zero GX. These courses are a big hurdle to overcome. But once you do, you’ll feel very accomplished upon seeing the end credits for the first time.

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The game also has a mode called Hero mode. This one has you go through each individual track, one by one, and challenging you to come in first. That in of itself is pretty tough to do. Doing it on every track takes dedication. This mode is really for the player who wants to squeeze every last ounce of content out of their game. Much like the mainline championship mode, beating it unlocks another two tiers of difficulty. So if you’re looking for something that you can devote a lot of time to, Hero mode will keep you busy for a while. If that STILL isn’t enough for you, the game has Time Attack. Which is basically what it sounds like. You, practicing the tracks to get the shortest time possible. It isn’t the most exciting thing for the average player, but it is when racing games include them. If you’re having trouble with a certain track, it is nice to be able to practice it. Just as it’s nice to be able to ensure you’ve mastered it if you’re really good at the game, and want to compete in speed runs.

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Rounding things out are the multiplayer modes. The game includes two main online modes. One where you can race against random players online, and another where you race against your friends. Fast RMX is quite fun to play online. The netcode is fairly stable, and I rarely ran into any lag. That isn’t to say it doesn’t exist though. If you’ve connected to players who are on the other side of the world you’ll see their vehicles warping around a bit, or if someone has a bad connection you’ll see a stalled vehicle when they finally crash out to a menu. But by, and large it isn’t a bad experience. However, being released last year, you may find you have a long wait when trying to play online against random players. It took me a nearly ten minute wait to find an opponent. Once I was able to, a few other players eventually showed up, and I had a great time racing around 20 races before heading off to sleep.

That’s really about the only complaint I could levy here, is that there is a low online player population. Unfortunately it seems to be the case with many racing games, the online competition window is a short one. Still, the fact there are online bouts, and that you can play private matches is great. Fast RMX also retains the split-screen racing fun that made F-Zero, and Wipeout awesome party games. Up to four players can play in split-screen, and the frame rate doesn’t seem to be affected too much astonishingly enough. With all of the animation, and special effects going on it still retains a fairly good performance. Though some of the visuals do take a couple of cutbacks to compensate. Fast RMX also has a LAN mode, where you can connect your Switch consoles locally. So if you want to organize a local Fast RMX tournament, or party night you can.

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With its great visuals, excellent track design, and high frame rate it’s almost a no-brainer to download Fast RMX off of the Nintendo eshop. It’s an excellent game in spite of its generic title. I look forward to seeing what Shin’en brings to the table with any potential sequel. The only things to be aware of as of now, are the lack of players online this late in the game, and a big difficulty spike near the end. But in the grand scheme of things these aren’t major problems. In fact, I can’t say I ran into any major bugs while playing it. Shin’en really seems to have gone over everything with a fine tooth, and comb here. If you’re a Switch owner who hasn’t already done so, get this. Fast RMX is a winner.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Kid Tripp Review

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Endless Runners. There are thousands of them out there on a multitude of mobile devices, consoles, and computers. The good ones try to do something unique. Robot Unicorn Attack was an early example of a great one. A runner with challenging patterns, speed changes depending on how well you were doing, and a great song choice for its BGM. Turbo Pug was another one that pleasantly surprised me by adding different variables into the mix, along with great music, and cute characters. So how does this game fare in a sea of similar contenders?

PROS: Nice chip tunes. Nice sprite work. Conventional stages.

CONS: Cheap deaths.

ADORES: The big Nintendo, and Sega mascot platformers.

Kid Tripp was originally a game for the iPad, then the 3DS. But now it finds itself on the Nintendo Switch. It’s a lot like an Endless Runner. Except that it can be beaten. You see, this game’s trailer on Nintendo’s shop never makes it clear that you won’t be controlling your character’s movement. Other than jumping, or throwing rocks. It jumbles along, showing off visuals, and music in line with what you might find on a Nintendo or Sega console in the mid to late 1980’s. Chances are, if you were to pick it up without doing any research, you would think of this as a typical platformer.

But you’d be wrong. Kid Tripp gives you some stages laid out in a way you’d expect Mario, Alex Kidd, or Sonic to run through. But you have no say as to how Kid Tripp will move through it. He just automatically starts running, and you have to instinctively know when to jump. Basically, you have two commands throughout the entire experience. A jump button, and a throw button. That is it. Jump, or throw rocks. So the entire game consists of auto scrolling stages, and you timing jumps. Much like an endless runner. Except with an end, because there is no procedural generation on display here.

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Right away, this is where some disappointment sets in. The reason that games like Robot Unicorn Attack were compelling was because of the vintage arcade play they provided. You were always on a quest to last longer, and eventually get to the top of the boards to gloat to everyone that you were the best. Then, a friend, relative, or even rival would attempt, and eventually succeed at besting that score. So it led to a competitive environment. At the same time, it was a great casual game. You could play it for 20 minutes on your lunch break, or you could play it for hours before you had to go to bed.

This game does none of that. Instead it tries to be more like Super Mario Bros. with a broken D-pad. No matter what you do, you’ll always move right. I can already hear some of you bringing up Super Mario Run. The thing is, for its faults, Super Mario Run is a pretty well done mobile title. Mainly due to the well thought out level design. In that game you generally have enough stuff on the horizon you can see, and plan for.

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Kid Tripp does not consistently do this. Often times you will not see a pit, enemy, or other lethal obstacle until you’ve already succumbed to it. So where Mario feels familiar, Kid Tripp can feel frustrating. That’s because trial, and error in this game doesn’t always come off as challenging. Sometimes it just comes off as cruel. A stage starts, you’re going along, and you get crushed by a boulder. You’ll have no visual or audio cue of note that it might happen. You just get to a platform, see you’re going to have to bounce off of killer spiders, and get crushed by the boulder before there’s any time to react. There’s no way to avoid it the first time.

So you’ll finally figure out when you need to jump to avoid boulder death. Then you’ll bounce on the spiders, and you’re dead. You were killed by the next obstacle you couldn’t possibly know about, because it was off-screen a moment ago. That is how a number of stages in Kid Tripp work. The conflicting thing is how other stages don’t do this. Some of them do give you some advance warning. Some of them have some genuinely fun, and creative moments. One of them is even a really nice send up of the mine cart stages in the Donkey Kong Country games. There are some really great moments that will make you glad you decided to play it. It also keeps records, so you can try to speed run the game, and shoot for the best possible time.

The game also has some pretty good sprite work going for it, with some great character designs. Though on the flip side, Everything seems substantially zoomed in. Which leads to some of the blind jumps, and cheap deaths. That said, it looks bright, colorful, and a nice use of darker shades for contrast. As far as graphics go, this is a good-looking indie game. It also has the chip tunes to match. Kid Tripp has a soundtrack rife with catchy hooks, and digital effects.

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Kid Tripp also has a few different movement speed settings. Honestly, I didn’t notice all that much of a difference between them. For the most part the game played pretty much the same. There are also achievements you can shoot for, like clearing levels without killing an enemy, or beating the game using fewer than a certain number of lives.  The game isn’t terribly long as it goes around four worlds, and a few sub levels in each. There are a lot of homages in it too. Every stage ends with a spinning post sign as in Sonic The Hedgehog. The settings of each stage hearken to the Super Mario Bros. games, and some of the death traps will remind you of Mega Man.

Kid Tripp isn’t a terrible game by any means. It looks nice, it plays alright most of the time, and it has some good music to go along with the action. But the game could have used some better scaling, and balancing.  There is some enjoyment to be had with it for sure. But the lack of balance, and telegraphing in key points of some stages leads to cheap deaths. Still, the challenge isn’t insurmountable, and if you’re persistent you’ll likely clear it. Hopefully any potential sequel will address the problems, and take things from fairly decent, to pretty great.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Bella 73 Quart Container Review

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No, your eyes do not deceive you. I’m going to talk about a plastic tub. But this is one of the best plastic tubs you can find. A plastic tub that can, and should be used for storing something it was probably never intended to store: Video game collections. Yes really. Read on, and see if it isn’t something you’ll want to look into.

PROS: Stores, many, many games whether on cartridge or optical media.

CONS: Plastic can be cracked if you don’t take proper care of it.

PERFECT: Dimensions for those of us low on space.

Let’s face it. Many of us who collect old games can build quite the collection. What starts out as the 15 NES Game Paks from your childhood, can easily balloon to 200-300 over the course of a few years. There are tag sales, flea markets, pawn shops, retro video game stores, thrift stores, internet dealers, and even conventions to attend. Before long, you have a huge stack of video games on the floor waiting to be catalogued, and placed somewhere ideal.

But for those of us with a small room to devote to our collection, or for those of us who live in a small dorm or apartment we have to be a bit more selective about what we pick up. More importantly, we have to get a bit creative about just how to store our games. Enter the Bella container.  This plastic tub was probably never intended for gaming, but it’s something you’ll probably want to pick up for yourself. Especially if you’re in a situation where space is an issue.

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The container is the perfect width, depth, and height for most cartridges, and it even works nicely for DVD cases, and jewel cases. It can also easily slide underneath a bed thanks to the wheels embedded in each corner. Or you can stack a few of them if you have a storage closet available to place them in. Over the last several months I’ve found they’ve been great for storing my NES, Super NES, Sega Genesis, and loose 2600 games.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had to spend a big chunk of my time cleaning, and downsizing where possible. These have made that process a lot easier. My aforementioned libraries all exceed 100 games, and being able to fit them conveniently, and neatly is an impressive feat. These may also be something worth looking into if you’re a used games vendor who often sells product at conventions. The blend of low footprint, and large capacity might work wonders for your table.

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The only real issue with this tub is that they’re made of the same acrylic plastics most other storage containers are. This makes them lightweight, but it also means they can’t be slammed around. You’re not going to want to drop the thing carelessly when you’re reorganizing your room, as there’s a good chance you’ll crack the plastic. If you’re fairly gentle with your stuff you should be fine. But it is something to be aware of.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with them though. They can be found fairly affordably at Bed Bath & Beyond, although other retailers, and internet sites likely sell them as well. If you’ve got quite the Nintendo 64 collection, or you’ve come into a massive lot of Colecovision games. But now you have no idea how you’re going to store them, these plastic container bins may be the solution for you.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

Power A Joy-Con Power Grip Review

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With any new console, there are always a host of third-party companies that bring out accessories. Even going back to the earliest popular home consoles of the 70’s, and 80’s you could guarantee there were joysticks, and game pads that claimed to do the job better than Atari, Commodore, Coleco, Sega, and Nintendo could. Even today, there are still a large variety of aftermarket controllers for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.

PROS: Rubberized contours. Fancy artwork.

CONS: May work a little too well.

OCTO: May look like something you’ll want to use for that upcoming expansion pack.

With a Splatfest in Splatoon 2 just having ended as I write this, I can say this third-party grip has a lot going for it. First of all, it has a really slick piece of Splatoon 2 art on the front of it. Which is really nice for those of you with the Pink, and Green joycons. Power A doesn’t only make this with art from Nintendo’s squid themed shooter though. You can find this with art based on The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, Super Mario Bros., and Super Mario Odyssey.

The grip has a nice amount of heft to it too. The texture on the grips is nice, keeping it from just sliding out of your hands. They have a comfortable indent where your middle fingers can rest easy. So the whole thing feels great in your hands. If you’ve used the grip that came with your Switch for a long period of time, the slight difference may feel weird at first, but over time it may be something you actually prefer.

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The main plate in the center is nice. It feels a bit more solid than the one in the stock grip, and even sports the same player-number lights that the first-party one does. There’s just one problem, and it’s something you’ll need to pay close attention to. The brackets that hold the joy-cons in place work a little bit too well. If you’ve only got one set of them, and you frequently take them in, and out of the grip be careful. Because Power A’s version of this device holds the joy-cons in place very snug. So snug, that taking them out can be a bit trickier than taking them out of Nintendo’s grip. In either case you’ll need to hold the release button on each joy-con before, and during, the process of sliding them out. Nintendo’s solution allows these to very easily slide back out. Power A’s does not. It’s almost as if you have to break theirs in like a pair of shoes. If you only ever take your joy-cons out to charge on the Switch when you’re out of juice, this won’t come up as often. If you’re the type to go between TV, and portable modes multiple times per day, you really need to be aware of this.

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No doubt the joy-cons will probably survive, it’s rare most of us break a Nintendo controller. Nintendo’s own controllers, and peripherals are usually of a high quality. However, if you get frustrated, and yank too hard, the rails on the grip could bend, or snap, rendering the whole thing useless. You may find you’ll have to gently wiggle your joy-cons until they’re willing to move. It’s a shame that my complaint has to be that they do their job too well, because it’s a lot better than what many might expect. Slipshod efforts from controller manufacturers have given many decent to great peripherals a bad reputation. Whether you started gaming with the 2600, NES, Genesis, or something else entirely, chances are you had at least one cheap controller. That one joystick or game pad that was shoddy, but your folks bought it because it was only ten dollars. That still holds true today. There are many aftermarket controllers that are made with the cheapest parts possible. This grip is not one of them. I put it through many hours of Splatoon 2 over the last several nights, and it worked great. It’s comfortable, light, yet sturdy, and you’ll never have to worry about your joy-cons falling out of it.

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Just keep in mind you’ll need to be gentle, and patient when it’s time to take the Switch on the road. Power A’s grip is made fairly well, but it isn’t built like a tank either. It isn’t going to win any fights with the wall. But then not many controllers will. If you’re careful with your stuff this thing will be a fine peripheral, and you can find one based on one of your most-liked Switch games. If you’re hard on your controllers, you may want to invest in something heavy-duty like a Pro Controller, or even an arcade stick. But don’t throw any of these at your wall. They probably won’t win, and you’re not going to get the security deposit back for the holes in the drywall. Impatience, and frustration aside, I recommend this for those who need a replacement grip, and want something a little bit more personal.

FINAL SCORE: 8 out of 10

The Next Penelope Review

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Combinations. Sometimes they work really well. Most of us like peanut butter with chocolate, fluff, or jelly. In gaming, we often see developers experiment with different elements from one genre, and blending it with elements from another. The Next Penelope is one of many such games. But the components it assembles are far more removed from one another in comparison to other titles.

PROS: Minimalist art style works well.

CONS: Technical hitches. Lack of options. A.I.

HOMER: Expect Iliad, and Odyssey references.

The Next Penelope bills itself as a top-down racer in the vein of the old Codemasters Micro Machines games that appeared on the NES, and Sega Genesis. But in reality that’s only one part of the game. The Next Penelope utilizes these kinds of races, but attempts to cross-pollinate them with bits of F-Zero. You can boost, which drains the health of your vehicle, and you can drive over pit stop lanes to repair your vehicle.

But it doesn’t stop there. The game also includes elements of vertical, and horizontal shoot ’em up games like Raiden, and R-Type. As with the boost mechanic, using the weapons throughout the game will also drain your vehicle health meter. There are several great weapons to use throughout the campaign, and you’ll find that they’re almost always the key to victory.

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So how does the game work? The Next Penelope references Homer’s Odyssey. From the subtitle; Race To Odysseus, to names of characters, and places from the epic poem. In this game you play as Penelope who is trying to get to Ulysses. But in order to do so you’ll have to go to different star systems, and proceed to win different racing circuits. The reality is that each of these circuits has one race. Each circuit lists three races, but only the second race is actually a race. Your first race is usually a trial where you have to master one of the weapons or abilities. Complete that task, and then you’ll enter a race. A race you have to place first in. If you don’t win, you can’t advance. Winning the race will put you up against a boss for the third event. If you defeat the boss, you’ll get to take the weapon you gained in the first event with you through the rest of the game.

You can technically, go through the game in any order you want, a la Mega Man. But the game really wants you to go in a specific order. Because you’ll quickly find the races are almost impossible to win without the weapon or item required. Where as in Capcom’s games starring the Blue Bomber, you can get through an entire stage using only an arm cannon, here you can’t. You won’t even beat the course required to get to the boss to use your weapon on, without said weapon. That’s because the rubber band A.I. in this game is ridiculous. Even if you lead three laps because you’re good enough to do it, the last lap you will be bombarded with enemy racers’ firepower, and get overtaken.

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Over the course of the game you’ll get laser guns, a teleportation device, a grappling hook, and even a cloud that turns bullets into experience points. Win the races, and it’s off to fight a boss. Admittedly, the boss fights are some of the best parts of The Next Penelope. Most of them are pretty creative, and involve some level of puzzle solving skills on your part. There are a few that are disappointing though, because they boil down to trial, and error gameplay as opposed to the puzzle solving twitch action of the better ones. Still, these are where most of the fun times happen.

That isn’t to say the racing is terrible. Most of the tracks have some pretty cool designs, and you’ll have to get your turns just right, to drift around a corner or make a jump over a gap safely. Tracks have some interesting hazards too, like flooded streets, blockades that require specific items to avoid, and even have shortcuts that require expert timing, and speed to use. What kills the fun a bit is the aforementioned A.I. if you thought some of the old Mario Kart, Need For Speed, or Cruisin‘ games had cheap CPU racers, you’ll have flashbacks when playing this. The pain is doubled when you realize this game has the same steering scheme as games like Super Sprint. Your space car also moves automatically, so you can’t brake around corners, or to avoid hitting something.

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Thankfully the controls are responsive, and if you don’t want to use the classic D-Pad controls, you can use the triggers on your controller to steer left, or right. Once you have a handle on them, and you get a few circuits in, it will become a lot more manageable as the items, and weapons will help keep you in the lead a lot. Once you’ve gotten through a set of races you can move along a star map to the next set you want to attempt. There are also extra courses you can attempt. But these won’t be playable until you’ve completed the campaign for the first time. You’ll also earn XP throughout the game, and there is a store on the star map where you can spend your XP on upgrades. In my time with the game, I found it best to wait until near the end to do this, but you can also go into the shop whenever you want between circuits.

Once you beat all of the main circuits, you’ll be able to enter the final showdown. This is a two boss rush. Here the game ceases to be a top-down racer, and becomes a horizontal shmup. What makes these fights challenging is that the game continues to use the F-Zero drain mechanics from the races. So as you shoot at the bosses you’ll drain your health. Beating these guys will take careful resource management, and all of your cunning.

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The story here isn’t particularly great. It references Homer’s poems a number of ways, but it doesn’t do anything interesting with them. It’s really just there to set up each of the circuits so that the boss encounters make more sense. On the plus side, the artwork is very nice. It could easily pass for one of the late 90’s action shows that aired on Cartoon Network with minimalist designs that are accented with a wonderful use of color. This moves into the mainline game graphics too, which use an interesting blend of background tile art, and shaded shapes for the vehicles, and characters. It reminded me a bit of Another World’s look. vehicles appear to be almost like models when in actuality they’re an animated series of sprites. It’s pretty impressive for a such a small game.

 

The Next Penelope isn’t a bad game, by any means. But it isn’t going to be for everyone. The worst part of the experience is the brutal A.I., and there are a number of technical hitches in it that don’t help. Sometimes the game will hiccup for no apparent reason. I played the game on both my gaming desktop that far exceeds the requirements, and an old laptop. In both cases they came up at arbitrary times. It didn’t matter if I had the settings maxed or set to minimum. The game also has a CRT filter you can enable. Again, sometimes this would happen with or without simulated scan lines. In my case I had been playing for a few hours before it would happen. But when it did it was awful, as it would cause me to drive off course, or crash into an obstacle. I don’t know if this happens on any of the console versions as I haven’t played those. There was also the strange omission of any kind of volume controls in the game. This makes it a tough game to stream as you can’t just go in, and lower the sound if it drowns out your voice. Instead you’ll have to go tweak your system’s microphone, and sound settings. Which isn’t always a simple task depending on your configuration.

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That said, it’s worth experiencing if you’re looking for something a little bit different to play. It looks nice, controls fine, and there are some truly fun moments in it. But only the truly devoted will go through the bonus missions, or care to accomplish all of the game’s achievement milestones. It’s not a terrible game, but don’t expect the moon either. If you come into it looking for something on par with an F-Zero or Wipeout game, you’ll want to look elsewhere. But if you’re open-minded, and want to try something new, you might be surprised.

Final Score: 6.5 out of 10

Owlboy Review

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The Super NES is known for many great things. Obviously Nintendo’s own wonderful games, and some of the most memorable efforts from names like Capcom, Konami, Square, and Natsume. These efforts often resulted in excellent adventure games, action RPGs, and action platformers. In recent  years a number of new games have shown up paying homage to these titles. But not all of them have done it as well as Owlboy.

PROS: Beautiful visuals. Tight controls. Engrossing story.

CONS: A few annoying bugs. Objectives aren’t always clear.

PIXEL ART: This game really does raise the bar for the art form.

Owlboy is easily one of the best modern platformers done in a style that resembles the 16-bit titles of yesteryear. Immediately you’ll be blown away by the insane amount of detail in the pixel art. The shading of the grass, the gradients in the clouds, and the plethora of tiles that make every background, and object stand out. Not only is there a great amount of detail, but so much of it is animated. Animated so well, in fact, that it matches the characters with their text balloons almost flawlessly.

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Speaking of facial sprite animation, and text balloons, Owlboy has a story on par with many coming-of-age animated Disney films. When the game begins you take control of an owl named Otus. Otus isn’t well liked by most of the inhabitants of Ville. He’s mocked, teased, bullied by many of the other owls his age (often because of his muteness), and he’s ostracized by adults. He gets blamed for things he has little to nothing to do with. He has one friend named Geddy who works defense for the town. Things change drastically one day, when a mysterious troublemaker distracts the two, and allows an invasion of pirates to occur.  From here, our pariah has to go on a three arc adventure to become the hero.

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Along the course of the story new characters get introduced, and this is where the game’s mechanics start to really take shape. Owlboy combines the Platformer with Adventure, and Action RPG elements to create something pretty special. You’ll explore different towns, and talk to NPCs the way you might in a game like Ys, or Faxanadu. You’ll explore areas the way you do in Metroidvanias. You’ll get into boss fights on par with those of the Classic Mega Man series. The developers at D-Pad even went the extra mile to make the shop one of the most entertaining moments in the game.

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Otus can run, jump, fly, and do a couple of  roll attacks as you go through the game. But he can also pick up some of the NPC characters you’ll meet, some items, and even some enemies. All of which are needed to solve puzzles, and get to a lot of areas. Most of the puzzles are fairly challenging to solve, involving every possible thing you can lift. Throughout the campaign you’ll also find fruits, and vegetables that replenish health too. Around halfway through the game you’ll find a shop. It works a little bit differently than the typical shops in most RPGs, and Adventure games.

Rather than simply buy items with the money you have, the shop keep sends out employees to just give them to you once you have enough coins. They don’t take the coins from you though. So it’s almost like a level up progress bar accented with comedy. These moments are quite hilarious too. The game makes excellent use of its characters, and animation to deliver laughs. Rather than simply give you the normal mundane experience of grinding money until you can buy the best kit, it’s gives entertainment. And these funny moments fit right in with the rest of the story.

 

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The story is great, the characters, are great, and everything else for the most part is as well. Not only do you get a bunch of interesting challenges to solve, but you’ll also do your fair share of platforming. Any good platformer requires excellent, and responsive controls. Owlboy has them. As you jump, fly, and switch characters around, things feel natural. So while things may look insurmountable at times, with enough practice you’ll get through them. The game utilizes the Adventure feel of checkpoints rather than the life system many retro-platformers do. These are fairly numerous, so there aren’t very many times you’ll find yourself re-doing long stretches of hurdles upon a mistake. That isn’t to say things will be easy. There were a few parts of the game that I found myself spending thirty to forty minutes on because I didn’t do just the right move. Or because I didn’t kill an enemy quite fast enough. But again, perseverance pays off. If you don’t give up, you’ll get through it.

The game is a lot of fun too. It scratches the itch of just about any old-school experience you can think of, and it’s engrossing. It makes you feel accomplished when you do something grand, and it doesn’t feel discouraging when you fall down. There are also plenty of moments that will just wow you. From riding rock dragons, to infiltrating bases, to the tremendous boss fights, there is a lot to love. Boss fights bring back the era of memorizing patterns. Much like the Mega Man, Castlevania, and Contra games of old, each fight makes you watch for openings. Eventually you’ll realize the boss is doing the same thing, and you’ll learn where to move, or which character to utilize, at what time. Most of them have several forms though, and with each form, a new pattern to learn. But through it all, you’ll have a great time. Whether you were in that era or not.

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As I’ve stated before, Owlboy looks astonishing. But the soundtrack goes along with it all so beautifully. The game has a wonderful orchestral score that flows from scene to scene, and area to area. It’s as if a Metroid game were filled with symphonic songs inspired by classical composers. None of it really comes off as cliché either. It’s almost expected in any fantasy setting to hear strings, and woodwind instruments. But here again, it feels like an animated Disney film. There are up tempo notes of optimism when things are looking up for our characters, and there are bombastic yet somber moments when it looks like all is lost. It probably isn’t the sort of thing you’ll listen to on a work commute, but it does accent the story, and gameplay very well.

It would be easy to write the game off as some niche experience for geezers like me who jammed on Ys III, Mega Man X, and ActRaiser on the Super NES back in the day. But it really isn’t, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you skip it because of that impression. Yes, indeed, there are plenty of things to like for those who were around for the 16-bit console wars of the 1990’s. But the new twists on gameplay, identifiable characters, and well told story, are things anybody who likes video games can experience. Owlboy joins the ranks of well-crafted, memorable indie releases like Axiom Verge, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, Undertale, and VVVVVV.

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It isn’t without its faults, as even the best games have some issues. In the case of Owlboy it seems to be bugs. Minor bugs, but annoying nevertheless. One of which seems to screw up your controls at random. Loading from the last checkpoint seems to fix it. This only happened to me once, near the end of the game. But it’s still worth mentioning. Another is how, at least on PC, the game still runs in memory even after exiting to the desktop. Pulling up the Task Manager in Windows allows you to shut it down, but it’s still 30 seconds of annoyance. There are also a couple of times in the campaign where it isn’t always clear where you’re supposed to go next. But this is really a minor nitpick since you’ll be spending a good portion of time just exploring anyway.

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Overall though, Owlboy comes highly recommended. It’s fun, engrossing, and has something for just about anyone. It’s a game that will likely garner an emotional response from you, thanks in part to the excellent animation. It’s a game you’ll likely cherish in part because of the story, and characters on display. But it’s also a game you’ll likely enjoy going through due to the top-notch play control, and well crafted gameplay. Owlboy is a must play addition to any collection.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.