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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review

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Well between the overtime, and festivities, Christmas, and New Year’s were quite busy. I had a great time with family, and I hope everyone out there had a wonderful, Merry Christmas out there as well. I didn’t get much in the way of entertainment gifts, though I did get a case of Pocky, and a really nice solid state drive. The sole game I received is the one I’ve been playing feverishly in my free time unlocking characters. That would be today’s game. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has come out to critical acclaim. Is it worthy of the praise? In a lot of ways it certainly is.

PROS: Every character, stage from the previous game, and then some!

CONS: Trophy hunting is gone. Online performance can be spotty.

PIRANHA PLANT: Is a free character for those who register by 1/31/19.

For the five people who don’t know what Super Smash Bros. is, it’s a long running series that combines fighting game conventions, and party game conventions into a unique fighting game with its own rules. Most fighting games are one on one affairs where the goal is to knock out your opponent by kicking his or her teeth in. Some of them have intricate combos (a series of moves that can’t be blocked) that require dexterity, and ring awareness to input properly. Most of them have flashy special moves, and they feature some equally flashy ways to finish off an opponent for bragging rights.

But over the years many games in the genre became so complex that it intimidated newcomers from trying them out. At the same time, in the days of the Nintendo 64, most fighting games were going to the PlayStation due to the cheaper storage space of a CD-ROM. Many of the high-caliber fighters didn’t make it over to Nintendo’s console. But Masahiro Sakurai had secretly set up a new project over at  HAL. It would evolve from four generic placeholder characters in an arena to Nintendo characters in a variety of arenas. Smash Bros. replaces the “Send them to the hospital or morgue to win.” rule set with a Sumo wrestling “Knock them out of the ring, and keep them out of the ring.” rule set. You pick a character, multiple opponents pick a character, and then you can duke it out based on either time (knock more people out than anyone else) or stock (be the last one standing with any lives) rules.

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But what makes the series compelling for every type of player, are the move sets. Every character uses the same basic inputs. There’s an attack button, a special moves button, a jump button, a block button, and a grab button. If you press up, down, or left or right, with either an attack or special button press you’ll do a different attack. There are also Smash attacks which are another three, more powerful moves you can do if you press attack with a direction at the exact same time. From the second game onward, you can use a right, thumb stick to do the Smash attacks instead. Every character has the exact same inputs, so you don’t have to spend hours learning how to press down, down-forward, forward, punch to do something amazing.

But while the simplicity appeals to newcomers, the series does have a fair amount of depth in its combat. There are still combos, two-in-ones, and other advanced techniques to learn. You can learn how to roll dodge, and parry. While the inputs are shared across the board, the characters’ moves are mostly unique. And from the third game onward, the series even implements super finishers for the characters.

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To make things more interesting the series lets players use randomly dropped items, which can be anything from bats, to laser guns, to assist trophies that summon run ins from characters who are not selectable fighters. They fight on behalf of the player who threw them. And to top it off, the games have all let players turn the items off entirely, select the few they want, or leave them on. The second game Super Smash Bros. Melee, is where the series really took off in popularity, and proved the series could be a viable competitive fighting game. Dedicated players have spent years mastering the game’s mechanics, and continue playing it today. Their efforts even got the series enough attention to end up in high-profile tournaments like EVO.

Over the years Nintendo’s brawler has added different tweaks, and features to the formula. Melee added an Adventure mode. Brawl expanded the roster further, and expanded the Adventure mode. Wii U/3DS improved the roster, cut the Adventure short, and improved the mechanics. All while giving each version unique stages to incentivize buying both versions.

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So what does Ultimate bring to the table? What new features, and refinements can you expect over previous editions? Well for starters, you’ll eventually get to use every character who has ever appeared in a Super Smash Bros. title. I say eventually, because as in previous games you have to unlock them by playing. However, this time around unlocking them is much easier. You can go through any of the game’s modes to add them to your roster. Playing standard matches by yourself or with friends has them showing up every few rounds or so. You can also go through the returning Classic mode, or the all new Spirits modes.

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Ultimate’s most drastic change is indeed the inclusion of Spirits. These replace the trophies from the last few games. While the trophies were a nice way to celebrate Nintendo’s history, and wealth of characters, ultimately it had little impact on how the games played. Spirits add an almost Role-Playing Game element to the action. They can be picked up primarily either by playing through the Spirit Adventure mode, or the Spirit Board. Although you’ll find in other modes you can gain them as well. Spirits can enhance your fighters by adding other properties into the mix. They can buff your attack power, defensive power, grab power (for holds or throws), or be neutral, helping stats equally. This is also where the RPG elements come into play, because over the course of the game you can level them up. You can add secondary Spirits to many of them, as they’ll have additional slots. Doing this effectively adds even more stats. Beyond that you can also feed them snacks you earn in every mode, which will boost stats further. When you get some Spirits to level 99, you can even find ways to prestige them (Think like the resets in Call Of Duty. Not exactly an RPG, but an element that could work in one) by starting them over at level 1, while retaining experience. Henceforth making them more potent.

You can even choose to allow the use of Spirits in standard matches with your friends, which admittedly throws off the balance, but can result in fun experimentation. Going into the Spirit Board will let you enter fights where you can potentially win a new Spirit to use should you win a given match. This works similarly to the matches you’ll enter in the Spirit Adventure mode, which more or less replaces the previous games’ takes on a Story mode.

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This time around instead of having sets of stages, or a huge Metroidvania styled map the game keeps things simplified with Spirit matches. However these are peppered throughout a massive map, and it does utilize the Spirit system in other ways. For instance, the map has a resemblance to a table top game board. It’s covered in fog, that clears partially when completing certain events. It also has JRPG like shops, and training centers on it that can be found, where you can spend prize money on new Spirits, or to buff existing ones. And of course, this is the mode that tells the storyline, so you can expect to see the majority of it here. When you start off, you’ll find the world of Smash Bros. under assault from an army of Master Hands. A mysterious force pretty much kills every one of our favorite combatants, with only Kirby surviving unscathed. The antagonist imprisons our combatants, and creates countless evil clones of them. From here you’ll go about the board, fighting battles, getting Spirits, and equipping them. Over the course of the adventure you’ll level them, swap them, in between battles. Each battle you’ll get an overview of your opponent, and what Spirit they are using, as well as any special rules that have been employed.

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Not only will you have to win battles against evil clones, you’ll also have to win battles with the original characters. If you do this, you’ll break the spell on them, and they’ll join your party. They’ll also become unlocked for you to use in multiplayer. Because of that, many players may want to play through this mode, as you’re essentially going to unlock everyone over the course of the campaign. However, there are 74 characters here. The first 8 of whom are already playable in multiplayer. But, for those who don’t, they can also be unlocked by playing other modes. If you’re really desperate there is even an exploit circulating around YouTube. But even then you’re going to be grinding a while.

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You can also lose these battles to unlock characters, and if you do they’ll go back to the end of the line. So your next unlockable opponent will be different. The game does have a seemingly random rematch option though. Getting back to the Spirit Adventure, you can expect to spend days, or even weeks to see everything. Even after unlocking all of the characters in the game, I still have a long way to go in terms of completing this mode. There are many battles, shops, training centers, and chests for you to uncover. There are even centers where you can put one of your leveled Spirits back to their original stock settings! At face value one might ask why they would want to bother doing this. But again, like an RPG, sometimes you might find you’ve increased all of the wrong stats. Maybe it was a Spirit geared toward defense, but you found you hastily buffed up a bunch of attack properties because you weren’t sure what you were doing when you first started playing. It certainly beats starting the entire game over when you’ve spent the last 10 hours building up your Spirits, unlocking characters for multiplayer, and finding snacks to feed your Spirits.

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Not only can you buff up Spirits, but you can raise the stats of your actual fighters by using a skill tree. You can access it in the pause menu during the adventure, and you can use the Skill Spheres you pick up in battle to level up abilities. You can make yourself escape throws easier, or make your specials do more damage. There are a bunch of them, and doing this will help you a lot. Especially with some of the boss fights that have returned from previous games, as well as all new ones.

It’s a very lengthy campaign indeed. On top of freeing all of the characters, collecting Spirits, and levelling them up. Beyond the epic boss fights, and using Spirits to access previously closed areas on the map. In addition to all of the ways you can use Spirits in the campaign beyond merely powering them up, or fighting evil clones with them, there are three difficulty levels. There are also three endings! So yeah, you can expect to revisit this adventure many, many times.

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Beyond the campaign is the Classic mode. In this iteration the game does do things a little bit differently. Rather than simply give you the arcade style ladder you’re probably used to, it takes that ladder, and tweaks matches around the chosen character. All 74 characters get a personalized ladder, and even conditions. For instance Mega Man’s ladder follows the path of vintage Mega Man games. Even when you beat what you think is the end, it will surprise you. Or take Ryu’s ladder where all of the knock out rules have been changed to stamina rules. It makes going through this mode with every character fun, as you don’t know what to expect next.

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This time around, the intensity meter from the previous game makes its appearance in Classic mode instead. When you start out you can choose how difficult you want things to be based upon how many coins you can put toward it. There are also tickets you can spend to help push it up, but you only have so many. Though these can be earned seemingly randomly as well. The higher you go the more of the painting you’ll see, and the better your rewards for clearing the mode. Though the meter will go down if you lose, and continue. So if you want the credentials of being the best, you’ll have to win every match by a wide margin.

Obviously the meat, and potatoes of any fighter is the multiplayer. This iteration of Smash is no different. Beyond the baseline mechanics there have been a number of changes under the hood. The general speed has been refined, and the roster of 74 characters does feel surprisingly balanced for the most part. There are some characters who have clear advantages, but many of these come at the cost of a slow speed, or a high knock off percentage. There are still ways crafty players can get around these powerhouses. They also have the option to use Spirits in addition to the items. Which changes the dynamics greatly, as a lot of the Spirits share properties with the characters they’re based upon. This can make for a lot of interesting match ups for those who wish to experiment with them. Of course purists can ignore them altogether. Returning from the Wii U version of Smash, are the Omega versions of stages. These basically retain the look of the various arenas, but convert their layout to the bog standard layout of Final Destination. It makes every arena into a tournament arena, which gives some of the players who want to focus on the competitive end some variety.

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One feature I think any player will like is the ability to replace the Smash Ball item with a super meter. Instead of having to take your eyes off of opponents to break a ball, and maybe do your super without getting fragged, now you can do them traditionally. The meter will fill up when you’re damaging or taking damage, and when filled, you can press your Super finish. It’s great because if you’re a competitive player you can focus on the action, and if you’re a novice, you can still get the chance to see the spectacle of a flashy move more often. Ultimate also retains support for the Gamecube controller adapter, and controllers. So once again you can have up to 8 players for local, offline Smash Bros. matches, which are as fun as they are chaotic. Novices, and Pros alike will like that they now put up a wire frame grid during matches when you’re off-screen. This makes it a little bit easier to find your bearings. And the training mode can display the knock back, and Directional Influence stats if you wish.

Another returning feature is the photography feature, and I don’t mean simply pressing the screenshot button. Although you can do that. But the full-fledged photography feature set from previous entries is here. Pause the game during any match, and you’ll be able to fiddle with the camera settings. You can change the angle, and position. You can cycle between the characters to focus the camera on a specific one. You can zoom in, or out. You can even put on borders, or stamp the game’s logo on it. Then if you hit the screenshot button on your controller you can essentially  make a nice wallpaper to upload to your Facebook or Twitter feed. It may not sound like much, but it is a lot of fun to experiment with.

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Online fighting as you’ve probably heard, is a mixed bag. More often than not matches will perform well with one stipulation. That you play with people relatively close to you. Matches with local friends are usually fine. Matches with random strangers, could be fine, or they could be unplayable. Previous Smash games were often the same way. While I have had a better experience with this iteration so far, it still isn’t where it needs to be. Which is a shame because honestly the online play has some cool features in it. Setting up lobbies represents a wrestling arena, where you can clearly seat fighters, and spectators. You can jump into public lobbies too, and search by match types, and other stipulations. You can also go for quick play, where the game will toss you against random opponents. You can set preferred rules for this, so that if you only like to play stock, or love a certain item you can usually be paired with people of similar taste.  If you leave preferred rules off, you’ll be placed against any available players under any possible set of conditions. Again, if you’re pitted against players too far away, you can expect stuttering, warping, or general lag. You can mitigate this slightly by using a Cat5e cable, and a USB adapter with the Dock, as a wired connection is a bit faster than the WiFi connection. But this still doesn’t help much as you’re likely going to see issues more when paired against opponents who live far away.

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Still, if you can deal with a spotty match every few rounds or so, the online play is fun. I even like the feature they’ve added where you can play offline modes while you have the game look for opponents for you. Oddly enough though, other Nintendo franchises have given the option to choose between regional or global opponents. Mario Kart has consistently done this. And while a racing title is probably less taxing than a game like Super Smash Bros. due to the latter’s constant changing of inputs, it seems like it could be a helpful option. It’s also strange that Splatoon 2, very rarely performs poorly online. Still, when the game does perform the way it ought to, matches are an absolute blast. Of course like all fighting games, get used to being decimated. A lot of players are dedicated to mastering their favorite characters, and play continually to improve. But you can’t become anywhere near as good as they are without losing, learning where you made mistakes, and taking that with you into the next match. And there’s something to be said for not taking yourself too seriously too. There’s nothing riding on these matches. So don’t worry about getting bodied.

I should also mention that this game supports the Amiibo figurines from the last one, and that it will even allow you to import the data from the previous game on them into this one. Of course once you do, you can’t go back, and use it on the old game. If you want to use it with the old game, you’ll have to reformat the figurine, and start over on it. From there they work pretty much as they did in Smash 4. The difference is now you can give them Spirits which work similar to the stats in the previous game. You can train your figure to be an attacker, a defensive player, or somewhere in between. Not all of the strategies from the old game work quite the same in the contemporary one though. So expect some of your Wii U figurines to be inconsistent sometimes. Still, eventually they will get to a point where they’re almost impossible for you to beat. The real fun though is levelling up an Amiibo to be beast-like, and then pit it against a friend’s beast-like Amiibo for supremacy.

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If all of that isn’t enough for you, the challenges come back from previous entries. There are thousands of Spirits to unlock, as well as songs, and other things in the game. Some of which can only be found by completing tasks. One task may be to clear Classic Mode with a specific character in under a certain time. Another might be to accomplish something in the Spirit Adventure mode. You can also get some of this stuff in the game’s shop feature. Suffice it to say, those of you who have to see every possible bit of content in the games you buy, will once again be unlocking things for months on end. Ultimate also brings back the horde modes from previous games. Fight a bunch of waves until you clear the required number. Or go for the endless mode, and see how long you can last. A number of unlockable items are also tied to these. They wanted to be sure you would try everything.

And the game looks, and sounds beautiful through it all. All of the player models, and animations are phenomenal. All of the assist trophies, and items look top-notch. The little details throughout each stage, over every map are simply gorgeous. Everybody involved in the graphics, and sound have done a terrific job here. Even Mr. Game & Watch, one of the simpler characters has been overhauled. Every move he makes references one of his LCD titles more than ever. That’s just one example out of 74 characters. The cinematic videos from the campaign, and introduction are also fantastic. Even if they don’t always make themselves clear in the story, they do grab your attention. The massive amount of top-notch audio is breathtaking. Songs from countless other games show up, alongside some original orchestral scores, electronic remixes, and more. It’s a fantastic soundtrack. While the idea of using the music player mode as a giant Walkman might sound silly, an auxiliary cable in the car makes for a great commute soundtrack.

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Overall, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a must own game for almost anybody with a Switch. Some might complain a mode from an older game may have been omitted. Like the Trophies, and their related modes for example. But their replacements are well thought out, and fit the game nicely. In some cases, better. The Spirits may seem convoluted to some, but they make the Adventure worth checking out, and getting invested in. The Smash Tour isn’t here, but there probably weren’t a lot of people clamoring for it. The stage builder is gone, which is one thing I would have liked to have seen return. Be that as it may, the large roster, 8-player matches, multitude of ways to customize matches, are worth getting the game for alone. It’s also wonderful that those of us who invested hundreds of dollars into Nintendo’s figurines, and Gamecube controllers for the Wii U iteration can repurpose those things for this new one.

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For those who love this series, you’ve probably picked this up already. For those who are lapsed, or haven’t played one of these games before though, you should really check it out. This is a series that has always celebrated the history of Nintendo, and video games. There’s something here for everyone. Fighting game enthusiasts will find some advanced techniques to master. People who want to play something different with guests will likely enjoy the chaotic fun of Luigi shooting laser guns. Or the look of surprise on a friend’s face when they see their first stage hazard. Fans of Retro will love the 40 years or more of classic nods, and references in it. Even people who tend to like slower paced cerebral genres over arcade twitch game play may find they really enjoy the RPG elements of Spirit Adventuring. Plus the easier inputs can make it feel less daunting to any newcomer to the series. Of course if you’ve never enjoyed one of these games to any degree, this one won’t change your mind. But for most with a Switch, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate joins Super Mario Odyssey, The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, and Splatoon 2, as a sure first-party bet.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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Insurgency Sandstorm Review

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Wow, two reviews this week? I really had to crunch to get this one done. It’s worth it though because like DUSK, this is a new FPS release that really ought to be on your radar. Insurgency Sandstorm, like its predecessor is here to give you a blend of arcade run speed, with late 90’s tactical subgenre features. But does it reach the lofty goals set forth by the original?

PROS: It’s an Insurgency sequel on a much newer engine!

CONS: Not every promised feature is here (yet.) Minor issues.

GIBS: A common 90’s FPS feature returns.

The original Insurgency set that bar rather high. What had started out as a mod became a full-fledged game that pushed Valve’s Source engine to its limit. It bridged the gap between Tactical FPS games like Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield, and large-scale objective Military Team FPS games like Battlefield. In doing so, it offered a great alternative to some of the titles in the AAA space. While it didn’t run on the latest tech, it did give players a unique experience. Insurgency did well for itself, cutting out a nice niche for itself, and becoming one of the most beloved competitive games on Steam for some time.

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So what does this newer version bring to the table? Does it improve on the foundation set by the original? Should you play this over something else in the subgenre? All of these are questions you might have going into this one, and they’re all valid ones to ask. When the game was announced it was touting a robust single-player campaign in addition to the multiplayer goodness fans of the first game came for. It showed off some vehicle play, and all in a vast uptick in visual fidelity.

Well let’s get the one major point of contention some will have out-of-the-way. There is no one-player campaign. At least not yet. Now to be fair, those who followed the news around this game during its development, or played it while it was in Early Access were told it wasn’t going to make it in by launch. So a big chunk of the potential audience who were excited upon seeing it during E3 2017 already know this. But if you were one of those interested who saw the early trailers, put it on your “Look forward to seeing it when it comes out” list, and are just now looking at it? You’re going to be disappointed.

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But this is also not an “All is lost” moment, the studio has said it should be coming later, and that it should be included along with the other DLC. And that’s where the barometer may swing from disappointed to optimistic. Because the folks at New World Interactive will not be charging for DLC, nor implementing micro transactions or loot boxes. So everything that comes out for this game in the future will cost you nothing extra. New maps will be included. New weapons they decide to add will be included. Any new modes they cook up will also be included. So the lack of the campaign might sting, but they haven’t outright cancelled it either. If you only come to your army shooters for a campaign, and touch nothing else, you may want to wait. Or not, because there are things here you might still enjoy.

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Of course Insurgency, became a cult hit for a number of reasons. Its various modes. Its unique blend of styles. And that it pushed an aging technology pretty far in the process of delivering its fun. It didn’t look as good as the games EA, and Activision were putting out, but it stood in the same league when it came to game play. And that trend does indeed continue in Insurgency Sandstorm.

Think of Insurgency Sandstorm as an experiment in combining the best elements of various military themed shooters you’ve played over the years. All while implementing its own ideas into the monster before releasing it upon the world. What does it borrow? Well it gives you the vast conquest maps Battlefield fans would love. It also uses point capture as the primary goal of its competitive modes. Insurgency Sandstorm has three of them. (Though like the campaign, more may follow.)

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PUSH: This is the mode most like the Rush mode in the Battlefield games. It places one army as defenders, and one army as attackers. Attackers have a miniscule number of lives spread across its combatants. While Defenders have a much larger pool. However, if the attackers manage to take the first point on the map, they will gain more lives. They will also force the defensive team to fall back to their next point. This continues until either the defenders are made to fight their last stand, with no remaining lives to defend a cache. If the attackers blow it up, the defenders are defeated. The defenders will also be defeated if all of their lives are lost.

What makes this mode compelling is that there are a number of ways each side can approach their situation. When playing defense, you can do what I like to do. You can literally lie down on the objective (represented by a room with a giant flashing letter.), and attempt to kill any intruders. If enough of your team follows suit, it becomes nearly impossible to take the point. However, I said “nearly”. That’s because there are any number of ways a skilled attacking team can crack this. They can employ explosives to spook people to leave the point or die. They can send in their best stealth players to get inside. They can try to flank spawning defenders rushing to get back to the point. These are just some of the strategies you’ll see employed.

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FIREFIGHT: Is the next mode, and here all of the points on the map are preset with both armies having to take an attack position. One point is predetermined to be for one side. The second for the other side, and the third being unclaimed. The first team to capture all three of these wins. However, it isn’t easy because each player has only one life. The only way you get to come back into the battle is if your team captures a point while you’re dead. What people love about this mode is that there’s a tug of war going on with it. If you’ve got two points, but not the third, you’ll have to send people to take the third. But that means the opposing team will find less resistance, at one of your two points. If they take one, you’re at a disadvantage, and have to figure out which of their now two points is easier to take.

SKIRMISH: Takes the game play of Firefight, and adds the caches from the Push mode which gives each team multiple lives. So you’ll be going along in your back, and forth. But the twist comes when one of the caches is destroyed. Without a cache, your team will fall back to the stock Firefight rules, which makes it easier to become overrun. So you have to decide as a team whether you want to go all out, and take points. Or do you designate a few of your combatants to defend the cache while others go for points? Insurgency Sandstorm involves its own strategies into proven concepts.

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This is where the implementation of other ideas, along with NWI’s modern twists, and original features really begins to take shape. Insurgency Sandstorm may use some ideas you’ve seen elsewhere, but it isn’t a knock off. It isn’t just reskinning a popular game, and shouting “Ta-da!”. It’s transformative. It retools these ideas to work in ways that weren’t expected before. It again, also has original ideas too. That’s what made the first game so great, and that continues here in the combat system.

 

Like the original, it takes a page from the original Rainbow Six games, and goes for far more realistic damage. If you play Rainbow Six Siege, as fun as it is, you can still survive firefights if you get shot. Even if you go down a friend can revive you. But if you go way back, and play Rainbow Six 1,2, or 3, that is rarely the case. In those games a single hit was usually lethal. If you were hit in a limb, maybe you could take a second bullet to go down. Insurgency Sandstorm is tough like that. If you get shot, you’re probably dead. If you’re hit in the arm, perhaps you’ll find some cover to survive a little bit longer. But another hit, and you’re toast. Because while your vision comes back, your health does not.

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But Insurgency Sandstorm goes further. Because it eschews plenty of other ideas its competitors love. For instance, there is no mini map. There are no little lights on a square in the corner telling you where to go. You’ll see a flashing letter in the distance. But that’s it. Insurgency Sandstorm has no kill cam. You may be able to have the run speed of a soldier (provided you have no body armor) of a Call Of Duty entry. But when you get sniped running onto the point, and die you will not be watching the person who killed you as you wait to spawn. You can see your teammates, and communicate with them if you see a threat near them. But that is it.

Insurgency Sandstorm also adds a bit of realism in its movement. When you sprint you may not tire. However, you also can not shoot. You have to think about that when going about. If you think you can blast a nest of enemies while charging into a room, think again. At best you can kick doors down while running, and if it hits an enemy in the process you can kill them with the door. But you’ll also be wide open when the other campers see it. On the flip side, if you’re trying to snipe, and you’re too close to the banister, your arm will simply bend back toward you, as you struggle to find a spot where your gun isn’t going to go up against an object. It’s a small thing, but it adds a lot to the environment.

 

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Insurgency Sandstorm borrows an element from Arena shooters of yesteryear too: Gibs. In this game, getting hit in key parts of the body will cause limbs to fly off, heads to explode, and bodies to disintegrate. Since this game is going for a little bit more realism it doesn’t come off like it would in The Expendables. It comes off a little bit more like Glory. Rather it tries to. It doesn’t quite make that emotional transition, but it doesn’t elicit that same joyous surprise as it did back in DOOM, Duke 3D, or QUAKE. At least not for me. The point is, there is an element of its use in a contemporary setting that might remind some players of how horrific wars can be. Whether or not this is intentional is solely up to the artists to decide. They may have been going for the action movie vibe more so than the dramatic movie vibe. In which case I think it fell somewhere in between. But they do come off as impressive. The first time you see it, you really won’t be expecting it, and it honestly might just shock you even knowing about it going in.

The move to Unreal Engine 4 also means a big uptick in visual fidelity, and a jump in system requirements. However, New World Interactive deserves some praise in just how much they’ve done to ensure those like me, with aging video cards can still play their game with great performance. If you do happen to have the hardware that can run this at or near maximum settings, you’ll be pretty pleased with the end result. There are some very impressive lighting effects, Anti-Aliasing effects, Bump mapping effects, among others that UE4 can support. However, if you have a machine that’s five years old, you’re probably not going to be playing any game maxed out. The scalability this game provides is great, as are its customization options.

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All of the shots you’re seeing in this review were taken at the lowest settings. These can hang with a lot of other games despite the reduced image quality. Granted, you can’t expect miracles either. If you’ve got a ten-year old computer with barely any RAM to speak of by today’s standards,  you probably cannot run it. But If you have at least a fourth generation Intel i5 or AMD FX 6330 (around 5 years old now), a NVIDIA GTX 760 or AMD Radeon 7970 in there (also around 5 years old as of this writing), and a good 16GB of RAM in your system you likely can. And at better performance than you might expect. At the lowest settings, I’ve been able to play between 70, and 90 frames per second resulting in a relatively smooth, and responsive experience.

And with the game slated to hit the Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 next year, it does give those who prefer a console experience something to look forward to. As for the artistic side of the visuals, they’ve really gone out of their way here as well. Textures on buildings, look sharp, the costumes of the characters all fit the motif the game tries to present. Even on the lowest details, the backgrounds all still look great with some nice lights, and shadow effects going on.

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As in the original game, one side of the roster is composed of security forces. So when playing  as a security force member you’ll have a military themed character. The other side is composed of insurgents where you’re basically playing as a terrorist group of villains. One thing this game introduces over its predecessor is a cosmetic customization option. As you play the game you’ll earn in game currency. Much like Nintendo’s Splatoon series, you cannot buy this currency. These are points you use exclusively for this feature. Unlike Splatoon, these clothing options do nothing else. It’s strictly just to personalize your characters when playing online. No perk slots, no RPG elements, that is it. That being said, a lot of the costume selections are quite good, and go for something grounded. You won’t be running around on the security side wearing only pants, and bandoliers or rocking a Cobra Commander costume on the insurgent forces.

As in the first game, there are no unlockable weapons. When you start the game every one of your classes is given a certain number of points. Which you can use on your load out. So you have to use tactics even when deciding what to go onto the front lines in. You may not have to grind your way to that powerful machine gun you want to use. But if it costs a lot of points that doesn’t leave you a lot left over for attachments, or defensive items or a secondary item. Similarly, you can choose to go for a lot of body armor, and items. But this will actually affect your run speed by making you slower. You might be able to take a third or fourth bullet before dying though. So you need to approach every class situation differently.

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Also new to this game are new Commander, and Observer classes. These classes have to work together, and stay within a certain proximity to one another. Because these classes can work to call in air support. They can call in helicopters, or mortar storms to help them push when attacking, or to defend their position when being pressured. Every one of the classes is viable though, and if you couldn’t already tell, the best way to play is with friends who communicate. Insurgency Sandstorm is very much designed around teamwork. It has built-in chat, so you can easily talk to your team on the fly. For those who don’t have a headset, or a microphone, you can still type to your team members.

On the other hand, when playing with random strangers, there is always going to be a troll or two. It’s just the reality of online gaming. Fortunately this time around you can mute everybody wholesale if you have the misfortune of dropping to a match where everyone annoys you. Still, when playing with friends, the voice chat can be an accommodating feature. Especially for those with friends who don’t know how to set up their own chat alternatives like Discord.

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And if all of the heated PvP stuff sounds too tough for you, the cooperative mode included is something you may gravitate toward. Similar to the Terrorist Hunt mode of the Rainbow Six series, Insurgency Sandstorm’s cooperative experience pits you, and others up against a team of NPC bots. With frequently changing objectives. It basically blends some of its competitive elements into the mode. So at first you, and the other humans may be taking points. But then the game will decide you have to defend the one you just claimed against an onslaught, or destroy a cache. But all of it is done in, a fun, and entertaining way.  You’ll get a variety of enemy bot skill levels. Some will be pretty good at movement, others will be marksmen. But you’ll occasionally get that idiotic bot that just stands there after missing. Still, they employ some tactics one might not expect, making for some surprises. And of course for those who only want to go up against the best, Insurgency Sandstorm features a competitive option where you’ll be placed with other people on ranked servers, and modes to keep up your street cred.

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For those who absolutely must have something here for playing alone, there are a couple of minor options though. There are a couple of short tutorials that get you used to the game’s mechanics, and modes. These aren’t really necessary for those who have played FPS titles for years, though it can catch you up on the nuances here. The aforementioned cooperative mode is here however again as a single player option. Sadly this just isn’t going to be as fun as the cooperative experience. That’s because you’re paired with bots who aren’t as adept as the bots you’ll go up against, and you’re only given one life per objective. So if you die trying to get the first objective, the round ends, and you’ll move onto the next. This makes the one player option a lot more challenging too because without some competent bots, you’re basically going up against an entire army alone. Still you get five attempts, and winning alone is doable.

But there are also a load of options for you to tinker with. Not just the aforementioned graphics settings, and performance settings. Not just the look of your hero or villain. You can even tweak some of the marker settings, like changing the colors of the letter markers,  and names to something clearer to you than the default. You can also put on displays to show you the current frame rate, and ping. Things that have been in Unreal Engine games for years, but are often closed off in newer releases. It’s nice to see it here so that you can see the math when turning something on or off.

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There are a few problems I do have to point out though. While I imagine most people will get pretty good performance out of this game, there are a number of small visual glitches I’ve stumbled upon. In one game I noticed somebody’s weapon just flickering in the sky before the round began. Another round I noticed player models that hadn’t completely loaded in. So they were shooting at me, but the weapon they were using couldn’t be seen. These are rare occurrences. But the common issue I run into is texture pop in. Again, it loads in fast enough. It doesn’t affect the game play. But the 2 seconds between seeing a blue wall, and seeing a blue wall, with dents in it, and other details can sometimes distract from the experience. I suspect it could be an issue with older cards, that will eventually be fixed with patches, and drivers. But it is a minor problem.

When playing the cooperative mode, alone or with other players, there are a few minor nitpicks. Mainly with the inconsistent A.I. as I mentioned earlier, the bots you face can have a fair amount of variety in skill which is nice. But when you have to rely on them in your team, and a few decide to be idiots, you almost wish they weren’t there. The enemy bot spawns could have been obfuscated a little bit better too, as there were a couple of times in the single player cooperative I could go out a door of a point I had to defend, and see the game drop them in.

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In the grand scheme of things these issues don’t really amount to much of anything. The A.I. is still better than in many of the bots in other titles. The game rarely looks anything less than great aside from the 2-4 seconds of pop in you may experience. Leaving the bot spawn issues, which really breaks the immersion more than anything else. Back on the pvp end of things, there is far less to pick apart. The net code is generally very good. Unless you’re connecting to a server half the world away, you don’t see a lot of rubber banding, or players warping around like Mr. Game & Watch.

All of the online modes are generally quite fun. The studio kept them to the best maintained modes of the first game to ensure that you can always find someone to play against, and this strategy has worked. Yes, you can get into situations where there are people trying to spawn camp, or situations where you’ll have people on your team who refuse to run to the giant flashing “A” along with everyone else. But these aren’t issues with the game, these are the same issues you’ll run into with certain individuals in any multiplayer game. Fortunately, the game does offer the ability for you to mute individual people, or even everyone wholesale.

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The gun play is fantastic. Every weapon has a nice heft to it, and there are options here for every type of player. If you prefer to cover your team, there are many sniping options. If you want to go stealth, there are a slew of close range rifles, shotguns, SMGs, and other options, and attachments. The sounds of gunfire, and explosions are phenomenal too, which adds to that feeling of weight. You also have to hold your breath to steady your aim. Not only with the long-range weapons, but every weapon. Hip firing will just go wherever the gun is aimed. So panic shooting is going to be a crap shoot. These are all seemingly tiny things. But they add so much depth to the combat.

The maps are also mostly really good. Save for an exception or two, just about every map is built around each mode, and objectives are set that put either an attacker or defender into a tough situation at any given time. There are choke points defenders can use to their advantage. There are multiple paths attackers can take at any given time. The inclusion of vehicles in the Push mode also adds a new dynamic. I would have liked to have seen more of them. But between the drivable trucks with mounted guns, and the air strikes the two new classes can call in, there are new strategies that have to be employed to deal with them. And some maps actually make using these things harder. On the refinery stage enemies can just go inside buildings to escape the wrath of a Blackhawk helicopter. Similarly someone can put out roadside bombs in key locations that might deter someone from racing to the point in a pickup.

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In spite of its faults, Insurgency Sandstorm is a phenomenal game. It offers a real alternative to those who have felt disenfranchised with Electronic Arts’, and Activision’s annualized offerings. While it might not have quite the same level of visual fidelity of Battlefield or Call Of Duty, it also doesn’t require the purchase of season passes or micro transactions to have access to everything included in it down the line. The game play in it is also unique thanks to reintroducing an audience to hardcore simulation elements while retaining the run speed of something more twitchy. Absolute simulation purists may still want to go to the excellent ARMA games. And while this game may not be as recognized by the wider audience, the potential is there for that to change.  Especially if the game’s smaller issues are cleared, and the promised campaign shows up before it sees a port to consoles next year.

Whether you loved the original Insurgency, and poured hundreds of hours into it, or you’re a military FPS veteran looking for something new, this is pretty much a game you’ll enjoy diving into. This is also an excellent option for those who want something competitive to play, but without the pressure to spend more money. It’s also a great game for the casual military FPS fan who doesn’t have thousands of hours to devote to unlocking things. Insurgency was also supported for many years after it came out, and there’s no indication New World Interactive won’t do the same for the sequel. People who were interested solely in a campaign story mode will want to wait for its arrival. But for anyone looking for a unique take on the modern military multiplayer shooter? Insurgency Sandstorm should be on their wish list.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

DUSK Review

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Man, I’m late again, I know. But I’m not late to the proverbial party. Because DUSK has officially launched, and I can tell you it’s really freaking cool. Where a lot of games have been tugging at our nostalgic platformer strings, DUSK tugs away at your nostalgic FPS strings. And while it isn’t the first to do so, it is one of the first to do it this well. It clearly takes inspiration from late 90’s shooters like Quake, Unreal, and SIN.

PROS: Classic visuals. Intricate maps. Fantastic characters. Gun play.

CONS: Minor bugs. One particular puzzle isn’t very intuitive.

DELIVERANCE: Some of these enemies will make you squeal like Ned Beatty.

But not only does it take that inspiration, it runs with it clearly into the end zone. This is noticeable before you even get to playing. Booting the game displays those familiar text parsers to anyone who played DOOM, ROTT, DUKE 3D, or QUAKE for MS-DOS back in the mid to late 90’s. Even after Windows 95 became an overnight sensation, it took a long time for video games to migrate to the environment as the de facto standard. Even in 1996, QUAKE was running on DOS. So this nod is going to make many old school PC game fans very nostalgic.

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But that’s just the beginning, because DUSK gives you a smorgasbord of visual settings, and sound options to choose from. You can run the game in resolutions set for 4K, HD, SD monitors. You can make things look grainy with a pixel filter. You can play with borders. You can screw around with the color scheme. You can have the game looking bright, and colorful. You can have the game looking near grayscale. You can make everything look Sepia if you want. The wealth of customization is great.

As in the FPS games of yore, you can bind nearly every key to your liking, and you can even turn off the vertical axis on your mouse. This is really cool because during the game you can do somersaults, and backflips in the air! It’s just one of many innovations you’ll find this game has added atop the classic shooter. You can also map everything to a controller if you prefer to play with a game pad over a keyboard, and mouse. Ideally, you’ll get much better control with the latter. However with the game getting a release on the Nintendo Switch next year, the controller support is a welcome addition.

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Once you’ve gotten your bindings, and other settings configured to your liking you’ll be able to start the game. As in the Apogee, and iD games from back in the day, DUSK is broken up into three episodic campaigns. It follows a three act structure, and the story is told through a combination of audio voiceover, level design, and paragraphs of exposition upon clearing each of the first two episodes. So many players who remember spending countless hours trying to find every last bit of environmental lore in DOOM, and QUAKE will feel right at home here. Of course this game doesn’t spell everything out right away for you in terms of its story. You’ll start out the first episode in a dingy, and dark dungeon armed only with two sickles.  You’ll immediately be attacked by three guys right out of Deliverance, armed with chain saws while sporting burlap sacks for masks.

It is here where you’ll notice that the game has an aesthetic direction that brings back the look of old FPS stalwarts in addition to the classic game play. Everything looks like it was released in 1997. Even if you opt to put on the fancier visual options, to make it look more modern, it will still look decidedly old school. This is really cool because it isn’t something that has been really done much. The closest thing to it would be Strafe, and that game unfortunately doesn’t come close to this game in terms of level design or gameplay. That’s because this game eschews the trend of randomly generated stages. Instead it builds its experience around some excellent level design, and atmosphere.

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DUSK may look old, and blocky on its surface. But it uses its employment of simplified graphics to its advantage. There are enemies in the roster that are truly unsettling. In fact, they may be more so because of the low detail, blocky designs. DUSK uses its retro chic very, very well. At the same time it takes the motif much further than you might find possible. It reminds me a little bit of American McGee’s Alice in this regard. That game was incredibly eerie for its time, and echoed feelings of a Tim Burton vehicle. But DUSK doesn’t feel like something out of The Nightmare On Christmas. It feels more like a perfect blend of psychological thriller, horror show, and action film. Because it takes elements from all of these things. Episode One will introduce you to a seemingly backwater group of occultists. Occultists with supernatural powers, brainwashed masses, and some horrific monsters to boot. Episode Two begins to show you just how deep their grasp on society in this world really goes. You’ll fight a combination of military, and industrial enemies. But as you go down the rabbit hole of stages, you’ll begin to see things get more, and more intricate. More, and more inventive too. You’ll start out in military installations. But by the end you’ll be dealing with laboratories of mad scientists, and machinations of twisted designs. There’s even a wonderfully crafted, and eerie level designed around M.C. Esher’s iconic Relativity drawing.

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By the third episode things begin to start coming together, and some of the more obvious questions are answered. There are a number of call backs, and the level designs become even more involved.  A lot of these may very well be some of the most memorable stages I’ve ever played through. All of the stages have a bevy of secrets to be found, and many of these even include old school secret exits that lead to secret stages. This is another splendid reference to those games of yesteryear. Many of those titles also employed secret exits to secret stages. But again, DUSK performs this trick in its own way. Really there isn’t a lot to complain about in terms of the game’s campaign. It gives you hours, upon hours of content. As I’ve said before, all of the stages have fantastic designs that will require not only reflexes, but your thinking cap. There are a plethora of puzzles you’ll need to solve in order to find all of the required colored keys to get through the corresponding colored doors, and to the exits. If I were to complain about anything it would be that one of the boss fights in particular isn’t very fair. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll likely know exactly which one I’m referring to when you get there. And it isn’t the final confrontation. That one is fantastic. There is also one gigantic horde mode of a moment near the end of the game where things turn into something out of a Serious Sam game. Which goes to show just how little that series really had to do with the old games many thought it did. It isn’t a bad moment per se. But if you’re not prepared for it you’ll find yourself very low on supplies, which will make getting through it a lot harder than it needs to be.

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Fortunately quick saving mitigates this a lot, and you’ll probably find yourself save scumming a lot during your initial play through. After that you’ll have a pretty good idea of when major hurdles are coming up. So during subsequent play throughs, you’ll have to save far less often. I should probably mention another cool thing about DUSK is just how funny it can be at times. In spite of the fact that things are played so seriously, and that it combines a vintage look with such a dark, anxious tone it will throw in comic relief. But like the best horror movies, these moments don’t make the experience feel campy. Again, it will likely remind you of the goofy stuff hidden in classic iD, and Apogee releases. You’ll be startled by invisible death reindeer one moment, and laughing at a Schwarzenegger impression the next.

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Andrew Hulshult (who did the excellent soundtrack to the Rise Of The Triad reboot in 2013) brings his talents to this game. He brings his love of Metal along with him here, but there are also some phenomenal moments of symphonic industrial sound, and a lot of ambient tracks too. There are even a few tracks involving some eerie pipe organs. One of the hallmarks of a great soundtrack is how it works with the setting of the game it is used in. Everything here melds along perfectly. It rocks out when there’s an ambush or a larger than life boss fight. It feels desperate, and fearful when there are moments of isolation or the prospect of deadly enemies around a corner. The sound effects are also top-notch. They make the weapon feedback feel great. They make the creepier enemies ever so more likely to freak you out. They make the environment feel like the universe the game takes place in feel all the more real.

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Not only does DUSK give you a compelling thirty stage (or more) campaign to battle through, it also includes multiplayer. DUSKWORLD is this game’s competitive death match offering. Now admittedly this isn’t going to be the reason you’re getting a ticket to this carnival. But it is a genuinely fun, and customizable experience. You can choose to play as many of the game’s enemy roster, and you can alter the color scheme of any character you choose. As with the main campaign, you can alter the key bindings, crosshairs, and various visual, and performance settings. The game also supports a multitude of multiplayer server options, and it has a respectable number of maps. The game will also have mod support, so if enough players enjoy it, there could potentially be a fair amount of content added to the game by the community. As for what is here, you’re getting a really good death match mode that can hang with SIN, and QUAKE II. You can rocket jump, strafe jump, and zip along at 100 mph. It’s a lot of fun, and fills a gap for those who miss the arena shooters in the vein of Q3A or UT.

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Again, like the main campaign, the shooting, and movement here is amazingly well done. Everything is not only fast, but responsive. Aiming feels smooth. Projectile weapons feel accurate, requiring a mastery of leading. Hit scan weapons work as they should, requiring you to get the cursor right on the enemy. The visual feedback goes along with everything well, as you’ll see red blood pixels with every hit, along with an audio feedback. You’ll hear a familiar tone when hitting opponents in the arenas. You can expect a full server to result in some spam techniques in smaller maps. But that’s merely a staple of the subgenre. All of the multiplayer maps feature multiple paths through to key power ups, and weapons. These are all either designed for the ground up for death match, or campaign maps that have been properly retooled for competitive play. Net code is pretty good. Finding a server in your area rarely results in rubber banding, or warping enemies. The action in multiplayer is a very fun experience. One can only hope enough people enjoy it to retain a decent player base. But even if it doesn’t carve out a niche for itself, it is possible to play privately with friends. Which is welcome as this is a rather well made death match effort.

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The game also offers a horde mode. It isn’t something most people will choose as their primary way to play the game. But it is here. There are three maps to choose from, and you’re given a limited number of supplies to survive each onslaught of enemies. You keep going until you lose. Basically it gives the game an arcade style Hi-Score flair. There are point multipliers for rapidly killing bad guys in a row too, so if you do enjoy this game mode, do take advantage of that.

Ultimately, DUSK is a must-buy. It retains what made the original two QUAKE games, and its contemporaries so good. At the same time it does so much the those games couldn’t do thanks to running on a modern Unity engine. If you’re an older player, you’ll love all of the pulls at your nostalgic heart-strings. If you’re a newcomer you may find that old can feel new to you. While there are some games that have tried to bring back that classic feel of the past, this game goes all in. Even as excellent as it was, iD’s own DOOM reboot didn’t fully bring back the level of exploration of its original game. But even the old FPS guard will find this game does plenty of new things with a proven concept. I might even recommend this one to some who might not typically be drawn to the FPS genre. It has so much personality, and creativity, those who are looking for something new to try out may find themselves pleasantly surprised. Plus for people who want even more lore there is a digital comic one can pick up with the soundtrack on Steam.

In short; DUSK is freaking cool.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Crazy Climber Review

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Even in the Golden age of arcade games, there were some obscurities. Amidar. Reactor. Wacko. These are but a few of them. But the one we’re highlighting this time around is noteworthy for a few reasons. The most important being that it is one of the most entertaining games of its ilk. It didn’t make as big a splash as Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, or its other contemporaries. Which is a shame, because Crazy Climber is freaking cool.

PROS: Addictive gameplay.

CONS: Cheap enemies.

FALL: To your doom.

Released in 1980 by Nihon Bussan, Crazy Climber is the story of a man who scales the sides of skyscrapers. That may sound pretty inane to some. But it’s a lot more serious than it sounds. As you take control of our hero, you’ll have to scale the building, get to the top, and then GET TO THA CHOPPA! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) At the top of the building is a helicopter that will take you to the next stage. There are four buildings to climb, which then cycle over once you beat them.

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But don’t think you’ll have an easy time climbing to the top. Because there are several dangerous obstacles on your way to the top. The most common are the sadists who open the windows, and throw things from their apartments at you. I’m serious. Seemingly ordinary people, are out to murder you over your thrill seeking ways. They’ll throw vases, buckets, moldy fruit, and other stuff at you in the hopes of making you lose your grip. But the dangers don’t end there.

You’ll also be attacked by birds, and giant apes. On top of that, some of these buildings have shoddy construction. Because you’ll have to avoid falling girders, falling billboards, and live wires. Our free running thrill seeker is insane. No one in their right mind would choose to scale buildings in the process of becoming this dilapidated. Likely the reason we’re playing a game called Crazy Climber.

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The original Arcade version is one of the earliest games to use a two joystick control scheme. Each stick controls one hand. You can move each hand left, and right. You can also reach up, with each stick, and pull back on the sticks to pull yourself up. For such an old game, the control scheme does make it feel a bit more realistic. The tricky thing is however, positioning yourself in such a way that you can get each hand on a windowsill to pull yourself upwards with. It’s pretty easy to get yourself in a situation where you’ll have two closed windows above you, and windows slamming down on your fingers as you’re unable to move. You also can get yourself into situations where you can’t get yourself oriented to move left or right if you don’t pay enough attention. This sense of realism in spite of the unrealistic scale, adds a lot of depth to Crazy Climber.  It also makes things more challenging because you not only have to pay attention to the windows, but also keep an eye on all of the aforementioned bad guys, and obstacles.

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It also features some pretty detailed graphics for its time. And again, while your character is beyond the scale they should be, this still works from a game play perspective. You can make out the obstacles, and projectiles fairly easily, and your character has a discernible costume. This is also an early example of voice samples making their way into arcade games. If you sit idle for too long for instance, the narrator yells “GO FOR IT!” at you. You also have a few shouts when hit by something, and a nice scream as you fall to your doom.

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Crazy Climber has seen a number of interesting remakes over the years, but the original game was ported to the Famicom, and Sharp X68000 computer in Japan. . These releases came out years after the arcade version in 1986, and 1993 respectively.  It was also put out on the Emerson Arcadia 2001 in Japan around the time the Arcade version was around. Here in North America it was ported to the Atari 2600 in 1982. The VCS version is notable because it was an Atari Club exclusive upon release. Atari Club members would receive Atari Age magazine, which featured articles about upcoming games, and enthusiast news. Not unlike what Nintendo Power did for Nintendo fans years later. Four Atari 2600 games would be Atari Club exclusives that (at least initially) only could be ordered directly. These games had lower production runs than many of the other games, despite showing up in store liquidation sales during the Great Video Game Market Crash.

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As such, Crazy Climber is one of the rarer Atari 2600 games, and while it isn’t going to hurt your wallet the way a highly collectible NES game might ( Panic Restaurant says “Hello.” ),  you can still expect to pay around the cost of a new release should you find one in the wild. It’s also a pretty great port of the Arcade version. Like most home versions it has been retooled to work with one joystick. But the controls are on point. You now have to move the stick twice when trying to move left or right, as the first push moves the first hand, then the second. You still pull yourself up by pulling back on the stick. The VCS version also does a wonderful job in the presentation department. You certainly won’t confuse it for the Arcade version or one of the ports to more powerful hardware. But it does look a cut above what the Arcadia 2001 version looks like, and even some of the clones that showed up on some of the home computers of the time. It’s also a bit easier than the arcade version, but by no means is it a cakewalk. It is still quite the challenge. Most of the enemies from the original are here, and behave the same way. Frankly this is one of the best of Atari’s first-party port releases, and can hang with the likes of Space Invaders, Joust, Phoenix, and Ms. Pac-Man. If you collect 2600 games, and can swing it, this is one worth picking up.

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Of course down the line there were updated versions released for the PlayStation, PlayStation 2, and even The Wonderswan. I can’t really comment much on them as I don’t have them. But generally they have a reputation of retaining what makes the original version fun while adding their own tweaks to the formula. And while these days most of us won’t likely be able to find the original cabinet while out in public (though if your local arcade or pub does have one, do play it.), there are several compilations out for older consoles. If you happen to have the Nintendo Switch, you can buy the original Arcade version on Nintendo’s eshop for download. The Switch release has a couple of nice features in it too. You can employ some filters if you prefer that old school, scan line look. But more importantly, you can change the orientation so that the game will display vertically instead of horizontally. This makes it so you can take the joycons off of the console, and play the game in the same layout the arcade cabinet had. The thumb sticks also work the way the original machine did. So it gives you a nice portable experience when taking the Switch to a public setting.

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But however you manage to do so, you really ought to experience Crazy Climber. It may seem simplistic, but the level of strategy, and risk versus reward here is quite engrossing. It may have some cheap A.I. at times, and you’ll get into inescapable situations. But at the end of the day sometimes less is more, and this is definitely one of those times. Whether you spend a five-minute session or a five-hour session on it, it will never feel like time wasted. Grab your favorite beverage, and get climbing.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Demon Attack Review

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They can’t all be new releases. Sometimes life just has a way of throwing everything including the kitchen sink at you. So you don’t have the precious time to play a massive open world western, or a critically acclaimed RPG. But somehow you want to find time to play something compelling. This is why many early games can fit that bill, and often hold up today. One such game is a staple on early cartridge based consoles.

PROS: Enemy variety. Tight controls.

CONS: Not every version features the boss stage.

MAGIC: Imagic’s developers always seemed to perform it on the venerable VCS.

Released in 1982 Demon Attack is one of many titles that tried to build on the core concept set up by Space Invaders. It also has some inspiration from another early shmup; Phoenix.  Where Space Invaders saw you fighting a grid of ships from underneath the confines of shields, Demon Attack pits you against three enemies at a time. Destroy them, and another three will warp in. The game has this really terrific effect when the alien ships, and creatures come into battle against you.

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Another thing to be aware of is the fact that each wave introduces new enemy types. Each with its own attack pattern, and weapons. So you should not expect to be going after the same ships over, and over. Or the same bullets over, and over. If you survive a wave without dying you’ll earn a 1-Up. This makes it very easy to get complacent. “Oh I’ll just stock up on lives, and never worry!”. But you should worry. By around the fifth wave you’ll find shooting enemies splits them in half rather than destroying them. You then have to take down each half. And you have to take them down quickly. Once you take down one the other will begin chirping like crazy before suicide diving toward your cannon. The back lines will then move forward taking their place.

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While not one of the best looking games on the console, it’s visually a cut above what most of Atari’s own release had looked like up to that point. This is especially true of each of the enemy types. Demon Attack is one of the first 2600 releases to deliver such a wide variety of characters. Considering the limitations of the hardware of the time, and the limitations of cartridge space, it’s no wonder this is one of the first games worth picking up when starting a VCS collection. As a publisher, Imagic seemed to know how to push what was possible on consoles of the time. Like most games of the era there are several variations you can play by using the Game Select switch. Including some two-player modes where you alternate turns trying to out score each other.

Robert Fulop developed the game for the Atari 2600, and after Imagic had settled with Atari over the similarities in Demon Attack to Phoenix (Atari had home console publishing rights), it would go on to be one of the best-selling games on the system. There are no less than three printings of the game. A text label version, and a picture label version are the most common. You’ll find they’re often one of the cartridge variants you’ll see in a bundle of VCS games. After the crash, Imagic would find itself absorbed into Activision who would put it back out in their line of re-releases. This cartridge eschews the original Imagic style, and comes in an Activision shell, with a blue label. This version is considerably rarer than the common types, but is still far from impossible to find.

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In any event Imagic had other programmers port the game to several other platforms of the time. The Intellivision, Magnavox Odyssey 2, Commodore VIC 20, Commodore 64, Atari 400/800, TI-99, and Tandy computer all saw versions of Demon Attack. Many of them have better graphics than the original version, and include a boss fight! Be that as it may the VCS original holds its own by having such fluid, and responsive controls. In fact, it’s better than many of the more advanced ports that released elsewhere.

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Be that as it may, most of the ports are still quite good, and the boss fight can be pretty interesting as you transition between a surface, and space setting. Defeating it then continues onto the following wave. An interesting piece of info is that the 2600 version of the game almost had an end, as after the 84th wave the game would not continue. After release though, someone managed to get that far, and so the game’s future pressings added a line of code which made the game endless. Unfortunately, there’s no real way to know which cartridge will have the original run inside without actually getting to the 84th wave.

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Demon Attack isn’t particularly hard to find these days, Especially not the Atari 2600 version. However, the Odyssey 2 port is an exception. Like many other third-party Odyssey 2 games, it isn’t something you’ll stumble upon in the wild all too often. Still, no matter which version you play is a fun time. Even if the box art does consistently make appearances in bad box art articles. Demon Attack may be a simple game by today’s standards, but it did a lot of things few other fixed shooters were doing. It’s an early game everyone ought to check out. For those who are curious but don’t want to invest in one of the platforms it appeared on just yet, it is in the Activision Anthology for the PS2, and PC.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

C64 Mini Review

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Ever since Atari devised the original Atari Flashback line (Which it handed over to ATGames, who has kept the line going), the craze for replica consoles with built-in games has been going strong. Nintendo set the bar for them even higher with its NES, and Super NES Classic Edition machines. Even before this craze however, there were similar devices. Systems built into a controller from a wide variety of vendors like Jakks Pacific. And there was even the C64 DTV I reviewed a while ago. Well now there’s a new take on this mini console idea. As Retro Games LTD brings us a Commodore 64 iteration.

PROS: Excellent emulation. Feature rich. It’s a baby Commodore 64!

CONS: Game selection should have been better. No AC Adapter.

COMMODORE BASIC: You can actually code in it on this device.

Released throughout Europe earlier this year, the C64 Mini finally made its appearance Stateside, and so I picked one up. I pretty much had to as someone who used a Commodore 64 regularly throughout their childhood, and into their teens. The Commodore 64 was the best-selling home computer platform of all time. Released in 1983, and sold until 1994 when Commodore went out of business. And it was well supported in every major territory for most of that time. The American, and European markets differed in some of the game line ups. In Europe a host of publishers, and developers cut their teeth on it, and became the juggernauts they are today. Many games were exclusive to the European market despite being a machine made by an American company. Here in the USA, Commodore (as well as Atari, IBM,  and Apple) scooped up most of the publisher support consoles once had. When the great crash happened, and machines like the Odyssey 2, Colecovision, Intellivision, Atari 5200, Bally Astrocade, and others fell by the wayside it was the home computer platforms surviving companies shifted to. Even after the Nintendo Entertainment System reignited the console market, many games continued to see versions on the microcomputers. In Europe, the home computer platforms were almost always preferred, and so there was never really this kind of shift, leading to a wellspring of exclusive amazing games US owners never saw.

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Whichever part of the world you hail from though, the Commodore 64 had a massive following. As such it got a ton of games that not only appeared on consoles from the Atari 2600 to the NES to the Sega Master System, but IBM PC Compatibles as well. That’s besides the stuff that it had exclusively, or only shared with a couple of other computer platforms of the day. It was the platform to own until the NES showed up, and even then it still held its own into the shift toward 16-bit processor powered platforms like the Sega Genesis, Super NES, and Amiga computer line. And nothing has or ever will sound as awesome as a Commodore 64 again. It’s Sound Interface Device (SID) chip featured dynamic sound. Something even some arguably more powerful machines didn’t have. Bob Yannes truly was a master of sound chip design.

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So what makes the C64 mini so special? Well for starters, it’s a miniature replica of a Commodore 64. The designers got every major detail down on this thing. Of course they aren’t the defunct Commodore of old, so instead of COMMODORE being laden along the top, they’ve displayed C64 Mini. Other than that one change, it’s perfect. Mine had a minor tilted paint application by the power button, but one tiny manufacturing error is a very minor nitpick. I have to say that the presentation in this product is top-notch. The packaging is great. Like the Super NES Classic Edition, they’ve tried to re-create one of the C64 box releases, and have done well. On the back they show off the game list, and this is where the one disappointment crops up. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

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Opening the box reveals another box, one that feels luxurious despite just being more cardboard. It’s embossed with a beautiful logo, and upon opening it, you’ll see both the computer, and classic style joystick replica encased in a removable clamshell. Upon taking those out, you’ll find your cables, and documentation underneath. It should be noted that if you’re the type who likes to re-seal, and pack away your consoles when not in use, the packaging is accommodating. It’s very easy to put back everything where it goes for putting away. In the box you’ll get the C64 Mini, a Joystick, HDMI cable, USB cable for power, and documentation. Unfortunately for whatever reason it does not have an AC adapter. So unless your HDTV has a USB port for you use, you’ll need to buy a USB to AC adapter if you don’t already have one for another device like a smart phone.

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Upon turning on the device you’ll hear a glorious original chip tune, as you’re greeted with a simple language selection screen. Once you choose your language you’ll see a panorama of the devices built-in games. At the bottom are a couple of icons. You’ll have one for display options. These are very much like the ones on the Super NES Classic Edition. You can choose aspect ratio, and select from a few filters. Another icon lets you go back into the language selection, while the third lets you go in, and change other settings. One of which shows you the Firmware version. Here’s the cool thing. If you go to the manufacturer’s site, you can get the latest update for free. Put the update on a flash drive, and you can install it on the C64 Mini. When you do this, the device will reboot, and when it does you’ll see a USB flash drive icon at the bottom of the screen. This lets you read disk images off of a flash drive! So if you have a means to back up your collection to disk images, you have the potential to run them on the C64 Mini! This is also a great option for anybody who buys an indie game for their C64, as often times homebrew developers will have a digital image option or inclusion with their disk or cartridge. This is also great for anybody who enjoys the C64 Demo scene, as again, you can run these audiovisual projects on the C64 Mini!

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As for the games that are included here, the list of titles is a mixed bag. There are a few very memorable C64 games on here. Especially from the now defunct Epyx. The Apshai series is here, which is an amazing line of early Action RPGs. Jump Man, and Jump Man 2 are here, and while even back upon release they weren’t much to look at, they were amazing. These are two of the best platform-puzzlers ever released. This device also has the two Impossible Mission games which are also two must-plays.  Rounding out the Epyx catalog are some of their better known sports games including California Games. These aren’t what one would call system sellers, but they are probably the best versions of these titles.

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The Mini also has a few Firebird releases on it. Firebird wasn’t as well-known in the States as it was in Europe, but they still did release a lot of their better titles in the US. Two of the better ones here are The Arc Of Yesod, and The Nodes Of Yesod two games that feel like precursors to Metroid. They’re labyrinthine, and action packed games that while admittedly aren’t as good as Metroid, are still really well made. There are also a host of Shmups by Hewson Consultants on here which were always lauded back in the day. Cybernoid, and Cybernoid II are here, and play as great as ever. Cybernoid was an early C64 staple, and one that remains superior to its NES counterpart. Uridium is also here, which NES fans may recognize as The Last Starfighter. (Mindscape re-skinned it, and ported it long after the movie came, and went). They also put the excellent Zynaps on here, as well as Firebird’s IO. So there are some excellent Shoot ’em ups on display.

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The other two major titles on the device are Boulder Dash, and Tower Toppler/Nebulus. These games are excellent arcade style games with puzzle elements. I’ve talked about Boulder Dash a few times on the blog here, and truly is one of the best games of its ilk ever made. It’s great to see it here once again.  Tower Toppler is a very challenging game that has an awesome pseudo-3D effect at the forefront of its gameplay. It saw release on other platforms, but the Commodore 64 version was always one of the best versions. There is also a really cool Demo on it that doubles as an end credits sequence. It shows off the names of everyone involved in making it, and a lot of creativity in the process.

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As for the rest of the games, there aren’t too many I would say to stay away from. But they’re not the most compelling titles either. Save for Monty On The Run, many of them were lower tier releases in Europe, and so many North American players will not know anything about these games. It’s a real shame that the folks at Retro Games LTD couldn’t have found a way to get some of the major releases from Activision, Electronic Arts, Capcom, Konami, SEGA, Lucas Arts, or Data East. Or some of the classic Broderbund, Accolade, Cinemaware, Access Software, System 3, or Microprose releases. Granted few of these publishers are around anymore, and I’m sure there are all kinds of rights hell complications in getting their games to market again. Still, most of their exclusive games were amazing, and the ones that would appear on other platforms, were still excellent on the Commodore 64. (Most of the time. There were some ports that were stinkers.) I would have also liked to see some of the higher profile European releases like Katakis, Phantis, or Turrican II on here, or some of the American gems like Paul Norman‘s games Forbidden Forest, Beyond The Forbidden Forest, Caverns Of Khafka, Aztec Challenge, or Super Huey. Cosmi published them, and are still around today. They don’t publish much in the way of games anymore, but permission may not be out of the realm of possibility.

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Be that as it may, the fact you can run backup images, and homebrew releases makes up for the lack of more recognizable games in the roster. And although you may not have heard of some of the included ones, most of them are still enjoyable enough. You could very well find you get a lot of mileage out of  Who Dares Wins II It may not be the best Run ‘n Gun you’ll ever play, but it is a pretty respectable Commando clone. One really cool inclusion here is the classic Commodore 64 BASIC prompt. Like all of the 8-Bit microcomputers of the time, one had to use BASIC commands to load programs, search media for files or save files. But you could also code in BASIC! So if you’re a budding developer willing to learn the language, you can code your own games, and save them to a flash drive! You can also type in those old programs printed in classic magazines like Ahoy!, or Commodore RUN.

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The mini also has a spiffy on-screen keyboard you can pull up using the joystick, although I have to say, a USB keyboard is preferred. Especially when playing classic RPGs, coding in BASIC, or playing text adventures. The included joystick is a really well made one. It’s tactile, re-centers itself nicely, and the fire buttons have a nice mechanical spring design. The joystick also has a hotkey on it for pulling up menus, and the on-screen keyboard, as well as the Space bar button, and Return button. This makes navigating action games much easier, as you don’t have to frantically look for a key on your keyboard. However the drawback to this is that if for any reason you break the joystick, navigating things may become a bit iffy. So treat the joystick like fine china. Fortunately you can acquire spare joysticks separately. However, not all of the big box stores who carry the mini, carry the standalone joysticks. I also forgot to mention the C64 mini also supports save states. So you’ll be able to save scum your way through some of the more difficult sections of games, or just simply create a save point in general. Not every Commodore 64 game had a save feature, so being able to create a save file for some of the longer games available for the computer is very convenient.

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Emulation on the C64 mini is very good. Visually everything looks the way it is supposed to. The color palette is on par with the original computer’s. Graphics look crisp, and the sprites all look as good as they would on the original hardware. The different filters, and aspect ratios all work very well too. So if you don’t like the computer monitor look of the different settings you can put on one of the CRT filters I briefly mentioned earlier. Personally I recommend the pixel perfect or 4:3 aspect ratio, as they look cleaner. But if you prefer the look of scan lines, the filters do a pretty good job here.

Sound emulation is also spot on. Of course depending on the model of the original computer there were two major sound chip versions, with revisions of each throughout the production run. The mini appears to sound more like the earlier versions of the chip, which makes sense since the casing is modeled after the earlier version of the computer, and not the C64c re-release. The C64c had the later chip versions, and so there are some slight sound differences between the earlier C64’s, and the C64c (A C64 in a new casing). In any case, the sound veers toward the original model here.

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As far as the performance goes, it too is very good. Things run at a great pace, and I have yet to experience slowdown the original computer wouldn’t. I also haven’t noticed any considerable amount of input lag when playing games on it. I’ve tried it on three TV sets, a 720p 32″ Element LCD, an Insignia (Best Buy) 720p 19″ LCD, and a Samsung 4K 42″ LCD. I only ever noticed it on the Samsung, and even then, just barely. For the overwhelming majority of people who pick this up, it’s going to be a great experience.

 

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In closing, the C64 mini is one of the best of these miniature emulation devices to see release in recent years. While Nintendo’s releases have more recognizable games in their line ups, this device has better functionality. The ability to use virtually any USB controllers or keyboards paired with some of the best emulation around makes for an almost 1:1 experience. Plus, the inclusion of the classic BASIC prompt means you can make your own programs. This even adds an educational level to the package. Not only do you get a piece of video game history, but you can learn about, and learn how to code in a programming language.  True it isn’t as robust as a modern language, but it still gives you the building blocks, and helps you better understand where modern technology came from. I wouldn’t be surprised to find school teachers or other instructors picking this up for that purpose.

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Really, the only drawback is that it could have used a few more higher profile games in the line up. I would recommend getting a spare joystick for it at some point as well, just on the off-chance you somehow break the included one. The odds aren’t very high (again, the build quality is actually quite good.) but it’s just one of those just in case things you should have. Still, while it isn’t as cool as an actual Commodore 64 (though short of a FPGA powered clone compatible with the original’s drives, and software, what can be?) but it’s close. Real close. Its shortcomings are more than made up for by its features. This is simply the best mini platform not made by Nintendo. If you’re a long time Commodore 64 fan or collector, you’ll love that it makes C64 HDTV gaming a snap. If you’ve never experienced a C64, and want to without having to invest a few hundred dollars into obtaining one, its peripherals, and games this is a great option. It’s also a great device for anyone who wants to learn about early computers, and the use of BASIC programming as an Operating System. Even if none of those things apply to you, the wealth of indie homebrew games being made for the original C64 may just pique your interest. Again, the digital images for many of them can be run via flash drive.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

No Thing Review

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Imagine the surprise I was given when Nintendo reminded fans on Twitter that they may have a few unredeemed coins on the eshop set to expire. I had a scant handful, and so I figured, “Why not give it a shot?” and looked to see if there was anything that cheap. Well I stumbled upon this little game. A game about travelling along a path, in a Orwellian future that would actually lead me down quite the rabbit hole.

PROS: Simple, yet compelling game play.

CONS: Fairly short for anyone adept at it.

SUDA51: Your first look at the game will almost certainly remind you of No More Heroes.

Apparently I’ve been living under a rock, because after playing it for a couple of hours, (Yes, hours.) I just had to do some research. No Thing started life on phones, and tablets during the craze of endless runners. Except that it set itself apart in, many, many ways. The most obvious is the art style. This game looks like something Suda51 would have made for a No More Heroes mini game. Blocky minimalist geometry? Check. Low color palette? Check. Regular images that somehow come off as surreal or even creepy? Check. It has a very similar art style.

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But that isn’t to say it’s a stereotypical endless runner dressed up in edgy shock value. Far from it. For starters, it isn’t endless. There are ten stages. That’s it. Many of the stages are pretty long though. Even in the early goings. The stages are also not made via procedural generation. Every time you play, they’ll be the same. So this game is much more conducive to speed runs. It also isn’t a 2D side-scroller. This one uses a First-Person perspective.

No Thing also has a story that seems simplistic at first, but uses its stage layouts, and bizarre imagery to tell it. In this regard it reminded me an awful lot of games like Portal, and Deadcore, despite the fact it plays nothing like them. And through it all, it just became something I had to keep playing to see more of. The setup is that it’s the dystopian future of 1994. You’re an office worker who has to send a message to the Queen Of Ice. That’s it. Walk to her, and give her the message. Except it isn’t that easy.

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No Thing’s stages are essentially long tracks, and walkways. You use two buttons. One turns you ninety degrees left. The other ninety degrees right. At first you’ll go along fairly easily. Left turns. Right turns. You’re probably thinking to yourself “So? That sounds pretty boring. What’s so special about that?” Well before long the game puts gaps up in the path. Going over them makes a minor jump. The better you do, the faster you begin to go. So it doesn’t take much to have you running. Eventually, the game throws in ramps, branching paths, and mazes. Keep in mind all the while if you go off the path, you fall to your death as this is Super Mario Cyborg in that all of these stages hover over a chasm.

Over the course of the game’s stages, a voice that sounds like it came from early speech synthesis technology narrates instructions, and vague words that also tie into the storyline. Of course you won’t have time to read it as things become faster, and faster. Take your eyes off of the task for even a second, and you’ll fall to your doom. Throughout all of it  you’ll die a bunch of times, but you’ll keep playing it. It’s strangely addicting.

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The stages themselves have a pretty wide variety. Which you might not assume considering the length of the game, and the simple control scheme. But some of these work like tracks you lap. Others are long trails. Others place a lot of ramps in places which speed you up, and have you catching air. There are other stages that throw you curveballs by waiting to give you a turn at the last moment. And that’s part of why you’ll keep giving this one a go. You’ll just want to see what comes next.

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This isn’t to say, it’s a perfect experiment of course. Sometimes you’ll catch air, won’t be able to see below you, and you’ll have to estimate your landing. Also, while many of the filters in the game go along well with it, they can get in the way. When you’re about to make a crucial decision, and the distortion filter comes on, it could lead to you missing a turn. That means starting the stage all over again. The storyline may also a little too vague for some. You’ll get some references through the visuals, and cryptic speech. But chances are you still won’t get exactly what’s going on. On the other hand that could be the point; everyone can take something different away from the experience.

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One thing that certainly stands out is the soundtrack. Coincidentally if you get this one on PC via Steam you can buy the OST as DLC. Many would throw it under the Synth Wave genre, which pays homage to the New Wave, and Synthpop genres, particularly of the early 1980’s. Most of the compositions here are pretty catchy, and make great use of simulated analog synthesized sounds, and percussion.

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No Thing may have come out alongside much of what fans would cast under the shovelware category. But it isn’t. The aesthetics aren’t for everybody. But the underlying gameplay is honestly pretty good. And in spite of some of the cheap deaths due to the eventual jumps, it’s still a pretty fun game. Persistence is the key in No Thing. Every time you screw up, you just have to play again until you beat the level at hand. I enjoy going back to it fairly regularly. It even has a handful of achievements you can receive for beating stages, and scoring exceptionally well. With it being on Steam, and the Switch, I can see it being something speed runners may look into. Again, an acquired taste to be sure, but it might just be a game you want to check out. Especially if you want a game that stands out on your phone, or just something different from the genres you might normally buy on your computer or console.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Beamrider Review

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In the interim between the North American console market crash of 1983, and its eventual return to greatness in 1985 something had happened. While many software houses disappeared, others survived. One such case was Activision. Activision began to see a proverbial life boat in home computers. They continued to support the Atari 2600, 5200, Intellivision, and Colecovision. But while many other companies struggled with what to do next, they were one company who began making computer versions of their games. At one point, they even changed their name to Mediagenic for a short time, and tried branching out into other kinds of software. This didn’t work. But the migration to computer gaming did.

PROS: Great presentation. Great game play.

CONS: Accidentally wasting missiles.

DON’T: Accidentally destroy the 1-Ups.

One such pre NES era Activision game is Beamrider. Released in 1983, and coded by David Rolfe, it’s a space ship shoot ’em up with a third person view. What makes this game stand out however are the Tron inspired lines your ship, the enemies, and objects move along. Every one of the 99 waves sees your ships flying along a giant grid. you can move left or right, and you can fire with the fire button.

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Interestingly, you only stop moving upon each vertical line. This is where a lot of the high play comes in later. Like you, the enemies can move along horizontal lines. Unlike you, they aren’t limited to those lines. They’ll flow, in, and out of the background. Often going up, and down the lines in their attack patterns. Early on, you’ll face some pretty simplistic enemy fighters. Your lasso shaped lasers will take them out in a single hit, and the only real obstacles are the indestructible green shields that float around on the lines.

But after a few waves you’ll find yourself avoiding meteors, shields, enemy ships, and more. Each wave the enemy attack patterns become more, and more complicated. On top of this, you’ll have to avoid the aforementioned enemy shields, meteors, and other obstacles. You should also know you can only fire one laser at a time. There are no rapid fire features or power ups to save you. If you can get far into Beamrider you’ll find it gets faster, and throws in more, and more. But despite this fact, once you really begin to learn to analyze patterns you’ll find things become easier to deal with. By no means does the game become a breeze. But you’ll go further, and further before things seem insurmountable. Even when they do, remember every wave only consists of 15 standard enemies. It’s avoiding all of the extra stuff while trying to destroy them that presents that addictive high score challenge.

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At the end of each wave (Which the game calls Sectors) is a massive boss that scrolls off in the distance. If you can destroy it using your torpedoes, you’ll get a massive point bonus. You can shoot these by pushing up on the controller. But note you’ll only have three torpedoes per life. So use them wisely. Something that will no doubt keep you around is the way the game deals out 1-Ups. Instead of calling them 1-Ups or Extra Lives the game refers to them as Rejuvenators. These appear on the play field, and have an interesting mechanic. If you crash into them, you’ll gain another life. If you shoot them, they become space debris, and crashing into them will kill you. It’s something so small, yet changes up the game because it’s another thing you have to keep watch for.  It also ties into the game’s storyline.

Yes. Beamrider has a storyline. In the distant future, a massive device known as the Restrictor Shield isolates the Earth. As the Beamrider, you have to clear the shield which is composed of 99 sectors. Each of which is guarded by a Sector Sentinel. As you get further, and further the deluge deepens. David Rolfe’s Beamrider initially released on the Intellivision, and the Atari 2600 (with some minor concessions I’ll get to). Activision contracted Action Graphics to convert the game to the Atari 5200, Atari 400/800/XE computer line, Colecovision, Commodore 64, and MSX computer platforms. Activision contracted Software Creations to port the game to the ZX Spectrum.

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Graphically, Beamrider is a game that was visually impressive back when it was new, and it still doesn’t look too shabby today. Most of the versions are able to render an auto scrolling grid effect, and the Intellivision, Colecovision, Atari 5200, Atari 8-bit computers, MSX, and Commodore 64 versions all have a really cool blast door effect. When you begin a new wave, you’ll see a top, and bottom door, with a gap in the middle. That gap actually displays the animated grid you’ll be playing on! The doors open, and you’re off. It blew everyone away in 1983, and it’s still impressive today. Some have compared the look to Nintendo’s Radar Scope, or Konami’s Juno First. While these games do have grids, (Juno First being made up of dots rather than lines) they don’t auto scroll the way David Rolfe’s shooter does. The game play is also quite different here, making things feel rather unique.

Another really cool feature with these versions happens when you lose a ship. Upon your death, you will see the grid fade off into the distance, leaving behind a starry background while your flaming scrap heap of a ship floats through the depths of space. Then it’s back to the blast doors unless you’re out of lives. Then you’re stuck with a Game Over.  The Atari 2600 version makes a couple of cutbacks, likely due to the memory limitations of the console. Two of the enemy ship types have been omitted from the game, and the blast door effect is also missing. The animated grid effect is here, although the vertical lines are composed of dots rather than lines.  You also won’t be getting the grid elimination effect upon your demise. Again, this is likely due to either limitations of memory, or the 2600’s TIA chip. Despite these edits however, it is one of the most responsive versions of Beamrider. It manages to keep performance up to pace with the more visually appealing ports, and retains nearly everything else.

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The ZX Spectrum port retains the blast door effect, but the grid effect is made entirely of dots rather than lines. It also doesn’t have the grid fade effect when you die. Although when you’re out of lives it does change to a deep space background. It doesn’t look as nice as the other versions, but it retains the general game play.  If you can somehow make it through all of the sectors in any of the versions it won’t matter as the score will max out at 999,999 points. Be that as it may, there are but a proverbial handful of people who can or have done this. So if you can do it, congratulations. And even if you can’t, find solace in the fact that if you can crack 40,000 points or more by Sector 14 you could have won a coveted Activision patch back in the day. (Throughout their early days, the publisher rewarded skilled play with iron on patches based on their games.) Still, this is a shmup I would say just about anybody can enjoy. About the only issue you’ll run into is how easy it is to accidentally fire a torpedo you’ve been saving for the Boss.

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If you don’t happen to own one of the retro platforms Beamrider first appeared on, but you find yourself interested in playing it, it did appear in a couple of compilations.  Activision Anthology (PS2, GBA), Activision Anthology Remix (PSP, PC) featured the 2600 version of the game, while the Activision Commodore 64 15 Pack (Windows 95) features the Commodore 64 version. If you can manage to find Intellivision Rocks, (PC) you’ll find the original Intellivision version is included.

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So often in the world of retro games, early titles get overlooked for a variety of reasons. Beamrider should not be one of those games. If you collect for one of the consoles or computers it originally appeared on, keep an eye out for it. It isn’t one of the cheaper titles for those platforms, but it is certainly worth having in your collection. For those who aren’t ready to dive into investing into one of those platforms, but are interested in checking it out, one of the aforementioned compilations is worth looking into. Beamrider is one of the highlights of home gaming in the first half of the 1980’s. Whether you’re an enthusiast of the genre who owns everything from Aleste to Giga Wing, or a fan looking to play something different, Beamrider is one shmup that stands the test of time.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Mega Man 11 Review

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After Mega Man 10 came out nearly a decade ago, Capcom slowly went silent on the Blue Bomber. One of their most prolific franchises, Mega Man has always been known for its excellent action platforming, wonderful characters, and excellent soundtracks. Other than perhaps Street Fighter,  the series is synonymous with the company name. After Keiji Inafune (the most recognized name attached to the character) left Capcom, however We rarely ever saw a mention of Capcom’s most recognizable series, or any of its spinoffs. For years many wondered why. Leading up to the release of Mega Man 11 here, the game’s director Kazuhiro Tsuchiya was interviewed by Game Informer. He reasoned that after Inafune left Capcom, the company wasn’t certain they could do an entry on the same level of the previous ten games.

PROS: Great visuals. Level design. Gear System is an excellent new mechanic.

CONS: The soundtrack, while good, doesn’t reach the lofty heights of older games.

NICE: The little touches you’ll notice throughout the adventure.

Well thank God the people behind this iteration decided to step up, and take a risk. Because Mega Man 11 is pretty great. It gives long time fans the challenging action-platforming they’ve come to expect. But it also builds upon the foundation that was solidified way back in 1987. In a way, they could have come out screaming “THIS AIN’T YOUR DADDY’S MEGA MAN!”, and they would be accurate. But before some of you worry, that proverbial Father will still find a lot to love about Mega Man 11.

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The storyline is tied to the game’s fancy new mechanic; The Double Gear System. Basically, Mega Man has two new powers he can use temporarily for a few seconds by pressing the corresponding shoulder button. Pressing the left shoulder button increases his attack power immensely. Pressing the right shoulder button temporarily allows Mega Man to go into a bullet time state like in the Max Payne games. Everything will go into slow motion, allowing you to quickly move around obstacles, and attacks.

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The emphasis however is on that word; temporary. You’ll only have a few seconds to use these powers. If you go beyond that, you’ll overcharge the move, and you won’t be able to use it again for several moments. So you really can’t rely solely on this feature to get through the entire game. But throughout the many stages you will reach sections where you may just find them helpful enough that you don’t lose a life.  In any event when you start the game you’ll find like most of the series, there’s an opening run of cinema screens that set up the arc. This time around Dr. Wily remembers back in his youth he created the Double Gear System. A device that accelerates the speed, and power of robots. But his research was barred when most of the other scientists in the community including Dr. Light feared (with good reason) the horrors that could arise from its abuse. Being the quintessential evil mad scientist, he decides all of these decades later to implement it. He kidnaps the latest run of Dr. Light’s robots, programs them for evil purposes, and installs the tech in them.

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Par the course, Rock begs Dr. Light to install the technology in himself when it is brought to his attention that he likely wouldn’t be able to stop Dr. Wily without it. So Dr. Light reluctantly does so, thus setting up the campaign’s backdrop. As is the case with the rest of the series, you’re going to go up against each of the Robot Masters. Then move onto Dr. Wily’s latest castle stronghold. Unlike some of the older games like Mega Man 3,4,5, or 6 Capcom doesn’t try to fake you out here. There are no Wily stand in castles to go through before Dr. Wily’s inevitable castle run. However that doesn’t mean that Mega Man 11 is particularly short. Even though it is one of the cut, and dry entries (think Mega Man, Mega Man 2, or Mega Man 7) the stages here are quite long. Every stage in the game now has three checkpoint rooms, and have a fair amount of obstacles to get through. Many of the Robot Masters employ mini boss rooms along the way as well. Sometimes twice.

 

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For those who have not played a classic Mega Man game before, you’re able to choose to play the stages in whichever order you choose. The hook is the Rock/Paper/Scissors mechanic that pertains to the Robot Masters you face at the end of every stage. When you defeat the Robot Master, you acquire their signature attack. Each one of the Robot Masters is weak against one of the other Robot Masters’ attacks. Not only do you need to beat all of the stages, but figuring out which boss is weakest against which attacks makes them more manageable. It’s also useful in determining which order will get you through the game the fastest.

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But even if you don’t figure that out on your initial run there are tools to help you. Returning is Auto’s shop. He’s the giant green robot who crafts items for you to buy with screws. As you collect them from fallen enemies, you can spend them on extra tanks to replenish your weapon ammo, and health meter. You can buy upgrades to your primary weapon, and even some items to negate some of the environmental hazards.  And even seasoned veterans may find themselves picking up lives, and E-Tanks because Mega Man 11 can get pretty difficult at times. Not only are there the expected Mega Man tropes, like robots jumping out of pits you’re trying to jump across, or crumbling structures you’re going across, but many new pitfalls too.

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Mega Man 11 is also very creative. Every Robot Master has a terrific design, and like all Mega Man games, their stages are built around their themes. Acid Man’s stage has many pools in which enemies will throw in chemicals. Each of which makes the pH level more lethal. Torch Man’s stage sends a column of fire after you, disintegrating everything in its path. Bounce Man’s has a deceptively deadly layout. It’s layered with cute looking enemies, bright pastels, and more. But upon further analysis you’ll find it one of the most challenging stages in the entire game. Block Man’s stage has a lot of falling boulders, and even some maze structures you need to get through as quickly as possible. Tundra Man’s stage is the quintessential ice level. But with plenty of wind gusts to make things difficult. Impact Man reminds me a lot of Optimus Prime. But with blades. But his stage feels like a continuation of the Guts Man stage in the original Mega Man. Of course with far more trick jumping, and a dash of Quick Man’s Mega Man II stage. Then there is Fuse Man’s stage. One of the highlights of the game, it involves a lot of puzzles centered around time. Rounding things out is Blast Man’s stage, which involves an evil theme park motif. You could almost place it in a Batman match against the Joker. The little henchmen robots throughout the level are cool because while they’re a nuisance, they’re also necessary. It’s a lot of fun.

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But as hard as the game may be, Mega Man 11 is always fair. When you fail you’ll know the onus is on you. Maybe you panicked, and jumped into something. Maybe you were hit by a laser, and fell down a chasm. Maybe the Robot Master shattered your dreams when you got to them on your last life. In all of these cases you won’t be able to blame anybody else. And yet, there’s something compelling about that. The sort of thing that always makes you want to attempt it again, and chip away until you come out on top.

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But Capcom has also put in multiple difficulty settings this time. The original NES outings usually had but one setting. Mega Man 10 had an easy, and hard setting. Mega Man 11 has four of them. Newcomer sets things up for those of you who have never played a Mega Man title before. Up from that is the Casual setting, which is geared for those who may be lapsed Mega Man fans. Then there’s the Normal setting which is the one geared toward seasoned veterans. But the game also has a Super Hero setting. This setting goes beyond the Normal setting by removing most of the pickups in every level, and increasing the damage enemy attacks do to you. Honestly, the four settings are pretty close to reaching about each player type. If you honestly have never touched a Mega Man game, you may want to get your feet wet with the first one.  Veterans may want to just dive into the Normal setting. But whichever way you decide to go, you’ll have a pretty good time with it. Although there is a sense of pride if you can clear it on one of the higher settings.

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With the well crafted level designs, and bright, colorful visuals that bring it all together one has to wonder if there’s anything wrong with this one. And to be honest, not that much. Again, the characters look like the evolution of Mega Man 8 (PS1/Saturn). The game looks beautiful. The backdrops are high quality, crisp blends of 2D art, and 3D models. Everything looks like it belongs in the Classic series though which is one that mostly appeared on the NES. Even 9, and 10 recreated that 8-bit aesthetic, and sound. But Mega Man 7 (Super NES), and Mega Man 8 took that same style, but updated it for their 16-bit, and 32-bit platforms. So this looks like an extension of those styles. If you ever wished more of the games looked like the artwork in the manuals, and other media you’ll be more than pleased here.

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And again, it isn’t just about how good it looks. It’s that the great visuals fit the narrative of each of the Robot Masters the way it has in all of the mainline games. This is also the first game in the classic series since Mega Man 8 to involve voice acting. It isn’t bad, but your mileage will vary. Some of it veers toward what was done in the PS1/Saturn classic. Bounce Man seems to really elicit memories of fighting Clown Man as the voice work goes for the high-pitched cuteness of an anime archetype. Some of the other actors went in other directions with their respective characters. And all of it works. But you’ll probably enjoy some more than others. As for Mega Man himself, again, he sounds perfectly fine. But if you’re coming into it after Mega Man 8, it’s a completely different take, and delivery. So how much you’ll like it may depend on whether or not you love the way he was portrayed in the eighth installment. As far as the soundtrack goes, it isn’t bad by any means. The electronica goes well with the action, and there are distinctive themes for each of the stages. However, it doesn’t stand out the way the rocking chip tunes of 1-6, 7, 9,and 10 do. The songs in Mega Man 8 also felt more memorable than these do. Be that as it may, I really wouldn’t call any of it bad. Just different, and depending on what you prefer, you may agree or disagree. Which is fine.

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Once you do complete the game though there are a few things here to make you want to play it again. The first being the challenges. As in the last two games, you can try to run a battery of missions with the goal of reaching achievements. Some of these can be done in the main game, but the majority are found here. You can also go to a gallery where you can read bios of all of the major, and minor enemies in the game. They even have the voice samples here so you can listen to them all. There’s not too much else in the way of extras, though on the Switch there is a surprise if you play the demo before playing the full game.

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Overall, I quite liked Mega Man 11. I played through it on Normal, and found that this time out the Robot Masters’ respective stages were as challenging as Dr. Wily’s Castle stages, which isn’t always the case in these games. Even still, I had a fun time. I yelled at myself for messing up at times. But I had fun rising to the challenge, and overcoming the obstacles it threw in my way. Which is the joy that all of these games deliver. All while delivering a new tool for you to use. Which you don’t have to. It is possible to get through the game without touching the Double Gear System. Though you’ll probably want to. At least on some of the tougher bosses. Still, this is a great entry in the long running series, and I can easily recommend it to not only fans, but to almost anyone who is remotely interested in it. It won’t be a cakewalk. But it does have that addictive “One more match.” feeling the series is known for. Don the mantle of the Blue Bomber, and save the world. If only the music could have been *that* much better it would have been perfect. As it stands, it’s still a highly recommended Mega Man game. Or Rock Man if you prefer.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Super NES Classic Edition Review

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Well, although I’m up, and around again I still haven’t been medically cleared to leave the home on my own, or return to employment yet. So what to do? What to do? Well, when you’re shut in between the rainy weather, and waiting to go in for your follow-up, there’s little you can do. So why not take inspiration from my good friend Peter, and open something some people wouldn’t?

PROS: Respectable build quality. Play Star Fox 2 legitimately!

CONS: Light on extra features. Cannot play Star Fox 2 right away.

SAVINGS: The unit has a number of games that cost a lot on the aftermarket.

To be fair I actually opened up this system a few weeks ago. I won mine at RetroWorld Expo 2018 thanks to the raffle held by the always great Super Retro Throwback Podcast. So do give them a listen, they do some terrific interviews, and discussion with a nice radio morning show feel. In any event, now that I’ve spent some more quality time with it, I figured I would give my impressions.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Deviot, you’re so late to the party on this one. We know it’s pretty damned cool.” But that discounts the plethora of people who still don’t have one, as they were on the fence, or wanted to wait until they saw how the scalper phase went. (It went pretty fast. You can find these things everywhere now.) For those who were on the fence, you’re probably wondering about things like input lag, filters, or simply how well are these games emulated. All of which I’ll get to in due time.

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For the five people who don’t already know about the device, it’s the second of Nintendo’s all-in-one plug, and play consoles. Atari’s Flashback, and AtGames’ continuation of the series led to a slew of players in the market. And while AtGames hasn’t done so well with their emulated take on Sega consoles, their takeover of the Atari Flashback line went fairly well. From there they did an Intellivision plug, and play, a Colecovision plug, and play, along with others. Other companies jumped in, and so Nintendo capitalized on the craze by introducing the NES Classic. Which was infamously short-packed, and under-produced leading to the majority of them being scooped up by scalpers. Many thought the Super NES Classic would follow suit, but thankfully it hasn’t, and Nintendo re-released the NES version too. So you can pick either of these up now.

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The mini console comes in a box that is very reminiscent of the one the original Super NES came in, with a black background, and grey striping along with stylized lettering. The company did an excellent job of making geezers like me, remember what it was like when we finally got our hands on one back in 1991. Upon opening the kit, you’ll find a poster, and documentation packet. Obviously the mini Super NES control deck, a HDMI cable, a USB cable, a USB Power adapter, and two Super NES controller replicas.

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I have to say, I was really impressed with the build quality of the device. Granted, I know there isn’t much to it, as it’s mostly one resin plastic shell in the shape of a Super NES. Still, considering how the company could have opted to go with a flimsy, or brittle plastic to cut costs, they didn’t. It feels very much like the same build as an actual Super Nintendo Entertainment System. So kudos on the presentation. Note that when you actually want to use the thing, the front of the unit is actually a face plate that comes off. It’s tethered to a plastic ribbon so it doesn’t get lost. Behind the faceplate are your controller ports. These are the same ports that you’ll find on the Wiimote controllers for the Nintendo Wii. Which means that if you should ever lose, or break one of these Super NES replica controllers, you can use a Wii Classic controller. It also means that if you have a Wii, or a Wii U with Super NES games you’ve purchased on it, you can use the Super NES Classic’s controllers with those as well. With this in mind you might just want to get the spare controllers for the mini just to use on your Wii U if you find you own most of the included games on it on your Wii U already.

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As for the controllers, they feel exactly the same as the ones made for the Super NES back in the 1990’s. The same textured surface. The same glossy buttons. The attention to detail here is wonderful. If you sold or gave away your Super NES years ago, this will feel very familiar to you if you pick one up. It even has the same rubberized Select, and Start buttons. Some have derided the length of the cables, and, I’m not going to lie. They really could stand to be a bit longer. You can buy extension cables, but realistically most of us will have to sit closer to the TV like we did as teenagers.

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As for the interface it’s simplistic, but nice. There’s a brief setup where you pick your language, and then your thrust into the home screen. If you go poking around though, you will find an options menu. Here you can choose display options like the aspect ratio, filters, and borders. Really the sole filter is a CRT filter which emulates scan lines, and color bleeding. It’s okay if you really prefer the look of an old TV. There’s also the standard 4:3 that doesn’t have the filter, and then there’s pixel perfect, which basically makes the games 4:3, and crisper. But that also means you’ll see every last square that makes up every character, and background. It’s interesting because some games look completely fine, while others like Super Castlevania IV have a bit of inconsistency. My Brother who isn’t nearly as into game collecting as I am noticed this when visiting. There’s nothing wrong with the game, but you can see the backgrounds, and enemies have more details in this display mode, than Simon Belmont appears to. Of course the bigger the TV the more noticeable it is. Still, if this level of crispness turns you off, you can always opt to play the game with the CRT filter on. It really will come down to personal preference.

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As for the game selection, it’s a really good one. There are some games I personally may have chosen instead, had I been a Nintendo decision maker. But on the whole, there is a nice variety of games here, covering almost every genre. Final Fantasy III (6), Earthbound, Super Mario RPG, Secret Of Mana, and The Legend of Zelda III: A Link To The Past are here for your JRPG/Action RPG/Adventure fix. You also get a lot of classic platformers. Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island, Kirby Superstar are all here. Covering your action platforming you have Mega Man X, Super Castlevania IV, and Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts. You’ve got F-Zero, and Super Mario Kart for some arcade racing. Star Fox, and the previously unreleased Star Fox 2 are on the device for rail shooting. Kirby’s Dream Course is the lone puzzle outing, although Superstar does have some puzzle modes. Super Punch-Out!! is an underrated inclusion here, and of course Super Metroid is one of the best exploration games of all time. So naturally that is on here. Street Fighter II’s popularity hit its fevered pitch on the 16-bit consoles, so naturally one of the iterations would have to be included here. Street Fighter II Turbo is the iteration chosen to appear here, and it is definitely one of the fan favorites in the series. Fans who preferred the larger roster in Super Street Fighter II might be disappointed, but there are other inexpensive ways to play the Super NES port of that game elsewhere. Finally, fans of the run n’ gun genre get Contra III: The Alien Wars.

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On paper, picking this mini system is worth it for these games alone. Consider that (at the time of this writing) the original physical Game Paks of many of these titles are expensive. Super Metroid goes between $30, and $40 loose, alone. Earthbound is prohibitively expensive for many people often going for well over $100 by itself. For anybody who simply wants to buy one of these games legitimately, and play it, the Super NES Classic Edition is a pretty good value proposition. As for the emulation of the games, they’re very good. All but the most astute fan can go back, and play these without noticing much of a difference. If you go through the extra work of hooking up the original Super NES on a TV, and standing it next to your new HDTV & Super NES Classic setup, you can notice slight differences. Differences in color that might matter to an absolute purist who will insist on playing the original Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts Game Pak. If you absolutely require a 1:1 experience without exception you’ll want to empty your bank account. For everyone else a .98:1 experience is still pretty impressive.

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As far as input lag goes, I honestly haven’t noticed much of any, and I’ve played my unit on three modern TVs. A 50″ 4K unit by Samsung, a 20″ 1080p Insignia (Best Buy), and my trusty 32″ 720p Element I keep because it has legacy ports. In every case, the games played fine. Any input lag that is there will be noted by only the most scrupulous players. Top-tier speed runners, and tournament level players may want to spend on the original console, and games for those purposes. But again, for those who want to buy these titles legitimately, the Super NES Classic Edition is a wonderful option.

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Even some of those collectors who normally might pass on it may consider giving it a go as it is presently the only way to buy Star Fox 2. And while it won’t wow you the way the original did, or the way Star Fox 64 did on the Nintendo 64, it is still an interesting one. It includes features that weren’t seen until later games in the series. If you’re a big fan of Nintendo’s long running franchise, you may just want one of these for that game. Although it is strangely locked behind the first game’s first stage. You aren’t allowed to actually play it, until you defeat the first boss in the original game. Weird.

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Overall, I quite like the Super NES Classic Edition. While I feel it could use some more visual options for those who don’t like how old games look on new displays, and it could have used a more convenient way to create saves (You have to press RESET.), I do find the build quality quite nice. I also found that they added a cool fast forward, and rewind function to the save state software. So you can pinpoint the moment you want to start from. I also like that they put some of the harder to acquire titles on it, and it is nice that Star Fox 2 finally sees the light of day. The controllers are also versatile for Wii, and Wii U owners, as you can use them with games purchased digitally. It’s also a great proposition for those who want to experience what they weren’t around for without having to invest in a 20-year-old or more console, and cartridge technology. Newcomers can get their feet wet here, and see what the fuss over the 16-bit era is all about. Interestingly, Nintendo has put up PDF scans of the Super NES manuals for all of the games included here.

Final Score: 9 out of 10