All posts by thedeviot

Hori RAP. V HAYABUSA for Nintendo Switch Review

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The Nintendo Switch is the first Nintendo console since the Wii that has gotten a fair number of fighters, and likely the first since the Gamecube that saw a lot of mainstream fighting franchises on it. Of course, the last decent arcade stick for a Nintendo system was probably the Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom stick for the Wii or the Soul Calibur joystick for the Gamecube. As great as those consoles are, many AAA publishers like Capcom, and Warner Bros. or Namco didn’t bring a lot of their top fighting games over to the Wii since the hardware couldn’t run their advanced graphics of the time, and the Wii U didn’t have the desirable sales figures. But over in the realm of the PlayStation and Xbox brands, there were many of them. As such a lot of high-quality arcade sticks came out to go along with them for tournament players. One of these companies is Hori. They’ve been making arcade-quality controllers and joysticks for eons.

PROS: Arcade-quality stick, and buttons. It also works with your Windows-based PC!

CONS: You’ll have to plug it into your dock. You can’t use it to play Splatoon 2.

SHORYUKEN: There are reskinned versions with fancy Street Fighter II art.

The Hori Real Arcade Pro V Hayabusa is an absolutely fantastic controller. It comes in a metal frame, something very rare as cost-cutting is a very major business move in video game peripherals. The red piano gloss finish makes it stand out when placed on your coffee table or desk, and it has a very nice rubberized material underneath it to ensure it doesn’t slide all over the place while you’re using it.

The joystick has an arcade-quality construction as do the pressure-sensitive buttons. Often times just grazing the buttons can denote an input, so you really won’t need to beat on this thing. The microswitches in the joystick give it that familiar clicking you’ll remember from your days in the arcade after school if you grew up in the 70s, 80s, or 90s. For everyone else that means a fairly accurate directional input which is a must if you’re looking to play a lot of fighting games with it.

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The Nintendo Switch has gotten plenty of fighting games too. While it launched with Ultra Street Fighter II and a few Neo Geo classics via its e-shop, it has since seen several collections as well as newer releases like Mortal Kombat 11, Blazblue Cross Tag Battle, and Samurai Shodown alongside their Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows releases. If you’ve been buying a lot of these, you’re really going to love this controller.

On the face, of course, are the stick, Y, B, A, X, L, R, ZL, ZR, and + buttons. But along the right, you’ll have your screenshot button, – button, Home button, as well as buttons to set up Turbo settings, remap key configurations, as well as a switch to configure the controller’s stick to behave as either the left or right joycon stick. there’s also a switch to toggle between Nintendo Switch mode and PC mode.

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That last bit is a Godsend because if you’re like me and you buy games on your computer as well as for your Switch it means you don’t need to own two arcade sticks. If you play Tekken 7, Street Fighter V, Killer Instinct, or other major fighting games on your computer this is also going to be a terrific accessory for you to own.

And it isn’t just going to benefit those who eat, sleep, and breathe fighting games. This controller is great for many a retro gamer too. Playing old-school arcade compilations on this has been great. While not every arcade game is ideal (Twin-stick shooters are still going to be better with a gamepad. TrackBall games are still best with a mouse or a TrackBall. Paddle games just aren’t the same without one.) most of them are. Playing Final Fight, Pac-Man, Rolling Thunder, Dig Dug, and other games is absolutely fantastic. And there are a number of new games that go along great with it as well. Especially many of the great indie games that pay homage to many of those arcade games of yore. Those who love to play shoot ’em ups may also want to invest in one of these. I was able to play the aforementioned titles as well as Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams and Blazing Chrome on my PC with the stick with few if any issues.

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One other feature I really like is the trap door on the back, where you can snake the USB cable when you’re not using the stick. It makes it easy to put away, as well as less of a nuisance if you’re going to bring the controller to a friend or relative’s home, or if you’re a fighting game enthusiast going to a local Street Fighter II tournament. It’s just a small space covered by a piece of plastic, but it’s a very nice touch that solves an annoyance one might not normally think about.

Like I said earlier, this isn’t going to be a good all-purpose controller. Games that require analog controls like 3D Platformers or open-world RPGs obviously don’t work with it, nor do some other experiences like First or Third-Person Shooters or action games. So it isn’t going to be something everyone will want. But I can say, if you do love fighting games and have been on the fence about getting an arcade stick this will definitely fit the bill. It’s sleek, durable, and just feels so comfortable when you’re using it. The fact that it’s also a great PC controller means you can easily go between both platforms. Especially nice for those who might play the same game on both platforms.

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And while it’s a shame I can’t really play Splatoon 2 with it, the fact it goes so well with classic arcade genres like Beat ’em ups, Shoot ’em ups, maze games, and more makes it very versatile for retro experiences. If I were to complain about anything with this controller, I would say some are going to find they may not have space for it in their entertainment center. As wonderful as it is, it is a little large. Lengthwise it’s slightly larger than a beefy PC keyboard at around 17 inches and 9.5 inches deep. It’s also around 5 inches tall. So that’s essentially the He-Man of joysticks. On the other hand, He-Man is the greatest action figure of all time and the most powerful man in the universe. So why wouldn’t you want this?

Be that as it may, this one is still smaller than many of the arcade sticks you’ll find on the market without having to go down to something cost-reduced with lower quality parts to get the size down. So it is a good balance between size and performance if you can manage to have it at your desk or on your TV stand. The only two things I guess I can nitpick from there are the fact that the cable length may be too short in some living rooms. At a computer desk, it’s perfect, but I can see some scenarios where you may need a USB extension cable to get from the dock to your couch. The only other thing is that while the finish on the joystick is exemplary, it does collect dust, and palm prints quickly and easily. So if you plan on leaving it out as a conversation piece you’ll want a microfibre cloth to clean it up pretty regularly.

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Beyond a couple of very minor quibbles, the RAP V Hayabusa is one terrific controller. I can’t go as far as calling it essential. But for arcade and fighting game enthusiasts it’s an investment you’ll really be happy with. Especially since it works with PC as it you’ll still likely be using it long after Nintendo retires the Switch. Hori has done a fantastic job here. If you’re in the market for an arcade stick you may want to get yourself this one. Hori also has Street Fighter II-themed variants of the same stick including a rather nice one that mimics the look of the original arcade cabinet. Whether you get one of those or this original switch themed one it’s still the same components.

Final Score: 9.5 out of 10

 

Mortal Komat 11 Aftermath DLC Review

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Every so often, video games will have a DLC set that isn’t just cosmetic options, or loot boxes. Sometimes they’ll have a DLC that resembles the PC game expansion packs of the early 1990s. Like when DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D had extra episodes. These days, such DLC experiences are less common but Nintendo gave Splatoon 2 a substantial expansion, and now Netherrealm has done something similar for Mortal Kombat 11.

PROS: A second storyline campaign. New Characters. New Stage Fatalities.

CONS: A far better bundle for those who haven’t bought MK11 already.

FRIENDSHIP: The free addition of a classic Mortal Kombat II feature is here.

Fighting games adding a bunch of stuff is nothing new mind you. Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Tekken, Blazblue, and even Super Smash Bros. have had seasons of characters they’ve added over time to their games. And it’s not uncommon to see a final version of some of them that just include everything released a year or two later. But usually, that’s the extent of the content. Characters, maybe a stage or two, and that’s about it.

For this Mortal Kombat 11 update though, they actually have delivered enough stuff to warrant consideration. The biggest one being a second story mode that adds onto the one included in the original version. After the defeat of Kronika, Shang Tsung shows up to tell Liu Kang he can’t fully fix things because of how things went down in the main storyline, and in order to continue, he has to let him go back in time to before the point where Kronika’s underlings breached his island.

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So reluctantly Liu Kang agrees, and so you’ll spend another 4 hours or so going through a continuation of the storyline. And you’ll be spending most of that time waiting to see when the game will swerve you. Because you’re a classic Mortal Kombat bad guy, and that’s what bad guys do. The storyline is mostly pretty good, as it tries to explain away some of the smaller things the base story overlooks. But really astute viewers will probably find a couple of new holes to nitpick. Nevertheless, it managed to hold my attention over a few hours as I played through to the end.

Still, the game gives you two endings, and as the first story mode, there are a couple of times where you’ll get to choose different characters to use. Some of the newer characters that have been added since launch show up here like Sheeva and Fujin. And of course, Robocop is included as well, although he isn’t part of the campaign. These are welcome moments as they give you a good reason to go back and play it a second or third time to see the minor and major changes to the story.

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When you’ve completed the campaign though you’ll find the other inclusions will take up a fair amount of your time. You’ll get the aforementioned Sheeva, Fujin, and Robocop. All of which are incredibly fun to use (although Fujin launched with an unintended infinite combo that some of the best players discovered. So expect that to be patched out eventually.) Every character has a lot of effective special moves, 2-in-1 moves, launchers, links, and combos. So enthusiasts will have plenty of things to experiment with. On top of that, there are new costume options, and as with the base game, you can create your own alternate set of moves. As well as put in new augments to tweak their effectiveness or defensiveness. If you’re a fighting game dabbler, you’ll still be impressed with the spectacle of everything even if you have no intention of mastering any of it.

Aftermath Kollection also comes with the earlier Kombat Pack that had the previous DLC characters and skins that had been released up to its release. So if you’re someone who hasn’t played Mortal Kombat 11 at all, this is the way to go as it has pretty much everything. For people who bought the base game last year but didn’t keep up with the extra characters and other DLC, Aftermath + Kombat Pack bundle is the way to go if you want to get everything conveniently. If you bought all of that already you can get Aftermath standalone which gets you the new story mode and three characters you don’t have yet.

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The good news is that the story mode is pretty entertaining, and the lines in it are well performed. Those who play fighting games alone, rarely venturing online may feel it’s worth getting just to have another few hours to play through the extra storyline mode this adds.

As far as the audiovisual stuff goes, MK11 Aftermath is fantastic. The presentation continues Netherrealm’s tradition of detailed player models, backgrounds, and impressive graphics. You can’t talk about Mortal Kombat without talking about Fatalities, Brutalities, and other gory bits. Long time fans will really love the finishers here. Most of them are as over-the-top as ever, balancing R Rated Hollywood blockbuster gore with elements of dark comedy nicely. As such, there aren’t too many things that come off as either so brutal they’re disturbing, or so silly things just seem stupid. This is even true of the Friendships Mortal Kombat 11 has reintroduced for the first time in over twenty years (God I’m old.)

The Friendships mostly do fit their characters’ personas very well, while being genuinely funny. Part of that is due to the lighthearted, bubbly, synthpop piece that accompanies them. One of my personal favorites is The Joker’s where the game makes you think he’s about to use a handgun to do a fatality only to have an off-screen Batman intervene forcing him to give the opponent balloons.

There are also new Stage Fatalities to learn as well, via a free update inclusion with the Friendships. These aren’t quite as memorable as some of the mainline finishers here or as memorable as some of the ones from older games, but they’re still pretty good. Then there are the Brutalities that the newer characters bring along, and most of those can even hang with their Fatalities. Robocop has some especially gristly ones.

The sound effects are as good as ever with everything approaching movie sound effects as bones break, the flesh is stripped from the bone, and the cold ambient soundtrack rides along with all of this. I will also give a lot of credit to Shiver again because I have the Nintendo Switch version of Mortal Kombat 11. As I said with the vanilla version, it’s astonishing how they were able to get this big-budget blockbuster running on old tablet tech. Again, to accomplish the brisk 60 frames per second performance sacrifices were made. It’s obvious background textures are set much lower. It’s obvious that AA was set to low or off. Lighting effects were reduced. The Switch version of Aftermath looks as if you were playing on a computer with everything set to low or medium because your 8-year-old video card can’t process everything on high. But that’s not a bad thing. The game still looks great and plays great retaining all of the features of its PC/PS4/XB1 siblings.

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Online matches were mostly pretty good for me, although definitely not perfect. Over the course of playing online on and off during the week, I found most of my matchups ran fairly well. I was able to be destroyed fairly, and win fairly. But there were also a number of times I got into matches ranging between mildly lag ridden and borderline unplayable. This is likely due to being paired with opponents on the other side of the world, but it could still use some work. Still, with Shiver and Netherrealm keeping up with the updates and patches this will hopefully make badly connected matches a little less commonplace.

Still, MK11 Aftermath is a lot of fun, and the additions are going to please a lot of the franchise fans with the bonus characters, finishers, and expanded storyline. If you’re someone who always wants a full roster you’ll probably want to pick this up as well. I only wish there was a much deeper discount in its release window for those who have bought all of the previous stuff this bundled in already. Normally I don’t talk about pricing since that can change wildly at any time. But since it is the elephant in the room in the launch window, some in that boat may want to wait for a sale. But if you haven’t picked up MK11 yet at all, the bundled Kollection version is well worth picking up. Physical collectors should know that the retail release of the Kollection version on Nintendo Switch is just going to be a download code. So unless you really have to have that empty plastic case, you’re better served to buy it on the e-shop.  Some baffling retail decisions aside, Aftermath is an entertaining DLC you might want to look into if you enjoy Mortal Kombat 11.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Sakura Stars Review


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(Full Disclosure: A review copy Steam key was provided by Super16bits. All opinions are my own.)

As big as independent games have become over the last 15 years, there are many, many games that get lost in the sea of titles. Some of these titles are put out by very small studios, many of which are even one-person operations. Today’s game is from one such small studio. Sakura Stars is a bullet hell shooter from Super16bits, and it’s something shoot ’em up fans may want to look into.

PROS: Bright, colorful characters. Tight controls.

CONS: Some gameplay imbalances. Minor hitches.

CLASSICAL: Hopefully you like classical music because the OST entirely made up of it.

When a demonic threat arises, a team of three appears to fight the menace. After a brief introductory paragraph, you’re greeted with the title screen. Sakura Stars is a shooter that allows you to choose between two girls and a raccoon. Each of the characters has their own attributes. It hearkens back to some of the classics of old in this regard. Games like TRUXTON, UN Squadron, or Strikers 1945.

One of the girls can shoot a single shot. The second girl can shoot a double shot. The raccoon can fire a handy spread shot. And while the first two characters give you two lives, only the raccoon will give you three.  Honestly, if you’re new or lapsed to the genre you’ll really want to start with the raccoon.

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The game is relatively short, only going on for four stages. But don’t let the short-run dissuade you from considering this one because Sakura Stars is tough. There are no continues, nor are there any 1-Ups. At least none that I found in my time with it. And when I say this is a bullet hell shooter I mean it. There are bullets everywhere. Each enemy type will fire anywhere from one to ten bullets in a myriad of patterns. Destroying enemies will often create another ten bullets in the explosion. If you were hoping for an 8-bit era horizontal Giga Wing with anime influences you’re in luck.

At the end of each stage, is a boss encounter. These are anime-inspired demon girls who do insane bullet hell attacks. Much like the rest of the game it’s going to be a war of pattern memorization as you try to avoid getting hit while doling out enough damage to defeat the bosses. All in all, it’s easy to describe the core concept. But it’s also going to take you many, many attempts to get anywhere close to beating the game.

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The game gets a lot of things right. I loved that it had a fairly memorable regular enemy or two. Flying space eyeballs with optic nerves flailing around and flying tengu faces are prevalent and have several different flying patterns. Sometimes they’ll come in horizontal rows, other times vertical. Sometimes they’ll zig-zag about. Early on, the eyes don’t shoot at you at all, but by the second stage you can expect a volley of bullets flying at you.

I liked the rather large sprites of the playable characters and their different firing mechanisms. But there were a couple of small things that I felt could have been done differently or improved. First of all, while the large character sprites are nice, it’s going to take you several deaths and restarts before you realize that their hitboxes are actually quite smaller than the characters themselves. You really have to navigate the characters’ eyes. If their eyes or the small circumference of pixels around them get hit, you’ll die. But hands? Feet? Hair? Bullets pass right through them.

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Once you get used to that, it becomes a much more manageable game. But that still doesn’t mean it will be easy. It’s still a pretty challenging if short game. Maybe not to the degree of the hardest Toaplan, Treasure, or Cave shooter, but still pretty challenging for what you’re given. Keep in mind you’re not going to see the crazy options, multiple power shots or other items you’ll get in those major names of yesteryear. That’s another reason why this one is such a trial. The other thing that seemed a little off to me though is really the balance between the first two stages. After dying a ton, you’ll begin to realize you can breeze through the first level without firing a single shot. As I said earlier, the eyeballs don’t fire at you at all, and the Tengu faces’ shot patterns can be navigated. Plus you avoid a ton of bullets by not killing anything. Because killing things creates more bullets. You still have to kill the boss to progress however.

But all of that goes out the window in the second stage as everything does fire at you and the challenge makes a large jump rather than an incremental one. It could have perhaps helped players get a better handle on the game’s rules had it been a little different. Be that as it may, I still enjoyed my time with the game. I could nitpick about the bosses’ minimal animations or the game playing chiptune renditions of classical music as it doesn’t seem to fit with the look of the rest of the game to me. But that’s exactly that: nitpicking.

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There is one thing I wish the game had though, and that’s a deeper options menu. You can’t really change the volume at all. It would have been nice to have music volume, effects volume, or overall volume settings. Especially if you want to play the game on stream. As is, you’ll need to figure out the volume in your own PC settings or streaming software if you do stream. There’s also nowhere to remap buttons. Though it is nice you can use an Xbox 360 or Xbox One controller without a problem. I was actually able to use my Horipad for my Nintendo Switch without any issues.

In conclusion, Sakura Stars is a solid effort from a studio that has only one previous game on Steam. Hopefully, a fleshed-out sequel or future project can iron out some of the minor issues I had with the game because overall it’s a fun, challenging bullet hell shooter. If you’re looking for something a little bit different or something small to play between some other games you may just want to give this one a look.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Bosses and the RAAAAAAAGE they sometimes instill.

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I recently went back and replayed the Splatoon 2 Octo Expansion. I had beaten the story mode when it came out. But I had also skipped a few stages and so I had decided to go back and 100% the game. With the upcoming Splatfest, I figured now would be as good a time as any to finish up the 10 or so stages I didn’t do, and replay the handful I glossed over near the end. I had also heard tales of just how difficult the super-secret boss encounter in the game is. To experience that you need to clear every one of the 80 stages, and pay Pearl any of the money you may have borrowed from her to enter stages if you had run out of it trying to clear stages. So over two nights, that’s what I did. Sunday night I cleared all but about three remaining stages. Then Monday night after a grueling workday I finished those up. As I unlocked the super-secret boss encounter I was reminded of many of the toughest fights I played through over my lifetime. This by no means a list of the absolutely most difficult. But a number of the ones that immediately came to mind. Also yes, I will talk about the one I defeated last Monday night.

Also, I know many of you may not have played some of these games and worry about spoilers. So you may want to skip over some of these with your hyper scroll wheel or you may want to click the back button. On the other hand, I don’t think any of these are from games that came out this year thus far. So I think enough time has passed for most of these.

Why do these encounters stick out in our minds?  I think there are multiple reasons. Some of them are as simple as “This character is a cheap bastard, and I’m glad I never have to do it again.” Others might be cheap bastards too. But they have a cool design, awesome backstory, or something else that goes along with that well. You expect Dr. Wily to be a cheap bastard. He’s cowardly, crosses his fingers. But sometimes still shocks you with the lows he will sink to. Other villains exude confidence and a demeanor that put you into a false sense of security. You’ll think to yourself “This bad guy doesn’t need to be cheap. They’re just going to be a fair challenge that I’ll just have to practice a lot.” And then the game goes “To Hell with that.”. There are other bosses that are sometimes far more brutal than the final bosses they answer to.

Anyway, these fictional entities often get our blood boiling. They bruise our egos. They often don’t play by the very rules they set, and they constantly cheat. But why would we expect anything different? These are villains after all. Some of them are defeated by our pure skill. Others are defeated by completely cheesing them. But we love and hate all of these antagonists for being the world’s biggest stinkers. So here are some of the ones I’ll certainly never forget. And again, these are by no means the most definitively toughest encounters, just ten of the ones that stuck out in a sea of thousands.

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10. Dr. Wily Machine #10 (Mega Man 10)

I’ll be you were probably thinking I would mention the Dinosaur vehicle bot with two forms and subsequent saucer fight from the previous game. Or perhaps the 11th Wily Machine in the following game. A lot of you were probably thinking the Wily Castle 2 Dragon, or Wily Machine #2. But Mega Man 10’s next to the last encounter is somehow at least to me, a little more salt inducing. For the first form, things aren’t too bad. He does the “Shoot missiles that can be used as platforms” thing previous Mega Man bosses have. But then after you blow up the Pirate ship skull faceplate, Dr. Wily gets stupid cheap. He fires an orb that keeps you from moving so that he can get you caught in not one, but two clouds to ground lightning bolts. And while all of this can be avoided once you know what to do, you’re going to die like a hundred times figuring it out. Plus you have to do the required robot master gauntlet when you run out of lives again before fighting him. I’m told playing on the lower setting makes him a tad slower. But it’s still some cheap stuff. Definitely one of the Dr. Wily encounters you will probably lose your cool on.

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09. Dark Fact (Ys 1.)

Dark Fact is an asshole in every version of Ys. In some versions, he might be slightly slower. But he’s still one of the biggest jerks in boss encounters. He flies around the room doing a figure 8 pattern and you have to run up and stab him. Sounds simple enough right? Well, then he summons fireballs. Of the bullet-hell shoot ’em up variety. So you’ve got to try to avoid taking too many third-degree burns while trying to stab him. And with all of that going on, he also randomly destroys part of the floor so you either: A.) Get stuck in one part of the room eating fireballs until you die. Or B) Manage to somehow not burn to death while getting enough stab wounds in that he finally bleeds out. Suffice it to say many of you will be flipping tables when you get to him. This boss took me many, many attempts to defeat, and what a sigh of relief it was when I finally put him down.

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08. Bowser (Super Mario Odyssey) 

Yeah, Bowser would have to get on here somewhere. By no means the most difficult of the examples listed here, he gets a very memorable appearance that will stick with you. At first, it doesn’t seem like much of a fight. It repeats an earlier encounter. He throws his hat at you, and you need to take control of it to knock him out of the arena. But this is easier said than done because he sends a ton of crap at you to keep you from getting to him. He jumps onto the ground sending out rings of fire. He shields himself with flames while breathing out the longest flamethrower breath possible. And each time you do get to him he throws more decoy hats as well as increases the number of flame rings and flamethrowers and tail swings at you. But unlike other Mario games, you don’t really beat him when you beat him. Because the game goes all Metroid and throws a self-destruct sequence into high gear. So you have to take control of the King of the Koopas in order to escape in an honestly quite challenging platforming section. You’ve only got so much time and for all the power Bowser has, he’s slow. So good luck with that one. Still, it’s one of the coolest Mario moments ever. And if that’s not enough for you there’s even a harder third version of the fight hidden in the metagame.

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07. Demogorgon (Forbidden Forest)

This one gets on here because he requires two major metrics in order to be defeated. You have to hit a pixel-perfect spot to pierce his heart and you have to do it in only 60 seconds. Succeed and the game will loop allowing you to go on. Fail, and it’s Game Over. His pixelated visage will come down from the heavens oh so menacingly. Even if you have extra lives in reserve. It matters not.  On top of this, The Demogorgon is only visible when lightning strikes. The only help you’re given is sometimes seeing the background distort if he happens to be there. Sometimes, but not always. You’re likely going to hear that shrieking ear-piercing BEEP BEEEEEEEP BEEP BEEEEEEEP BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP in your dreams.

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06. Evil Otto (Berzerk) 

Evil Otto is invincible. He was also inspired by the game’s creator’s boss as he reportedly smiled when he yelled at people. Evil Otto will relentlessly hunt you down and hump your corpse. Forget your childish opponents in your favorite shooter. The smiley face of doom did it first. You can’t shoot him. You can’t hope one of his subservient robots turns on him. All you can do is run. The rare exception is the children’s mode in the Atari 2600 port where he can be killed. But even going into baby mode won’t help you. Because Evil Otto will still respawn. Good luck sleeping tonight.

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05. Jasper Batt Jr. (No More Heroes 2)

This guy is an annoying pain in the ass. He drives a hovercar around his office so you can’t hit him with your swords. He also has a slew of death lasers that generate throughout the office, and can even summon a giant death beam. After you manage to weaken him through some well-timed strikes that lead to QTEs when he tries to run you down, the cheapness goes up to eleven. After you blow up his car he becomes a supervillain. And as a supervillain, he either shoots around 50 bats at you, teleports the second you go to hit him or manages to land one of his Incredible Hulk punches on you. When you really start to put the hurt on him he gets even cheaper.  Warping around like a Dragonball Z character, throwing tornadoes at you while giving you more suplexes and piledrivers than Mike Haggar. If you somehow survive all of that he becomes a Godzilla you have to cut up from a rooftop while avoiding death beams he spits out. If you manage to pull it off, you’ve defeated one of the toughest bosses out there.

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04. God Rugal (Capcom Vs. SNK 2)

This guy is SNK Boss Syndrome to the nth degree. First of all, the guy will take off nearly a quarter or more of your life bar with any given move. He will also repeat specials at an impossible speed and land combos that no human player could reasonably pull off. Your only hope is to block like crazy and find the one move the computer didn’t account for and spam it until you maybe win. That is if he doesn’t clown you before you can figure it out. Which he will. SNK was always a genius with its evil boss plan. An idea Capcom implemented here, and something even Midway rode within Mortal Kombat games. Make the bracket pretty doable, and then suck out hundreds of tokens from people who made 98% of the journey and really want to see that final 2%. In this case, though reaching him or the other secret Akuma variant also requires you to keep up your performance score. That means winning with Supers and Perfects on the way. If you pull that off, the ending of the tournament is interrupted and you’ll face one of the two ultimate boss variations. And if you get God Rugal there will likely be a broken controller in your future.

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03. Grim Matchstick (Cuphead)

A lot of Cuphead is difficult since being Nintendo hard is kind of the point of the game besides honoring 1930’s era animation. But Grim Matchstick is the one boss that really stands out from the crowd of bosses for me. He’s clearly inspired by the Dr. Wily Mecha Dragon boss in Wily Castle 2 (Mega Man 2) but other than jumping on clouds like blocks, the fight is a completely original experience. He starts out the way you might expect. Spitting projectiles you need to avoid while shooting him. But before you know it he has boulders flying at you in different combinations of three patterns. While also dodging other projectiles. If you last long enough, he ends up behind you where he spits out a marching band of flames. And you still need to avoid other things at the same time. Make it past all of that and he becomes a Hydra. With practice he is beatable. He’s still very much a pattern memorization exercise. But that doesn’t make him any less tough.

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02. Gurglewocky (Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams)

Gurglewocky is easily one of the toughest bosses you’ll face in a game. He’s a three form affair that requires a lot of memorization and dexterity. When you first reach him they take a page from New Super Mario Bros. Wii, where he chases you down Bowser style. Fitting as the original Commodore 64 game borrowed Super Mario elements. But from that quick moment, things kick into overdrive. He becomes a background boss where he uses a variety of attacks. He’ll swing his tail at you. He’ll spit a fireball into the air and cause it to rain fireballs. He’ll also fill the floor below you with lava leaving you with only some moving platforms and temporary blocks to stand on. When this happens, if he does the fire rain I mentioned earlier, the fireballs shoot back up out of the lava while the other fireballs are still raining down. Not enough for you? Sometimes he’ll shoot larger fireballs that you can avoid a little bit easier. But if they land in the lava, it causes fire columns to go from lava coated floor to ceiling.

After around three of these attacks, he’ll spit a flaming rock out that follows you around as you avoid more of these attacks. He usually does another one after this, and then shoots a line of fire out that goes either clockwise or counterclockwise. Depending on which world you’re in at the time (Dream or Nightmare) You’ll have to shift it to the opposite color of the flame on the boulder that’s been chasing you. The fire breath will then clear the fire off of the rock so you can knock it back at him. Do this three times and you can move onto the next phase. But before you can, he’ll likely flood the entire room with lava except for the very top line. You’re going to die a ton of times on this form. If you can manage to get past this and hit him three times you can escape. But he appears again! After you almost get crushed by boulders you have to dash attack his mouth at just the right time. Pull it off and you can say you’ve saved Maria! Even though that means you’re just going to be moving onto the Expansion pack content.

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01. Inner Agent #3 (Splatoon 2 Octo Expansion)

And this leads me to the battle I had with the super-secret boss in Nintendo’s 80 stage DLC for Splatoon 2. Inner Agent #3 can only be faced if you’ve beaten every stage and owe Pearl no money. (Stages cost money to enter and if you lose the level you pay to continue or reenter it later. If you run out of money Pearl will give you more. You can repay it to her when you earn money back for beating stages.) And the stages have to be beaten. You can’t use the game’s level skip mechanic. So you’ll have to go to any stage you used the mechanic on, and replay it. Once you have all of that done you can face the boss by going to a previously closed locker. This initiates a flashback where our expansion pack protagonist Agent #8 faces the protagonist from the original Splatoon (Wii U).

I had heard from a lot of players in the Splatoon 2 community that this was one of the hardest fights in videogames. But I went in with just a dash of skepticism. Surely some of this was just hyperbole. Nintendo game bosses are usually a nice balance of tough and fair. This is not one of those bosses. The match starts out with Agent #3 turning at you slowly before divebombing into the arena as the Squid Sisters’ Calamari Inkantation comes on. They start with an immediate Splashdown special and proceed to throw auto bombs while shooting at you. Shortly after this, they start initiating Inkjet specials (Two different specials so far when they should only be able to use one.). If you can manage to injure them enough to break a temporary shield they then go back to a Splashdown special and then the Bubble Blower special. This creates giant Bubbles they can explode for massive damage and kill potential. All while still throwing auto bombs that are basically homing bombs. Survive this, and they begin throwing a massive slew of auto bombs while also shooting you. Get past this, break their shield again and they’ll begin to ride a UFO while they shoot continual Tenta Missiles at you while throwing auto bombs and shooting at you. So now you have homing explosives of two varieties coming at you.

You have to throw Splat Bombs (Grenades) at them until their shield breaks again. This is where the unfair cheapness really kicks in. They do three Splashdown specials in a row while throwing more auto bombs at you. This becomes a war of attrition trying to get in a few hits while avoiding massive assaults. Keep in mind you also need to have the floor covered in your ink to be able to escape these attacks, and each attack only makes the floor more and more their color. Also when you shoot at them they will start dodge rolling out of the way despite the fact they aren’t using dualies (the only weapon class that allows one to use this move.) If you can somehow break their shield in between avoiding all of that. Then, you’ll knock them out and get the win. Winning gets you a cosmetic item for multiplayer. It’s not much, but as it is the only way to get it, at least other players will know you went through a proverbial war. By some miracle, I did it on my eighth attempt or so. But I can see why many put this high on their lists of tough bosses. All of that said, when you understand the patterns well enough you can defeat them. But even with that understanding, it isn’t an easy fight. People may mock me for comparing Inner Agent #3 to an SNK boss, but until you’ve gotten there yourself you’ll never know just how apropos that it really is.

But as I said earlier, this is by no means a “Top hardest” list by any means. Just some of the ones that came to mind as I was entering the fight with Inner Agent #3. There is a slew of challenging bosses out there. I can already hear fans of Ninja Gaiden, Dark Souls, Guilty Gear, Castlevania, Final Fight, and Streets Of Rage getting ready to beat me to death with their keyboards. So what say you? What are some of your toughest boss encounters? Which ones made you lose your composure, break your controller, or simply say “Fiddle DeeDee”? Tell your stories in the comments below.

 

Blazing Chrome Review

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It seems everyone loves classic Konami games. Yes, there was a time when the company was lauded for putting out some great stuff. Rather than be reviled for putting out mediocre stuff and then nickel and diming you within that mediocre stuff. Super Cobra, Gyruss, Gradius, Frogger,  the list goes on. But arguably the two franchises everyone can get behind are Castlevania and Contra. It isn’t hard to see why. One series puts you in the boots of vampire slayers out to kick Dracula’s ass. The other puts you in the shoes of 80’s action heroes out to save the world from extraterrestrial armies, and supernatural forces.

Over the years others have tried to put their own spin on these to compete or else pay homage to them as they’ve been largely dormant. And in the case of Contra, Konami’s attempt last year was almost universally panned for pretty much not playing or looking like Contra at all whatsoever. Although it did have a death panda. So I suppose there was something. Anyway,  it was a scant short couple of months later today’s game was released. Blazing Chrome actually does play like a Contra game, being heavily influenced by Contra Hard Corps on the Sega Genesis. Is it worthy of the praise it has gotten over the course of nearly a year? Yes. Is it an absolutely flawless game? No. Does that really matter? To most of us probably not.

PROS: Breathtaking pixel art. Neo New Wave. Great character and level design.

CONS: Some *really* cheap enemies on your first few runs.

KRISTINE: Why had I never heard of them before beating this game?

Blazing Chrome isn’t the first Run ‘n Gun to pay tribute to Contra and it certainly won’t be the last. But it is one of the better ones in recent years. When I first started playing the game I was immediately reminded of Contra III: The Alien Wars as both start you out in a war-torn cityscape. Though the pacing of the game veers a bit more toward Contra Hard Corps. The storyline, of course, is very different. Instead of centering around an alien invasion angle, Blazing Chrome has more in common with the Terminator movies. It’s the distant future, and we have a ragtag band of heroes fighting off the robot armies bent on snuffing out humanity. They even reference the machines as “Toasters” a pejorative that I suspect would raise the eyes of robot sympathizers in this fiction.

Be that as it may, you can actually play as a “Toaster” since Doyle, is a robot who has betrayed the sentient robot overlord to serve the human resistance. Mavra is this world’s Sarah Connor, a badass who takes down the robots with extreme prejudice.  After a very detailed set of cinema screens, you will start the game and choose which of our two protagonists you want to use. (There are others but you have to unlock them by playing through the campaign.) Then you choose the overall difficulty setting you desire. There’s a brief tutorial after this, and you’re then thrust into an exciting picture of a tablet.

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The tablet has each of the stages laid out, and you can play them in the order you wish. It’s essentially taking a page from Taito’s POWER BLADE games on the NES, where you can go through these in the order you want before going onto the final stage. This, in turn, is an offshoot of the Stage Select set up in Capcom’s Mega Man games. So Blazing Chrome is a big fan of more than only Contra.

Each of the stages has a difficulty number on it going 1 (easiest) to 5 (hardest) the thing is it isn’t really an indicator of difficulty. Each of the stages has something fairly tough about it. In fact, that’s one of the things that will become very apparent. The game revels in some very cheap enemies resulting in some artificial bumps in the challenge. Even if you play on the easiest setting you’re going to have enemies that jump in the exact place you need to be jumping. Or coming from the side onto the platform you need to be on at that precise second. It’s as if the designers knew where you were going to go and placed a Nelson Munz “Ha Ha!” there.

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Now one could point out that’s exactly what the Contra games do. But this does it to the nth degree at a couple of places in the game. However, don’t lose heart and give up so easily. Because Blazing Chrome is a rather brilliant game. Once you die in a spot the first time, you’ll begin to think of alternative patterns you might use to jump instead. Or you may simply discover you have to be patient in a setting that on its surface seems to require impatience. You’ll find simply waiting a second before jumping means the enemy pulls the trigger on that jump (no pun intended) first allowing you to get off the shot you needed to get by.

And really that’s the only major crime the game commits. Relying too much on “A-HA!” deaths. Beyond that, everything else is more than fair. Attack patterns aren’t impossible to spot. You might have to attempt a certain section or boss several dozen times to figure it out, but you’ll eventually be able to do it. The game also has unlimited continues on the easiest and normal settings. So you won’t have to worry about starting the entire game over again after a few fail states

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Blazing Chrome also has a wide variety of scenery it’s worth noting here. You have the usual war-torn cityscapes and mechanical underworlds you might expect from a game like this. But there’s also a beautiful snowcapped nuclear winter stage replete with one of three shmup sections. Another is a rather long battle train stage which also involves a motorcycle section. At one point in the game, you’ll have a section that will take you back to the glory of Sega’s Space Harrier. And it’s also one of the more challenging legs of the game.

Visually, as I’ve said, the pixel art on display is amazing. Blazing Chrome is a beautiful game. Joymasher’s artists have clearly put in a lot of love and care into the characters, animation, and backgrounds to bring this world to life. And the soundtrack keeps pace with it’s thumping New Wave Post Punk chiptune goodness. And while it all has the art design of something that should have come out on the Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo, the game has a slew of visual effects that would probably not have been possible on either of those consoles. This is especially true when you get to the final act of the game where everything becomes a TRON reference. It’s really awesome stuff.

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Beating the game also nets you a number of things. First of all, you’ll get two new characters, a cyborg and a ninja who play more like Mega Man X than the soldiers of Contra. All four of the characters also have a melee attack a la Metal Slug, so keep that in mind when enemies really start swarming you. Beating the game on normal also unlocks a mirror mode where all of the stages are the same but the scenes move right to left instead of left to right. It’s a bit weird at first trying to remember what obstacle comes next as it can be disorienting. But once you readjust it’s a novel addition. You’ll also notice if you start the game on easy, then play on normal a bunch of new surprises are in store for you. There are new pitfalls. extra enemies. Even bosses will have extra attacks they don’t employ on the lowest setting.

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You can also unlock a boss rush mode where you fight every boss in the game in a row. Not a major addition, but something to do when you’ve done pretty much everything else. That is until you decide to go for the Hardest difficulty where the game throws even more bad guys at you, everything takes more damage to kill, and you only get three lives. Also, you only get three continues. And as daunting as that may sound, after having played a bunch of the game I can say it is doable. The question is whether or not you would want to. If you’re the sort of player who likes to squeeze every last piece of content out of your game it’s something worth going for. If you’re more the type to beat a game once or twice before putting it away for a while you might ignore it.

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Still, in spite of some initial frustration, some out there might have, stick with the game. Eventually, you’ll get to the end of the game and enjoy the terrific finale. While the final leg is a bit of a gauntlet, it’s an entertaining one that consistently does something new. Being able to play the stages in the order you wish is nice too as you can get the ones you like the least done first or dive into the ones you like right away. Fire up Blazing Chrome, win the day, and listen to that awesome Kristine song. Which immediately made me wonder why I hadn’t heard of them before. Turns out they’re pretty great.

As is Blazing Chrome.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

PROJECT WARLOCK Review

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Well I know I’m once again way behind schedule and probably hemorrhaging eyeballs faster than Ric Flair would bleed in his wrestling matches. Not that it is anyone’s problem other than my own. But when there’s a scare, you’re told you’re essential and said essential gig is the one that pays regularly, online endeavors have to take a back seat. Well, that or you quit. But that wouldn’t leave me with many prospects. So we have to count our blessings, prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

All of that said, I pray for everyone affected by this pandemic and hope those who haven’t contracted it never do. Personally, I know a few people locally whose relatives were infected and it hasn’t been easy for them. It’s been said a billion times, but unless you’re completely out of food, don’t leave the house. And if you are, go to the store, buy two months worth of stuff and go directly home. It isn’t worth the risk. I had a customer complain they had to spend time with their kids. I couldn’t believe it. I told them to appreciate the time with them now rather than regret not having the time when they’re in their 90’s lamenting the fact they never spoke to one another.

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Anyway, I was fortunate enough to find some time to stream a couple of nights last week. So I managed to play through two games and I thank any of you who dropped in. Whether you chatted me up or just lurked. The first of these was today’s game. PROJECT WARLOCK. While the second was BLAZING CHROME which I will get to in a future review. PROJECT WARLOCK (Which demands an all-caps introduction. It really is a cool sounding name. Like something out of the B movie selection in the action movie section in the video store, we had back in 1993. But I’ve gone on a tangent.) is another in a line of games that pays homage to First-Person Shooters of yesteryear. But this one takes a little bit of a turn by going way back. Way, way, back to the earlier games put out by id Software and Apogee.

PROS: Great level design. Great characters. Great aesthetics. Customization!

CONS: Some people aren’t going to like having a lives system.

SURPRISE!: The game loves to throw a few curve balls from time to time.

Many games, of course, are inspired by DOOM, Quake, or Duke Nukem 3D. Some of these have even gone as far as run on those games’ classic engines. But this one goes back even further. Back to the days where every room was designed with cubes and 90-degree corners. Catacomb Abyss, Wolfenstein-3D, Blake Stone: Aliens Of Gold are the types of games this one takes much of its inspiration from. However, the game runs on Unity, and as such isn’t completely bolted down to those games’ limitations. However, it sticks to most of them while allowing for different ceiling and wall heights as well as elevators. Plus there are some nice skyboxes and interactive sprites and textures. The end result is something that feels like a combination of the aforementioned games and Rise Of The Triad. A classic that was born of a heavily modified Wolfenstein-3D engine.

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Unlike Rise Of The Triad, there aren’t any bizarre cultic terrorist organizations portrayed with digitized actors in the vein of Mortal Kombat. But you will be gunning down many, many enemies, collecting boatloads of treasure, and looking for many secrets. For those who have never played any of the First-Person Shooters prior to DOOM, this game may seem fairly restrictive at first. This hearkens back to a time when FPS games only had one set height for the floor. There were no stairs. There were no cliffs. It was rare to even see a puzzle involving switches. Secret areas were accessed by physically moving cubes of the environment back so many paces. In short, these were mazes like you would see in an early arcade game like Berzerk or in Muse Software’s Castle Wolfenstein (A game inspired by Berzerk that in turn inspired Wolfenstein-3D) but in the first person.

That meant hours of pushing on walls for those who wanted to find every conceivable secret in between blasting enemies. A lot of that experience has been recreated here. But it also has a couple of modern conveniences that make the experience a lot more interesting as well as enjoyable. For starters, this game has a contemporary control scheme. Back before Quake gave us this control scheme, most FPS games were controlled by using the arrow keys to move forward, backward, and to turn. You would fire by pressing CTRL, and if you needed to strafe you had to hold the ALT key while pressing left or right. The Spacebar opened doors. Even today, many people will download a source port when they buy a classic game like DOOM because going back to that setup feels archaic. Even to many veterans who are used to it.

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Project Warlock eschews that and retains the WASD, and a mouse control setup we’ve enjoyed since 1998. Be that as it may, this is still very much inspired by those pre-DOOM years so you won’t be jumping or crouching. But don’t worry, because these limitations actually forced the developers to get far more creative. Which is quite common when creating anything. Intentionally limiting yourself means inventing new ways to implement ideas you really believe in and Buckshot Software has done a phenomenal job with this game.

While the limitations may sound like a bad idea to some, they’re done very well here. Level designs are quite elaborate here and can get really deep. You may think you’ve hit a brick wall in finding the exit, then retrace all of your steps to find a door that was hiding in plain sight. Or you may think that secret you discovered was a monster closet because it was, but getting through it got you a weapon earlier than expected.

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The art design goes along with very well. They have done a fantastic job with all of this. Each of the game’s episodes has a completely different setting with a cast of enemies to go along with it. When you first start the game you’ll go through an initial stage that gets you acclimated with everything while being a surprisingly challenging stage. Frankly, it’s one of the toughest parts of the game. But you’ll want to press on and defeat it because things will become more manageable over time.

Eventually, you’ll find yourself in a small fortress stage that acts as a hub level where you’ll be able to level up your abilities, weapons, and choose missions. It feels a lot like the system in Bioshock, except you don’t have to choose to harvest Little Sisters and tick off Big Daddies. As you play through the game you can find stat building icons and you’ll also level up by mowing down hundreds of enemies. After so many stages you’ll find yourself back here, where you’ll be able to spend those upgrades on beefing up weapons, spells, and abilities.

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The game gives you two styles of assault. Traditional weapons you’d expect like guns or grenade launchers and Magical weapons like you would see in a game like Heretic. The magical weapons and spells use mana while the traditional weapons use their own ammunition.  Over time you’ll begin to make yourself bigger and better as you increase your health bars and add crazy enhancements to your arsenal. For instance, you can turn one weapon into a rail gun, or make a wimpy handgun go from a pea shooter to a hand cannon.

This actually means that earlier stages in many ways can seem more difficult to clear than some of the later ones. But this doesn’t make things feel insurmountable, rather it gives the game an RPG like affair in the sense that when earlier enemies that felt unkillable go down in a far more reasonable amount of time. Project Warlock also calls back to the old id/Apogee days by having episodes. Each episode has a few ranges of stages within them and culminates with a boss fight. Each episode also has its own particular look and feel. The first episode features a lot of horror and fantasy themed characters and settings. The episode after that goes for an icy tundra theme with winter stages, and enemies like abominable snowmen and creatures stuck in panes of ice. Other episodes have ancient Egyptian themes or industrial sci-fi themes. The final episode homogenizes all of these together.

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After a predetermined number of stages within each episode, things will take a break to send you back to the hub for more leveling up. Keep in mind the episodes have to be played through in sequential order. You can’t play them at your leisure the way you can in Wolfenstein 3D. At the end of each episode, the related aforementioned boss stage opens up and commences. Some Boss fights in this game do move beyond the typical “Shoot the Cyberdemon until it dies” meme battles you remember from games like DOOM. All of them are visually creative and have a number of things going on. One of the battles takes place against a giant Sphinx that goes in a different direction you might expect it to. Another boss implements a switch mechanic in its combat. Overall, these all come off as very memorable due to the combination of terrific character designs, sound effects, and attack patterns that really make them stand out.

In between episodes, the game takes some influence from DOOM by giving you a full-screen essay on what happens with your character’s following exploits. The game also does have a few really interesting options to go along with the entire package. One cool feature the game has is something that has also been done in other indie games. But usually, they’ve been completely different genres. That feature is the ability to put on different filters to emulate the look of older platforms. There are palates for the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Nintendo Game Boy, and others. The game also has a CRT filter for those that want it. But rather than a simple on and off toggle, you can set a number of meters for the level of detail you want. You can also set variables for how pixelated you want the game to look.

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Admittedly, some of the retro settings can actually make some of the enemies harder to see, so in some cases, the game can become more difficult than it otherwise might be. You can also put on some more contemporary special effects like Ambient Occlusion. In short, the game does give you a lot of options if you’re into customizing the look and performance of your games.

This is also another game that has a fantastic soundtrack. Jerry Leha and Luke Wilson have put together a list of songs that fit the world of the game perfectly with a mix of Heavy Metal, New Wave, Industrial Electronica, as well as some orchestral elements blended into each of them. It’s a great game!

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Not everything in the game is as good as it could be. As I said, the optional filters can sometimes make things hard to see. The other thing some might not like is that the game retains a lives system from the days of Wolfenstein 3D. So, unfortunately, you won’t be able to press a button to quicksave the way you’ve been doing since the days of Quake. If you die, you’ll have to redo everything you have in that stage up to that point. Fortunately, there are ways to find extra lives, and updating your arsenal will definitely mitigate that.  Still, these won’t be considered transgressions by everyone. Especially for those that might point out how a quicksave feature could be abused by constantly pressing it after killing each and every enemy.

Ultimately though, this is worth picking up. It’s a great blend of Pre-DOOM conventions and modern conveniences of the genre. One that you really have to see to believe. A number of games today take inspiration from DOOM, it’s less common to see them take it from Wolfenstein 3D. The fact that this one does and does it well makes it really stand out. With it putting in current things like a WASD and mouselook control scheme it makes it still feel like a contemporary game when playing it. It’s got awesome art design, great characters, imposing bosses, and a solid leveling system. But be aware it does have a couple of early conventions you may not be used to if you weren’t around for the glory days of early id Software and Apogee.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

 

Overtime, musings, and dormant styles.

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With everyone going into panic mode around here with the virus scare I’ve been working most of the time. It’s essential to retail and we’ve been short-staffed so I’ve had a couple of weeks with overtime. I’ve managed to get in a stream in or two but not a lot of time to write. Last weekend though I somehow managed to get the weekend free so I decided to stream one of my favorite series: Unreal Tournament.

I wrote a lengthy retrospective a few years ago so I won’t be going deep into the games themselves here. Rather I’ll talk a bit about the things going on in my life at the time these came out and what they really meant to me. Also replaying these games this weekend brought up a bigger question that I’ll get to a little bit later.

The original Unreal Tournament came out in November of 1999. It’s hard to believe but the series is going to be 21 years old this November. By October of 2000, the Game Of The Year Edition was released which had the extra content that had been added later included. Around this time I had left a now-defunct footwear retailer to work at a now-defunct OEM. I needed that change. I was taken advantage of by the new boss I had at the time. Was constantly called in anytime anyone else called out. I was cursed by my own work ethic. And yet I knew if I had called out or slacked the way some of my coworkers had, I’d have been dropped like a bad habit. And working with and selling computers was far more interesting to me than a self-serve shoe store. And of course, at the OEM we often had demos of games.  It was the second of two games I bought where I knew I was going to have to replace my computer at the time. (The first game was SiN.) My CD ROM drive was too slow to load the audio during SiN, and my Pentium 200 was barely handling it. Plus my Packard Bell had integrated video and no expansion slot for a graphics card. I had played UT in software mode on it, and it did run. But the grainy Game Boy Advance level visuals made seeing people with shock rifles in the distance impossible. When my brother and I played the game over a crossover cable, I had zero chance against his new 900mhz Athlon and TNT 2 combination.

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Fast forward and I had gotten a deal through work. My 1.2Ghz Athlon with 256MB RAM and a GeForce 2 were prepped to play it. That game consumed us after work. Sometimes we would stay after closing the showroom and repair center to play that on LAN through the server we had. I’ll never forget the one night a coworker got up from his station to look at my monitor to tell everyone where I was sniping them from. I had been on a sizeable killing spree as I picked them off. “Double Kill!” “Triple Kill!” “Mega Kill!” “M-M-M-MONSTER KILL!”. That came to a quick end when the staff collectively jumped me with miniguns, rippers, and rockets.

It (along with  Quake III Arena) was great because it took the secondary mode we’d played in DOOM over the modem, and made it into its own game. It also went in a different direction than Quake III Arena. It implemented a dodge system and a feigning death feature. Whereas Quake focused on speeding up momentum with advanced strategies like strafe jumping and rocket jumping. Both were excellent. Taking the same basic concepts and doing entirely different executions on them. Thus the Arena shooter was cemented as a subgenre.

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A few years later Epic would partner with Infogrames (Who had just bought Atari and rebranded itself as such) as a publisher and announce UT would be a yearly release. This was because they looked at the game’s story of futuristic blood sport and figured it could mirror what Sports games had done as a genre. So when UT2003 came out it started with an almost pro wrestling level introduction. It had its share of bugs and balancing issues. Plus not everyone was sold on the higher system requirements. Still, I remember the game demo being useful as it was on three of our stations at the time and I could show people that the cheap system wouldn’t run it (Or other games) well, due to the cost-cutting measures. (Low-end processor. integrated video. No card slot expansion due to the use of a flex case) but the midrange and high end would run it rather fantastically. Plus I enjoyed the demo so much when we got it available I picked it up. As I’ve said elsewhere before, it was here that I started to get into the higher-level stuff. I had decided I wanted to “Git Gud” as the kids say these days and that meant playing and researching a lot. And I still went back to the older game too as coworkers played it a lot, and even my friends and relatives enjoyed it.

I started out (and maybe this will help some of you out in a more modern game you enjoy) small. First, I decided that I would get 5 frags per round. I knew I had no hope of coming out on top consistently. There were just too many great players out there. But I was going to get that five kills. Middle. Bottom. I didn’t care. All that mattered was that I would get five kills. It was a small, achievable, reasonable goal. It took a good couple of weeks of playing to do that consistently. But once I got there, I moved the goal post. TEN frags per round.

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The other thing I noticed early on even in the first game was that people often ignored the Bio Rifle unless it was the only gun other than the starting weapon they had any ammo for. (In the first game you started with a pistol. In 2003 they started you off with an assault rifle.)  Much like in the Fighting game community, competitive shooters often have tier lists. (Now Maximillian Dood did a wonderful rant about how they’re often misused in fighters today.) But the same logic can apply to shooters. And while they’re not taken as gospel the way they can be in a fighting game community, they do sometimes have people treating some of the less popular weapons as ignorable and the more popular ones as coveted. Like the Energy sword in the original Halo for example. I remember people being called cheap for using it because people on the receiving end often couldn’t find a counter. In Unreal Tournament people often said that about the Flak Cannon and the Shock Rifle. Namely, because the Flak Cannon’s primary shot could ricochet shrapnel around corners and the Shock Rifle could shoot its secondary ammo with its primary shot after the secondary ammo had been fired. Causing a massive blast that could often kill more than 3 people at once if they were in close proximity.

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By contrast, nobody wanted to touch the Bio Rifle. So I decided since I wasn’t very good anyway, why not use the weapon nobody liked? So over time, I learned that the secondary fire could be held to charge up the slime almost like a spring on a pinball cabinet. And that a full charge would often one-shot someone unless they had full armor, and extra health. Even if they survived, they would be a mere two bullets or a laser or an explosion away from death. So I began practicing that weapon a lot.

Unreal Tournament 2003 also had a couple of extra game types the first one didn’t have which made the game stand out even more. The big one was Bombing Run which was like Football crossed with Team Deathmatch. It wasn’t my favorite mode, but it was interesting nevertheless. UT2k3 was also a crash course in video card upgrades for me along with Serious Sam The Second Encounter. Around this time Nvidia had released their GeForce 4 line of cards, and they didn’t have the most forthcoming naming convention. They had an MX line and a TI (Titanium) line of cards. And unfortunately, they didn’t do the best job of explaining what each was. I bought a GeForce 4400 MX from EB Games when I bought Serious Sam The Second Encounter. Only to find that it wasn’t a big leap in performance over my GeForce 2. It wasn’t until after this I did more research to find out it was basically a GeForce 2 with some more features thrown in. Nice for a buyer moving up from the onboard video. Not so much for someone who already had a card. Fortunately, a coworker needed a card for a slightly older rig so he was willing to buy it from me for a little less than I’d paid. I then ordered a GeForce 4 TI 4600 which was vastly superior. I had also upgraded the RAM to 512MB at one point.

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Still, a year and a half later Unreal Tournament 2004 was to be out. By this time in 2003 things at my job at the OEM weren’t so great. The dot com bust had hurt a bunch of stuff in tech. There was a price war, Things were on the downslope. It was also a time when I was tweaking any possible thing I could to get the best performance in games on my hardware. When I couldn’t crack 60FPS on my computer I had to take drastic action to ensure UT2k3 had as much memory freed up as possible. So I went into Windows ME and turned off all the visual flair making it look like a Windows 98 desktop. Still not content, I turned off animated windows, I tweaked all of the power settings. I even went into the services and disabled so many features I didn’t think I would ever need. Sure things looked pretty plain, but it held me over until I had my next upgrade. I was running the game at 70 FPS on medium to high settings. Pretty cool. Our showroom was scuttled later that year and I ended up taking a transfer to another showroom an hour or so away.  And things were pretty tense. We were given impossible metrics to hit and they eventually expected us to get business in the door by telemarketing out to small businesses in the town. Which obviously failed spectacularly. And our boss at the time just barked at us all the time about all of it even when we had great weeks.

I got along with everyone else though. But UT2003 got me through a number of particularly stressful patches at the time. I could stop worrying about the other shoe potentially falling when I would get home. It wasn’t all bad.  And I would also make a few friends which would eventually lead to me being on an actual team! I also became better friends with a couple of the folks I worked with. One of whom was into a lot of the same bands as I was. So we talked about music and went to some of the same New York and New England shows together. The best being getting to see The Mr. T Experience play The Space in February 2004. Unreal Tournament 2004 would drop in March of 2004. Things were getting really untenable at my job at this point, and many of us were considering walking out. A few weeks later we were told we were all losing our jobs by the end of April anyway. So we grit our teeth and bore it in order to get our severance, which was honestly a very good set of release benefits. I still had a little left by the time I landed another job months later.

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It was around this time I would discover the Super Witch server, where a number of regulars would play. And some of the better players had noticed my proficiency with the Bio Rifle. I was able to hold my own, often getting near the top of the board until tournament level players would pop in and clown me. But before long I was surprised to find a lot of these guys were impressed enough they wanted to help me learn some of the more advanced movement I hadn’t quite pulled off on my own. How to combine wall dodges with double jumps to get to harder to reach areas. Using an elevator jumps more effectively. Better planning map routes to beat people to power-ups. Eventually, I would be invited to join Maximum Carnage. And after a few months of being unemployed, I ended up getting a tech sales job at a big-box retailer. Probably not the one you’re thinking of. But I don’t look to stir the pot so I never mention names. Anyway, by this time I had resolved to build my first homebrew machine. I went with an Athlon 64 3500+ 1GB RAM and a GeForce 6600GT if my memory serves me right. So playing UT2k4 at maximum settings was very impressive at the time. A few years later I went with an X2 4600+ Processor upgrade

My job wasn’t that impressive, but at least on some level, I was still able to do some of what I liked about the previous job. Yes, I dealt with a lot of undue pressure because everything was in sheer panic mode, especially at the end. But getting to talk about tech, tying hardware to someone’s needs, and making people (hopefully) happy with a purchase was something I honestly liked most of the time. I also learned we actually did some repairs in the big box store but the company never advertised this at the time for whatever reason. We had one devoted technician for it, and he would come in a couple of days a week but went to several stores to do this work. I got to speak with him about it from time to time but in the interim, I mostly had the mundane task of sorting deliveries between my department and the others, then putting it all out in between helping people.

The people there at the time weren’t flogging me or anything (yet) but they seemed mostly cold. Nobody was all that personable. You were only spoken to when you needed to be. “Do this task.” “Mention this promo.” “Answer the phone with this call script.” It was a very clinical environment. There was one personable person in another department who ended up being there around as long as I was. So my early days consisted of work, then go home. Sometimes I would go hang out at the nearby record store I frequented regularly after work but more so as we weren’t that far away from it.

I had also joined a local writing group around then, so on nights that I could make the meetups at the local bookstore, I would go share my poetry, and talk about my writing process. It was definitely an older crowd. Not a lot of people my own age were there but I did enjoy that because a lot of what I wrote about was personal. Some of them fictionalized. Some of it was allegorical. But still very much about the inward feelings of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and loneliness I dealt with (and still sometimes deal with though I’m much better today). I also had a very scant few people I felt I could confide in at the time. So this was a creative and therapeutic outlet for me. The other had become my love of Unreal Tournament.

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When the bookstore closed there were a couple of places the writing group would meet up instead, but eventually that folded. In my time there I got the sense that people thought I had a modicum of talent, but probably didn’t like the ratio leaning so much into the dark themes versus the light themes. There were two people there Leon and Josh who I felt did fantastic commentary in their work. I felt happy when Josh actually managed to get something published, and I got to meet a couple of authors in my time there. Lauren Baratz-Logsted was pretty cool. Not exactly game related, but she has a few great novels you ought to look into if you’re looking for something different.

Anyway, I lost touch with everyone there but the Maximum Carnage clan had been a great group of people too. I was mingling with a great group of players, I was getting much better at all of the UT games up to that point, and we were consistently playing in scrims with tournament level clans. Unfortunately, we never got to the tournament level ourselves but we came pretty damn close.  By 2007 though Epic would prepare the third installment in the series which would come out in November.

This is where the series started to peter out, though it wasn’t instantaneous. There were good things and bad things going on. Unreal Tournament III was a great game. Make no mistake. It was a considerable visual upgrade. It retained a fast pace the series had been known for, and it even kept some of the most popular stuff from the previous game. The thing is the underlying gameplay did make some changes. The fanbase liked UT and UT2k4. With 2k4 they basically had fixed the problems 2k3 had while retaining all of the good stuff. Plus it gave everyone the highly acclaimed Onslaught mode. But UT fans also had their preferences. Some in the community preferred the original 1999 game. They liked the heavier gravity and the armor system. The fans who preferred the 2003/2004 model enjoyed some advanced movement techniques like the dodge jump or the double jump wall dodge. The lighter gravity also meant that maps were built around trick jumping. And there was a wide variety of outlandish characters. The 2003/2004 versions also employed an interesting adrenaline mechanic, where rather than picking up power-up icons like in UT99, collecting 100 pills would let you perform a special movement sequence to get the same effect. For instance, strafing left, left, right, right, would initiate the invisibility power-up.

Unreal Tournament III tried to bridge that gap. It went with a similar weight to the original game and used its shield belts, and jump boots too. But it also lets you do the advanced dodges featured in 2003/2004. But the other thing it did that many in the community didn’t like was using the art style of another popular game Epic had made for the Xbox 360; Gears Of War. Gone were the regular but interesting future soldiers of UT99 and the variety of sci-fi horror characters of 2003/2004. Instead, the characters had the big bulky space armor of the Marcus Fenix variety.

One other thing that set the game back a bit was the high (at the time) requirements for the PC version. While Crytek’s Crysis was even higher, both games had scrutinized releases as a result. That said, I had loved the series so much it was one of the few times I’ve actually bought a collector’s edition. Previously, I had even bought a book on creating content with the Unreal 2 Engine and even made a few crude UT2k4 maps in it. My clan took those maps and made them look pretty cool, adding advanced geometry and original textures. We also had the Zounds mutator on the server which had let us type certain words in chat to hear sound bites. Every time one typed in “Goo” into the chat you would hear Will Smith in Independence Day yelling “Oh you did NOT shoot that green shit at me!” 

The UT3 collector’s edition came with some cool stuff. A hardcover art book that you normally would pay a decent amount for if you saw it in a bookstore, as well as a number of videos on the making of the game, and even some interviews with Mark Rein and Mike Capps. It has a similar steelbook to the one Nintendo used for the Metroid Prime Trilogy. Very nice. Despite all of the things going against it, it still did adequately and Epic tried to make up for it with the Titan Black update. While I personally enjoyed UT3 most of the people in Maximum Carnage still played far more UT2k4. Sadly, we disbanded by the middle of 2008 or so. Which wasn’t the best time for me because I had a relationship end. Not a serious one. But it still hurt. Three games got me through it. Unreal Tournament 2004, Unreal Tournament III,  on my computer and the copy of No More Heroes my friend had given to me on the Wii for my birthday around then.

But this was also the time Call Of Duty 4 would be so popular it would almost transplant the Arena FPS as a subgenre. There had been popular military shooters before. The earlier entries of Call Of Duty all did well enough, and Battlefield 1942 surely inspired the Onslaught mode that was in Unreal Tournament 2004. But the grounded realism proved very popular and the Arena FPS would take a backseat.

There were flashes here and there. id Software had some success with Quake Live, which (at the time) was Quake III Arena running in a browser. It was popular enough that it even retained a presence in tournaments for a long time. But on the whole, the publishers shifted gears to military shooters. Call Of Duty, of course, was more focused on individual scoring while Battlefield was a little more team-oriented. But Medal Of Honor, Brothers In Arms, Arma, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, Day Of Defeat were but a handful of the many names that would become quite popular. Even Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six had left a lot of its tactical shooting mechanics in the dust by then giving us stuff like Lockdown, Vegas, and Vegas 2 instead.

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Replaying the Unreal Tournament series not only took me back to those days in my life, but it was also a reminder of what makes the Arena shooter such a great subgenre. Like other multiplayer games, there’s obviously the thrill of competition. But when it comes to the way they play, there is little else like them. First of all, speed. Arena FPS games focus a lot on an arcade experience. So one of the things you need to do is constantly tweak your hand and eye coordination. It isn’t enough to shoot at people. You have to be able to shoot them quickly and efficiently. You also have to make good use of footwork. If you’re a great shot, but horrible at moving, you’re probably getting taken out by different opponent than the one you’re trying to take down. And even if you’re fantastic that might happen anyway.

Arena shooters easy to pick up and play. Anyone can hop in, get a couple of kills and have a good time. But they have a fairly deep meta game in spite of the simplicity. That’s what has made them (along with fighting games) pioneers in the e-sports realm. People like Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel made names for themselves in Quake and Unreal Tournament. They paved the way for the names and genres you see represented today. Even if you don’t have tournaments and endorsements as your video game end goal, learning those advanced techniques can be addicting and very rewarding at the same time. The first time you’re able to find a secret room in a map because you mastered an elevator jump or the first time you survive a shock combo because you timed a dodge jump just right feels very good. When you find you can get around a map with trick jumps faster than you can by walking. These are all examples of the sense of wonder you get when something just clicks.

Of course, since their heyday, we’ve seen Military Shooters, Hero Shooters, and Battle Royale Shooters become the popular FPS multiplayer subgenres. We already talked a bit about the Call Of Duty and Battlefields. But games like Overwatch have proven popular too. Games were rather than grab everything on a map, or begin with a loadout you start with a character. Said character is designed to play a certain role on a team and you try to plan your team composition not only around your own talents but what character is the best at a given task on a certain map.

All of these games take elements from those old school games of course. Military Shooters try to have balanced maps and reward cooperation. Hero Shooters retain some of the fantastical elements. Sometimes in the weapons or utilities of a certain character. Or the otherworldly aesthetic of a certain location. Although it’s a Third-Person Shooter, I find there are many parallels between Nintendo’s Splatoon games and the Unreal Tournament games. Both series, while very different in their goals require a mastery of movement. Where UT has advanced techniques like dodges or wall dodges to quickly cover ground or use them as an unorthodox means of travel, Splatoon requires you to learn how to do swim jumps. Or learn how to swim up walls, or jump between walls to get to a place that was once thought impossible to see. Splatoon’s Bubble Blower Special is eerily close to Unreal Tournament’s Shock Combo.

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These days, the Battle Royale subgenre is all of the rages. Games like Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite, and Apex Legends are always talked about, have huge fanbases and even push their share of collectible merchandise like action figures and resin statues. They’re frequently headlining video game tournaments, and are played by a lot of the world’s top players for thousands of dollars in prize money. And while it would be easy to write them off as a lottery where you run from a dome, that wouldn’t be fair. At their core, they’re the Last Man Standing mode featured in many old school deathmatch games. But expanded to 100 players. Also, like the Arena Shooters of old, you have to go explore to find yourself a weapon of note. And to the subgenre’s credit, the dome mechanic keeps everything from devolving into a snore where every player who finds a long-range sniper rifle will just camp for three hours in the hopes that everyone else will get bored and walk out into the line of fire. It basically forces every player to do so.

Still, I personally wish the Arena FPS subgenre would come back to the forefront of popularity. It’s a fantastic one for the reasons I’ve outlined earlier. Many people agree and likely have similar fond memories of firing up Quake or Unreal, staying up until 4am playing against friends over the internet with a few beers. Or hardcore types going to BYOB LAN parties or local tournaments for the fellowship, community, and competition.

Since then there have been occasional attempts by smaller developers to bring the subgenre back. Nexius was born out of that desire back in 2012 but didn’t get very far out of the gate despite being pretty respectable. Fast forward to 2014 and Reflex Arena hit Steam in an attempt to give people unsatisfied with the lack of a proper Quake entry something to like. To its credit, it did a fantastic job of bringing back the Quake III Arena feel. But it didn’t hold onto a big group of players for very long. The arguably most successful attempt was Toxikk which brought back the Unreal Tournament 2004 gameplay nearly 1:1 on Unreal Engine 3. It came out four years ago now and held a sizable number of players for almost two years. But eventually, it too petered out.

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Epic Games DID have an Unreal Tournament IV in the works. It was going to be a collaborative experiment where they would again align with Digital Extremes, as well as content creators. The original plan was to build the game and ship it for free. Then when the end-users got their hands on the game and tools, they could make their own maps, mods, and total conversions as they had with UT, UT2k3/2k4, and UT3. The difference now being they would sell those on Epic’s digital store and take a cut to cover the cost of production. As well as a profit I’m sure. It actually got pretty far along and you can still download it from their store. The thing is it was canceled when Epic Games realized just how much oil they had struck with Fortnite. The people they had working on Unreal Tournament were moved to Fortnite and the game was put on indefinite hiatus. It’s highly unlikely it will ever see completion at this point.

The other thing, of course, is that games of this ilk can cost millions of dollars to make. Especially if it’s going to have the bleeding edge Hollywood visuals and sound of a AAA blockbuster release. Sadly, that means the Epic Games’, Bethesda’s, EA’s, Activision’s, Ubisoft’s, or Warners of the world probably aren’t going to put the money up to make a go of it. If only the old-timers like me buy it, that probably isn’t enough of a profit to impress their shareholders.

It isn’t only Arena Shooters in this boat mind you. There are other video game genres and subgenres that lie dormant today. Most esoteric these days are probably hex-based strategy games and text adventures. Which still exist and have their rabid fanbases. But they’re not exactly games you’re going to hear about around the watercooler. Be that as it may, it isn’t entirely hopeless either. Things come and go in popularity sometimes. And in the world of gaming, this has happened many times. Back in the age of the Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn, and Sony PlayStation, there were many who thought the 2D platformer would forever have a fork in its back. Super Mario 64, Banjo Kazooie, Crash Bandicoot, were all games that people were about at the time. Nearly everyone was trying to make games where the mascot was made of polygons rather than sprites.

But 2D platformers would eventually come back into vogue and they sit alongside the 2.5D, and 3D platformers today as if nothing had ever happened to them. There was also a time when Square Enix thought their old school JRPGs were done. But just a few years ago Octopath Traveler’s success showed Square Enix that there is still plenty of gas in the tank. It did so well on the Switch that last year they ported the game to PC. Before the release of Street Fighter IV, it was widely thought Capcom may never make another one. The people behind it had to plead their case multiple times before the company would let them make it. Thankfully, they were able to. Not only did it lead the way for other Capcom fighting games, but other companies also brought back their fighting games as well. There was a reemergence of the genre as a whole.

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So there’s always the chance a newcomer will make the Arena Shooter that clicks again, or there’s evidence that enough people do want a proper Unreal Tournament or Quake that Epic Games or Bethesda bring one to market again. The good news is that the old UT and Quake games are still around. The indie releases of recent years are still around. All of which support LAN play. So if nothing else, if you can get a few friends to pick up one of them you can still enjoy them. Maybe you won’t see the same level of competition you would have seen 21 years ago. But they don’t have to die with the generation of people who played them in their prime. I hope some of you will be willing to check the genre out. And some of them like Quake Champions and Toxikk can be played for nothing.

Arena Shooters and Unreal Tournament, in particular, helped me cope, helped me connect with people, made me a better player and even gave me the drive to learn something new. I may not have become a professional player. I may not have gotten a better job or fame or fortune. But I did see some positive things come from what was otherwise a silly game meant for fun. So I’ll always fondly remember them, and I’ll likely keep an eye out for the next attempt at spotlighting the subgenre.

Super Mario Multiverse: Mario Bros.

 

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Well, the stars have aligned, the time has flown and here we are. The Well-Red Mage invited I as well as a slew of others to take part in the Super Mario Multiverse special crossover event. In it, you’ll see some words about the many, many, MANY games featuring Nintendo’s mustached mascot. Everyone remembers Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and Super Mario 64. But not a lot of people comparably talk about the first major game where his name was in the title.

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Mario Bros. came at a weird time for many of us. It bridged the gap between Mario’s adventures as a construction worker trying to save his girlfriend from a crazed ape and his time as a plumber trying to save royalty from a dragon turtle. And while a lot of people knew about it well in advance of Super Mario Bros. Some people didn’t. In fact, some people still don’t know it’s a thing. Imagine my surprise for instance, when a former coworker tried playing it on the Famiclone handheld I’d brought in for my lunch break one day. He kept trying to jump on the shell creepers and flies to no avail.

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Travel back to 1983 however, and you’ll find there were a few home versions released across several platforms. In Japan, the Famicom obviously got a version. But Hudson Soft also ported the game to the PC-88 computer. Ocean Software would port the game to a slew of computers in the European market including the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. Here in the United States Atari would get the publishing rights and proceeded to release the game for the Atari 2600 and Atari 5200.  The 5200 version is interesting because the console largely used the same components as Atari’s 8-bit computer line, the 400/800, XL (and later under Tramiel) XE. Despite this fact, the 5200, and 400/800 versions were different games. When the XE came out years later, a vastly superior version came out from Atari Corp. which was backward compatible with the 400/800 and XL lines. It makes one wonder why this couldn’t have simply been on the 5200 years earlier.

Atari also published North American computer versions on its Atarisoft label. Most famously for the Commodore 64. Of course, the North American video game market crash was right around the corner. So before long Warner Communications (Warner Media) would sell the home division of Atari to Jack Tramiel, who had been pushed out of Commodore. This version of Atari was called Atari Corp. to differentiate itself from the Arcade division Warner still owned. Which they sold to Midway, who renamed it Atari Games West, folded it back into Midway, and then Midway sold itself to Time Warner. (Warner Media.).

 

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But I almost went on a tangent of coincidence there. We’re talking about Mario Bros. And Atari Corp. would port Mario Bros. to the Atari 7800, and the Atari 400/800/XE. At a time when the NES was already killing it with Super Mario Bros. Though you can also find Mario Bros. on the NES as well. It’s also interesting how the porting rights worked out back then as it often led to computer platforms getting two versions of the same game. In this case, Ocean brought Mario Bros. to European C64 owners while Atari brought Mario Bros. to North American C64 owners.

 

As an aside, there were a bunch of unofficial ports and sequels like Thundersoft’s Mario Bros II, which was more or less a reworking of Mario’s Cement Factory into a bottling plant. You filled cases of bottles and put them on a truck. And if you messed up, the boss would come out of their office and berate the Mario Bros. Thundersoft was mostly known as a group of European code crackers who would give away retail games with the anti-piracy measures removed. But this seems to be the one lone quasi-original thing they did. which they also gave away. It does, of course, use Nintendo’s characters and concept. But it doesn’t seem to have lifted graphics. Many of the other ports and clones of Mario Bros. walked much closer along the line of legality.

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Nintendo itself has also given the game these stealth reissues over the years. As a mini-game in Super Mario Bros. 3 then again as a mini-game in Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga. The port jobs, in general, are pretty good. Save for one or two bad ones, every one of them gets the core concept right. Some even go above and beyond. Atari’s Commodore 64 (as Atarisoft), and Atari 2600 versions are fantastic. Yes. The Atari 2600 version is a great version of Mario Bros. Atari Corp. also re-released it when they brought out the 7800 version which is also an excellent version of Mario Bros. In PAL (European) territories the 2600 re-release came as a red label variant no less, driving completionists just a little bit more crazy as there were already two domestic silver label variants in the wild.

 

Despite, all of the ways that Mario Bros. has been available to play though, a lot of people never checked it out. Particularly, Stateside. There are a few reasons for this, but many hypothesize the North American video game market crash certainly didn’t help. Fewer people were getting games as there was a lot of drivel out there at the time. There were also a lot of consoles out there. Sure most of us remember Atari 2600, Colecovision, and Intellivision. Thanks to the wealth of info out there today many of us wish we had maybe gotten a Vectrex. But ask the average person about an underlooked good system like the Magnavox Odyssey 2, and you’ll get a blank stare. Ask about the Emerson Arcadia 2001 and they may start wondering if you’re from another world. Or on a watchlist.

 

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These days, people worry if a fourth contender tries to enter the console market. Well, back in 1983 there were far more than four video game systems on store shelves. And most of them looked about the same in what they could do. Even the ones that looked better still had very similar games on them. There were also a lot of tiny upstarts throwing whatever they could at the wall to see what would stick.

 

And the home computers were running the same games at a higher fidelity, running their own deeper experiences the consoles didn’t have the features to handle, and they were getting down to similar prices. Before long everything would implode and Mario Bros. was one game that for at least a few people got lost in the shuffle. Some of this was felt in arcades too. While I can remember seeing Donkey Kong, and Donkey Kong Jr. among the machine selection at Chuck E. Cheese, I really only remember seeing Mario Bros. at Riverside Park when the family went to Agawam, MA. on a summer day. (It’s Six Flags New England now.)

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My first experience with the Atari 2600 version was at a friend’s. They had the Atari 2600 Jr. as well as an NES. I had never seen it before. But there it was. And while it isn’t the prettiest version of the game, it nails most of the gameplay down. There are a couple of tiny things missing like the ability to jump on the POW block. But the most important stuff is there. I’d imagine a lot of people’s first experience with a Mario game was Super Mario Bros. if it hadn’t been Donkey Kong. The NES was a juggernaut largely in part because of it. And it’s much more vast, and a more complex game compared to regular Mario Bros. But here’s the thing. Everyone who has played Super Mario Bros. but not Mario Bros. Should play Mario Bros. And before everybody jumps down my throat just hear me out.

First of all, it’s a really fun game. One that has a great sense of risk vs. reward. It’s also quite competitive when you get a second player as Mario and Luigi have to rally to outscore one another. It even can be dastardly when you’re intentionally bumping your opponent into enemies to stay alive longer. But more importantly than that, many of the things you love about Super Mario Bros. began here. Shellcreepers were the forebears to the Koopas. Coins are a big part of both games. and it got the ball rolling on Mario’s platforming style. There will be plenty of times you find yourself in situations where pixel-perfect jumps and timing are the only way to get out of hot water.

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Mario Bros. is also where the earliest series’ jumping physics got started. While not the same as in the Super Mario Bros. trilogy on the NES, they are similar. You can see what that classic bump and jump gameplay was built upon. Most of the Super Mario games feature bonus stages and even those are in Mario Bros. in the form of coin stages. Speaking of coins, they make that familiar sound whenever you collect them. But in Mario Bros.,  you had better get all of them if you want that sweet stack of bonus round points. And Mario Bros. even proves itself a viable stage in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Even more so than Donkey Kong’s 75m stage.

It’s a game that is important on so many levels and is sadly overshadowed by historical factors and future Mario releases. Thankfully, Nintendo often reminds us of this with its presence in newer releases. And there is a slew of ways to play it today. Any number of the aforementioned home ports are out there for collectors to seek out. And you can still get the arcade version on the Nintendo Switch through the e-shop. The Nintendo Online service also includes sone NES and Super NES ROMs you can download at no additional charge. One of those games is the NES port of Mario Bros. So if you own a Switch, and have been considering paying the annual $20 to play against your friends in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe or Splatoon 2, you’ll also be able to check out NES Mario Bros. without having to track down the original Game Pak.

In any case, the next time you find yourself in a conversation about important Super Mario moments, remember that between chasing down a gorilla to save his ex-girlfriend and chasing down a dragon-turtle to save his current one, Mario ran a successful plumbing business with his brother Luigi. And it was during those years he gained the skills he needed to save the Mushroom Kingdom hundreds of times over.

Sydney Hunter & The Curse Of The Mayan Review

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Over the last decade, there has been a slew of independent studios bringing us amazing platformers. Many of them taking elements of the mega-hits of yesteryear and working them into their projects. Sometimes in new ways, other times in a sendup. Today’s game is actually a sequel of sorts. Not only is Collectorvision an independent developer, but they’re also well known in the world of homebrew.

PROS: Spot on controls. Fantastic visuals. Reference humor.

CONS: No volume options to speak of. Backtracking elements kneecapped.

SMURF YEAH: *Not* Gargamel has a surprise for you.

Sydney Hunter has been known for a while in the homebrew community. For those who don’t already know, a sizable number of developers continue to produce and sell games for long-defunct platforms. From the Atari 2600 to the Intellivision. From the Vectrex to the Dreamcast. New games come out for game systems that haven’t been on a store shelf for purchase for decades.

Collectorvision made Sydney Hunter games for the Colecovision, Intellivision, Commodore 64, Sega Master System, Super Nintendo, and others. For years now he’s been an underground mascot star. Like a hardcore band that finally gets some mainstream attention, Sydney Hunter has finally gotten his MTV moment with this game.

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That’s partly due to the work John Lester of Gamester 81 fame has done for this title. Not only did he pen the storyline elements and collaborate with the team on character design he tirelessly promoted the game at conventions. Especially shows that focused on the Retro games’ scene as the earlier games were made for retro platforms.

The final game we have here is going to appeal to far more than the core fanbase that has been playing the previous games on their old Colecovision and Super NES consoles. Because it does a lot of things right and excels at all of the most important elements. There are a couple of problems too. But even the best games have some of those right? That said, the pros here are well worth the price of admission. There are some of the best elements of games of yesteryear here peppered in with some honestly funny dialogue.

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The setup here is that Sydney Hunter finds himself looking for treasure in old Mayan ruins where he sees a mysterious arcade cabinet which disappears shortly thereafter. He ends up having to figure out what exactly is going on. After finding some tablets in the game you’re able to understand what the inhabitants are saying and from here things become far more understandable. There is a rogue diety that as broken up a giant stone calendar into several pieces and recruited key people to guard them as they set their plans into motion.

The structure of the game puts you into a hub world where there are a number of different entrances. Each of these leads to a different stage. It’s pretty much akin to the portraits and paintings in Super Mario 64 doubling as doorways. In any event, each stage requires a certain number of crystal skulls to enter. Every stage in the game is a labyrinth of sorts. Some are a little bit more linear than others and none of them are as convoluted or as involved as something like Metroid. Be that as it may some of the aforementioned crystal skulls you need to pick up are hidden off of the beaten path. So you can expect to spend a lot of time searching around for them.

SydneyPaths

Often times there are hidden paths you need to uncover in order to search for these skulls and other secrets or items throughout the game. There are also several locks of varying colors in most of the stages. These require keys to the corresponding color. Some of these are in plain sight while others are hidden like the crystal skulls. In order to find some of these hidden paths and hidden items, you’ll need new weapons or items. When you first start the game, Sydney is armed with only a whip. But over time you’ll find boomerangs, spears, and a myriad of items to help you progress.

On top of that, you’ll find beverages to restore your health and a lot of jewels that can be used in the hub world’s shops as currency. The exploration isn’t as involved as something like Metroid, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any depth to it. it feels a lot closer to something like Pitfall! but with a dash of Montezuma’s Revenge thrown in. The platforming has a floatier feeling than most other bump n’ jump style games of yesteryear. That said, there are elements of NES stalwarts from Capcom and Konami’s time on that console. The combat in the stages clearly feels inspired by Castlevania, while Boss encounters combine that feeling with elements of Mega Man and Disney’s DuckTales.

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At one point in the game, there’s also a nod to a licensed title that appeared on the Colecovision and Atari 2600. Smurf: Rescue In Gargamel’s Castle. At one point the folks at Collectorvision had hinted at an aftermarket port of that game to the Intellivision, and with this nod having a similar visual style to the games on that console this could be an inside reference. Still, even if you’re uninitiated with the Sydney Hunter series, the similarity to a certain licensed game from 1982 is undeniable and is quite welcome.

Reference humor aside, the game does have some pretty funny dialogue as you talk to NPCs, and whenever Sydney is about to confront a boss. These sections move the story along, but also make some observational comedy. It’s the sort of humor you find in a lot of the more popular newspaper comic strips of old. But about modern things and retro games. On your initial playthrough pay attention to it. It does pretty well most of the time.

SydneyWater

I did have a couple of problems while playing the game though. The first one is that there are absolutely no sound or audio options. Live streaming my playthrough was hindered by this as I had to really tinker with my streaming software to find a balance between game audio, and my microphone audio. I also had to tinker with my settings in Windows to fine-tune it. Simply having sliders for Game music and Game sound effects would have made this far simpler to avoid. Even if you aren’t a streamer it will annoy you when you have to scramble to find your TV remote or Alt+Tab to your desktop to get to the volume options in the event you don’t have speaker volume at your fingertips.

The other major issue I had was finding there were a couple of times in two of the stages where I realized I was going to have to backtrack to find a key to move forward. The trouble was in these instances there was no way to do so. So instead I had to walk into a chasm and die to force a restart at the last checkpoint so I could redo what I did properly, then go in a different direction to hunt for the key first. Nothing that made the game bad by any means. But it was an annoyance. So it is something you may want to keep in the back of your mind.

SydneyCheckpoint

That said, this game pretty much gives you unlimited lives and you can go along at your own pace. Be that as it may, the game isn’t a cakewalk either. There are definitely a few moments throughout the campaign that will give you a challenge you’ll feel good about overcoming. Some of the bosses will confound you the first several times you die fighting them. But over time and repeated attempts that light will go off. “Oh, THAT’S what I need to be doing.” You’ll tell yourself then go onto win the day.

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Ultimately, Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan is a really cool game. It has some very fun and nostalgic gameplay notes. It nails the NES aesthetic it’s going for as well as the Intellivision aesthetic when it comes up. The Famitraker soundtrack by Ben Allen is also really awesome. It blends the tribal element you would expect a game in this setting to have but then melds it with that classic NES sound few games not published by Capcom, Konami, or Nintendo themselves could match. And while I can’t say the tracks are as memorable as some of the ones in this game’s peers (Shovel Knight or The Messenger for instance) It is still an excellent OST that is worth experiencing. In fact, you can buy this OST from Ben Allen himself!

SydneyShops

In a competitive crowd of games that use the NES aesthetic, Sydney Hunter really stands out. Like an Indiana Jones film, there’s a fair amount of variety. Adventure, exploration, some combat and even a few somber moments. If you’re looking for a new platformer to get into, check this one out. It has a couple of bumps in its road, but it’s still a road I can recommend traveling down.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

SNK 40th Anniversary Collection Review

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These days it seems about any game company that’s been around for over a decade has a collection to sell. It seems like every new device that comes along will be guaranteed to have a version of the Namco Museum or a compilation of Atari classic games on it.  And that isn’t a bad thing. There are a lot of fantastic games from yesteryear, going all the way back to gaming’s infancy. But due to whatever reasons, these collections don’t always come out so great. Sometimes they’re barebones. Sometimes they’re altered for the worst.

PROS: A great selection of classics and a fair number of extra features.

CONS: Some of the games’ controls had to be changed and the compromises aren’t great.

WHY NOT BOTH?: Some titles here come in a couple of versions.

That doesn’t seem to be the case with this one. SNK’s collection is quite good. One thing right away that I appreciated about it is that it takes the focus off of their NEO GEO platform. In the past, SNK has had a number of great NEO GEO compilations. It’s no surprise as it was arguably their most popular platform. But some people often forget SNK has been around for far longer than the NEO GEO and this collection celebrates that fact. Most of the games here are pretty big classics. Particularly in the realm of run n’ gun games and beat ’em ups.

SNK 40th Anniversary Collection gives you some of the more popular arcade games of their time. You get all three of the Ikari Warriors games; Ikari Warriors, Victory Road, Ikari III: The Rescue. You get Guerilla War, P.O.W., and Time Soldiers all of which were known for their 1980’s B Action film influences, and the twin knob shooting action that made many of them famous. They also give you TNK III which was one of the earliest games to do so.

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Other highlights are the inclusions of Athena, Psycho Soldier, Street Smart, and BEAST BLASTER. I was also happy to see that the compilation includes the arcade version of Vanguard, and it even references the Atari 2600 port in it. Strangely enough not by name. But this is where the collection of games goes beyond simply dumping ROMs in an emulator and calling it a day. This game includes multiple versions of many of the games. In the case of Crystalis, you’ll get both the Famicom and NES ROMs. In the case of Ikari Warriors, you’ll get the Arcade version and the NES version. All of the games are emulated very well and most of them will include a variant version be it two localizations or two platform versions.

This is a really nice feature and one I’ve found myself using fairly often. Well except in the case of the Ikari games since given the choice the arcade games are vastly superior to their NES counterparts. Another really nice thing is the game has scans of the different regions arcade fliers, home version box art scans, and more. They also go into some level of depth when talking about the history of each of the games in the collection.

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Frankly, it’s very easy to recommend this one to anyone who grew up with these games in the arcade or newcomers who want to see what came before. Although I do have a few minor complaints about the package that I’ll get to momentarily. Another inclusion that should probably be a prerequisite at this point is the list of visual options. You can enable different borders on the screen, change the aspect ratio, and you can put on filters to simulate a vintage TV or monitor. Digital Eclipse which also did the Mega Man Legacy collection for Capcom, has done great work here as well.

However, there are a couple of things that just didn’t make sense to me. I don’t know why SNK couldn’t mention the Atari 2600 or NES or Famicom in the documentation by name. Especially since you get Crystalis in both NES and Famicom formats here. Plus, with Vanguard being acknowledged prominently on “The biggest console in North America” old geezers like me are going to know the VCS version is referenced while newcomers are going to be left to guess. Not a major problem, but it just seems a bit weird.

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Second, is that some of the styles of a game genre don’t translate well to a d-pad or a thumbstick. And one such style is the light gun, rail shooter. This was true when Operation Wolf was new, it was true when House Of The Dead 2 was all the rage, and it’s true now. SNK brought back Beast Busters here. And I’m glad it’s here because it was an esoteric game I remember playing a lot in the arcades as a kid back in the day. When more popular games were taken up it was one of the ones you and your friends gravitated to because no one was mesmerized by it the way they were by one of the beat ’em up machines at the time. It’s a fun game. One that I was elated to see presented in this collection.

However, it is a light gun game and the movement of your thumbstick or d-pad cursor can never match the movement of your eyes and hand. As such, playing it in this collection is MUCH harder. As of this writing, I see no option to use a mouse with this game on PC or a motion control option on the Switch. These options would have been much better compromises. Even if it meant those versions would be more preferable as a result. Thankfully, you can just keep pouring in credits like you could in the arcade if your pockets were bottomless. But it would have been nice to have a couple of more control options for this one.

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Still, I do like this collection a lot overall. There is a nice range of games you’ll know, others you may not know, and the historical extras are all a nice touch. Some of these games may not have the panache SNK put into their later NEO GEO games, but they are a lot of fun and hold historical significance in the realm of arcade games. As well as versions for Nintendo’s original 8-bit powered juggernaut. Adding ROMs of ports to other platforms of the time would have been even better since players could have compared them and enjoyed their favorites. But I’m sure there are also some licensing and contract concerns that made that unlikely. Still, I enjoy firing it up a lot. Digital Eclipse even gave SNK the treatment they gave Capcom’s Blue Bomber by making the soundtracks of games playable in a separate player.

SNKCrystalis

It’s a collection that will skew toward the older crowd, but there’s enough here that anyone will find something they’ll enjoy checking out from time to time. Especially anyone who enjoys run n’ guns, shmups, and other arcade staples of the 1980s and 1990s. There’s also the knowledge that many of the characters that debuted in these games would show up in some of the NEO GEO’s biggest franchises. So even fans of The King Of Fighters or Metal Slug may want to look into this one if they haven’t already.

Final Score: 8 out of 10