Category Archives: Reviews

Super NES Classic Edition Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams OWLtimate Edition Review

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Well, it’s been over a week, and I’m slowly on my way back to normal. I feel like I’m being stabbed whenever I cough or sneeze. If I get up or down out of a chair or bed everything is sore, and I can’t pick up anything heavier than 15 pounds for a while. Things were far worse when I first got out of the hospital though, and so it was a nice surprise to find one of my favorite games has gotten a second director’s cut. A super-duper director’s cut. An “Ultimate” edition. A OWLtimate” edition. On the Switch!

PROS: The additions are more substantial than they sound.

CONS: A couple of miniscule bugs. Physical release isn’t very wide.

EARWORMS: The new songs are as catchy, as the rest of the OST.

Well Deviot, you were enamored with the original 2012 release, its expand-alone on PC, and the Director’s Cut that combined both on consoles. Isn’t it a given you would like this too? Why even bother talking about this one? I can already hearing you ask. Sure, it’s no secret I love this game about as much as Mark Bussler loves Truxton. As I talked about way back in the original review, there is so much about the game to like.

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But where most reissues, do a couple of minor things, like clean up some graphics, or add some filters or history lessons  this one does more. The biggest inclusion is the introduction of five new stages. However instead of simply throwing them into a bonus chapter, and being done with it, Black Forest Games has peppered them into the existing worlds. This not only adds the new content into the game, but does it in a way that is going to feel benign to newcomers. At the same time, seasoned veterans will not simply blow through the original stages to get to these new stages.

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The new stages are also very, demanding! In a good way mind you. They’ve been placed near older stages of a similar difficulty level, while at the same time putting in sections that require a mastery of the base mechanics. So they will still feel like a gradual increase in challenge to those who have never played Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams before. But veterans who wish to find every last gem while using the fewest lives possible are probably not hitting one hundred percent on their first attempt either.

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So for those who haven’t played Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams before, and haven’t heard me sing its praises multiple times, this is the gist. Years have passed since the original Commodore 64 game’s time. But the inhabitants of the Dream world haven’t forgotten about those events. So one night as Maria helps her Sister to bed, a vortex opens up, and pulls her though. Giana jumps into the vortex after her, and this is where the main game begins. After being acclimated to the basic controls through a brief section, Giana sees the dragon from the original game swallow Maria whole, before he flies away. So from this point on, you have to go save your Sister from the belly of the beast.

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The meat, and potatoes of the game is this campaign which sprawls four worlds. The first three are the original three worlds (with some new stages peppered in), and the fourth world, the Rise Of The Owlverlord expansion. What really sets this game apart from other platformers is its brilliant use of morphing effects. At the press of a button the world shifts from a bright, cheery dream to a dark, dystopian nightmare. Each stage is filled with puzzles that require you to switch back, and forth between these worlds in order to solve them, and forge ahead. Not only must you get from one end of a stage to the next, you have to worry about your ranking when you do. You’ll be given a star rating at the end of every stage. You can get anywhere from one star to five stars. You have to average around a four star rating in order to open the boss stage in each of the worlds.

 

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So how do you get a good rating? Well the best way is to find as many of the gems in each stage as possible. There are five types, and many of the stages have hundreds to acquire. Blue gems are the standard ones. But there are also red, and yellow gems. This is where the morphing effects come into play, because the red ones can only be collected in the Dream world, while the yellow ones can only be collected in the Nightmare world. Moreover, when Giana shifts the world her abilities change. In the Dream world, she becomes a Punk Rocker, who can dash as a fireball. In the Nightmare world she appears in her trademark outfit, and can slow her fall with a twirl. As you get further in the game, you’ll begin to see where you have to switch between the two forms to get through sections. You’ll also want to have a keen eye for secrets, because it’s how you’ll find the coveted Master gems. These are giant-sized blue gems that are worth around ten gems. Plus they unlock a bunch of concept art!

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You’ll also want to collect the pink colored shield gems when you see them because they allow you to take an extra hit of damage before dying. Keep in mind everything kills you. You have a plethora of enemies. Owls, spiked crates, charging knights, to name a few. But then there are a bunch of obstacles to overcome, and traps to avoid. Saws, spikes, acid pools, boulders, walls that cave in, and then some. There are also moments where an entire section will flood with acid, and you have to go through a gauntlet of obstacles quickly in order to avoid being burned alive. But of course said obstacles will also kill you, so fair warning, Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams is not an easy game. But it does ease you into the challenge. The game slowly introduces new mechanics over time, and you’ll know what you need to do. But it isn’t going to do it for you either. It’s the kind of challenge a lot of old-school games had. Where failure only makes you more determined. Most of the time your deaths don’t feel cheap. When you mess up, you’ll be upset with yourself. Not the game. That said, try not to die more than a few times per stage. Dying less also gives you clout toward getting stars.

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Fortunately, if this sounds too daunting Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams Owltimate Edition, also has a few changes from the initial computer game release that make it both manageable, and involved. Like the previous console iteration’s Director’s Cut, the boss rooms have been converted into stage exits, and the boss rooms are now standalone stages. This makes the run up to a boss a little bit easier in that you won’t have to immediately go into the encounter after a long fought battle through a stage. But at the same time, you’ll still be going into those boss battles, all of which require pattern memorization, and fast reflexes to take down.

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This updated release also has two difficulties, Normal, and Hard. Normal acts as the Easy setting. Some of the sections remove some obstacles, or give players additional aid. Such as putting bridges over spikes, or putting extra shield gems in boss rooms. Hard mode basically plays as the hard mode from the original release. If you manage to clear the four episodes on Hard you’ll unlock Hardcore. Hardcore mode is basically the Hard mode but with no checkpoints. So if you die in a stage, you’ll respawn at the beginning of the stage. You won’t have to grab gems again, but you will be starting over. Of course the point of Hardcore isn’t collecting things anyway, it’s just trying to get from A to B on as few lives as possible. If you can manage to clear Hardcore mode, the game then unlocks Uber Hardcore mode. This tasks you with clearing the entire game on one life. And that means this is also the most difficult version of Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams ever released. At least in terms of this mode. Because now all of the boss encounters are standalone stages, and there are five other stages peppered in on top of those. Good luck to all of the speed runners out there who will be poised to pull that off.

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Speaking of speed running, the game does offer a Time Attack mode where you can play each stage individually, and try to beat the developers’ times. If you can do so, the stage will display a trophy on the stage’s icon. There is also a Score Attack mode where instead of going for time, you’re shooting for a high score. You get big points for gems, and taking out enemies. The game also includes all of the free holiday stages from the PC release, and the DC edition on the PS4/XB1(Digital)/Wii U. These are altered stages from the campaign made more difficult, and reworked with some Halloween, and Christmas decor. It is here you’ll also find an additional tutorial stage that guides you through some of the basic mechanics. I also found it interesting that the game has a surprisingly deep language setting hidden in the options menu. So if for some reason you can’t find this in stores in your area, it makes importing it on cartridge far more attractive if you collect physical games.

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And as in previous releases there are a lot of concept art, and renders you can unlock by finding the Master gems in the campaign. But not only did BFG make another expansion pack worth of stages for this release, they also added in some cut scenes. Now some who have already played the Director’s cut, elsewhere or the Rise Of The Owlverlord expansion on PC may find them familiar. But they’re all new. Except for the ones used in the World 4 stages which are mostly carried over from ROTO. And a lot of them, while still working in a simple, silhouetted, silent film way fill in gaps. You’ll actually get glimpses into the lives of Giana, and Maria outside of the Dream world. And some of it can be surprisingly dark for such an optimistic, care free character. Other clips cover Giana’s search for Maria. Some spend time focusing on Maria, and there is one particularly cool moment where we get to rock out with Chris Huelsbeck!

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Of course, Black Forest Games managed to get Chris, and Machinae Supremacy to come back a third time for a couple of new songs. Once again, these songs shift along with the world as you play. So again, when playing in the Nightmare aesthetic you can hear Chris Huelsbeck’s  New Wave synth compositions, and when in the Dream aesthetic you’ll hear Machinae Supremacy’s SID Metal interpretations. And again, they flow along seamlessly so as you shift back, and forth you’ll be in the same place in either version of the song. It does so much to add to the game’s atmosphere.

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If you haven’t already played the game elsewhere you’ll find the graphics are wonderful. All of the scenery has vivid detail in every little model. Trees, benches, bridges, garden gnomes, mushrooms, and the bones, stones, crumbled structures, gargoyles, and toadstools they shift into are breathtaking. As well as the matte painted backgrounds that add, a nice sense of depth perception to it all. It’s 2.5D after all.  There are a fairly wide variety of settings throughout the game as well. Lush forests, eerie swamps, cold dark castles, and even airships! Again, the level of detail in the textures, and models in the backgrounds is pretty impressive despite the simpler geometry.

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And there are a lot of little touches throughout the game. When climbing bookshelves, you’ll see little pages falling out of books. When you’re twirling your way through the forest you can see leaves blow by in the breeze, and little blue jays fly by in the background. Eventually you’ll run into the gumball machines introduced in Giana Sisters DS. These will put a translucent pink bubble of gum around you, and you have to navigate areas by continually pushing a button while steering with a thumbstick. It’s like Joust. But with gum. There is a lot of creativity on display in this game.

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Plus the characters all manage to have such great details on their models. Giana’s cool little skull has representation on her Punk Rock skirt. You can see the little feathers on the owls. You can see the little buckles on the knights, or the spikes on the blowfish. Even the water sheen on the turtles looks pretty cool. When you get to the dreaded Gurglewocky dragon to save Maria, you’ll even marvel at the level of facial animation on the boss. It’s hard to believe the game is nearly six years old at this point, but it still impresses.

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As much as I’m imploring everyone to check this one out (again), there are a couple of things that keep it just shy of perfection. There are some very minor technical bugs in this release. I ran into one, solitary clipping glitch in my initial run, which made me have to restart the level as I got stuck in a platform. I couldn’t repeat it, so odds are it’s fairly rare. But it was disappointing. I also hit a tiny bit of slowdown in one of the stages in World 4 for about 3 seconds in handheld mode. But the rest of the time, the game seemed to run at or around 60 frames no problem. Chances are it performs better on a HDTV, I never noticed any dips when playing docked. But honestly I played mostly in handheld mode as I recovered from my surgery.

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Frankly, very minor issues considering how great the overall game is. Overall, the performance is very good, and unless you’re an absolute nitpicker you may not even notice it. As it stands I only ever experienced the one hiccup in performance. So having said all of this should you pick it up? Well I suppose it does depend a little bit on the situation. If you have a Switch, and have never played this one on a computer or another console, this is a resounding “Yes!”. This really is one of the best platformers to see release over the past few years. The unique art style to the beautiful graphics, and especially the way the soundtrack is worked into everything. The level design is top-notch, and again, while there is a lot of challenge here, it isn’t unfair, and can become quite addicting. It really does stand out in a way that other modern platformers have not. Everyone should really check it out.

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Having said that, should you buy it again if you’ve played it elsewhere? For some I would definitely say “Yes.” If you loved the previous releases, there’s a substantial amount here for you. Plus we’re talking about the Nintendo Switch, which means it’s also portable. If you’re taking a vacation trip, and don’t want to bring your bulky laptop with you, this is a great version of the game to take along with you. It’s also something you can play a stage of on your commute, or hanging out while getting coffee. But if you’ve played it to death elsewhere, and don’t care about the new content you may give it a pass. But why would you want to do that when Giana Sisters is just so good?

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The issues it has may hold it back from perfection, but the additions to an already great game certainly make it the Owltimate edition. If you’ve got a Nintendo Switch, and love platformers Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams Owltimate edition is pretty much essential. It’s just odd THQNordic doesn’t seem to be giving the physical release a wide one. You’ll need to either go to Amazon or Best Buy (as of this writing) to get it. Otherwise you can get it on the Nintendo eshop as a digital download.

Final Score: 9.5 out of 10 (BUY IT NOW!)

The Messenger Review

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Sometimes a game comes out with a ton of fanfare, but ultimately lets everybody down. This is not one of those games. The Messenger earns every ounce of excitement, and praise preemptively thrown its way. Nearly everything about this one is so on point you can stop reading, and buy the game. In the words of Triple H, it is “That damn good.”

PROS: Sprite work. Controls. Music. Story. Humor. Nearly everything really.

CONS: A bug that makes a certain section of the game nearly impossible to solve.

NINJA GAIDEN: The original NES designers were invited to play it, and loved it.

The Messenger was largely advertised as a love letter to the trilogy of NES Ninja Gaiden games. Upon booting up the game it’s easy to see why. The action, cinema screens, wall climbing, and secondary weapon throwing are obviously influenced by those classics. Devolver Digital even had the two lead designers of Ninja Gaiden play their demo before release as they couldn’t wait to see their reaction.

But while The Messenger would have likely done well enough as a mere homage, that wasn’t good enough for the team at Sabotage. The Messenger does so much more than mimic one of gaming’s best action platform games. It uses that formula as one small piece in a much, much larger puzzle. A puzzle that will likely take you hours to solve.

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The Messenger centers around a Ninja clan that gets attacked by monsters. As one of the Ninjas, you’re chastised by your sensei for not taking your training seriously. You’re told a super warrior is supposed to save the day, but unfortunately for everyone this person doesn’t show up in time. The monsters wipe out the village, and you’re about to be destroyed when they show up just in time. The enemies retreat, and this warrior gives you a scroll. You’re told to deliver the scroll to the top of a mountain, and so you go on your way.

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I won’t go into the rest of the surprisingly deep, and convoluted storyline here. But rest assured it is quite good. Filled with twists, turns, and even a lot of sardonic humor. I laughed a lot at the various jokes throughout my time with the campaign. But at the same time, I was pleasantly surprised at just how invested in the overall story I became. Plus the gameplay ties into everything very nicely. When the game begins, it truly will remind you of the NES Ninja Gaiden games. You have a similar run speed. You have similar jumping physics. You’ll even have a sense of familiarity as you can climb certain walls.

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But The Messenger throws in its own entirely new mechanics that set it decidedly apart from Ninja Gaiden. Most notably the extra jump you can get by killing enemies, or hitting specific targets. If you get the timing right, you can jump, hit a target, and jump immediately after to get extra air. You can also gain momentum by repeating the process on subsequent targets. This allows you to kind of hop distances between targets, and get through areas faster.  As you progress, the game makes mastering this technique essential, as it begins throwing in jumping puzzles, as well as highly challenging platforming sections where you’re surrounded by bottomless pits, spikes, or other death traps.

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The game goes along much like those old NES action games. You’ll battle your way through a stage, then fight a boss, watch some dialogue boxes, or cinema screens, and move on. However each stage has a few checkpoints after every few gauntlets. Some of these gauntlets are shops, where you can spend the diamond shards you find on upgrades for your ninja. Some of these give you more resistance to damage. Some of these give you more attack power.

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Over time you’ll also acquire new abilities like a wind suit, and grappling hook. And later in the game you’ll need them because stages are built around their use. It’s crafted so well, and so engrossing you’ll want to keep playing until you get to the final showdown with the demon army, and win the day. Throughout it all, you’ll be blown away at the NES inspired sprite work, and Famicom-esque chip tunes. It’s nothing short of amazing, and you’ll love every minute of it.

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Another interesting mechanic is that while old school, this is another game that ditches lives. Instead of dying a set number of times, or having a limited set of continues, you simply keep playing. Now the original first two Ninja Gaiden games on the NES had unlimited continues. However this game does something a bit different. When you die, a little red bookie monster shows up. He steals any money you make until his debt for respawning you is paid. So while the game becomes more forgiving, at the same time you do well for not dying. Because not dying means more money, and more money means getting all of the items, and upgrades sooner.

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When you finally defeat the Demon army’s second in command you’ll probably do what I did. Think there’s one last stage where your endurance, and cunning are pushed to the proverbial limit. Then one grandiose boss fight, and a satisfying finish. Well this is one part of the game I have to spoil in order to talk about the entire package. I’m not giving away details, just know that nothing could be further from the truth. The game basically comes out, and yells “Surprise! Now you’re going to play a Metroid clone!” The game really opens up at this point, and connects every stage you’ve played together. This makes one overarching world, and you’ll be sent throughout it.

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However, The Messenger does not go sending you on power up fetch quests, in order access the new areas. Rather, you have to go find items that act as keys, and find NPCs to further the story. You can buy map markers in the shops, but even then, getting to those places is going to be very intimidating when you first attempt it. These new areas are filled with new traps, and puzzles. There are also challenge rooms where you can try to get these green tokens. If you find every one of them in the game there’s a surprise waiting for you. But that’s not even the best part.

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The Messenger also adds a dash of stage morphing. It may just remind you of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, although it isn’t done in the same way. The storyline adds an element of time travel, where you go through portals that send you 500 years into the future. And then other ones send you back. When you go into the future, the 8-bit NES aesthetics change to 16-bit Super NES aesthetics! The music also goes from sounding like the Famicom, to sounding like the Super Famicom, and Mega Drive decided to go on tour together. The soundtrack in this game immediately skyrockets from a pretty great one, to an absolutely stellar one. Not only that, but the game uses the time travel mechanic in some pretty intricate ways. Like Metroid Prime 2: Echoes did, The Messenger will make you go to one area of the map in the present, go through a portal to the future, so that you’ll come out in the right place in a different section of the map. Then you’ll go through a portal there to come back in the present where you’ll meet an NPC, or find a room with a green token challenge. Or something else entirely.

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The story also begins to get both more interesting, and more cryptic when you discover a hub section, and you’re discovering entirely new areas that were never part of a previous linear stage from the first act of the game. They’ve done a terrific job with all of this, and that’s before you even get to the impressive boss encounters that follow. They make the early bosses you may have found difficult seem like you were lifting feathers before. But it does this by easing you over time without you even realizing it. It’s an action game, that becomes an adventure game, that implements a feeling you get when playing an RPG.

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And I think that’s probably the best thing about The Messenger. It’s like you’re playing two completely different games back to back. You played Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword Of Chaos. But instead of credits, a dying Jaquio goes “It’s not over. You have to defeat Mother Brain now, or the world will end! Ha. Ha. Ha.” The fact that it makes you feel elated, rather than angry is quite the feat.

So with all of that said, is this a 10 out of 10 game that will forever be the title future indie games are held to as a standard? Not quite. Though it is very impressive, and should be something you should buy I had one major problem with it. At one point in the game there is a section where you have to navigate an area by listening for sound. Well for whatever reason, the game would not play the sound properly. It made finding my way through a complete crapshoot. I had to guess my way through as if I were playing the final stage of Super Mario Bros. And while this isn’t something that breaks the game, as you can still get through it. It does ruin the intended experience of hearing what you need to hear in the place you need to hear it in order to follow the right path. I’m sure in time they may fix it with a patch. But as it stands it’s just enough to keep me from calling it near flawless.

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Still, if you were hoping for a wonderful homage to Ninja Gaiden, you’ll get it. If you were hoping for something more than a wonderful homage to Ninja Gaiden you’ll get it. The Messenger truly is one of the best games to come out this year, and is something you really ought to check out. It’s one of the most engrossing games you’ll play this year. As impressive as the trailers may be, it’s still the kind of game you have to see to believe. Go buy The Messenger now. Even if you’re just stumbling upon this review 500 years from now.

Final Score: 9.5 out of 10

Raging Justice Review

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Double Dragon. Streets Of Rage. Final Fight. Crime Fighters. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Battletoads. Ninja Combat. Sengoku. PIT-FIGHTER. The list goes, on, and on. The 1980’s, and 1990’s were filled with many entertaining games in which you took control of characters out to rid the world of criminals one by one. Armed with your fists, and the occasional melee weapon. Beat ’em ups were a big deal, and while some of them ran together, most of them were a lot of fun. They were about as close to an action movie a game could be at the time. While they haven’t had the resurgence other genres have had, they still sprout up from time to time. And when they’re done as well as this game is, you really ought to pay attention.

PROS: Unique art style. B+ Movie action. Good Cop/Bad Cop mechanics.

CONS: Tacky title screen. Some choppy animations. Minor bugs.

WWE: There’s a moment that seems like it was placed by wrestling show bookers.

Raging Justice is a title that elicits thoughts of a 1990’s Direct-To-Video B Action movie starring Dolph Lundgren. Which is actually pretty fitting because this game is a complete homage to many of the aforementioned games of old. The storyline is about as easy to follow as one of those old movies. The Mayor of your city has been abducted by violent street gangs, and our heroes have to rescue him. When you fire up the game you’ll have a handful of options on hand. There’s the primary campaign, a survival mode, an options menu, and the credits.  The credits are pretty self-explanatory, and the options menu is rather anemic. You can change volume levels, and you can turn friendly fire on or off.

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So you’re more than likely going to begin by playing through the campaign. When you begin you’ll be able to select one of three characters to choose from. This follows the character archetypes set up in Final Fight, and Streets Of Rage. Rick Justice is the loose cannon of the force who doesn’t play by the rules. He’s basically the power class of the three. He moves slower, but his attacks do a lot of damage. Then there’s Nikki Rage who is the opposite of Rick. She prefers to properly get arrests, and warrants. She is the more well-rounded class. She moves faster than Rick does, and can attack faster while doing a little bit less damage to opponents. Finally there’s Ashley King. A teenage explorer with the fastest, and flashiest style. Ashley is by far the fastest all around character, but does the least damage so you really need to master getting combos to use them.

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Once you’ve selected your character it’s onto the cut scenes that set up the plot of the game, before thrusting you into the action. Immediately Raging Justice begins showing you how it sets itself apart from the games that inspired it. You’re greeted with a screen overlay with some important information. Each stage features certain enemies who have a warrant out for their arrest. If you manage to arrest them you’ll get a health bonus, and if you manage to arrest all of them you can get 1-Ups too. There are also secondary objectives you can shoot for. If you’re successful you’ll score big points, and garner achievements.

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As you play you’ll notice certain enemies will have a red outline around them. These are the criminals with a warrant out for their arrest. This is also where the game begins to implement a virtue system not typically seen in games like this. If you do the right thing consistently (arresting perps rather than killing them), you’ll get the aforementioned perks. If you go the bad cop route, and knock their teeth in you don’t. However, if you’re enough of a loose cannon DTV character you can get help in other ways. Arresting people sounds easy enough. You fill up their dizzy meter by slamming them to the ground or using particular attacks. Then when it’s full, they will be dazed in one spot allowing you to grab them, and cuff them. But this is also much easier said, than done. Because they’ll never be alone. Raging Justice sends hordes of criminal waves at you. So it’s going to be tough isolating them long enough to pull this off. Even when you do, another bad guy can interrupt the process by knocking you down, or even knocking them down. Thus resulting in a resist of arrest. Sometimes you’ll be able to arrest someone. Other times you may find it safer to simply take them out.

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It’s a pleasant surprise to see a mechanic like this in Raging Justice, as it makes the game feel a little bit more unique. Few arcade genre entries have done this, the most notable one being classic Run n’ Gun NARC. For the most part it is implemented fairly well, though there are a few times when a warrant will be dazed next to a weapon or other item, and the game makes you grab the item rather than cuff the criminal at hand. Still, it’s pretty neat, and you can actually arrest most characters. Not just the ones with a warrant out for their arrest.

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The one thing in the game that may be a little bit divisive is the style of the artwork. The backgrounds are honestly quite good by any measure. They have a wonderful mix between pre-rendered models, and airbrushed matte paintings. At least that’s how they appear. The texture quality on all of it is very nice. There are also a host of homages you can spot throughout the game’s backgrounds to other games. Particularly to the original Final Fight’s latter stages. But there are others like Sega’s Streets Of Rage series, and Atari’s PIT-FIGHTER. One especially can’t help of think of that game near the end of the second stage where you’re met by a crowd of enemies in very much the same way that game set up bouts. The comparison continues with the character sprites, and this is why I think some will love the look, while others may not get behind it as much.

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The characters seem to have a similar style. The difference being they aren’t motion captured actors. Instead they appear to be pre-rendered models that were condensed down to sprites. Similar to how the characters in Donkey Kong Country, and Killer Instinct were created. However, the animation quality, while fairly good sometimes results in things looking a little choppy due to some of the wild movements in the characters’ positions in some sprites. Granted this is speculation on my part as I was never in the studio where this was made. But the end result resembles something to that effect.

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Nevertheless, it runs fairly brisk, and I can’t say I’ve even seen much in the way of slowdown in my playtime with it. It’s generally responsive, and there’s little to really complain about here. That said, if you’re not into the art style they were going for, that may disappoint you a little bit. One thing that I think should have been improved is the title screen. Mainly because it is used to sell the game on every digital store it’s stocked on, and sadly it looks woefully generic. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but it gives the impression the title is something you’d find on the rack of shovelware at an office supply store. Not the incredibly fun, if silly homage to B movies, and brawlers that it is.

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And Raging Justice is incredibly fun. There are a wide variety of criminals to take down in the brawls. You have the archetypical street punks, gang members, street-walker, morbidly obese guys who stampede you, and knife throwers you’d expect. There are also 80’s movie drug dealers who throw dynamite from their trench coats, bikers, Rottweilers, and more. There are a lot of weapons, and background details that can be destroyed on display here as well. Barbed wire bats, knives, swords, clubs, hammers, crates, phone booths, and a slew of other things I’m likely forgetting. All of which can take down some of these enemies with ease. There’s even drivable vehicles at a few key points!

The bosses are also a lot of fun due to a combination of silliness, and nostalgia. There’s the typical brute characters, but then the game decides to have you fight a 10 foot super pimp. There’s a security guard who looks suspiciously close to Final Fight’s Edi. E. But not long after that fight you’ll be facing an abomination that may just remind you of PIT-FIGHTER’s Chainman Eddie. I won’t spoil every boss for you, but suffice it to say, you’ll come away from them both challenged, and entertained.

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Throughout all of it, the audio keeps up with everything. The clanging of knives, screaming of enemies, the bold announcements, all sync up. The ambient synth-pop goes along with the action well, again, bringing along memories of those obscure films you may have rented from the video store back in the day. Or perhaps one of the more recent ones you caught at 2am on HBO or saw in a Red box at the local grocery store. In any event, it’s pretty good. Musically, it might not be something you’d want to hear on the morning commute, but it does get the job done. The sound effects however, are superb.

There are a couple of things that hinder the fun. Namely a few small bugs. There were a couple of times the game hanged after I got a “Game Over”, and so I had to exit to my main menu on my Switch to close the game, and then reopen it. This wasn’t horrible, or something game-breaking. But it was annoying, as minimal as the occurrence was. Another weird bug I experienced, was upon losing my last life as I killed the third boss. Unfortunately, because of this it wouldn’t let me continue. The counter just kept going down regardless of my jamming on the “YES! I want to continue!” button. So I had to restart the stage.

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I will say one other novel thing about Raging Justice is its continue system. You get three lives, and a set number of continues. when you run out of continues, the game ends. Par for the course, right? Well, the cool thing the game does is allow you to select any stage played up to that point. The flip side of this is you’ll start in the condition you did when you initially played it. So if you make it to the final stage with one continue left, and lose when you select it later, you’ll begin with however many lives you had, and the one continue. You won’t start with a full set of continues. This really gives you incentive to go back, and do better at the earlier stages so that you’ll have enough continues to clear the game.

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Finally, there is the survival mode I mentioned earlier. There really isn’t too much to write about here. It’s what it sounds like. You start the game with the character, and difficulty setting of your choosing. Then you try to beat up as many waves of enemies as you can until you lose your sole life. It can be fun in short bursts but the main course is where you’ll get the most fun in my opinion.

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Raging Justice may not be the best game you’ll play all year. But it just might be one of the more fun ones. It’s silly. It’s over the top. It doesn’t have a deep narrative. But it has a lot of personality. It also does what a beat ’em up game should: make you feel like a bad ass. Between the moves, weapons, and everything else, you’ll honestly feel like you’re playing a Dolph Lundgren or Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle. It’s just a fun game. And in the end isn’t that why most of us play games? Don’t let the tacky title card fool you. Raging Justice is a pretty awesome (if sometimes cheesy) brawler.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Thunder Spirits Review

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Technosoft. Widely known as a tour de force on the Sega Genesis, they built a long running series of shoot ’em ups with Thunder Force. The original Thunder Force was exclusive to the Japanese market on several computers like the Sharp X1, and NEC PC 8801. But fast forward to the launch of Sega’s 16-bit powerhouse, and you’ll find its sequel present in the line up of titles. Thunder Force II combined the original game’s top down shooting, with horizontal side scrolling stages. It did well enough to spawn several sequels. Thunder Force III was one of the most popular of these. A game that did well enough to see an arcade version called Thunder Force AC. Thunder Force AC played almost like a director’s cut of sorts. It retained most of TF III’s best features, while replacing some of  the levels. It was later released on Sega’s Saturn console.

PROS: It’s Thunder Force III/AC. On the Super NES! With improved visuals!

CONS: Sound effects are weak. A couple of moments of slow down.

STRANGE: Naming conventions with some of the series’ titles.

But many don’t realize it was also released on the Super NES. And this version was retitled Thunder Spirits. Functionally it’s pretty much the same game as Thunder Force AC. Though it will undoubtedly be compared against the original Sega Genesis version. Much like Super R-Type though, Thunder Force AC/Spirits is again, a lot like a director’s cut. Like the original Sega Genesis version, you’ll be going through seven stages of hardcore shooting action. The first three stages are identical to three of the stages found in Thunder Force III. Most of the other stages are either altered, or completely new.

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One feature Thunder Spirits has lost in the translation from third game to arcade game, and back to console game is the stage select. In Thunder Force III, you can tackle the stages in the order of your choosing before heading off to the final leg of your journey. In Thunder Spirits, you’ll just quickly go from stage to stage in predetermined order. Another change is the number of continues, and how they work. In the original version you’ll be given several continues. When you’re out of lives, you’ll have a few more chances to redo the stage at hand. In Thunder Spirits you’re only given a mere three continues. However you’ll continue where you died, replicating the feel of the arcade cab it’s been ported from.

No matter which version you play however, you’re in for the kind of challenge that will make your palms sweat. Thunder Force games are of course shmups. So you’ll be assaulted from all sides at a constant pace. It isn’t a bullet hell shooter but it still has plenty of things for you to avoid crashing into while trying to blow away a multitude of enemy ships. In many ways it will remind you of R-Type. It moves along at a similar pace, save for a few moments where things intentionally go into warp speed.

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The warp speed moments often lead to maze sections where you quickly have to guess which path to take. Choosing the wrong one means you’re crashing in many instances which leads to a bit of trial, and error. But this sort of thing was also typical in the genre at the time, as you could find moments like this in the Gradius series for instance. Aside from these moments however, the game generally gives you enough advance a warning to avoid incoming projectiles. Still, you likely will have to memorize stages as you play through them in order to eventually beat them. It’s the sort of game where knowing when, and where enemies are about to strike is key.

Of course no shmup worth its salt is going to be fun unless it has cool power ups, and the Thunder Force series delivers them in spades. Thunder Spirits gives you a wide variety of them. You collect them by destroying certain enemies on any given level, then picking them up. You have stock lasers, but then there are a few different laser types from there. There are crescent-shaped lasers that do high damage at short-range. There are long-range laser beams that do medium damage at longer ranges. Another power up will send heat seekers above, and below you where they’ll follow along the floor or ceiling, destroying enemies. There are also the laser orbs. These will lock on to enemies, and go after them automatically. They’re not the most powerful of your beam attacks, but they do make many parts of the game easier to navigate.

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Rounding out the weapons are the satellites you can pick up, that surround your ship firing copies of your current weapon. You can also find temporary force fields, that allow you to take a couple of extra hits before you’re destroyed. Make no mistake, in any version of this one you’ll be destroyed. The Thunder Force games are all pretty tough. But once you begin to remember which obstacles come up at which time things ease. Also making things manageable is the ability to change which laser weapons you’re using on the fly. Over time you’ll learn what weapons work best on different enemies. Kind of like if your ship were Mega Man.

Thunder Spirits looks really cool too. The color palette is different from the one in Thunder Force III, and the HUD position is different. But by, and large it’s almost identical to what you would find on the Genesis. The new stages look awesome, and have a lot of really cool flair all their own. Unfortunately, some of this flair costs some performance. So expect to run into some slowdown against some mini bosses, and bosses. For whatever reason, the Super NES just takes a hit in these sections, resulting in a noticeable drop in frame rate. It doesn’t get to an unplayable level by any means. But things do slow way down.

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Beyond that however, the game seems to run fine in most other instances. Still, this will disappoint some players who have been used to playing Thunder Force III on the Genesis, and might be looking into this one. On the audio front the soundtrack here is outstanding, and can hang with the Genesis games. The fast paced songs are all here in that orchestral synth the Super NES is known for. The sound effects however, leave a lot to be desired. Explosions particularly are an issue. They have no real depth to them, and the boss deaths seem to go to a very fuzzy, low bit rate popping sound. The Super NES has always done much better in this regard in other games. So it is a bit disappointing.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t take away from the fun of the game.

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Overall, I’d still highly recommend Thunder Spirits though. While long time fans of the series might scoff at the idea of a TF III on the Super NES, it is in fact a terrific game. Even for those who may prefer the original cut on the Genesis, it is worth playing for the different stages, and updated ending. Likewise, if you have a Super NES, and a Genesis, playing TF III on the Genesis means experiencing a masterful shmup, and the parts of the game that Thunder Spirits replaced. Really, anybody who owns both 16-bit behemoths ought to check out both versions. For those who only have a Super NES in their collection, Thunder Spirits is still one of the best shmups on the console. It has everything you could want in a shmup. Great mechanics. Great visual design. A rocking soundtrack. Really the only things holding it back from perfection, are a handful of sub par sound effects, and some unfortunate slowdown. Still, it just goes to show how good Thunder Force games are. Even when they’re not at their best, they’re still some of the best shoot ’em up games you’ll ever play.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Slam Land Review

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(Full Disclosure: I know one person that is attached to the creation of this game. Be that as it may, I paid for my own digital download of the retail release on Steam with my own money, and have not been endorsed by the studio, publisher or any creator. All thoughts are my own.)

Super Smash Bros. is one of Nintendo’s most beloved franchises of all time. It started out humbly enough on the Nintendo 64. Then it became a massive success on the Nintendo Gamecube, being one of the console’s top drivers. Every sequel since, has done gangbusters. Even iterations that weren’t as well liked, have all sold well, and have been enjoyed by the general audience. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is one of the most hyped upcoming entries yet.

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So it should be no surprise, that over the years many games large, and small have experimented with Nintendo’s formula. From Cartoon Network Punch Time Explosion XL to PlayStation All Stars Battle Royale, other developers have tried making platformer fighting games. Some of them have been solid. Some have been pretty good. Some have been outright terrible. But Slam Land has to be one of the better takes on the formula I’ve purchased, and played.

PROS: Great visuals, audio, and a compelling twist on a proven formula.

CONS: No online multiplayer. Small character roster.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY: The announcer never shouts “BOOMSHAKALAKA!”

Why is this? Well, because it has a really simple mechanic that really changes the dynamics of the game. Instead of the game focusing on knocking every player out of the arena, it adds a proverbial basket to each of the game’s arenas. The object is instead, centered around throwing or punching your opponents into the goal like a basketball. But it doesn’t end there. You can stack multiple opponents together for major point bonuses when you dunk them. You can “Steal” the ball so to speak, by knocking an opponent out of the hands of another opponent, and catching them for yourself. This one simple change also keeps people running to the goal. So you don’t find yourself falling off of the stage, at the last second, unable to see yourself in the mayhem. At least not as often as you might have in some of the Super Smash Bros. games.

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Slam Land also makes a few adjustments to keep things from getting monotonous. Namely by adding a few different modes. There’s a Trash mode, where instead of throwing each other, you, and opponents collect garbage bags to throw into a goal. As is the case with the main mode, you can knock bags away from people or throw them off the stage to buy yourself some time. You can also, again, stack up multiple bags to dunk at the same time for big points. But the more you carry, the slower you move, allowing an enemy to knock you down, and take them away.

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Another variation is the game of Horse, where you spell the word “Horse” by getting baskets as in the basketball game. However, it does this by dropping Knight pieces with the corresponding letters into the map. And once you get one letter into the basket, you can’t score with the same letter again. So the four of you will be trying to balance getting letters you need, and throwing the ones you don’t need out of the map. This way you can keep opponents from catching up to you.

The other mode you can play is Peanut. This mode drops a peanut into the stage. Again, you’ll all want the peanut so you can shoot a basket for points. However, the longer you hold the peanut before dunking it, the more points you will get for doing so. So if you can hold it for several seconds you can be scoring 8 points or 12 points instead of only one. Of course, as in the other modes, enemies can knock you down. Thus claiming the peanut for themselves for a massive point boost.

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Every one of these variations is a lot of fun because they all feature a great sense of risk versus reward. Do you go for more bags for the big points, or do you just throw one to retain the speed to get away from everyone? Do you hold the peanut or go for a shot before someone can steal it? Do you throw your opponent now or wait until they’re distracted by someone else?

All of the modes go for three rounds too. So you might dominate one round, only to find you’ve been triple teamed faster than Braun Strowman in a fatal four-way. Even so, you’ll find all of them quite engaging. You can also play the primary mode with either time or stock rules. These work the way they do in Smash Bros. Where you’re either trying to get the highest score in a duration, or trying to be the last person with any lives left. The difference however is that stock mode in Slam Land, means you’re still going for points by eliminating opponents. Unlike Smash, you can be the last one standing, and still lose. So you can’t expect to turtle your way to victory.

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There is also a pseudo-campaign mode here, but really it just puts you in five games involving a mix of the pre-existing modes. I recommend playing through it initially because you’ll get acquainted with the modes right away to see which you enjoy the most. After that though, you can really roll with whichever modes you, and your group of friends like most. Rounding that out is a quick mode that just starts up a single game.

Audio-visually the game is really quite nice! Everything has a really crisp 2D look that resembles a sticker book. The characters all have a cute look infused with some pulp. It screams early 90’s Nickelodeon cartoons, and even some contemporary Adult Swim cartoons. One of the playable characters reminded me a bit of  The Ren & Stimpy Show, while the ominous blue character who shows up in some of the game’s stage backgrounds reminded me a lot of stuff like Superjail. But that isn’t to say any of this stuff feels like a copy of anything. Everything is wholly original, but these are just some of the things I was reminded of by the game’s art style. The bottom line is that it looks great. The light audio soundtrack, and booming announcer voice accent all of it very nicely too.

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There are a few things that I would have liked the game to have implemented though. While I love the look of the characters I would have liked to have had a bigger roster. Functionally every character works the same way of course. You move them, and then you have a jump button, a pickup button (which you also use to throw), and a punch button that makes your character throw an uppercut. A simple control scheme, that anyone can understand. But having more characters would have been a nice touch. The five characters you do get are pretty cool though, each with neat little details. The human walks around in his BVDs. The Skeleton has some great inking for wear, and tear. The bug animates nicely. The carrot has a giant grin, and the other garish figure is so weird you’ll just fall in love with it. I would have liked more of that.

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It’s also going to disappoint some of you that this game has no online multiplayer. So if you’re someone whose friends are mostly long distance, you’re stuck playing against bots. The bots have pretty good A.I. but there’s nothing quite like playing against other people. This is why the Switch version is also an attractive option. Because it’s exactly the short, and simple kind of game you can take to a family gathering, or play with strangers at a coffee shop or with your coworkers on a lunch break. The other versions are great if you do have people over regularly. But for those who don’t, but who do own a Switch, it’s something worth considering. If you pretty much only play by yourself though, it’s not as easy to recommend.

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All of that said though, this is a phenomenal multiplayer experience. It’s also a cut above many other Smash clones because it plays so much differently. There may be four of you, and an arena. But the basketball mechanics really make Slam Land stand out. In fact, if you’re looking for a party game, and you’re not a fan of Super Smash Bros., you may just find you’ll enjoy this because of that different goal. Bread Machine Games should really commend themselves on making such a simple, yet addictive spin on the platform fighter. It might not be as deep as Nintendo’s own game, but it is a super fun game that can complement it nicely. If you’ve got a Steam account, a PS4, or a Switch, and want something a little bit different pick up Slam Land.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle Review

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Last time we looked at an old, and underrated fighter. But this time out we’re looking at something newer. Arc System Works created something special when it brought the Guilty Gear series to the world. A highly stylized 2D fighter, it had some of the smoothest, and most impressive animation ever. The details in the characters were also a sight to behold. They followed up that success with BlazBlue. A different series, but with the same commitment to detail, and fluid animation. This drew the attention of other creators, and before long they were making games based on other properties. So now we have a BlazBlue crossover game. Does it hang with the likes of Namco’s Tekken Tag games, or Capcom’s many Vs. titles? Is it something you should pick up? Read on.

PROS: The brisk animation, and gameplay you’ve come to expect from ASW.

CONS: Some may deride the repurposing of some sprite work.

HOLY CRAP: The finishers in this game are pretty amazing to watch.

The short answer to both of those questions is “Yes.” But let’s take the long answer road, and talk about why. BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle is a fighter that caters to the core player. The depth of the fighting system, and its complex multi-tiered combos are things you can spend hours just trying to grasp. Yet, it isn’t a game that newcomers can’t enjoy. Yes, there will be a vast skill gap when you first begin, and you’ll get destroyed online. But the game gives you plenty of features to start out with, and the tools to learn how to play properly.

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The initial mode of the game is a story mode.  It isn’t terribly deep, but it does try to set up some kind of reason why all of these characters from different games are here. As the game features a lot of characters from properties, I’m not intimately familiar with I couldn’t begin to explain every detail. But the primary plot is that one of the characters from the BlazBlue universe has created some kind of super computer that has forced everyone together to fight in a tournament. Over the course of the tournament, the teams discover secret gems they can use to escape. Subsequent play through will fill in some more gaps, but generally this is a great way for you to get acquainted with the basics. You’ll be forced to play tag battle, after tag battle until you’re able to complete it.

When you turn the game on, and start playing you’ll find yourself in an open arena with concession stands. These work as an elongated version of an options menu. You can walk to the center to begin the storyline mode. You can go to another door to go into the online lobbies, go to another to spend your in-game currency on avatars, icons, and tiles. Then there’s another that acts as an info desk. Of course you can also bring up a traditional menu if you’d rather do that. This can be easier than roaming around to different booths. One of the things you’ll find in the options is the training mode.

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The training mode in BBCTB is one of the better ones I’ve played in a fighting game. It tries to tell players in layman’s terms what the advanced mechanics do, which makes it helpful when you’re starting out. This isn’t to say that you’re going to play through the tutorial, and instantly comprehend it all. Yes, you can go through, and clear all of the lessons, but you’re not likely going to retain everything the game has to offer in one run of the sessions. These make for a pretty good reference guide. Even after you clear a lesson, when you forget how to do something, you’ll be able to go back to re-learn it.

Of course like all fighting games, playing the game often is going to really help you not only retain the knowledge of how to do things, but learn when to use them. There is a lot of a risk/reward at play in the fighting system. For example, many of the game’s mechanics like dashes, and combos are centered around rush downs. Going on the offensive is a big, big, part of BBCTB. If you can get even a few small combos in, and put opponents on the defensive you limit their options. However, there is also a big risk when you do go for big damage. Because if you whiff an attack, or the opponent knows how to spot a high, or a low opening they can get a jump on you. The game also has a parry system too. So if your opponent has mastered timing, you could find them escaping your onslaught, and countering you.

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The game’s tag system is an integral part of this as well. While in the midst of a combo you can call in your second character in for a double team. You can also then take control of that character during the double team, or leave them there fighting as an NPC beside you. Knowing when to use each option is key. Obviously you can also swap characters when the one you’re presently controlling is beaten down, and needs a breather. But, again, if you’re being rushed down badly with low health you might not have a chance to do so unless you can manage to parry first. Tag teams can also use up your gauges at the bottom, so you’ll also want to be managing those.

Also, being an Arc System Works game, you can expect a lot of highly stylized finishers of varying degrees. There are Distortion finishers where the end of a match comes with flashy spectacles filled with bright colors. But if you can manage to max out your gauges, and time the motions properly, you can do Astral finishers. These are mesmerizing displays that are so visually appealing you’ll enjoy them. Even when you’re on the losing end, you’ll be wowed upon seeing them the first several times.

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Playing the game online will be the bread, and butter for most people, and so you’ll be spending a lot of time in the lobbies. There are many of them. Some categorized for absolute beginners, others for the general audience, and then you have the ranked lobbies. In all of the lobbies, rather than be given a static menu, you move an avatar about an arcade. You can move up to the left or right position of any machine, and wait for a challenger, or walk up to anyone presently waiting for a challenger. The game also lets you communicate a number of ways. You can use icons with common gestures like “GG” or Good Game. You can use body language with your avatar. For instance you can have them bow. Or jump in place excitedly. Probably the best option is pulling up an on-screen keyboard, and typing in a short sentence.

Once you’re ready to fight, the game transitions to your character order screen. You can choose your characters in the online option menu before challenging someone. Once you’ve selected the order, one player chooses the stage, and you’re in a match. In my experience on the Nintendo Switch, most of the matches have had a solid connection even over my wireless network. There were a handful of moments where lag crept in, but for the most part it’s pretty solid. Other versions may fare better, but as far as I can tell, it should be a pretty good experience when playing online. You can also invite friends to play online should any of your friends also own the game.

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Local versus play is a lot of fun though, the wide variety of characters is nice. You’ll be seeing not only characters from BlazBlue, but those from the Persona series, Rooster Teeth’s RWBY, as well as Under Night In-Birth franchises. Plus every character seems fairly viable, able to dish out a lot of damage. Undoubtedly as the best skilled players get into the deepest pros, and cons of each there will be the expected tier lists of which teams are best suited. For anyone new to fighting games, there are also a few auto combos on hand. Arc System Works also follows the trend of other fighting games, by offering extra characters via DLC. You can buy them individually if you wish, but there is also an option to get all of them, including the ones that haven’t been announced. And while this is going to disappoint some players expecting a full roster out of the gate, they have vastly undercut other fighting games in this area.

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One really cool bonus that the game does include however is an EP on mini CD. A few of the more noteworthy songs from the game’s OST are on it. Speaking of the sound, it’s all very good. It includes not only a fairly good soundtrack ranging from Rock to Orchestral but the sound effects are loud, crisp, and sync up with the onscreen action. Moreover you get a lot of great audio performances here by both the original Japanese actors, and the English actors. You can also mix, and match by character. Visually, the backgrounds are nice, with some great 3D models, while the 2D sprites of characters, and animation are top-notch. One thing some fans have complained about however, is the fact that some of the characters are composed of frames of animation from older games. I will say this is noticeable, especially on a large TV, and the result is that in some matchups, one character will look a little bit grainy versus another. Overall though this is a fairly minor nitpick. The underlying mechanics in this game are fairly different from the other BlazBlue games for one. Second, this is hardly the first fighter to do so. Capcom Vs. SNK 2 was especially remembered for doing this, and it was still one of the most beloved entries in Capcom’s Vs. series. This is also a non issue if you’re playing this on the Switch on the go, as you’ll barely notice it on the small screen.

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In the end I think this will be fondly remembered by fighting game enthusiasts. Not everything in it is going to be loved. If you like a more defense focused fighter, you may appreciate it a little bit less, and you’ll be buying characters as it’s par the course these days. Still, I’ve found myself really enjoying the mechanics a lot in spite of being completely outclassed by nearly everyone online. If you’re a die-hard fighting fan who hasn’t checked it out already, or you’re just someone who hasn’t played a new fighting game in a while you may find yourself enjoying it as much as I have.

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All of that being said, those who decide they want the Switch version would do well to pick up a traditional controller option or an arcade stick. While the game is playable on the go using the joycons, the lack of a D-pad makes performing some of the sequences a bit more difficult. Beyond that, the game performs well on the console, and if you’re looking for a fighter for the Switch, this is a nice one.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

WeaponLord Review

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Back in the ’90’s fighting games were in full swing. Easily the most popular genre in arcades, there were countless titles ported to the Super NES, Sega Genesis, as well as other platforms. On top of this, many publishers pumped out fighters hoping to be the next Street Fighter grade success story. As such, a number of games came out for home platforms in lieu of arcade machines. One such game was WeaponLord.

PROS: Beautiful graphics. Deep fighting system. Fun.

CONS: Figuring out the game on your own isn’t intuitive.

NAMCO: Is rumored to have loosely based its Soul Edge & Soul Calibur games off of this.

WeaponLord is both one of the most difficult, and yet rewarding fighting games I’ve ever stumbled upon. I found my copy at this year’s ConnectiCon, and knew basically nothing about it going in. As we did in the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s I went into this based on the label/box art. I suppose I could have used my primitive phone’s web browser, but that wouldn’t have been much fun.

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Anyway, WeaponLord focuses on fighting with swords, axes, hammers, and other melee combat weapons rather than martial arts moves. The brainchild of James Goddard, and Dave Winstead, this game is a lot like Barbarian. Except with a better roster, and interesting, complex mechanics. This makes sense when you learn that the Conan mythos, and other fantasy properties were an influence in its creation. Goddard, and Winstead had come from Capcom during the heights of the Street Fighter II phenomenon. Goddard also created the character Dee Jay who first appeared in Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers.

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Around this time the short-lived Xband modem was being hyped up for the Super NES, and the Sega Genesis. These two developers wanted to make a fighter that could take advantage of it, and try to get the lowest lag possible. This was a time when mainly computer games could be played one-on-one over a phone line. The concept, while not new, was very rare on consoles. The one high-profile example of the Xband was the 1v1 Deathmatch mode in the Super NES port of DOOM. Strangely the feature wasn’t even advertised in that game’s manual.

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Anyway, to make their game, Goddard, and Winstead would leave Capcom, and join Visual Concepts to make WeaponLord ar reality. Were they a success? Yes, although not nearly the success of the games their former employer made were. WeaponLord is an ambitious game, and it shows. The graphics, and animation are top-notch. Remember when I said Conan was an influence? The characters, and backgrounds on display will remind you of a Boris Vallejo painting. The pixel art, and sprite work details are nothing short of spectacular. Characters are fairly large, and everything looks breathtaking.

This comes at a high price however. This stuff takes up a lot of storage capacity, and memory. So the game has a small roster. This also means that matches are considerably longer than in other games, because things move along much slower. If you’re used to playing flashy modern fighters at 60 frames per second, you’re not going to get that here. You’re not going to get the standard pace of a 16-bit era Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat port either. However, if you come into WeaponLord with an open mind, and a willingness to learn, you’ll find a deep, and entertaining experience.

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As the game focuses on swords, clubs, and blades it doesn’t share a weak, medium, fierce attack setup, like many other games of the era did. Instead you have backward, and forward swings. There are three of each, and go from fast, but weak to slow, but strong. The basic moves also integrate your movement. So a crouching forward swing works completely different from a standing one, or while in the air. This may seem obvious to veterans of the genre, but it’s going to be a lot more noticeable to newcomers in this game, than some of the more popular fighting games out there.

Special moves don’t generally follow the circular, and charge motions of a lot of popular games. A number of them do, but you’ll find a lot of them if not most of them are similar to Primal Rage. You have to hold an attack button, do a motion while holding the attack button, and then release it. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you wrap your head around it, you’ll start learning how to link normal, and special moves together a bit better.

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But the game also has a very good parry feature. Holding a weak swing button, and moving forward, up, and down can perform a deflection if you time it properly. This puts the opponent into a short stun, and allows you to capitalize on it with a combo. But this feature is also risk vs. reward. Because if you do it too early you’re going to get stomped, and if you do it too late you’re already getting stomped. Unfortunately because of the era this game came out in, there isn’t any real tutorial to speak of in the game. You only have whatever information the manual lists, and nothing else. But that shouldn’t stop you from picking up, and enjoying vintage fighting games like this one. Especially when you stumble upon one that is this good.

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The depth continues when you discover that some moves will break weapons if you manage to land them, at just the right time, during the right frame of animation! If you manage to do this, your opponent’s attacks will actually do noticeably less damage! One thing that isn’t as deep, but is a cool Easter Egg is finding that similar conditions can actually damage your opponent’s outfit. Pieces of armor crack, hair gets cut off, textiles get torn. Seeing this stuff is pretty cool even today.

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It also wouldn’t be a 90’s fighter without a finishing move, and WeaponLord has its own take on the idea. Again, this is a part of the game that reminded me a lot of Barbarian, an old Commodore 64 fighting game, that while simple, featured gory dismemberment. WeaponLord doesn’t have the over-the-top fantastical fatalities associated with Mortal Kombat or Killer Instinct. Instead, it has long combo strings, that if you can pull off, results in decapitation, missing limbs, and disembowelment. These executions also play a part in the game’s story mode.

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The game has three main modes. First, there’s a story mode, where you take your character through an arcade ladder, and get some lore throughout the process. It plays as you might expect, going along, getting victories, and then fighting a boss character. Beating the boss character gets you an ending, and there you go. Except that WeaponLord’s story campaign changes based on the difficulty level you’re playing on, and whether or not you kill off your opponents. If you don’t kill these characters in your initial two out of three match ups, you have to fight them again later. These conditions also change the ending you’ll get, so it gives you incentive to play it a few times. Apparently the Sega Genesis port doesn’t eschew the rematch upon killing opponents. But the storyline is still a similar experience. If you pay attention to the storyline, you’ll find that the game has two stories. The story in the story mode takes place after the tournament, while the arcade mode tells the story beforehand. Beating the story with each character gives you part of a password you can use to play the story from the boss character’s perspective.

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The second mode is the bog standard arcade mode. Here it’s just a matter of clearing the arcade ladder, but without the additions of the story mode. But, if you want to get into the lore, you’ll want to play it for the prequel content. Finally, you have the Versus mode, which is the meat, and potatoes of any fighting game. If you can get some people over, you’ll have quite the fighting game night for many of the reasons outlined above. In all honesty this is one of the best fighting games on the Super NES in spite of the sluggish movement. On its face it may seem like yet another clunky, mediocre game. There were a lot of them back in the day. But stick with it, and you’ll find WeaponLord is a winner.

 

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WeaponLord was published by Namco, and so the innovations in this game appearing in its later series like Soul Edge, and Soul Calibur won’t go unnoticed. It’s rumored that the developers of those games were inspired by Visual Concepts’ barbarian fighter, and it’s easy to see why. Many of the things these games brought to the forefront of the genre were introduced in this obscure title. Had this game not come out the same year Killer Instinct was ported to the Super NES it might have gotten more attention. As it stands, this is one of those games you should really check out if given the opportunity. It has a steep learning curve, but once you pick up some of the basics you’ll find a very entertaining fighter filled with personality. It isn’t perfect by any means. The game could stand to perform a bit faster, and it should have spelled some of the combat out better. But this should not have its identity mistaken for mediocre stuff like Street Combat.

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It may be rough around the edges, but WeaponLord is awesome.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Time Pilot Review

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Time Travel. It is a widely used theme in fiction, and video games have been no exception. It was a plot device in Chrono Trigger. It was used it Timesplitters. It was used in Time Slip. It has even been used in multiple Final Fantasy games, including the first one. So it should be no surprise that even in the golden age of arcade machines, developers would take a crack at the idea. Today’s game was one of Konami’s efforts. Before Contra, and Castlevania there was Frogger. Somewhere in between these franchises came Time Pilot.

PROS: Tight controls. Nice visual details.

CONS: Cheap A.I.. Home versions missing features.

GREAT SCOTT: There are no DeLorean cars, but there are space ships.

Released in 1982, with ports following a year later, Time Pilot is both original, and derivative. It came at a time when many games were about blowing up ships, for big points, and the high score. However it is also a game where the enemies change vastly between waves. Something that, while simple, seems to add some variety.

So what do you do in Time Pilot? You destroy enemies for points. But there are some nuances about it. Each wave of enemies takes place in a different era. When you first begin the game, you’ll be in the year 1910. So you’ll be smack dab in the middle of early biplanes. Upon seeing you, they’ll swarm you, and do their best to shoot you down. So you’ll go along, blowing up planes. Once you’ve destroyed enough of them, a boss will appear. The first boss is a giant zeppelin. If you can manage to take it down, your ship will flash, and warp ahead in time.

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Wave two takes place in the year 1940. So you’ll be taking down biplanes in the midst of World War II dogfights. These planes also drop bombs in addition to shooting bullets at you. So the game’s difficulty inches upward as a result. If you can survive long enough, and destroy enough planes you’ll be attacked by the boss: a bomber. Manage to shoot it down, and you’ll again warp ahead.

Wave three gets you to 1970, and you’ll be going up against a ton of helicopters. These have much wilder flight patterns than the planes you were going up against, and so you can again expect things to get a bit tougher. You’ll face an even bigger helicopter in a boss fight. If you can defeat the boss you jump ahead again.

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Wave four jumps ahead twelve years to 1982, and so the enemies change to what was contemporary. Fighter jets. The jets are faster than anything you’ve faced at this point, and like the helicopters, have heat seeking missiles! If somehow you can take down enough of these you’ll go up against a B-52 bomber. If by some miracle you survive all of this, you’ll jump ahead.

The final wave takes you to 2001. So naturally you’ll be going up against extraterrestrial U.F.O.s. This stage has so much random craziness in its attack patterns. You’ll fight a mothership of course, and taking it down is quite the challenge. If you manage to do so the game starts over, and each wave the difficulty amps up even more. You can also get big points by rescuing other pilots in each era who can be found parachuting. Just fly over them, and nab the bonuses.

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Time Pilot had a few official ports although there were unofficial clones on home computers like the Commodore 64, and ZX Spectrum. As far as the officially licensed ones go, they appeared on the MSX computer in Japan, and in North America on the Atari 2600, and Colecovision. The 2600, and Colecovision versions were published by Coleco. The game has been included in several compilations, and services for the PlayStation, Xbox 360, Gameboy Advance, and Nintendo DS.

Visually, Time Pilot is pretty nice, and the 8-bit sprites hold up pretty well. the clouds , planes, and bosses all scroll around smoothly, and the performance is pretty good. Every version looks pretty good, with the Colecovision running neck, and neck with the MSX version. The Colecovision includes most of the features found in the arcade version albeit with less detailed sprites, and animation. The paratroopers are there, the erratic patterns of enemy waves, and all of the firepower. However, it is missing the 2001 UFO wave which seems to be a glaring oversight.

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The 2600 version looks better than you might expect, however there aren’t multiple flight paths for the enemies. So every enemy wave member flies in the same pattern. The enemies also don’t have any secondary weapons, and the bosses can be taken out in a single hit, making this the easiest of the home versions. It also doesn’t have the paratroopers. It’s still a pretty solid effort though, and even includes the 2001 wave the Colecovision version omits. It’s also an uncommon game on the Atari 2600 so it’s one of a handful of VCS games you’ll pay more than the usual $5 for.

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The compilation on the PlayStation, and the Xbox 360 probably have the best way to play the original game, as the arcade ROM displays nicely on a TV. The Gameboy Advance port on the Konami Collector’s Series: Arcade Advanced , is also worth looking into though. Because although it switches around the orientation for its smaller screen, it also includes a prehistoric stage not seen in any other version of Time Pilot. If you have a way to play it on a TV through a Gamecube GBA player or the Retrobit GBA Adapter cartridge console for the Super NES, you may just want to track it down. The DS Konami Classics Series: Arcade Hits compilation is also a nice option if you like to play old school games on the go. The 3DS family also plays the DS games so it’s another option if you have the newer handheld.

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All in all, this is a wonderful game that often gets overlooked in the realm of classics. It’s arguably deeper than other Konami classics like Scramble, or Super Cobra, and yet it doesn’t seem as fondly remembered as either of those classic games. It’s a shame because Time Pilot really is an addictive action game that will please anyone who enjoys high-score challenges, or any form of shoot ’em ups. Whether you play the original arcade version or any of the ports, Time Pilot shouldn’t be missed. It can be short, and one could argue repetitive. But the change in time periods, enemies, and strategies go a long way in keeping things fun, and interesting. Which is probably why the idea was revisited in Time Ace.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Splatoon 2: Octo Expansion Review

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Splatoon. It’s become one of the most popular Nintendo franchises in a fairly short period of time. And, as I’ve pointed out in two reviews, it’s easy to see why. It’s an excellent take on third-person team shooting. Plus, each of the games offered a substantial campaign that was easily worth the asking price. Now, Nintendo has gone 90’s PC gaming, and released an expansion pack for Splatoon 2. It boasts a whopping 80 stages, and promises to expand the lore. But does this expansion truly deliver?

PROS: An 80 stage campaign. Killer OST. Unlockable multiplayer content.

CONS: Some of the mission goals aren’t always clear.

PEARL & MARINA: Can be used to cheese your way through.

Splatoon 2: Octo Expansion does indeed deliver on its promises. Maybe not in the exact way you might want. But it gives you what it promised mostly in spades. The campaign centers around Agent 8, a Octoling who wakes up in a subway with no memory of who they are. You’ll start out by customizing the general look of your Octoling, like you did for your Inkling in the mainline Splatoon 2 campaign. As it turns out, Captain Cuttlefish from the original game is also in the subway. Over the course of the campaign we learn that the subway is actually a test facility.  That’s right, Inkopolis has its own Aperture Science.

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The way the expansion is structured is a bit strange at first, but eventually you’ll figure it out, and everything will make sense. Throughout the course of the game you’ll be riding along on a subway train. Stages are placed about along train lines. Some of these tracks intersect with other train lines, and if you want to see everything, you’ll need to complete every stage on a line. Beating any given stage, will give you something the game calls Mem Cakes, icons that resemble the characters throughout the Splatoon mythos. That is, if the characters were marshmallows in a breakfast cereal. Completing an entire line, and collecting all of the Mem Cakes will net you apparel you can use online when you complete the storyline. There’s a giant insect on the subway train. Every time you go to him with a set of Mem Cakes you’ll get the aforementioned clothing.  You can also play as a Octoling online if you complete the storyline. So this expansion gives you incentive to try to beat all eighty of its stages.

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In order to play stages you’ll need some power eggs, and the game starts you out with some. Each stage has an entry fee depending on how difficult the designers feel it is. Once the fee is paid you’ll begin the stage. Stages do show off a lot of variety. Many of the levels play like the ones in the primary campaigns of Splatoon, and Splatoon 2. You’ll go from point A to point B, and take out any enemies you see along the way.  While that sounds simple, in practice it rarely ever is. Your reflexes, and mind will be pushed hard as you try to balance combat, and platforming. These are a lot like EX grade stages in other games, where the bar is raised even higher. You’ll find yourself learning advanced techniques, and new mechanics. But don’t be intimidated. These skills parlay into the primary Splatoon 2 multiplayer, and you’ll likely do better at its other modes too.

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But that’s far from the only kind of stage you’ll be playing. Other stages are survival modes, where you have to go a period of time avoiding obstacles, and projectiles for a period of time. Some of them will send you into a room of death traps. Other times it will be a room of enemies. Often times you’ll be completely unarmed, and in just about every instance you cannot take a single hit of damage. The time limit can be as low as a few seconds, or as long as a few minutes. When you first start out these will indeed be pretty tough. But over time you’ll learn patterns, and eventually clear them. As frustrating as the early attempts can be, these stages are a lot of help too. Because again, you’ll learn how to better dodge, and outwit online opponents by playing them.

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The 8-Ball stages are about on par with what you’d find in Valve’s Portal series, at least in terms of complexity. Initially, things start out pretty softly. You’ll get the basic mechanics of the idea, shooting an 8-Ball at just the right angle to move it along a series of courses to the end. But as you unlock newer stages based around the mechanic, they become far more elaborate. Many of them have segments where there are no guard rails. So if the ball falls into the abyss, you lose a life. Some of them involve pinball bumpers, multiple balls, switches, and time trials. They’re some of the best stages in the expansion.

There are also a number of puzzle stages that involve rotating the stage around in order to reach your objectives. Again, these are comparable to some of the Portal puzzles in terms of complexity. Then there are the handicap matches. These are the multiplayer games, only instead of playing online, it’s just you up against a team of Octolings. These matchups can be compared to the ones in the main Splatoon 2 campaign. You’ll have to defeat the Octoling soldiers which seem to have advanced A.I.

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But it doesn’t end there. Some of the stages will give you an option of what weapon to use, while others will demand you use a specific one. There are also gauntlet stages, where you’ll have to defeat hordes of enemies in order to get to the next checkpoint. Some of these use the mechanics from the main game as well, such as invisible walls, and floors that need to be inked in order to see them, or switches that have to be shot in order to freeze a piece of geometry so you can jump on or over it. There’s even one that puts the attackers on a turn table, where a switch will cause enemies to spin around in front of you.

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There are also a few boss stages in this campaign. Many of them bring back harder versions of previous bosses. But there are also a few new ones that go along with the storyline of the Octo Expansion. The toughest part about these, are the high entry fees. If you lose, you’ll be going back to other levels to grind away enough currency for a re-match. Be that as it may, these can feel like a massive accomplishment when you finally emerge victorious. When I say these are harder versions, I really mean these are harder versions. The strategies you used before won’t always translate to the rematch. Plus you’ll have to dish out more damage than before, and be on the lookout for new tricks from these old dogs.

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The overall goal is revealed to you when you happen upon a phone in the early goings of the Octo Expansion. This mysterious phone wants you to collect four devices, that are represented on the rail line maps. In order to get to each, you’ll have to play stages that lead up to them in order. Once you’ve done so, you’re ready to escape (which isn’t as cut, and dry as it sounds) But you won’t see every rail line initially. You’ll discover them when you find a stage that intersects on them. So as I mentioned earlier the game gives you a lot to do. Especially if you want to earn those cosmetic items for multiplayer in Splatoon 2. Discovering new lines will also have the conductor giving you currency to enter new stages with so you’ll get a perk for doing so. Don’t forget clearing stages also gives you money so you’ll earn money to go on. As stated earlier, certain levels also give you a choice as to what weapon to use. So if you want to go high reward for an equally high risk, you can choose the least advised option for a bigger payout.

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Of course some of the challenges on display here take only the most honed skills. For many, this will only give the drive needed to complete these. But if you find them too frustrating you can call on Pearl, and Marina to let you skip them. It’s a lot like the aid Nintendo has put in some of its Super Mario Bros. games. Allowing people of a lower skill level to see everything. However the game also makes note of the stages you’ve skipped, and gives you faded versions of the meme cakes outlined earlier. This means you also miss out on some of the lore, because much of the storyline is built into background item drops, chat logs, and other devices. It isn’t all front, and center via cut scenes.

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A lot of this stuff is really well written too, and goes a lot deeper with allegorical commentary, than you might realize. But it also does it without beating you over the head. It’s subtle enough that those looking for it will find it, and those that don’t pay as much mind to it won’t miss it. And at the same time there’s nothing controversial one could glob onto. They did a great job of letting players see the events from a number of viewpoints. There is also some Sci-Fi in this that comes out of nowhere, and yet still fits the storyline like a glove.

You don’t have to clear every stage to be able to complete the campaign, but because of some of the multiplayer rewards, and some of the storyline elements you’ll have enough incentive to go back, and play the stuff you skipped, or replay the stuff you might have previously found too taxing. You’re definitely getting a lot of value in the Splatoon 2 Octo Expansion.

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Be that as it may, I do have a few minor gripes with it. The largest small problem is that it isn’t always clear where you’re supposed to go in some missions. In this handful of stages, you’ll figure it out simply enough with some trial, and error. But knowing off the bat helps immensely most of the time. A minor nitpick but there you are.  It’s also possible to cheese your way through by skipping stages after every two failed attempts. The flip side of this is that you’re not really getting the experience of actually playing the game. It’s certainly a viable mechanic for newcomers to be able to see more of the game, but it has the potential for abuse.

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I also would have preferred more original bosses over the returning bosses from the campaign. The new versions of these old bosses again, do present new, and more difficult challenges than before. But seeing these guys again just didn’t have the same magic. Especially when so much of the rest of the expansion is so new. Still, you’ll likely enjoy the tension that these skirmishes provide. It’s just too bad they couldn’t have had some more original characters for these encounters instead. Visually speaking, there isn’t a notable jump over the base game, but it still looks great. Nice designs, some slick textures, and visual cues. Pretty much everyone will be fine with it. But for those holding out hope this would look like a pseudo-sequel were probably aiming a little too high.

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And finally, I would have preferred more New Wave, Power Pop, and Pop Punk tracks than the expansion pack delivers, but the Electronica it gives the audience is very good. It’s at its best when it goes for ambience during some of the most difficult tasks at hand. There are also some great uses of sampling the original Wii U game soundtrack in it. So in terms of using the soundtrack for telling the story, one can’t complain much.  Again, all of my issues are minor, and two of them boil down toward preference more so than actual complaints. Really the main issue is that some goals aren’t laid out to you properly in a very small percentage of levels. In the grand scheme of things, that really isn’t that big a deal.

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Octo Expansion is a worthwhile expansion pack. Players who wished the base game had more single-player content than the base game should absolutely download this. With 80 stages, and so much variety, chances are you’ll be playing this a fairly long amount of time. It also has plenty in it for anybody who has become a big fan of the characters, and the world they inhabit. There is a lot of backstory here for those willing to look for it, and for those looking to uncover it. Not only in the cut scenes, and chat logs. But in the actual gameplay as well. It is even a solid buy if you come to Splatoon 2 for the Turf War, Ranked Battles, and Splat Fests. Because beating a lot of these stages will actually improve your skills online. They often require learning some advanced techniques to complete which then parlay into multiplayer. Plus there are all sorts of apparel, and Octoling options you’ll have access to once you manage to complete the storyline.

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Is Octo Expansion required to be able to enjoy Splatoon 2? Not at all. If you stick with the base game, you’ll still get to enjoy all of the Turf War, and Salmon Run you want. But if you like the idea of some added online perks, and hours upon hours of new content for a game you already love, Octo Expansion is a solid recommendation. There are so many things to love about this one. Whether you’re a hardcore fan who sings Calamari Inkantation every chance they get, or just somebody who happens to enjoy a good console shooter, Octo Expansion is quite the catch.

Final Score: 9 out of 10