Category Archives: Reviews

Sydney Hunter & The Curse Of The Mayan Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

SNK 40th Anniversary Collection Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

RAD RODGERS Review

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It’s a constant theme in the realm of lower-budget games. Games that re-create the things we love about the old games we grew up with during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Many of these games take the approach of even looking retro. Eschewing modern visuals for the classic sprite work reminiscent of games on the Nintendo Entertainment System or Sega Master System. Or even the Super Nintendo Entertainment System or Sega Genesis. But every so often something comes around that celebrates the other pillar of classic gaming: Home computers.

PROS: Genuinely funny jokes, and performances. Level design. Character design.

CONS: Some serious bugs. One gameplay loop can be monotonous.

REFERENCES: The humor is very much going to appeal to Family Guy fans everywhere.

RAD RODGERS comes to us from Slipgate Studios, which (as Interceptor) brought us the reboot of Rise Of The Triad. As in that game, things are very much tied to the early days of Apogee/3D Realms as the game has a slew of nods to those classic DOS games of yesteryear. But instead of simply cribbing the art style of old the game instead takes a slightly more modern approach. Giving us a game that hearkens back to the old days of Halloween Harry while looking more like something that would have released near the end of the PS3/360 run of indie games.

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The game starts off with the scenario we all loved seeing back in the days of Captain N Game Master. A child, Rad Rodgers is seen playing his Super NES when his Mother tells him he has school the next day and needs to go to bed. Reluctantly, he listens only to have the console mysteriously come back on to a screen of white noise. When our hero gets up to check out the problematic game system he is transported to the world of the game he was just playing moments ago.

Here you meet Dusty, voiced by Duke Nukem himself, Jon St. John. Dusty becomes your sidekick and helps you on your way by allowing you to climb certain surfaces as well as allowing you to do a super move at the cost of a bit of a meter. Dusty also serves another important purpose that I’ll get to a little bit later. Obviously, Rad Rodgers is excited to be in a fictional world. But not all is well in this video game land. The cartridge the world takes place in is filled with glitches and bugs that impede anybody’s progress.

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So Rad Rodgers must not only save the world from a terrifying villain, he also has to rid the world of bugs in order to proceed. This is where Dusty’s other major contribution comes in. Throughout each of the mainline stages are some segments where Rad Rodgers simply cannot pass. Sometimes it might be a jump he won’t be able to make. Other times it might be a door that needs to be unlocked.

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This forces you to find areas that will transport Dusty into this top-down perspective world where he must play one of several minigames. Some of them involve navigating a maze looking for the missing geometry you need. Others involve you connecting electrons in a specific manner in a certain number of turns. All before you run out of a pixel meter. Which you can refill by killing enemies in the mode. The thing is while these sections do break up some of the action, they can become monotonous as there isn’t a whole lot to figure out in them. In later levels they throw more enemies in there to make it harder, but that only makes them feel a bit more dragged out.

Once you clear these areas and continue though it’s back to business. The game will continue on. Each of the maps also has a plethora of secrets to find in them. Sometimes they may be a weapon, other times collectible gems or even 1-Ups. Stages are very reminiscent of classic Apogee games. Especially the first two Duke Nukem games, Halloween Harry/Alien Carnage, and even a splash of Monster Bash for good measure. Imagine the labyrinthine layouts of the former games with the familiar floaty computer jumping of the latter. Things can be quite the challenge too. Some areas require a mastery of timing, as you’ll have to shoot a switch to open a door within the next few seconds and get past death beams, five bad guys, and maybe a tough climb on the way.

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Throughout each of the areas are a number of homes you can enter for items. It’s here that the game really pours on the reference humor with characters that mock not only the old Apogee games, but take a few stabs at modern games and classics from Nintendo. But it does this in a tongue in cheek way. Of course you can turn on a setting at the beginning of the game where the sound samples are going to go for crass, R-Rated fare. You can turn this off if you’re playing it with or around small kids. But this is the reason why the game has an M rating. Some of the jokes can be pretty raunchy too. Obviously, humor is subjective.

But if you love shows like Family Guy, or South Park you’ll probably like a number of the gags as it again, excels at making jokes referencing itself, and things of yesteryear. If that sort of humor isn’t your cup of tea then you may want to turn off the R-Rated setting. Generally though, it feels like a “What If?” scenario where Apogee had beaten Rare to the punch in a crass platformer. You can expect comparisons to Conker’s Bad Fur Day. If I had any complaints about the humor it’s just that they didn’t record enough jokes. Because after a while you will start hearing the lines repeat enough that they can be beaten into submission.

 

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Some of the aforementioned homes are worth exploring though, because the game does feature a number of secret characters and collectible hats. And in most cases, these are where you will find them. One of them is a playable inhabitant, but most of the other characters are Apogee/3DRealms characters. Duke Nukem is here, so is Bombshell (Ion Fury), Lo Wang (Shadow Warrior Reboot), as well as a couple of classic characters. And in order to clear any given stage you’ll need to find four different pieces of a medallion. These can be hidden anywhere so secret hunting actually helps you proceed a lot. Finding the secret characters is also going to be of value because every character has a secret move they can do and each of these works to make certain areas more manageable. Bombshell for instance rolls homing grenades. Lo Wang on the other hand has his trusty sword for melee kills.

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After clearing a stage you’ll go to a Super Mario World style overworld map that follows your exploits. Between stage spaces on the map you’ll land on minigame spaces. Most of these are pretty good, though others might be a bit bland or confusing. The standout of these are the pogo jump stages that are a complete reference to id Software’s early Commander Keen as that character often pogo jumped his way through stages. These are designed similarly to the Squid Jump game from the original Splatoon as you have to pogo jump as far up as possible before water fills the chasm below you. Touching the water kills you and the mini game ends. The other standout for me were the pinball tables. These were a complete throwback to Epic’s Epic Pinball. Here, you’ll try to not only get the High Score on any given machine, but you’ll also try to collect items like gems that you ordinarily find throughout the game’s stages.

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Things do ultimately culminate in one heck of a boss fight that even manages to utilize the glitch world mechanic I spoke about earlier pretty well. It’s not the most challenging final showdown in an action platformer, but it is one you likely won’t clear on an initial attempt. Especially if you play the game at one of the higher difficulty settings. The finale does feel pretty satisfying though, and does open up the possibility that another Rad Rodgers title may see the light of day.

Personally, I hope it does. I definitely enjoyed much of my time with the game. The platforming feels tight most of the time. It has fun gunplay, and it has some really interesting level design. On paper everything should lead to a really high score. The potential is certainly there. But unfortunately there are a number of problems that bring it down.

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While the audio is terrific as I mentioned earlier, there should have been more lines of dialogue or the lines they did record should have played less often. You’ll hear the same quips a bit too much at times. I do love the quality of the audio. Sound clips from Shadow Warrior, and Ion Fury in particular come in very clean and crisp. I also love the art style of the game. It has a Saturday Morning cartoon look had Dream Works made 3D computer animation in 1990 the way it does today. Unfortunately, though that mainly applies to the characters. Backgrounds on the other hand can sometimes feel drab. It isn’t that things look bad. They don’t. But there does seem to be an unevenness to it all. On one stage when you’re going through a forest it looks absolutely brilliant. But on another stage where you’re in a volcano, some areas can just feel bland. It’s a shame because again, the platforming and action is really fun. There is also a two player simultaneous option, something you don’t see as often anymore. In addition to this, the game also has a Battle mode where you and a friend can play a single screen death match mini game.

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What really hurts the game however are the technical bugs. Upon completing the game, I found that if I loaded my save to go back and replay levels I might have missed something in, I would run into hangs or even soft locks. Not having played every version of the game (I played through on the Nintendo Switch) I can’t say if some are better than others, but this can be really annoying. Especially for those who want to go to previous areas off of a completed save rather than starting the whole game over. Thankfully, throughout my initial run I didn’t really see a complete lock up, I did have a moment where the collision detection was off during a teleportation section and I was placed on spikes rather than the door next to the spikes. I also had one moment where Bombshell clipped into some world geometry and got stuck. I had to start the entire stage over again when I couldn’t get her loose. There are tiny bugs like that. They never make the game unplayable but they are enough to sour one on the experience.

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Be that as it may, I think the good outweighs the bad, and the underlying game is very entertaining. It has great gun play, great platforming, and I found myself loving the reference humor. If you can live with some technical problems and one mechanic that can feel a little boring at times, you’ll find a very fun and competent platformer. Rad Rodgers is quite enjoyable. It’s far from perfect, but not everything needs to be perfect to be fun. It isn’t going to be a Super Mario Odyssey, but it isn’t going to be an Awesome Possum either. It’s not a horrible game by any means, but it is a bit rough around the edges. Reading through the end credits you’re also going to see a lot of familiar names. Even some legendary ones. So it feels bad having to point out some of the game’s technical problems knowing the level of talent involved. Still, I enjoyed my time with Rad Rodgers in spite of the issues and I hope there will be another one. Clearing the game hints that there will be. Hopefully it will be more refined.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

SENNHEISER GSP 500 Headset Review

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So it’s happened. Your gaming headset has finally worn out, or it’s gotten so much use it’s begun to fall apart. Perhaps you’ve always had a subpar set, and now you’re finally ready to invest in something that should last you a long time. Maybe you’re a big proponent of having the best audio quality you can afford for listening to music on your device. But you also want something you can use to communicate with your teammates.

PROS: Insane audio quality. Comfortable cups. Replacable cabling.

CONS: The absolutely most finicky people may need an accessory.

NICE TOUCH: The headset hanger that clamps onto any desk or entertainment center.

I was pretty much in that exact boat. I’ve had a number of headsets over the years. Of varying quality. Of course on the absolutely lowest end, I was pleasantly surprised by the YouUSE headset from Five Below.  A great option for those on a shoestring budget. But this is in the complete opposite end of the scale. My trusty Turtle Beach EarForce X12’s were finally falling apart. Quite literally. The material around the headband began flaking up, and the cabling began getting jumbled up. The microphone also began getting a lot of echo and feedback issues. I think it had a break in the wire somewhere. But for a long time, they were my flagship set, and even used USB power to give it some bass boost.

In any case, I had to start researching replacements. And when I began looking at the higher end of the scale, one company consistently seemed to get more praise than a lot of the more well known audio brand names. Sennheiser has been around since 1945, but here in the USA they’re not as well known except in enthusiast circles. You’re more prone to seeing the Beats ads on TV or the Turtle Beach range of products in a store. And of course, you will find PC Part vendors and peripheral makers’ names on stuff.

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Based out of Germany, Sennheiser has a storied history of highly regarded audio equipment. They make everything from microphones and speakers to industry equipment broadcasters, recording companies, and movie studios use. And since audio is their core business they put a great emphasis on getting it just so. Suffice to say, it isn’t cheap. But it is high-quality stuff you’re going to get for the price they’re asking.

I was fortunate in that while researching what I wanted, my family had done the same and chipped in at Christmas to get me today’s pair of headphones. Which are actually a tier above the set I was going to eventually purchase. The Sennheiser GSP 500 is a fantastic headset in the realm of boutique level options. You’ll find the level of presentation begins once you open the box. The inner packaging is molded to fit the headset nicely, keeping things from jostling around during shipping. Upon inspection, you’ll notice that there are no cables coming from the headset despite being billed as a wired connection.

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Well upon closer inspection you’ll see a hole near the left speaker cup. The cable on this headset is modular. And there are two cables included. The first is a Y cable for 3.5mm jacks. Basically, this is the one to use when you’re using the headset with your computer. One plug for the speaker jack on your computer, and one for the microphone. The other cable is for console setups like the Sony PlayStation 4.

The microphone is a broadcast-quality microphone. It sounds clean, it reduces background noise and in the time I’ve used it I find it rarely echoes unless I have the software settings on my computer really cranked. When playing online with other people I have yet to have anyone tell me they can’t hear me, or that the audio is too fuzzy or that I sound like I’m underwater. This has been a massive improvement over my faltering X12 set. Streaming also seems to have seen an improvement. People have yet to really complain about issues hearing my voice or not hearing my voice.

 

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On the audio front, I can’t complain about a single thing really. The first thing I noticed upon using them is just how many small details I was hearing that I seemed to miss with the other headsets I’ve owned. For example, when streaming Splatoon 2 a few days ago I could hear clanging steel beams in the distance of Sturgeon Shipyard Something that I never picked up on my X12s. During the gameplay, I even heard enemy players slowly swimming in their ink much more noticeably than I had in the past. On other headsets, I had to really try to focus my listening to find that small detail. With the GSP 500’s I didn’t really have to put that kind of effort in. The sound was clear. It was still lower than the music and weapons fire. But it was fairly obvious when people were trying to swim by slowly. That bubbling noise was much more easy to hear.

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When using the headphones for non-gaming media, the same praises can be thrown the GSP 500’s way. When watching videos, shows, and films the spatial sound quality was fantastic. The separation between characters and audio effects was very impressive, and listening to music was even better. And while this set doesn’t have anything powered or boosted by a USB cable, it doesn’t need to. The bass, treble, highs, lows come through with flying colors. It doesn’t matter what kind of music you’re into, it’s highly unlikely you’ll find anything to complain about here. In fact, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever want to go back to the last set you’ve used.

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I also love the fact that Sennheiser had the foresight to put a volume knob on the headset itself. One of the annoyances I’ve had with other headsets I’ve owned is the placement of a volume dial on the cord. This has often resulted in the dial hitting the desk or getting stuck on the desk when I’ve moved, or have gone to get up from my chair for whatever reason. Another nice touch is that the microphone mute button is enabled when you fold up the microphone. If you need to mute yourself during a game, lift the mic back up, and you’re quiet. No flimsy switch to deal with. It’s nice and intuitive.

Of course, if you’re like me you may spend hours at the computer. If you’re using a headset instead of a set of speakers and a microphone comfort is going to be a concern. The GSP 500’s have an easily adjustable headband with a nice amount of padding. If you put them on very tightly I could see that resulting in some minor annoyances. But I’ve had no issues with comfort. These things feel great. The padding on the speaker cups is soft and very comfortable. The headset feels like a warm, inviting pair of the best earmuffs you’ve ever owned. Moreover, they’re removable. So if you plan on using them for many, years and you worry about them getting messed up and worn out from years of dirt or sweat you can replace them without having to replace the entire headset.

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My set also came with a nice plastic headset holder which nicely fits onto any desk or entertainment center. It’s a solid plastic build too. It doesn’t feel cheap, flimsy, or brittle in any way whatsoever. In fact, the headset has that same feel. None of the plastic parts feel subpar at all. The underlying construct of the hinges is a solid metal too so unless you’re just really rough on your equipment you can expect it to hold up fairly well.

The other bonus that came with mine was a desk mat sized mousepad. Not a major feature but it is a nice little inclusion that feels like a “Thank you for buying our peripheral.”. It isn’t the highest grade mousepad you’ll ever own. But it does save you from having to go buy another one down the line when the one you’re using gets too worn out to bother with anymore.

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In short; this is the best headset I’ve ever owned. As much as I loved my Turtle Beach set, this blows it out of the water. I can hear little details in games, films, shows, and songs that my last set barely picked up. The spatial qualities make everything sound much more immersive. The microphone quality is a massive jump over my previous one. The modular cables make worrying about tripping over something less anxious. (Not that you want to trip over a cable anyway.) The placement of the volume knob is a small thing, and yet something I wonder why isn’t far more commonplace.

If I wanted to really get nitpicky, I could complain, and whine about wanting even more spatial sound awareness or bass. If you buy these and find that you do in fact want more amplification Sennheiser does sell the GSX 1000 audio amplifier which is advertised in the documentation for the GSP 500. It’s a device that can better simulate a true 7.1 surround set up. But seeing how I don’t have one, I can’t tell you how much better your experience will be if you invest in one. As it stands, the GSP 500 is a winner on its own and I highly doubt you’ll have a complaint about the sound quality upon putting them on. Sennheiser also warranties the headset for two years so you can have them repaired if something does go awry at that time.

If you’re looking to invest in a high-end audio solution the GSP 500 is one of the best sounding and versatile headset options out there. I can easily recommend this one.

Final Score: 10 out of 10

Valfaris Review

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A couple of years ago now, a small independent action platformer got some attention. Slain had a brilliant art style that was combined with a soundtrack by Celtic Frost’s Curt Victor Bryant. If you wanted a video game that instantly made you think of Heavy Metal music, Slain could easily come to mind. It had a botched launch as there were a lot of technical problems. But the developers truly did overhaul everything to do customers who backed the game justice. And with Slain: Back From Hell they largely succeeded.

Valfaris is the new game from Steel Mantis. Much like Slain, it has a gristly, horrific art style. It too has a soundtrack by Curt Victor Bryant. But it seems to be advertised as more of a Contra inspired game rather than a Castlevania inspired one. Did the folks at Steel Mantis give us an exhilarating Run N’ Gun that old-school NES era Konami fans the experience they remember?

PROS: Builds on everything the developers learned when making Slain.

CONS: It’s a triumph! But it isn’t quite the Contra-like the trailer teases.

METAL: Everything you see and hear screams “Crank it to 11 & break off the knob!”

One thing you can absolutely tell if you’ve played Slain before playing this game is that Steel Mantis learned many good lessons from that process. Right on the title screen, you can notice some cool details. Just like Slain, it oozes Heavy Metal. Your character is dressed like a Warhammer 40k Chaos Marine. There are mountains of fossilized remains of people and creatures everywhere. And you can notice a faded 3D render of the face of the protagonist as if it were made for an early Windows 95, PlayStation, Saturn, or Nintendo 64 game. It brilliantly blends the eras of the 16-bit and early 32-bit and 64-bit processor powered consoles.

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Upon beginning the game you’ll see a cut scene setting up the story. As Therion, you’re off to a mysterious space station; Valfaris upon it reappearing near a red giant. It was once your home and with its discovery, you decide to investigate. Upon landing on the citadel world it immediately becomes apparent that evil forces have taken it over. So right out of the gate, you’ll be confronted with enemies.

Now while many might think of this game as a Run N’ Gun in the vein of Contra or Metal Slug, it really isn’t. You will be getting many cool weapons throughout the game, and you will be shooting a lot of stormtroopers, monsters, space insects, and more with them. But it doesn’t have that constant, “Go! Go! Go!” pace of a Run N’ Gun. Save for a couple of enemies that actually spawn enemies and a couple of auto scroller moments you can take moments to breathe. And while the game’s stages are linear, there are a number of hidden areas you’re going to want to seek out. In reality, it feels somewhere in between Konami’s two biggest franchises of that bygone era.

 

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Basically, it builds on the core gameplay introduced in Slain, and it does so beautifully. It feels very refined in the melee combat. Of course, all of the game’s enemies have an entirely different speed. So while you can indeed, expect to use parrying to your benefit you can’t expect it to be predictable. In Slain, knowing exactly when something was about to hit you was, strangely enough, easier than it is in Valfaris. Fortunately, parrying isn’t quite as necessary as it was in Slain, although there are definitely some moments where it is beneficial. So beneficial in fact, you’re going to want to get that timing down for when these moments come up.

So like Slain you have the ability to swing melee attacks, and you have a block button. The block can not only block attacks but as mentioned can also parry attacks if you hit one a split-second before it hits you. Underneath your health bar is a second bar that is tied to the blocks. Killing enemies with a melee attack can often refill it by dropping blue mana. This meter will deplete when you block attacks, and some enemies have powerful attacks that can take it to zero after one block! So there’s another reason to try to master parrying.

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Of course, the big addition to the gameplay here is the shooting. The game starts out by giving you a laser pistol and a lightsaber. But as you play through the game, you’ll discover newer weapons to use. Some of these are out in the open, but other ones will require you to find secret rooms or alternate paths in levels. Which is why the game never really hits the pace of a proper Contra game. You’ll need to take your time to look for these visual cues. It definitely is a bit peppier than Slain though. And while this game doesn’t have as many one-hit deathtraps in the background as Slain did, you still have to pay a lot of attention to the background. Some enemies really blend into the scenery and can knock you into pits, pools of acid, as well as other deadly places.

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Speaking of scenery, again, I have to point out the painstaking detail of the graphics here. There is a brilliant use of color shading and terrific palettes for every possible section. The environments are wide and varied in Valfaris. One moment you might be in a war-torn battle station. Another, you’ll be in a space bug-infested jungle where even the vines are sentient and lethal. Each stage has a multitude of bosses, most of which are insanely difficult while at the same time being completely fair. When you die in this game, 95% of the time you know it is your own fault. There are a handful of times where a Boss will pull a cheap trick at the last second or the rare platform that looks wider than it actually is. But on the whole, everything feels on the level. So the game fosters an environment where even though you’re going to die a ton, you’re also going to feel determined even if you find you’re getting mad at yourself for messing up.

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Obviously, the soundtrack goes along with everything perfectly, as Curt Victor Bryant returns from Slain to continue the shredding. Honestly, the music in this also feels a lot more varied than in Slain, as he touches on the many subgenres of Heavy Metal. There are orchestral moments that lead to a Symphonic Metal opus. There are classic Power Metal moments, Speed Metal tracks during some intense moments, and more. There isn’t much in the way of vocals here, but it’s totally fine. In fact, vocals might even distract from the action going on at any moment,

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And like Slain, you can expect to see a lot of intense, unsettling animations as enemies explode into gibs, get cut in half, smashed by parts of the scenery and more. Getting back to the gameplay, there are also Super Weapons you can use that also uses the mana the blocking function does. These do a lot of damage while consuming a lot of your meter so you may want to use it sparingly. In my playthrough, I tried to use them mostly for the more intense boss fights. Of which there are many. All of the weapons, the melee ones, guns, and super guns you find can also be upgraded at checkpoints. Throughout the game, you’ll find special items you can use to do so. Each of these can be leveled up to around four times and the cost to do so increases each time. As you play you’ll really want to think about what weapons to upgrade. Each weapon is effective on all of the enemies, but some are more beneficial on some than others. So there’s an element of Mega Man here for you to consider as well.

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When you do clear the game it will give you a pretty satisfying ending. Throughout the game, it definitely leaves some nods to Slain, but you don’t have to have played Slain to understand what is going on here. After the credits roll you’ll be given an end screen showing you how many times you died, how long it took you to beat the game as well as how many items you’ve found so that you’ll be inspired to play through the game again. It does try to get you to at least attempt a 100% completion run.

While as of this writing I didn’t see it on my physical Switch version of the game, the game’s Steam page does list a New Game + mode being added to the game. So if you want an even bigger incentive to go back to it once you’ve beaten it, you potentially have one. Ultimately though, even if you only play through it once you’ll feel very accomplished. This game pulls no punches. Even the most grizzled video game veteran will be challenged to the nth degree. But again, the whole thing generally feels fair. When you start to notice patterns and understand what you need to be doing things don’t feel so frustrating. They make you feel more determined. You can win the day, you really can. Valfaris is one game you should definitely look into. It’s gorgeous, sounds amazing and is filled with challenges. Just don’t come into it expecting a Contra-like. It is more of an Action-Platformer than Run N’ Gun. But still one of the best experiences you’ll have.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Cave Story + Review

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Cave Story probably doesn’t need much of an introduction. It was one of the earliest indie games to garner a cult following. A Metroid inspired adventure game, Studio Pixel’s effort was praised and landed on Steam, even the Nintendo Wii’s WiiWare service.

PROS: An excellent Metroidvania with a few new enhancements.

CONS: Subsequent releases added costs.

SWITCH: Between the original and enhanced content.

Released by Studio Pixel in 2004, Cave Story was originally a freeware game with some updates over time. It was continually praised in gaming magazines and sites of the time. Eventually, after being picked up by Nicalis, the game would finally see releases as a digital product in 2010, most notably on consoles.

The 3DS, in particular, has two versions of the game. There is the downloadable version off of the game which features a lot of the things represented in the + version here. The retail version, Cave Story 3D was rebuilt from the ground up in order to properly take advantage of the console’s 3D effects.

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Which takes us to Cave Story +. What makes this version of the game different than the original release or its other many ports? Well out of the gate there is a big one: Graphics. Cave Story + has an updated look. Things look much sharper and as a result, you can make out a lot of little details you might have missed if you’ve played one of the earlier releases. The soundtrack has also been overhauled with enhancements. The result is the same songs you know and love, just in a much more produced form. It feels a lot like when you hear the difference between a stock Sega Master System soundtrack and the same songs on an FM Sound Unit. Undoubtedly some will prefer the original sound or look of either the graphics or audio. So Cave Story + will allow you to choose the original release’s video and sound or these enhanced versions. They also add a famitracker version of the soundtrack so if you want more of an NES -esque sound that is also an option. Other than that, there are challenges you can unlock as well as characters to use in a two-player version of the campaign.

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Cave Story + is basically the same game as the original release with the minor tweaks outlined above. Though there is also a new Wind Fortress area here. If you’ve never played Cave Story, you play the role of a Robot named Quote. You start out in a cave (hence the title) but before long, you’ll find yourself in a village of creatures who resemble rabbits. These creatures are called Mimigas and are quickly terrorized by a mysterious mad scientist. He calls himself “The Doctor”, and employs a couple of traitorous Mimigas to do his evil bidding. They kidnap one of the key Mimigas from the village, and so it’s up to you to rescue them.

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And from here the game begins to open up in the way the classic Metroid games do, allowing you to explore new areas as well as finding new ways to enter previous ones. One of the big hooks in the game are teleporters that let you fast travel between these sections. Combat in the game is entirely different than in Metroid or Castlevania though. While this is often thrown in the hat of names when the word Metroidvania comes up, there isn’t any real melee combat to speak of. It’s much closer to Mega Man in some respects, as well as early Commodore 64 games like Turrican. You will need some pixel-perfect jumping skills. And you’ll also have to become accustomed to the floaty gravity of Eurocentric computer platformers of the 1980s. Quote has a little bit of slide momentum when landing so when you need to land on that one tiny brick, keep that in mind.

Most of the weapons in the game allow you to shoot horizontally in a line as well as vertically. Though it is much like their later game, Kero Blaster. So there are no arcs. It’s straight up and directly in front of you. There is also an interesting leveling system in Cave Story. You have health pickups. You can also find items to lengthen the health bar. But you also have a weapon upgrade system. You can fill the meter of any of your weapons by picking up chips that resemble Doritos. Eat enough of them and they’ll become more powerful. You can max them all out at level three where they will do an insane amount of damage. It’s imperative you do this when encountering bosses as most of them are proverbial tanks and you’ll need to take down their health quickly.

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But there is a twist. When you take damage, not only does your health meter go down, so does your weapon meter! That means your weapons can actually decrease in power and if you get swarmed by baddies not only will you be coughing up oil, you’ll also barely break their skin when you shoot them. Fortunately, as with Metroid, there are times you’ll be able to farm small enemies to fill up before you move onto a tough horde or a boss encounter.

One really nice thing Cave Story has going for itself is the wealth of secrets and multiple endings. Depending on your decisions and on your puzzle-solving skills you can find a slew of items to give you a competitive edge near the end of the campaign as well as end your quest with a few different ends to the story. The best of which has quite a bit of fanfare and pizazz going along with it. It also gives the speedrunner crowd a lot to shoot for as well as anyone who is obsessed with 100 percent completion of any game they play.

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As mentioned earlier the cleaner graphics are quite good. But the original game was no slouch either. No matter which aesthetic choice you decide to roll with, the character designs look great. And no matter which version of the OST you play it’s going to feel right at home with everything else. All of this said, Cave Story is a lot of fun, but it also isn’t something you’ll blow through on your first run. There are certainly some difficult challenges near the final areas of the game you’ll uncover and while it can feel cruel at times, it is fair about it. The game also gives you a few difficulty settings to choose from.

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Overall, there’s a reason why this game has been so lauded for over 15 years. While I don’t know you need to pick up the + version here if you’ve played an earlier version, those who have never played it would do well to pick up this one for the bonus content. And with the Switch version (That I played here) the added portability of being on a dockable tablet makes it versatile. But if you don’t have Nintendo’s hybrid, the game is equally viable on any platform it appears on. And with fairly low requirements nearly anyone with a computer can play it there. In short, whatever way you have to play it, you should play this one. The general greatness overshadows the minor problems. Sure, it doesn’t have the most original story, but the character dialogue and design are top-notch. You’ve explored in a ton of games, and yet many don’t do exploration as well as this does.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

The Legendary STARFY Review

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

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

PROS: Terrific graphics. Fun level design. Humor.

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

HEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!: Everything Starfy says sounds like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

The Art Of Splatoon Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 10 out of 10

Razer Phone 2 Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

ASTRAL CHAIN Review

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

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

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

CONS: Menus lag. Inconsistency reading chain jumps.

COPS: Fighting crime in a future time.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10.