Bloodstained: Curse Of The Moon Review

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Ah, Konami. These days it’s become fashionable to belittle their games with good reason. But that’s partly because they used to be one of the kings of game publishing. From Pooyan to Gyruss. From Gradius to Contra. From Crime Fighters to Metal Gear. From Quarth to Super Cobra, this giant has scores of legendary games under its umbrella. But over the last decade there has been a shift in its focus. One that has led many of its best known talent to leave the company. Most know about Hideo Kojima’s departure. But less known is Koji Igarashi, the man behind many of Konami’s better Castlevania games. In 2014 however he would leave the company as he felt his console roots weren’t a good fit for the company’s shift toward mobile phone, and tablet games.

Taking some inspiration from what Keji Inafune had done after leaving Capcom, Igarashi, also took to Kickstarter to raise money for a new project. Bloodstained: Ritual Of The Night. This was a successful enough endeavor that today’s game, Bloodstained: Curse Of The Moon came out of it as a stretch goal for backers. For the rest of us, it’s an indie game inspired by the classic game series its producer worked on. It may sound like a familiar story. But is it one of the ones that ends as a success?

PROS: A nearly 1:1 representation of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse’s look, and feel.

CONS: It’s almost too similar. Minor bugs.

CASTLEVANIA VETERANS: Will wish you could start with Miriam.

Bloodstained, truly does take many of Castlevania’s mechanics, tone, and visual flair to heart. In fact, this game plays nearly identically to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. That game had you playing as the protagonists ancestor, with the mechanics set up in the original NES version of Castlevania as a baseline. From there it added other characters you could choose to join you, and depending on which path you took through the game each had specific roles. This was to give you an incentive to go back through it multiple times.

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This game is very similar in its approach. Except that to set itself apart, you aren’t a vampire slayer. You’re a demon hunter named Zangetsu. You’ve been cursed by a powerful demon, and so you’re on a mission to find, and kill him in order to break the curse over you. You also don’t use a whip. Zangetsu is armed with a sword. So unlike Castlevania, you won’t have the range you’re likely accustomed to. What you will have however is the same walking speed, and knock back from the NES Trilogy of old. You’ll also find yourself facing very similar attack patterns as in those old games. Sure, the bats, and Gorgon heads may have been replaced with new faces. But you can still expect those wavy patterns over pits, and other traps that will make traversing a trial.

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You may not see two dragon heads stacked, spitting fire. But there will be an equivalent. There may not be a chain of skeleton bones, and a lizard skull coming out from a wall. But here will be something similar. The list goes on, and on, and on. As the story, and stages progress you’ll meet other characters whom you can choose to add to your party. Miriam is the Simon Belmont clone you’ll wish you started the game with. She has a whip that works very much the same way, as Simon’s. This gives you that sweet balance of ranged, and melee attack power, and familiar gravity when jumping or walking off of ledges.

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Later on you’ll meet Gebel, this game’s take on Alucard. He’s also a vampire, and you can also turn into a bat as him. Finally, there’s Alfred who is a magician. He’s also elderly, slow, and has a fairly small health meter. He attacks with a small cane at essentially point-blank range. As in the Castlevania games, there are candles, and other hanging objects you can destroy for items. Some of these are ammo for special weapons, while others are weapons themselves. What sets this one apart a little bit is just how different each character’s weapons are. No special weapon is represented twice. There are a set exclusive to each character. For instance, Miriam can have a spinning disc attack that goes back, and forth. Alfred on the other hand can get a weapon that lets him turn enemies into ice blocks he can then jump on, or have another character jump on.

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There are all sorts of possibilities. The other thing is that each stage, even the earliest ones all have branching paths in them that only specific characters can go to. You may need to switch to Gebel so you can turn into a bat, and fly through a small gap for one path. You may need to slide under something for another, and so you’ll have to switch to Miriam. This sort of mechanic gives the game a lot of replay value, as in order to see everything each stage has to offer you’ll need to try each of them with the applicable characters.

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The thing is you have more options with them than you do with the ones in Castlevania III. What I mean by that is, you don’t drop one when you meet the next. If you choose to take one along for the ride, they stay with you the entire game. The game can be quite a challenge too, especially near the end of the game. So having all of the characters working together makes defeating Gremory, the leader of the Demons, more manageable. However, what makes the game worth playing over again even more are the multiple endings. Depending on which characters you take along, or leave behind you’ll get different outcomes if you clear the game.

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And beyond that there are a few difficulty settings. You can play the easiest setting if you just want to go through the game at your leisure. It reduces the knock back so it isn’t as cruel as the NES Castlevania trilogy could be. It also gives you unlimited lives, so you also won’t see the continue screen. But the veteran mode is the hardcore NES game difficulty you remember. Or if you’re too young to remember, but want to experience anyway. Getting knocked back into pits, crumbling bricks, rotating trap floor tiles. It’s all here. Clearing this will unlock an even harder mode though. So the absolute biggest Castlevania transplants will want to check it out, as it makes an already tough job more challenging.

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Visually the game also follows the Castlevania III mold. It has a very similar color palette, and a very similar pixel art style. This isn’t to say everything is exactly the same. There are background animations, and graphics based puzzles the old Konami games don’t have, and a slew of special effects the old 8-bit 6502 chip variants, and accompanying graphics chips simply can not do on display. The music in it, and synchronization with the cinema screen animations are spot on too. It sounds very much like a Famicom console game through, and through. Inti Creates has done a phenomenal job in the graphics, and sound department with this game.

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But all of this success might be a little too successful. In being so close to the Castlevania NES fill in so many wanted, it doesn’t retain its own identity as much as it needs to. Other than Alfred, the main characters are very much your Simon, Sypha, and Alucard stand-ins. As detailed, and beautifully laid out as the stages are, they could easily be mistaken for an NES Castlevania outing. The mini bosses, and bosses are where the game really begins to turn the tide on this a bit though. These are great multi part affairs that don’t look they would necessarily be in one of Konami’s games, but fit this spiritual successor at the same time. The game also has a handful of minor bugs in it. Mostly collision based bugs. There were a few sections with crumbling blocks designed to make you lose a life if you fail at navigation. At one point I fell, but landed safely in an area where I had to jump to my doom anyway. There was nowhere else to go. Some of these seem to be helping in speed runs. But for the rest of us, they’re the rare inconvenience.

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Still, beyond these observations I really enjoyed playing through the game’s many stages. Anybody who loves the old school Castlevania games probably owns this by now. But if for some reason you don’t, it’s an absolute blast. It’s a truly great action-platformer with some great obstacles to overcome, and some of the best boss fights I’ve been in. I only wish the game did a little bit more to make it feel unique. Sure the main protagonist doesn’t use a whip, but before long another character does. Sure, you’re fighting an army led by a demon, rather than Dracula. But that army still has a lot of skeletons, and zombies in it. Hopefully the upcoming Ritual Of The Night will address this while continuing to do everything else as well as this game does. Be that as it may, Curse Of The Moon is still a keeper.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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TeamGroup T-Force SSD Gaming Delta R RGB 1TB SSD Review

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As everyone knows, there are a wide variety of games you can play on your computer. Most of the games that show up on consoles from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Well the ones not made by Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Most of them. Anyway, you also have a bunch of new releases exclusive to the computer. As well as your stockpile of retro computer games you load through your external floppy, and optical drives, then play through DOSBox. And that’s before you even get to the important stuff like doing paperwork, doing your taxes, budgeting your accounts through Quicken, editing your photos, and ripping your vinyl collection for convenience. After all, you don’t have the time to walk to the record player, there’s work to be done! Where was I?

Oh yes. Upgrades. Eventually, you’re going to run out of space, or you’ll have a drive go bad, or a new game won’t perform well on that mechanical hard disk you have. And much like other components in your desktop, you’ll need to add another one, or replace it with a working one. Enter the T-Force Gaming Delta R RGB SSD by TeamGroup. While the name sounds like a subtitle for a Kingdom Hearts game starring Mr. T, it isn’t. It’s actually one of the nicest Solid State Drives I’ve used. When I built my computer a few years ago now, SSD’s were just coming into form. They were expensive, and didn’t give you a lot of space. So I ended up with a lowly 250GB SSD for my OS with handful of important programs. As well as a 1TB mechanical hard drive for my video games, and storage. Along with an external drive or two for backups in case of crashes. (As an aside, everyone should have a couple of backup drives. Backup the backup. And cloud storage while convenient, can have a snafu. It’s nice to have a third tier in case Murphy’s Law occurs.)

PROS: VERY fast read/write speeds. Fancy lights for those who like flash.

CONS: Doesn’t include everything you’ll need.

T-FORCE: The name reminds me of the Mr. T cartoon.

Anyway, I was thankfully gifted this drive for Christmas by my Brother. Which was good in my case. Because it turned out a couple of games I had installed required updates that improved performance. However on older drive tech in an older computer these patches introduced micro-stuttering. So I ended up installing this in January. Nearly two months later this drive is trucking along very well. Not only did it give me enough space to carry over my games, and allow me to use the traditional hard disk mostly for storage, the performance in gaming was immediately noticeable. This is largely due to the 560MB read speeds, and 510MB write speeds. Most games, and everything else load nearly instantaneously, and this is on a PC running a 4th Gen i7 4770k. While not yet an antique, intel chips are on their 9th Generation now. So if I can see the benefits, those building new machines should give this consideration. In the newest titles I own, the micro-stuttering is gone. As of now, the folks at New World Interactive even recommend playing Insurgency Sandstorm on an SSD over an HD if you have an older machine. A Solid State Drive has become an ideal component for PC Gaming.

In the frills department, the Delta R features a set of LED’s inside that will shine a spectrum of rainbow colors out of your case. These are bright too. My case doesn’t feature a window, but it does have a mesh texture design in front. At night, the gleaming rainbow of colors pours out through the metal. For those with a windowed case, it’s a nice little feature, as it gives the computer a little bit of pizzaz. Still, do know if you buy this drive, it does require a USB 9 pin header on your motherboard. It comes with a cable for the LED lights, and if your motherboard doesn’t have the header you can’t plug it in.

 

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I only have one major complaint with the drive, other than the impossibly long name, and that is a lack of any essentials. This is something that many part manufacturers are starting to cut for cost, and it is annoying for anybody who has to install these parts. Be it a home user, or a professional. The drive doesn’t include any mounting screws. So you had better hope you have some left over from a previous upgrade or that you have an older device with comparable screws sitting broken in a storage closet. It also doesn’t include any SATA cables. So again, you’ll either need to order one when you order the drive, or hope you have one you can repurpose from an old broken desktop you may still have in the garage.

It’s less of an issue if you know this ahead of time, but it’s still something that can be grating. So just know, again if you pick this drive up, you’ll want to make sure you have mounting screws, and a SATA cable already. If not, you’ll have to buy them when you buy the drive. Installing the drive isn’t really all that difficult if you’re comfortable with doing your own upgrades. It requires three cables. Just make sure your motherboard has a 9 pin USB Header for the lights before buying it.

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Overall, though I’ve been really pleased with this one. It loads, and saves files insanely fast, performs well with any game I’ve installed on it, and it’s built to handle millions of read/write operations. These things have come a long way since their inception. Whether you’re building a new gaming rig, expanding storage in an existing computer, or replacing a drive that has worn out, the Delta R is a terrific option. It also has a 3 year limited warranty, so if it dies in that time they’ll give you a new or refurbished one to replace it with. Obviously that doesn’t do much for your data, but that’s why again, you should have multiple backups. But in closing, this is a terrific SSD. Storage might not be the most exciting aspect of a PC, but it is an important one. With it’s brisk speeds, large storage, and a dash of flash, it’s a winner. Even if it does have an unnecessarily long name.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

One Strike Review

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Every now, and again a game comes along with the idea of simplifying things. Many look to the Super Smash Bros. games, Nidhogg, and even Divekick as primary examples. All of which take different approaches to doing so. Smash simplifies inputs, and goes for ring outs. Nidhogg goes for a fencing theme, while Divekick reduces everything down to one button. One Strike doesn’t quite go that far, but it does try to be interesting in its mission.

PROS: An interesting take on simplifying the fighter.

CONS: It doesn’t take long to notice a formula.

CLASH: Of the art styles.

One Strike is a one on one fighter that tries to be different by living up to its namesake. You simply lose a round (or a match!) by suffering one hit. It takes a page from Soul Calibur by making each character a master of a specific weapon. There are sword masters. Dagger masters. Staff masters. They have you covered. And controlling your fighter is pretty straightforward. You can move left or right, block, strike, or dodge. That’s pretty much it.

The game has a really nice art style considering that it’s a bite-sized fighter. There are really great painted portraits of each of the fighters. But the characters themselves are done in a sprite art style somewhere between the look of an Atari 800 computer, and an NES. This isn’t bad by any means. There are all kinds of cool, little details in the backgrounds, as well as animations in them you wouldn’t likely see on these retro platforms. The drawback of course is that these art styles clash somewhat. Seeing the 8-bit inspired sprites represented by icons that could have made it into a late 90’s arcade cabinet can be a little bit jarring.

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Still, while that may be jarring, and the character select screen is a little anemic, One Strike has a really cool look to it. Unfortunately there’s one major thing that kills the whole game that I’ll get to shortly. One Strike gives you an arcade ladder for some single player content. You can choose to play it on a five lives per match setting, or you can play it as a gauntlet match that provides you but one life. And these modes aren’t too bad. They’ll take the average person a fair number of attempts to clear. The concept is simple. Stab the other person once to win the round or match. Kill everybody, and you win the entire tournament. There is also a Team Battle where you can pick three characters, each with one life, and go on either an arcade ladder by yourself, or you can play in a head to head versus battle. One nice feature the game also has is the ability to set up a tournament bracket. It’s something small, but it is nice for any venue looking to have another tournament for, as your brackets are already set up in it.

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But like all fighting games, the head to head fighting is what keeps you coming back. The challenge of trying to outwit, or outmaneuver them. Or to learn how to properly defend yourself. There are no combos here because it’s a one hit, and you’re dead affair. But you can still overpower your opponent in theory. Unfortunately, there is one tactic that most will discover in a couple of hours, and that is how to utilize hit stun. All fighting games have a tiny window of time when you can make an opponent unable to react. Usually a second or less. In this game you can do this with a successful block. Blocking at just the right time will employ hit stun on your opponent. They’ll have a split second where they can’t block in time or move backward. So if you’re the least bit quick enough you can bait them into swinging, you can get the block, and immediately stab them for the win. And the reverse is true.

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So matches often boil down to a Swing/Block/Stab/Match Over formula. Which can get really tiresome really quick. Now to alleviate this to some degree, block windows are very small. You can’t sit in a blocking position forever. After a moment your character will go back to their standard animation. Some characters also have the ability to cancel a move by creating stances. For instance, Oni requires you to press attack twice. Pressing it the first time gets you into a combat stance. Pressing it again swings his club. So you can dodge backward after the first button press if you don’t think it’s safe. With advanced strategies like this, the aforementioned formula isn’t always going to be the way a match goes down. Be that as it may, it does happen often enough that many people may grow bored with things quickly.

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It’s a shame because this hinders strategies. I’m sure someone far better at One Strike may see this, and have a difference of opinion. But as far as my experience has been playing with both people who are adept at competitive games, and others who are not, matches often result in either predictable fast matches, or (once both players have become more adept at blocking) drawn out matches reliant on turtling, or being overly defensive. All in all, One Strike isn’t a terrible game though. It functions very well, it has likable characters, and a really cool concept. But in practice, there isn’t enough here to keep most fighting fans playing it days on end. Nor are there enough characters to draw more average players into playing it for long. You could easily play this over some of the other stuff out there it’s true. But then you could also go back, and play the classics. In spite of its shortcomings I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel though. There’s a decent foundation here. You’ll likely really enjoy it initially. But after some time with it, that excitement may wane. If it had a couple of other options in the combat to keep things interesting, a few more characters, and internet matches it would be a better game worth checking out. If you don’t mind a fighting game you’ll play for an hour at a party with friends every few months you’ll have some fun with it. But for others, unless you’re really starved for newer fighting game concepts you might just want to go back to something else. Your mileage may vary with this one.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

Battle Princess Madelyn Review

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Ghosts N’ Goblins is one of the classics that is often imitated these days. It isn’t hard to see why, as it’s pretty much a winning formula. A hero that can only take two points of damage before dying, must go on an action platforming adventure of quarter-munching proportions. Some of these games simply take that essence, and try to provide a carbon copy. Others take the idea, and try to build upon it.

PROS: The brutal, unforgiving, and yet somehow addictive fun you love.

CONS: Bugs, minor collision detection issues. Inconsistencies.

GHOST PUPPIES: May haunt your dreams, but they can also help you.

Battle Princess Madelyn is one such game. It uses the combat of Capcom’s classic series as a foundation, and puts a large skyscraper of ideas upon it. For the most part it works because it does something substantial. It has not one, but two campaigns to play through. The first of which combines the tried, and true combat with adventure game, and JRPG conventions.

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The primary campaign is a Story mode. It opens with a little girl named Madelyn lying in bed playing a Minecraft clone on her tablet. Her Grandfather comes in, and in true The Princess Bride fashion proceeds to read her a bedtime story. He tells her the tale of a warrior, coincidentally also named Madelyn in a European kingdom in what is presumably during the Medieval period. This Madelyn has a tiny lap dog named Fritzy. With the castle overrun by monsters, the little canine sacrifices his life to save the Royal Guard.

After some dialogue with her Grandfather, it turns out that Fritzy’s soul isn’t content to go to the afterlife just yet. As a spirit, he decides to follow Madelyn into glorious battle. Over the course of the game Fritzy goes from being a merely cute avatar that follows you around, to being a very useful back up character that will help you immensely. While the initial area looks like it will be another Ghosts N’ Goblins clone, (Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts to be specific), That is quickly proven not to be the case, as a fellow warrior sends you into town.

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Once in the town you begin to do things that are more akin to an Adventure or JRPG. You have to talk to townspeople, whom give you vague clues, or demand you go on fetch quests. You eventually find your way to the castle where key members will send you on the adventure. The castle is also home to two major spots. A toy room, and another room that becomes important much later.

Over the course of the game you’ll find dolls of low-level enemies, major characters, and bosses. Collecting every one of these gets you the best possible outcome, so its something you just might want to invest in. The other room becomes important later in the storyline, and involves warping you around to various areas.

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The game’s many stages are interconnected though not as intricately as something like Metroid. Be that as it may, you’ll still want to map it out, because you’re going to spend a large part of the campaign going sector to sector on foot. Why? Well remember the villagers I mentioned before? Many of the fetch quests they send you upon involve finding, and rescuing their friends from zombies. Aside from that there are also ghosts that can lead you to other secrets. And there are many hidden paths, shortcuts, and items that you’ll have to destroy parts of environments to even find. Basically, if you want to get the best possible finish you’ll need to do a lot of rescuing, and a lot of discovering. The rewards for many (but not nearly all) of these feats are the aforementioned dolls. Each of these dolls gets you one step closer to unlocking the door in the toy room, and the resulting end game.

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Not only that, but the only way to open up the game’s shop to buy power ups is tied to one of these fetch quests. Many of the villagers throughout the game want you to find one of the items they’ve foolishly lost. Each of the game’s areas has a village of their own, and many of their citizens lost these items in other areas. So you’ll be warping around a lot too.

Throughout it all though, the game has that classic Capcom arcade game play down to a science. Well mostly. The majority of the time you’ll feel like you’re playing the unofficial sequel to Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts. Zombies rise from the Earth in much the same way. There are all sorts of monsters, and demons that show up out of nowhere, and you’ll have to master your jumping, and shooting pretty quickly. Where things falter a bit is in the hit detection.

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Unfortunately, there will be a few times where you’ll have your foot stand near, but not on a hazard. But the game will say “Nope. You touched it.” which leads to a cheap death. Other times you’ll suffer cheap deaths when enemies spawn on you, or shoot a projectile that gets stuck in a part of the environment. Thus making hitting it unavoidable. These aren’t heavily widespread moments, but it can be enough to get frustrating. In the case of the story mode, this is mitigated by having pretty decent checkpoints, you’ll automatically start in when you run out of lives. When you die, you’ll start right where you died too, so at least you won’t have to start an entire section over.

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Eventually you’ll find your way to boss rooms. Throughout the game you’ll need to find keys to the boss rooms, so again, keep exploring. Boss fights are quite frankly the highlight of the game. All of them can hang with the best fights in some of the best Super NES, and Sega Genesis games of yesteryear. They’re very inventive. Even when one of them might seem generic, like the Spider bosses, or the Skeleton, they do things that throw that impression out the window. Either through the environments they take place in, or through their attack patterns, or even character mannerisms.

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When you defeat a boss, and move to the next area you’ll almost always find yourself near a town, and in that town you’ll find a fast travel artifact. Late in the game you’ll need to collect items to be reassembled in that second room I mentioned earlier. Here you’ll feel like you’ve reached the end. But you’re still far from it. It opens up all new areas that can only be accessed in the room, and you’ll also find your dog’s soul will now become even more useful. Over the course of the game you’ll acquire the expected knives, spears, lances, and such. All of which you can cycle through using the left shoulder button. But you’ll also start finding puppy soul powers you can use. These can help immensely, especially on bosses. Do keep in mind however, that these have limited supplies shared with your lives. So you’ll want to save these for key moments.

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Upon beating the story mode, you’ll find you won’t be done. You can go back, and find all of the dolls you missed. But beyond that you can play the Arcade mode. This mode is very much a Ghosts N’ Goblins experience with stages feeling more linear, and with the brutal challenge fans of that series would expect. You’ll have to start a stage over when you’re out of lives. Lives are really tied to Fritzy’s meter more so here, as when it becomes depleted completely you know you’re going to start the level over. Thankfully, you’ll still start where you last died. At least until the meter is depleted. You also get to use Fritzy’s powers in this mode as you find them by holding the attack button until it’s charged. Keep in mind as in the Story mode this will deplete the meter, so it reduces the number of lives you can use. Over time you can refill the meter the better you do. Getting to the end is a lot more streamlined as a result. Stages don’t feel exactly the same, as large chunks are completely different. Though you’ll still go up against the same bosses. Be that as it may, it’s still quite a tough game that will take all but the most devoted players a while to get through. Mostly due to the overall challenge of it. But some of the problems from the Story mode do rear their head here. So while the stages are shorter, and in a specific order, they add their own challenges, and sometimes the technical issues can make them even tougher. You can basically keep continuing, but each time means you’ll start the current stage over again, through all of its phases.

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The most striking thing about the game is just how good it looks, and sounds. This game is a wonderful send up of Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts. It has an amazing portfolio of sprite graphics, and animation that look like it could have appeared on Nintendo’s 16-bit juggernaut or even Commodore’s Amiga line of computers. The game even has a soundtrack that will evoke memories of the Commodore Amiga, early MS-DOS Adlib sound, and even a dash of the Sega Genesis for good measure. But even beyond that, you can have a more modern, CD quality orchestrated soundtrack if you choose. The game also has an optional scan line filter if you prefer a slightly blurred look to everything rather than have everything looking crisp.

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Still, on the whole it’s hard not to recommend this one. There may be some inconsistency in the FMV sequences, and the rest of the graphics. There may be some hit detection issues, and you’ll suffer a few cheap deaths here or there. But when the game is at its best it works so well it just has to be experienced. With two primary modes to play, it’s almost like having two games in one. Of course the main attraction is the Story mode. The variety of missions, and side quests while similar, will appeal to a lot of people who might normally skip it out of fears of the high difficulty, as it is a bit more forgiving. Be that as it may, the Arcade mode is something any fan of Capcom’s classic arcade game might want to play. The combat, while not perfect, is noticeably better than many of its peers. If not for the handful of technical issues you’ll likely run into, this would be a must own. But just because it falls a few notches away from perfection doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be played. It is true that it can feel, cheap, relentless, and unfair at times. But it’s also a lot of fun the other 90% of the time, with its solid action, loveable characters, and the fact it makes you want to spite it by beating it. It isn’t going to be for everyone. But for fans of adventure games with an old school twist, or Ghosts N’ Goblins fans yearning for the day when Capcom will finally take their money, it’s worth recommending. If this sounds like you Battle Princess Madelyn is still worth firing up on your computer, Xbox One, Switch, or PlayStation 4.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes Review

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Ah, No More Heroes. It quickly became a cult classic on the Nintendo Wii. At the time, some didn’t think M rated romps were a good fit for Nintendo’s EDTV console. Not when most of them were coming out in HDTV resolutions on its competition. But a few games tried to prove that line of thinking wrong. Some were very successful. Some were spectacular failures. But others, like No More Heroes would be successful enough to make due, but not successful enough to be the next big thing either. Still for those who gave it a shot, there was little else like it. Suda 51’s action game had his trademark art style, dark sense of humor, and even a bit of self-depreciating charm. Backed by a surprisingly deep, if twisted storyline with some art house, and anime trappings.

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The action in it was a lot of fun, made proper use of Nintendo’s motion controls in its gestures, and had variety. It had fun mini games too. It was a fun game bogged down by an uninteresting sandbox that tied the stages together. The game still did well enough to warrant a sequel which streamlined things for the better. It also expanded the storyline, involved new characters, and enhanced the combat. Around this time the original game even saw a PS3 port that utilized the Move controller. No More Heroes became a series known for its cult film trappings, and solid action. The two games followed the exploits of Travis Touchdown, an assassin tasked with a number of hit jobs that would also uncover some deep, dark secrets of his own life.

PROS: Retains the mainline games’ style, humor, and storytelling. Shout outs to indies.

CONS: The combat can feel threadbare.

DLC: Will hopefully fill out the gaps.

Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes should not be approached as a No More Heroes game however. Admittedly, leading up to the release the developers had said as much. But even so, this game sadly doesn’t live up to the bar set by the two major releases back on the Nintendo Wii. This one is a mixed bag. It absolutely does have some entertaining things about it. It retains a bunch of the humor the series is known for. You’ll be laughing at some of Travis’ wisecracks. You’ll enjoy a bunch of the reference jokes the game throws in too.

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You’ll also enjoy an entertaining story. In this adventure, Travis Touchdown has had a break, and run away. He’s left everyone behind, except for his cat, and gone into hiding. Unfortunately for our assassin, he has been tracked down by the parent of one of his numerous victims. In the ensuing fight for revenge, the rivals get sucked into our hero’s Death Drive MK-II console. A demonic version of the Sega SG-1000 (Sega Mark II), where they find at the end of the game cartridge, an epic boss fight of sorts. The story then leads them to track down other cartridges to get to the bottom of the mystery.

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After the initial stages, and ensuing boss fight you’re taken to a hub in the vein of a standard No More Heroes title. You can save your game by going to the bathroom. But you can also do some other things. Hopping on your desktop computer, you can shop for T-shirts. You can buy them using the coins, and tokens you find in the various stages, and then go to the bathroom to change into them. One thing I will commend the game for here is that it gives a lot of independent small business studios some credit by including many shirts tied to their indie games. There are shirts for The Messenger, Hotline Miami, and Hatoful Boyfriend to name a few. Beyond that there are name drops throughout the campaign. This is a game that celebrates the creativity of smaller studios.

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Between cartridge games you’ll return to the real world where you’ll go back to the hub area where you’ll have to get on your motorcycle to further the story. These sections generally don’t have much of any interaction, but they do use the opportunity to reference the old days of text adventures, and early CRPGs. You’ll get to see 8-bit era cinema screens in a familiar two-tone green. At least it will be familiar if you grew up in a time when most Elementary school libraries had an Apple II where you would play MECC’s The Oregon Trail, and Infocom’s ZORK. These sections do continue the narrative nicely, and again, do include a lot of terrific, and funny dialogue. If you’ve been invested in either of the mainline No More Heroes games, you’ll find a lot to like here.

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At the end of these sections you’ll get the next cartridge for your Death Drive MK-II, and continue on. The general flow of the game will involve you playing through a cartridge level, saving your progress, reading a text adventure section, and then playing the next cartridge level. And that would all be fine. As I’ve said, the game has a great sense of humor, an interesting story, and Suda 51’s trademark art style. The game looks cool. The game sounds cool. Unfortunately, it doesn’t play as cool.

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The problem with Travis Strikes Again, is that it can feel monotonous. Since Hack n’ Slash games, and Beat ’em ups are mainly about slamming around bad guys, or cutting them into confetti they have to do something to stand out. Travis Strikes Again may look like a No More Heroes game, and it even retains the fact you have to recharge your beam katana battery. But it doesn’t have the variety in combat that No More Heroes had. You can jump. You can dodge. You can do a couple of fancy air moves. You still have a light, and heavy swing. But the game feels slower. You don’t get the wide variety of combat animations. You don’t get a rewarding combo system. Yes, you can see you’ve hit enemies so many times without getting hit. But it doesn’t feel right. There’s just something a little bit off. It’s also shorter than the mainline games. Which in this case is probably for the best.

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In its defense, it does offer an upgrade system that allows you to add some special power moves to the repertoire. As you take down enemies you can go into a sub menu after pausing the game. Here you can add these moves to the A,B,X,Y buttons. You can then hold the L button while pressing them, and you’ll fire it off in whatever direction you’re facing. And there are a number of them that you’ll discover over the course of the game. You can even save different load outs, and then swap them out. Which admittedly is handy for certain bosses or middle tier enemies. You can also use your experience to level up, which lets your basic attacks do a little bit more damage.

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The thing is, that due to the sluggish combat, a lot of your super attacks will count as a miss when you get hit trying to use them. They also have a massive cool down period. So there will be times when you’re just getting trampled, unable to fire them off. They also don’t chain with your regular moves very easily. When you do get them to work they are pretty effective though, and they look really cool. When things go your way you can clear a mob of enemies or at least buy yourself a bit of time. There are a lot of power ups for you to choose from. There are some that work as a Star Wars Force Push. You can knock back an opponent or a few low-level enemies. Another one summons a giant laser blast from the heavens. Another one will daze your opponents so you can get in a few hits.

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It’s very unlikely you’ll get to use all of them in an initial play through. But you’ll have to be good at keeping just enough distance away from your enemies to use them effectively. It leads to a lot of simply mashing X. And while many hack n’ slashers may indeed involve mashing X, the fluid animation, and combos hide that fact well. Unfortunately this game doesn’t quite pull it off.

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As a result, this one isn’t something you’ll want to spend every waking hour playing until the very end. Which is sad, because the other stuff surrounding the game is pretty interesting. One thing this game does do that is nice is it allows a second player to play as Travis’ rival Bad Man. And so you can have a friend join in which makes up for some of the average combat. The game does try to break things up a little bit by putting in a few different genre missions. For instance one stage sees you playing a drag racer with Vectrex styled graphics in between brawler sections. Another one looks, and plays like a fancier version of Mine Storm. All of these moments are incredibly fun, and look great. But it doesn’t make up for the ho-hum fights. Where this one does excel in gameplay are the boss encounters. All of the boss fights are really well put together, with multiple forms, and involve mastering some intricate attack patterns. And they feel satisfying when you do finish them off.

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Of course if you buy the game on cartridge it includes download keys for the season pass which will get you the DLC for the game. The DLC gets you new campaigns starring other characters from the No More Heroes franchise. Hopefully these additions will have the interesting combat features the base game lacks. However you should know that the downloadable version is ten dollars less, and doesn’t include the DLC. Buying the pass is ten dollars. So when taking that into account there really isn’t any difference other than the physical release is basically forcing you to buy the Season pass by bundling it with a key. I normally don’t talk about pricing in my articles because I don’t always get games in their release window. But in this case I have, and it seems a little disingenuous for them not to point this out on the box. You’re not getting the key for free, you’re paying the same. If you’re a collector, and want your Switch games on cartridge that’s something to be aware of here. If you’re more a wait, and see type when it comes to digital expansions, you may just want to get this digitally.

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Overall, I wouldn’t call this one a bad game. It plays fine, doesn’t seem to have much in the way of technical faults or major bugs hobbling performance. And again, it does have a pretty surreal, and interesting storyline. It’s funny. It has a great style. It’s just too bad the combat doesn’t keep pace with everything else because it takes up most of what you’ll be doing outside of the text adventure story sections. Die-Hard fans will want to jump in on this one. But if you’re a newcomer to this franchise, and you have a Wii knocking around, check out the mainline games before getting into this side game. I really wanted to love this one. The original two games were some of my favorite hack n’ slash titles. But as much as I love those cult classics this one simply isn’t as much fun.

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Hopefully, a third mainline No More Heroes game will learn from this side outing’s missteps, and return the franchise to its former glory. Travis Strikes Again isn’t a bad game by any means. But it isn’t a great game. It’s average. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are better games of its ilk to choose from. If you eat, sleep, and breathe anything Suda 51 does, you probably own this already. But if you’ve been on the fence, you might want to wait before jumping in. They did recently update the game with an opening cinematic tying the series to Killer 7. There are also ties to Shadows Of The Damned in the campaign. So perhaps in time they’ll improve the combat. With two upcoming episodes there is the possibility that DLC will do that. But that also rides on the number of people who will want to return to this one after playing the base game.

Final Score: 6.5 out of 10 (Better luck next time!)

River City Ransom Underground Review

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Back in 1989 those of us with an NES likely had a copy of River City Ransom. It was a landmark game in that it was one of the earliest games to meld the Beat ’em Up genre with RPG elements. It was made by Technos Japan, who were mainly known for the Double Dragon games by that point Stateside. But RCR was a port of the third game in their Kunio-Kun series. In Japan the main character appeared in several games. Many of which would appear in the USA but with many alterations.

River City Ransom was pretty popular in its heyday. While it was never as beloved as Technos’ Double Dragon games, it was a game that had a Nintendo Power feature back in the day. It was a game many people fondly remember playing, and its one you should have in your collection if you don’t already. For those with a Switch, it’s included in the NES game bundle you get when you buy the online service.

PROS: Everything great about the NES original, and then some!

CONS: Confusing quest routes. Cheap segment.

ABOBO: Bridges the worlds of Double Dragon, and River City Ransom.

A while ago, Arc System Works acquired the Technos Japan assets, and began making games in these classic series. They made Double Dragon IV, and here we have a new entry in the River City Ransom series. Created by Conatus Creative, and published by Arc System Works, River City Ransom Underground continues the saga. All with the same blend of Beat ’em Up, and RPG conventions the original was known for, and lauded for.

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It’s also a direct sequel. Taking place nearly 40 years after the NES game, River City Ransom Underground begins with a prologue mission where Alex, and Ryan have to once again defeat Slick. The leader of the most ruthless gang in River City. Shortly after this epic battle Slick goes to prison, and River City High School explodes. After this mission ends the game fast forwards to present day, and we are introduced to some new characters in the process.

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It seems that while life might have improved for the characters at the end of the original game, it didn’t stay that way. With a new River City High School, came a plethora of new gangs, and the resurrection of the original games’ gangs. And with that, River City Ransom Underground truly begins. This is a modern continuation of a game, that really understands what made the original so great, while also building upon it.

As I mentioned before, what really set the original RCR apart from other games of its ilk, was the inclusion of RPG elements. Not only did you have to beat the snot out of people to survive an area, you had to do it to level up. It wasn’t enough to level up either. You had to find dojos where you could buy new moves, or shops where you could buy food. This game continues that tradition. You can fully expect to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars you steal from fallen enemies on this stuff. And spend it you should, because learning advanced techniques, and stocking up on cheeseburgers is the key to victory. When you first start out of course you’ll be relatively weak, and you can expect to die quickly. But over time, as you put muggers, bullies, and nearly every High School student stereotype in the hospital, you’ll grow stronger.

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And you’ll be backtracking to earlier areas for new items, or new paths that open up later. Again, an element that feels very much out of a Role Playing Game. This entry also adds a number of things to the formula. For starters, there are a large selection of playable characters. Many of these are new to the series, as this story introduces the next generation of descendants to us. So you’ll find many new teenagers out to rid the city of evildoers. But throughout the story you’ll also meet characters from the original game like Alex, and Ryan. There are also other characters old, and new who will join the roster if you defeat them in glorious battle. This adds a bunch of replay value to the game too, because of how differently each of these characters plays. Some of them are slower characters that rely on grapples, and holds. Some of them are ranged attackers. Others are brawlers that retain that old-school play style you expect from a Beat ’em Up genre title.

 

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On top of this, the game allows for up to four players to go through the campaign together. So now you can add an even bigger sense of frustration if one of you in your circle of friends is worse than everyone else. Or a sense of camaraderie if you’re all fine with each other’s level of ability. But to be honest even when playing with less skilled friends, this game is still a lot of fun. Between the action packed brawling, there are stretches of time where you’ll be exploring for new story missions, or events.

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The game also has a day, and night cycle in it. So some of these only happen at specific times. If a certain boss you need to kill only shows up at night, you can’t really head to fight them during the daylight. You’ll have to spend the daylight hours doing something else entirely. But this works to your advantage, as it gives you time to check out shops, restaurants, and dojos. Keep in mind however that even these are built around the game’s clock. Stores have their own hours. So if it’s 10pm in the game time, you’ll have to skip that trip to the game store. Hit up the burger joint instead.

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Of course as alluded to, you get money by fighting bad guys. When you knock their teeth in, they drop cash you can then pick up, and hoard. You can also get money by punching parking meters, or certain vending machines. Be careful though. Because another new feature in this one is borrowed from a place you wouldn’t expect: Grand Theft Auto. If you should accidentally injure an innocent bystander in your pursuit of street justice, they will call the cops on you. If this happens you’ll see a badge show up with a timer, and you’ll be facing the cops until it gets down to zero. Not only that, but if you resist arrest instead of running away, and lying low they send tougher officers after you. Beating up the police also gets you news coverage, which also beefs up the calls for backup.

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Over the course of your adventure you’ll also find hideouts. In these secret (and not so secret) areas you can manage inventory, change between characters, look at achievements, and save your game. It’s also useful for getting a more detailed description of your current objective, as you can read the last bit of dialogue without it going by too quickly to be able to finish it. The game also ties the worlds of Technos Japan’s big two franchises River City Ransom, and Double Dragon together. How? By featuring copious amounts of Abobo. Double Dragon’s epic villain shows up a number of times throughout the campaign, and even plays a role in the story arc I won’t delve into here.

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Another aspect of the game that you’ll love is just how funny it is. Whether it’s a well-placed reference joke, or genuinely funny dialogue the game will make you laugh. And it isn’t really self-parody most of the time. Although there are a number of times where the storyline in the game involves gags that are over the top, they still fit the world. They’re still in line with the humor found in the original NES game. The aesthetics of the game also play into this too. the pixel art is an obvious homage to its 8-bit era origins. But it’s also retained the humor. Characters have exaggerated expressions. They have animations that follow along with the theme. They look like they belong on the NES. But the advanced number of frames, and level of detail in the background animations obviously couldn’t be done on the little toaster that could. There are also a bounty of Easter Eggs, and appearances from characters in indie games.

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The soundtrack is very good. While not every song can live up to the lofty bar of the original game, there are plenty of them that do. Expect to hear some great up tempo chip tunes, with many catchy hooks. There are also slower, ambient songs in areas that call for it. There’s enough variety here for everyone though you’re going to be so busy you may not have time to truly appreciate it.

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There are a couple of minor issues with this game to be aware of. The PC game has one technical issue in that initially only the Xbox 360 controller is seen by the game. If you set the controller options in Steam to whichever controller you want to use however, then the Steam client will override the game allowing it to be played with whichever controller you’ve selected. The only other issue is that near the end of the game you’ll have to go through a massive gauntlet with no major save point in between. The game isn’t impossible by any means mind you. But this artificially increases the difficulty in the last act as a result. Be sure to stock up on items before tackling it.  The saving grace is that some previously locked doors stay open if you fail. There’s a couple of annoyances during missions where the map doesn’t always make what you’re supposed to do clear. There’s the fact that you lose half your money when you die. But in all fairness the old game did this to you too. And if a quest ends with a boss fight grin, and bear it. Because if you go back to a hideout to save you’ll have to do it all over again anyway.

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Beyond that, though this is a very entertaining, and interesting sequel of sorts. At first things may seem insurmountable, but after a few deaths, you’ll eventually begin to level up your characters. Then sections that were once almost impossible will suddenly be fairly easy. Allowing for four players makes the game even more fun than it already is, and the solid game play solidifies it. The wide variety of playable characters also adds a lot of replay value as you’ll have to approach each wave of enemies very differently. In short River City Ransom Underground is a wonderful game even if it can be a little rough around the edges. Surprisingly it’s the only River City game not on consoles as of now. But there are ports for Apple, and Linux available for those with computers that aren’t running Windows. The game can also be found on GoG. as well as Steam.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Insurgency Sandstorm Review

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

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

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

GIBS: A common 90’s FPS feature returns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

DUSK Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short; DUSK is freaking cool.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Crazy Climber Review

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

PROS: Addictive gameplay.

CONS: Cheap enemies.

FALL: To your doom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10