Tag Archives: Action Platformer

Sydney Hunter & The Curse Of The Mayan Review

SydneyTitle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SydneyPaths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

RAD RODGERS Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

RadRodgersVisuals

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

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

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Valfaris Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Black Jewel Review

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Conan The Barbarian. The Beastmaster. He-Man, and The Masters Of The Universe. Swords and Sorcery were a staple of the 1980s  action genre in nearly every medium. Even in the realm of video games where we saw hits like Golden Axe and Rastan. The 8-bit powered computer scene had ports of these as well as games based on the aforementioned properties. The biggest being the Commodore 64.

PROS: Challenging. Recreates the look, and sound of a C64 Accurately.

CONS: Hit detection on traps could be a little more forgiving.

ONE LIFE TO LIVE: Like the title of a defunct soap opera, you have one life.

The Commodore 64 is one of the greatest platforms of all time. There were thousands of games released on it. Some are even coming out on it today. Black Jewel is not a C64 game, but it is a terrific sendup. From the moment you start the game you’ll see the unmistakable BASIC screen load the game. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear you were running an actual C64 image file in an emulator. But you’re not.

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The game’s developers were heavily inspired by the classic computer, and it shows. The game’s video introduction sequence mimics the classic loaders of the ’80s showing off flashing colors, a detailed splash screen for the title, and music. And immediately the soundtrack will enamor anyone who hears it. Gianluca Pappalardo is the name credited with the soundtrack and they succeed with flying colors here. The music not only fits the Barbarian action hero vibe the game goes for but accurately simulates the sound of the SID chip as well. Despite being a game for Windows, it sounds like it could have come from the Commodore 64’s Sound Interface Device.

So it’s been established this game accurately mimics the look and sound of a Commodore 64 computer. But how is the actual gameplay? Here, the game continues that Commodore 64 inspiration. Black Jewel is an action platformer that requires meticulous planning in order to get through each scenario. It’s got the exciting battles you’d expect from something like Rastan, yet you’ll need to treat each stage as if you were playing Another World. While there are no puzzles, you still kind of need to see each room as a puzzle.

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At the beginning of the game, you’re told the story. It isn’t very deep. But it doesn’t need to be. An evil warlord named Darkor has stolen a Black Jewel. A mystical artifact that has allowed him to terrorize the land and enslave its inhabitants. As Ryan, you take up arms and go on the quest to save the land by reclaiming the Black Jewel. Of course, this will involve killing Darkor.

This is all much easier said than done. Because Black Jewel is a tough game. As I’ve stated before this is heavily inspired by early computer games. The controls are simple enough. You move left or right with the arrow keys and press the *D* key to swing your sword. And you’ll be pressing up to jump because there were only one button joysticks in 1983. You can, of course, use a controller with the game, but you’ll still be pressing up for jumps.

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The game moves along at a perfectly fine speed. But keep in mind you’re a big, lumbering barbarian. So you’ll have floatier jumping than in something like Mega Man. The scenes are also modeled after the flip screen mechanics of early home computer games too. Remember, scrolling games didn’t become the standard until the latter half of the decade. The level design in Black Jewel is also built off of the history of the time as well as the appearance. And frankly, it’s very good.

Each stage is made up of several rooms, each taken up by a screen. Each of which will have an enemy to dispatch or an obstacle to overcome. When you’ve completed it, you can go to the next one. Some of these will be simple things like jumping over spikes. Other times you’ll be tasked with killing two bad guys while avoiding fireballs. This is the kind of stuff you would see even in adventure platform games in 1994. Black Jewel will not only test your action game skills but your puzzle-solving skills too. Again, despite not having what many would call puzzles.

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At the end of each stage, you’ll fight a boss. Each of them has to be dispatched in order for you to continue. Most of them can be pretty tough as they utilize a couple of attack patterns. They’ll sometimes throw you a swerve by switching them up when you least expect it, so you really have to be on your toes. Defeating them opens up the next stage. It’s here you’ll notice something. Stages do not get splash screens or other introductions. You will just see the scenery change. Also, it won’t take you long to notice something else. That giant sword at the bottom of the screen is getting shorter.

That sword is actually your health meter. When it’s gone, so are you. Game Over. You have exactly ONE LIFE to clear Black Jewel. When I said this game was tough, I wasn’t lying. Now that doesn’t mean that it is impossible. It can be beaten. It isn’t a long game. And it even has health potions to restore your meter to varying degrees. Some will fill it 25% others 60% and others will top it off. That said, one ought to pay very close attention to what is going on at any given time. Because you can take damage without realizing it.

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My one main problem with the game is it doesn’t quite go far enough in showing what is a background, or what is a deadly trap you shouldn’t step on. Oh sure, you’ll figure it out too late eventually. But that also means you’ll be back at the title screen. Now some things are obvious. Skulls and spikes usually mean trouble. But another object might seem innocuous until your sword starts draining. Also, you should keep in mind when something does hit you, to back away immediately. You do not get to take a hit, fly back, and get 3 frames of invincibility as in some of the classic action games you’re used to. If you’re standing on a spike, a pixel too deep into an enemy or a boss that sword will be a mere hilt in seconds. Fortunately, you’ll find you can skip over some of the bad guys instead of fighting them. But this does not work on bosses.

Still, considering that Oscar Celestini set out to make an homage to these early Commodore 64 action-adventure style games, Black Jewel is a success. The animation is phenomenal. The sprite work and backgrounds are amazingly detailed. Plus everything looks so true to the C64’s 16 color palette and aside from a full widescreen image, it’s almost 1:1 to the untrained eye. I won’t lie, at times the gameplay might feel a little rough around the edges for people used to faster-paced arcade slashers. But once you’ve died a few times, and gotten used to the mechanics it becomes a remarkable game.

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If you grew up gaming on a Commodore 64 this love letter will very likely appeal to you just from the look and sound alone. If you didn’t, it’s still a pretty fun game. The combination of action and adventure elements are great. There’s a balance between hacking up bad guys and planning out how to get through each room with as much health left as humanly possible. You can’t just rush into it like you would a Golden Axe machine set on Freeplay. And yet it isn’t so cerebral you’ll need to do math equations. It requires both approaches and a bit of patience.  It’s highly unlikely you’ll clear it on your first attempt or even four-hundredth attempt. But it doesn’t wear out its welcome by going on for hours either. Black Jewel may be tough, it may be esoteric. But to borrow a phrase from famous YouTube star Metal Jesus Rocks, it certainly is a “Hidden gem.” You can pick it up on Steam if you like what you see here. Overall, I can recommend you do.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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

Mega Man 11 Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Wild Guns Reloaded Review

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Every now, and again a previously obscure game ends up in the spotlight. Often times because it turns out to be pretty uncommon or even rare. Said game then begins to skyrocket in price in the aftermarket. Wild Guns, is one such game. Originally released on the Super NES by Natsume, it was an action game with a unique setting, and mechanics. It blended Run N’ Gun gaming with Rail Shooter gaming. All in an attractive steam punk western setting. Of course to buy it now is an expensive endeavor. But Natsume, and Atari have brought it back in an updated package.

PROS: New content. 4-player Co-op. Tight controls. Visual flair.

CONS: Multiplayer has some design choices holding it back a bit.

SUPER PETS: There’s a dog operating a giant drone.

Wild Guns Reloaded is a beefed up version of the original Super NES game. As I don’t own the original version, I can’t speak to every minor difference but upon doing some research there are a few big ones. On the positive end, the game now supports 4 players. So you can enjoy this with more people. They’ve added two new playable characters, and you get some bonus stages in cooperative play that the original release didn’t have. The game now renders in a full 1080p resolution, so you don’t have to decide between pleasing your purist friends who want original aspect ratios, or pleasing your other friends who don’t mind stretch-o-vision over black bars. There are sliders for you to scale the image though, so lovers of the 4:3 standard can also rejoice.

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On the flip side, you do not have any continues in multiplayer. Which is absolutely absurd considering you have unlimited continues when playing the game alone. It’s the biggest blemish on the package. But as disappointing as it may be, this is a game you still may want to pick up. Because there really is a lot about this game to love.

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As I mentioned before, Wild Guns Reloaded is a blend of two action genres. On the one hand, you move your character about as if you were playing Sunset Riders. On the other hand, you fight enemies as if you were playing Operation Wolf. If that sounds like a strange combination, that’s because it is. But it’s one that works really well once you become accustomed to it. You move around freely, able to jump, and avoid the incoming projectiles. You can also use a melee attack on enemies that get in close. Some enemies can only be taken out this way. But when you start shooting, you’ll instead move a cursor about the screen. Aiming at all of the different threats around you. While firing, you can perform a quick dodge to get out-of-the-way, and you can even throw electric laser lassoes around bad guys. The lassoes temporarily hold them in place so you can deal with other impending threats.

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The end result is a fast action game, that also requires a lot of strategic thinking on your feet. You also have to have eyes in the back of your head, as you can’t really focus on just one threat. You have to be able to react to every last interruption on hand. Is it difficult? Absolutely. But at the same time it feels ever so rewarding when you’re able to complete a segment. The game starts you out in an initial stage that sets up the formula. You’ll play through one section until a timer hits zero. Then you’ll move onto the next section, and then if you complete that section, you’ll move onto a boss fight.

Once you win the initial stage, you’ll then move onto a Mega Man styled stage select screen. Here you’ll go on to play through each of the next few stages in any order you wish. Most of these follow the same sequence as the first stage. Though one stage is an automatic scrolling stage. But even this stage follows the trend of using three sections. After completing these you get thrown into the final stage where you’ll go through a huge gauntlet of enemies, and bosses.

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Wild Guns Reloaded offers four playable characters with their own traits. Clint, and Annie return from the original game. They perform similarly with faster firing weapons, and movement. They’re not exactly the same, Annie seems a little bit more mobile. Joining them are Doris, who throws grenades in lieu of using ballistics, and then there is Bullet. He’s a Dachshund.  A Dachshund with a killer drone. So he plays with a lock on, but like everyone else, one hit takes you out of the action. Clint, and Annie are probably the best all around characters to use. But Doris, and Bullet are great new additions for those who may want even more of a challenge.

That being said this game has three difficulty settings to choose from, but I wouldn’t call any of these particularly easy. The lower tiers make bosses a little bit easier to take down, and some of the midrange enemies take fewer hits. But you’re still going to die if you get hit by anything. So again, expect a challenge. But as the case with Contra or Operation Wolf, the challenge is more or less the point. Interestingly the Nintendo Switch version also includes a Beginner difficulty that just gives the player unlimited lives. Handy for a first time play through. But it also makes the campaign feel hollow as there is no way you’ll be forced to overcome any of the game’s obstacles.

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Playing with other people is a mostly fun endeavor. Having backup means you don’t have to manage every last obstacle, as the other players can do some of the work. But the lack of continues is a puzzling decision. Especially if you’re playing with a group where there’s a considerable skill gap. Because not only can none of you continue from the last stage you reach upon a fail state, your lives are all grouped together. If you have a friend or relative that can’t cut it, you’re getting held back. If you’re the one who can’t cut it, you’re holding your team back. It’s also strange because you have unlimited continues when playing alone. The Nintendo Switch version also doesn’t migrate that Beginner setting to the multiplayer. So you won’t get any mercy in that version either. Despite the odd decision to remove continues, playing with others is a fun time because of the reasons outlined above. It really is great when you are all able to rake in a high score, and defeat a giant boss together. As with the one player game, every little inch you scrape further feels like an accomplishment. But you’ll really need to grow a thick skin when playing with friends because once your lives are gone, that’s it.

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Visually, the game now renders in a proper widescreen aspect ratio, and resolution. The sprites, and backgrounds sport an immense amount of detail. This shouldn’t surprise anybody who has played the original Super Nintendo Game Pak. It was visually impressive then, and it’s pretty impressive now. The little details in the backgrounds, the wonderful use of gradients, all work with its anime-styled designs. The steam punk influence is obvious as you’ll fight robots, vehicles, and cowboys armed with laser guns. The audio goes along with it nicely, as explosions, and screams sound great. There’s also a techno-western fusion going on in the soundtrack.

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Performance is pretty solid too, with the game maintaining a steady frame rate. Even during battles where the screen is completely congested with projectiles. Whether you’re playing the PC version, the PS4 version or the recent Nintendo Switch release. The Switch version looks great in docked mode on the TV or in tablet mode when taking it out on the road with you.  All versions offer a scan line filter if you want to simulate the look of an old CRT Television. There are also an online leaderboard you can try to shoot for.

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Overall, Wild Guns Reloaded is a really fun, and challenging update to a cult classic. It has a great look, really intriguing characters, and does a lot with its setting. The enemy design is great, and it’s an enjoyable arcade experience. It’s just unfortunate it is so inconsistent with its rules for single player, and multiplayer. It’s strange that one can continue at their leisure when playing by themselves, but not with friends. One would think the multiplayer would be given similar stakes. Be that as it may, playing with other people is still fun to do. But you’ll definitely want your guests to know what they’re in for before you start playing.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Halloween Forever Review

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In the world of indie games it isn’t uncommon to see games that try to emulate the titles that inspired them. But when taking into account how many of these games exist, being one of the games that emulates them well is a pretty big feat. Being one of the games that not only does the memory of classic games justice, but does so with unique personality, and original additions deserves commendation.

One such game is Halloween Forever, and I don’t just say that because I saw the game’s artist do a live stream creating pixel art on Twitch. I bought the game (yes, bought. It wasn’t given to me, and I wasn’t asked to review this.) after discovering the channel because his stream turned out to be quite informative. After downloading it, I fired it up to find that it really is a fun, and interesting game. Like the Arcade, computer, and NES games that it pays homages to, it’s a challenging action-platformer. The most notable, and noticeable inspiration here is Capcom’s Ghosts N’ Goblins.

PROS: Cute characters. Animation. Music. Humor. Play control.

CONS: Confusing menu navigation. Blind jumps.

SANTA: Putting demons on the naughty list.

Before you can start the game, you’ll have to go through an options menu. This is where nearly all of the faults in Halloween Forever lie. Unfortunately you’ll need to know how the controls are mapped in order to navigate them, which you won’t. This oversight is the sole glaring issue. Because you can’t simply use the arrow keys, or the W,A,S,D, keys in a way that you would expect.

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That’s because you can’t see the default layout – to get into the menu options – to change said layout. So you’ll spend a good ten minutes figuring out what keys do or don’t select. Or you’ll take a wild guess, and try clicking the options with a mouse to find it actually works. When you do get into the control settings you’ll find the default settings a bit weird. W jumps, A,S, and D move you left, right, and let you duck. The Left key shoots, the Up key lets you interact with doors, ladders, and other things. You can re-bind the keys to something you like better, so if you want to play with a more traditional two button lay out you can. Still, navigating with the mouse through the menu options is going to make life easier. Fortunately you can also use a compatible game pad like the Xbox 360, Xbox One, or Steam Controller.

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Rounding out the options are the choice between whether to play full screen or in a window, and some configuration menus. There’s an interesting option in here if you find the game too trying for you. You can enable a 99 lives setting. Keep in mind the game more or less considers this a cheat code. So if you turn this setting on, the Steam achievements will be disabled as long as the mode is enabled.

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When the game boots, you’ll see a short sequence of cinema screens that give you a concise understanding of what your goals are. An evil wizard who looks suspiciously like a robed Skeletor has cast a spell to curse the world, and make Halloween last forever. Thus throwing the world into chaos, as it is invaded by monsters, demons, floating Gorgon heads, and of course; Leatherface. This of course, doesn’t sit well with a certain pumpkin who rises from the patch, and decides that he will be playing the role of He-Man in this Halloween themed adventure.

Once you’ve started the game, and you’ve selected your options you’ll get to choose a character. I’ll come back to this in a bit. When you first start the game you’ll pretty much have the pumpkin man you’re introduced to in the opening cinematic. The other option is Santa Claus. Yes. Santa Claus. You’ll find out later on that there are a lot of folks who have a stake in this mission to take down this reaper.

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You’re then shown a map that lays out the order of the stages you’ll have to go through in order to win the game. Then you’re off to the races. Right away, you’re going to notice the way the game looks. Then you’re going to realize that the game looks much better in action than it does on its description page on the Steam store. The graphics are a little bit simplistic, for some. But the number of frames in the animation, and the little details in them are not. I have to commend Imaginary Monsters for this. Characters run around smoothly, and they have a lot of nuances you’ll appreciate if you pay attention.

Fabrics flow around. Projectiles have visual flair on them. Bad guys’ eyes animate while the fireballs they shoot from their sockets are also animating the aforementioned flair. The bosses you’ll run into continue these things. So while the game does have an aesthetic that falls somewhere between a Commodore 64 game,  and an early 90’s MS-DOS platformer it’s more complex. These are the little things that would have meant multiple disks or a longer download back then. Of course the gameplay itself comes right out of the early days of NES games.

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As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest influences is Ghosts N’ Goblins. You’ll move about a lot like Arthur did in that game, with an attack, and a jump. You can also double jump in Halloween Forever. Your attack has an arc to it. So you have to plan ahead when you attack enemies as you need to land your shots just right. But that isn’t to say Halloween Forever is a cut, and paste clone of Capcom’s arcade game. They may share some movements, and settings. But that’s about where it ends. It does have a couple of other influences, like Castlevania, and Mega Man. Perhaps even a dash of Monster Bash. But even this is largely just in the occasional trap. Or in ensuring the bosses have a readable attack pattern. Which they do.

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But beyond that, you’ll find an entertaining, and charming action platformer. One that has a lot of endearing character designs. Not just in the heroes you control, but in the enemies you’re forced to confront. There’s a cuteness factor in the super deformed style these characters are portrayed in. This continues even into your projectiles, like your pumpkin man’s candy corn, or Santa’s barfed up Christmas presents. It’s really something that will make you smile. Everything controls smoothly, and responsively. Climbing ladders, switching platforms, taking out baddies all feel tight.

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What won’t make you smile (aside from the options menu) are some of the challenges in Halloween Forever. A couple of the later boss fights are downright brutal. Even after you’ve figured out their patterns. Of course getting to those fights requires getting through a gauntlet of platforming challenges. Each of the five stages might seem straightforward on the surface. But each has a few secret paths through them as well. If you find these secret paths you’ll be able to collect a hidden rune. You’ll also find other characters that have been taken, and held hostage. Which you’ll really need to do. Because once you rescue these characters you can play through the game with them. Each of these characters plays slightly differently from one another. Some have better attacks for certain situations than others. One may make one boss fight a lot easier, but might have a tougher time getting through another part of the game. Also rescuing these people means that reaching their holding cells in subsequent play through sessions will net you 1-Ups in their place.

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If you beat the game, and see its ending though, the game isn’t over. Each playable character has their own ending, and chances are you’ll want to see each of them at least once. All in all, this has at least as much content as the titles that inspired it had. The chip tunes are awesome, and while this game may be short, and sweet it is pretty sweet. An absolutely terrific first effort by Imaginary Monsters, and I’m surprised it hadn’t caught my attention when it was originally released a year, and a half ago. The only major issue on display here is the screwy options menu you’ll be better served using a mouse for. Beyond that, one might complain about a blind jump or two. But that’s really about it. If you want something cute, entertaining, and don’t mind it being a bit esoteric, Halloween Forever is for you. It’s tough, but not insurmountable. It also has a lot of charm. It’s a really fun game you ought to check out.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Cuphead Review

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By now, you’ve heard the praise, the fervor, and the cries of sore losers everywhere. But the hype for this one really is deserved. Cuphead is a magnificent blend of gameplay taken from Contra, Gradius, and even some Mega Man for good measure. And while many games have done so, Cuphead is one of the ones that stands out from the crowd. If you haven’t already bought, and downloaded this game to your Xbox One or Computer you really ought to. But if you need more details before doing so, read on.

PROS: Amazing animation. Wonderful music. Spot on controls. Tough, but fair challenge.

CONS: Some bugs keep it just shy of perfection.

GENERATIONS: The animation on display will even amaze your Great Grandparents.

Cuphead is the result of a couple of high-risk takers. Studio MDHR started out with a vision: An action game that truly feels like playing a late 1930’s cartoon. Early on they discovered that making that vision a reality was going to be far more time-consuming, and expensive than originally thought. They ended up quitting their jobs, and re-mortgaging their homes just to be able to bring this title to market.

My hope is that this risk has paid off. Because the finished product is nothing short of amazing. Cuphead very likely has the best animation of any video game ever made thus far. Studio MDHR painstakingly made every background in the game by matte painting it. Every frame of animation was hand drawn on a cell before being scanned into a computer to be inked, and colored. As a result the game delivers on the core promise of looking, and feeling like a 1930’s animated short. The character designs are breathtaking. All of the hallmarks of vintage cartoons are here. The angled pupils, exaggerated movement, and pretty much everything you can recall from old Popeye, and Betty Boop serials are here.

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Studio MDHR even went as far as hiring an actual big band jazz ensemble to write, and perform the score for Cuphead. So not only does it look like an 80-year-old cartoon, it also sounds like an 80-year-old cartoon. Just seeing the game in action alone would be worth the price of admission. There is such a wealth of talent on display through the entire game that it’s honestly something that has to be experienced. In the realm of audio, and visual experiences Cuphead is nearly in a class all by itself.

But what about the game play? Well, it’s a fairly solid, and enjoyable experience. The game starts out with a very clever tutorial, and a classic story book introduction. Cuphead, and his brother Mugman go against their guardian’s wishes when they visit a casino. Unfortunately, the Casino is owned by the Devil, and he rigs the game at the Craps table to claim the souls of our heroes. But they plead for their lives so he tells them he’ll forgive their debt if they go get the soul contracts of the others in the town.

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So that’s the set up for just why Cuphead, and Mugman are off on their adventure. The game places you on an overhead view of a map, where you move the characters around, and choose a stage, or talk to an NPC. There are three maps, and you’ll need to complete every stage to move onto the next one. Each map also has a shop in it where you can use coins to upgrade your abilities. There are three main types of stage on display here. You’ll have Run n’ Gun stages. These play like you’d expect, taking homage from games like Contra, and Metal Slug. So you’ll have to fire where you’re going. You can’t shoot backwards while moving forward. The game play is not a twin stick style, rather a more traditional one. In these stages you’ll find the aforementioned coins. So you’ll certainly need to play these if you want any hope of buffing up your character.

Some of the items in the shops will give you a new style of weapon, or extra hits on your health meter. But any item you choose will have a side effect to balance things out. For instance, buying extra health comes at the cost of weakening your attacks slightly. But there are a wide variety of things to check out here. So you can swap out items for others after you’ve paid for them, and see what load out works best for you.

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There are shmup levels too, these generally play like the third type of stage I’ll get to in a moment. The difference being here, you’ll be piloting a plane, and fighting a multifaceted battle against a boss character. With the shmup mechanics here, the game feels a lot more like the memorable moments in old horizontal shooters like Thunder Force III, R-Type, Gradius, or Life Force rather than the more contemporary bullet hell shooter. Just because there aren’t zillions of things to avoid doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to avoid. These encounters throw plenty enough at you, and you’ll have to memorize attack patterns to survive. You can also shrink your plane so if you get into a situation you don’t think is avoidable, it may just be your ace in the hole.

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Finally, there are the Boss stages. In these you’ll use the Run n’ Gun mechanics in a multifaceted battle against a boss character. These fights feel closer to the classic NES Mega Man boss fights. than the ones in the old Run n’ Guns. One boss in particular will give you memories of storming Dr. Wily’s castle in Mega Man II. All of these bosses however will require you to learn patterns, and expert timing to get through them in one piece. Since most of the stages in the game are Boss stages you can expect to lose many, many times when you first attempt them.

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There are also a couple of side challenges where you’ll free ghosts by parrying other ghosts. You should honestly do these because the parry is a mechanic Cuphead uses to beef up your super meter. When you fill up the meter you can do a very devastating attack which is especially handy in boss battles. Anything colored pink in the game can be parried, and these challenges are the perfect way to master this mechanic.

Most of the stages in the game have an easy mode in addition to a regular tough as nails mode. You’ll need to beat the harder difficulty on bosses to get the contracts, needed to finish the story. But playing the stages on Easy will let you progress, and see what future stages have to offer. You can also go back to any stage you beat previously to replay it. Cuphead definitely has a high level of challenge. But the challenge is generally very fair. You’ll die hundreds of times over. But upon your expletive laden loss you’ll understand that your last death was your own fault. You jumped when you meant to shoot. Or you didn’t plan for a moving platform properly. Or you weren’t patient enough. Or you panicked, and walked into that projectile.

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Cuphead isn’t impossible though. Those who absolutely love old platformers, shmups, and classic action games from the days of Atari, Sega, Nintendo, and Commodore platforms will likely pick things up a bit faster. But that doesn’t mean someone newer to this type of experience cannot persevere. It’s the kind of game that requires patience, and practice to excel in. For some players it may take more time, and patience than others. But everything in the game is so captivating it’s worth checking out.

There are a couple of very minor issues I have with the game though. The most alarming are a few rare bugs. Admittedly these are rare, and in time they’ll probably be fixed. But they’re still a nuisance when they happen. One of them will glitch a low-level enemies’ health to a point it takes no damage. When this happens you can try to just skip past it. But that might mean you take damage in the process, and impede your ability to clear the level. Exiting the stage, and re-entering it usually fixes it in the interim, but that is also a nuisance. The other bug I’ve run into is an inexplicable performance hit, where the game will suddenly drop frames, and run ridiculously choppy for around 60 seconds before going back to normal. It’s especially annoying in boss fights. Closing the game, and re-starting the application again, fixes it in the interim. But it can be pretty annoying. I also wish there could have been a few more action stages over boss rush stages to add to the variety.

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Nevertheless, I can wholeheartedly recommend Cuphead to just about anybody who is even remotely interested in it. The animation, and soundtrack alone are worth the price of admission. Even for all of the complaints some may have with the level of challenge, the experience easily overshadows that. This is a game that is a wonder to behold. And while old-school arcade challenge may not be your Cuphead of tea, (I know, that’s a terrible joke.) Cuphead is still one of the most entertaining experiences you’ll likely have this year. If you relish a challenge, and love classic cartoons you should buy this for your computer or Xbox One if you haven’t already. You may want to look into this game even if you normally don’t care for this sort of fare. The amount of talent, and dedication on display is nothing short of captivating.

Here’s hoping Cuphead was a successful enough endeavor for a follow-up, or another game using the same wonderful artists, and animators. I know I’ve repeated myself a lot in this review, and I probably sound a bit redundant. But win or lose, Cuphead is one experience you just may want to roll the dice on. (I think I did better on that one.)

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Insanity’s Blade Review

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A number of titles have been Frankenstein’s monsters. Taking ideas, or mechanics from a variety of games, and combining them to bring something new to the world. It happens in everything, as any great idea has the potential to be improved upon, or repurposed for something else. Sometimes this gives us something glorious. Other times something banal, and uninspired. Sometimes something completely terrible. But a lot of times we’ll see something great trying to break out of some shackles.

PROS: Soundtrack. Graphics. Character design. Borrowed elements are good ones.

CONS: Glitches. Performance issues. Annoying bugs.

CAVALCADE: There’s a line of large, and obscure references on display.

Insanity’s Blade is a pretty cool game. Right off the bat, its cinema screens, and characters will remind you of Golden Axe. Begin playing, and the movement will possibly bring out memories of playing Rastan. Some of the enemy designs, backgrounds, traps, and weapons will bring about memories of the first four Castlevania games. The loot you pick up, and the rising coffins then make you remember Ghosts N’ Goblins. If all of those references weren’t enough for you, the dagger throwing, and climbing may even remind Commodore fans of First Samurai (an obscure game that was also ported to the Super NES.).

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All of these elements do work well together too. Stages have elements of all of these games. But connected in ways that flow well. One may see this, and figure it would feel disjointed. And they very easily could have. But fortunately, everything was well researched by the level designers in this regard. Moreover, many of the stages have branching paths. So it gives the game a little bit of replay value, as you can opt to take different routes on a second play through.

Also great is the inclusion of two-player arcade co-operative play. You can also opt to play either a story mode, or an arcade mode. Both of these are basically the same game, but the arcade mode reduces the story bits, and the mandatory side quest stages that I’ll get to later. Quite honestly, there are a lot of things to like in Insanity’s Blade.

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As you may already know, Insanity’s Blade is an action platformer. So again, you’ll be going through stages in the vein of early Castlevania titles. Expect pixel-perfect jumping. Floating heads. Spiked walls. Pits. The most brutal retro Konami stuff. There’s even some Mode 7 like effects that take you right back to Super Castlevania IV. But as I said earlier, there are plenty of other games it takes inspiration from. You’ll have the same movement speed, and jumping arcs of Rastan. You’ll start out the game with a mere punch, the ability to grab enemies, and a jump button. But you’ll find over the course of the game, you’ll get to shoot knives.  Think Shinobi.  (For an interesting twist, these can be disabled in the options menu.). Blowing up enemies drops coins, and money bags seen in Ghosts N’ Goblins as I said before. Pick up all of the money you find because hidden in every level is a shop castle that rises from the ground. These shops have weapon, and health upgrades in them. You’ll want them because like Magician Lord, the better the firepower, the longer you’ll live. The thing to remember is once you go inside them, they won’t come up again until you lose the level, and have to start over. So don’t go in them until you’re sure you have enough gold to afford what you want.

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Beyond the shop weapons, are weapons you’ll get on your quest. There’s a couple of swords, a Castlevania whip, among others. These are usually dropped by bosses, and tie into the game’s storyline. Bosses are another point in the game where I was reminded of First Samurai. Because like that game’s bosses, these are large, weird, and take a ton of punishment. Of course they also continue the look of all of those mentioned 8-bit, and 16-bit era console, arcade, and home computer games.

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The storyline is a bit simplistic, but works for the game fine. You play a character named Thurstan whose family is killed in an attack on his village. So he goes on a revenge mission looking to kill off the hordes of monsters responsible. He’s joined by a dwarf named Finn who gets roped into the adventure. Things get a bit weirder when they happen upon a sorceress, but I won’t spoil the story for those who haven’t played yet. It does what it needs to do, and according to the developer, was adapted from a graphic novel. Between the cinema screens, and labels you’ll be greeted with a map where you can choose either the next stage, or a side mission. Side missions usually have boss fights you need to do as they give you items required to complete the game. Other times you’ll face a gauntlet of enemies, or rescue some NPCs. The game also throws in a classic shoot ’em up stage near the end of the 16 stage adventure. There are plenty of things on hand for those who loved all of its influences.

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Playing through Insanity’s Blade though, you’ll find there really is a great game trying to break free of some small problems. Which is a shame because what is great, truly is great. The problems are two-fold. On my system which isn’t the latest, and greatest but is still well above the system requirements I ran into slowdown. This is the biggest issue. The game will randomly become jittery, and sluggish before going back to normal. It doesn’t make things unplayable, as the slowdowns are but a hiccup in the grand scheme of things. But when they happen during a tricky jump, or a trap you’re trying to avoid it can be very annoying. The game also doesn’t have an option to turn Vsync on or off.

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The second problem I ran into were a number of graphical bugs, where a background tile appeared where a foreground tile should have been. Also, as great as the visuals are some characters blend in with the backgrounds, and you won’t see them until after you’ve taken damage. This especially sucks when it happens by a pit, or other trap, and the knock back pushes you into said pit or other trap. I also had a couple of random crashes to the desktop. Again, nothing common enough to make the game unplayable, but still enough to grate.

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Be that as it may, I still had a good time playing through Insanity’s Blade. It’s now been out a while so I don’t see the hitches being resolved. But hopefully their upcoming Battle Princess Madelyn avoids these problems as the new game seems to have the same vivid pixel art style, and action platforming in mind. I also forgot to mention Insanity Blade’s soundtrack which has both an 8, and 16-bit option for its chip tunes. It’s pretty solid, and while it doesn’t reach the lofty heights of the NES Castlevania Trilogy, it does go along with its action fairly well. There are also a number of secrets hidden throughout the game, so it does give you another reason to go back, and replay it from time to time.  It’s a fun game. It’s just got a couple of quirks that keep it from being as memorable as the titles that inspired it.

Final Score: 7 out of 10