Tag Archives: Computer Games

Jumpman Review

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You wouldn’t know it at face value, but you’re on a mission to defuse bombs on another world. A world of bombs, killer robots, and a lethal pixel. In addition to a host of other horrific adversaries. It all sounds like a side scrolling action platformer or run ‘n gun. But you’d be wrong. Jumpman is one of the strangest, yet greatest puzzle games ever made. Debuting on the Atari 8-bit family of computers, it appeared on the Commodore 64 soon after, along with the IBM PC, and Apple II.

PROS: Excellent gameplay. Fun animation. Great musical numbers.

CONS: Bland graphics.

APOGEE: The Duke Nukem publisher felt the ire of Epyx.

Jumpman may seem a bit esoteric today, but there was a time when he was almost as popular as Bomberman. That’s because he starred in two of the most fun arcade puzzle games to ever grace a computer screen. As I mentioned at the start, the storyline of the game doesn’t accurately describe what is going on at face value. You really have to start playing the game before you realize that it does.

The goal of Jumpman is easy to grasp. Defuse all of the bombs in the level before losing all of your lives for big points. If you manage to do this, you’ll move onto the next level. You’ll also get bonus points for having more Jumpmen in reserve. So a high performance level is key. Created by Randy Glover, and released by Epyx, there is a wonderful use of the easy to learn, lifetime to master principles behind many great games.

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The game eases you in, with a couple of pretty simple to understand levels. You’ll go about your goal of defusing bombs, and slowly notice changes to a given stage. Pieces of scenery disappear, creating new gaps to jump over. A floating pixel will chase you down, and kill you if you get in its line of sight. But the obstacles only increase as you complete levels. It isn’t long before you see killer robots that change position every time you defuse a bomb. Or a plethora of bombs falling from the sky. Or flying saucers. Or rabid bats. Sometimes the challenges aren’t adversaries. Sometimes they’re things like moving ladders or other scenery.

Every one of these attempts to impede you can be overcome with enough practice. Over time, you begin to recognize patterns, and figure out what you’re supposed to do. But it doesn’t become a cakewalk, because actually doing what you’re supposed to still requires dexterity. When you clear a level, you’ll hear one of a multitude of cheery carnival tunes. These go along with the circus-like feel of the game’s introduction animation.

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Jumpman gives you nine lives to get through the stages. You can choose from several difficulty settings which will start at a stage where the appropriate difficulty jump occurs. You can also select Grand Loop which does all 30 levels in a row. Or you can choose the Randomizer, which plays the levels in a random order. Beyond that, you can also choose a game speed. The center value of 4 will run the game at the standard speed. The max speed of 8 is probably too fast for all but the most devoted player, and the minimum speed of 1 makes the game exceptionally slow. The speed setting is a nice option though because it can make the game a bit more interesting. The game can also be played by up to four players alternating turns.

Visually, Jumpman isn’t much to look at.  stages are made of simple shapes, and a handful of colors. Jumpman himself, is little more than a stick figure. But the gameplay in Jumpman is amazing. Moving about the levels is very smooth, and the controls are tight. One interesting thing the game does is allow Jumpman to climb anything he touches. If you go for a jump, and your hand nabs part of the scenery, you’ll climb it! There are also some cool navigational variables thrown in, in the form of ropes. Green ropes can only be climbed up, while blue ropes can only be climbed down. Between this, and the other mechanics introduced through enemy character types Jumpman becomes surprisingly deep for such a simple game.

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There are a few minor differences between the different versions of Jumpman. The original Atari 400/800 version features some really slick transition animations between levels as you clear them. It also has a pretty cool stage destruction sequence when you run out of lives, and get a Game Over.  The Commodore 64 version has a little bit more detail in the graphics department. It gives our hero a shirt, and pants through some simple colors. The music sounds a tiny bit better too. It is missing the stage transitions, and if you lose you don’t see the level explode. Instead, you get a harmonious musical number as the backgrounds, and characters slowly become the same color.

Over on the Apple II, you won’t see the transitions. Visually, it’s somewhere between the Atari, and Commodore computers. It has the Commodore’s background colors, but the Atari’s blank Jumpman. The IBM PC port was outsourced to another developer. It pretty much plays the same as the other versions although the terrible PC speaker sound, and CGA color scheme make it the worst in terms of visuals, and sound.

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Jumpman was also followed up by Jumpman Junior, which is really a companion version of the game. It was made for Commodore 64, and Atari 8-bit users who didn’t have a 5.25″ Floppy drive. Being a cartridge game makes it one of the more sought after games for collectors. It’s pretty much exactly the same game as Jumpman, except it has only 12 stages. At the time cartridges didn’t have as much storage capacity as the floppies, and cassettes did. Still, for many retro fans,  it isn’t the full Jumpman experience unless you have both games. It was never available for other computer formats, although it was ported to the Colecovision.

Long after Randy Glover left the game industry, A programmer named Dave Sharpless ported the game, and it’s expandalone to MS-DOS under the title Jumpman Lives! The game was published by Apogee in 1991. The thing is, that while Epyx had long been a shell of its former self, it was still around. The remake caught the ire of Epyx, and Apogee would cease selling it immediately. Epyx wouldn’t be around much longer though, after getting out of bankruptcy, and focusing on Atari Lynx development the company was sold off, and dissolved.  Jumpman Lives! Is a fairly rare computer game as a result.

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In the end, Jumpman, and Jumpman Jr. are games that really deserve more recognition than they get. At least when compared with other retro games. Things may look more like a carnival than a space station, and the bombs may look more like flowers. But once you get past the rudimentary look of everything you’ll be engrossed in one of the most addictive puzzlers of all time. If you can find the original floppy disk, the cartridge based companion edition, or even the unlicensed, unofficial, Apogee remake, give it a go. Jumpman Junior was also included in the C64 DTV, as well as the recent Colecovision Flashback by AtGames. So if you don’t have one of these old computers or consoles, there are other legitimate ways to add this masterful game to your collection in some capacity.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Beach Head II: The Dictator Strikes Back Review

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These days, there are all kinds of wonderful death match experiences. From Rise Of The Triad onward, First-person shooters have given players hours of competitive multiplayer. But back in the golden age, not as many games did this. Oh sure, there was the quest for the high score. However, many games had you on the same side, or alternating turns while competing for points. But when Beach Head came out it had a novel idea. Combining several games resulting in a really fun campaign. The sequel took that idea on step further.

PROS: Well crafted. As fun today, as it was when it came out years ago.

CONS: Last stage can go on too long between two great players.

MEDIC: The voice samples are some of the most memorable quips in a video game.

Beach Head II is one of the best competitive multiplayer games ever made. Released two years after the original game, it made one little change to its formula. This completely changed the dynamics of the game in this sequel. Instead of alternating turns, this game casts one player as the heroic army, and the other player as the dictator’s evil forces. The core concept is intact. There are a set number of scenes, each acting as its own arcade style game. Once that game is played, things move onto the next game, and so on. This tapestry of games, makes for an overall campaign, and storyline. Beach Head takes place during World War II. But the setting in this sequel is more contemporary.

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The first stage is an invasion. Player one air drops a squadron onto the shore, and from here they have to storm the Bastille. Player two has to do everything in their power to keep the heroes from getting inside, by using a giant turret. As the second player fires down upon the walls, the first player has to move combatants one by one, to the entrance. They can scale walls, or run down toward the next set. If they get to the bottom, they’ll succeed.  The more combatants they can get down to the bottom the better prepared for the following stage. This is also the moment you’ll see something else that makes the game memorable. This is one of the earliest computer games that implemented voice samples.

When one of the allied combatants get shot, it plays one of four samples. These are looped so the deaths will vocalize the same pattern of phrases. Even still, these are pretty great for the time, and are still pretty memorable. There are other samples that play in later stages too. Now one may think the odds are against the allied forces, and they are. But the heroes can throw grenades at the dictator’s turret. A successful throw will destroy it for big points, and the soldier will make it in, as a replacement turret spawns in.

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Stage two sees the allies taking control of the turret, and firing into the dictator’s military installation. Here the object is to provide prisoners cover as they try to shuffle along, and escape. The person playing dictator, can summon tanks, combat jeeps, a bomb expert to set traps, and even a guy on a roof dropping rocks onto the prisoner. Points are awarded to the allies for every successful rescue, while the dictator gets points for successfully murdering prisoners.

The third stage is a helicopter escape mission. The allied player loads the chopper with liberated soldiers, and attempts to get away. It’s a shmup level, but the dictator can control the many vehicles in an attempt to shoot down the chopper. If they’re successful the round starts again, with the allies trying to shuttle out any remaining prisoners. Obviously the allies get huge bonus points if they can successfully dodge all of the dictator’s assaults.

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The final stage sees the leader of the allies facing off against the dictator himself. Each on a pier facing each other. They throw knives at each other. After landing a few hits the victor will see their opponent fall into the sea. This battle goes on for ten matches. This is where the game’s one major flaw comes into play. The final battle can go on far too long. Once you have two evenly matched players, they can easily duck out, sidestep, and otherwise dodge dagger throws. A 30 minute match up of fun, can quickly become a several hour affair due to the last battle. In hindsight Access Software should have made this a two out of three falls match.

Be that as it may, the final battle is still a lot of fun thanks in part to the nice animation, and splendid sound samples. Hearing the dictator exclaim “YOU CAN’T HURT ME!” is a pretty rewarding experience. Once all of the modes are done, the final score is tallied letting you know which army was victorious.

Aside from the voice samples, the sound effects are really good. Explosions, gun fire, and other sounds are all a cut above most other games of the time. There is also a really nice chip tune of the US Marines theme song. Visually the game still holds up pretty nicely. The sprites all have a great use of shading techniques to portray details. And while not every thing is graphically impressive, it does an awful lot, with a little.

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Now in addition to the full on campaign, you can play the individual stages instead. This is nice if you really enjoy a specific level more than the other ones. But for most who go back, and play this one, going through the campaign together is really what makes things fun. One can also play through the game on their own as the allies. There are three difficulty levels, and the higher you go the more punishing it is. The highest difficulty is notoriously difficult, as the computer will rarely make a mistake. If you have nobody to play it with, it’s a fun ride. But the real entertainment comes from competing with a friend. I spent many Saturdays, and afternoons playing this with my brother, and friends from school back in the 80’s. It was one of the most fun multiplayer experiences on the Commodore 64.

But Beach Head II was also published on other computers of the time. If you collect for the Apple II or Atari 400/800 line, you can also find this game for those platforms. If you happen to live in Europe, you can also find versions for the Amstrad CPC, and the ZX Spectrum. No matter how you play it though, this is one awesome head to head game worth picking up if you have the chance.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Alien Syndrome Review

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Throughout the 1980’s Sega was making its mark in arcades. It pushed what was possible in racing games, and rail shooters with Outrun, Space Harrier, and After Burner. It gave us the awesome Golden Axe, and the visually impressive Altered Beast. Unsurprisingly many of these games were ported to its own consoles, the Master System, and the Genesis. But there is one of their IPs that came, and went in this period. Something so familiar, and so different. Something so difficult, and yet addictive. I’m talking about Alien Syndrome.

PROS: Great visuals, atmosphere, music, and control (most versions).

CONS: Obscenely difficult. Dark Souls difficult. In deep space.

ALIENS: One of many blockbuster influences that can be seen here.

At its core, Alien Syndrome seems like a typical overhead shooter. You move either Ricky or Mary, depending on which player you are. As you go along, you kill various creatures for big points. But it isn’t so simple. Where previous overhead run n’ guns like Commando, or Ikari Warriors had you kill enemies, and charge to the end of a linear level, this doesn’t. Alien Syndrome is unrelenting about its premise. Your mission isn’t a simple matter of killing things, and getting to the end. Each stage is a ship, and on each of these ships are a number of survivors you have to rescue. Not only do you have to rescue these survivors, (who are stuck in cocoons the way the ones in Aliens were portrayed) you’re timed. Because each ship has initiated a self-destruct sequence a la Captain Kirk.

 

This is to ensure that the menacing invaders cannot make it to Earth in the event you fail your mission. Also because each stage is a ship, there are no straight runs to the north. Instead, each of the stages is a maze, with its own distinct layout. So you have to explore every last nook, and cranny looking for survivors. The survivors are represented by a row of heads. As you rescue them, they’re depleted from the bar. If things get tough, or confusing (which they will) each of the ships have a few maps. Finding these on the wall will pull up a map on  the screen. On the map are flashing pixels, that represent the survivors.

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Once you find all of the hostages, the game will prompt you to get to the exit so you can escape. But in each of the airlocks is a boss alien. These are large, and diverse. Each of them is imposing. Each of them has a powerful attack, and the later bosses employ some very tricky patterns. The bosses all look really cool too. For a title that has fallen into obscurity, it has some of the most memorable bosses in arcade game history. Even the very first boss, is the sort of thing you’ll wish were made into an action figure or statue. These designs are that good.

But, run n’ gun games are often only as exciting as their weaponry, and enemies. Alien Syndrome has a great many of each. Again, taking influence from the Alien movies, there are flame throwers, fire-ball guns, and grenade launchers. But there are others, like the blaster that shoots laser beams like the Imperial blasters in Star Wars. There are also temporary shields, and chess pieces you can find for points.

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How do you get these things? There are cubby holes on walls, marked with the appropriate letter for the weapon. For example L is the laser. The enemies are also varied throughout the game. In earlier stages you’ll fight brain slug creatures, but you’ll see everything from aliens to creatures that shoot their eyes as projectiles. Quite honestly, everything on display is really cool. Every ship has its own decor. So you won’t see a lot of the same tiles in subsequent levels. Some of the ships are what you would expect to see in a space-themed game. Steel floors, technical circuitry patterns for walls, and other touches. But other stages are completely alien (no pun intended.). Some ships seem like they’re made of flesh, others are like stone. Many of the stages have some really cool parallax scrolling effects on floors to represent pits or other pitfalls. And fall you will if you walk over them.

Alien Syndrome is quite the challenge too, because there isn’t a single moment where you aren’t attacked by a horde of aliens. You have to be quick on the draw, as well as quick to react. Dodging projectiles, enemy creatures, while trying to rescue people at the same time. The difficulty especially ramps up after the first stage, and the bosses will often hand you your own behind on a silver platter. There are also no continues, making your performance all the more important. It really does give you the visceral action of the genre, while providing other challenges.

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There are many ways to play Alien Syndrome as it was ported to a lot of platforms. Interestingly enough, the ports to Sega’s own Master System, and Game Gear resulted to almost entirely new games. The scrolling is gone. Instead things work on an almost flip-screen mechanic, only scrolling when reaching the end of the screen in a Castlevania door style transition. The other major changes are almost entirely different maps, and new bosses. The core concept is the same, and it retains the songs from the arcade machine. But these changes make for arguably the worst version of the game. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t play Alien Syndrome on the Master System. It is still a pretty good iteration. It’s brisk. It gives you the same style of gameplay in a new, and unexpected way. Rather, it isn’t the best option for those looking for a replicated experience on a retro console. If you do pick this one up though, you’ll want something other than the Master System Control Pad, because the sometimes mushy d-pad will have you accidentally walking into an alien, or projectile. I recommend the Sega Control Stick. It just seems more responsive in this game. For whatever reason, this game won’t see a Genesis controller properly, so the Sega Control Stick is the next best thing.

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The other two major versions I happen to own ate the Unlicensed Tengen NES port, and the Commodore 64 port. Both of these are pretty good, getting the stage layouts, enemy types, and overall feel pretty nicely. The Commodore 64 version fares especially well though, as it’s the most responsive version I own. Everything is fast, and smooth most of the time. While there can be a bit of slowdown when an awful lot is going on, it still performs better than the NES version overall. The C64 doesn’t have as large a color palette as the NES, but it somehow gets closer to the arcade experience in terms of visuals. The C64 also has the arcade cabinet’s animated attract mode, and a really good original soundtrack. It’s another example of the staying power of the computer’s SID sound chip.

But Tengen’s NES port is no slouch either. It still looks pretty good most of the time, and even manages to add some pretty cool cinema screens to amp up the experience. I should also note that while the C64 has the better soundtrack, the NES version also tries to replicate the arcade’s songs rather than experiment with them, or add new ones. While it isn’t as responsive or quite as fluid as the C64 version, it is the only one of the three to offer continues. On the C64, and SMS you’ll need to clear the game on a handful of lives. For those out there who don’t own a vintage computer, but you have an NES, and a SMS it’s a pretty close race. For authenticity the NES port wins, but the SMS version looks a bit nicer.

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Of course, all of this is moot if you have Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the Xbox 360 or PS3 though. Because the arcade ROM was included in the compilation. You’ll have a nearly 1:1 experience at that point. Be that as it may, most of the home ports all offer a pretty great send up of the original. Alien Syndrome also appeared on the Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, ZX Spectrum, Sharp X68000, MSX computers as well as MS-DOS.

It’s a shame this IP has lied so dormant over the years, aside from a brief, largely ignored game on the PSP, and Wii that played nothing like the original. Alien Syndrome is a fun, if difficult run n’ gun. If you have any of the platforms it appeared on, you owe it to yourself to track down a copy. If you’re blessed to live near an arcade that has a working cabinet, do yourself a service, and put in a few quarters. With its challenge, memorable characters, and insane bosses, Alien Syndrome is one arcade classic you’ll never want to forget.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Toy Bizarre Review

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As we get closer to Christmas, this year I’ve found myself going through my library, and replaying old games. Part of this is due to nostalgia. The years of childhood Christmas memories. Gaming with friends, and family. It’s great being able to experience some of this old stuff in my collection, and it’s also great being able to share those experiences with others. Seeing how we are in the holiday season, we’re looking at a holiday themed game.

PROS: Frantic, and enjoyable.

CONS: Long load times.

NEAR EXCLUSIVE: Only saw release on two computer platforms.

Toy Bizarre lives up to its namesake. It centers around toys, and it’s bizarre. The game takes place in a toy factory where the automation has gone awry, creating killer toys. If the box art is any indication, it also happens to be Santa’s workshop. So Toy Bizarre also appears to have a bit of Silent Night Deadly Night embedded inside.

Each level of the factory is a single screen affair, and right away you’ll notice the gameplay is a little bit reminiscent of Nintendo’s Mario Bros. But only slightly so. In Mario Bros. You would punch floors from below creatures to knock them upside down so you could then bump them off the screen for points. Here, you’ll have floor layouts, and entrances similar to the ones in Nintendo’s platformer, and there’s some bumping things off-screen for points. But there’s a lot more going on than that.

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One major thing you’ll find are little valves throughout the level. If left unattended they eventually inflate balloons. If you don’t pop the balloons in time they will float to the top of the screen, and pop. If you let the balloons pop on their own the explosion will summon different kinds of toys. Touching these toys is fatal. In order to remedy that you have to get them to land on specific surfaces. While they’re on these surfaces, you can quickly jump to a switch that will temporarily deactivate the toys, so you can destroy them. Each level has a certain number of balloons to be destroyed while the punch clock winds down. The faster you can do this, the more time you have left at the end, which also gives you more points.

One strategy a lot of people will also go for on their quest for a high score is to shut off valves. This is an excellent strategy to employ. However there is yet another hurdle the factory throws at you. Remember those cheap wind up walker toys we’ve all had at one time or another as children? You know the type. They have a key or knob sticking out of their back, you twist it as far to the right as it can go, then set it down. The toy then walks around until it either falls off of a table, or collapses on itself.

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Well imagine if there were a giant, life-sized, killer toy android that worked that way. Because apparently, Santa Claus invested in one of them in his toy factory. This automation has also gotten the HAL 9000 virus, and decided that you need to die for it to complete its mission. Not only do you have to avoid this thing at all costs, The android will turn on any valves you’ve previously shut off, allowing for more balloons, more killer toys, and less time on the clock. There are even bonus stages called Safety Checks where you have to shut off all of the valves before the android can turn them back on. And the android will manage to get a couple of then on. In later safety checks you’ll sometimes contend with multiple androids.

If all of that sounds confusing, fear not. It becomes easy to understand once you’ve played the game for a few minutes. Once you understand it, you have yourself a very addictive, and entertaining holiday puzzle-platformer. But it gets better! Because every stage has a different layout from the last. Where in Mario Bros. the only deviation were new enemies to figure out how to defeat, in Toy Bizarre you have to also learn maps.

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One saving grace are power ups called Coffee Breaks, where you literally grab a cup of coffee, and everything stops. During the coffee break you’re basically invincible, and you have a few quick seconds to clear everything before the balloons, toys, and evil androids get back to work. If you’re good enough at Toy Bizarre you can start to loop stages. Again, being an arcade puzzle-platformer you’re not in pursuit of an ending, but a high score.

The game was designed by Mark Turmell who did a number of computer games for Activision. One of the best being Fast Tracks, which I’ll have to get around to doing a review for. But Toy Bizarre is another Activision game from the era, that isn’t as fondly remembered as the heavy hitters they put out on the Atari 2600, and other platforms of the time. Which is a shame, because almost everything about the game is spot on. It holds up in almost every way. The hit detection is great. You’ll rarely have a moment where you hit an enemy, and can’t believe it was a possibility. Due to the kind of game it is, later stages do tend to put in more, and more obstacles that the majority of players find difficult to overcome. But it doesn’t feel like your deaths are cheap.

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And while visually one could argue it doesn’t look as nice as Mario Bros., one can’t deny it is a cut above what one would find on average back then. It still looks nice enough. It does a lot with the simplicity. Factor in the ominous song that plays between rounds, and you’ve got some eerie atmosphere going on in a soulless toy factory. The only major problem with Toy Bizarre are the load times. Activision released the game on three formats for the Commodore 64. Datasette Cassette tape, 5.25″ Floppy Disk, and Cartridge. The cassette version by far has the worst of the load times. Most tape games can take several minutes to load into memory, but this game is insufferably long on tape. The Floppy Disk version is nowhere near as bad, but still takes longer than a lot of other games on disk. Which is weird considering just how small the game is, even for the time. The cartridge version is obviously preferred in this regard. But keep in mind that cartridge versions of C64 games can be harder to find since most users had a Datasette drive or a Floppy drive. That doesn’t necessarily make them rare, but they can be uncommon. As such expect the cartridge version to set you back more than the other formats.

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The game also came out for the ZX Spectrum in Europe. I don’t have either the computer or that version of Toy Bizarre, so I really can’t compare the versions. Though the game was published by Mastertronic in some territories outside of North America. No matter how you slice it though, aside from terrible load times, Toy Bizarre is one of the best Santa themed games to be experienced. If you have a working C64, track down a copy. The only other way to find it, is if you can track down the Activision Commodore 64 15 pack collection for Windows 95. Which can be a hassle to get running on a modern PC.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns Review

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Last week we looked at one of the most important games in history. It was one of the first platformers. One of the best early console, and home computer games. It was also one of the best games to debut on the seminal Atari 2600.  So a sequel was only natural. Unfortunately, the great video game industry crash meant that a lot of people never got to play it when it came out. Which is a shame because once again, David Crane’s Pitfall Harry, performed a few more major firsts.

PROS: Improved visuals, added music, effects, and more!

CONS: In some ways, this is an easier game.

SCORPIONS: Even deadlier now thanks to a glitch.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns is not only one of the best games on the Atari 2600, it is one of the most memorable experiences to come out of the golden age of video games. This is partly due to it being one of the earliest games to have features we take for granted today. The object of Pitfall II is also a little bit different here. In the first game, you’re trying to figure out a path through a jungle that will lead you to all of its treasures. All under a time limit, on two lives. All while doing it in the shortest time possible, with the least amount of mistakes.

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In Pitfall II, Pitfall Harry has to find a very specific diamond ring, as well as rescue his niece Rhonda, and pet mountain lion Quickclaw who have gotten themselves trapped in a cavern. These characters were first introduced in the Pitfall cartoon. So their appearance in this game could make the show canon. At least in the eyes of some. Gameplay is built off of the core of the first Pitfall. You still have a flip-screen mechanic when going left to right. But when going vertically the game adds scrolling into the mix.

It isn’t even something you question. It just feels like a natural extension of the game play. While you won’t be swinging over ponds, tar pits, and jumping on crocodile or alligator heads you still look for treasure. Sure, saving your relative, pet, and getting that diamond are the main goal. But if you want any hope of a perfect score you need to find every last gold bar too. Pitfall II also introduces a checkpoint system.

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These days, many games have checkpoints. But back in the days of names like Atari, Coleco, and Commodore the concept was rare. On home computer platforms you could save your progress in some RPGs. or your high score in some arcade ports. But checkpoints were especially rare on computers. They were non-existent on consoles. The fact you don’t have to start the entire game over if you make a mistake in this game was sorcery at the time. It also doesn’t have a count down, which may make you calmer.

Still, the one drawback to checkpoints in Pitfall II is that it makes the game much easier. There are also unlimited lives. So really it is impossible to lose. As long as you can get to the three main targets you can beat the game. To alleviate this sticking point, the game still has a monetary punishment for mistakes. You see, like its predecessor you lose a lot of money if you have to go back to a checkpoint. In fact, the further ahead of the last checkpoint you touched (a small cross on the ground you walk over), the more money you’ll lose. You also lose money if you fall, and land on your feet. So if you miss a jump, and land two or three levels lower (you can change your trajectory a few pixels by trying to move as you fall) your score gets lighter. You gain money for finding gold bars. You gain money for hitting each of your three metrics.

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Though there may not be a clock winding down to a Game Over for you should it get to zero, there is a clock. The game times you for your overall performance in hitting your three metrics. Which makes Pitfall II a speed runner’s challenge. Whereas before, the challenge was getting it all done in less than a half-hour making no mistakes. Now it’s about finding every last bar of gold, your ring, pet, and niece in the quickest time possible. Also without making any mistakes. Because you want to be the one with a perfect score in the shortest amount of time.

So while beating Pitfall II is easier than beating Pitfall, Pitfall II is actually harder when you put the restrictions of a speed runner on yourself. Because the dangers are not very easy to avoid. The very first enemy you run into will dash your hopes. If you fall into a hole early on you’ve missed the first bar of gold, and a perfect score. Playing the game with the mindset of a classic gaming champion can potentially keep you playing this game for years.

Visually the game sees a respectable jump over the first game. Little graphical details like the indents, and grooves on a boulder pop up immediately. The wider variety in enemies is also noticeable quickly. There are killer birds that I’m convinced were analyzed deeply by Konami’s designers. Because Castlevania’s Medusa heads fly in an eerily similar pattern. You also have bats to deal with, electric eels, and of course the classic mutant scorpions that are just as big as Pitfall Harry.

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And little glitches don’t break the game but add new challenges. If you climb a ladder to find there are scorpions above, and below you sometimes being in just the right place on the ladder will make them pace right where you need to climb off of the ladder. Sometimes the wave in the pattern of the flying birds may change, meaning you have to quickly realize where the arcs in it have moved to.

Of course, Pitfall II let’s you explore at your own pace. So when you’re first starting out, you may miss the diamond ring, or Rhonda on your first pass. Congratulations. The game doesn’t end, a little creature forces you out of Quickclaw’s cowering space. Now you have to go explore again. If you do beat the game, Harry jumps about with excitement as the theme song speeds up again.

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Speaking of music, Pitfall II was such a massive game at the time, that David Crane engineered a sound chip that is embedded in every copy of Pitfall II. The game squeezes every last bit of processing power out of the Atari 2600, and to even play music during it, would have been impossible otherwise. So Pitfall II is one of the earliest video games featuring some sort of tech being piggybacked onto its ROM cartridge. Something we wouldn’t see much again for a while. This can almost be seen as a precursor to Nintendo’s MMC chips used in some NES Game Paks.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns was also ported to a wide variety of platforms. The Commodore 64 version is one of the better known versions being redone from the ground up by Tim Shotter. The end result is a nearly 1:1 experience compared with the 2600 version. The Atari 800 version, and Atari 5200 version were given an additional subtitle called Adventurer’s Edition because the coder Mike Lorenzen added an entire bonus cavern as well as a second ending for those who beat the game, and then beat the bonus cavern.

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These versions look a little bit closer to the 2600 version than the C64 version does, though the C64 version gets a slight edge in the audio thanks to the superior sound processing power of its SID chip. Pitfall II also saw versions on the Colecovision, Apple II, TRS-80, and the IBM PCjr. One of the most interesting ports of Pitfall II is Sega’s. Sega got the rights from Activision to make their own version of the game for arcades, and for the SG-1000 console in Japan. This version is less a Pitfall II port, and more of a blend of Pitfall, and Pitfall II: Lost Caverns.

Of course every one of these ports has its own charm but the Atari 2600 original stands out due to its historical significance. That said, if you collect games for any of the platforms it appeared on, Pitfall II is a game you should pick up, and play.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Pitfall! Review

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To some, this is going to seem pointless. To others, there may be a bit of intrigue. David Crane was one of the original pioneers at Activision. Long before it was the behemoth it is today. It started life, as one of the original indie studios. Looking to come up with something original on the biggest console of the early 80’s, Pitfall! became one of the biggest hits to ever grace a system of the era.

PROS: A classic that still holds up today.

CONS: Some versions don’t have the most responsive controls.

GATORS: Nearly four decades later, they’re still one of gaming’s most nefarious enemies.

Pitfall! was a smash hit. It spawned numerous product tie-ins, and even a Saturday morning cartoon. When you play it, it is easy to see why. The setting was something different. Instead of a high-action arcade game, Pitfall! is a platformer that takes place in a jungle. You play as Pitfall Harry, and his goal is very simple. You need to find 32 treasures within a half-hour. On three lives.

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The thing is, while your goal can easily be surmised in a sentence, actually doing so is very difficult. There are a lot of traps, and obstacles set up to impede or completely derail your progress. Barrels slow you down, most everything else will kill you. Unattended camp fires, snakes, all add up to the pressure. Two of the game’s key enemies are some of the most iconic. The trademark scorpions, and the alligators. You can cross lakes by jumping on their heads when their mouths are closed. If they’re open, you’re getting eaten, unless you happen to land on their eyes. Scorpions show up in the underground areas, and take a lot of practice jumping over.

Each screen presents you with a challenge to overcome. Some are non-existent, displaying only a couple of holes, and a ladder. Others are the aforementioned lakes, tar pits, and deadly creatures. There are no maps. You have to go out on your own, exploring the jungle screens until you find a treasure. Gold bars, silver bars, rings, bags of money, all waiting to be claimed.You’ll notice that there aren’t any weapons, or attacks in this game. The only thing you’re doing is running, jumping, climbing ladders, and swinging on the occasional vine. Which lets out a chip tune of the Tarzan chant.

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But despite the fact you’re really only given two commands, you’ll find the game has a bit of complexity. Aside from the challenges of the many traps, is the use of the underground tunnel system. Using the underground paths will take you three screens left or right, rather than the usual one. There are also brick walls placed to keep players from abusing this fact. This also brings about an overall puzzle to the game: Finding the proper path. You have only thirty minutes to clear the game. So unless you’re going to look for a walk through online, you’re going to play the game many times to figure it out. Even once you figure it out, it doesn’t make the game easy to complete. You still have to make each jump count.

But the rabbit hole goes even deeper. Because every treasure type you collect gives you its own specific point value. Every mistake you make that doesn’t cost you lives, costs you points. Fall down a pit, lose points. Touch a barrel, lose points. This means to be truly great at Pitfall! Not only must you have a shot at beating the game, you must have a shot at beating it without making any mistakes. Moreover, as quickly as possible. This makes the game one of the earliest speed runnable games in video games. In fact, Activision, Imagic, and others gave out physical rewards to players who could prove themselves contenders. In the case of Pitfall! The best players were sent exclusive iron on patches.  These can fetch a fair amount online when they turn up. In any case, getting a perfect score of 114,000 is easier said than done.

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The Atari 2600 original version of Pitfall! is probably the most impressive due to all of the limitations David Crane worked around to bring the game to life. In his GDC panel six years ago he talked about them, and the 1,000 hours of work it took to make. Even if you’re not technically proficient it is a fascinating story to hear.  The 2600 version also plays spectacularly well, has very responsive controls, and is easily one of the best games on the system.

But there were other versions that came after. The Intellivision port is very similar, with a minor bump in graphical fidelity. It retains nearly everything from the 2600 version, though the Intellivision controller is a bit stiff, making some of those split-second timings a bit more difficult to adhere to. As such the game is among the hardest versions. Though it is entirely possible to complete with enough determination.

The Colecovision version has similar controller issues to the Intellivision version, although the visuals are even bumped up more. This version was also used as a reference for the MSX computer port. The Commodore 64 version also looks similar to the Coleco port. But the C64 version has a different color palette, better sound, and more responsive controls. Mainly because it feels similar to the Atari 2600 original.

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The game also ended up on the Atari 400/800 computers, and the 5200 console. These look almost identical to each other. The game controls better on the former, mainly because of the 5200’s notorious controller problems. Finally, there was also a release on the Apple II computer. But despite the improvements some of the other versions add in the graphics, or sound departments, the 2600 version seems to have the most responsive controls. It’s also the most common version, making it the least expensive version. It has also been re-released several times over the last 30 years. There were a few Activision Atari 2600 game collections that included the game.

Pitfall! is a true classic that everyone who loves video games should play. It’s as important to the hobby as Space Invaders, Pac-Man, or even Super Mario Bros. are. While later games in the franchise may have tarnished its branding, The original remains among some of the best platformers ever made, with its emphasis on treasure hunting, pixel-perfect timing, and inadvertently becoming one of the earliest examples of speed runs. It’s a timeless game for good reason.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Atlantis Review

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Sometimes I like to go back, and jam on the games I grew up with. For a number of reasons. There’s the nostalgia. The memories of childhood Christmases, and birthdays. There’s also the fact that a lot of these games still hold up today. I can still enjoy them now as much as I did back then. Plus, it’s always nice to see people I have a few years on, discovering them, and enjoying them. Of course sometimes you might run into something from the past, you hope will stay there. But this game isn’t one of those.

PROS: Fast paced arcade action.

CONS: No matter how good you are, you will lose.

COLLECTOR’S GOLD: The extremely limited pseudo sequel.

Atlantis is a classic game for some very classic consoles. It takes the idea of Armageddon from Missile Command, and plays it out a bit differently in another setting. In this game instead of things taking place over a nation of cities during a nuclear war, it takes pace in Atlantis. You’re put in charge of defending the lost city as a race of extra terrestrial forces invade. The city has a number of important structures you need to protect.

You do this by using the three attack cannons peeking out of the sea. There are cannons on the left, and right corners followed by one in the center of the city. Ships fly above the city attacking you. In the earliest goings you’ll find the enemies aren’t much of a threat at all. They barely provoke you at all, fly slowly, and are fairly easy to shoot down. But don’t let your guard down. Because as time goes on they become much more brazen.

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There are several ships you need to shoot down. Some of the designs borrowed from pop culture, they all can become threatening. There are the Constitution class ships from Starfleet,  Klingon D7’s, and Rebel X-Wing fighters. Generally the, two Star Trek knockoffs don’t become a problem until the third pass. Each ship makes a run above, getting lower, and lower if you don’t manage to shoot it down. On the third pass, they begin firing death beams over structures. The Star Wars knock off is actually the biggest threat to you, because of its high rate of speed. It will drop photon torpedoes on buildings in the blink of an eye, too. The one saving grace is that for some reason, destroying one, kills every enemy on the screen. You can also hear them coming, as their engines make a distinct, and stressful noise.

You shoot each of the cannons by moving the joystick in the proper direction while pressing the fire button. Push left for the left cannon, and right for the right cannon. Not pushing the stick at all, means you’ll be firing the center cannon. But keep in mind, the ships will also target the cannons too. So you can actually be left defenseless. If you can earn enough points, you can rebuild your cannons. But if all of the landmarks are obliterated before you do, it is all for naught. When you have a nail-biting wave take out your last cannon, you’re forced to watch the genocide of your people in horror. But there is a little bit of hope. When you lose, a tiny ship is seen escaping the ruins of Atlantis.

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If you couldn’t tell, this game is a high score game. Which is one of the most common goals in games of the era. Still, it manages to tell a story in that burst of action, while being a fun game. Moreover Imagic also added a two player mode where each person manages a cannon, and work together to get a team score.

But it doesn’t end there, because the game was ported to a couple of other platforms, the Magnavox Odyssey 2, Commodore Vic-20, Atari 8-bit family, and the Mattel Intellivision. The Odyssey 2 version is probably the worst looking of the ports, while the Vic-20 has a much more detailed landscape. In between these are the Atari computer version. Basically, these versions are direct ports of the Atari 2600 original. But the Intellivision port actually takes a few liberties with the formula, making it feel like a director’s cut.

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There’s an obvious upgrade to the graphics, making it look almost as good as the Vic-20 port. It also adds day, and night cycles to the game between waves of enemy ships. During the battles you’ll move a cursor around the screen shooting at the invaders. You still have, left, and right cannons. Pressing the left or right buttons on the controller will fire from the proper cannon. Pressing the zero key launches a saucer you can fly about the screen to shoot down threats instead of using the cursor. But if you crash it, or are shot down you can’t launch another one until the next day cycle. This version also changes up the look of the enemy ships to Tie Fighters, and other borrowed designs. When the night falls however, spotlights look to the sky, and the threats are only visible when in the light. This, and the attack saucer are pretty impressive features considering the time of release.

The end game is the same however. Enemies will bomb the landmarks until nothing remains except for your score, forcing your survivors to flee in a derelict mothership. Ultimately, Atlantis is one of the best console games of the era. It plays to each platform’s strengths, including the computer ports. It’s fast paced, and addictive. It’s still a really fun game to play from time to time, and it’s competitive. There was also a sequel, Atlantis II that was never sold. Atlantis II is actually not so much a sequel, as it was an upgrade. Think of it a bit like the progression from Street Fighter II: Champion Edition to Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting. The same core concept is there, but everything has been sped up, and tweaked to be much more difficult.

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But Atlantis II was only made for a competition Imagic had created for Atlantis. Players would mail in their high scores in an attempt to win the rights to a vast cash prize. The top four players would be flown out to Bermuda for a chance to face each other for the money. The thing is more than four players were able to max out the score. So Imagic made the aforementioned tweaks to the game, altered the typeface on the scoreboard, and sent the winners this altered version. These players were given two days to play, and send in their highest scores again. Those winners were then selected to be flown out to a competition for the prize money.

As a result Atlantis II is actually one of the most sought after 2600 games due to the rarity. The few times they show up, they fetch upwards of a couple of thousand dollars. They’re also easy for con artists to fake because the game is the exact same cartridge as Atlantis. The only physical difference is an Atlantis II sticker thrown on the box, and cartridge. The only real way to know if the game is legitimate is to play it, and see if the numbers on the scoreboard look different.

But if you wanted to know if Atlantis saw a real sequel it did. It all centers around that derelict mothership I mentioned earlier. Atlantis would be followed by Cosmic Ark.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

 

Ultionus: A Tale Of Petty Revenge Review

Back in 1987 Home Computer gaming was bustling. As Nintendo was slowly capturing, and rebuilding the console market in the states, computers continued to hold their own. Especially in Europe. Every genre continued to grow on home computers. Arcade shmups, and action platformers were also very popular. Many of the best arcade games saw ports not only on systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System, and Sega Master system, but the Commodore 64, Atari 8-bit family, and the ZX Spectrum too. This gave birth to a wealth of independent developers, and major publishers on computer platforms. Vying to make original games in these genres. One of these developers was Dinamic. Based in Spain, the company put out a number of titles across several platforms. One of their noteworthy games in the European market was a game called Phantis. A game that melded Gradius style space shooting with flip-screen adventure gaming popularized by the Nodes Of Yesod. It wasn’t a particularly remarkable game, but it was better than one of Dinamic’s earlier games, Game Over, which was a flip-screen adventure game. It was better enough that outside of Spain, the game was officially published as Game Over II. The game put you in a role of woman named Major Locke who has to rescue her boyfriend Arkon from the planet Phantis. The re-branded sequel, swapped the characters, and renamed Major Locke to Commander Serena who appears to have been influenced by the Taarna character in Heavy Metal. Over the years both Game Over, and Game Over II would become cult classics.

What does this have to do with today’s game? A lot actually.

PROS: Music. 16-bit style visuals. Plays homage really well.

CONS: May play homage a little too well for some.

A_RIVAL: Sends things off with a wonderful single.

Ultionus: A Tale Of Petty Revenge is one part homage to Phantis, and one part parody. The game opens up with a cut scene depicting Serena S (a play on the Game Over II character name) in her ship after having saved the universe again. She goes up on Spacebook using  ZX Spectrum to discuss it when the Space Prince replies with an insult. Serena then jets off on a mission to put the prince in his place.

The game begins almost exactly the way Phantis does. You’ll pilot a ship through the reaches of space in an R-Type styled shmup. Taking down waves, and waves of enemy ships, and asteroids. Asteroids are actually worth more points, and it’s also worth mentioning the scoring system. Getting a high score is definitely something to shoot for because there are hidden shops later in the game that offer you power ups for points. Doing well in the initial stage can help you be able to buy at least one of the upgrades for your character.

Eventually you’ll find your way to the second stage, which again, is awfully similar to Phantis. You’ll have to explore areas to find not only the hidden stores, but even general weapons, like super jump, and a laser pistol. There are actually four weapon slots, and four armor upgrades, along with a super secret upgrade. You’ll add other abilities to the laser pistol, as well as the armor by buying these. But don’t think it will be a simple matter to grind points, and enter the shops. The shops aren’t always easy to get to, and they require a secret coin to enter. The coins are hidden in the platform stages along with the storefronts themselves. Most of the game is made up of these stages. Overall, there are seven stages called zones, each one progressively upping up the ante. Ultionus isn’t a very long game, and it isn’t a cut, and paste clone of Phantis either. There are entirely new segments, boss fights are here, and the art in the game is spectacular.

Ultionus’ sprite, and background art is a love letter to 8-bit, and 16-bit computers of the late 1980’s. The game itself runs in a centered window the way many Commodore 64 games did, with the bottom of the screen used as a HUD. There are also some Commodore 64 BASIC characters seen in the scoreboard when the second level begins. There is also the fact that Spacebook is blatantly running on a ZX Spectrum in the intro, and all of the wonderful art looks like it could have been done on a Commodore Amiga.  The bosses especially echo this look. Each of them taking up an entire chamber, or a quarter of the real estate of the screen. All of the game’s bosses take a very old school approach. They require you to memorize their patterns of movement, while trying to avoid any projectiles they throw at you. It really makes for some memorable experiences, and joyfully stressful moments.

The game’s soundtrack is also really cool. Jake Kaufman, who is probably best known for his work with Way Forward games, shows up here with some chip tunes that encompass the action, and look. Every track, from the opening through the stages has a sound that takes you back to early Amiga, and early 90’s MS-DOS games like the ones Apogee put out. It’s a great soundtrack, that will sadly be overshadowed by his work on better known titles. Joining him is A_Rival who wrote the end credits theme called Wandering. This is also in the game’s trailer. This track has everything an electronic dance pop track needs, great use of different tones, a good beat, bass, and even some terrific vocals with catchy hooks. Again, it also fits the game’s world, and characters very well.

That isn’t to say everything about Ultionus is going to wow you, or that it is going to be in a pantheon of heralded games. There are some things that will simply drive many people nuts. One thing some people will have a problem with is the short length. Over the years, even indie platformers have delivered gobs, of content, and so we’ve become accustomed to longer games. While Ultionus knows what it is, and doesn’t try to be too much more than that, some may feel it isn’t enough. An average player can clear the game in a couple of hours, while the speed runners of the world can do so in 20 minutes. Ultionus didn’t need to be several hours long, but a couple of extra stages might have helped. Still, there’s something to be said for too much padding in a game, and it isn’t so short that you should be flipping tables either. Keep in mind that this is a love letter to a game that is almost 30 years old. A game, I might add that is substantially shorter than this one.

But while some may get over the short length others might not get over the controls. The game’s platforming stages feature the same walking speed, and low gravity jumps Phantis had. The game is built around these controls too. As such, you’ll be given a lot of jumping sections. Many of which require pixel perfect timing. Falling during these sections can land you in the midst of a horde of enemies. Or you can fall into a trap. Worst of all, you might miss one of many secrets, or an item when you really need it. The game also has a lot of areas where enemies warp in. True this is also carried over from Phantis, but it can be as annoying in that game, as well as this one. Although I do give credit to developer DarkFalzX for authenticity (They actually got the blessing of Phantis creator Carlos Abril during the game’s creation) updating the movement to be a little bit faster could have alleviated some of the ire.

None of this makes Ultionus a bad game. It’s just that it does mean for some it will be an acquired taste. Those raised on games like Phantis, Arc Of Yesod, or even console games like Power Blade or Conquest Of The Crystal Palace will probably get used to the slower movement, and jumps pretty quickly. Those who need all of their platforming to have the tight feel of a Super Mario Bros, or Mega Man game will need to have a bit more patience getting accustomed to it. To be clear; the controls are perfectly functional, everything works the way it’s supposed to. But it is also a different style that you have to be willing to practice a number of times before you’ll become proficient in it. But then many, many, games have done just that over the years. Hit detection is pretty good most of the time too. So even with the challenging jumps, you won’t feel cheated if you miss one. Enemy windows, are also pretty tight, it’s very rare to have a situation where you’ll take damage, and feel like the enemy didn’t actually hit you. Really, there isn’t too much to complain about in terms of functionality.

Fortunately, if you are the sort that feels uncertain about playing a game where timing, pattern memorization, and coordination may prove too difficult, the game has a multitude of settings. Playing the game on easy will give you infinite lives. You can play at your own pace, until you get each stage right. Setting the game on normal will give you the traditional action platformer experience. You’ll get a handful of lives, before having to use continues. There is also a hardcore mode, that increases the challenge a great deal. So those who complete Normal difficulty have an incentive to beat the game again. Speaking of incentives to replay the game, it has two endings, and in order to get the better one you’ll have to find a certain number of secrets. You can also go in, and play the individual levels once they’ve been cleared. Each stage also has checkpoints so if you lose a life you might not necessarily have to start a stage over from the beginning. The game also saves your progress at the beginning of every level. So you don’t have to play through all of the game in one sitting. There are also the achievements for those who love to hunt those down.

Ultionus also has a handful of options you can tinker with. There isn’t much in the way of video options, though you can choose the size of the window if you don’t want to play in full screen. There are some volume options as well. You can also play with the Xbox 360 controller or an alternative USB controller which is going to be the preferable way to play the game. However there are a number of keyboard control schemes you can use including a WASD set up. The lack of options is a little disappointing. Having the ability to bind keys would have been a better option for keyboard users, than trying to decide what pre-set configuration is best to use. If you have a controller, I highly recommend you use one, and if you don’t, you might want to buy one for this, and any other games that are better suited for one.

Overall, I would say Ultionus: A Tale Of Petty Revenge is really good. It doesn’t do anything revolutionary, but it makes a few funny jokes, and does do a pretty good job of bringing Phantis to a new generation in a roundabout way. It also improves on the Phantis design, and frankly manages to be a lot of fun in the process. It might not be a flawless game, it might not reinvent the proverbial wheel either.  But Ultionus is fun to play, and when you’re talking about an action game it had better be. The nods to the old school computer games, and the computers that played them are also a nice touch. Everything comes together to make an experience that most will enjoy.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Energy Warrior Review

Well, after RetroWorldExpo, I was thrust back into a lot of back-breaking labor. A coworker had taken time off just as I was getting back in from the fun, and excitement. The good news: I picked up a bunch of hours to cover them. The bad news: I am completely wiped after doing so. The worse news: The game I found at the convention wasn’t too good. But to be fair, I wasn’t expecting it to set the world on fire.

Mastertronic was a pioneer in games in a number of respects. They were a really big deal in the UK for a while where they were founded. They even helped distribute the Sega Master System in Europe toward the end of their days. They were so successful in doing so, that the Master System dethroned the NES. Sega ended up buying their business. But before distributing consoles, they were known for publishing budget games for home computers. A lot of publishers were in this market. Notably, Firebird, and Cosmi (which is still around today.) Mastertronic eventually published games in the US, as well as in Europe.

PROS: Box art. Nice graphics.

CONS: Uninspired. Monotonous.

BOX ART: Where can I see that movie?

Most of Mastertronic’s titles were hit or miss. Some of their games were really fun, others not so much. Unfortunately Energy Warrior is one of their misses. That isn’t to say there isn’t anything good here. There is, but it ends up being banal in spite of those things. First off, I love the cover art. A soldier with a plasma rifle grimacing, as three menacing ships fly in from the background. Oh sure, there is definitely a B movie feel to the art, but it’s a great example of how important box art used to be in gaining interest. When you fire up the game, you’ll see some pretty nice visuals, and some excellent music.

Then you start playing, and well, there isn’t much to say. Energy Warrior is one part Defender, one part Sinistar, neither of which is a part that is really executed well. Visually it looks closer to something like R-Type or Turrican. But if you go into it expecting any of those games you’re going to be disappointed. The game splits up things into zones, each with ten areas. The areas basically look the same but with a few minor background changes, and different color layouts. You can go left or right for around 20 seconds before hitting an invisible wall, and being forced to go back.

During this process, an arbitrary number of enemies appear, and you have to shoot them. Eventually, a boss character will show up, and if you kill it, a tile is left in its place. The tile will have a bunch of symbols cycling on it. Some of them restore energy to your ship’s health meter. Some give you more smart bombs which kill everything on-screen, But most importantly is a key. Getting a key moves you to the next zone area. As you move between zones the enemies become fiercer, and the game adds a little bit more variety to their designs. Sometimes you may see a mothership zip by, but shooting one down inexplicably does nothing for you. Really you’ll just want to kill the grunts, and bosses.

If you do manage to get through all of the areas, and consequentially, the zones the game just starts over. There is no ending whatsoever. While this may sound okay, the game becomes really boring pretty quickly. Which is a shame. There are plenty of vintage arcade games that have you do the same thing over, and over. But they have something to grasp players, and keep them pumping in quarters. Space Invaders, in all of its simplicity, is an engaging game. Defender can become a pretty addicting shmup as well, because it juggles the archaic shooting with rescuing humans from becoming abducted. Even with their rudimentary graphics, those games have iconic characters, and they have smooth control.

Energy Warrior may have wonderful backgrounds. But none of the enemies are inspired at all. You shoot at skulls, clusters of circles, an eyeball, some individual circles, a diamond, and one cool looking fighter. That’s it, other than the bosses, which are usually dragons composed of circles, and a head. The enemy sprites aren’t even designed in a way that seems to fit with the rest of the game. Except for perhaps the mother ships that again, give you no points for taking them down. Moreover, while things may look fast, it can also feel sluggish at times, making it brutally hard to out run a huge cluster of enemies. Even if this had been purely about scoring points rather than a goal, it falls horribly short when you compare it to any version of any high score focused shmup. Gyruss, Defender, Galaxian, Galaga, and Phoenix all beckon you. The fact the game gives you a goal of going through 34 levels means you’re going into it with something to shoot for, like an ending. This game also came out at a time when Home Computer, and Console games were doing just that. In 1987 The Commodore 64 had seen some really great original games, as well as excellent ports of games like R-type, and Life Force. All with a goal of reaching an end, or deep experiences in other genres like adventure games, and RPGs. Which also explains why some budget publishers eventually had trouble. Some of those excellent games saw eventual price drops that made things like Energy Warrior less appealing.

That isn’t to say Energy Warrior is the worst game you can find for your Commodore or other 8-bit computer format. Or that there is no fun to be had. There are plenty worse games you can find. But the fun that is here wears off really quickly. If you’re a collector who simply must have every retail game ever published for the Commodore 64 then pick this up. If you’re like me, someone who buys old games to actually play what you missed, then put the money toward a different title. That box art sure is cool though.

Final Score: 5 out of 10

Spiritual Warfare Review

You probably know all about Wisdom Tree by now. An unlicensed publisher called Color Dreams changed its focus from making typical games into religious edutainment. In some cases, under its new badge, Wisdom Tree simply reskinned its Color Dreams games. Many of them panned as being badly made, while a lot of others were merely competent.  In other cases they were original titles ranging from bad to passable. But there was one game that was a stand out.

PROS: A Zelda clone with Christian overtones that actually fit its premise.

CONS: Biblical trivia interrupts the flow.

OKELY DOKELY: This game could be a Ned Flanders sight gag at times.

Spiritual Warfare is a stand out in the Wisdom Tree roster of games. It’s the lone attempt at an action RPG, and it borrows liberally from Nintendo’s flagship Zelda series. From the starting position, it’s patently obvious that it is going to. In Zelda walking into a cave introduces you to an old man who gives you a sword. In this game, you’ll find an angel in a building who gives you a pear. Shortly thereafter you’ll find canisters that work the way the bombs in Zelda do. Just like Zelda, you’ll scroll through an overhead perspective taking on enemies, and pushing objects to find secrets. There is a pretty key difference in the overall goal though. In Spiritual Warfare you’re going on a quest to find physical representations of allegorical pieces of armor. Why? Because you’re also going on a quest to save souls, and kill the Devil in the process.

The game starts you out in a park filled with criminals, and bullies. After getting your pear you’ll be able to defend yourself by throwing fruit at them. Throughout the game you’ll find other fruits of the spirit. Tossing them at enemies doesn’t kill them. Instead, it causes them to repent from their ways, and pray to God. Some of these people are actually possessed, and so this process will cast out a demon. You have to then kill the demon with the fruit of the spirit. Throughout the game the areas become more diverse. You’ll go through a metropolis, a section of suburbs, the slums, an airport, a forest, a beach, a prison, and Hell itself. All the while saving souls, and trying to survive.

Along that process you’re going to find extra heart containers to expand your life, and other items. There are also storefronts run by angels who sell you other fruits, or power ups with a currency called spirit points. How do you get spirit points? The enemies whose hearts you’ve changed will drop them. You’ll need to have them on hand for many of the game’s power ups, and even some of the pieces of spiritual armor. You can also use them to restore health by going under the inventory screen, and selecting the praying hands. You can also gain spirit points by answering biblical trivia questions. Every so often you’ll see an angel fly around the area you’re in. If they touch you you’re taken into a game show setting where you’ll be asked random questions about the bible. This is where the game is a little bit flawed. Because instead of working this information into the actual game world, it takes you out of the game to take these quizzes.

The problem isn’t that there is bible trivia. The game is a Christian focused game. One would expect any edutainment title to have some sort of educational aspect of the subject matter to be there. In this case Christianity. The thing is, it would have been much more effective to have these moments come out in the gameplay somehow. Meeting an important character, who quotes a line of scripture that can be applied to that moment in the game whenever running into them would be more effective. Instead, this just takes you out of the game, and feels like homework given to you by a religious educator. Plus if you ignore the angel, you won’t have to take the quiz. So it defeats the purpose of having them there. The only time you might want to take the quiz is if you are low on health or spirit points. Because if you ace it with a perfect score your health will replenish, and you’ll get a decent number of points.Toward the end of the game, you may find yourself taking quizzes more as enemies begin getting quite difficult, and your energy tank equivalents running low. But instead of feeling invited to learn more about the bible you end up feeling forced. Which can make a player feel more resentment than welcome.

Thankfully the core gameplay is good enough here you may want to try it out anyway. The game controls well enough, and there are a lot of surprisingly well thought out puzzles. Boss fights are surprisingly good too. Many of them are more than a simple act of shooting fruit. Many require pattern memorization, dexterity, or puzzle solving skills. Many of the pieces of armor are guarded by bosses too. The boss rooms also require keys you can find throughout the game. The keys also open up secret areas locked away in buildings or other areas that have highly needed items inside.

When you finally do find your way to Hell, you’ll find one of the most challenging dungeons you’ll likely ever play. Newer, monstrous enemies appear, and take a lot more damage to go down. Other times the game will throw waves of low-level grunts at you in these areas relentlessly. The dungeon also has a door maze element to it, as you continually end up going back, and forth through floors. This culminates with a showdown against the Devil himself.

Spiritual Warfare also has a password system like the one found in Metroid. The game has one major flaw in it though, some of the passwords will easily be written down wrong due to the fact that some of the characters are so similar. You can get through large chunks of the game, only to jot down a single character wrong, and have to restart the entire game. So be especially careful when writing these down. Spiritual Warfare isn’t an exhaustively long game, but it does have a duration that most won’t complete in a single sitting. Though there are speed runners of the game who have managed to blast through it in 20 minutes or less.

The game was initially an NES game, but it did make its way over to the Game Boy, Genesis, and computers as well. It isn’t as rare as some of Wisdom Tree’s other bible games. But it is still uncommon, and fetches a bit more than typical NES Game Paks these days. Still, if you’re a collector, or a Zelda fan you might want to check it out. If you’re not terribly religious you can skip the quiz portions, and if you are you can probably ace them to your benefit. Either way, you’ll probably get a laugh out of seeing the Devil go down from a pear to the face. Not bad for something that could pass for a Ned Flanders sight gag on The Simpsons.

Final Score: 8 out of 10