Tag Archives: Computer Games

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

Mega Man Legacy Collection Review

Around eleven years ago now, (Wow, time flies!) Capcom entrusted the defunct Atomic Planet to bundle the Mega Man Classic series, a couple of arcade games, and extras onto the XBox, PlayStation 2, and Gamecube. What resulted was a playable but often far from perfect emulation. On the one hand people loved having the games on one disc, but over time the flaws started to annoy lifelong fans of the series. Now Capcom has taken another stab at entrusting a company to do a collection. Is Mega Man Legacy Collection a better one, than Mega Man Anniversary Collection?

PROS: Mega Man’s first six games from the NES on your PC, XB1, PS4, or 3DS

CONS: Digital Eclipse’s emulator isn’t quite what they’ve hyped it as. No MM7-10 or side games.

DR. WILY: Newcomers may weep when they get to his eyebrow raising castle bosses.

Do I really need to go over the games themselves? Probably not, but I’ll give a synopsis for those too young to remember any of the Mega Man games, or the five people who don’t know who he is. Mega Man is a series of games that were helmed by Keiji Inafune starting back in 1987. In the game you play as Rock, a robot who offers to have his creator Dr. Light turn him into a combat robot after Light’s, colleague Dr. Wily goes insane, and programs Dr. Light’s other robots to take over the world. Mega Man then goes on a mission to destroy the six reprogrammed robots, before confronting Dr. Wily himself. The characters, and story were inspired by classic anime like Astro Boy, and Neo-Human  Casshern. But obviously beyond the themes they go in their own original directions. Each game has a formula with a few minor variations as the series goes on. You’ll have the option to tackle each one of Dr. Wily’s robot masters in any order you choose. Upon picking one, you’re thrown into an action platformer stage, and have to fight your way to the end. To help you there are energy cells for your life bar, as well as your weapons acquired from defeated robot masters. When you get to a boss, defeating them, will give you one of their powers. The key is discovering the order to do the stages in, as each boss is easily defeated by another bosses’ weapon. Defeating all of the bosses moves you onto Dr. Wily’s castle, or the castle of other series villains.

While the first game sold adequately, the second game became a smash hit, and would cement Mega Man (Called Rock Man in Japan) as one of Capcom’s earliest franchises. The games themselves are all quite good. Though some may feel fatigue with Mega Man 5 or 6 as you know what to expect by then. But even those games are pretty good, and bring some new things to the series formula. Mega Man 6 was originally not published by Capcom in the US, but by Nintendo, who had even done a Nintendo Power contest urging those who entered to create a boss character. Capcom had done this contest for years in Japan, but Nintendo’s promotion opened it to North America as well. two North American winners had their characters featured as bosses. Knight Man by Daniel Vall’ee, and Wind Man by Michael Leader. Mega Man 6 even features fake bosses, where upon defeating them you won’t be seeing the usual power absorption animation. Instead you’ll go back, and find the right boss room to defeat the actual robot master rather than the decoy.

Anyway, MMLC isn’t a flawless emulation. The developers talked about an engine they made, to recreate the game experience. But at the end of the day it’s an emulator. It doesn’t simply run the ROMs, it pulls all of the assets from them though, and tries to emulate the experience of running the games on the NES. So don’t go in expecting a completely recreated experience. You’re buying the ROMs, and running the assets (Graphics, music, level maps) through the emulator.

The emulation is pretty good though. Music sounds pretty close to the way it does on NES versions of the games, the colors are pretty close, and things seem to control pretty well. I haven’t noticed any major problems running these titles on my PC. Though there was one point in Mega Man 1, A fire column sprite in the Fire Man stage flew off the screen instead of freezing when shooting it with the ice shot. Beyond that one instance it ran fine with zero issues in performance. The emulator does attempt to recreate the performance of an NES though. So do expect some slowdown when a lot happens on the screen at the same time. On console things may be a little murkier depending on the input lag of your particular TV. But for most people, this is going to be a perfectly fine experience.

MMLC also adds a few options, and extras to incentivize a purchase. Like a lot of other emulated bundles, the games allow you to turn on a few different viewing modes. You can stretch the games to full screen, or play them in their original aspect ratio. You can also choose from CRT monitor, or CRT SDTV filters that will add scan lines, and blur to the graphics to simulate the look of playing on an old television set. This is nice if you’re one of the fans who doesn’t like the crisp blocky pixels most emulators display. There are also optional border designs you can turn on to simulate an arcade cabinet look. The PC version also allows you to turn off Vsync to increase some performance, though if you have a computer near the minimum requirements you may see a wildly fluctuating frame rate.

Other bonuses include archived concept art from Capcom, some of which is also in the Mega Man Anniversary collection. You’ll also be able to play the game soundtracks through an in-game music player. All of the catchy robot master themes, and songs are here. You’ll also see cover art for the albums.

Each game also features the original Japanese Rock Man cover art in the launcher. There are also a number of challenges you can take part in to get on leader boards, and unlock achievements. Achievements are done in a bronze, silver, or gold system. Where the faster you can complete the task, the better your rank. You’ll also have to beat all six games, and complete challenges in order to enter all of the challenges. Some of the challenges are even Boss Rush modes where you’ll fight each boss in a row, on a single life bar.

Mega Man Legacy Collection is worth getting over Mega Man Anniversary Collection if you want an experience that’s closer to running these games on an NES. You won’t get Mega Man 7,8, or either of the arcade games, but you won’t see all of the alterations, and cuts either. That said, if you happen to own a Wii U, you can buy the individual ROMs separately (Except for Mega Man 8), and those emulations are even closer to the real thing, save for some slightly darker colors. On the other hand buying this collection is still $15 instead of buying the games on the E shop for $30. Of course nothing tops having a working NES, and the 6 Mega Man Game Paks. But if you don’t still have those from your childhood, or you’re new to Mega Man, that is an expensive endeavor. Each game goes for a minimum of $25 as of this writing, with some being almost $100.

From a value perspective Mega Man Legacy Collection is a good one. Emulation is much better than what we saw in the last compilation. If you’ve long since lost your NES, or you haven’t played these games elsewhere already it’s worth picking up. If you already have the anniversary collection, you might want to buy this collection to get closer representations of the NES games. But if you’ve already bought these games on the Nintendo E shop, or you have the NES Game Paks there’s no need to buy these games again. The extras are nice, but don’t warrant a double or triple dipping.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Love Review

Love is one of the lesser known yet notable independent platform games to have come out over the last decade. Yet it was one of the earliest games of its type. Bringing in a focus on difficult jumping puzzles, and speed run design.

PROS: Level design. Music. Gradual difficulty.

CONS: Short length. Occasional clunky movement.

SINCE LOVE: Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, 1,001 Spikes, and others have shared elements of Love.

Way back in 2006 when many independent games were experiencing a resurgence, Fred Wood designed Love. Early builds went for an allegorical vibe. Suggesting that the better you did, the better your relationship would be. Over time it instead became the retro themed platformer it is today. Love isn’t a particularly long game. In it you take a very simple human figure through 16 stages filled with death traps. In a lot of ways Wood’s game inspired many of the heavy hitters independent programmers, and studios bring out today. It shares a common love (no pun intended) of Commodore 64, Atari 2600, and NES games. Especially difficult platformers like Mega Man, Spelunker, and Pitfall II.

The affection of Commodore is apparent in the game’s graphics. Everything runs in a similar color mode, and backgrounds clash two contrasting colors. In the primary mode, Love gives you 100 lives to clear the game’s 16 stages. The game operates by having you move, and jump your way through the obstacles. There is also a spawn button, where you can place a marker telling you where you will spawn on your next life. This makes the game a bit easier, as you can place a marker before any jump or trap. In doing so, you won’t have to replay large chunks of a level to get to that point again. Death traps can be surprisingly gruesome for a game with such low visual fidelity. The deconstruction of your pixels suggest you’ll have exploded, bled out, or suffered some level of dismemberment.

If you can clear the game, or even if you can’t you’ll be rewarded with a report card on your progress. Love isn’t the first video game to have a report card system. But it does use it in a way that can possibly entice you to do better. Especially since it can be difficult toward the end. While the difficulty is high, it is gradual. It starts out with some challenging jumps. But you might not necessarily die from a botched jump early on. In the first stage, you may just find yourself redoing some of the earlier portions. Over time the game introduces newer challenges. Bounce pads. Spikes. Even pits you are supposed to fall down, while avoiding things as you fall. These on their own won’t sound like anything new, but at the same time, the game manages to introduce these at just the right pace. You learn to overcome the odds over time, gaining some confidence along the way. Rather than just having everything, including the kitchen sink thrown at you right away. And while there’s nothing wrong with the latter, for some it can seem frustrating for the sake of being frustrating. Instead, Love takes its time introducing challenges.

Which isn’t to say that it is an easy game. Far from it. Many of the traps are really well thought out puzzles, that require a shocking amount of skill to solve. Even after you intellectually know what you have to do, you’ll need some reflexes to pull off the solution in many cases. Joining the primary mode, is an easy mode that gives you unlimited lives, at the cost of score. There is also the You Only Live Once mode, which gives you one life to clear the entire game. This is a feature that has been replicated hundreds of times over by other games that have come since this one. Rounding things out are the Speed Run mode which times you, and the Remix mode which randomizes things.

The audio is filled with an eclectic mix of electronic styles. There are some Synthpop chip tunes, Industrial, and Trip Hop arrangements. Some of the songs are shared between levels, but each of them does give the game a feeling of identity. They fit the mood of the stages, and can be appreciated by those who don’t generally enjoy electronica. Composer James Bennett does a phenomenal job here. The soundtrack is also available separately if you find you do want a copy for your work commute.

If there are any complaints to be levied, they’re mainly the sometimes slippery movement. If you stop moving, your character will keep moving for a pixel or two. This means you really have to plan ahead in later levels where the stakes are higher. Especially since most players won’t have many lives left by then. Assuming you’re not playing on the easiest setting. The spawn system can also make the game a bit too easy for those who love pushing themselves. Fortunately, for those who love a challenge  placing spawn points reduces the score at the end of the game. Still, it can be very tempting to place them before any really difficult challenge. Although I suppose the one life only mode is one way to remedy this.

Overall, Love isn’t a very long game. But it doesn’t need to be. It’s a fun, bite-sized game that you can replay over, and over again attempting to master it. Much like the old Atari, and early Commodore games that clearly inspired it. It’s also one of those obscure titles that might have inspired many game makers you probably do like. It recently made its way to Steam so hopefully that will make it a little bit better known. It’s fun, successfully embraces moments of old, and provides a gradually increasing level of challenge. It’s quite possible you could fall in love with Love.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Zeliard review

Outside of Ys, not a lot of Japan’s computer JRPGs  have made it stateside. But back in 1990 Sierra ported over one of Game Arts’ notable action RPGs from the PC-8801 to MS-DOS. Game Arts should be no stranger to you. They helped Nintendo, and Sora develop Super Smash Bros. Brawl on the Wii. Before that, they spent many years putting out role-playing games. The biggest being the Grandia, and Lunar series. Games that are still sought after, and played today.

PROS: Scalability (for the time). Great soundtrack. Dungeon crawling.

CONS: Occasionally wonky controls. Generic story. May have issues under DOSBox.

THANK HEAVENS: The manual came with dungeon maps.

At a first glance you might not care about Zeliard. The box art has an almost Mega Man 1 quality to it. If all you had to go by was the cover, you would think it was a game about a Viking who kills frogs. Once you install the game however, all of that changes. If you have an old machine, running the installer will ask you if you have a Monochrome, Hercules, CGA, EGA, Tandy, or MCGA display, along with asking with what sound card you have in your computer. This game was pretty scalable for its time. Back in the early 1990’s computer games were slowly taking advantage of newer hardware. But the people putting them out much like today, realized they couldn’t shoot for only the highest end. Zeliard even has a game speed setting for people to slow down or speed up the game depending on their computer’s processor. These days if you find a copy, the easiest bet is to fire up DOSBox, and run the game through it using an external floppy drive. Otherwise, you’ll have to hope you still have that old 286 in the cellar somewhere.

Anyway, once you’ve made your choices on settings the game will fire up into a prologue setting up the storyline. Zeliard doesn’t have a very complicated one. It follows the path of other JRPGs. As a wandering adventurer named Duke Garland, you stumble upon the kingdom of Zeliard. It is here you learn that its Princess has been turned into stone by an evil monster called Jashiin. In order to restore Princess Felicia you’ll have to recover sacred stones called the Tears of Esmesanti. You’ll be granted some currency, use it to buy the most generic of weapons, and proceed. As you play through the game, like all JRPGs you’ll level up your character, find or buy better gear, and do a lot of exploring. Zeliard also eschews the usual top down, or isometric perspective. Instead it takes the approach seen in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and later in Ys III: Wanderers from Ys. Implementing a side scrolling perspective. This doesn’t really hurt the game though because you’re not coming into it after a previous game. This is just simply the way this game works.

Zeliard follows the typical JRPGs tropes though. You’ll enter a town, talk to everyone, possibly get an item or two, then leave to go find an item, or grind your levels up. What is a little bit different though, is that you don’t wander off through a lot of terrain, and then find dungeons. Dungeons link the towns. So when you leave the very first town you’ll find yourself in a dungeon maze. These are designed pretty well, giving you a large variety of enemies to kill. Kill them, get the loot drops, and then head back to the town to buy better gear. Or find what you need to find, and get to the exit leading to the next town. The game can become a big grind at times, because you’ll want to collect a lot of orbs from fallen enemies. These are called Alma. They can be converted to gold in the town banks, which can then be used in the item shops for better gear. Which you’ll definitely need for going up against the bosses. One genuinely novel thing about these banks is that you can actually have an account. Why would you want a bank account in a town in Zeliard? Because it keeps your cash safe while questing. Something else you’ll need to continually do is get magical powers, and life bar upgrades from the sages in each town.Sages also act as a save system. You can save your progress in each town by visiting the sage room. You can also save or load by pressing one of the function keys to bring up an option.

The dungeons can also be intricate at times, sometimes intertwining, allowing for some convoluted routes. Some of which you need to take in order to find boss rooms, or the keys to enter the boss rooms. Zeliard has eight bosses leading up until the final encounter with Jashiin. If you have the proper items they’ll go down pretty easily. If you don’t, they’re going to be very difficult affairs that you can barely win, if you can win at all. In essence, it shares a lot in common with other action RPGs of the time period. The bosses range from typical to zany. You have the typical crab monster, or octopus. But then there are some silly ones, like a giant ice cube.  One of the bosses is actually in a town rather than a dungeon. Something that kind of comes out of left field.  Defeating bosses not only requires the right tools for the job, but learning patterns. When to jump, duck, or strike are things you need to memorize going in. So again, you’ll be firing up your save file a lot during your play through. You’re also going to want to stock up on health potions because one screw up on your part can lead to taking A TON of damage.

The dungeon environments are thankfully pretty varied once you get around 25% or more into the game. There are a bunch of themes here, ice, mountain, water, fire, a tomb, and so on. While they’re not the most original, they do keep things from feeling quite so redundant. Each boss guards one of the tears. So with each boss you defeat, you get that much closer to restoring Princess Felicia. Beating a boss feels satisfying. Because there is a combination of the challenge involved, and a really cool victory animation every time you recover one of the tears.

Since you’ll be spending most of the game dungeon crawling, you’re going to want to keep an eye on a stat besides your health bar. Your armor. Something Zeliard does that not many other games of its ilk did at the time is shield damage. Not only will enemies sap your health, but they’ll also damage your shield. If your shield takes too much damage, it will actually break, leaving you with no defensive power. You’ll have to enter a town, and buy another shield. If you die that can make things tough, as deaths cost you alma, and gold. Unless you stored it in your account. Thankfully, you can load the last save before your most recent demise. But if you die after doing an awful lot of stuff, expect to be frustrated. Because you’ll have to do all of it again. If you fail after that? Another saved game load.

One thing Zeliard especially excels in is music. The game grants players with a pretty awesome soundtrack. This game has some of the best chip tunes of any computer game. They’re catchy, fit the theme of the game excellently, and you’ll be humming them after playing. They are that good. Thumping rock tunes. Triumphant, orchestrated symphonies. Even if you decide to run this on an old XT you have sitting in the attic, and you only have a PC speaker for sound, it’s still pretty passable. They also did a fairly good job on the graphics. While running anything less than maxed, admittedly hasn’t aged well, it does look better than you would expect. Really, if Zeliard has any troubles, aside from looking old, it suffers from excessive backtracking. A lot of games make you go to earlier areas for items after you get to a higher level. But in Zeliard getting back to some of these sections is really complicated due to the maze doors in the dungeons. Another issue is it can sometimes have inconsistent hit detection. It isn’t so terrible that you can’t play, but once in a while you might take damage from an enemy that didn’t hit you very obviously. Sometimes this will prove difficult so you might find yourself reloading saves more than you might like. Finally, for those running the game under DOSBox, you might run into installation issues depending on your configuration. The worst case scenario here is that the game will only run in CGA mode, with PC speaker emulation. This won’t be everybody’s experience under the emulator. But at least the game is completely playable even if you are on a system forcing you into a very limited color palette.

Still, Zeliard is a pretty good game, and a curious footnote in the history of Japanese computer games. Especially since it came stateside at a time when few computer JRPGs came over along with popular console games like Final Fantasy. JRPG collector’s should really track it down, as it’s an interesting part of gaming history. It won’t be the best JRPG you’ll experience, but it’s certainly worth looking into, and it does provide a fun campaign.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

(Note: I had to run the game under DOSBox, with CGA settings. Hence the four-color screen shots.)