Tag Archives: Computer Gaming

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

SD2EIC Drive Review

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It’s no secret I’m a huge Commodore fan. As a child in the 80’s, I started gaming on the seminal Atari 2600. It’s a timeless system for many reasons, and I still fire it up a lot today. But when my father came home with a Commodore 64 bread bin it quickly became the de facto platform in our household. When the company redesigned the computer, and sold a cheaper junior model, my father bought one, and donated the old one to relatives. But from the moment I saw Forbidden Forest running off a cassette tape the first time, I was hooked.

Through the years I played tons of awesome games on it. It wasn’t until I was a Junior in High School that we would move to a modern MS-DOS X86 PC. Because that is how versatile the King of 8-bit computers was. The C64 launched in 1983, and wasn’t discontinued until 1994 when the company went out of business. It’s fondly remembered as a games machine, because it’s where many companies went during the console market crash, and where many indies that became today’s majors got their start.

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It was a big deal here in North America, but it was even bigger in Europe. There are countless games that never officially made it Stateside.  So the platform is also an importer’s dream. Provided of course you’re willing to wade through the landmine of PAL Vs. NTSC concerns.

But whether you’re a North American or European Commodore 64 owner, there’s no denying that over time some of our floppies, and cassettes are slowly wearing out. A lot of our disk drives, and datasette drives are going kaput. With only so many in the wild, it’s going to get harder, and harder to rebuild our beloved collections. But fear not! Thanks to The Future Was 8-bit there is a way to keep the memory alive, on the original hardware.

PROS: An SD Card reader that emulates Floppy, and Cassette drives exceptionally well!

CONS: Not quite everything is compatible.

BUT: Far more than enough is compatible.

At first glance, the SD2EIC just looks like an SD card reader in a cute 1541 floppy drive shaped casing. But it’s no ordinary SD card reader!  This device emulates an actual 1541, and datasette environment. It plugs into either the tape drive slot or the floppy drive slot (depending on the version you order), and the serial DB port.  From here you can put in an SD card with your Commodore 64 program files , and run them natively on the computer!

This can be done a few ways, you can download images (assuming you own the programs in question), or if you have the means, you can back up your files to a computer, and then transfer them to a card.  You can also migrate disk images from the 1541 floppy drive to the SD2EIC. This is a little bit more involved, since you’ll need a couple of extra cables, and you’ll need to find a Compression software that works with the platform. Once you’re set up though, you will be so glad you have one of these.

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The device utilizes a file browser software file you can download which lets you go through a DOS like directory system. This makes it easy for you to organize files, and set them up in an order you feel most comfortable with. The documentation included with the SD2EIC gives you a pretty detailed set of instructions on using it. For basic file browsing though, it is pretty straight forward. You can navigate using either the CRSR Up/Down key, or a joystick in port two. If you don’t feel comfortable configuring the software, you can order a preconfigured card with it. The card has the file browser, and a bunch of programs on it.

If that weren’t enough, the device also has three buttons on it which are used when using programs that require multiple disks. This is handy when running a game or other program, that would normally involve flipping a diskette over, or putting in the next diskette when prompted. Here you have forward, backward, and reset buttons which you can press in these situations. Two of the buttons also act as the power, and load/save LEDs on the 1541 floppy drive. It’s really cool, and a nice touch to an already great experience.

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The SD2EIC can read all kinds of C64 file images. It can run D64, T64 files as well as PRG files. Again, it can also run them sequentially. But the device can also save files. This makes the unit very attractive to budding BASIC programmers. If you know your way around code, you can use this in lieu of a floppy diskette drive. This is a great way to save your projects without fear of a 1541 drive dying, or your diskette wearing out, and your data going with it. Plus even a relatively small SD card can house thousands of programs, and files due to the small file sizes on a typical 5.25″ Floppy Diskette. It’s compatible with both NTSC, and PAL machines too, though if you put PAL files on your card, and run it on an NTSC machine you’ll likely experience the same random glitches, video issues, or occasional crashes you would if you were to run an imported game on floppy.

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One of the things that really impressed me was the build quality. Most commercial SD card readers, even ones made by big industry names can be flimsy. The SD2EIC I received is superb. It’s built with plastic made by recycling broken Commodore 64, and 128 computer cases. It’s sturdy, and even the cabling feels secure. It isn’t something you can be careless with, but it can withstand shuffling around your set up.

There are a handful of minor issues with the drive. The first is that you do not want to accidentally grab the wrong controller if you have two of them plugged in. Doing so will exit you out of the program, and drop you back to the BASIC prompt. The second is that the SD2EIC doesn’t emulate a 1541 drive at 100%. That’s because the 1541 floppy drive is powered by another MOS 6502 CPU just like the stock Commodore 64 computer. So there are a handful of programs that won’t work due to being written in a way that utilizes the 1541 floppy drive in a specific way.

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Nevertheless, I can still tell you that the SD2EIC is a must own peripheral for any Commodore 64 collector. The wealth of pros outweigh the cons of a few incompatible programs out there. Especially when you consider just how versatile it is. The ability to run backup images alone, is something that should put this on your radar. With 5.25″ diskettes drying up, breaking down, and working 1541 drives dying from old age, this is a very welcome peripheral for preservation. Plus, budding indie developers have a means for their BASIC, and Assembly language projects to be stored on a modern format.

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It’s amazing how many wonderful homebrew products keep coming out for this legendary machine. Over the last three decades there have been Ethernet cards, a web browser, and even a new motherboard! But this drive is going to be more, and more sought after as time goes on. And, as these are made from recycled Commodore computers, you may want to get one before they dry up. It is truly a must own peripheral for anyone interested in Commodore.

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Now it should be noted there are other ways to get the SD2EIC. You can buy the circuit board, and daughter board from NKC Electronics. It’s nice if you’re good at assembling your own casings, and doing your own electronics assembly, or repair. But going with this specific one makes things very convenient. Plus the use of recycled computers to make the attractive casing is a nice touch that keeps them out of the landfill. I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s true. TheFutureWas8Bit has really outdone themselves with this one. Whether you’re a long time fan, or new to Commodore. Get yourself an SD2EIC from them. You won’t be sorry. Even the care put into the shipping packaging will astound you.

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

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

 

Keystone Kapers Review

Activision. There was a time when that wasn’t a name met with the same ire of Electronic Arts. These days, Activision is known as “Those guys who publish Call Of Duty, and sometimes Guitar Hero or Tony Hawk.” to many people. But there was a time when the company was very different in its business. Back in its infancy, Activision was helmed by a lot of people who created games in-house, and took chances. Oddly enough, a lot like Electronic Arts’ early days they wanted to make sure game creators were credited like authors or musicians. Formed by many people who used to work for Atari, Activision was one of the earliest third-party developers, and made games that really pushed what the Atari VCS could do.

Some of these games like Pitfall!, Kaboom!, and River Raid were so huge, that even today people hold them in high regard. Many an Atari, Colecovision, Intellivision, or home computer game collector are sure to have them in their collections with good reason. But Activision also took chances on some ideas that weren’t typical of the time period. One of those games is Keystone Kapers.

PROS: Fast, addictive gameplay.

CONS: High Score gaming may not appease some players.

KILL SCREEN: One of the 2600 cartridges that you can become too good with.

Programmed by Gary Kitchen (who did a lot of great work in Activision, and Absolute) Keystone Kapers is certainly a game that while adored when it came out, somehow isn’t mentioned much when talking about Activision’s glorious run in the golden age of consoles. But Keystone Kapers is worthy of all of the love it received in 1983, and it’s a cartridge anybody who collects old games should try to track down.

Keystone Kapers puts you in the role of a police officer named Keystone Kelly. A criminal named Harry Hooligan has broken out of prison, and run into a shopping mall where he plans to do more larceny, and escape the long arm of the law. Unfortunately Harry Hooligan isn’t all that bright. Because he doesn’t even stop off to change his clothes, or appearance. He just decides to go for a heist the second he breaks out of prison. Anyway Keystone Kelly arrives at the mall, and has to arrest Harry Hooligan before he can get away.

You start the game as Harry runs away. As stated before, your job is to arrest him as quickly, and efficiently as possible. At first, you’ll find he’s a really easy criminal to apprehend. But once you bust him, the game gives you the same task only each time Harry starts throwing more, and more obstacles to hinder you. Each time he gets away, or you fall victim to one of his traps you lose a life. You start the game with three lives, and you can earn bonus lives by scoring big points. Every 10,000 points nets you another life. How do you get points? By having time left on the clock when you catch Harry. The more time you have left, the bigger the point bonus. You can also pick up suitcases of money, and bags of money for around 50 points. In earlier stages you’ll get around 100 points multiplied by time left over, and later stages it can jump to 200 points, and then 300 points.

With every arrest you make, the game becomes more, and more difficult throwing all kinds of obstacles at you. Some items like shopping carts will cost you time if you hit them. Most other ones will take your life. Bouncing balls, model airplanes, and carts are the main traps you’ll run into, though there are others. To ensure that you run out of lives, each round not only adds more to impede your progress, but speeds them up as well. So while jumping over a cart the first time you see one may seem fairly easy, later levels will send them at you 100 miles an hour. Keystone Kapers can become really difficult, really quickly.

The game does throw one major bone your way though. That is a radar screen at the bottom of the TV screen. As you hunt down Harry by using escalators, an elevator, and your platform jumping skills it will tell you what floor he is presently on. Just remember Harry has a few cheap things he can do to you. First, if you chase him on the roof, he leaves you no way to go back to the lower floors. So you had better catch him if you follow him to the roof. In many cases the game leaves you no choice but to go to the roof. But note that if you miss him, he can get to lower floors. Second, Harry also has the strange ability to go down floors without using the escalator or elevators. Third he is also immune to his own booby traps of merchandise.

The game has no soundtrack, or many audio effects for that matter. Getting hit makes noise. Scoring points makes noise, and jumping makes noise. That’s about it. But the game has the same visual hallmarks Activision was known for on the 2600. Graphically, it is one of the better looking games on the console, utilizing some great tricks to simulate the elevator, and escalators. It also runs at a pretty great clip with no slowdown, even when the game throws a ton of stuff at you. The only issue I ever had is the precision entering an elevator takes. It requires pixel perfect placement, and timing. The 5200, Colecovision, and computer versions look even better. Adding more details to the shops you chase Harry Hooligan through. All of the versions run fairly well, though the 2600 version, and computer versions tend to have the best controls.

While the game isn’t very long given it’s a game centered around a high score, it is really engaging. Like Donkey Kong before it (Which Gary Kitchen also ported to the 2600 for Coleco), it may be simple to pick up, but the challenge can keep you playing for hours if you’re willing to let it. If you find yourself looking for a really fun classic game with staying power, track down a copy for yourself.

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

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.)

GALAX-I-BIRDS Review

Well if you thought last week’s review was pretty over the top, here’s another Commodore 64 game from Firebird. Galax-I-birds (or Galaxibirds depending on who you ask) is a preposterous shoot ’em up that lampoons Namco’s classic Galaxian. It’s a joke game, but it’s a joke game made with some serious effort behind it.

PROS: It gets pretty hilarious. Solid play control.

CONS: You have to survive to get to the hilarity. Which isn’t easy to do.

WHAT?: If you can survive beyond hilarity there are Easter eggs.

Galaxibirds, much like Galaxian, is a very simple game. It can be summed up in a single sentence. You fly a space ship, through space, shooting birds. But that would be a disservice to the game. Released in 1986 by Firebird, Galaxibirds is a precursor to games like Parodius. Parody games that mock the absurdity of games by somehow being even more absurd.

When you first fire up the game, you’re greeted with a giant bird for the title screen. Press the space bar, and you’ll be greeted with a bunch of beeps orchestrated in a way to simulate chirping. This goes on while you see the instructions flash on the screen as credits scroll in the background. Behind all of that is the game’s attract mode.

Once you have selected the number of players, you’re ready to begin. A giant swath of swans will make a run for your ship. Blow them all away, and you move onto the next species. And the next, and the next. Right out of the gate you’ll be running into strange, and stupid ideas. After all, who would buy birds breathing in space? Let alone running kamikaze style into fighter ships?

But if you can survive beyond the waves of birds, you will have to fight waves of comedic genius. There are around 8 different ornithological species before doing so. Do note that each wave gets not only a new pattern, but a faster speed as well. The longer a ship survives the faster things also get. Because of that, a lot of people might not get to see the added jokes Galaxibirds has up its sleeve.

And these jokes lampoon early arcade gaming. If you do get to them, and are familiar with the top arcade cabinets of the early 80’s you’ll laugh. Trust me, the screenshots I have in this review do not do this game justice.  The jokes themselves are more or less done in the vein of new enemy types. Sure the birds themselves might elicit a funny, and confused feeling. But these will get you much closer to the feelings you might have had upon seeing Parodius, or Zombie Nation for the first time. The surprise, combined with the silliness results in a rather satisfying payoff.

There are Angels, there are Wishing Trolls. But funnier yet are the Easter Egg characters. The aliens from Taito’s Space Invaders, and the Vector drawn rocks from Atari’s Asteroids both make an appearance. The game even takes a shot at Karate Champ at one point. Which is strange since that game isn’t a vertical shooter.

You might ask yourself, “What about how it plays? Surely the comedic veneer is going to wear thin eventually.” Which is a good concern, and query to have. Yes, eventually the joke sprites will get old. That can take a while depending on your skill. Because again, you have to survive long enough to make it to the absurd waves. Galaxibirds is challenging. Easily as challenging as the very games from Namco, Atari, and others that it openly mocks.

Each wave of course is going to be a different enemy type. It works like most shooters of the Space Invaders era. You can move left, and right firing ahead of your ship. Every wave you complete displays a flag in the corner. Every ten flags results in a bigger flag. You start the game with three ships, and keep playing until your ships are eventually destroyed. After so many points, you can earn a new ship. But ultimately, it is a game about high score. You can also play a two player mode with each player alternating the joystick between deaths.

The game has pretty good hit detection, and movement too. So in most cases when you die, you really only have yourself to blame.  One thing to remember is that as in Galaxian you cannot fire a second shot until your blast either kills an enemy or reaches the top of the screen. You can hold down the button to keep shooting, but advanced players are going to rapidly press the button. Why? because it’s faster. Other times you might be better off not shooting, and waiting to have the perfect shot while avoiding birds.

Galaxibirds also adds the concept of movement patterns to its game play. Those of you well versed in bullet hell shmups will pick this up a little bit easier. But those who stopped playing these types of games after Galaga will have something to learn. If you can memorize or anticipate the positions that enemies will take during the game, it gives you a huge advantage as avoiding a crash is important. It’s one of the things that makes this budget game impressive. Combining elements of newer shmups, like enemy patterns to the Golden Age game play of early shmups. It is by no means the best shooter on the Commodore 64. Between Hewson’s many games, and excellent ports of games by Irem, Capcom, Konami, and Sega there is much to choose from.

But don’t let that dissuade you from at least trying this game. It isn’t often a comedy game is made well enough to be fun after the jokes stop being funny. The rockabilly chip tune that plays during the game is a nice touch too. If you’re worried you won’t ever make it to the most bizarre stuff, don’t worry.  The programmers actually hid a God Mode Cheat Code in the credits. And while this will certainly erase any challenge, it lets you at least see the crazy stuff for yourself. Keep playing in this mode, and you’ll start all kinds of zany events the developer probably never anticipated. Changing graphics, artifacts, scores rolling back to zero, among many other weird things. It would be an awe-inspiring moment to find someone who could get that far legitimately.

In short: if you love old school quarter munchers, and esoteric comedy, Galaxibirds might be the game for you.

Final Score: 6 out of 10