Tag Archives: Console games

Stern Pinball Arcade Review

BTSTERNTITLE

In the golden days of arcades, before the earliest video game cabinets, there were pinball tables. Pinball was there, sucking down your quarters, parents’ quarters, and even your grandparents’ tokens like water. Before we used our hand, and eye coordination in head to head matches of Pong, it was the pinball machine that pushed these skills to the limit. Even after Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, and Centipede commanded our attention, these machines never went away. In fact, one company is still around today, albeit in a different form.

PROS: Fairly accurately replicates actual, real world tables in look, and feel.

CONS: Minor performance issues. Graphics quality is a bit uneven. EULA is bonkers.

FRANKENSTEIN: This collection has some machines that were bought out.

Pinball machines of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s had to do more than just challenge your reflexes. They had to draw your attention away from the array of video games in the arcade. Over the years some machines became surprisingly complex, utilizing all kinds of mechanical designs, like trap doors, rails, and models to engage your senses. A lot of machines also did very creative animations on LED scoreboards. They often gave point structures around hitting certain targets, or getting the ball to different parts of the board in a particular order. Even today, on a contemporary machine, there is just something magical about a pinball machine.

Of course one of the major tactics manufacturers use to get you to play their machines, is one that video game publishers use to get you to play theirs: licensing I.P.s. It wasn’t uncommon to see a table based on a popular film, cartoon, or even video game back then. The same is true today. Stern is one company with a long, and winding history. They made pinball machines, switched to video games, stopped making video games, and gave us more pinball machines. Over the course of that time there were ownership changes. As well as acquisitions of Data East, and Sega Pinball machines. These days, Stern still makes pinball machines. Not nearly as many as in the booming arcade scenes of the 80’s, and 90’s. But they make them. You can order one of the current offerings. For most of us, this would take up a lot of room, cost a lot of money, and we would also have to worry about finding someone to fix something should it break two years in.

BTSTERNMODES

Fortunately, this is where Stern Pinball Arcade comes in. It’s made by FarSight Studios, the folks who make The Pinball Arcade. In fact, it’s pretty much The Pinball Arcade, but with a bunch of Stern’s tables, and free-standing. So rather than download TPA, and buy each table individually, or buy groups of tables for a platform, this is set. All you do is pop the cartridge into your Switch, and enjoy.

Like The Pinball Arcade before it, this collection does painstakingly make efforts to recreate the feeling of playing these machines. The initial way it does this, is by making accurate, working 3D models of actual pinball tables in its engine. For the most part you’re getting exactly that. Each of the digital tables looks as close to the physical tables as possible. Every flashing light, rail, flipper, and bell of each machine in the collection is here. The machines included in this bundle are AC/DC, Harley Davison, Starship Troopers, Star Trek (2009), The Phantom Of The Opera, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Last Action Hero, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, High Roller Casino, Mustang, and Ghostbusters.

BTSTERNTABLESELECT

But it’s one thing to have machines that look like their real-life counterparts. It’s quite another to simulate how they play. This is the part Stern Pinball Arcade gets right. The physics of the game feel very, very close to an actual machine. And while I have only experienced the actual AC/DC table in the flesh, I can say the video game version here does feel on point with the real deal. The controls on the Switch feel responsive, and natural too. The triggers on the joycons act as your flippers, and the right stick acts as the plunger. There are also a host of camera options you can cycle through, and you can put the digital scoreboard in the corner. All of the tables have the same scoring systems as their real-life counterparts too.

BTSTERNDETAIL

The game also looks great, whether you’re playing on the tablet screen or on the TV screen. Personally, I prefer the TV because with some of the more complicated tables, and multi-ball moments, it’s easier to see everything going on. Be that as it may, I still took it on a three-hour car ride to New Jersey, and it was the perfect kind of experience for a road trip. Something not overly involved, but also something you can challenge yourself, and other passengers to.  FarSight even added a challenge mode to give playing alone some legs. It will have you play each table, and give you a limited number of attempts to best a score metric before moving you to the next table. If you can hit them all, you essentially beat the game’s stand in of a campaign.

BTSTERNCAMERA

There are a few problems with this one though you’ll want to be aware of. First, for those who get really particular about how things look, you’ll notice a ton of time into the tables. Not so much for the backgrounds. Ultimately this doesn’t matter much as you’ll be focused on pinball 99% of the time. But it is noticeable. Second, are the long load times. It can take up to 30 seconds to go between menus, and tables which seems weird as this doesn’t appear to be a taxing game. On the other hand I do get intermittent slowdown on the AC/DC table every so often. But none of the other machines ever give me such problems. It thankfully isn’t game breaking slow down, but it’s just strange. Also strange is the EULA. Not so much what’s in it, but the fact it is pushed like an early 90’s PC Game’s EULA. In most modern games, these are buried in an online manual, or small print somewhere in the back of a booklet. In Stern Pinball Arcade, it’s in the Options menu. It’s also probably why the screenshot, and video clip functions are disabled in this game. This is why the screen caps aren’t as crisp for this review. I was forced to take stills with purely old-school techniques. Due to the paranoia of either the developers at FarSight, the publishers at Alliance Digital Media, or perhaps even someone at CBS. God forbid somebody sees the Star Trek table in a review by a starving blogger on the internet.

BTSTERNEULA

Fair-Use debates aside,  I still recommend pinball fans with a Switch look into this one. It’s a really fun game, with a lot of challenging tables to play. There’s something here for every skill level too. Starship Troopers isn’t a terribly hard to learn table, while some of the others have a lot more obstacles to overcome. The Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein table is completely bonkers, from the Frankenstein’s Monster torso to the insane multi-ball mode. It constantly yells “FRRRRANNNNKEEEENSSSSTEEEEEIN!!!!!”, at you, and it’s wonderful. The AC/DC table features many of the band’s biggest hits, and even works them into the game by having a jukebox inside of the table you can hit with the ball. Even the two more generic tables, Phantom Of The Opera, and High Roller Casino still feature a number of creative set pieces, and artwork. This sets them apart from a lot of the other tables in the collection. Whatever your experience level here, you’ll have a lot of fun with it.

BTSTERNMOTIF

Stern Pinball Arcade is a little bit rough around the edges, and one could argue it feels a little barebones. Aside from the tables, there are some paragraphs detailing the history of each game. There are lengthy directions for each game too, that describe the scoring systems of each table in grave detail. There are also a lot of scans of classic advertisements that were sent to arcade operators when each of these were released. Compared with extras in other game compilations you’ve seen over the years, it isn’t very much of an incentive to pick it up. But the accurate pinball physics, and attention to detail are worth experiencing. You can spend hours upon hours trying to master each of these tables. At the same time you can also play a few short games when you don’t have a lot of time to devote to gaming. Whether you love pinball, or you want to play something out of your element, you might want to check this one out. And for those who have never played a pinball machine, this is a solid approximation of what you’d find. A few perplexing decisions aside, this is one of the better pinball video games you can buy.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Advertisements

Super Mario Odyssey Review

BTSMOTitle

It’s hard to believe Mario has been with us for nearly four decades. It’s even harder to believe, but there isn’t a bad Mario title. Some are objectively better than others. Old timers like me can remember playing as him in Donkey Kong. We have fond memories of going to the arcade with friends, and playing the original Mario Bros. Obviously everyone from 7 to 70 has probably played Super Mario Bros., Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, or Super Mario Galaxy. Again, nary a blemish to be found. The latest adventure continues this trend.

PROS: Pretty much everything. Get this for your Switch if you haven’t already.

CONS: One slight hiccup in performance in the Seaside Kingdom. If you NEED to nitpick.

FROM OUT OF NOWHERE: Rock n’ Roll anthems hit you like an RKO from Randy Orton.

Let’s get this out-of-the-way right away. If you have a Nintendo Switch, and you still don’t have this game it should be your next game purchase. If you don’t have a Switch, it should be one of the first games you get when you get the system. Super Mario Odyssey is not only a wonderfully crafted platformer, it’s one of the most engrossing video games on the console.

BTSMOPrincess

As usual, Bowser has kidnapped Peach again. So Mario heads out to stop his nemesis yet again. This adventure, however is different for a multitude of reasons. This kidnapping attempt Bowser has decided to marry the Princess by force. When the game starts you’re treated to an opening cinematic where Mario is in the process of trying to save Peach. Unfortunately for our hero, Bowser works him over. After suffering a hellacious assault at the hands of the King of the Koopas, Mario is thrown off of an airship to his doom. To add insult to injury, Bowser shreds Mario’s trademark hat to really drive home to the viewer that all is lost.

BTSMOAmericanDad

Mario is then tended to by a hat named Cappy. It turns out that Bowser devastated an entire kingdom inhabited by sentient hats called the Cap Kingdom. It is also revealed that the bridal tiara Peach was forced to wear is Cappy’s significant other. So Cappy decides to help Mario rescue Princess Toadstool. This is also where you’re introduced to this game’s trademark feature: Possession. Mario can throw Cappy, and if he lands on certain objects, and characters they can be controlled. It’s not something most of us probably think of ever seeing in a Super Mario Bros. title, and yet here it is.

BTSMOCappy

This makes the game feel very different from previous games in the Super Mario Bros. universe. Yet Super Mario Odyssey also retains all of the things you would expect to see in the long running franchise. This entry leaves the linear design of the two Galaxy games behind. It also abandons the design of the 3D Land, and 3D World games. Instead, Super Mario Odyssey returns to the freedom of Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario 64. This time around Mario can travel between Kingdoms using an airship of his own called the Odyssey.

 

As you might expect, you’ll be going through these Kingdoms looking for coins, and items in order to earn entry to another. In this game the coveted item will be Power moons. You have to collect so many for the Odyssey to be able to continue onward. There are a couple of spots where you can choose which of two places to travel to next. But there’s no major hub the way Peach’s castle in SM64 was. Still, while you’ll open most of the Kingdoms in a set order, the stages themselves are open. So you’ll spend a lot of time tracking down moons.

BTSMOBroodlings

A lot of the moons are hidden in plain sight, but there are a lot of them that aren’t. Getting some of them involve going on fetch quests. Others involve beating platforming challenges. Still others will require you to win at a mini game, or explore off of the beaten path. Some of them are purchased in shops, while others require you to buy a specific costume with a Kingdom specific currency so you can go to a specific area. That’s not counting the number times you’ll need to possess a particular enemy. Or the number of times you’ll have to solve a puzzle. Or to have a keen eye in the 2D areas I’ll get to later.  You’ll also have to contend with a lot of different bosses to get many of the moons. The most obvious being the Broodlings. These are a group of evil rabbits who have jobs planning Bowser’s forced wedding ceremony. But they’re also Bowser’s hired mercenaries. You’ll have to defeat each of them. But they’re not the only threats you’ll face. Super Mario Odyssey has many bosses hidden within it. You’re going to see all kinds of massive adversaries. Some of whom are going to come completely out of left field.

BTSMOAndross

There are 880 Power Moons to be found which means you’ll be playing this long after you’ve experienced the storyline. Those who love to get their Mario games to 100% completion can even buy another 119 on top of those. But along the way you’re going to continually be astonished, and amazed. Super Mario Odyssey has something for fans of every era of the character. There are homages to Donkey Kong, Mario Bros. Super Mario Bros., and pretty much every game in the series is referenced in one way or another. Some of the most creative moments, are the inclusion of 2D sections that use the sprites, and tiles seen in Donkey Kong, and the NES Super Mario Bros. games. But it even includes the newer enemies, and characters in the mythos in that same style. These sections are often blended into the contemporary look of everything else, and they work seamlessly together. Sometimes the game incorporates puzzles that can only be solved by transitioning between the 2D pixel game play, and the modern 3D space.

BTSMO2D

Mario controls as fluidly as ever too. If you fall off of a ledge, get shot by a Bullet Bill, or land a quarter of an inch in front of a Goomba you’ll know it’s your fault. Another thing that might surprise you is the fact that the traditional system of lives is gone. You’ll have unlimited lives in Super Mario Odyssey. Your punishment for getting killed, is the game takes some of your money from you. However, don’t think you’ll be blowing through this one in a day. A lot of players might think that not needing 1-Ups, and Continues makes this game easy. It really doesn’t. In the early goings, things might seem like they’re simple enough. A few easy to nab moons. Running to the beacon of light to progress to the next story mission. Simple, right? While you might be able to get through the first handful of required areas, and claim their moons without too much trouble, later ones aren’t so easy. Some of the later stages require some significant puzzle solving, and a bit of dexterity. This is a Super Mario game after all.

BTSMOPauline

You’ll need at least 124 Power Moons to be able to get into the final boss showdown. If you’re persistent you can probably get there within a day of non-stop gaming. But with everything there is to do, and see, you’ll probably want to explore for more moons, and secrets in that time instead. Some of the areas can’t even be reached until after you complete the campaign, all but guaranteeing you’ll be playing this long after the big showdown. Another thing that sets this game apart from the other Super Mario Bros. games is the vastly different environments in each of the game’s kingdoms. Not only do they have different themes, each of the themes has a completely different art style. The Luncheon Kingdom has a minimalist look, all rendered in soft neon colors. Take your ship to the Metro Kingdom, and everything goes for a more modern, photorealistic look. Head to the Seaside Kingdom, and things look absolutely beautiful. Plus the inhabitants of each Kingdom are completely different from each other as well, lining up with the aesthetics of the area perfectly. There are also all sorts of little visual touches that you’ll appreciate. Like the rain effects in New Donk City, or the soot that lands on Mario whenever he walks through fire.

BTSMOGotham

The soundtrack is absolutely spectacular. If there’s one thing this title has over many other games it’s the music. Everyone has likely heard Jump Up Superstar, as it has been in all of the promotional material for the game. The trailer, the spots at conventions, you can even buy the song on iTunes. But everything else on the soundtrack is just as good as that title track. From the orchestral pieces to Big Band Jazz, to Heavy Metal to Power Pop. Even if a certain genre isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll recognize the sheer talent, and greatness of the compositions. All placed in parts of the game that suit themselves best. There is just so much to like here. No matter what you’re doing the music thumps along perfectly. It’s energetic, and light-hearted when it needs to be. It’s ambient, and dark when it needs to be.

BTSMOSoot

Quite frankly, so much of Super Mario Odyssey is done so well, it can be difficult to find anything all that wrong with it. Controls are spot on. The environments, character design, and sound are all simply brilliant. Some of the mission types repeat here, and there. By the second or third Kingdom you’ll pick up on the general formula. But again, everything is done so superbly, it feels like nitpicking just mentioning it. About the only technical issue I ran into at all, was a very minor hiccup when running along the beach in Seaside Kingdom. Once. Ever.

 

BTSMOAmiibo

There are several other things I haven’t mentioned yet, like Amiibo functionality. Pretty much all of Nintendo’s releases utilize them in some way, and Super Mario Odyssey is no exception. If you buy the three figures specifically made for the game they’ll give you different wedding themed costumes you would ordinarily have to get in the game far later. They’ll also give you the bonuses associated with the non-Odyssey themed figures of those characters. Peach gives you a Life Up Heart, Mario gives you a few seconds of protection, while Bowser gives you purple coin locations on your map.

Some of the other figures you have knocking around can also end up giving you some early access to some of the game’s costumes. But generally just about any figure will get you something. You can also show your Amiibo to a machine Toad appears with after you clear a few kingdoms. Then it will bring back rewards at a later time. Another interesting Amiibo piece of trivia has to do with some cross-promotion with Kellogg’s. The cereal vendor has made a promotional Super Mario cereal you’ve no doubt heard about if you live in the United States. The cereal box has an Amiibo NFC chipset glued to the inside so you can actually scan the cereal box for the same rewards most non SMB related figures do. With one exception: There’s a line of dialogue that may bring about a smirk upon seeing the game recognize the cereal box.

BTSMOCrazyCap

There are a ton of crazy items in the shops. It is worth looking into them for the costumes alone. Which is good, because after finishing the story the game opens up a host of new areas, moons, coins, and other content. Some of the post campaign moons are tied to unlocking items in the shops. So you’ll definitely want to be looking into them. Many of the costumes get pretty wild too. Some of the ones I really like include a clown costume, a samurai costume, and a couple of retro costumes.

If getting to new areas wasn’t enough, some of the kingdoms have super-secret warps hidden in paintings in them. You can even get a glimpse into some of the kingdoms you may not have visited yet when you find one. Some of the game’s moons even require their use in order to be obtained. Beyond that, there are a number of crazy features you’ll just sort of stumble upon. Like the ability to steal a moped, and drive around on it. Or an RC Car mini game, where you get to use an RC Car in attempt to speed run a track from Super Mario Kart.

BTSMOKingdom

The map I mentioned earlier is part of an overall travel guide you can pull up. It has maps for every one of the worlds you visit along with checklists. You can also pull up the little tutorials that explain some of the more advanced techniques. This can be handy for those who haven’t picked up a Mario game in years, or for someone who has honestly never played a Mario game. It’s also a place where you can review things that you might have forgotten how to do during the course of your time with it.

BTSMOReferences

Another really cool feature is the camera mode. It really enhances the screen capture function in the Switch. Normally, for any game you can press the camera button, and take a screen shot. But in this game you can press the Down C button first, and pull up a camera mode. In this mode you can zoom in or out before taking a shot. You can also tilt the camera, and apply a number of filters to the image. The absolute best of these are the vintage console filters. One of them is supposed to be the NES palette although in some situations it seems closer to something like the Commodore 64. Another is a Super NES palette, and a third is based on the original Game Boy. Plus you can slap the game’s logo in the corner of your photo. Then you can use the social media function on the Switch to post it to your Facebook account, or Twitter account. It might not sound like much, but you can honestly get pretty creative with what you’re given here.

BTSMOMoons

It’s hard to say if Super Mario Odyssey is the best Mario game of them all, but it’s absolutely in the running. It’s one of those rare games that makes you feel like you’re 8 years old again, experiencing the series for the first time. It’s so full of awe. It’s so full of wonder. Even though you’ve likely been playing Super Mario Bros. games, and spinoffs for most of your gaming life. It’s a celebration of every era of this universe, and its characters. While at the same time making the entire game feel new. Sure, you’ll spend a lot of hours hunting down the items, and MacGuffins to see what comes next. But it rarely, if ever feels like busy work. With the wonderful environments, stellar game play, and absolutely fantastic soundtrack this is one Odyssey you’ll want to embark upon.

Final Score: 10 out of 10

Sine Mora EX Review

BTSMEXTitle

The Shmup (short for Shoot ’em up) is the one old genre that hasn’t reclaimed its popularity. At one time the likes of Space Invaders, Galaxian, and Phoenix ruled the roost. Then when platformers became big, the genre gave us 1942, Dragon Spirit, and Xevious. Then the Beat ’em ups, and Fighting games all but conquered the arcades. But the genre had continued popularity with the likes of R-Type, U.N. Squadron, and Truxton.

After this period though, the genre began to slowly fade into obscurity. It never truly went away. It still gave the occasional notable game like Giga Wing, or Ikaruga that became darlings. Today, the genre is still around, and there are countless great games in it. It even has a devoted, hardcore fan base. But where Street Fighter IV, and Mortal Kombat 2011 brought traditional fighting games back into the limelight, the same hasn’t been the same for old-school Shoot ’em ups.  Sine Mora EX has that potential.

PROS: Beautiful visuals. Great music. Refined mechanics. Fun.

CONS: Story can be hard to follow. Mini games don’t add very much to the experience.

4K: PC, and PS4 PRO versions support it.

Originally released in 2012 as Sine Mora, Sine Mora EX is a refined version that fixes bugs, updates the graphics, and expands content. It elevates a pretty good game, to a pretty great one. The game has a minimalistic menu. You have a Story mode, which is honestly a great way to play it when you start out. Then Arcade mode, which is going to be the option for advanced players who don’t want to bother with the lore. Score Attack, for mastering levels. There is also a challenge mode which gives you 15 endurance rounds. Then there is a boss rush mode, which lets you practice boss fights. But you have to unlock them by getting to them in the storyline first. So this is really going to be for those who are interested in speed running the game upon beating it.

BTSMEXCHURCH

Rounding things out is a Versus mode. This is a small assortment of mini games. In most of them, you’ll pick a single screen arena, and battle a friend as little robotic orbs. Some of the stages have other hazards, or obstacles to maneuver around or destroy. But it’s pretty much kill or be killed. There is one interesting mini game that is different. Here, you each shoot at ships, but if you accidentally destroy a ship that resembles yours, the game ends. They’re a fun little diversion. But really, you won’t be coming to this game for it, and you’ll want to play the main game instead.

Sine Mora EX’s main campaign is awesome. Whether you play it in Story mode or Arcade mode, you’ll be thrust into a shmup that embodies elements of every subgenre. A lot of people have called this a Bullet Hell shooter. While there are moments where the entire screen is filled with bullets, that isn’t really the case. Some boss fights employ this, but you’ll find a lot of the missions themselves do not. Instead they take the movement of something like R-Type, or Gradius, and give you the challenge of avoiding walls, while shooting down enemies, and threats.

BTSMEXTIME

But there are many things that make this game stand out on its own. The most obvious one being how it handles lives, and scoring. In a lot of challenging shooters over the years, games had either a scenario where a single hit on your ship killed you, or you had a small life bar allowing for a few hits before you would be destroyed. Sine Mora EX throws those mechanics out the window, and instead puts the onus on time limit. You have to beat the clock in order to win. “Great! I can get hit as many times as need be! This game is going to be easy!” you might be exclaiming to yourself.

Well get that thought out of your head immediately. Because your life bar is the time clock. If you make a mistake, and crash into something the game shaves off a second or two. If you get shot you’ll lose a few seconds. Suddenly that game has gone from being insanely easy, to pretty challenging. Moreover, they’ve made another swerve. Getting hit makes you drop power ups! So you’ll have to pick them up immediately.  But if all of this sounds too complicated, don’t lose heart. There are a number of tools to help.

BTSMEXFire

First off, and most importantly, you’ll gain time for every bad guy you destroy. You’ll want to crush as many of them as possible because time is life in this game. Keep adding to the timer, and you’ll see it to the end. The stages also have checkpoints. When you reach one it resets the timer. So if you’re low on seconds, and you reach one you’ll be in the clear for a moment. The game also gives you a wealth of power ups, smart bombs, coins, and even bullet time to use.

That’s right. Bullet time. Now it isn’t infinite. There is a meter that lets you see how much you have, and it drains when you use it. But during those Bullet Hell moments it can be a Godsend. Particularly when you just can’t seem to figure out the spread pattern. As you play through the game you’ll be going through different periods, and characters in the story. So there are a number of different ships you’ll pilot. They’re all designed to look more like planes, but considering the different settings the stages take place in, you’d assume they have features of a star or sea ship. But I digress.

BTSMEXSpydor

Each of the different space planes has a unique smart bomb that can be fired. Some of them shoot a super laser, others drop a ton of grenades, some shoot a plethora of missiles. You’ll want to know the nuanced differences though because they won’t work the same way in every situation. There’s also the risk, versus reward aspect here that can be really fun. Do you try to save up your smart bombs for the bosses or do you use them now while the screen is cluttered with grunts? There are also your firepower upgrades to grab, as they make your primary fire more effective. If you can get nine of them, and not crash or get shot you’ll chew through enemies. And then there are the time bonuses, and bullet time bonuses to nab. You’ll find the bullet time works wonders.

They also added a cooperative feature to the story as a friend can play as a gunner. It isn’t quite the same has having a second ship altogether, but it does give you some reprieve. They control a satellite which acts like one of the options from the shooters of old. This allows the first player to take on primary targets while they clean up small annoyances. Handy for boss battles.

Another thing you’ll appreciate is how the game puts in some challenges that have nothing to do with shooting weak points, or avoiding a hail of bullets. In one stage you’ll come across a section filled with sensors that, should you be detected knocks off all of your time. After exploding through all of my continues, and restarting, imagine my surprise when I found I had to fly in sync with piles of garbage coming from the background to avoid detection. It’s just a small thing, but it’s different from what many might expect.

BTSMEXSlippy

If you play through the Story mode, you’ll get voice overs that are in line with a Star Fox game. Just with more curse words. There is however, zero percent Slippy Toad in the list of ingredients. Kidding aside, you’ll also get some monologues between stages that try to set up motivations of pilots, and give you a little bit of narrative between stages. It helps explain why you have completely different vehicles, and settings every stage. Unfortunately it doesn’t always make the most sense if you’re only passively seeing it. Because of how everything jumps around. The story is a bit more cohesive if you pay attention to every last bit of dialogue, and you re-read every word of every monologue. But even if you’re invested in the story, you’re going to miss some of it as you’ll forget some of the chatter you just heard when it becomes time to blow away enemy targets again.

That said, the story itself is actually pretty cool. It centers around characters facing an iron-fisted Empire on a planet called Seol. It declares war on an opposing nation of inhabitants called Enkie. Both of the factions master time travel. One of the characters is out for revenge when the Empire kills his son for not wiping out the Enkie. So in a number of missions, you’ll follow his story arc. But the Enkie also want revenge on the Empire for driving them toward extinction. So in other stages you’ll be playing Enkie characters.  The story is an interesting one, and it even has a pro wrestling grade swerve in it that honestly surprised me. The problem with it, is the execution. If the game had done just a tiny bit better with the cut scenes, and shown more of it, instead of having you read it, it would have been a bit easier to follow. Still, if you take the time to pay more attention on subsequent play through attempts it gets a bit more enjoyable.

BTSMEXPapaCarlo

Repeatedly playing in the Arcade mode is also where you’ll notice this game’s use of difficulty scaling. The game starts you at rank C here, and if you’re not doing so hot this is about where you’ll stay. By contrast, if you’re blowing through sections with ease you can expect the game to rank you up to B or even an A! Then it will punish the crap out of you. Enemies take more hits, shoot more lasers, and things get more hectic.  If you can’t hang, the game will knock you back down a peg or two. This is also where the game has a real chance of reinvigorating the genre for those who don’t come to it as often. At the same time it gives enthusiasts something they can really sink their teeth into.  Arcade mode also lets you select different planes to start with, so you may find some work better in some missions than the ones you have to use during the Story mode. Back to Story mode a second. In that mode you’ll have eight continues (though there is a slightly harder variant of Story mode) to complete the game. If you don’t get through the entire Story campaign  You can start on a higher stage when you come back to it later. Though you’ll start the way you did at the beginning which means you’ll be outclassed.

BTSMEXBIGO

Arcade mode eschews all of the story elements, reduces the number of continues, and exclaims “Come and get some!” You’ll be seeing all of the same levels, and bosses but with none of the narration. This mode is also a bit harder from the outset. But if you’ve plowed through the story, and want to go back to the game again, it’s a great way to experience it again. There are even a couple of power ups you won’t see in the Story mode. The game is gorgeous enough you may just want to replay it anyway. For a small game, it boasts some pretty great production values. Mind you it isn’t going to be quite the same as something from a AAA vendor. But it does so much with so little.  Though I suppose a big part of this is the involvement of Mahiro Maeda. When one of the people behind The Animatrix is designing bosses in your game, it’s going to show.

BTSMEXBIGO2

The Nintendo Switch version of the game (which you’re seeing in this review) looks great. It has crisp textures, nice lighting, wonderful color depth, and detailed models. All running at a full 1080p with a fast frame rate. The Xbox One port is just as good-looking, and the PS4 version will even support 4K provided of course you’re using the PS4 PRO model of the console. The PC version of course will support it as well if you have the 4K monitor or TV to display it on, and hardware in the machine to run it that high. Which shouldn’t be much, as the system requirements aren’t very high for the PC version. As far as I could tell in my time on the Switch, I saw no real issues with slowdown, stuttering, or other performance problems. The PC version also gave me no real issues.

The audio is pretty good too. Grasshopper brought in Akria Yamaoka who did the sound direction on Silent Hill. Silent Hill made great use of ambient sounds for the horror vibe. Here he combines that ambience with an electronica sound. So it gives this a cyber thriller kind of score. Which you might not think much of at first. But when the bosses show up to crush you into dust, does it ever fit the theme. It may not have the same effect as it did in Silent Hill, where the discomfort melded with the fear. But it does make the encounters even more imposing. You might not worry about monsters getting you. But you’ll probably take the giant robot spider a bit more seriously.

BTSMEXOcean

While by no means an expert on the genre, I do feel like this is the most accessible shmup to come out in years. It may technically be a re-master of sorts. But the game’s attention on the Switch has been getting people talking about them again. Oddly enough if you want a physical copy of the Switch version you’ll likely have to go online, as few retailers appear to have gotten it when it came out last year. At least Stateside. Target, and Wal-Mart have it on their online sites, but not at their stores. GameStop, Best Buy, and others don’t (of this writing) seem to have it at all. But you can find it through smaller businesses usually on Amazon. There’s also the option to import the European release. If you don’t care about physical media you can download it from Nintendo’s e-shop. The Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 versions however, seem to be everywhere. You can download those on their respective stores too. The PC version is available on Steam as well.

BTSMEXBulletHell

Ultimately though, Grasshopper has put out a game that can be enjoyed by veterans, and newcomers alike. The easier Story mode (of which you can go with a harder version) does make things a bit more inviting for newbies. Even if the story could be executed a little bit better, it’s still pretty good for what it is. The Arcade mode is something longtime enthusiasts will more than likely love. Especially for those who may not have played the original Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Vita, and PC release. The scaling is also nice for those who are competent, but not masterful. If you love shmups, but somehow haven’t played this, pick it up. If you’ve never played a shmup, this is a great jumping on point to see if you’ll enjoy them. Hopefully we’ll see more Sine Mora in the future.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers Review

BTUSFIITitle

What can be said about Street Fighter II that hasn’t been said already? The original Street Fighter while by no means a horrible game, was mediocre in a few ways. It had some sluggish movement. Special moves did a ridiculous amount of damage. However, performing special moves was inconsistent. Sometimes the hit detection seemed off. The soundtrack wasn’t very good. It had grainy audio. Yet there was a ton of promise in it. It had wonderful characters, pretty cool graphics, and it was still a cut above earlier games like Karate Champ. But it still could have become just an obscure one-off.

BTUSFIIAttract

Thankfully, Street Fighter II scrapped the parts that didn’t work, fine tuned everything that did. Then added a bunch of new features. You could play as characters other than Ryu, and Ken. Plus you could really compete with other people for something other than score. Every iteration of the game added, and refined more. You could play as the bosses. You could play at a faster speed. You could play as newer characters. You could do finishers. Every iteration also changed character attributes to try to bring everyone just that much closer. Not only was it leagues ahead of Street Fighter, it became a phenomenon. So now there’s an even newer version of a twenty-six year old game to play on the Switch. With a collection around the corner, should you still get this?

PROS: It’s Street Fighter II. One of the best games of all time. On the Switch.

CONS: Doesn’t add all that much bonus content to the package.

I’VE GOT NEXT: It does bring a taste of the arcade era in portable form.

Ultra Street Fighter II is a pretty awesome game. It’s Street Fighter II. That’s already pretty awesome. That’s a given. But what makes this iteration worth playing over another? Chances are you own at least some version of the game. If you don’t, and you have a Switch, well then this is a no brainer. For a lot of other people though, they’ll need more than that. For the five of you who were around in the 90’s, and somehow never played the game, what you do is simple. Pick a character, beat the other characters in two-out-of-three bouts, until you get to the final boss, and beat him too. Beyond that, you can play against other people for supremacy.

BTUSFIISuper

But if you’re a long time Street Fighter fan, you’ve played this before. So again, you’re going to ask “Why play this over my Super NES Game Pak, or my Anniversary Collection for my PlayStation or my Anniversary Collection on my Xbox 360? Or any other version for that matter?” Well, there a few reasons. A few of which are pretty compelling. The Nintendo Switch being a tablet means convenience. It also means you can recreate some of that bygone era of arcades in a public space. For instance, one of the first things I did when I purchased my copy was go out for coffee. While there I played the game, and a couple other people noticed. They inquired about the system, and we talked about playing Street Fighter II after school in the arcade as teenagers. These kinds of moments lend themselves to rekindling some of that. Strangers can challenge you in person now as you can give them a joycon, you have a joycon, and before long someone shows up with a quarter to say “I’ve got next.”

BTUSFIIAkuma

It’s also great for a game night. Street Fighter II, in spite of the technical aspects of it, is still an approachable game. Newcomers who weren’t around for it when it was new, can still pick it up, and have a good time. It has a fair amount of depth, and complexity. But it isn’t going to look impossibly daunting to someone who has never touched a fighting game before. At least not compared to something like Guilty Gear Xrd. We all have that friend who insists the party starts with something like Guilty Gear Xrd.  Anyway, It’s a lot of fun for newcomers, and veterans alike which is a big reason why Capcom likely chose to update this game for the Switch.

BTUSFIIStyles

In terms of new additions, the obvious one is the ability to play with either the original coin-op graphics or to play with the newer HD Remix inspired graphics. There isn’t any difference in game play between them. When playing in either style everything looks terrific. The HD style looks crisp, vibrant, and detailed. All of the art assets from Udon, are completely on point. The coin-op graphics are also crisp, vibrant, and detailed. They also display in 4:3 aspect ratio which is great. Sometimes a retro release still comes out these days, that zooms or stretches everything into 16:9 by default, and looks just awful. Not the case with Ultra Street Fighter II. Now sadly, there isn’t anything in the way of CRT simulation filter options with this game. So if you do play with the older graphics, you’ll see every last pixel. Personally, I always preferred sharper images. So even in the 90’s playing crisp Super Street Fighter II for MS-DOS on a monitor looked nicer than blurred Super Street Fighter II for the Super Nintendo on a TV. But I know not everyone feels the same way. If you don’t, and seeing all of the squares bugs you, you may want to stick with the new style.

BTUSFIIHD

A couple of other things were thrown in too. You can play the game in a Co-op version of the arcade ladder. Basically turning the bouts into handicap matches. It’s definitely something to try to see if you’ll like it. But it isn’t as fun as the core game you come into a Street Fighter II release for. The same can be said for the Way Of The Hado mode they’ve included. Now to be perfectly honest, I really like this mode. It’s a really fun mini game that you can break out at parties because of two reasons. First, (at least for me) the motion controls were spot on. Second, after you use the trainer to figure out how to hold the joycons for each move (Kind of like the Wiimote, and nunchuck for gestures in some Wii games) you can go into one of two modes. A story-like mode, or an endless mode. The story-like one has an ending you can make it to if you’re good enough. The endless is there more as a high score arcade game. It uses some of the graphics from Street Fighter IV to make a first person mini game. In it you throw fireballs, dragon punches, and other signature attacks as Ryu to beat up M.Bison/Dictator’s goons. Over time they can shoot fireballs back at you, and do other moves. Fortunately, you can also block. Again, it’s honestly a fun distraction. But, also again, it’s just that. It isn’t going to keep you engaged nearly as much as the core game you buy USFII for.

BTUSFIIVintage

The game does have online play, and it seems to be fine most of the time. It’s about as good as Ultra Street Fighter IV‘s is. 85% of the time you’re going to get a good to great connection, and have an awesome match. 15% of the time, you’re going to get a jittery mess of a match, possibly a disconnection. I tried this mode at home where I have a good internet connection, at hotspots where things are mixed, and a relative’s, which has a good connection. I had pretty much the same experience everywhere. If you find you don’t have a great wireless connection to your router, you can buy the wired, USB Ethernet connector for the Switch. That can improve things a bit. In the case of the game though, it really comes down to the net code.  Again, most of the time it seems fine.

BTUSFIIMinigame

Some of the other bonus content in the game includes some in-house Street Fighter series art from Capcom. These were taken from a now out of print book. It’s really great stuff. You can’t use the Switch’s photo function on it though, likely out of piracy concerns. Still, it’s worth thumbing through it, particularly if you love art. Separate from the gallery is the option to add background themes to the menus. Nothing you’ll be excited about though. Some will love the included sprite editor though. It works a lot like the one that came way back in Capcom Vs. SNK 2. You can change the colors of three different sections of any given character, and save them in added color slots. This works in both graphical styles, and subsequently these edits will be playable in the game.

BTUSFIIMinigame2

In spite of some of the bonus content, and the inclusion of online battles this feels like a barebones release though. The extra stuff here does give you a little break from the mainline arcade, versus, and online battles. But that’s just it. They’re minor diversions. Even though they’re fun, they’re not really fleshed out enough to keep most people engaged. Most players will likely try them, and then go back to the one on one fights. Had there been even more graphics options, like a simulated CRT filter, or more characters or backgrounds it would give old-time fans more to get excited about.

BTUSFIIMinigame3

The three new characters you do get are ramped up versions of Ryu, Ken, and Akuma. And they’ve appeared in other Capcom fighting games before. Evil Ryu, Violent Ken, and Shin Akuma (whom you need an old school sequence code to use) are all fun to use. But they all have insane damage potential. Shin Akuma is even barred from online competition. So some of the top-tier players who play in tournaments have their concerns. For the rest of us, they also take a lot of damage. So average to good players who don’t need to bother with tournament level stuff like obsessing over frame data or lists won’t care. As is the case with most Capcom fighters, the trainer does let you see inputs, and some other information.

BTUSFIITrainer

On that note, I do want to talk about controllers with this one. Playing the game with the joycons on the console or in the grip is fine. For the most part. It feels pretty close to using a standard game pad, though I found sometimes the analog stick would read a forward jump, as a jump. Playing the game with the joycons as two separate mini controllers is not that bad. It’s not great, and you’ll have to get used to rounding your index fingers to press the Z buttons. But it works. It basically follows the format of the Super NES controller. So if you’ve played any version of the game on the Super NES, you’ll know what to expect. That said, while it’s something you’ll live with when playing other people at Starbucks, you’ll probably want another option for home. There are a host of options for the Switch. The pro controller, aftermarket controllers, and even an arcade tournament joystick by Hori. Depending on your preference, and budget you’ll probably want to invest in one of these options at some point if you haven’t already.

BTUSFIIPantheon

In the end Ultra Street Fighter II is worth getting for a number of scenarios. Bringing the aforementioned arcade experience to a public setting. If you’re a fan of the game who no longer has an old console or computer version knocking around. Or if you’re getting back into it for the first time in years. Or if you’re just a big fan of fighting games in general, and you’re building a Switch collection. It’s a really fun version of Street Fighter II. With SFII being as timeless as classics like Pac-Man, Centipede, and Space Invaders it’s also a pretty safe bet. Just don’t expect much more out of it than a really fun update of Super Street Fighter II Turbo. The other stuff is nice to try, but isn’t the headline act. Also remember this version of the game isn’t included in Capcom’s upcoming collection.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

 

 

 

 

 

Boulder Dash XL 3D Review

BTBoulderDash3DSTitle

Way back in 1984 came an excellent platform puzzle game called Boulder Dash. It was a big hit on home computers of the time. The Atari 400/800 version came first, but the game made its way to the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and some of the consoles like the Colecovision. There was even an NES port. Over the years it has seen newer versions. Some by First Star Software, the company who created it. Others by different developers who were licensed to do so.

PROS: A really great take on Boulder Dash with some refinements.

CONS: Some of the tweaks aren’t intuitive.

ROBOTS: Your quasi-human miners have been replaced by automatons.

In 2012, a small outfit called Catnip made a new version for the Xbox Live service, and computers called Boulder Dash XL. It replaced the main characters with robot interpretations, but it retained the spirit of the original game fairly well. It also added a few new spins on the game which I’ll get to in a bit. Boulder Dash XL 3D is a port of that game to the 3DS. This port was done by the folks at Ludosity who went on to make the well received Princess Remedy games on Steam.

For the uninitiated, Boulder Dash is a series where you collect diamonds while mining. You’re given a few minutes to get a certain number of diamonds, and then make your way to the exit. You do this, by moving around the stages, digging dirt, and picking them up. The challenge of course is trying to get these without getting crushed. Much like the rocks in Dig Dug, digging out the dirt from beneath the boulders will cause them to fall. You can also be crushed by the very diamonds you collect.

BTBoulderDash3DSTitle2

But where Dig Dug focused more on defeating all of the bad guys in the stage to advance, Boulder Dash does a lot more with the boulders (hence the name.). Boulders, and diamonds will shift to the left or the right as they fall on top of one another.  When you first start out, the earliest levels are pretty easy to figure out. You’ll find you can get the required number of diamonds, and get to the exit. There’s a bit of risk/reward too in that you can also try to get all of the diamonds for bonus points rather than just the required number to exit. Of course, getting all of the diamonds requires nearly flawless puzzle solving skills. Often times making a mistake will not only keep you from getting that last diamond, but may get you trapped between boulders, forcing you to restart.

But its a very engrossing formula, and this version adds a host of new mechanics to an already fun game. There are transporters, there are boxes that turn boulders into diamonds, and vice versa. They even added a few power ups on some levels that are used in a number of puzzles. That’s in addition to some of the newer takes on enemy types featured here. There is a large wealth of content here too. There are around 100 stages or more for you to play through. This edition also has several modes in it.

BTBoulderDash3DSModes

The primary mode is the Arcade mode, where the game puts you through the 100 stages in a row. This mode works with the traditional Boulder Dash rules. You’re given a time limit, and you have to get the qualifying number of diamonds to make the exit appear so you can escape as quickly as possible for the most time points. Again, getting every diamond is worth a huge bonus, but you risk running out of time, or trapping yourself if you don’t get them just right.

Next up is Puzzle mode, which gives you a 25 stage gauntlet. Every stage you complete can be replayed at any time, but you’ll have to beat them all in a row in order to see them all. This mode eschews the time limit, giving you more time to experiment, and figure out exactly how the level designers wanted you to find your way out of the mazes.

BTBoulderDash3DSArcade

Zen mode is essentially the Arcade mode but without the time limit. So in a way it feels like a giant practice mode where you can try to fine tune your techniques on each of the stages to minimize the amount of time it takes you to clear them. It’s pretty neat from that particular perspective, but most will likely prefer the Arcade mode over it since it’s a lot more high stakes, which feels more rewarding when you succeed.

 

Score mode features four stages where you can either try to go for the time bonus or you can try to get every last diamond possible. To get the best scores, you’ll likely have to skip a number of diamonds as it’s a balance of knowing how many diamonds, and how many seconds left on the clock will get you in terms of points. It’s an interesting concept some players may enjoy. To me it isn’t as interesting as the Puzzle mode, or as fun as the Arcade mode. But still fun to check out.

BTBoulderDash3DSRetro

Retro mode is one of the coolest inclusions in this game. It’s a combination of stages from the original game, as well as all new stages specific to this iteration. The interesting thing it does is replace all of the textures with the original 8-bit tile sprites from the Commodore 64 version of the first Boulder Dash. There are 25 stages in this set, and for older people like me who pick this up, the nostalgia it conjures up is great. But for people who never played the original, the newer stages are still a nice challenge. So even if you pick this up having never played the original, this mode gives you more content to enjoy.

 

BTBoulderDash3DSRetro2

Visually, the main game on display here is pretty nice. The blocks, boulders, and diamonds all look pretty good, and the monsters all have pretty interesting takes on their original designs. There’s also a pretty good use of lighting considering the obviously smaller budget when compared to a lot of the big hits on the 3DS. Be that as it may, the change from the humanoid miners to robots is a bit weird. It by no means hampers the game. It isn’t going to make any old timers scream “Sacrilege!” to the heavens. It’s just a small change that doesn’t make any sense. As for the 3D, I couldn’t really test that out, as I own a 2DS which doesn’t have the 3D functionality. But honestly this isn’t the kind of game that requires 3D to enjoy. In terms of performance, I didn’t run into any major issues, though there was some minor slowdown when I caused a slew of boulders to fall at once. Still, it didn’t get in the way of the actual game play.

There isn’t much in the way of good audio here though. The soundtrack doesn’t have the up tempo, frazzled chip tune theme of the original. It has a mostly forgettable set list, with one or two songs that can even annoy a bit. Some of you may disagree, but honestly I think you’ll enjoy it more without the music playing. The sound effects themselves are fine. You can hear the falling boulders, and explosions perfectly well, and they fit the game as intended.

 

BTBoulderDash3DSTeela3DS

Boulder Dash is one classic game that is perfectly suited to a portable platform. It’s the kind of game you can attempt to clear a map or two in during a lunch break, or commute. But you can also spend a weekend away, putting in a few hours into going for a high score, or solving puzzles. It’s also just a great game in its own right. This version on the 3DS is a pretty fun, and convenient iteration of the game. It’s probably not going to live up to the lofty heights of the original versions for those who grew up with them. But be that as it may this is (as Metal Jesus Rocks might say) a hidden gem in the 3DS library. It’s addictive. It’s fun. It’s Boulder Dash.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Holiday gaming gifting for the frugal.

BTXMASBUDGETTITLE

Man, what a crazy couple of weeks. I’ve been insanely busy with deliveries at my paid gig. Between this, and Thanksgiving week I haven’t had much in the way of *me* time. But I did find a few morsels of time finally this evening, so I’m trying something a little bit different. If you’re like me, the holiday weeks are not only very time-consuming, they’re wallet busting. Not only do you want to get the people closest to you something off of their list, you may want to do a little something for your friends. Or even Pete in accounting. But after getting that Nintendo Switch for your kids, that Gibson guitar your wife has been eyeing, and that new 4K TV for your aging parents, there isn’t much left in the tank.

Fear not! These are some pretty cool gifts you can pick up, that won’t break the bank. At least not too much. Some of these will be games, others trinkets. But hopefully they’ll give you some ideas. Some of these have deals that are ending soon, but I’ve tried to find some that aren’t too expensive at full price either. And some of these I’ve reviewed a while ago, but now can be had for less due to their age. But just because something is older than 6 months doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. It’s still new if the person hasn’t played it.

So let’s have at it!

Digital Games

Digital Downloads can be a great way to save some money, and still give someone in your life an entertaining gift. I do this a lot every year, and I’m sharing that tactic with you. Steam, and GoG have amazing sales every year. As I type this there are two days left to their respective autumn sales, and Steam will likely follow it up with their annual Winter sale. But even some of the console manufacturers have thrown in some discounts. So do look into Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft’s digital store fronts in case of any promotions they may happen to put up. Some games I recommend:

BTXMASGIANA

Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams

Anyone who knows me, or has been reading awhile knows I’m a huge fan of this game. It’s one of my favorite titles ever. But even if I weren’t, the quality is obvious. It has wonderful graphics, an amazing soundtrack, and a cool morphing mechanic. It twists you between parallel worlds. One a whimsical dream, the other a horrifying nightmare. But you’ll have to use this to solve puzzles, collect gems, and succeed in general. It’s also got a plethora of secrets, and unlockable modes. It’s a scant $3.59 with it’s expansion on Steam until 11/28. PS4, and Wii U owners can track down the disc version for around $20 on Amazon.

 

BTXMASULTIONUS

Ultionus: A Tale Of Petty Revenge

This one is a great choice for the friend who loves challenging action games, and shmups. Just know it is inspired by old computer games where movement was more calculated than it was brisk. That said, this one is a fun game for anyone who can get past that caveat, and it’s even better for one who grew up on the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, and Amiga. It has great pixel art, a great sense of humor, and a lot of love for Phantis. It’s just shy of $5 on Steam until the sale ends. Then it goes back to the regular low price of $7.

BTXMASUNDERTALE

Undertale

If you have a friend who still hasn’t tried this one out, it’s a meager $5 right now rather than the usual $10. At least on Steam. But even if you spend the full ten dollars, that’s about what you’d spend treating them to lunch at their fast food staple of choice. Undertale is pretty cool too. While I’m not the hardcore fan many people are, I can attest to the fact that it is a fun RPG with some great humor, swerves, and a love of 8-bit computers. It also implements some bullet hell shmup mechanics in a creative way. It also has multiple endings, giving it a good sense of replay value. It’s also on consoles, so you’re not limited to the computer, though you’ll likely pay less for the PC version.

Ikaruga 

You may not realize Treasure’s classic is on Steam, and that like the previous game on the list it’s $5. $10 normally. Here’s the thing. A lot of retro fans obsess over getting the Japanese Dreamcast version or the Nintendo Gamecube release. These can easily exceed $40 for a used copy, and well beyond that if they have their case, and manual inside. If you have a collector friend, who also has a PC, you may want to get this one for them digitally. They can enjoy it legitimately, and you can save a lot of money.

Ultima 1-6

The entire run of Ultima can be had on GoG fairly cheap. They have their own sale running alongside Valve’s, and have made these games even cheaper. For a mere $3.58 you can get the best of the series via two bundles. Ultima is one of the most important RPG series in the genre. Many of the conventions you see in RPGs, and even some JRPGs were inspired by Richard Garriott’s seminal series. It starts out simple, but eventually gives you a compelling overall story, and an open world to get immersed in. It may not look like The Witcher, but you should probably play these if you love RPGs. And while it might not elicit the same joy cloth maps, and trinkets do being digital, the GoG release means you don’t need to know how to use DOSBox. GoG releases have DOS emulation wrappers built around them, so all you have to do is click *play*. Later Ultimas didn’t have the core elements these did, so you may want to pass. But if you’re still interested, those are also on GoG’s sale. A great gift for the Retro RPG fan in your life.

The Witcher Series

Speaking of The Witcher, the entire series can be found digitally for very affordable prices right now. And with Steam’s winter sale coming up, you can remind yourself to nab them if you miss the current offers. If you didn’t already know this, these games offer vast worlds to explore, tons of missions, and all of the levelling up you could possibly want. CDProjektRed has made a trilogy of excellent RPGs that would please about anybody. These sales aren’t as deep as some of the other games I’m mentioning, but they’re still worth looking into.

Rocket League

Rocket League may not be the newest game anymore, but it’s as fun, and as compelling as ever. Plus with the recent release on Nintendo Switch, and cross-play, there’s never been a better time to check this game out. The PC version is only $10 in this current Steam sale. If you’re uninitiated with it, it’s like a mash-up of Super Mario Strikers, and RC Pro-Am. If RC Pro-Am could jump with hydraulics, and do bicycle kicks. It’s one of the most fun arcade soccer games ever made. Even if your friend doesn’t usually gravitate toward sports games, they’ll probably really enjoy this on whatever platform they have.

Insurgency

This is one modern military shooter worth playing, and the fact that it’s less than $2 during Steam, and Humble Bundle sales makes it even better. It’s a few years old now, but it still has a sizable community, and you can still get into a full game. It eschews just some annoyances other modern military shooters have. No grinding away for guns. No micro-transactions. Here every player gets points to use every round on their layout. Every weapon is available, and attachments, as well as side gear. The catch is you won’t have enough to equip everything so it balances out nicely. Too much fire power you’ll have no protection. Too much protection you’ll be slow, and low on ammo. It also encourages team work, and objectives over kills. Though you’ll still have players who care about kills, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Also there are no kill cams, and barely any HUDs to speak of. It’s a wonderful blend of Rainbow Six 3’s realistic damage, and movement, with modes popularized by games like Battlefield. If you have a friend looking for something different from the typical Activision or EA annual release, get them this one. If they like it tell them to keep their eyes out for the sequel. If it’s half as good as this one, it should be quite the game indeed.

Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus R/Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator

This may not be the latest, and greatest Guilty Gear game around. But it is the definitive version of the XX line. All of the Guilty Gear games have some astonishing animation in them, and a wealth of great characters to choose from. If you get this during the Steam sale, it’s a meager $3, and will give a fighting game fan who missed it, hours upon hours of fun.  If you do want to get that friend Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator instead, being that it’s newer, it will set you back $15. This one is more advanced, looks slicker (Runs on the Unreal Engine), and is also a blast. The fighting system also has refinements over the older series so it doesn’t play exactly the same. But either game makes an excellent gift.

Ys series (Most of it)

Ys Origin, the re-mastered Ys 1&2, Oath In Felghana (Ys III), Ark Of Napishtim (Ys VI), and Ys VII, all have huge discounts, with the oldest games coming in for under $5 in most cases. This is a wonderful series of action RPGs dating back to the NEC PC-8801 computer in Japan. In recent years XSEED, managed to get the re-mastered editions localized, and on Steam. Their tireless work is your gain, as these titles are worth every penny. If you have a friend who loves JRPGs, and hasn’t played this series, all of these are great options, though I may start them with Ys Origin. It’s a prequel that kicks everything off, and explains a lot of back story the original games only touched on.

Cities Skylines

If you have a friend who can’t get enough of old school management games, and they’ve blown through Civilization 5, Sim City 4, and the Tropico series like a hot knife through butter, they’ll probably dig this one. And with the current sale price of $7.49 it’s a steal. I recently watched my buddy Xonticus stream it for Extra Life. It’s easily as deep as any Sim City title, and it has a lot of its own cool little details, and world animations.

 

Physical Games

You can often times find pleasant surprises in the used, and clearance bins at traditional retailers. Here are some really good ones I’ve found over the past year. Of course your mileage may vary as stock, and prices change. But that said, keep an eye out anyway. You may just find one of these.

BTXMASAXIOM

Axiom Verge PC Game Trust Steel Book Edition (And other games in this format.)

Game Trust is a label GameStop created for some exclusive physical indie game releases. They partnered with indiebox to produce a few special editions of some of these games. For whatever reason, the company decided to put these titles on clearance. All of these are worth picking up if you see them in your local GameStop. Axiom Verge is probably the best of them. But they also did Steel Books for Guacamelee, Rogue Legacy, Punch Club, Nuclear Throne, Chariot, Thomas Was Alone, Stories: The Path Of Destinies, Awesomenauts, and Jotun. These editions not only include the digital key for Steam, but a physical disc with the game on it, as well as the game’s particular soundtrack album on a studio CD. The cases are made of aluminum, and are a sight to behold. I only paid about $5 for my copies of Axiom Verge, and Rogue Legacy. Hit up your local store’s clearance bins. You just might get lucky.

Bloodborne, The Last Of Us Remastered (Best Buy)

While I was out shopping for Christmas gifts, I noticed two pretty good games, are now at a budget price point. And even cheaper for the week of Cyber Monday this year at Best Buy. Bloodborne, and The Last Of Us on PS4, are only $20. But with this year’s sale, you can shave off another $5. If you have a pal with a PS4 who hasn’t picked up either of them, it’s a pretty good deal.

A plethora of PS4 Deals on Newegg.

I generally go to Newegg for parts. But a quick glance at their Cyber Monday deals tells me, to tell you, to go look at their store for PS4 game deals. A lot of games are ridiculously cheap.  Doom (2016), Dishonored 2, Ratchet & Clank, and Until Dawn are $15. Not bad at all for those on your list with a PS4.

“What if my friends have an XBOX One?”

Microsoft’s store has a TON of XB1 stuff at cutthroat prices. Injustice 2, Super Lucky’s Tale, Gears Of War 4, Fallout 4 (Standard), Prey, Watch Dogs 2 all were severed down to $20. Dishonored 2 is $12.

BTXMASGIANA2

Gaming Tchotchkes 

Sometimes you may go through a thousand awesome bargains, but realize your friend probably won’t be into any of them, because they’re not in their genre of choice. Or because they have them already. Or they’re on a platform they don’t own. Not to worry! You can still find something affordable, and fun to accent their favorite hobby in a different way.

Pint Glasses.

Maybe they drink beer. Maybe they drink soda. Maybe they only stick to water. Whatever the case, when you’re playing through a 140 hour RPG, mastering a fighting game character, or just enjoying some Pac-Man here are some great, stylish glasses to gulp down a beverage while doing so.

Obviously you can get some decent game-themed glasses at GameStop or Think Geek as they’re the same company. Often times if you catch a closeout you can get a pretty cool Pokémon, Zelda, Mario, or Pac-Man glass for a few bucks. And who doesn’t like to jazz up their glassware with a nice print. But you have some other options too. I’ve had some luck at Spencer’s Gifts. Last year I got my co-workers some Nintendo themed glassware, but also one in particular an excellent Cyberdemon glass from Doom.

Sometimes you can even find them in an unexpected place. Wandering through a Kohl’s I’ve even found a few Pac-Man glasses. But also don’t discount the idea of helping out one of your favorite internet personalities. As most readers know I’m a big fan of Classic Game Room. As luck would have it, the show has a wealth of show themed Beer Steins, Pint Glasses, and Coffee mugs along with the usual things you might expect. Some of them may even go on sale before the holidays arrive.

BTXMASCGRSTEIN

T-Shirts, and Discs

Continuing on from that, if there is a game focused blog, or YouTube show your friend or relative follows, see if it has any merchandise. Many of them do put out DVD’s Blu Ray’s, and T-Shirts. Purchasing one of them not only gets your pal an awesome piece of swag, but supports a small biz, or labor of love in the process. Plus you know that nobody else thought to give the person an awesome Heyzoos The Coked-Up Chicken Stein. I know the focus here was to stay affordable, but some of these items are worth the extra money if you can get a few other people to go in on it with you. Pat Contri’s NES Guide Book isn’t cheap. But it’s also something one would definitely want to go with their game collection.

Individual Artists

A ton of really talented artists out there make some great gaming themed art. Like the YouTubers, and bloggers above a lot of the merchandise is similar. But when you get a print from Tom Ryan’s Studio, for example you’re getting quality. There are also a few great shops you can get stuff featuring independent artists work on. NeatoShop, and Teepublic have some terrific prints you can get from these artists, and they often have sales. Neatoshop’s print quality is a bit better, though Teepublic has a wider range of artists. In either case, you can get some memorable prints that won’t break the bank.

Action figures, and other knickknacks 

I’m not talking about the stuff from NECA that costs $30 (Though that Atari 2600 Texas Chainsaw Massacre Leather Face figure is pretty bitching). But hit up those clearance aisles, and you may be surprised with some cheap, but cool finds. Does your friend dig Funko’s POP vinyls? Often times some nice game themed ones will be closed out to make way for new ones. Why not get that co-worker a DOOM guy for a few bucks that they don’t already have? Another great option are the World Of Nintendo 6 inch figures from Jakks Pacific. These usually sell for $10 or less, and dress up any Nintendo fan’s shelf, desk, or cubicle nicely. And of course, The Amiibo figurines are another nice gesture, as the details on them are great. Even if they aren’t going to use them with a Wii U, 3DS, or Switch game.

BTXMASROGUE

Retro

Of course if they’re into collecting old games, we instantly think of $170 copies of Mega Man 7 or $1,000 copies of Little Samson. But there are still a lot of great bargains on old games out there. I won’t list a ton of examples as I’m running long. But things like MagMax, Abadox, or Blaster Master on the NES can all be had for a few dollars. And these are really fun games that not everybody has. You just have to do some research to find some of these titles, and of course figure out if the person you’d give them to already has them.

Hopefully this has given someone out there with a shoestring budget some ideas. You can really find some good stuff out there without maxing out your card, or depleting your accounts. Obviously presents aren’t the focal point of the holidays. Appreciating those in your life, and helping those you can afford to should be. But we all have those people we want to do something nice for in our hobby. So look into these deals while they’re up for the next day or so. I apologize in getting to this so late, but such is the way of a busy week.

Super Double Dragon Review

BTSuperDDTitle

Every so often a series will take a different direction, and as a result it will get a lot of flack for it. Sometimes this can seem justified, being so different it may as well be something else entirely. In these cases sometimes that may be a creative decision, or it may be a business decision. In the world of games, sometimes it may even be technical as new hardware isn’t necessarily built off of the previous standard. But sometimes these changes aren’t all bad. In the case of Super Double Dragon we have a mixed bag of changes.

PROS: Countering system. Soundtrack. Animations. Fun.

CONS: Slower movement. Sluggish platforming. Missing characters. Nonexistent story.

CHARGE: The meter comes in handier than you think.

Super Double Dragon was released in 1992 Stateside ahead of the Japanese version. As with the NES versions of the previous three Double Dragon games, Tradewest would publish the game in North America. You’ll find upon popping the game into your Super NES, and turning it on that there is nothing in the way of options. You’re given a single player option, and two player option with or without friendly fire. That’s it. Unless you count choosing stereo or monaural music. No options. No difficulty settings. Nothing.

BTSuperDDBackground

Starting the game doesn’t even set the pace with a cinema screen or an animation the way the older entries did. No Marion getting punched in the ribs, or getting killed by Black Shadow Warriors. No old lady sending you around the globe. You’re just going to start the game. Upon starting the game, you’ll find things do look a cut above the NES games as you’d expect. However your characters don’t move as briskly as they did in the NES Trilogy, or the arcade games they were based upon. Super Double Dragon does feel a bit slower than what you may be used to.

And the other major issue you’ll often hear brought up is that not every member of the Black Shadow Warriors makes an appearance here. Linda, who is basically the Evil-Lyn to the Shadow Boss’ Skeletor is notably absent, as is he. Also missing are major baddies like Burnov, and fan favorite henchman Abobo. But there are a number of fresh faces joining the Williams, and Ropers as they come out of the woodwork to kick your ass.

BTSuperDDTruckFight

This is where things start to improve. The soundtrack is definitely one of the strongest points in the game. While you’re not going to hold the melodies in the same regard as the first game, they are all quite good. All of the tracks make full use of the Super Nintendo’s sound chip, and you’ll hear a lot of that familiar orchestrated sound. The bass in many of the songs really accent things with some funk-inspired licks.

The sound effects are pretty good too with the crashes, thuds, and cries of pain. Though often times bad guys will sound like they’re vomiting when they finally go down for the count. It does a great job of enhancing the action. The action, while at a slower pace is pretty good as far as beat ’em ups go. New to the series is a new counter system. So in addition to the punch, and kick button you get a jump button, and a block button. If you time your button presses right, the block button will let you do reversals, and counter into combos. You can catch a fist, then launch a flurry of elbows into your attacker’s face, and send them flying.

BTSuperDDTruckCrash

Of course being a Double Dragon game, you can also grab people, throw them into each other, or pits. There is even a charge attack you can use by holding down the right or left shoulder button. On the HUD it will show this grow the longer you hold it down. You can press the punch or kick during this process to do a powered up attack that does a lot of damage. Unfortunately a lot of these additions come at a cost. Unlike the older games, you can’t climb on people after you’ve knocked them down to slam their heads into the pavement, or punch them to death. These guys will be getting up again to come after you. But there are also a wealth of weapons that can be picked up again. Oil drums, Bo staffs, bats, nunchaku, and boulders are some of the more common ones you’ll find.

But again, changes bring good along with the bad. While you won’t be seeing certain enemies, some of the newer bad guys are pretty nuts. There’s an obese clown who has a flaming spin attack that is reminiscent of Blanka’s roll in Street Fighter II. There are guys in suits that give the game an almost Scarface flair. There’s even a guy wearing a pleather trench coat with Magnum P.I. mustache, and shades. Many of the enemy designs are still decidedly late 80’s even though this is a 1992 release. So it still manages to feel like part of the series even though so many elements feel like a departure from the norm.

 

BTSuperDDJumping

The stages aren’t quite as exotic as they were in the second or third game. You’re not going to fight any evil doppelgänger, modern magic warlords, or ancient Egyptians. Things feel a bit more grounded like the original game did. And by original I mean the arcade version. Stages nearly run into each other. Nearly. You’ll still have a brief cut between them, but you won’t have those entrance title cards like in the NES games either. And you’ll have bad guys swarming you this time out.  You’ll start out in what appears to be a Vegas strip fighting in front of casinos. But after making your way through one such casino, you’ll fight through an airport, city streets, the top of a moving truck, rooftops, a secret base, and an evil lair. There isn’t much of that tricky, sluggish platforming here either, although there is one pesky section near the end.

BTSuperDDBoss

The Japanese version (called Return Of Double Dragon) does address some of the shortcomings. The songs are all arranged to play on different levels than they do in Super Double Dragon, and it has an options menu. So you’ll be able to choose a difficulty setting, as well as the number of continues allowed. It doesn’t do much to resolve the lack of a story though. Which is a weird complaint to have considering how little of a story was in previous games. But that said, the first two games had a simple, if over the top storyline. This one has basically nothing. You’ll see the final boss without even realizing that they’re the final boss. When you manage to finally take him out, the game just abruptly ends. Things go to black, and you’ll be rewarded with a brief paragraph telling you that the Lee brothers disappear after finishing off the Black Shadow Warriors. Then the credits roll. It isn’t much of a spoiler because there isn’t any real story to spoil.

BTSuperDDEnding

Despite the issues, this is one of the best Double Dragon games you can find. Arguably the NES version of the second game could be considered the best one for its variety, and expanded story context. Or the first one for kick starting the series, and getting the spotlight on the beat ’em up genre. But the good parts that are here, are quite fun. In fact, I have an absolute blast playing through it every time I revisit it. The music is great, the animations are terrific, and the added mechanics keep things from getting monotonous. As great as Final Fight, Turtles In Time, and other beat ’em ups on the Super Nintendo are, a lot of the more generic ones can boil down to trapping bad guys off-screen. Then punching them in groups until you can move forward. Those games may have larger sprites, with more details, but this still looks pretty good. The new features set it apart, and make it worth looking into. It really can be a lot of fun.

BTSuperDDSFCTitle

Really if this had more cinema screens, Abobo, Linda, and a faster walk speed, there wouldn’t be much to complain about. And according to an interview on a Double Dragon fan site, some of these things may have been included. But the game had a locked down release date, and so things had to be cut. As such, this is why some folks may consider this one merely average. Personally, I think it’s one of the more underrated games in the series. It isn’t one of the cheaper Game Paks on the system these days, but is still worth looking into if you enjoy a good beat ’em up. If you can find the Japanese version, you’ll get a couple of extra perks to boot. If you want a vintage game that will bring back the feelings of your favorite classic B action movies, pick this one up.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back Review

BTBubsyTWSBTitle

Every now, and again there will be a remake, or a reboot that just makes you ask yourself “Why?” Sometimes it’s a property that is universally reviled. Other times it’s something that wasn’t so bad it could make a Worst Of list, but not particularly good either. But to the surprise of everyone, someone, somewhere, decided to do it anyway.

PROS: It’s good. Seriously! It’s good!

CONS: Unbelievably short. Recycles a lot from a much more noteworthy game.

RETURN: The game promises Bubsy will.

Bubsy is one such franchise that falls under this scenario. Back in the days of the Super NES, and Sega Genesis, Accolade brought out their own mascot. The hope was they would have a game that could rival the two biggest franchises in the platformer genre. But while Bubsy wasn’t the horror show some folks make it out to be, it wasn’t great either. There were some problems on its quest to out-Sonic Sonic The Hedgehog. It had collision issues at times. It relied a lot on blind jumps that often led to cheap deaths. Every stage had multiple paths, but these paths could be confusing, and sometimes even malicious. Some would take you to traps, others would even go to the beginning of a stage!

A lot of the folks who complain about Bubsy, forget it did well enough to warrant, a sequel, a spinoff for the Atari Jaguar, and another sequel on the PlayStation in the form of Bubsy 3D. Hell, there was even a short-lived cartoon pilot, and a comic book series. But then, the series went dormant. Over time, popular opinion on these games soured, and these days it’s rare to hear anyone heralding any of them as an essential game in the genre. Still, when compared with some of the other Sonic, and Mario clones of the time, the first three Bubsy games weren’t all bad.

BTBubsyTWSBTheft

So now around two decades later we have Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back, and; it’s honestly not that bad. In some ways, it’s actually quite good! The new Accolade, (which owns some of the original Accolade’s IPs) hired Black Forest Games to give us this new game. For those who don’t know, Black Forest Games is the studio that gave us the excellent Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, and its expansion pack a few years ago. So Accolade chose a studio wisely.

Bubsy is a 2.5D platformer that runs on the same engine Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams did. In fact, it has a lot of the same hallmarks, and mechanics. No more blind jumps, or awful hit detection. In this new Bubsy, you’ll know your mistakes are on your end. Stages are straightforward, but they do retain the idea of different paths. However there is no longer the brisk running of the old 16-bit games. Bubsy runs along at a slower pace these days. But this isn’t a crawl either. The camera is much better in this game too. No longer do you have to worry about blindly falling into a chasm, or bumping into an enemy.

BTBubsyTWSBStageOne

As in first game, the Woolies return. Obsessed with yarn, they steal the world’s supply, including Bubsy’s private reserve. So you’ll go across three worlds, each with five stages on your mission to stop them. When you fire up the game you’ll get a brief storybook segment explaining the simplistic story arc. From here you’ll start the game. You’ll see a map with a path through it. Each of the regular stages marked by a red ball of yarn, and boss stages marked by a purple one. Defeating a boss opens the next world, and you’ll repeat the process.

Each stage will give you achievements for meeting three metrics. Not losing any lives, entering a yarn room, and finding every T-shirt. When you’re in any given stage you’ll go around trying to get as many yarn balls, and T-Shirts as possible. You’ll also need to find a certain number of keys, if you want to be able to open the yarn room. The T-shirt mechanic is a little bit different from the way it was in the old games. Instead of having several types, here your first acquired shirt will allow you to take a second hit before dying. Any shirt you find while you’re able to take a second hit, will net you a 1-Up.

BTBubsyTWSBFloat

So you’ll go along trying to find the end of any given stage while accomplishing these metrics. You don’t have to meet any of them to complete a given level, but it can help by boosting your score, and the number of lives you have in reserve. Each of the stages will have a variety of Wooly threats. Some of them will appear on foot, others will hover around on jetpacks. Sometimes you’ll find one in a small saucer shooting at you. In addition to the Woolies themselves, you’ll contend with spike traps, water hazards, and even killer sand sharks. A lot of sections with these dangerous environments employ many of the obstacles introduced in Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams. There are fans that can push Bubsy up if he’s floating above them. There are sections with falling boulders. Near the end of the game, there is even a section where a room fills with lava, before draining it, and filling it again. Even one of the enemy types cribs an attack pattern from the knights in Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams.

That isn’t to say the game is nothing more than a re-skin. There are plenty of differences. For instance, the deep, world shifting, and puzzle mechanics are exclusive to Giana Sisters. There aren’t many super secret areas, in the extent of that game. And the focus in that game was a lot more on challenging areas, and secrets than in Bubsy. Bubsy still tries to go more toward the 16-bit games’ feel. You’re going to try to find the fastest route possible unless you want to hunt down every last ball of yarn, and T-shirt, all without dying. Still, after playing Black Forest Games’ flagship franchise, you will definitely notice when one of its mechanics makes an appearance here.

BTBubsyTWSBPassword

Visually, Bubsy looks quite nice. The game hits the Saturday morning cartoon look even the old games tried to go for. There are all kinds of nice visual touches throughout the backgrounds. There are even a few clever sight gags if you take the time to try to find them. The same dry comedy, and corny wordplay humor also return from the old games. Every now, and again you’ll see the character break the fourth wall (sometimes literally) with a joke. They even reference some of the criticism laid at the feet of the old games. One example is when the hero excitedly reminds the audience about how falling from beyond a certain height in the old games would kill him. There are also the expected cat themed pun titles for each stage. Boss fights are pretty fun encounters too. You’ll have to learn some intricate patterns in the later fights, but all in all they’re pretty fun.

BTBubsyTWSBGiana

The audio is easily the strongest part of the game. They contracted the great Chris Huelsbeck to compose the game soundtrack, and it’s wonderful. Every stage has some catchy, bouncy New Wave, Synth-Wave, and Synth-Pop tracks that stick with you long after you’ve stopped playing. The sound effects are very nice with high quality explosions, splashes, and Saturday morning cartoon effects. The presentation is just great. Honestly, over the course of the game, you’ll have a good time.

BTBubsyTWSBMap

Unfortunately this iteration of Bubsy does have one major issue, and that’s its relatively short length. Part of this is due to the small sizes of the earlier stages. If you don’t make too many mistakes, and you’re not out for every last collectible they don’t take long to finish. The difficulty level is also very, very easy. For most players anyway. If you’re someone who has played a lot of platformers, you can probably clear the game in under two hours time. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, are the large number of lives you can stock up. You start with nine (because you’re a cat.), and if you don’t make a lot of mistakes by the end of a given stage you can have nearly twenty.

The other is in the boss fights. When you die, you don’t start the boss fight over again. You’ll re-enter the chamber, and the boss will have the amount of health it had when you died last. For most people, if you have more than five or six lives, you’ll get through these fights with little issue. Players obsessed with completion may squeeze out a bit more time. If you’re looking to collect every last trinket, maybe you can pull it off in three hours. Ultimately, some people won’t mind this. But most people likely will. If you’re someone in the latter camp, you may want to pick up another platformer you haven’t played yet instead. For example, Black Forest Games’ own Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is one of the best platformers to be released in recent years, and as good as this game is, Giana Sisters is still leagues better overall.

BTBubsyTWSBBoss

But if you’re a big fan of the Bubsy games in general there’s nothing really bad here. It’s short, and it borrows heavily from a better game. But it’s still pretty good. Just know you’ll have to spend a lot of time re-playing it in speed runs to maximize your enjoyment out of it. The best audience for this game is probably younger children who are just getting into platformers. It’s got enough challenge for them, with plenty of charm, and atmosphere. Upon completing the game there is a hint that there will be another game in the series. If, and when Accolade brings it out, hopefully they’ll address the short length, and commission some more unique ideas. Bubsy’s latest endeavor isn’t a bad game, but there are a lot of better options in terms of the amount of content, and challenge.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Pac-Attack Review

BTPacAttackTitle

Back at RetroWorld Expo I managed to snag up a number of Super NES, Atari 2600, and NES games for the collection. Among the mix of games was a Pac-Man game that I never saw once when it was new. Of course I grew up playing Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Jr. Pac-Man, and Super Pac-Man during visits to the arcade as a little kid. The earliest games have been on pretty much everything. But by the early 90’s, Namco did try to put the character in some other genres. Pac-Man 2 was noted for blending puzzle elements with point, and click elements. Years later, the Pac-Man World series would put the yellow icon in platformers. But there in my pile was Pac-Attack, a game I heard about, but never experienced. Until now.

PROS: An excellent combination of block dropping, and route planning.

CONS: Difficulty settings can be manipulated to boost your score.

PASSWORDS: Mercifully short.

Released in 1993, Pac-Attack is actually a retooled version of one of Namco’s other games, Cosmo Gang; The Puzzle. The original game was released a year prior, exclusively to the Japanese market. So essentially what we end up with is the same game with all new sprites, and backgrounds. But don’t assume that Namco swapped out characters to dupe the rest of the world into buying a mediocre game. Pac-Attack is actually, a lot of fun, and probably would have done exceptionally well as an arcade machine too.

But this was not to be. That said, Namco did bring it over to the Super NES, Sega Genesis, and Sega Game Gear. Where a lot of us likely missed it since we were obsessed with home ports of Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat,  or Sonic The Hedgehog, Super Mario World, or any other high-profile game of the time. But if you did have this one back in the day, you had a treat on your hands. And if you didn’t, but love discovering oldies you missed out on, you’ll probably want to read on.

BTPacAttackPaths

So what do you do in Pac-Attack? At a first glance, you’d swear it was just another Tetris clone. The idea is of course to clear lines for points. However, that isn’t the main goal. The blocks drop down in similar fashion, but you’ll find they aren’t arranged in Tetris shapes. They’re in different formations, and they’re composed of bricks, and ghosts. Your initial instinct might be to group all of the ghosts together, to create some super ghost rectangles. Like the blocks in Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo.

But this isn’t what you do at all. Eventually, you’ll get a Pac-Man block who of course, eats ghosts. But he will always travel whatever direction he faces. So you don’t want to group all of the ghosts together, as he won’t eat all of them this way. So you’ll actually want to create pathways with the ghosts, while simultaneously trying to create lines with the brick pieces that fall.

BTPacAttackPassword

The results are an addictive, and captivating puzzle game that you can easily sink hours into playing. Not only does the main objective of the game create an engrossing experience, eating ghosts fills a meter. When the meter gets filled, the fairy from Pac-Land shows up to clear up to eight rows worth of ghosts. This causes the blocks above them to fall, and if they create whole rows, you’ll get a huge point bonus.

But like any good arcade game, this one eases you in. In the early goings, the blocks will fall slowly. This allows you plenty of time to arrange the pieces how you want. The first few rounds you’ll get your rows of ghosts set up nicely. You’ll create rows of blocks pretty easily too. However, before long, the blocks will fall faster, and faster, until you can’t line things up anymore. Then like Tetris, things will stack to the top, and the game will end.

BTPacAttackDifficulty

As I said though, it’s executed so well, you can spend an entire day just trying to get your best possible score. But it doesn’t end there. Because Pac-Attack also has a second puzzle mode. This time there are 100 puzzles, each giving you only five attempts to have Pac-Man clear the board of ghosts. As with the main mode, the puzzles start out simple enough. But they quickly start throwing in some complexity. By around the tenth puzzle you’ll have to start predicting chain reactions at an almost Rube Goldberg level. Not to the degree of dominoes landing on dials just so, but there is a complexity there.

Fortunately you don’t have to solve all 100 puzzles in a single sitting. You do get to retry every time you fail, but you’ll also get a three character password. So it’s pretty easy to continue where you left off.  The one complaint I have with the game is that you start out with a bunch of points in advance should you choose to start the main mode on a higher difficulty setting. If you’re not the only one playing the game, this makes it easy to be cheap as you can get your name on the scoreboard just by doing so. Starting at zero, and listing the difficulty would have been a better solution for competitive roommates.

BTPacAttackVs

But thankfully, this is mitigated with the inclusion of a versus mode. This is a two-player variation of the main game, where doing well will make things tougher for the other player, and vice-versa. A mechanic used in many head-to-head puzzle games, but it works well here. And this mode, like the main mode, is a lot of fun. Battles usually go quickly, but they’re a blast. Consider breaking out Pac-Attack when entertaining guests who come over for a party.

Overall, I’d say even if puzzle games aren’t your first choice when adding a title to your collection to consider this one. Pac-Attack is excellent. The base game may have origins in a different title, but Pac-Man almost seems born for it. It may not be as iconic as the maze games Pac-Man popularized. Nor as remembered as the third-person platformers he’s starred in since the original PlayStation was king of the hill. But Pac-Attack is easily one of the more attractive puzzle games to put in your rotation. And if you don’t have an old Super NES, Genesis, or Game Gear knocking around, it was in the Namco Museum compilation for the original Xbox, Gamecube, and PlayStation 2.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Cuphead Review

BTCupheadTitle

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

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

CONS: Some bugs keep it just shy of perfection.

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

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

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

BTCupheadBee

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

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

BTCupheadBeePuns

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

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

BTCupheadGenie

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

BTCupheadMMII

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

BTCupheadContra

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

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

BTCupheadWinLoss

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

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

BTCupheadResults

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10