Tag Archives: Famicom

Fantasy Zone II Review

BTFANTASYZONEIITITLE

Not too long ago I finally managed to snatch up a gem. It’s probably no surprise that this is a gem. In fact, if you have a means to play this one, you should probably stop reading, and go buy this right now. It really is all of the good things you’ve heard. It will please Golden Age fans. It will please shmup fans. It will please hardcore SEGA fans. If you dig video games at all, period. You’ll probably dig this game.

PROS: Colorful graphics. Great characters. Wonderful music. Pure joy.

CONS: Very difficult. But don’t let that stop you.

CONTROL STICK: You’ll want to use this (Or a Genesis Arcade Stick) over the stock pad.

Fantasy Zone II is the sequel to Fantasy Zone, a game I have yet to acquire on the mighty Sega Master System. It’s regarded as one of the earliest examples of a cute ’em up. A shoot ’em up where everything is bright, cheery, colorful, and cartoonish in aesthetics. You’ll notice this the second you see the title screen. Your ship, the Opa-Opa is a cute little pod with bird wings on it. Enemies are everything from flowers to flying turtles.

The game is a mixture of both Golden Age arcade shooter conventions, and the side scrolling shooter arcade games that followed. Every level sees you going along a backdrop that continually circles around itself. Basically, you’ll spend a ton of time blasting enemies with your lasers, and bombs. One button shoots the laser guns, the other drops the bombs. So you’ll cycle along the play field killing enemies, and then collecting the money they drop upon their deaths. Before long, you’ll discover some of the larger stationary enemies will open warp doors. These doors will take you to new sub-levels that basically work the same way. Every level has a store hidden within it too. Here you can upgrade your ship with new weapons, and abilities with the money you’ve collected.

BTFANTASYZONEIIStageOne

Once you’ve defeated every stationary enemy in the level, the door to the boss room opens up to you. Ideally, you’ll want to enter these encounters fully beefed up with extra power ups, and weapons. Because the boss encounters are where the game gets very challenging, very quickly. That isn’t to say the levels themselves don’t get difficult. They do. In a lot of ways they feel like an even harder version of Defender. Defender is a notoriously difficult arcade game. As every board just throws more, and more at you as you play. Fantasy Zone II, also does this. But on top of that, every enemy has its own attack pattern, and often times you’ll find yourself going after three or four enemy types at the exact same time.

The other major element of difficulty is in the power up system. Many of the upgraded lasers, and other items are timed, or give you a limited number of shots. So if you don’t hurry up, or you waste them on low-level grunts, you won’t have the extra might for the boss encounter. Moreover, if you lose a life, you’ll also lose any powers you purchased from the shop. Which means you’d better spend another ten minutes grinding money out of grunts so you can re-buy those power ups before fighting the boss.

BTFANTASYZONEIIEnemy

Here’s the crazy thing though. While all of this sounds like the kind of thing that would make you rip your hair out, and smash your Master System, it won’t. This game is quite honestly one of the hardest games you’ll ever play. Well unless you happen to eat, sleep, and breathe shmups. Then it may not crack your top ten. But for the rest of us, this game can be downright brutal. But it’s also downright compelling. Just like Defender did for so many of us growing up, Fantasy Zone II can be very addicting. Quite frankly, it is one of the most fun games ever. True, you’ll die, over, and over again. But you’ll probably play it fifteen times before giving up, and playing something else. Considering you’ll get better the more you play, that can add up to a couple of hours a session.

And as you improve, you’ll get to see more of the aforementioned boss encounters. Which just seem to add more craziness to the stew with every reveal. You’ll fight a killer space log in the first stage. Later in the game you’ll see the dragon boss from Space Harrier. There’s also a Mega Man styled boss rush for you to contend with at the end.

BTFANTASYZONEIIShops

As tough as this all sounds, things can be mitigated if you have the right tools for the job. Namely, a better option than the Master System’s stock game pad. I recommend using either a Genesis game pad, the Sega Control stick, or one of the arcade stick controllers that came out for the Genesis. It makes things much easier to play, as the stock pad’s D-pad just doesn’t have the precision required. Beyond control issues with the stock controller, I really don’t have much to complain about. Again, there is a high difficulty on display, but it’s also fair. When you die, you’ll know it was a lack of talent on your part nine times out of ten. It’s very rare, I’ve felt a death was cheap, or a fluke. I don’t think I ever ran into severe slowdown the way I have in some other games on the console either.

One of the other really great things about Fantasy Zone II is the soundtrack. These are some of the addictive chip tunes ever played back on the Sega Master System. If you have a modified console with the FM Sound Unit, or the Japanese Mark III with the FM Sound Unit accessory the soundtrack is even better.

BTFANTASYZONEIISpaceHarrier

Fantasy Zone II isn’t the cheapest game you can find for your Master System these days, but it’s worth tracking down a copy. It isn’t anywhere near the cost of something like Power Strike (Aleste). But it’s going to cost you more than something common like Out Run, or After Burner will. If you don’t own a Master System, or a Mark III, or a Power Base Converter for your Genesis, there are alternatives. The game was ported to the Famicom, MSX Computer, and was also re-released on the Wii Virtual Console. If you have a PlayStation 2, there was a remake as part of the Sega Ages line. Sega also updated the game, and released it to the Arcades. Subsequently there is a version based loosely on that version for the 3DS. Fantasy Zone II comes highly recommended.  If you’re building a vintage Sega collection, or you just love old school arcade games this should be on your radar.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

Advertisements

Shatterhand Review

w2pho36

The NES was a haven for action platformers by the early 90’s. Castlevania, Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden had all become mainstays. So companies were desperately trying to get in on the trend. Some of the games that came out of this trend became system sellers, while others went under the radar. Natsume, who is known mainly for the Harvest Moon games these days, were unsung heroes of action games back then. Known for stuff like Shadow Of The Ninja, and S.C.A.T. But some of their titles didn’t get the fanfare.

PROS: One of the best action platformers you can find for the NES.

CONS: High difficulty.

TUNAGE: This game has some of the memorable chip tunes on the console.

Abadox was one such game. It was a very good shmup that outside of a wild commercial, didn’t get much attention. This game didn’t either. In fact, Shatterhand was given almost no advertising by Jaleco, and I only found out about it back when it was coming out because I frequently read Nintendo Power. But those of us who did get a copy back in the day got a big win.

For those who missed it back then, or those who are into discovering old games, Shatterhand is definitely a game that should be on your radar. In Japan, it was called Super Rescue Solbrain , and based on a show in the Metal Hero series of TV programs there. It centers around a team of police cyborgs that can power up, and fight super criminals.

g9zztik

The shows weren’t released in any form in North America, or Europe at the time. So when the game was released outside of Japan the story was changed, the game retitled, and one of the stages was replaced with an entirely new one in its place. The game’s intro was also changed, as well as some of the character sprites. But the gameplay itself remains unchanged.

In Shatterhand the hero is renamed to Steve Hermann. The retooled story goes that a group of Military renegades form a terrorist organization called Metal Command. In 2030 they take over the world by unleashing their army of robots, and cyborgs upon the Earth. Streetwise cop Steve Hermann loses both of his arms in a fight with some of these terrorists, and a new agency called the Law, and Order Regulatory Commission (or L.O.R.D.) gives Steve new cybernetic appendages. So he becomes Shatterhand, and goes on a one man army mission to take down Metal Command.

ywtporw

Right away you’re going to notice how good this game looks. Visually it’s held up very well over the years. Sprites are very detailed, with some really nice animations on everything. Characters, background objects, enemies, everything looks really cool. The tile sets, and parallax scrolling work really well, and every stage oozes with atmosphere.

The stages themselves also have really clever layouts, with power ups placed in great risk/reward positions. Of course sometimes this makes things seem masochistic. Like when you’re going up an elevator with missiles coming at you from the bottom, and the top of the screen while guys in Cobra Flight Pods come gunning for you. You spot that crate you need to get to  in order to build a robot companion only to escape with a single hit point left.

ombbymp

But there are a wide range of power ups to help you. The main ones are robotic companions. But it isn’t a case of simply picking them up. Peppered throughout the stages are crates. Many of them have two different types of boxes inside, each with one of two letters. Along the top of the screen are three spaces. Each time you collect a letter it takes up one of the spaces. Grab three letters, and then a robot companion will beam in to help you. The robot that shows up depends on which letters you collected. You could get one that throws grenades. You could get one that uses a flamethrower. There are a few different robots. The key is knowing what combination is the best for each stage.

You can also become an invincible super robot if you collect the same sequence twice. This is only temporary, but if you can pull it off at the end of a stage, it will really help out in boss fights. Some of the bosses in the game have an insane amount of health, and so being able to deal high damage, without taking any helps a lot. Of course you can also destroy them by learning their patterns, and moving accordingly.

j4vdcba

Rounding out the power ups are an upgrade for your punches, health, a 1-Up box, and bags of gold. Which you will need because the power up punches, health, and extra lives cost money. You can also get money by beating certain enemies to death. But what adds to the challenge is that aside from the robot companions, you have only your fists. You have to kill everything in this game with your literal bare hands when you have no pick ups.

Shatterhand is a seven stage affair. The game borrows a bit from Mega Man in that after the first introductory level you’ll be able to choose your mission order. The first stage gets you acclimated with how things work. You’ll discover the basics of running, jumping, and punching bad guys, and obstacles. You’ll figure out how the letter combinations for robot assistants work, and you’ll face a pretty easy boss. But from this point on the game becomes brutally difficult.

kvfm7sm

The submarine stage for instance has some very annoying enemies in its top-secret mad science lab area. Floating aliens that are hard to hit. Monsters that leap from the chambers you have to destroy have almost as much health as some of the boss characters. The city stage is especially tough because everything is on fire, bombs constantly fall from the sky, and it will easily have you using continues like crazy when you first play it.

These are just two of many insanely difficult moments in the game. After you clear the five stages in whatever order you choose, you’ll go onto a final level. This stage is a medley of the earlier levels’ mechanics. Including a boss rush with three of the bosses you already defeated earlier. Thankfully the last stage is a bit forgiving in that it will let you continue from the middle if you lose all of your lives.

16f3v9n

While on the subject of continues you do get a lot of them. But you have to remember to push the start button after the first few Game Over screens to bring up the option. If you don’t do it before the sad music of failure ends, it just assumes you quit. Also know that if you’re looking to beat the game with any respectable score, you’d better beat the entire game on three lives. Because continuing erases your score. It is possible to beat the game on three lives, but it isn’t easy. Particularly if you get to a boss without a robot, or without the suit of temporary invincibility. Because at that point you have to know the boss patterns to a pixel perfect T. Compounding this is that General Gus Grover is a massively huge cheater. First, he dons a power suit similar to the one you get for getting the same robot satellite twice. Second, he starts to blow up chunks of the floor, causing them to engulf themselves in flames. This makes parts of the floor impossible to walk on. So you have to act fast to kill him before you have nowhere to stand.

As much as it may sound like I’m complaining about the difficulty on display, I’m really not. For the most part the difficulty is still pretty fair. You know it’s your own fault when you die. The game isn’t overly long either, the stages can be cleared pretty quickly once you’ve figured out exactly what you need to do. The thing is, it is also the kind of game that requires a lot of practice, and a lot of patience in order to win. You won’t beat it on your first attempt without using any continues. You may not be able to clear the game on your 500th attempt without continuing either. But you’ll have a lot of fun trying to.

gkjdqqp

Shatterhand is awesome. Beating the low-level enemies to death is a blast. Managing to even get to the bosses feels like an accomplishment. Defeating a boss will make you feel like a superhero. And after weeks of practice when you finally kick General Gus Grover’s ass you will want to celebrate with anyone who will listen. What sets the game apart from stuff like other hard games though is that again, doesn’t feel cheap. Except for the final boss setting the floor on fire. But even still, keep playing, and you’ll persevere.

Of course a lot of collector’s have discovered this one over the years, so it isn’t going to be a low-priced Game Pak. But unlike the terrible games that cost a fortune because of their rarity Shatterhand is a really good game. One that you’ll definitely want to keep in your collection once you find it. It’s one of the best action-platformers on the NES.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Abadox Review

Shoot ’em ups these days seem to focus a lot on the bullet hell approach. A subset of the shmup involving hundreds of projectiles, and enemies on the screen at any moment. Where touching anything at all killed you instantly. There is certainly merit in that approach, where completing the challenge is a badge of pride.  But in the days  where the genre was exiting its single screen infancy there were many other takes on the genre. Some games like Gradius, and R-Type would slowly veer into that direction. Others like Cybernoid would add a touch of trial, and error puzzling to the mix. As time went on, even the stories would take action sci-fi elements in addition to visual styles.

PROS: Inventive. Challenging. Beautiful visuals.

CONS: Short.

SALAMANDER: Abadox is often compared with Life Force due to the similarities.

One such game was crafted by Natsume. These days they’re primarily known as the house of Harvest Moon. But throughout the 1980’s, and 1990’s they would put out many, many well crafted action games. Action platformers, and of course shmups. Abadox at first glance is often mistaken for a Salamander (Life Force in the U.S.A.) clone. It has some similarities. You fight in an alien beast. You have power ups that beef up your attack power. It also had horizontal, and vertical perspective stages. But to its credit, Abadox has a lot more going for it. The gameplay while still a shooter, has its own feel. Things feel heavier in Abadox. Not so much slower, but heavier. This is partly due to the large characters throughout the game.  Even the smallest, grunt enemies are almost as large as your character. Because of this the game also doesn’t get into bullet hell territory. The game doesn’t need to. One hit from any given weapon can take you down unless you have some sort of power up. Suddenly, dodging 8 lasers, and three pellets goes from not being a big deal, to a pretty big challenge.

The story of Abadox isn’t a very complicated one, and doesn’t need to be. You play one of the few survivors of a planet that was eaten by an interstellar creature that is one part Galactus, and one part Death Star. You learn that your world’s Princess (Now a Queen) has survived, and is trapped in the bowels of the monster. So you take a page from Man-At-Arms, and go into the belly of the beast to free the monarch, and destroy the creature so it can’t digest another world.

The game starts with you skimming along the surface of the monster, and gets you acclimated to its formula. Each stage is a two-part affair, with each half pitting you against a mini boss. As you plow through enemies, in an attempt to survive there are symbols that join the enemy ranks. Destroying them allows you to collect a power up. Among them are better guns like spread guns, lasers that take down grunts in one hit, and shields that orbit you. There are also temporary invincibility moments if you play your cards right.

Abadox has some of the best visuals of any game on the NES. Every character in the game has intricate details, and many of the stage backgrounds are even animated. Years later, seeing the backgrounds of flesh contracting, and expanding as muscle spasms will impress you. Not only that but everything is memorable. Especially the boss encounters, some of which can even take up most of the screen. Also memorable is most of the game’s soundtrack. Composed by Kiyohiro Sada, many of these songs are catchy, and fit the action perfectly.

Abadox isn’t a particularly long game. It’s only seven stages long, but is still in line with most shmups of the time. It is also notoriously difficult, but in a good way. When you die you’ll often chalk it up to your own ineptitude. But if you have the patience to learn from your mistakes you’ll find a very good game that is both cruel, and fair. The game also has cheat codes for those who can’t seem to persevere. Though it’s recommended you do persevere because winning legitimately here feels very rewarding. Just know that even after you win it isn’t over. Because the game has a challenge that might just require you to break out the bullet hell skills if you manage to rescue your fearless leader.

Even if the genre isn’t your cup of tea, Abadox is highly recommended. It’s easily one of the best Game Paks available for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The game controls responsively, dishes out a lot of pattern memorization, as well as require the hand & eye coordination needed for the genre. It is certainly a challenge, but not impossible. That isn’t to say it’s all roses. The large sprites lead to slowdown in a number of places in the campaign. Playing for long periods as you try, and fail, can feel understandably repetitive.  Still, despite being mentioned by some of the more prominent bloggers, and internet video producers over the last few years, as of this writing it hasn’t skyrocketed in price yet. The game can be had for a few dollars loose. Not a bad proposition considering what the aftermarket values are with a lot of other shmups.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Retromini X review

For this entry I decided to do a little something different. Something that has become more common over the last few years is the creation of clones. Consoles that can run the software of older, defunct consoles. There are Sega clones, Nintendo clones, among others. The Nintendo clones are often called Famiclones, as many of them can even run Famicom cartridges. Of all of the vendors making these things, a handful stand out. The Retromini X is a pretty good one. I nabbed one a while ago, and while I took a number of decent photos back then, I never got around to reviewing the thing.  So I’m rectifying that.

PROS: Runs the majority  of the NES library. Can also be connected to a TV.

CONS: Wireless pads aren’t so hot. Light guns won’t work on modern HDTV’s.

WHAT?!?!?: The reaction you will hear playing it in public.

The Retromini X is one of the better portable NES clones you can find. The unit is lightweight without feeling too cheap. It has pretty responsive buttons, in a great layout. As far as handhelds go, it’s very comfortable, and you can easily spend several hours playing it. At first glance, one might complain about the size of the screen. It measures around 2.5 inches. Consider that’s about the size of the original Game Boy’s screen. But the quality of the screen is honestly, quite good. Colors pop, and the detail of the sprites show up without a hitch. it is also positioned nicely in relation to all of the face buttons, and the viewing angle is pretty wide. You don’t have to look at it dead on, just to  see it.

The Retromini X also has a very nice audio chipset. The speaker itself can be set very loudly, without distorting the sound, or becoming muffled. It does have a headphone jack as well. So you can play it out, and about without distracting everyone around you. The Retromini X  runs on 4 AA batteries. I would recommend using rechargeable batteries in lieu of the standard alkaline batteries. Because the regular batteries will drain fairly quickly. You can expect to get around 3 hours or so out of regular batteries, whereas the rechargeable ones can go a lot longer. That said, I do like that the unit works on standard batteries as, many other portable NES clones go with a proprietary battery. Especially a lot of the more recent releases.  While these do give you much longer play sessions there is a problem. When the units go out of production you have no way to run it as a handheld any longer. Because this in turn means you cannot find a replacement battery, as they were only ever made for that specific handheld. Which makes replacements very scarce.

With the Retromini X you won’t run into that trouble as it isn’t likely we’ll stop seeing AA batteries any time soon. The system does include an AC adapter as well, so you can still play your games off of an outlet. The AC adapter (at least the one included with the North American release)also appears to be a fairly common style that many devices use. So if you lose it, or it wears out you can probably find a suitable replacement for it. So long as you’re willing to put a bit of effort into scouring the internet for one. If not?  Then common, every day AA batteries will have to do.

Where the unit begins to fall short however, is as a home console. It does come with AV cables, and you can hook it up to a TV.  But this is not going to replace an NES in your gaming setup for a number of reasons. The biggest of these is that the handheld has no ports for game controllers on it. To alleviate that concern, the manufacturer included two wireless gamepads. But these pads cannot be replaced if they become lost or broken. They run on two AAA batteries each. Unlike the plastics used in the Retromini X itself, the pads are made of flimsy, and brittle plastics. The pads also don’t retain the same shape as classic NES pads or the NES Max. Instead, they take the shape of the Super NES controllers. But they won’t give you the same comfort, or feel as the handheld or classic controllers will. They also aren’t as responsive as a wired controller. So in some games where timing is key, you’ll really wish you could use something else.

Mysteriously, the system also includes a Zapper clone. The Nintendo Zapper was a light gun used for games like Duck Hunt, and ports of light gun shooters like Operation Wolf. Surprisingly, the Zapper clone works really well. Almost as well as the original gun. It isn’t as comfortable to hold as it is made from the same questionable plastics as the wired pads. But it does work as advertised. The biggest problem with it is the same one affecting the original Zapper, and other light guns. Modern televisions. Back in the 80’s, and 90’s light guns worked on a combination of light patterns off of a TV screen, and coordinates on a grid. It could read a pattern, send the data to the software, which would tell if you were close enough to your target’s hit box to count as a hit or not. But modern HD TV technology doesn’t display the image you see the same way. The Zapper was built with a CRT’s line by line refresh rate, where HD TVs mostly draw all of the image lines at the same time. I’m sure someone even more technically inclined might comment with a better explanation. But the bottom line is unless you are hooking up the Retromini X to an old CRT you won’t be able to play the NES light gun games on it whatsoever.

The unit works with the overwhelming majority of the NES library. Even most of the unlicensed third-party game paks in your collection will run well. The system’s emulation is pretty spot on, as the music, effects, and visuals are on display as you remember them. In the time I’ve had with mine over a few years, I’ve put a lot of games through the paces on it. The only game I ever ran on it that didn’t work was a copy of Paperboy. The cartridge fired up fine enough, but none of the buttons would work. I switched the game out with Mario Bros., to find that game played pretty flawlessly. So again, most of your collection should run on this swimmingly. With that said there are a number of game paks that will not run on this. There are no definitive lists of incompatible games that I’m aware of. So for the most part, it’s going to be hit, and miss. At least until either the vendor or a group of collectors get together to make a definitive list.

One last note about this system is how well it holds games in place. The Retromini X is a few years old now. A number of other handheld NES clones have come about, and yet many of them have wobbly cartridge slots. That is, the cartridge can shift forward or backward while it is in the system, and cause the pins to briefly disconnect. In the Retromini X, Game Paks fit in pretty snuggly. You don’t have to worry about the game falling out of the unit completely. Despite that fact, the Retromini X does has a hint of this issue, as you can get games to wiggle slightly. Yet it is not as bad a problem as on some of the other retro themed handhelds you might find in the wild. So if you find yourself looking at them, it is something you might think about when trying to decide on one. With my time on the Retromini X, I’ve found you almost have to go out of your way to tap the cartridge, and knock it loose. Although I suppose there are some titles you’ll pop in that will make you want to do exactly that. Isn’t that right Deathbots?

As a handheld NES, the Retromini X is actually a pretty cool product. It’s standard battery use, comfortable layout, and spot on emulation are wonderful. Bringing a handful of NES games on a long trip, or killing an hour in a coffee shop will be nice experiences. Provided of course you use rechargeable AA batteries. As a console replacement you’d be better served trying to find a used NES or a dedicated Famiclone. The Retromini X doesn’t give you controller ports, and the wireless pads really don’t lead to a good experience. I should also note that the system was also released as the FC Mobile II. So if you do hunt one down you may see that version. For all intents, and purposes they’re the same handheld. The only differences are some minor paint decorations around buttons.

As far as I can tell Hyperkin is still producing these for independent game stores, and E-tailers. So it shouldn’t be too hard to find if you want to give one a go. Do note that according to their website these are for PAL territories. So if you live in another region you’ll need a power converter, and an outlet adapter if you plan on plugging it into an outlet. It isn’t confirmation that the NTSC versions are discontinued. But if you see one, verify the version so you’ll know if you need those additions or not.

Final Score: 7 out of 10