Tag Archives: Game Compilations

Stern Pinball Arcade Review

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Atari Vault Review

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Ah, the video game compilation. Every few years we see them, bundling games of yesteryear for a budget price. We’ve seen them for Mega Man, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Super Mario Bros, and so on. Lately we’ve even seen Re-mastered collections for Uncharted, God Of War, Gears Of War, Halo just to name a few. Over the years we’ve seen a lot of collections centered around the Golden age of consoles. Especially the Atari 2600.

PROS: Online multiplayer. Content for enthusiasts. 100 games!

CONS: There could have been some better titles included. Limited controller options.

PADDLES: Sadly, nothing has compared to them in nearly four decades.

So what makes Atari Vault stand out from other Atari 2600 compilations that have come, and gone over the years? There are actually a few nice features here. This is one of the biggest compilations of Atari games yet. In the past we’ve seen a disc of 20 games or a disc of 80 games. Usually dumped ROMs in a sub par emulator for whatever platform. The game shows up in stores, you pick it up. Done. Every so often a better than average one would show up with nicer emulation, and maybe some historical backgrounds. Other times there would be a terrible remake bundled with the original game.

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Atari Vault doesn’t feel slapdash at all. You get 100 games. Some of which are not Atari 2600 games, but Atari arcade games. Right away this shows that effort went in. Why? Because Atari actually had a complicated history after the crash of 1983/84. The company was originally founded by Nolan Bushnell. Eventually Time-Warner (Warner Bros.) bought the company from him. But when the crash happened, Atari was essentially broken up into two entities. Time-Warner sold the home division to Jack Tramiel. He had been ousted from Commodore, the company he founded. So from 1983 to around 1997 his family owned the half of the company that made the 2600, 5200, 7800, Lynx, and the Atari Jaguar. As well as a long line of successful  computers 400/800, XE, and ST. Time-Warner still owned the arcade division which they eventually sold to Midway. When Midway exited the arcade business Atari Games became Midway Games West. In a bit of irony, when Midway hit hard times they ended up being bought out by Time-Warner. Of course after the Jaguar tanked, the Tramiel family ended up selling Atari Corporation to JTS, a hard drive manufacturer. JTS started to flag, and sold Atari to Hasbro. When Hasbro had no success with it, they sold it off to Infogrames, who changed their name to Atari.

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In short, there were probably many months figuring out what Time-Warner has the rights to, what Infogrames/Atari has the rights to, and what may have slipped between the cracks. So it is pretty astonishing to see that this collection does give you both, arcade, and 2600 games to play. That being said, this is also the reason why you may not see some of your favorite games included. It’s disappointing. But at least it is understandable.

Still, with 100 games in the compilation you’re bound to find several you do like. There are the commons like Combat, Flag Capture, Canyon Bomber, Haunted House, Breakout, and Warlords. Interestingly, they also have a couple of prototypes, and unreleased 2600 games included here. There are even a number of uncommon games that came out near the end of the 2600’s long life cycle. Basically you have over a decade of 2600 history here.

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But the inclusion of the arcade games is another big reason you might consider picking this collection up. You get a pretty good selection of them, and many of them were games that used a Trackball. Missile Command, Centipede, Millipede, and Crystal Castles are here in their glory. What’s really nice is that you can play these with the mouse. If you happen to have a trackball mouse you’ll definitely love playing these. The developers at Code Mystics have gone above, and beyond too. Because they retooled their emulator’s inputs to mimic the response time of the arcade machines’ trackballs. So if you have a high dpi setting, expect to see some lag if you spin your cursor around thinking you’re going to have an edge. You’re not. The games really do play pretty close to the original machines.

Only the players with an encyclopedic knowledge of how those games played will really see a vast difference. They play great. Every game in the collection does. On top of this, every game has the appropriate machine decals bordering the screens, and there are even start button models displayed below to make things feel as authentic as possible.

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But the extra hard work doesn’t end there. They painstakingly tracked down Atari arcade cabinet art to scan in. The arcade manuals, and flyers are here to read. The arcade machines themselves, are modeled, and animated as you select what game to play. This carries over into the 2600 games too. Each 2600 game featured here has a box model textured with the original retail box art on it. Front, back, and spines. They also managed to track down every manual for every cartridge featured in the collection. So when you go to look at the controls, you’ll actually be seeing scans of the manual that came in the box when the game came out. They even have the original 1977 console manual scanned in here. They didn’t just dump ROMs into an emulator, and call it a day. They put in a lot of historical research, and time into getting a nice presentation down.

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If all of that isn’t enough for you though, Atari Vault also has internet multiplayer. You can play all of the games in the collection against other people. For most of the games you’ll still prefer playing these games the way we did 30 years ago, computer hooked up to the Television, with controllers. But for some of the games like Combat, internet multiplayer can actually make things feel fresh. It’s pretty great, and in my tests I didn’t run into much in the way of lag. It’s really worth checking out.

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If I had any complaints with the compilation it would have to be with the controller options. Every game will have different ways you can play depending on the title. Most of them will let you play with the keyboard, and the arcade trackball games give you the aforementioned mouse option, which again, works great. But Code Mystics doesn’t seem to like to put in options for a variety of game pad controllers. If you have an Xbox 360 controller, you’re gold. That controller works flawlessly. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the game to see my Steam controller, nor could I use my USB Retrobit controller, which is a perfect fit for collections like this one. These were the developers behind porting Mortal Kombat Arcade Kollection to the PC, and I had the same complaint with that compilation. If you want to use a controller, you pretty much have to have Xbox 360 controllers.

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The other problem, which I can’t really levy at Code Mystics, is that nothing compares to a paddle controller. You can play classic 2600 games like Warlords, and Demons to Diamonds with a mouse, keyboard, or Xbox 360 controller but none of them will give you the feel of a paddle. Paddle controllers had a dial that you would use to move your character, and it just has a spot on, responsive feel that nothing has replicated in almost 40 years. About the closest you can get is using the mouse controls, which I would implore you to do. These games simply don’t feel as responsive using a game pad or a keyboard. A mouse will give you the precision you need, even if it does come up a little short in the feel. If you played a lot of Circus Atari as a child, it is still a lot of fun to play here, but it might take you a few rounds to get accustomed to using something else.

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Overall though, I highly recommend this collection. True, the selection of games could stand to be a little bit better. But considering the history of the company, and the rights hell some of those games may fall under it is understandable. There are a lot of good games here anyway. The internet play reinvigorates some of these titles, and finally having a legitimate way to play classic arcade games like Centipede is a boon. It’s a great bundle for older fans who might not have their physical 2600 collection anymore. It’s also a great bundle for younger fans who are interested in what came before.

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While not every game featured here has held up, most of them have stood the test of time with their rock solid game mechanics. These games are fun. If you’ve played them before, revisit them again. If you’ve never played them because you weren’t around for them, have an open mind. Check them out, you might be pleasantly surprised. Just make sure you have some Xbox 360 controllers for the games that didn’t use a trackball.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Double Dragon Trilogy Review

DotEmu brings the three arcade classics to PC after a quick run on mobile devices.  But before you let the nostalgia take over your senses, and pick it up without question read along. There are a few caveats you need be aware of.

PROS: Emulations of Double Dragon 1,2, and even 3!

CONS: Limited credits. Glitches. Barebones options. Stretch o’ vision.

SAD: Super Double Dragon was never an arcade machine.

Ah, Double Dragon. What child of the 80’s didn’t play it? It was ported to nearly every possible platform of the time. Some versions like the beloved NES trilogy making wild changes to the stages. While other versions like the Commodore 64 port staying closer to the arcade game. (At least in layout. As you’ll see later.) None of the versions came close to the arcade machines though. The NES, and Sega Master System were probably the closest in terms of gameplay. You had access to all kinds of moves, even if you did have to level up in the NES port to use them. The other versions either didn’t get the controls right, or had to make other sacrifices for memory constraints.

The C64 port made you fight bad guys one at a time, and characters had no waistline. Torsos honestly floated over legs. The Atari 7800 port wasn’t as bad as some of the others, giving players play control that came closer to the Sega Master System’s version. But in this case, Activision (who had porting duties for Atari consoles) couldn’t quite pull off the same smooth animation. Atari’s decision to cut corners by using the 2600’s sound tech also meant the 2600 version’s soundtrack would play. The fact the first game even made it to the 2600 in a barely playable state is something of a miracle. Seriously, look it up sometime.

Anyway, many of us enjoyed the NES versions, or found some fun in one of the other versions. Even the bad ones, begrudgingly so. But it was a rare treat to go to the arcade, and play the arcade version. Double Dragon II was an even bigger hit. Double Dragon 3… not so much. The point is, in those days the arcade versions weren’t entirely possible at home. So many will feel an instant sense of joy when they see these games are available to purchase legally on their computer. Unfortunately, there are a few problems here that might just deflate the excitement. Let’s get the good in here first though. All three games are by most standards emulated pretty well. They’re essentially the arcade ROMs, packaged in a nice bootable emulator.

All of the games are the same quick romps, and they bring along all of the good, and bad things they had back in the day. The games also can be played with easy enemies that go down in a punch or two. Harder enemies that fight with more health. Then the impossible enemies arcades likely enabled to suck out more of our quarters. Double Dragon II also lets you play with either the consistently reversing, punch, and kick button layout or the straight forward punch, and kick button layout. For those too young to remember DDII, or those who have forgotten the game had reversed buttons. To explain it better, when facing right, the punch button was a punch button. The kick button was a kick button. But when facing left, the kick button became the punch button, and the punch button became the kick button. It was set up so that kicks would always be back kicks. For whatever reason someone thought that it would be a great idea. The reality is, that for most people it was just confusing. This also carried over to the NES port. So if you’ve played that version, expect the same thing here.  But again it is nice that you can disable it here. Some players simply won’t wrap their heads around it, and so this makes things clearer.

Double Dragon II also added a couple of new moves, most notably a hurricane kick. If you press attack at just the right moment after jumping, you’ll spin in the air. If you hit an enemy with it you’ll deal a lot of damage. Which you’ll need to do when you get to the end of the game to fight the final boss. Double Dragon II was one of the series’ highlights. Double Dragon III was its biggest downfall. The game tried to go for a more digitized look, which to be fair, did look nice. But the machine had two major problems. First, it had some severe slowdown at seemingly random times. This made an already difficult game that much harder. Second, the game required you to go into shops to buy items to make the game more manageable. Shops that took actual quarters. So if you wanted to add a larger life bar, access to additional playable characters the game touted, or weapons you had to put in more money. The game was a huge cash grab, and resulted in a lot of resentment from fans. Outside of these problems the game could be enjoyable, but without a lot of tokens on hand you probably weren’t going to finish it.

Which leads me to something that is going to bother a lot of people when they try this collection out. The games have all been retooled to allow for just three continues. This was probably done to make these games challenging, like the reworked NES versions. But in the process they’ve removed the immediacy of the arcade experience. A lot of players back in the day wanted to win. Of course many tried to complete these games on a quarter. But a lot of players spent a couple of dollars doing so. That feeling of instant gratification is gone now. And while the case could be made that Double Dragon 1&2 feel a little bit closer in challenge to their NES counterparts, Double Dragon 3 is the worst affected. Because it was a game designed around the concept of paying to win. Without spending money in shops it becomes nearly impossible for many people.  The continue limit effectively means that even visiting a shop one time, can lead to playing with no continues. Basically you’ll only want to buy extra lives, and that’s once per level. Even on the easiest setting, some won’t be able to clear the game because of it.

The bundle also doesn’t seem to properly set the aspect ratio of these games. If you go into the settings, and set the resolution to 1920×1080 menus seem sharp. However the actual games will have a muted look to them. It appears the games are “stretched” to fill the screen, rather than being rendered in full screen resolution. Or displayed in the center of the screen under the proper aspect ratio. Control options fare better.Thankfully you can re-bind all of the keys on either a keyboard or a gamepad. Outside of the barebones video, audio, and control options there isn’t much to speak of. It would have been nice to have options for filters to mimic an arcade monitor. Or the option to turn on free play, or at least the option to simulate putting in quarters by pressing a button.

The last major problem here is that the collection appears to have a glitch that doesn’t show the game endings should you beat the games. It also skips the intermissions of the third game! It’s true that arcade versions of these games didn’t have particularly deep endings. Double Dragon, saw you save Marion. The sequel saw you looking at a photo, reminded she was killed, and that your revenge didn’t bring her back. The third showed you donating Cleopatra’s treasure to charity. (Yes. Really.) But if you spend any time enjoying these titles, and succeed in winning, you’ll still want to see them. To its credit, DotEmu has said on the Steam forums it is looking into that issue. On the plus side, all of the games again, play as you remember. Animations are the same, the responsiveness of the controls, and chip tunes you remember are all here. You can also play the games in their entirety, or choose to level skip. Level skipping gives you a set number of lives with no continues however. So you’ll probably only do it if you get stuck on a certain stage or boss character.

I know it sounds like I’m really ripping into this collection here. I really wish I didn’t have to. Trust me, the first two Double Dragon titles were great. Especially for those who loved playing them in arcades, bars, and laundromats back in the day. The third one, while not as fun is still part of an important franchise in the world of brawlers. It’s just too bad that these changes bring along so many inconveniences along for the ride. If the games came with a free play option for those who wanted it, scaled properly, and had the endings intact this would be a must buy collection for any retro gamer. As it stands, it’s a decent collection for die-hard Double Dragon fans who don’t have hundreds of dollars for the actual arcade machines. If you can deal with the limited continues, and bugs you’ll have a fun time. For those who need absolute flawlessness, you might want to wait, and see if improvements arrive.

Final Score: 5 out of 10