Tag Archives: Game Gear

Pac-Attack Review

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Alien Syndrome Review

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Throughout the 1980’s Sega was making its mark in arcades. It pushed what was possible in racing games, and rail shooters with Outrun, Space Harrier, and After Burner. It gave us the awesome Golden Axe, and the visually impressive Altered Beast. Unsurprisingly many of these games were ported to its own consoles, the Master System, and the Genesis. But there is one of their IPs that came, and went in this period. Something so familiar, and so different. Something so difficult, and yet addictive. I’m talking about Alien Syndrome.

PROS: Great visuals, atmosphere, music, and control (most versions).

CONS: Obscenely difficult. Dark Souls difficult. In deep space.

ALIENS: One of many blockbuster influences that can be seen here.

At its core, Alien Syndrome seems like a typical overhead shooter. You move either Ricky or Mary, depending on which player you are. As you go along, you kill various creatures for big points. But it isn’t so simple. Where previous overhead run n’ guns like Commando, or Ikari Warriors had you kill enemies, and charge to the end of a linear level, this doesn’t. Alien Syndrome is unrelenting about its premise. Your mission isn’t a simple matter of killing things, and getting to the end. Each stage is a ship, and on each of these ships are a number of survivors you have to rescue. Not only do you have to rescue these survivors, (who are stuck in cocoons the way the ones in Aliens were portrayed) you’re timed. Because each ship has initiated a self-destruct sequence a la Captain Kirk.

 

This is to ensure that the menacing invaders cannot make it to Earth in the event you fail your mission. Also because each stage is a ship, there are no straight runs to the north. Instead, each of the stages is a maze, with its own distinct layout. So you have to explore every last nook, and cranny looking for survivors. The survivors are represented by a row of heads. As you rescue them, they’re depleted from the bar. If things get tough, or confusing (which they will) each of the ships have a few maps. Finding these on the wall will pull up a map on  the screen. On the map are flashing pixels, that represent the survivors.

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Once you find all of the hostages, the game will prompt you to get to the exit so you can escape. But in each of the airlocks is a boss alien. These are large, and diverse. Each of them is imposing. Each of them has a powerful attack, and the later bosses employ some very tricky patterns. The bosses all look really cool too. For a title that has fallen into obscurity, it has some of the most memorable bosses in arcade game history. Even the very first boss, is the sort of thing you’ll wish were made into an action figure or statue. These designs are that good.

But, run n’ gun games are often only as exciting as their weaponry, and enemies. Alien Syndrome has a great many of each. Again, taking influence from the Alien movies, there are flame throwers, fire-ball guns, and grenade launchers. But there are others, like the blaster that shoots laser beams like the Imperial blasters in Star Wars. There are also temporary shields, and chess pieces you can find for points.

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How do you get these things? There are cubby holes on walls, marked with the appropriate letter for the weapon. For example L is the laser. The enemies are also varied throughout the game. In earlier stages you’ll fight brain slug creatures, but you’ll see everything from aliens to creatures that shoot their eyes as projectiles. Quite honestly, everything on display is really cool. Every ship has its own decor. So you won’t see a lot of the same tiles in subsequent levels. Some of the ships are what you would expect to see in a space-themed game. Steel floors, technical circuitry patterns for walls, and other touches. But other stages are completely alien (no pun intended.). Some ships seem like they’re made of flesh, others are like stone. Many of the stages have some really cool parallax scrolling effects on floors to represent pits or other pitfalls. And fall you will if you walk over them.

Alien Syndrome is quite the challenge too, because there isn’t a single moment where you aren’t attacked by a horde of aliens. You have to be quick on the draw, as well as quick to react. Dodging projectiles, enemy creatures, while trying to rescue people at the same time. The difficulty especially ramps up after the first stage, and the bosses will often hand you your own behind on a silver platter. There are also no continues, making your performance all the more important. It really does give you the visceral action of the genre, while providing other challenges.

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There are many ways to play Alien Syndrome as it was ported to a lot of platforms. Interestingly enough, the ports to Sega’s own Master System, and Game Gear resulted to almost entirely new games. The scrolling is gone. Instead things work on an almost flip-screen mechanic, only scrolling when reaching the end of the screen in a Castlevania door style transition. The other major changes are almost entirely different maps, and new bosses. The core concept is the same, and it retains the songs from the arcade machine. But these changes make for arguably the worst version of the game. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t play Alien Syndrome on the Master System. It is still a pretty good iteration. It’s brisk. It gives you the same style of gameplay in a new, and unexpected way. Rather, it isn’t the best option for those looking for a replicated experience on a retro console. If you do pick this one up though, you’ll want something other than the Master System Control Pad, because the sometimes mushy d-pad will have you accidentally walking into an alien, or projectile. I recommend the Sega Control Stick. It just seems more responsive in this game. For whatever reason, this game won’t see a Genesis controller properly, so the Sega Control Stick is the next best thing.

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The other two major versions I happen to own ate the Unlicensed Tengen NES port, and the Commodore 64 port. Both of these are pretty good, getting the stage layouts, enemy types, and overall feel pretty nicely. The Commodore 64 version fares especially well though, as it’s the most responsive version I own. Everything is fast, and smooth most of the time. While there can be a bit of slowdown when an awful lot is going on, it still performs better than the NES version overall. The C64 doesn’t have as large a color palette as the NES, but it somehow gets closer to the arcade experience in terms of visuals. The C64 also has the arcade cabinet’s animated attract mode, and a really good original soundtrack. It’s another example of the staying power of the computer’s SID sound chip.

But Tengen’s NES port is no slouch either. It still looks pretty good most of the time, and even manages to add some pretty cool cinema screens to amp up the experience. I should also note that while the C64 has the better soundtrack, the NES version also tries to replicate the arcade’s songs rather than experiment with them, or add new ones. While it isn’t as responsive or quite as fluid as the C64 version, it is the only one of the three to offer continues. On the C64, and SMS you’ll need to clear the game on a handful of lives. For those out there who don’t own a vintage computer, but you have an NES, and a SMS it’s a pretty close race. For authenticity the NES port wins, but the SMS version looks a bit nicer.

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Of course, all of this is moot if you have Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the Xbox 360 or PS3 though. Because the arcade ROM was included in the compilation. You’ll have a nearly 1:1 experience at that point. Be that as it may, most of the home ports all offer a pretty great send up of the original. Alien Syndrome also appeared on the Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, ZX Spectrum, Sharp X68000, MSX computers as well as MS-DOS.

It’s a shame this IP has lied so dormant over the years, aside from a brief, largely ignored game on the PSP, and Wii that played nothing like the original. Alien Syndrome is a fun, if difficult run n’ gun. If you have any of the platforms it appeared on, you owe it to yourself to track down a copy. If you’re blessed to live near an arcade that has a working cabinet, do yourself a service, and put in a few quarters. With its challenge, memorable characters, and insane bosses, Alien Syndrome is one arcade classic you’ll never want to forget.

Final Score: 8 out of 10