Tag Archives: PC games

Mortal Kombat 11 (Switch) Review

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A few days ago the highly anticipated Mortal Kombat 11 came out, and has mostly gotten praise. But the Nintendo Switch version is often left out of the conversation. Like many people I was curious about how the game was going to work out on the console. So I picked it up after work on its launch, and I’ve been playing it after hours since. This is what I’ve found about the game on Switch, and the game in general. Much of this will likely apply to the other three versions out there as well.

PROS: Everything in the other versions is here. Plays great.

CONS: The visuals are downgraded. Crashes. Issues with the Krypt, and Towers.

WB: Still pulling pre-order shenanigans with Mortal Kombat.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room right away. The graphics. Between the trailer we saw at the Game Awards 2017, and subsequent footage, everybody was wowed. NetherRealm studios did a terrific job building some of the most beautiful backdrops, and character designs in a Mortal Kombat game yet. They didn’t do this alone though. The level of graphics, and animation work in this game is staggering. So it should be no surprise upon seeing the end credits you’ll notice over 20 software developers, and animation studios were paid to help the game along. You can tell a lot of hard work went into the visual aspect of the game alone.

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So how does the Nintendo Switch version of this massive, illustrious fighting game fare? A small developer out of Miami, Florida called Shiver was contracted to port the game to Nintendo’s gaming tablet, and they did a fantastic job. While none of the consoles have bleeding edge tech in them at this point, there is a gap between a Tegra II tablet chip, and the AMD processors, and graphics chips in the Microsoft, and Sony boxes. As such there wasn’t much of a question that Unreal Engine 4 (the software that powers the game) would work well on those. It was possible to use on tablets, but how well was in question for the average player.

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Shiver has gotten the game running insanely well on the Nintendo Switch. It has all of the content the other versions have, and it looks pretty good too. It even runs at a high frame rate like the other versions. It just comes unsurprisingly, at a price. The best way I can describe it, is that fights look like you’re playing the PC version on just above the lowest settings. Which tells me that Shiver had the option to either make the game look like the other versions, but have a lower frame rate. Or they could have gone the route they did. And if I’m right about that, frankly, everyone should be happy they took that route. Mortal Kombat 11, much like previous games, requires very fast movement in order to pull off some of its best combos, and other moves. Frame rate doesn’t just effect what your eyes are seeing. It can often make a game feel more responsive. Something you need to have in order for a fighting game to work. Especially at a high level of play.

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And the end result still doesn’t look bad. You’ll notice the game changes visual quality at times too. During the pre fight banter the game looks like it runs at the lowest settings possible, and then ticks up to the lower, or medium settings when the fights begin, and stays there during them. The most noticeable downgrade is that the UE4 lighting effects have mostly been toned down or turned off. You won’t see a lot of reflections, or sheen on costumes, or metal objects in most of the game. Antialiasing effects are lowered, or off so you’ll see “Jaggies” as we used to know them. Most of the textures are still rendered at the standards of the other versions. But some of the background objects aren’t so they won’t look as crisp. Rather they’ll have a slightly blurred quality to them.

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And on some stages very little of these downgrades are that noticeable right away. It’s only going to be the absolute worst nitpickers among us who this will be a problem for. And at that level one could begin to nitpick the other versions too. Mortal Kombat 11 on the Switch may not look as nice as it does on the PS4 or XB1. But it doesn’t look bad either. If I had any issues with the graphics its that during the story mode it can be a little jarring to have the cut scenes running at their higher settings, then going to the lower settings for fights, and back to higher settings for more cinematic story.

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That said, Mortal Kombat 11 has a lot of content in it. As I’ve said before, the Switch version has everything the other versions have. The main single player mode on display is the Story mode, which has been an expected feature since Mortal Kombat 9. I didn’t play the tenth game, so I can’t really compare the story in this one to that game’s. But I did play through MK9, and I can say it is a substantially better storyline here. I don’t want to go too in depth here as a lot of folks still have yet to experience it. But the game introduces a new villain. A Goddess known as Kronika. She looks suspiciously like Sinead O’Connor, and can control time, and space with a magic hourglass. She sets up a plan to wipe out the realms, and so our heroes, and villains in the roster set out to stop or help her. There are plenty of moments that will make you laugh, surprise you, and the story even tries to make you cry a few times. It doesn’t really earn that much from you, but you will be entertained. Thanks to some terrific voice acting performances, top-notch animation, and pretty good writing it does feel like one of the old 80’s action movies that inspired a lot of the classic Mortal Kombat games.

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Like I said before, the Switch version can feel a little jarring as you go through it, because the game switches graphics settings on the fly between fights, and cinematics. There was a rare moment in my playthrough where the game hiccupped doing this near the final chapter. It didn’t effect the game or story, but goes to show there’s a glitch or two that may require a bug fix in the near future. Beyond that though, I enjoyed playing through the story mode. It held my attention, and a few times in it, you’ll get the option to control one character or another. So you do get some replay value by going back, and playing with different characters.

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Beyond the story mode, there is the classic arcade ladder mode you can play. Doing this more or less is what you’d expect. You play a gauntlet of opponents the way you have since the original Mortal Kombat. As has been the case since Mortal Kombat 3, you can choose longer, and more difficult arcade ladders as well. Clearing these with each character gets you those classic arcade style endings. Each told from the perspective of the character had they been the canon protagonist.

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Spinning off of the arcade ladder is something called Towers Of Time, where you play a similar series of arcade ladders. But the difference is the fact that each match has conditions in them. Such as “Don’t touch acid, or your opponent gets health back.”. These can be a lot of fun, and can even help you get better at avoiding certain attacks. The mode is also tied to the game’s returning Krypt mode. Winning in these towers, will give you a lot of the green coins, and other currency you’ll need to spend in the Krypt. It can be fun to go in to these fights to grind for money. But there’s one major problem with it. It takes forever. The rewards you gain, for some of these brutal fights can be miniscule. Plus on top of the main currency, hearts are another currency. Hearts are needed in the Krypt to unlock some of the biggest stuff in the game. And you can only get those by getting fatalities, and brutalities while playing.

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And before you spout off about Warner Bros. doing to Mortal Kombat 11 what they’ve done in their other games by closing stuff off with microtransactions, that isn’t the case here. Yes, there is a store. Yes, you can pay for easy fatalities. Yes you can pay to unlock Frost instead of just playing the story mode, and using her for free. You can spend money on a virtual currency it calls Time Crystals. But aside from a few skins, and one button fatalities for each character there isn’t much you can buy that would affect gameplay. So when it comes to the stuff in the Krypt, you really can’t. You can pretty much skip the store in this one. The one thing you can levy at WB is the fact that Shao Kahn was hidden behind a six dollar pay wall in order to encourage people to buy the game before it came out, or at least pre order it. If you didn’t put your trust in the game before having picked it up, it costs you another six bucks to play as the character. He isn’t in the DLC bundle pack either. So that is the one blemish here as far as microtransactions go.

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Be that as it may, grinding away the coins, green gems, and hearts for the Krypt can take a long, long time. Supposedly NetherRealm has addressed this on a recent video update, and will be putting out a patch soon as of this writing. This should make things feel a bit more manageable for players who don’t want to devote all of their game time to Mortal Kombat 11.

As for the Krypt itself, it feels somewhere between the ones in Deadly Alliance, and Deception. It isn’t a simple grid done in a graveyard style. But it isn’t a full-fledged adventure game involving NPCs either. You go around Shang Tsung’s island finding boxes. But there are some hidden walls you can break open to get to new areas, as well as puzzles to solve to gain access to certain chests. There are even a few booby traps. You can die in the Krypt.

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Opening the chests gets you anything from concept art to stuff you can use in the game. There are a few extra costumes, second fatalities, and augmentation parts you can use to enhance how your characters will play. This is a system that has been carried over from Injustice 2, and refined for this game. It’s a neat system because it adds an RPG like element to the fighting genre. One that might entice someone whom may not play many fighting games to give it a look. Of course, when it comes to the game’s online play there are modes where you can or can’t use them. Once you eventually open everything in the Krypt there is a building early on, with a round lever on it. If you have enough coins you can press it to close all of the chests in the Krypt, and fill them with different things. The other interesting thing about the Krypt is that every player will have a different experience. Because while everyone will have the same key items, the chests they are in, are in different locations. So you can’t simply try to look at a walkthrough on YouTube. The skin they found in a particular chest, may be in that chest. But in your playthrough that chest will be in a different place.

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The Augmentation system also ties many of the modes together by requiring you to play everything the game has on offer. If you want a certain hat for Raiden for example, you’ll have to unlock it by going to a certain mode, or completing a certain challenge. Some of these items will be in the Krypt of course, but many will not. So you’ll have to go down the list, read the description, and then try to unlock it by playing that mode. You can also create custom move lists here too. You may want to use a version of Liu Kang where you use a different attack in lieu of the bicycle kick for instance. You can have different profiles of each character with different move sets, different gear to buff said move sets, and an overall customized look. It’s honestly pretty cool. But again, when talking about the competitive side of fighting games, you’ll want to play without these things, as these things can affect the balance of the game.

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The game also gives you a Kombat Kard which gives you your stats, as well as a custom banner when playing online. It’s pretty much in line with other modern fighters like Street Fighter V, Blazblue Cross Tag Battle, and others. It’s nice that you can personalize your online avatar somewhat, and it makes it easy to look at your Win/Loss record, most used characters, and other information.

So the fighting is fast, and responsive on the TV against a friend, but what about online? Honestly, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the game’s net code on the Switch. You can choose to display the ping while playing which is going to give you a good indication of how well it’s going to hold up in a match. If you see an opponent in the 100ms – 150ms range, as I’ve had most of the time, it’s pretty solid. I haven’t felt like too many button presses haven’t registered or that there’s been a notable amount of lag. Somebody who is a contender at EVO or other tournaments may have a different opinion, but I think for most people it is pretty good. Obviously, if you connect to an opponent with a 300ms time you’ll want to decline the fight to avoid warping, moves not working as intended, and the other signs of a lag ridden match.

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That is one feature I really appreciate. It’s not one you see outside of multiplayer PC games very often, and it can give players a much better idea of how the experience is going to be than the usual red, yellow, or green bars found in many other online fighters. There are also a few ways you can play online too. You can do casual matches with other people. Here you can choose to play with or without the augmentations on. They’ll force the competitive move sets, and options the developers intended to be set on. You can play matches, enter a king of the hill mini tournament, or have A.I. characters battle it out.

If you choose to play the competitive mode the augments never come into play. Also the competition is fierce. As good as you may be, this is the place where people who love fighting games will be found most of the time. But it’s also the best way to learn the game. Really. If you’re new or lapsed the prospect of losing a lot may sound scary, but it’s where you’re going to learn the nuances much better. Yes there is a training mode in the game, and it will get you set up with the basics, as well as let you practice the game’s combos. But going up against other people is where you’re going to really learn things like zoning, looking for openings, and how to get around something you might initially find insurmountable. Even if you’re not looking to be the best in the world, it is a great way to pick up some new things to take with you against your local friends, and family. Rounding out the online mode, are areas where you can do private matches, and lobbies. So if you just want to play with friends online, or a place where your groups can meet up, it’s convenient.

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All in all I really like Mortal Kombat 11, and the Switch version is a very viable version. If you’re somebody who only has a Switch it is very easy to recommend in general. I can also say if you’re someone who has multiple consoles, and already bought it for your PS4, you might at some point want it on the Switch for the portability factor. The graphics downgrade is less noticeable on the smaller screen, and the fact you’re getting something that plays just as well is something to marvel at. Shiver should really be commended on what they’ve accomplished. One small thing to note however is that also like every other version this one does have some infrequent crashes. You’ll be going along, playing a ladder or going through the story, or exploring the Krypt, and see an error message that will be burned into your brain. It hasn’t been a frequent occurrence for me. But it is something I hope they’ll be able to figure out soon. Also the game does play better with a Pro Controller, or equivalent or Arcade stick on Switch. The C buttons just don’t feel as familiar as a true D-pad does.

Still, with the refined fighting system, wealth of content, solid net code, and a meaty story mode, the good outweighs the bad.  If you have a Switch, Mortal Kombat 11 is definitely worth looking into. It’s an experience that will raise eyebrows at the local Starbucks, as well as play exceptionally well on the big screen. The downgrade in visuals isn’t enough to make the game any less fun, and they still bring the buckets of blood, and guts you would expect from the series. I didn’t even talk about just how over-the-top, yet somehow unsettling some of this iteration’s finishing moves can really be. Whether you’re a long time fan or newcomer, MK11 will impress you on any of the platforms it has landed on.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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Bloodstained: Curse Of The Moon Review

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Ah, Konami. These days it’s become fashionable to belittle their games with good reason. But that’s partly because they used to be one of the kings of game publishing. From Pooyan to Gyruss. From Gradius to Contra. From Crime Fighters to Metal Gear. From Quarth to Super Cobra, this giant has scores of legendary games under its umbrella. But over the last decade there has been a shift in its focus. One that has led many of its best known talent to leave the company. Most know about Hideo Kojima’s departure. But less known is Koji Igarashi, the man behind many of Konami’s better Castlevania games. In 2014 however he would leave the company as he felt his console roots weren’t a good fit for the company’s shift toward mobile phone, and tablet games.

Taking some inspiration from what Keji Inafune had done after leaving Capcom, Igarashi, also took to Kickstarter to raise money for a new project. Bloodstained: Ritual Of The Night. This was a successful enough endeavor that today’s game, Bloodstained: Curse Of The Moon came out of it as a stretch goal for backers. For the rest of us, it’s an indie game inspired by the classic game series its producer worked on. It may sound like a familiar story. But is it one of the ones that ends as a success?

PROS: A nearly 1:1 representation of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse’s look, and feel.

CONS: It’s almost too similar. Minor bugs.

CASTLEVANIA VETERANS: Will wish you could start with Miriam.

Bloodstained, truly does take many of Castlevania’s mechanics, tone, and visual flair to heart. In fact, this game plays nearly identically to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. That game had you playing as the protagonists ancestor, with the mechanics set up in the original NES version of Castlevania as a baseline. From there it added other characters you could choose to join you, and depending on which path you took through the game each had specific roles. This was to give you an incentive to go back through it multiple times.

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This game is very similar in its approach. Except that to set itself apart, you aren’t a vampire slayer. You’re a demon hunter named Zangetsu. You’ve been cursed by a powerful demon, and so you’re on a mission to find, and kill him in order to break the curse over you. You also don’t use a whip. Zangetsu is armed with a sword. So unlike Castlevania, you won’t have the range you’re likely accustomed to. What you will have however is the same walking speed, and knock back from the NES Trilogy of old. You’ll also find yourself facing very similar attack patterns as in those old games. Sure, the bats, and Gorgon heads may have been replaced with new faces. But you can still expect those wavy patterns over pits, and other traps that will make traversing a trial.

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You may not see two dragon heads stacked, spitting fire. But there will be an equivalent. There may not be a chain of skeleton bones, and a lizard skull coming out from a wall. But here will be something similar. The list goes on, and on, and on. As the story, and stages progress you’ll meet other characters whom you can choose to add to your party. Miriam is the Simon Belmont clone you’ll wish you started the game with. She has a whip that works very much the same way, as Simon’s. This gives you that sweet balance of ranged, and melee attack power, and familiar gravity when jumping or walking off of ledges.

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Later on you’ll meet Gebel, this game’s take on Alucard. He’s also a vampire, and you can also turn into a bat as him. Finally, there’s Alfred who is a magician. He’s also elderly, slow, and has a fairly small health meter. He attacks with a small cane at essentially point-blank range. As in the Castlevania games, there are candles, and other hanging objects you can destroy for items. Some of these are ammo for special weapons, while others are weapons themselves. What sets this one apart a little bit is just how different each character’s weapons are. No special weapon is represented twice. There are a set exclusive to each character. For instance, Miriam can have a spinning disc attack that goes back, and forth. Alfred on the other hand can get a weapon that lets him turn enemies into ice blocks he can then jump on, or have another character jump on.

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There are all sorts of possibilities. The other thing is that each stage, even the earliest ones all have branching paths in them that only specific characters can go to. You may need to switch to Gebel so you can turn into a bat, and fly through a small gap for one path. You may need to slide under something for another, and so you’ll have to switch to Miriam. This sort of mechanic gives the game a lot of replay value, as in order to see everything each stage has to offer you’ll need to try each of them with the applicable characters.

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The thing is you have more options with them than you do with the ones in Castlevania III. What I mean by that is, you don’t drop one when you meet the next. If you choose to take one along for the ride, they stay with you the entire game. The game can be quite a challenge too, especially near the end of the game. So having all of the characters working together makes defeating Gremory, the leader of the Demons, more manageable. However, what makes the game worth playing over again even more are the multiple endings. Depending on which characters you take along, or leave behind you’ll get different outcomes if you clear the game.

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And beyond that there are a few difficulty settings. You can play the easiest setting if you just want to go through the game at your leisure. It reduces the knock back so it isn’t as cruel as the NES Castlevania trilogy could be. It also gives you unlimited lives, so you also won’t see the continue screen. But the veteran mode is the hardcore NES game difficulty you remember. Or if you’re too young to remember, but want to experience anyway. Getting knocked back into pits, crumbling bricks, rotating trap floor tiles. It’s all here. Clearing this will unlock an even harder mode though. So the absolute biggest Castlevania transplants will want to check it out, as it makes an already tough job more challenging.

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Visually the game also follows the Castlevania III mold. It has a very similar color palette, and a very similar pixel art style. This isn’t to say everything is exactly the same. There are background animations, and graphics based puzzles the old Konami games don’t have, and a slew of special effects the old 8-bit 6502 chip variants, and accompanying graphics chips simply can not do on display. The music in it, and synchronization with the cinema screen animations are spot on too. It sounds very much like a Famicom console game through, and through. Inti Creates has done a phenomenal job in the graphics, and sound department with this game.

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But all of this success might be a little too successful. In being so close to the Castlevania NES fill in so many wanted, it doesn’t retain its own identity as much as it needs to. Other than Alfred, the main characters are very much your Simon, Sypha, and Alucard stand-ins. As detailed, and beautifully laid out as the stages are, they could easily be mistaken for an NES Castlevania outing. The mini bosses, and bosses are where the game really begins to turn the tide on this a bit though. These are great multi part affairs that don’t look they would necessarily be in one of Konami’s games, but fit this spiritual successor at the same time. The game also has a handful of minor bugs in it. Mostly collision based bugs. There were a few sections with crumbling blocks designed to make you lose a life if you fail at navigation. At one point I fell, but landed safely in an area where I had to jump to my doom anyway. There was nowhere else to go. Some of these seem to be helping in speed runs. But for the rest of us, they’re the rare inconvenience.

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Still, beyond these observations I really enjoyed playing through the game’s many stages. Anybody who loves the old school Castlevania games probably owns this by now. But if for some reason you don’t, it’s an absolute blast. It’s a truly great action-platformer with some great obstacles to overcome, and some of the best boss fights I’ve been in. I only wish the game did a little bit more to make it feel unique. Sure the main protagonist doesn’t use a whip, but before long another character does. Sure, you’re fighting an army led by a demon, rather than Dracula. But that army still has a lot of skeletons, and zombies in it. Hopefully the upcoming Ritual Of The Night will address this while continuing to do everything else as well as this game does. Be that as it may, Curse Of The Moon is still a keeper.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

One Strike Review

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Every now, and again a game comes along with the idea of simplifying things. Many look to the Super Smash Bros. games, Nidhogg, and even Divekick as primary examples. All of which take different approaches to doing so. Smash simplifies inputs, and goes for ring outs. Nidhogg goes for a fencing theme, while Divekick reduces everything down to one button. One Strike doesn’t quite go that far, but it does try to be interesting in its mission.

PROS: An interesting take on simplifying the fighter.

CONS: It doesn’t take long to notice a formula.

CLASH: Of the art styles.

One Strike is a one on one fighter that tries to be different by living up to its namesake. You simply lose a round (or a match!) by suffering one hit. It takes a page from Soul Calibur by making each character a master of a specific weapon. There are sword masters. Dagger masters. Staff masters. They have you covered. And controlling your fighter is pretty straightforward. You can move left or right, block, strike, or dodge. That’s pretty much it.

The game has a really nice art style considering that it’s a bite-sized fighter. There are really great painted portraits of each of the fighters. But the characters themselves are done in a sprite art style somewhere between the look of an Atari 800 computer, and an NES. This isn’t bad by any means. There are all kinds of cool, little details in the backgrounds, as well as animations in them you wouldn’t likely see on these retro platforms. The drawback of course is that these art styles clash somewhat. Seeing the 8-bit inspired sprites represented by icons that could have made it into a late 90’s arcade cabinet can be a little bit jarring.

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Still, while that may be jarring, and the character select screen is a little anemic, One Strike has a really cool look to it. Unfortunately there’s one major thing that kills the whole game that I’ll get to shortly. One Strike gives you an arcade ladder for some single player content. You can choose to play it on a five lives per match setting, or you can play it as a gauntlet match that provides you but one life. And these modes aren’t too bad. They’ll take the average person a fair number of attempts to clear. The concept is simple. Stab the other person once to win the round or match. Kill everybody, and you win the entire tournament. There is also a Team Battle where you can pick three characters, each with one life, and go on either an arcade ladder by yourself, or you can play in a head to head versus battle. One nice feature the game also has is the ability to set up a tournament bracket. It’s something small, but it is nice for any venue looking to have another tournament for, as your brackets are already set up in it.

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But like all fighting games, the head to head fighting is what keeps you coming back. The challenge of trying to outwit, or outmaneuver them. Or to learn how to properly defend yourself. There are no combos here because it’s a one hit, and you’re dead affair. But you can still overpower your opponent in theory. Unfortunately, there is one tactic that most will discover in a couple of hours, and that is how to utilize hit stun. All fighting games have a tiny window of time when you can make an opponent unable to react. Usually a second or less. In this game you can do this with a successful block. Blocking at just the right time will employ hit stun on your opponent. They’ll have a split second where they can’t block in time or move backward. So if you’re the least bit quick enough you can bait them into swinging, you can get the block, and immediately stab them for the win. And the reverse is true.

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So matches often boil down to a Swing/Block/Stab/Match Over formula. Which can get really tiresome really quick. Now to alleviate this to some degree, block windows are very small. You can’t sit in a blocking position forever. After a moment your character will go back to their standard animation. Some characters also have the ability to cancel a move by creating stances. For instance, Oni requires you to press attack twice. Pressing it the first time gets you into a combat stance. Pressing it again swings his club. So you can dodge backward after the first button press if you don’t think it’s safe. With advanced strategies like this, the aforementioned formula isn’t always going to be the way a match goes down. Be that as it may, it does happen often enough that many people may grow bored with things quickly.

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It’s a shame because this hinders strategies. I’m sure someone far better at One Strike may see this, and have a difference of opinion. But as far as my experience has been playing with both people who are adept at competitive games, and others who are not, matches often result in either predictable fast matches, or (once both players have become more adept at blocking) drawn out matches reliant on turtling, or being overly defensive. All in all, One Strike isn’t a terrible game though. It functions very well, it has likable characters, and a really cool concept. But in practice, there isn’t enough here to keep most fighting fans playing it days on end. Nor are there enough characters to draw more average players into playing it for long. You could easily play this over some of the other stuff out there it’s true. But then you could also go back, and play the classics. In spite of its shortcomings I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel though. There’s a decent foundation here. You’ll likely really enjoy it initially. But after some time with it, that excitement may wane. If it had a couple of other options in the combat to keep things interesting, a few more characters, and internet matches it would be a better game worth checking out. If you don’t mind a fighting game you’ll play for an hour at a party with friends every few months you’ll have some fun with it. But for others, unless you’re really starved for newer fighting game concepts you might just want to go back to something else. Your mileage may vary with this one.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

Battle Princess Madelyn Review

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Ghosts N’ Goblins is one of the classics that is often imitated these days. It isn’t hard to see why, as it’s pretty much a winning formula. A hero that can only take two points of damage before dying, must go on an action platforming adventure of quarter-munching proportions. Some of these games simply take that essence, and try to provide a carbon copy. Others take the idea, and try to build upon it.

PROS: The brutal, unforgiving, and yet somehow addictive fun you love.

CONS: Bugs, minor collision detection issues. Inconsistencies.

GHOST PUPPIES: May haunt your dreams, but they can also help you.

Battle Princess Madelyn is one such game. It uses the combat of Capcom’s classic series as a foundation, and puts a large skyscraper of ideas upon it. For the most part it works because it does something substantial. It has not one, but two campaigns to play through. The first of which combines the tried, and true combat with adventure game, and JRPG conventions.

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The primary campaign is a Story mode. It opens with a little girl named Madelyn lying in bed playing a Minecraft clone on her tablet. Her Grandfather comes in, and in true The Princess Bride fashion proceeds to read her a bedtime story. He tells her the tale of a warrior, coincidentally also named Madelyn in a European kingdom in what is presumably during the Medieval period. This Madelyn has a tiny lap dog named Fritzy. With the castle overrun by monsters, the little canine sacrifices his life to save the Royal Guard.

After some dialogue with her Grandfather, it turns out that Fritzy’s soul isn’t content to go to the afterlife just yet. As a spirit, he decides to follow Madelyn into glorious battle. Over the course of the game Fritzy goes from being a merely cute avatar that follows you around, to being a very useful back up character that will help you immensely. While the initial area looks like it will be another Ghosts N’ Goblins clone, (Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts to be specific), That is quickly proven not to be the case, as a fellow warrior sends you into town.

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Once in the town you begin to do things that are more akin to an Adventure or JRPG. You have to talk to townspeople, whom give you vague clues, or demand you go on fetch quests. You eventually find your way to the castle where key members will send you on the adventure. The castle is also home to two major spots. A toy room, and another room that becomes important much later.

Over the course of the game you’ll find dolls of low-level enemies, major characters, and bosses. Collecting every one of these gets you the best possible outcome, so its something you just might want to invest in. The other room becomes important later in the storyline, and involves warping you around to various areas.

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The game’s many stages are interconnected though not as intricately as something like Metroid. Be that as it may, you’ll still want to map it out, because you’re going to spend a large part of the campaign going sector to sector on foot. Why? Well remember the villagers I mentioned before? Many of the fetch quests they send you upon involve finding, and rescuing their friends from zombies. Aside from that there are also ghosts that can lead you to other secrets. And there are many hidden paths, shortcuts, and items that you’ll have to destroy parts of environments to even find. Basically, if you want to get the best possible finish you’ll need to do a lot of rescuing, and a lot of discovering. The rewards for many (but not nearly all) of these feats are the aforementioned dolls. Each of these dolls gets you one step closer to unlocking the door in the toy room, and the resulting end game.

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Not only that, but the only way to open up the game’s shop to buy power ups is tied to one of these fetch quests. Many of the villagers throughout the game want you to find one of the items they’ve foolishly lost. Each of the game’s areas has a village of their own, and many of their citizens lost these items in other areas. So you’ll be warping around a lot too.

Throughout it all though, the game has that classic Capcom arcade game play down to a science. Well mostly. The majority of the time you’ll feel like you’re playing the unofficial sequel to Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts. Zombies rise from the Earth in much the same way. There are all sorts of monsters, and demons that show up out of nowhere, and you’ll have to master your jumping, and shooting pretty quickly. Where things falter a bit is in the hit detection.

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Unfortunately, there will be a few times where you’ll have your foot stand near, but not on a hazard. But the game will say “Nope. You touched it.” which leads to a cheap death. Other times you’ll suffer cheap deaths when enemies spawn on you, or shoot a projectile that gets stuck in a part of the environment. Thus making hitting it unavoidable. These aren’t heavily widespread moments, but it can be enough to get frustrating. In the case of the story mode, this is mitigated by having pretty decent checkpoints, you’ll automatically start in when you run out of lives. When you die, you’ll start right where you died too, so at least you won’t have to start an entire section over.

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Eventually you’ll find your way to boss rooms. Throughout the game you’ll need to find keys to the boss rooms, so again, keep exploring. Boss fights are quite frankly the highlight of the game. All of them can hang with the best fights in some of the best Super NES, and Sega Genesis games of yesteryear. They’re very inventive. Even when one of them might seem generic, like the Spider bosses, or the Skeleton, they do things that throw that impression out the window. Either through the environments they take place in, or through their attack patterns, or even character mannerisms.

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When you defeat a boss, and move to the next area you’ll almost always find yourself near a town, and in that town you’ll find a fast travel artifact. Late in the game you’ll need to collect items to be reassembled in that second room I mentioned earlier. Here you’ll feel like you’ve reached the end. But you’re still far from it. It opens up all new areas that can only be accessed in the room, and you’ll also find your dog’s soul will now become even more useful. Over the course of the game you’ll acquire the expected knives, spears, lances, and such. All of which you can cycle through using the left shoulder button. But you’ll also start finding puppy soul powers you can use. These can help immensely, especially on bosses. Do keep in mind however, that these have limited supplies shared with your lives. So you’ll want to save these for key moments.

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Upon beating the story mode, you’ll find you won’t be done. You can go back, and find all of the dolls you missed. But beyond that you can play the Arcade mode. This mode is very much a Ghosts N’ Goblins experience with stages feeling more linear, and with the brutal challenge fans of that series would expect. You’ll have to start a stage over when you’re out of lives. Lives are really tied to Fritzy’s meter more so here, as when it becomes depleted completely you know you’re going to start the level over. Thankfully, you’ll still start where you last died. At least until the meter is depleted. You also get to use Fritzy’s powers in this mode as you find them by holding the attack button until it’s charged. Keep in mind as in the Story mode this will deplete the meter, so it reduces the number of lives you can use. Over time you can refill the meter the better you do. Getting to the end is a lot more streamlined as a result. Stages don’t feel exactly the same, as large chunks are completely different. Though you’ll still go up against the same bosses. Be that as it may, it’s still quite a tough game that will take all but the most devoted players a while to get through. Mostly due to the overall challenge of it. But some of the problems from the Story mode do rear their head here. So while the stages are shorter, and in a specific order, they add their own challenges, and sometimes the technical issues can make them even tougher. You can basically keep continuing, but each time means you’ll start the current stage over again, through all of its phases.

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The most striking thing about the game is just how good it looks, and sounds. This game is a wonderful send up of Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts. It has an amazing portfolio of sprite graphics, and animation that look like it could have appeared on Nintendo’s 16-bit juggernaut or even Commodore’s Amiga line of computers. The game even has a soundtrack that will evoke memories of the Commodore Amiga, early MS-DOS Adlib sound, and even a dash of the Sega Genesis for good measure. But even beyond that, you can have a more modern, CD quality orchestrated soundtrack if you choose. The game also has an optional scan line filter if you prefer a slightly blurred look to everything rather than have everything looking crisp.

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Still, on the whole it’s hard not to recommend this one. There may be some inconsistency in the FMV sequences, and the rest of the graphics. There may be some hit detection issues, and you’ll suffer a few cheap deaths here or there. But when the game is at its best it works so well it just has to be experienced. With two primary modes to play, it’s almost like having two games in one. Of course the main attraction is the Story mode. The variety of missions, and side quests while similar, will appeal to a lot of people who might normally skip it out of fears of the high difficulty, as it is a bit more forgiving. Be that as it may, the Arcade mode is something any fan of Capcom’s classic arcade game might want to play. The combat, while not perfect, is noticeably better than many of its peers. If not for the handful of technical issues you’ll likely run into, this would be a must own. But just because it falls a few notches away from perfection doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be played. It is true that it can feel, cheap, relentless, and unfair at times. But it’s also a lot of fun the other 90% of the time, with its solid action, loveable characters, and the fact it makes you want to spite it by beating it. It isn’t going to be for everyone. But for fans of adventure games with an old school twist, or Ghosts N’ Goblins fans yearning for the day when Capcom will finally take their money, it’s worth recommending. If this sounds like you Battle Princess Madelyn is still worth firing up on your computer, Xbox One, Switch, or PlayStation 4.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

River City Ransom Underground Review

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Back in 1989 those of us with an NES likely had a copy of River City Ransom. It was a landmark game in that it was one of the earliest games to meld the Beat ’em Up genre with RPG elements. It was made by Technos Japan, who were mainly known for the Double Dragon games by that point Stateside. But RCR was a port of the third game in their Kunio-Kun series. In Japan the main character appeared in several games. Many of which would appear in the USA but with many alterations.

River City Ransom was pretty popular in its heyday. While it was never as beloved as Technos’ Double Dragon games, it was a game that had a Nintendo Power feature back in the day. It was a game many people fondly remember playing, and its one you should have in your collection if you don’t already. For those with a Switch, it’s included in the NES game bundle you get when you buy the online service.

PROS: Everything great about the NES original, and then some!

CONS: Confusing quest routes. Cheap segment.

ABOBO: Bridges the worlds of Double Dragon, and River City Ransom.

A while ago, Arc System Works acquired the Technos Japan assets, and began making games in these classic series. They made Double Dragon IV, and here we have a new entry in the River City Ransom series. Created by Conatus Creative, and published by Arc System Works, River City Ransom Underground continues the saga. All with the same blend of Beat ’em Up, and RPG conventions the original was known for, and lauded for.

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It’s also a direct sequel. Taking place nearly 40 years after the NES game, River City Ransom Underground begins with a prologue mission where Alex, and Ryan have to once again defeat Slick. The leader of the most ruthless gang in River City. Shortly after this epic battle Slick goes to prison, and River City High School explodes. After this mission ends the game fast forwards to present day, and we are introduced to some new characters in the process.

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It seems that while life might have improved for the characters at the end of the original game, it didn’t stay that way. With a new River City High School, came a plethora of new gangs, and the resurrection of the original games’ gangs. And with that, River City Ransom Underground truly begins. This is a modern continuation of a game, that really understands what made the original so great, while also building upon it.

As I mentioned before, what really set the original RCR apart from other games of its ilk, was the inclusion of RPG elements. Not only did you have to beat the snot out of people to survive an area, you had to do it to level up. It wasn’t enough to level up either. You had to find dojos where you could buy new moves, or shops where you could buy food. This game continues that tradition. You can fully expect to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars you steal from fallen enemies on this stuff. And spend it you should, because learning advanced techniques, and stocking up on cheeseburgers is the key to victory. When you first start out of course you’ll be relatively weak, and you can expect to die quickly. But over time, as you put muggers, bullies, and nearly every High School student stereotype in the hospital, you’ll grow stronger.

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And you’ll be backtracking to earlier areas for new items, or new paths that open up later. Again, an element that feels very much out of a Role Playing Game. This entry also adds a number of things to the formula. For starters, there are a large selection of playable characters. Many of these are new to the series, as this story introduces the next generation of descendants to us. So you’ll find many new teenagers out to rid the city of evildoers. But throughout the story you’ll also meet characters from the original game like Alex, and Ryan. There are also other characters old, and new who will join the roster if you defeat them in glorious battle. This adds a bunch of replay value to the game too, because of how differently each of these characters plays. Some of them are slower characters that rely on grapples, and holds. Some of them are ranged attackers. Others are brawlers that retain that old-school play style you expect from a Beat ’em Up genre title.

 

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On top of this, the game allows for up to four players to go through the campaign together. So now you can add an even bigger sense of frustration if one of you in your circle of friends is worse than everyone else. Or a sense of camaraderie if you’re all fine with each other’s level of ability. But to be honest even when playing with less skilled friends, this game is still a lot of fun. Between the action packed brawling, there are stretches of time where you’ll be exploring for new story missions, or events.

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The game also has a day, and night cycle in it. So some of these only happen at specific times. If a certain boss you need to kill only shows up at night, you can’t really head to fight them during the daylight. You’ll have to spend the daylight hours doing something else entirely. But this works to your advantage, as it gives you time to check out shops, restaurants, and dojos. Keep in mind however that even these are built around the game’s clock. Stores have their own hours. So if it’s 10pm in the game time, you’ll have to skip that trip to the game store. Hit up the burger joint instead.

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Of course as alluded to, you get money by fighting bad guys. When you knock their teeth in, they drop cash you can then pick up, and hoard. You can also get money by punching parking meters, or certain vending machines. Be careful though. Because another new feature in this one is borrowed from a place you wouldn’t expect: Grand Theft Auto. If you should accidentally injure an innocent bystander in your pursuit of street justice, they will call the cops on you. If this happens you’ll see a badge show up with a timer, and you’ll be facing the cops until it gets down to zero. Not only that, but if you resist arrest instead of running away, and lying low they send tougher officers after you. Beating up the police also gets you news coverage, which also beefs up the calls for backup.

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Over the course of your adventure you’ll also find hideouts. In these secret (and not so secret) areas you can manage inventory, change between characters, look at achievements, and save your game. It’s also useful for getting a more detailed description of your current objective, as you can read the last bit of dialogue without it going by too quickly to be able to finish it. The game also ties the worlds of Technos Japan’s big two franchises River City Ransom, and Double Dragon together. How? By featuring copious amounts of Abobo. Double Dragon’s epic villain shows up a number of times throughout the campaign, and even plays a role in the story arc I won’t delve into here.

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Another aspect of the game that you’ll love is just how funny it is. Whether it’s a well-placed reference joke, or genuinely funny dialogue the game will make you laugh. And it isn’t really self-parody most of the time. Although there are a number of times where the storyline in the game involves gags that are over the top, they still fit the world. They’re still in line with the humor found in the original NES game. The aesthetics of the game also play into this too. the pixel art is an obvious homage to its 8-bit era origins. But it’s also retained the humor. Characters have exaggerated expressions. They have animations that follow along with the theme. They look like they belong on the NES. But the advanced number of frames, and level of detail in the background animations obviously couldn’t be done on the little toaster that could. There are also a bounty of Easter Eggs, and appearances from characters in indie games.

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The soundtrack is very good. While not every song can live up to the lofty bar of the original game, there are plenty of them that do. Expect to hear some great up tempo chip tunes, with many catchy hooks. There are also slower, ambient songs in areas that call for it. There’s enough variety here for everyone though you’re going to be so busy you may not have time to truly appreciate it.

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There are a couple of minor issues with this game to be aware of. The PC game has one technical issue in that initially only the Xbox 360 controller is seen by the game. If you set the controller options in Steam to whichever controller you want to use however, then the Steam client will override the game allowing it to be played with whichever controller you’ve selected. The only other issue is that near the end of the game you’ll have to go through a massive gauntlet with no major save point in between. The game isn’t impossible by any means mind you. But this artificially increases the difficulty in the last act as a result. Be sure to stock up on items before tackling it.  The saving grace is that some previously locked doors stay open if you fail. There’s a couple of annoyances during missions where the map doesn’t always make what you’re supposed to do clear. There’s the fact that you lose half your money when you die. But in all fairness the old game did this to you too. And if a quest ends with a boss fight grin, and bear it. Because if you go back to a hideout to save you’ll have to do it all over again anyway.

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Beyond that, though this is a very entertaining, and interesting sequel of sorts. At first things may seem insurmountable, but after a few deaths, you’ll eventually begin to level up your characters. Then sections that were once almost impossible will suddenly be fairly easy. Allowing for four players makes the game even more fun than it already is, and the solid game play solidifies it. The wide variety of playable characters also adds a lot of replay value as you’ll have to approach each wave of enemies very differently. In short River City Ransom Underground is a wonderful game even if it can be a little rough around the edges. Surprisingly it’s the only River City game not on consoles as of now. But there are ports for Apple, and Linux available for those with computers that aren’t running Windows. The game can also be found on GoG. as well as Steam.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Insurgency Sandstorm Review

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Wow, two reviews this week? I really had to crunch to get this one done. It’s worth it though because like DUSK, this is a new FPS release that really ought to be on your radar. Insurgency Sandstorm, like its predecessor is here to give you a blend of arcade run speed, with late 90’s tactical subgenre features. But does it reach the lofty goals set forth by the original?

PROS: It’s an Insurgency sequel on a much newer engine!

CONS: Not every promised feature is here (yet.) Minor issues.

GIBS: A common 90’s FPS feature returns.

The original Insurgency set that bar rather high. What had started out as a mod became a full-fledged game that pushed Valve’s Source engine to its limit. It bridged the gap between Tactical FPS games like Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield, and large-scale objective Military Team FPS games like Battlefield. In doing so, it offered a great alternative to some of the titles in the AAA space. While it didn’t run on the latest tech, it did give players a unique experience. Insurgency did well for itself, cutting out a nice niche for itself, and becoming one of the most beloved competitive games on Steam for some time.

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So what does this newer version bring to the table? Does it improve on the foundation set by the original? Should you play this over something else in the subgenre? All of these are questions you might have going into this one, and they’re all valid ones to ask. When the game was announced it was touting a robust single-player campaign in addition to the multiplayer goodness fans of the first game came for. It showed off some vehicle play, and all in a vast uptick in visual fidelity.

Well let’s get the one major point of contention some will have out-of-the-way. There is no one-player campaign. At least not yet. Now to be fair, those who followed the news around this game during its development, or played it while it was in Early Access were told it wasn’t going to make it in by launch. So a big chunk of the potential audience who were excited upon seeing it during E3 2017 already know this. But if you were one of those interested who saw the early trailers, put it on your “Look forward to seeing it when it comes out” list, and are just now looking at it? You’re going to be disappointed.

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But this is also not an “All is lost” moment, the studio has said it should be coming later, and that it should be included along with the other DLC. And that’s where the barometer may swing from disappointed to optimistic. Because the folks at New World Interactive will not be charging for DLC, nor implementing micro transactions or loot boxes. So everything that comes out for this game in the future will cost you nothing extra. New maps will be included. New weapons they decide to add will be included. Any new modes they cook up will also be included. So the lack of the campaign might sting, but they haven’t outright cancelled it either. If you only come to your army shooters for a campaign, and touch nothing else, you may want to wait. Or not, because there are things here you might still enjoy.

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Of course Insurgency, became a cult hit for a number of reasons. Its various modes. Its unique blend of styles. And that it pushed an aging technology pretty far in the process of delivering its fun. It didn’t look as good as the games EA, and Activision were putting out, but it stood in the same league when it came to game play. And that trend does indeed continue in Insurgency Sandstorm.

Think of Insurgency Sandstorm as an experiment in combining the best elements of various military themed shooters you’ve played over the years. All while implementing its own ideas into the monster before releasing it upon the world. What does it borrow? Well it gives you the vast conquest maps Battlefield fans would love. It also uses point capture as the primary goal of its competitive modes. Insurgency Sandstorm has three of them. (Though like the campaign, more may follow.)

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PUSH: This is the mode most like the Rush mode in the Battlefield games. It places one army as defenders, and one army as attackers. Attackers have a miniscule number of lives spread across its combatants. While Defenders have a much larger pool. However, if the attackers manage to take the first point on the map, they will gain more lives. They will also force the defensive team to fall back to their next point. This continues until either the defenders are made to fight their last stand, with no remaining lives to defend a cache. If the attackers blow it up, the defenders are defeated. The defenders will also be defeated if all of their lives are lost.

What makes this mode compelling is that there are a number of ways each side can approach their situation. When playing defense, you can do what I like to do. You can literally lie down on the objective (represented by a room with a giant flashing letter.), and attempt to kill any intruders. If enough of your team follows suit, it becomes nearly impossible to take the point. However, I said “nearly”. That’s because there are any number of ways a skilled attacking team can crack this. They can employ explosives to spook people to leave the point or die. They can send in their best stealth players to get inside. They can try to flank spawning defenders rushing to get back to the point. These are just some of the strategies you’ll see employed.

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FIREFIGHT: Is the next mode, and here all of the points on the map are preset with both armies having to take an attack position. One point is predetermined to be for one side. The second for the other side, and the third being unclaimed. The first team to capture all three of these wins. However, it isn’t easy because each player has only one life. The only way you get to come back into the battle is if your team captures a point while you’re dead. What people love about this mode is that there’s a tug of war going on with it. If you’ve got two points, but not the third, you’ll have to send people to take the third. But that means the opposing team will find less resistance, at one of your two points. If they take one, you’re at a disadvantage, and have to figure out which of their now two points is easier to take.

SKIRMISH: Takes the game play of Firefight, and adds the caches from the Push mode which gives each team multiple lives. So you’ll be going along in your back, and forth. But the twist comes when one of the caches is destroyed. Without a cache, your team will fall back to the stock Firefight rules, which makes it easier to become overrun. So you have to decide as a team whether you want to go all out, and take points. Or do you designate a few of your combatants to defend the cache while others go for points? Insurgency Sandstorm involves its own strategies into proven concepts.

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This is where the implementation of other ideas, along with NWI’s modern twists, and original features really begins to take shape. Insurgency Sandstorm may use some ideas you’ve seen elsewhere, but it isn’t a knock off. It isn’t just reskinning a popular game, and shouting “Ta-da!”. It’s transformative. It retools these ideas to work in ways that weren’t expected before. It again, also has original ideas too. That’s what made the first game so great, and that continues here in the combat system.

 

Like the original, it takes a page from the original Rainbow Six games, and goes for far more realistic damage. If you play Rainbow Six Siege, as fun as it is, you can still survive firefights if you get shot. Even if you go down a friend can revive you. But if you go way back, and play Rainbow Six 1,2, or 3, that is rarely the case. In those games a single hit was usually lethal. If you were hit in a limb, maybe you could take a second bullet to go down. Insurgency Sandstorm is tough like that. If you get shot, you’re probably dead. If you’re hit in the arm, perhaps you’ll find some cover to survive a little bit longer. But another hit, and you’re toast. Because while your vision comes back, your health does not.

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But Insurgency Sandstorm goes further. Because it eschews plenty of other ideas its competitors love. For instance, there is no mini map. There are no little lights on a square in the corner telling you where to go. You’ll see a flashing letter in the distance. But that’s it. Insurgency Sandstorm has no kill cam. You may be able to have the run speed of a soldier (provided you have no body armor) of a Call Of Duty entry. But when you get sniped running onto the point, and die you will not be watching the person who killed you as you wait to spawn. You can see your teammates, and communicate with them if you see a threat near them. But that is it.

Insurgency Sandstorm also adds a bit of realism in its movement. When you sprint you may not tire. However, you also can not shoot. You have to think about that when going about. If you think you can blast a nest of enemies while charging into a room, think again. At best you can kick doors down while running, and if it hits an enemy in the process you can kill them with the door. But you’ll also be wide open when the other campers see it. On the flip side, if you’re trying to snipe, and you’re too close to the banister, your arm will simply bend back toward you, as you struggle to find a spot where your gun isn’t going to go up against an object. It’s a small thing, but it adds a lot to the environment.

 

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Insurgency Sandstorm borrows an element from Arena shooters of yesteryear too: Gibs. In this game, getting hit in key parts of the body will cause limbs to fly off, heads to explode, and bodies to disintegrate. Since this game is going for a little bit more realism it doesn’t come off like it would in The Expendables. It comes off a little bit more like Glory. Rather it tries to. It doesn’t quite make that emotional transition, but it doesn’t elicit that same joyous surprise as it did back in DOOM, Duke 3D, or QUAKE. At least not for me. The point is, there is an element of its use in a contemporary setting that might remind some players of how horrific wars can be. Whether or not this is intentional is solely up to the artists to decide. They may have been going for the action movie vibe more so than the dramatic movie vibe. In which case I think it fell somewhere in between. But they do come off as impressive. The first time you see it, you really won’t be expecting it, and it honestly might just shock you even knowing about it going in.

The move to Unreal Engine 4 also means a big uptick in visual fidelity, and a jump in system requirements. However, New World Interactive deserves some praise in just how much they’ve done to ensure those like me, with aging video cards can still play their game with great performance. If you do happen to have the hardware that can run this at or near maximum settings, you’ll be pretty pleased with the end result. There are some very impressive lighting effects, Anti-Aliasing effects, Bump mapping effects, among others that UE4 can support. However, if you have a machine that’s five years old, you’re probably not going to be playing any game maxed out. The scalability this game provides is great, as are its customization options.

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All of the shots you’re seeing in this review were taken at the lowest settings. These can hang with a lot of other games despite the reduced image quality. Granted, you can’t expect miracles either. If you’ve got a ten-year old computer with barely any RAM to speak of by today’s standards,  you probably cannot run it. But If you have at least a fourth generation Intel i5 or AMD FX 6330 (around 5 years old now), a NVIDIA GTX 760 or AMD Radeon 7970 in there (also around 5 years old as of this writing), and a good 16GB of RAM in your system you likely can. And at better performance than you might expect. At the lowest settings, I’ve been able to play between 70, and 90 frames per second resulting in a relatively smooth, and responsive experience.

And with the game slated to hit the Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 next year, it does give those who prefer a console experience something to look forward to. As for the artistic side of the visuals, they’ve really gone out of their way here as well. Textures on buildings, look sharp, the costumes of the characters all fit the motif the game tries to present. Even on the lowest details, the backgrounds all still look great with some nice lights, and shadow effects going on.

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As in the original game, one side of the roster is composed of security forces. So when playing  as a security force member you’ll have a military themed character. The other side is composed of insurgents where you’re basically playing as a terrorist group of villains. One thing this game introduces over its predecessor is a cosmetic customization option. As you play the game you’ll earn in game currency. Much like Nintendo’s Splatoon series, you cannot buy this currency. These are points you use exclusively for this feature. Unlike Splatoon, these clothing options do nothing else. It’s strictly just to personalize your characters when playing online. No perk slots, no RPG elements, that is it. That being said, a lot of the costume selections are quite good, and go for something grounded. You won’t be running around on the security side wearing only pants, and bandoliers or rocking a Cobra Commander costume on the insurgent forces.

As in the first game, there are no unlockable weapons. When you start the game every one of your classes is given a certain number of points. Which you can use on your load out. So you have to use tactics even when deciding what to go onto the front lines in. You may not have to grind your way to that powerful machine gun you want to use. But if it costs a lot of points that doesn’t leave you a lot left over for attachments, or defensive items or a secondary item. Similarly, you can choose to go for a lot of body armor, and items. But this will actually affect your run speed by making you slower. You might be able to take a third or fourth bullet before dying though. So you need to approach every class situation differently.

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Also new to this game are new Commander, and Observer classes. These classes have to work together, and stay within a certain proximity to one another. Because these classes can work to call in air support. They can call in helicopters, or mortar storms to help them push when attacking, or to defend their position when being pressured. Every one of the classes is viable though, and if you couldn’t already tell, the best way to play is with friends who communicate. Insurgency Sandstorm is very much designed around teamwork. It has built-in chat, so you can easily talk to your team on the fly. For those who don’t have a headset, or a microphone, you can still type to your team members.

On the other hand, when playing with random strangers, there is always going to be a troll or two. It’s just the reality of online gaming. Fortunately this time around you can mute everybody wholesale if you have the misfortune of dropping to a match where everyone annoys you. Still, when playing with friends, the voice chat can be an accommodating feature. Especially for those with friends who don’t know how to set up their own chat alternatives like Discord.

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And if all of the heated PvP stuff sounds too tough for you, the cooperative mode included is something you may gravitate toward. Similar to the Terrorist Hunt mode of the Rainbow Six series, Insurgency Sandstorm’s cooperative experience pits you, and others up against a team of NPC bots. With frequently changing objectives. It basically blends some of its competitive elements into the mode. So at first you, and the other humans may be taking points. But then the game will decide you have to defend the one you just claimed against an onslaught, or destroy a cache. But all of it is done in, a fun, and entertaining way.  You’ll get a variety of enemy bot skill levels. Some will be pretty good at movement, others will be marksmen. But you’ll occasionally get that idiotic bot that just stands there after missing. Still, they employ some tactics one might not expect, making for some surprises. And of course for those who only want to go up against the best, Insurgency Sandstorm features a competitive option where you’ll be placed with other people on ranked servers, and modes to keep up your street cred.

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For those who absolutely must have something here for playing alone, there are a couple of minor options though. There are a couple of short tutorials that get you used to the game’s mechanics, and modes. These aren’t really necessary for those who have played FPS titles for years, though it can catch you up on the nuances here. The aforementioned cooperative mode is here however again as a single player option. Sadly this just isn’t going to be as fun as the cooperative experience. That’s because you’re paired with bots who aren’t as adept as the bots you’ll go up against, and you’re only given one life per objective. So if you die trying to get the first objective, the round ends, and you’ll move onto the next. This makes the one player option a lot more challenging too because without some competent bots, you’re basically going up against an entire army alone. Still you get five attempts, and winning alone is doable.

But there are also a load of options for you to tinker with. Not just the aforementioned graphics settings, and performance settings. Not just the look of your hero or villain. You can even tweak some of the marker settings, like changing the colors of the letter markers,  and names to something clearer to you than the default. You can also put on displays to show you the current frame rate, and ping. Things that have been in Unreal Engine games for years, but are often closed off in newer releases. It’s nice to see it here so that you can see the math when turning something on or off.

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There are a few problems I do have to point out though. While I imagine most people will get pretty good performance out of this game, there are a number of small visual glitches I’ve stumbled upon. In one game I noticed somebody’s weapon just flickering in the sky before the round began. Another round I noticed player models that hadn’t completely loaded in. So they were shooting at me, but the weapon they were using couldn’t be seen. These are rare occurrences. But the common issue I run into is texture pop in. Again, it loads in fast enough. It doesn’t affect the game play. But the 2 seconds between seeing a blue wall, and seeing a blue wall, with dents in it, and other details can sometimes distract from the experience. I suspect it could be an issue with older cards, that will eventually be fixed with patches, and drivers. But it is a minor problem.

When playing the cooperative mode, alone or with other players, there are a few minor nitpicks. Mainly with the inconsistent A.I. as I mentioned earlier, the bots you face can have a fair amount of variety in skill which is nice. But when you have to rely on them in your team, and a few decide to be idiots, you almost wish they weren’t there. The enemy bot spawns could have been obfuscated a little bit better too, as there were a couple of times in the single player cooperative I could go out a door of a point I had to defend, and see the game drop them in.

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In the grand scheme of things these issues don’t really amount to much of anything. The A.I. is still better than in many of the bots in other titles. The game rarely looks anything less than great aside from the 2-4 seconds of pop in you may experience. Leaving the bot spawn issues, which really breaks the immersion more than anything else. Back on the pvp end of things, there is far less to pick apart. The net code is generally very good. Unless you’re connecting to a server half the world away, you don’t see a lot of rubber banding, or players warping around like Mr. Game & Watch.

All of the online modes are generally quite fun. The studio kept them to the best maintained modes of the first game to ensure that you can always find someone to play against, and this strategy has worked. Yes, you can get into situations where there are people trying to spawn camp, or situations where you’ll have people on your team who refuse to run to the giant flashing “A” along with everyone else. But these aren’t issues with the game, these are the same issues you’ll run into with certain individuals in any multiplayer game. Fortunately, the game does offer the ability for you to mute individual people, or even everyone wholesale.

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The gun play is fantastic. Every weapon has a nice heft to it, and there are options here for every type of player. If you prefer to cover your team, there are many sniping options. If you want to go stealth, there are a slew of close range rifles, shotguns, SMGs, and other options, and attachments. The sounds of gunfire, and explosions are phenomenal too, which adds to that feeling of weight. You also have to hold your breath to steady your aim. Not only with the long-range weapons, but every weapon. Hip firing will just go wherever the gun is aimed. So panic shooting is going to be a crap shoot. These are all seemingly tiny things. But they add so much depth to the combat.

The maps are also mostly really good. Save for an exception or two, just about every map is built around each mode, and objectives are set that put either an attacker or defender into a tough situation at any given time. There are choke points defenders can use to their advantage. There are multiple paths attackers can take at any given time. The inclusion of vehicles in the Push mode also adds a new dynamic. I would have liked to have seen more of them. But between the drivable trucks with mounted guns, and the air strikes the two new classes can call in, there are new strategies that have to be employed to deal with them. And some maps actually make using these things harder. On the refinery stage enemies can just go inside buildings to escape the wrath of a Blackhawk helicopter. Similarly someone can put out roadside bombs in key locations that might deter someone from racing to the point in a pickup.

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In spite of its faults, Insurgency Sandstorm is a phenomenal game. It offers a real alternative to those who have felt disenfranchised with Electronic Arts’, and Activision’s annualized offerings. While it might not have quite the same level of visual fidelity of Battlefield or Call Of Duty, it also doesn’t require the purchase of season passes or micro transactions to have access to everything included in it down the line. The game play in it is also unique thanks to reintroducing an audience to hardcore simulation elements while retaining the run speed of something more twitchy. Absolute simulation purists may still want to go to the excellent ARMA games. And while this game may not be as recognized by the wider audience, the potential is there for that to change.  Especially if the game’s smaller issues are cleared, and the promised campaign shows up before it sees a port to consoles next year.

Whether you loved the original Insurgency, and poured hundreds of hours into it, or you’re a military FPS veteran looking for something new, this is pretty much a game you’ll enjoy diving into. This is also an excellent option for those who want something competitive to play, but without the pressure to spend more money. It’s also a great game for the casual military FPS fan who doesn’t have thousands of hours to devote to unlocking things. Insurgency was also supported for many years after it came out, and there’s no indication New World Interactive won’t do the same for the sequel. People who were interested solely in a campaign story mode will want to wait for its arrival. But for anyone looking for a unique take on the modern military multiplayer shooter? Insurgency Sandstorm should be on their wish list.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

DUSK Review

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Man, I’m late again, I know. But I’m not late to the proverbial party. Because DUSK has officially launched, and I can tell you it’s really freaking cool. Where a lot of games have been tugging at our nostalgic platformer strings, DUSK tugs away at your nostalgic FPS strings. And while it isn’t the first to do so, it is one of the first to do it this well. It clearly takes inspiration from late 90’s shooters like Quake, Unreal, and SIN.

PROS: Classic visuals. Intricate maps. Fantastic characters. Gun play.

CONS: Minor bugs. One particular puzzle isn’t very intuitive.

DELIVERANCE: Some of these enemies will make you squeal like Ned Beatty.

But not only does it take that inspiration, it runs with it clearly into the end zone. This is noticeable before you even get to playing. Booting the game displays those familiar text parsers to anyone who played DOOM, ROTT, DUKE 3D, or QUAKE for MS-DOS back in the mid to late 90’s. Even after Windows 95 became an overnight sensation, it took a long time for video games to migrate to the environment as the de facto standard. Even in 1996, QUAKE was running on DOS. So this nod is going to make many old school PC game fans very nostalgic.

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But that’s just the beginning, because DUSK gives you a smorgasbord of visual settings, and sound options to choose from. You can run the game in resolutions set for 4K, HD, SD monitors. You can make things look grainy with a pixel filter. You can play with borders. You can screw around with the color scheme. You can have the game looking bright, and colorful. You can have the game looking near grayscale. You can make everything look Sepia if you want. The wealth of customization is great.

As in the FPS games of yore, you can bind nearly every key to your liking, and you can even turn off the vertical axis on your mouse. This is really cool because during the game you can do somersaults, and backflips in the air! It’s just one of many innovations you’ll find this game has added atop the classic shooter. You can also map everything to a controller if you prefer to play with a game pad over a keyboard, and mouse. Ideally, you’ll get much better control with the latter. However with the game getting a release on the Nintendo Switch next year, the controller support is a welcome addition.

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Once you’ve gotten your bindings, and other settings configured to your liking you’ll be able to start the game. As in the Apogee, and iD games from back in the day, DUSK is broken up into three episodic campaigns. It follows a three act structure, and the story is told through a combination of audio voiceover, level design, and paragraphs of exposition upon clearing each of the first two episodes. So many players who remember spending countless hours trying to find every last bit of environmental lore in DOOM, and QUAKE will feel right at home here. Of course this game doesn’t spell everything out right away for you in terms of its story. You’ll start out the first episode in a dingy, and dark dungeon armed only with two sickles.  You’ll immediately be attacked by three guys right out of Deliverance, armed with chain saws while sporting burlap sacks for masks.

It is here where you’ll notice that the game has an aesthetic direction that brings back the look of old FPS stalwarts in addition to the classic game play. Everything looks like it was released in 1997. Even if you opt to put on the fancier visual options, to make it look more modern, it will still look decidedly old school. This is really cool because it isn’t something that has been really done much. The closest thing to it would be Strafe, and that game unfortunately doesn’t come close to this game in terms of level design or gameplay. That’s because this game eschews the trend of randomly generated stages. Instead it builds its experience around some excellent level design, and atmosphere.

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DUSK may look old, and blocky on its surface. But it uses its employment of simplified graphics to its advantage. There are enemies in the roster that are truly unsettling. In fact, they may be more so because of the low detail, blocky designs. DUSK uses its retro chic very, very well. At the same time it takes the motif much further than you might find possible. It reminds me a little bit of American McGee’s Alice in this regard. That game was incredibly eerie for its time, and echoed feelings of a Tim Burton vehicle. But DUSK doesn’t feel like something out of The Nightmare On Christmas. It feels more like a perfect blend of psychological thriller, horror show, and action film. Because it takes elements from all of these things. Episode One will introduce you to a seemingly backwater group of occultists. Occultists with supernatural powers, brainwashed masses, and some horrific monsters to boot. Episode Two begins to show you just how deep their grasp on society in this world really goes. You’ll fight a combination of military, and industrial enemies. But as you go down the rabbit hole of stages, you’ll begin to see things get more, and more intricate. More, and more inventive too. You’ll start out in military installations. But by the end you’ll be dealing with laboratories of mad scientists, and machinations of twisted designs. There’s even a wonderfully crafted, and eerie level designed around M.C. Esher’s iconic Relativity drawing.

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By the third episode things begin to start coming together, and some of the more obvious questions are answered. There are a number of call backs, and the level designs become even more involved.  A lot of these may very well be some of the most memorable stages I’ve ever played through. All of the stages have a bevy of secrets to be found, and many of these even include old school secret exits that lead to secret stages. This is another splendid reference to those games of yesteryear. Many of those titles also employed secret exits to secret stages. But again, DUSK performs this trick in its own way. Really there isn’t a lot to complain about in terms of the game’s campaign. It gives you hours, upon hours of content. As I’ve said before, all of the stages have fantastic designs that will require not only reflexes, but your thinking cap. There are a plethora of puzzles you’ll need to solve in order to find all of the required colored keys to get through the corresponding colored doors, and to the exits. If I were to complain about anything it would be that one of the boss fights in particular isn’t very fair. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll likely know exactly which one I’m referring to when you get there. And it isn’t the final confrontation. That one is fantastic. There is also one gigantic horde mode of a moment near the end of the game where things turn into something out of a Serious Sam game. Which goes to show just how little that series really had to do with the old games many thought it did. It isn’t a bad moment per se. But if you’re not prepared for it you’ll find yourself very low on supplies, which will make getting through it a lot harder than it needs to be.

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Fortunately quick saving mitigates this a lot, and you’ll probably find yourself save scumming a lot during your initial play through. After that you’ll have a pretty good idea of when major hurdles are coming up. So during subsequent play throughs, you’ll have to save far less often. I should probably mention another cool thing about DUSK is just how funny it can be at times. In spite of the fact that things are played so seriously, and that it combines a vintage look with such a dark, anxious tone it will throw in comic relief. But like the best horror movies, these moments don’t make the experience feel campy. Again, it will likely remind you of the goofy stuff hidden in classic iD, and Apogee releases. You’ll be startled by invisible death reindeer one moment, and laughing at a Schwarzenegger impression the next.

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Andrew Hulshult (who did the excellent soundtrack to the Rise Of The Triad reboot in 2013) brings his talents to this game. He brings his love of Metal along with him here, but there are also some phenomenal moments of symphonic industrial sound, and a lot of ambient tracks too. There are even a few tracks involving some eerie pipe organs. One of the hallmarks of a great soundtrack is how it works with the setting of the game it is used in. Everything here melds along perfectly. It rocks out when there’s an ambush or a larger than life boss fight. It feels desperate, and fearful when there are moments of isolation or the prospect of deadly enemies around a corner. The sound effects are also top-notch. They make the weapon feedback feel great. They make the creepier enemies ever so more likely to freak you out. They make the environment feel like the universe the game takes place in feel all the more real.

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Not only does DUSK give you a compelling thirty stage (or more) campaign to battle through, it also includes multiplayer. DUSKWORLD is this game’s competitive death match offering. Now admittedly this isn’t going to be the reason you’re getting a ticket to this carnival. But it is a genuinely fun, and customizable experience. You can choose to play as many of the game’s enemy roster, and you can alter the color scheme of any character you choose. As with the main campaign, you can alter the key bindings, crosshairs, and various visual, and performance settings. The game also supports a multitude of multiplayer server options, and it has a respectable number of maps. The game will also have mod support, so if enough players enjoy it, there could potentially be a fair amount of content added to the game by the community. As for what is here, you’re getting a really good death match mode that can hang with SIN, and QUAKE II. You can rocket jump, strafe jump, and zip along at 100 mph. It’s a lot of fun, and fills a gap for those who miss the arena shooters in the vein of Q3A or UT.

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Again, like the main campaign, the shooting, and movement here is amazingly well done. Everything is not only fast, but responsive. Aiming feels smooth. Projectile weapons feel accurate, requiring a mastery of leading. Hit scan weapons work as they should, requiring you to get the cursor right on the enemy. The visual feedback goes along with everything well, as you’ll see red blood pixels with every hit, along with an audio feedback. You’ll hear a familiar tone when hitting opponents in the arenas. You can expect a full server to result in some spam techniques in smaller maps. But that’s merely a staple of the subgenre. All of the multiplayer maps feature multiple paths through to key power ups, and weapons. These are all either designed for the ground up for death match, or campaign maps that have been properly retooled for competitive play. Net code is pretty good. Finding a server in your area rarely results in rubber banding, or warping enemies. The action in multiplayer is a very fun experience. One can only hope enough people enjoy it to retain a decent player base. But even if it doesn’t carve out a niche for itself, it is possible to play privately with friends. Which is welcome as this is a rather well made death match effort.

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The game also offers a horde mode. It isn’t something most people will choose as their primary way to play the game. But it is here. There are three maps to choose from, and you’re given a limited number of supplies to survive each onslaught of enemies. You keep going until you lose. Basically it gives the game an arcade style Hi-Score flair. There are point multipliers for rapidly killing bad guys in a row too, so if you do enjoy this game mode, do take advantage of that.

Ultimately, DUSK is a must-buy. It retains what made the original two QUAKE games, and its contemporaries so good. At the same time it does so much the those games couldn’t do thanks to running on a modern Unity engine. If you’re an older player, you’ll love all of the pulls at your nostalgic heart-strings. If you’re a newcomer you may find that old can feel new to you. While there are some games that have tried to bring back that classic feel of the past, this game goes all in. Even as excellent as it was, iD’s own DOOM reboot didn’t fully bring back the level of exploration of its original game. But even the old FPS guard will find this game does plenty of new things with a proven concept. I might even recommend this one to some who might not typically be drawn to the FPS genre. It has so much personality, and creativity, those who are looking for something new to try out may find themselves pleasantly surprised. Plus for people who want even more lore there is a digital comic one can pick up with the soundtrack on Steam.

In short; DUSK is freaking cool.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

C64 Mini Review

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Ever since Atari devised the original Atari Flashback line (Which it handed over to ATGames, who has kept the line going), the craze for replica consoles with built-in games has been going strong. Nintendo set the bar for them even higher with its NES, and Super NES Classic Edition machines. Even before this craze however, there were similar devices. Systems built into a controller from a wide variety of vendors like Jakks Pacific. And there was even the C64 DTV I reviewed a while ago. Well now there’s a new take on this mini console idea. As Retro Games LTD brings us a Commodore 64 iteration.

PROS: Excellent emulation. Feature rich. It’s a baby Commodore 64!

CONS: Game selection should have been better. No AC Adapter.

COMMODORE BASIC: You can actually code in it on this device.

Released throughout Europe earlier this year, the C64 Mini finally made its appearance Stateside, and so I picked one up. I pretty much had to as someone who used a Commodore 64 regularly throughout their childhood, and into their teens. The Commodore 64 was the best-selling home computer platform of all time. Released in 1983, and sold until 1994 when Commodore went out of business. And it was well supported in every major territory for most of that time. The American, and European markets differed in some of the game line ups. In Europe a host of publishers, and developers cut their teeth on it, and became the juggernauts they are today. Many games were exclusive to the European market despite being a machine made by an American company. Here in the USA, Commodore (as well as Atari, IBM,  and Apple) scooped up most of the publisher support consoles once had. When the great crash happened, and machines like the Odyssey 2, Colecovision, Intellivision, Atari 5200, Bally Astrocade, and others fell by the wayside it was the home computer platforms surviving companies shifted to. Even after the Nintendo Entertainment System reignited the console market, many games continued to see versions on the microcomputers. In Europe, the home computer platforms were almost always preferred, and so there was never really this kind of shift, leading to a wellspring of exclusive amazing games US owners never saw.

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Whichever part of the world you hail from though, the Commodore 64 had a massive following. As such it got a ton of games that not only appeared on consoles from the Atari 2600 to the NES to the Sega Master System, but IBM PC Compatibles as well. That’s besides the stuff that it had exclusively, or only shared with a couple of other computer platforms of the day. It was the platform to own until the NES showed up, and even then it still held its own into the shift toward 16-bit processor powered platforms like the Sega Genesis, Super NES, and Amiga computer line. And nothing has or ever will sound as awesome as a Commodore 64 again. It’s Sound Interface Device (SID) chip featured dynamic sound. Something even some arguably more powerful machines didn’t have. Bob Yannes truly was a master of sound chip design.

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So what makes the C64 mini so special? Well for starters, it’s a miniature replica of a Commodore 64. The designers got every major detail down on this thing. Of course they aren’t the defunct Commodore of old, so instead of COMMODORE being laden along the top, they’ve displayed C64 Mini. Other than that one change, it’s perfect. Mine had a minor tilted paint application by the power button, but one tiny manufacturing error is a very minor nitpick. I have to say that the presentation in this product is top-notch. The packaging is great. Like the Super NES Classic Edition, they’ve tried to re-create one of the C64 box releases, and have done well. On the back they show off the game list, and this is where the one disappointment crops up. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

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Opening the box reveals another box, one that feels luxurious despite just being more cardboard. It’s embossed with a beautiful logo, and upon opening it, you’ll see both the computer, and classic style joystick replica encased in a removable clamshell. Upon taking those out, you’ll find your cables, and documentation underneath. It should be noted that if you’re the type who likes to re-seal, and pack away your consoles when not in use, the packaging is accommodating. It’s very easy to put back everything where it goes for putting away. In the box you’ll get the C64 Mini, a Joystick, HDMI cable, USB cable for power, and documentation. Unfortunately for whatever reason it does not have an AC adapter. So unless your HDTV has a USB port for you use, you’ll need to buy a USB to AC adapter if you don’t already have one for another device like a smart phone.

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Upon turning on the device you’ll hear a glorious original chip tune, as you’re greeted with a simple language selection screen. Once you choose your language you’ll see a panorama of the devices built-in games. At the bottom are a couple of icons. You’ll have one for display options. These are very much like the ones on the Super NES Classic Edition. You can choose aspect ratio, and select from a few filters. Another icon lets you go back into the language selection, while the third lets you go in, and change other settings. One of which shows you the Firmware version. Here’s the cool thing. If you go to the manufacturer’s site, you can get the latest update for free. Put the update on a flash drive, and you can install it on the C64 Mini. When you do this, the device will reboot, and when it does you’ll see a USB flash drive icon at the bottom of the screen. This lets you read disk images off of a flash drive! So if you have a means to back up your collection to disk images, you have the potential to run them on the C64 Mini! This is also a great option for anybody who buys an indie game for their C64, as often times homebrew developers will have a digital image option or inclusion with their disk or cartridge. This is also great for anybody who enjoys the C64 Demo scene, as again, you can run these audiovisual projects on the C64 Mini!

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As for the games that are included here, the list of titles is a mixed bag. There are a few very memorable C64 games on here. Especially from the now defunct Epyx. The Apshai series is here, which is an amazing line of early Action RPGs. Jump Man, and Jump Man 2 are here, and while even back upon release they weren’t much to look at, they were amazing. These are two of the best platform-puzzlers ever released. This device also has the two Impossible Mission games which are also two must-plays.  Rounding out the Epyx catalog are some of their better known sports games including California Games. These aren’t what one would call system sellers, but they are probably the best versions of these titles.

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The Mini also has a few Firebird releases on it. Firebird wasn’t as well-known in the States as it was in Europe, but they still did release a lot of their better titles in the US. Two of the better ones here are The Arc Of Yesod, and The Nodes Of Yesod two games that feel like precursors to Metroid. They’re labyrinthine, and action packed games that while admittedly aren’t as good as Metroid, are still really well made. There are also a host of Shmups by Hewson Consultants on here which were always lauded back in the day. Cybernoid, and Cybernoid II are here, and play as great as ever. Cybernoid was an early C64 staple, and one that remains superior to its NES counterpart. Uridium is also here, which NES fans may recognize as The Last Starfighter. (Mindscape re-skinned it, and ported it long after the movie came, and went). They also put the excellent Zynaps on here, as well as Firebird’s IO. So there are some excellent Shoot ’em ups on display.

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The other two major titles on the device are Boulder Dash, and Tower Toppler/Nebulus. These games are excellent arcade style games with puzzle elements. I’ve talked about Boulder Dash a few times on the blog here, and truly is one of the best games of its ilk ever made. It’s great to see it here once again.  Tower Toppler is a very challenging game that has an awesome pseudo-3D effect at the forefront of its gameplay. It saw release on other platforms, but the Commodore 64 version was always one of the best versions. There is also a really cool Demo on it that doubles as an end credits sequence. It shows off the names of everyone involved in making it, and a lot of creativity in the process.

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As for the rest of the games, there aren’t too many I would say to stay away from. But they’re not the most compelling titles either. Save for Monty On The Run, many of them were lower tier releases in Europe, and so many North American players will not know anything about these games. It’s a real shame that the folks at Retro Games LTD couldn’t have found a way to get some of the major releases from Activision, Electronic Arts, Capcom, Konami, SEGA, Lucas Arts, or Data East. Or some of the classic Broderbund, Accolade, Cinemaware, Access Software, System 3, or Microprose releases. Granted few of these publishers are around anymore, and I’m sure there are all kinds of rights hell complications in getting their games to market again. Still, most of their exclusive games were amazing, and the ones that would appear on other platforms, were still excellent on the Commodore 64. (Most of the time. There were some ports that were stinkers.) I would have also liked to see some of the higher profile European releases like Katakis, Phantis, or Turrican II on here, or some of the American gems like Paul Norman‘s games Forbidden Forest, Beyond The Forbidden Forest, Caverns Of Khafka, Aztec Challenge, or Super Huey. Cosmi published them, and are still around today. They don’t publish much in the way of games anymore, but permission may not be out of the realm of possibility.

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Be that as it may, the fact you can run backup images, and homebrew releases makes up for the lack of more recognizable games in the roster. And although you may not have heard of some of the included ones, most of them are still enjoyable enough. You could very well find you get a lot of mileage out of  Who Dares Wins II It may not be the best Run ‘n Gun you’ll ever play, but it is a pretty respectable Commando clone. One really cool inclusion here is the classic Commodore 64 BASIC prompt. Like all of the 8-Bit microcomputers of the time, one had to use BASIC commands to load programs, search media for files or save files. But you could also code in BASIC! So if you’re a budding developer willing to learn the language, you can code your own games, and save them to a flash drive! You can also type in those old programs printed in classic magazines like Ahoy!, or Commodore RUN.

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The mini also has a spiffy on-screen keyboard you can pull up using the joystick, although I have to say, a USB keyboard is preferred. Especially when playing classic RPGs, coding in BASIC, or playing text adventures. The included joystick is a really well made one. It’s tactile, re-centers itself nicely, and the fire buttons have a nice mechanical spring design. The joystick also has a hotkey on it for pulling up menus, and the on-screen keyboard, as well as the Space bar button, and Return button. This makes navigating action games much easier, as you don’t have to frantically look for a key on your keyboard. However the drawback to this is that if for any reason you break the joystick, navigating things may become a bit iffy. So treat the joystick like fine china. Fortunately you can acquire spare joysticks separately. However, not all of the big box stores who carry the mini, carry the standalone joysticks. I also forgot to mention the C64 mini also supports save states. So you’ll be able to save scum your way through some of the more difficult sections of games, or just simply create a save point in general. Not every Commodore 64 game had a save feature, so being able to create a save file for some of the longer games available for the computer is very convenient.

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Emulation on the C64 mini is very good. Visually everything looks the way it is supposed to. The color palette is on par with the original computer’s. Graphics look crisp, and the sprites all look as good as they would on the original hardware. The different filters, and aspect ratios all work very well too. So if you don’t like the computer monitor look of the different settings you can put on one of the CRT filters I briefly mentioned earlier. Personally I recommend the pixel perfect or 4:3 aspect ratio, as they look cleaner. But if you prefer the look of scan lines, the filters do a pretty good job here.

Sound emulation is also spot on. Of course depending on the model of the original computer there were two major sound chip versions, with revisions of each throughout the production run. The mini appears to sound more like the earlier versions of the chip, which makes sense since the casing is modeled after the earlier version of the computer, and not the C64c re-release. The C64c had the later chip versions, and so there are some slight sound differences between the earlier C64’s, and the C64c (A C64 in a new casing). In any case, the sound veers toward the original model here.

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As far as the performance goes, it too is very good. Things run at a great pace, and I have yet to experience slowdown the original computer wouldn’t. I also haven’t noticed any considerable amount of input lag when playing games on it. I’ve tried it on three TV sets, a 720p 32″ Element LCD, an Insignia (Best Buy) 720p 19″ LCD, and a Samsung 4K 42″ LCD. I only ever noticed it on the Samsung, and even then, just barely. For the overwhelming majority of people who pick this up, it’s going to be a great experience.

 

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In closing, the C64 mini is one of the best of these miniature emulation devices to see release in recent years. While Nintendo’s releases have more recognizable games in their line ups, this device has better functionality. The ability to use virtually any USB controllers or keyboards paired with some of the best emulation around makes for an almost 1:1 experience. Plus, the inclusion of the classic BASIC prompt means you can make your own programs. This even adds an educational level to the package. Not only do you get a piece of video game history, but you can learn about, and learn how to code in a programming language.  True it isn’t as robust as a modern language, but it still gives you the building blocks, and helps you better understand where modern technology came from. I wouldn’t be surprised to find school teachers or other instructors picking this up for that purpose.

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Really, the only drawback is that it could have used a few more higher profile games in the line up. I would recommend getting a spare joystick for it at some point as well, just on the off-chance you somehow break the included one. The odds aren’t very high (again, the build quality is actually quite good.) but it’s just one of those just in case things you should have. Still, while it isn’t as cool as an actual Commodore 64 (though short of a FPGA powered clone compatible with the original’s drives, and software, what can be?) but it’s close. Real close. Its shortcomings are more than made up for by its features. This is simply the best mini platform not made by Nintendo. If you’re a long time Commodore 64 fan or collector, you’ll love that it makes C64 HDTV gaming a snap. If you’ve never experienced a C64, and want to without having to invest a few hundred dollars into obtaining one, its peripherals, and games this is a great option. It’s also a great device for anyone who wants to learn about early computers, and the use of BASIC programming as an Operating System. Even if none of those things apply to you, the wealth of indie homebrew games being made for the original C64 may just pique your interest. Again, the digital images for many of them can be run via flash drive.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

No Thing Review

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Imagine the surprise I was given when Nintendo reminded fans on Twitter that they may have a few unredeemed coins on the eshop set to expire. I had a scant handful, and so I figured, “Why not give it a shot?” and looked to see if there was anything that cheap. Well I stumbled upon this little game. A game about travelling along a path, in a Orwellian future that would actually lead me down quite the rabbit hole.

PROS: Simple, yet compelling game play.

CONS: Fairly short for anyone adept at it.

SUDA51: Your first look at the game will almost certainly remind you of No More Heroes.

Apparently I’ve been living under a rock, because after playing it for a couple of hours, (Yes, hours.) I just had to do some research. No Thing started life on phones, and tablets during the craze of endless runners. Except that it set itself apart in, many, many ways. The most obvious is the art style. This game looks like something Suda51 would have made for a No More Heroes mini game. Blocky minimalist geometry? Check. Low color palette? Check. Regular images that somehow come off as surreal or even creepy? Check. It has a very similar art style.

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But that isn’t to say it’s a stereotypical endless runner dressed up in edgy shock value. Far from it. For starters, it isn’t endless. There are ten stages. That’s it. Many of the stages are pretty long though. Even in the early goings. The stages are also not made via procedural generation. Every time you play, they’ll be the same. So this game is much more conducive to speed runs. It also isn’t a 2D side-scroller. This one uses a First-Person perspective.

No Thing also has a story that seems simplistic at first, but uses its stage layouts, and bizarre imagery to tell it. In this regard it reminded me an awful lot of games like Portal, and Deadcore, despite the fact it plays nothing like them. And through it all, it just became something I had to keep playing to see more of. The setup is that it’s the dystopian future of 1994. You’re an office worker who has to send a message to the Queen Of Ice. That’s it. Walk to her, and give her the message. Except it isn’t that easy.

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No Thing’s stages are essentially long tracks, and walkways. You use two buttons. One turns you ninety degrees left. The other ninety degrees right. At first you’ll go along fairly easily. Left turns. Right turns. You’re probably thinking to yourself “So? That sounds pretty boring. What’s so special about that?” Well before long the game puts gaps up in the path. Going over them makes a minor jump. The better you do, the faster you begin to go. So it doesn’t take much to have you running. Eventually, the game throws in ramps, branching paths, and mazes. Keep in mind all the while if you go off the path, you fall to your death as this is Super Mario Cyborg in that all of these stages hover over a chasm.

Over the course of the game’s stages, a voice that sounds like it came from early speech synthesis technology narrates instructions, and vague words that also tie into the storyline. Of course you won’t have time to read it as things become faster, and faster. Take your eyes off of the task for even a second, and you’ll fall to your doom. Throughout all of it  you’ll die a bunch of times, but you’ll keep playing it. It’s strangely addicting.

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The stages themselves have a pretty wide variety. Which you might not assume considering the length of the game, and the simple control scheme. But some of these work like tracks you lap. Others are long trails. Others place a lot of ramps in places which speed you up, and have you catching air. There are other stages that throw you curveballs by waiting to give you a turn at the last moment. And that’s part of why you’ll keep giving this one a go. You’ll just want to see what comes next.

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This isn’t to say, it’s a perfect experiment of course. Sometimes you’ll catch air, won’t be able to see below you, and you’ll have to estimate your landing. Also, while many of the filters in the game go along well with it, they can get in the way. When you’re about to make a crucial decision, and the distortion filter comes on, it could lead to you missing a turn. That means starting the stage all over again. The storyline may also a little too vague for some. You’ll get some references through the visuals, and cryptic speech. But chances are you still won’t get exactly what’s going on. On the other hand that could be the point; everyone can take something different away from the experience.

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One thing that certainly stands out is the soundtrack. Coincidentally if you get this one on PC via Steam you can buy the OST as DLC. Many would throw it under the Synth Wave genre, which pays homage to the New Wave, and Synthpop genres, particularly of the early 1980’s. Most of the compositions here are pretty catchy, and make great use of simulated analog synthesized sounds, and percussion.

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No Thing may have come out alongside much of what fans would cast under the shovelware category. But it isn’t. The aesthetics aren’t for everybody. But the underlying gameplay is honestly pretty good. And in spite of some of the cheap deaths due to the eventual jumps, it’s still a pretty fun game. Persistence is the key in No Thing. Every time you screw up, you just have to play again until you beat the level at hand. I enjoy going back to it fairly regularly. It even has a handful of achievements you can receive for beating stages, and scoring exceptionally well. With it being on Steam, and the Switch, I can see it being something speed runners may look into. Again, an acquired taste to be sure, but it might just be a game you want to check out. Especially if you want a game that stands out on your phone, or just something different from the genres you might normally buy on your computer or console.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Mega Man 11 Review

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After Mega Man 10 came out nearly a decade ago, Capcom slowly went silent on the Blue Bomber. One of their most prolific franchises, Mega Man has always been known for its excellent action platforming, wonderful characters, and excellent soundtracks. Other than perhaps Street Fighter,  the series is synonymous with the company name. After Keiji Inafune (the most recognized name attached to the character) left Capcom, however We rarely ever saw a mention of Capcom’s most recognizable series, or any of its spinoffs. For years many wondered why. Leading up to the release of Mega Man 11 here, the game’s director Kazuhiro Tsuchiya was interviewed by Game Informer. He reasoned that after Inafune left Capcom, the company wasn’t certain they could do an entry on the same level of the previous ten games.

PROS: Great visuals. Level design. Gear System is an excellent new mechanic.

CONS: The soundtrack, while good, doesn’t reach the lofty heights of older games.

NICE: The little touches you’ll notice throughout the adventure.

Well thank God the people behind this iteration decided to step up, and take a risk. Because Mega Man 11 is pretty great. It gives long time fans the challenging action-platforming they’ve come to expect. But it also builds upon the foundation that was solidified way back in 1987. In a way, they could have come out screaming “THIS AIN’T YOUR DADDY’S MEGA MAN!”, and they would be accurate. But before some of you worry, that proverbial Father will still find a lot to love about Mega Man 11.

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The storyline is tied to the game’s fancy new mechanic; The Double Gear System. Basically, Mega Man has two new powers he can use temporarily for a few seconds by pressing the corresponding shoulder button. Pressing the left shoulder button increases his attack power immensely. Pressing the right shoulder button temporarily allows Mega Man to go into a bullet time state like in the Max Payne games. Everything will go into slow motion, allowing you to quickly move around obstacles, and attacks.

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The emphasis however is on that word; temporary. You’ll only have a few seconds to use these powers. If you go beyond that, you’ll overcharge the move, and you won’t be able to use it again for several moments. So you really can’t rely solely on this feature to get through the entire game. But throughout the many stages you will reach sections where you may just find them helpful enough that you don’t lose a life.  In any event when you start the game you’ll find like most of the series, there’s an opening run of cinema screens that set up the arc. This time around Dr. Wily remembers back in his youth he created the Double Gear System. A device that accelerates the speed, and power of robots. But his research was barred when most of the other scientists in the community including Dr. Light feared (with good reason) the horrors that could arise from its abuse. Being the quintessential evil mad scientist, he decides all of these decades later to implement it. He kidnaps the latest run of Dr. Light’s robots, programs them for evil purposes, and installs the tech in them.

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Par the course, Rock begs Dr. Light to install the technology in himself when it is brought to his attention that he likely wouldn’t be able to stop Dr. Wily without it. So Dr. Light reluctantly does so, thus setting up the campaign’s backdrop. As is the case with the rest of the series, you’re going to go up against each of the Robot Masters. Then move onto Dr. Wily’s latest castle stronghold. Unlike some of the older games like Mega Man 3,4,5, or 6 Capcom doesn’t try to fake you out here. There are no Wily stand in castles to go through before Dr. Wily’s inevitable castle run. However that doesn’t mean that Mega Man 11 is particularly short. Even though it is one of the cut, and dry entries (think Mega Man, Mega Man 2, or Mega Man 7) the stages here are quite long. Every stage in the game now has three checkpoint rooms, and have a fair amount of obstacles to get through. Many of the Robot Masters employ mini boss rooms along the way as well. Sometimes twice.

 

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For those who have not played a classic Mega Man game before, you’re able to choose to play the stages in whichever order you choose. The hook is the Rock/Paper/Scissors mechanic that pertains to the Robot Masters you face at the end of every stage. When you defeat the Robot Master, you acquire their signature attack. Each one of the Robot Masters is weak against one of the other Robot Masters’ attacks. Not only do you need to beat all of the stages, but figuring out which boss is weakest against which attacks makes them more manageable. It’s also useful in determining which order will get you through the game the fastest.

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But even if you don’t figure that out on your initial run there are tools to help you. Returning is Auto’s shop. He’s the giant green robot who crafts items for you to buy with screws. As you collect them from fallen enemies, you can spend them on extra tanks to replenish your weapon ammo, and health meter. You can buy upgrades to your primary weapon, and even some items to negate some of the environmental hazards.  And even seasoned veterans may find themselves picking up lives, and E-Tanks because Mega Man 11 can get pretty difficult at times. Not only are there the expected Mega Man tropes, like robots jumping out of pits you’re trying to jump across, or crumbling structures you’re going across, but many new pitfalls too.

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Mega Man 11 is also very creative. Every Robot Master has a terrific design, and like all Mega Man games, their stages are built around their themes. Acid Man’s stage has many pools in which enemies will throw in chemicals. Each of which makes the pH level more lethal. Torch Man’s stage sends a column of fire after you, disintegrating everything in its path. Bounce Man’s has a deceptively deadly layout. It’s layered with cute looking enemies, bright pastels, and more. But upon further analysis you’ll find it one of the most challenging stages in the entire game. Block Man’s stage has a lot of falling boulders, and even some maze structures you need to get through as quickly as possible. Tundra Man’s stage is the quintessential ice level. But with plenty of wind gusts to make things difficult. Impact Man reminds me a lot of Optimus Prime. But with blades. But his stage feels like a continuation of the Guts Man stage in the original Mega Man. Of course with far more trick jumping, and a dash of Quick Man’s Mega Man II stage. Then there is Fuse Man’s stage. One of the highlights of the game, it involves a lot of puzzles centered around time. Rounding things out is Blast Man’s stage, which involves an evil theme park motif. You could almost place it in a Batman match against the Joker. The little henchmen robots throughout the level are cool because while they’re a nuisance, they’re also necessary. It’s a lot of fun.

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But as hard as the game may be, Mega Man 11 is always fair. When you fail you’ll know the onus is on you. Maybe you panicked, and jumped into something. Maybe you were hit by a laser, and fell down a chasm. Maybe the Robot Master shattered your dreams when you got to them on your last life. In all of these cases you won’t be able to blame anybody else. And yet, there’s something compelling about that. The sort of thing that always makes you want to attempt it again, and chip away until you come out on top.

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But Capcom has also put in multiple difficulty settings this time. The original NES outings usually had but one setting. Mega Man 10 had an easy, and hard setting. Mega Man 11 has four of them. Newcomer sets things up for those of you who have never played a Mega Man title before. Up from that is the Casual setting, which is geared for those who may be lapsed Mega Man fans. Then there’s the Normal setting which is the one geared toward seasoned veterans. But the game also has a Super Hero setting. This setting goes beyond the Normal setting by removing most of the pickups in every level, and increasing the damage enemy attacks do to you. Honestly, the four settings are pretty close to reaching about each player type. If you honestly have never touched a Mega Man game, you may want to get your feet wet with the first one.  Veterans may want to just dive into the Normal setting. But whichever way you decide to go, you’ll have a pretty good time with it. Although there is a sense of pride if you can clear it on one of the higher settings.

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With the well crafted level designs, and bright, colorful visuals that bring it all together one has to wonder if there’s anything wrong with this one. And to be honest, not that much. Again, the characters look like the evolution of Mega Man 8 (PS1/Saturn). The game looks beautiful. The backdrops are high quality, crisp blends of 2D art, and 3D models. Everything looks like it belongs in the Classic series though which is one that mostly appeared on the NES. Even 9, and 10 recreated that 8-bit aesthetic, and sound. But Mega Man 7 (Super NES), and Mega Man 8 took that same style, but updated it for their 16-bit, and 32-bit platforms. So this looks like an extension of those styles. If you ever wished more of the games looked like the artwork in the manuals, and other media you’ll be more than pleased here.

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And again, it isn’t just about how good it looks. It’s that the great visuals fit the narrative of each of the Robot Masters the way it has in all of the mainline games. This is also the first game in the classic series since Mega Man 8 to involve voice acting. It isn’t bad, but your mileage will vary. Some of it veers toward what was done in the PS1/Saturn classic. Bounce Man seems to really elicit memories of fighting Clown Man as the voice work goes for the high-pitched cuteness of an anime archetype. Some of the other actors went in other directions with their respective characters. And all of it works. But you’ll probably enjoy some more than others. As for Mega Man himself, again, he sounds perfectly fine. But if you’re coming into it after Mega Man 8, it’s a completely different take, and delivery. So how much you’ll like it may depend on whether or not you love the way he was portrayed in the eighth installment. As far as the soundtrack goes, it isn’t bad by any means. The electronica goes well with the action, and there are distinctive themes for each of the stages. However, it doesn’t stand out the way the rocking chip tunes of 1-6, 7, 9,and 10 do. The songs in Mega Man 8 also felt more memorable than these do. Be that as it may, I really wouldn’t call any of it bad. Just different, and depending on what you prefer, you may agree or disagree. Which is fine.

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Once you do complete the game though there are a few things here to make you want to play it again. The first being the challenges. As in the last two games, you can try to run a battery of missions with the goal of reaching achievements. Some of these can be done in the main game, but the majority are found here. You can also go to a gallery where you can read bios of all of the major, and minor enemies in the game. They even have the voice samples here so you can listen to them all. There’s not too much else in the way of extras, though on the Switch there is a surprise if you play the demo before playing the full game.

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Overall, I quite liked Mega Man 11. I played through it on Normal, and found that this time out the Robot Masters’ respective stages were as challenging as Dr. Wily’s Castle stages, which isn’t always the case in these games. Even still, I had a fun time. I yelled at myself for messing up at times. But I had fun rising to the challenge, and overcoming the obstacles it threw in my way. Which is the joy that all of these games deliver. All while delivering a new tool for you to use. Which you don’t have to. It is possible to get through the game without touching the Double Gear System. Though you’ll probably want to. At least on some of the tougher bosses. Still, this is a great entry in the long running series, and I can easily recommend it to not only fans, but to almost anyone who is remotely interested in it. It won’t be a cakewalk. But it does have that addictive “One more match.” feeling the series is known for. Don the mantle of the Blue Bomber, and save the world. If only the music could have been *that* much better it would have been perfect. As it stands, it’s still a highly recommended Mega Man game. Or Rock Man if you prefer.

Final Score: 9 out of 10