Tag Archives: PC games

Sakura Stars Review


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(Full Disclosure: A review copy Steam key was provided by Super16bits. All opinions are my own.)

As big as independent games have become over the last 15 years, there are many, many games that get lost in the sea of titles. Some of these titles are put out by very small studios, many of which are even one-person operations. Today’s game is from one such small studio. Sakura Stars is a bullet hell shooter from Super16bits, and it’s something shoot ’em up fans may want to look into.

PROS: Bright, colorful characters. Tight controls.

CONS: Some gameplay imbalances. Minor hitches.

CLASSICAL: Hopefully you like classical music because the OST entirely made up of it.

When a demonic threat arises, a team of three appears to fight the menace. After a brief introductory paragraph, you’re greeted with the title screen. Sakura Stars is a shooter that allows you to choose between two girls and a raccoon. Each of the characters has their own attributes. It hearkens back to some of the classics of old in this regard. Games like TRUXTON, UN Squadron, or Strikers 1945.

One of the girls can shoot a single shot. The second girl can shoot a double shot. The raccoon can fire a handy spread shot. And while the first two characters give you two lives, only the raccoon will give you three.  Honestly, if you’re new or lapsed to the genre you’ll really want to start with the raccoon.

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The game is relatively short, only going on for four stages. But don’t let the short-run dissuade you from considering this one because Sakura Stars is tough. There are no continues, nor are there any 1-Ups. At least none that I found in my time with it. And when I say this is a bullet hell shooter I mean it. There are bullets everywhere. Each enemy type will fire anywhere from one to ten bullets in a myriad of patterns. Destroying enemies will often create another ten bullets in the explosion. If you were hoping for an 8-bit era horizontal Giga Wing with anime influences you’re in luck.

At the end of each stage, is a boss encounter. These are anime-inspired demon girls who do insane bullet hell attacks. Much like the rest of the game it’s going to be a war of pattern memorization as you try to avoid getting hit while doling out enough damage to defeat the bosses. All in all, it’s easy to describe the core concept. But it’s also going to take you many, many attempts to get anywhere close to beating the game.

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The game gets a lot of things right. I loved that it had a fairly memorable regular enemy or two. Flying space eyeballs with optic nerves flailing around and flying tengu faces are prevalent and have several different flying patterns. Sometimes they’ll come in horizontal rows, other times vertical. Sometimes they’ll zig-zag about. Early on, the eyes don’t shoot at you at all, but by the second stage you can expect a volley of bullets flying at you.

I liked the rather large sprites of the playable characters and their different firing mechanisms. But there were a couple of small things that I felt could have been done differently or improved. First of all, while the large character sprites are nice, it’s going to take you several deaths and restarts before you realize that their hitboxes are actually quite smaller than the characters themselves. You really have to navigate the characters’ eyes. If their eyes or the small circumference of pixels around them get hit, you’ll die. But hands? Feet? Hair? Bullets pass right through them.

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Once you get used to that, it becomes a much more manageable game. But that still doesn’t mean it will be easy. It’s still a pretty challenging if short game. Maybe not to the degree of the hardest Toaplan, Treasure, or Cave shooter, but still pretty challenging for what you’re given. Keep in mind you’re not going to see the crazy options, multiple power shots or other items you’ll get in those major names of yesteryear. That’s another reason why this one is such a trial. The other thing that seemed a little off to me though is really the balance between the first two stages. After dying a ton, you’ll begin to realize you can breeze through the first level without firing a single shot. As I said earlier, the eyeballs don’t fire at you at all, and the Tengu faces’ shot patterns can be navigated. Plus you avoid a ton of bullets by not killing anything. Because killing things creates more bullets. You still have to kill the boss to progress however.

But all of that goes out the window in the second stage as everything does fire at you and the challenge makes a large jump rather than an incremental one. It could have perhaps helped players get a better handle on the game’s rules had it been a little different. Be that as it may, I still enjoyed my time with the game. I could nitpick about the bosses’ minimal animations or the game playing chiptune renditions of classical music as it doesn’t seem to fit with the look of the rest of the game to me. But that’s exactly that: nitpicking.

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There is one thing I wish the game had though, and that’s a deeper options menu. You can’t really change the volume at all. It would have been nice to have music volume, effects volume, or overall volume settings. Especially if you want to play the game on stream. As is, you’ll need to figure out the volume in your own PC settings or streaming software if you do stream. There’s also nowhere to remap buttons. Though it is nice you can use an Xbox 360 or Xbox One controller without a problem. I was actually able to use my Horipad for my Nintendo Switch without any issues.

In conclusion, Sakura Stars is a solid effort from a studio that has only one previous game on Steam. Hopefully, a fleshed-out sequel or future project can iron out some of the minor issues I had with the game because overall it’s a fun, challenging bullet hell shooter. If you’re looking for something a little bit different or something small to play between some other games you may just want to give this one a look.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Blazing Chrome Review

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It seems everyone loves classic Konami games. Yes, there was a time when the company was lauded for putting out some great stuff. Rather than be reviled for putting out mediocre stuff and then nickel and diming you within that mediocre stuff. Super Cobra, Gyruss, Gradius, Frogger,  the list goes on. But arguably the two franchises everyone can get behind are Castlevania and Contra. It isn’t hard to see why. One series puts you in the boots of vampire slayers out to kick Dracula’s ass. The other puts you in the shoes of 80’s action heroes out to save the world from extraterrestrial armies, and supernatural forces.

Over the years others have tried to put their own spin on these to compete or else pay homage to them as they’ve been largely dormant. And in the case of Contra, Konami’s attempt last year was almost universally panned for pretty much not playing or looking like Contra at all whatsoever. Although it did have a death panda. So I suppose there was something. Anyway,  it was a scant short couple of months later today’s game was released. Blazing Chrome actually does play like a Contra game, being heavily influenced by Contra Hard Corps on the Sega Genesis. Is it worthy of the praise it has gotten over the course of nearly a year? Yes. Is it an absolutely flawless game? No. Does that really matter? To most of us probably not.

PROS: Breathtaking pixel art. Neo New Wave. Great character and level design.

CONS: Some *really* cheap enemies on your first few runs.

KRISTINE: Why had I never heard of them before beating this game?

Blazing Chrome isn’t the first Run ‘n Gun to pay tribute to Contra and it certainly won’t be the last. But it is one of the better ones in recent years. When I first started playing the game I was immediately reminded of Contra III: The Alien Wars as both start you out in a war-torn cityscape. Though the pacing of the game veers a bit more toward Contra Hard Corps. The storyline, of course, is very different. Instead of centering around an alien invasion angle, Blazing Chrome has more in common with the Terminator movies. It’s the distant future, and we have a ragtag band of heroes fighting off the robot armies bent on snuffing out humanity. They even reference the machines as “Toasters” a pejorative that I suspect would raise the eyes of robot sympathizers in this fiction.

Be that as it may, you can actually play as a “Toaster” since Doyle, is a robot who has betrayed the sentient robot overlord to serve the human resistance. Mavra is this world’s Sarah Connor, a badass who takes down the robots with extreme prejudice.  After a very detailed set of cinema screens, you will start the game and choose which of our two protagonists you want to use. (There are others but you have to unlock them by playing through the campaign.) Then you choose the overall difficulty setting you desire. There’s a brief tutorial after this, and you’re then thrust into an exciting picture of a tablet.

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The tablet has each of the stages laid out, and you can play them in the order you wish. It’s essentially taking a page from Taito’s POWER BLADE games on the NES, where you can go through these in the order you want before going onto the final stage. This, in turn, is an offshoot of the Stage Select set up in Capcom’s Mega Man games. So Blazing Chrome is a big fan of more than only Contra.

Each of the stages has a difficulty number on it going 1 (easiest) to 5 (hardest) the thing is it isn’t really an indicator of difficulty. Each of the stages has something fairly tough about it. In fact, that’s one of the things that will become very apparent. The game revels in some very cheap enemies resulting in some artificial bumps in the challenge. Even if you play on the easiest setting you’re going to have enemies that jump in the exact place you need to be jumping. Or coming from the side onto the platform you need to be on at that precise second. It’s as if the designers knew where you were going to go and placed a Nelson Munz “Ha Ha!” there.

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Now one could point out that’s exactly what the Contra games do. But this does it to the nth degree at a couple of places in the game. However, don’t lose heart and give up so easily. Because Blazing Chrome is a rather brilliant game. Once you die in a spot the first time, you’ll begin to think of alternative patterns you might use to jump instead. Or you may simply discover you have to be patient in a setting that on its surface seems to require impatience. You’ll find simply waiting a second before jumping means the enemy pulls the trigger on that jump (no pun intended) first allowing you to get off the shot you needed to get by.

And really that’s the only major crime the game commits. Relying too much on “A-HA!” deaths. Beyond that, everything else is more than fair. Attack patterns aren’t impossible to spot. You might have to attempt a certain section or boss several dozen times to figure it out, but you’ll eventually be able to do it. The game also has unlimited continues on the easiest and normal settings. So you won’t have to worry about starting the entire game over again after a few fail states

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Blazing Chrome also has a wide variety of scenery it’s worth noting here. You have the usual war-torn cityscapes and mechanical underworlds you might expect from a game like this. But there’s also a beautiful snowcapped nuclear winter stage replete with one of three shmup sections. Another is a rather long battle train stage which also involves a motorcycle section. At one point in the game, you’ll have a section that will take you back to the glory of Sega’s Space Harrier. And it’s also one of the more challenging legs of the game.

Visually, as I’ve said, the pixel art on display is amazing. Blazing Chrome is a beautiful game. Joymasher’s artists have clearly put in a lot of love and care into the characters, animation, and backgrounds to bring this world to life. And the soundtrack keeps pace with it’s thumping New Wave Post Punk chiptune goodness. And while it all has the art design of something that should have come out on the Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo, the game has a slew of visual effects that would probably not have been possible on either of those consoles. This is especially true when you get to the final act of the game where everything becomes a TRON reference. It’s really awesome stuff.

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Beating the game also nets you a number of things. First of all, you’ll get two new characters, a cyborg and a ninja who play more like Mega Man X than the soldiers of Contra. All four of the characters also have a melee attack a la Metal Slug, so keep that in mind when enemies really start swarming you. Beating the game on normal also unlocks a mirror mode where all of the stages are the same but the scenes move right to left instead of left to right. It’s a bit weird at first trying to remember what obstacle comes next as it can be disorienting. But once you readjust it’s a novel addition. You’ll also notice if you start the game on easy, then play on normal a bunch of new surprises are in store for you. There are new pitfalls. extra enemies. Even bosses will have extra attacks they don’t employ on the lowest setting.

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You can also unlock a boss rush mode where you fight every boss in the game in a row. Not a major addition, but something to do when you’ve done pretty much everything else. That is until you decide to go for the Hardest difficulty where the game throws even more bad guys at you, everything takes more damage to kill, and you only get three lives. Also, you only get three continues. And as daunting as that may sound, after having played a bunch of the game I can say it is doable. The question is whether or not you would want to. If you’re the sort of player who likes to squeeze every last piece of content out of your game it’s something worth going for. If you’re more the type to beat a game once or twice before putting it away for a while you might ignore it.

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Still, in spite of some initial frustration, some out there might have, stick with the game. Eventually, you’ll get to the end of the game and enjoy the terrific finale. While the final leg is a bit of a gauntlet, it’s an entertaining one that consistently does something new. Being able to play the stages in the order you wish is nice too as you can get the ones you like the least done first or dive into the ones you like right away. Fire up Blazing Chrome, win the day, and listen to that awesome Kristine song. Which immediately made me wonder why I hadn’t heard of them before. Turns out they’re pretty great.

As is Blazing Chrome.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

PROJECT WARLOCK Review

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Well I know I’m once again way behind schedule and probably hemorrhaging eyeballs faster than Ric Flair would bleed in his wrestling matches. Not that it is anyone’s problem other than my own. But when there’s a scare, you’re told you’re essential and said essential gig is the one that pays regularly, online endeavors have to take a back seat. Well, that or you quit. But that wouldn’t leave me with many prospects. So we have to count our blessings, prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

All of that said, I pray for everyone affected by this pandemic and hope those who haven’t contracted it never do. Personally, I know a few people locally whose relatives were infected and it hasn’t been easy for them. It’s been said a billion times, but unless you’re completely out of food, don’t leave the house. And if you are, go to the store, buy two months worth of stuff and go directly home. It isn’t worth the risk. I had a customer complain they had to spend time with their kids. I couldn’t believe it. I told them to appreciate the time with them now rather than regret not having the time when they’re in their 90’s lamenting the fact they never spoke to one another.

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Anyway, I was fortunate enough to find some time to stream a couple of nights last week. So I managed to play through two games and I thank any of you who dropped in. Whether you chatted me up or just lurked. The first of these was today’s game. PROJECT WARLOCK. While the second was BLAZING CHROME which I will get to in a future review. PROJECT WARLOCK (Which demands an all-caps introduction. It really is a cool sounding name. Like something out of the B movie selection in the action movie section in the video store, we had back in 1993. But I’ve gone on a tangent.) is another in a line of games that pays homage to First-Person Shooters of yesteryear. But this one takes a little bit of a turn by going way back. Way, way, back to the earlier games put out by id Software and Apogee.

PROS: Great level design. Great characters. Great aesthetics. Customization!

CONS: Some people aren’t going to like having a lives system.

SURPRISE!: The game loves to throw a few curve balls from time to time.

Many games, of course, are inspired by DOOM, Quake, or Duke Nukem 3D. Some of these have even gone as far as run on those games’ classic engines. But this one goes back even further. Back to the days where every room was designed with cubes and 90-degree corners. Catacomb Abyss, Wolfenstein-3D, Blake Stone: Aliens Of Gold are the types of games this one takes much of its inspiration from. However, the game runs on Unity, and as such isn’t completely bolted down to those games’ limitations. However, it sticks to most of them while allowing for different ceiling and wall heights as well as elevators. Plus there are some nice skyboxes and interactive sprites and textures. The end result is something that feels like a combination of the aforementioned games and Rise Of The Triad. A classic that was born of a heavily modified Wolfenstein-3D engine.

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Unlike Rise Of The Triad, there aren’t any bizarre cultic terrorist organizations portrayed with digitized actors in the vein of Mortal Kombat. But you will be gunning down many, many enemies, collecting boatloads of treasure, and looking for many secrets. For those who have never played any of the First-Person Shooters prior to DOOM, this game may seem fairly restrictive at first. This hearkens back to a time when FPS games only had one set height for the floor. There were no stairs. There were no cliffs. It was rare to even see a puzzle involving switches. Secret areas were accessed by physically moving cubes of the environment back so many paces. In short, these were mazes like you would see in an early arcade game like Berzerk or in Muse Software’s Castle Wolfenstein (A game inspired by Berzerk that in turn inspired Wolfenstein-3D) but in the first person.

That meant hours of pushing on walls for those who wanted to find every conceivable secret in between blasting enemies. A lot of that experience has been recreated here. But it also has a couple of modern conveniences that make the experience a lot more interesting as well as enjoyable. For starters, this game has a contemporary control scheme. Back before Quake gave us this control scheme, most FPS games were controlled by using the arrow keys to move forward, backward, and to turn. You would fire by pressing CTRL, and if you needed to strafe you had to hold the ALT key while pressing left or right. The Spacebar opened doors. Even today, many people will download a source port when they buy a classic game like DOOM because going back to that setup feels archaic. Even to many veterans who are used to it.

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Project Warlock eschews that and retains the WASD, and a mouse control setup we’ve enjoyed since 1998. Be that as it may, this is still very much inspired by those pre-DOOM years so you won’t be jumping or crouching. But don’t worry, because these limitations actually forced the developers to get far more creative. Which is quite common when creating anything. Intentionally limiting yourself means inventing new ways to implement ideas you really believe in and Buckshot Software has done a phenomenal job with this game.

While the limitations may sound like a bad idea to some, they’re done very well here. Level designs are quite elaborate here and can get really deep. You may think you’ve hit a brick wall in finding the exit, then retrace all of your steps to find a door that was hiding in plain sight. Or you may think that secret you discovered was a monster closet because it was, but getting through it got you a weapon earlier than expected.

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The art design goes along with very well. They have done a fantastic job with all of this. Each of the game’s episodes has a completely different setting with a cast of enemies to go along with it. When you first start the game you’ll go through an initial stage that gets you acclimated with everything while being a surprisingly challenging stage. Frankly, it’s one of the toughest parts of the game. But you’ll want to press on and defeat it because things will become more manageable over time.

Eventually, you’ll find yourself in a small fortress stage that acts as a hub level where you’ll be able to level up your abilities, weapons, and choose missions. It feels a lot like the system in Bioshock, except you don’t have to choose to harvest Little Sisters and tick off Big Daddies. As you play through the game you can find stat building icons and you’ll also level up by mowing down hundreds of enemies. After so many stages you’ll find yourself back here, where you’ll be able to spend those upgrades on beefing up weapons, spells, and abilities.

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The game gives you two styles of assault. Traditional weapons you’d expect like guns or grenade launchers and Magical weapons like you would see in a game like Heretic. The magical weapons and spells use mana while the traditional weapons use their own ammunition.  Over time you’ll begin to make yourself bigger and better as you increase your health bars and add crazy enhancements to your arsenal. For instance, you can turn one weapon into a rail gun, or make a wimpy handgun go from a pea shooter to a hand cannon.

This actually means that earlier stages in many ways can seem more difficult to clear than some of the later ones. But this doesn’t make things feel insurmountable, rather it gives the game an RPG like affair in the sense that when earlier enemies that felt unkillable go down in a far more reasonable amount of time. Project Warlock also calls back to the old id/Apogee days by having episodes. Each episode has a few ranges of stages within them and culminates with a boss fight. Each episode also has its own particular look and feel. The first episode features a lot of horror and fantasy themed characters and settings. The episode after that goes for an icy tundra theme with winter stages, and enemies like abominable snowmen and creatures stuck in panes of ice. Other episodes have ancient Egyptian themes or industrial sci-fi themes. The final episode homogenizes all of these together.

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After a predetermined number of stages within each episode, things will take a break to send you back to the hub for more leveling up. Keep in mind the episodes have to be played through in sequential order. You can’t play them at your leisure the way you can in Wolfenstein 3D. At the end of each episode, the related aforementioned boss stage opens up and commences. Some Boss fights in this game do move beyond the typical “Shoot the Cyberdemon until it dies” meme battles you remember from games like DOOM. All of them are visually creative and have a number of things going on. One of the battles takes place against a giant Sphinx that goes in a different direction you might expect it to. Another boss implements a switch mechanic in its combat. Overall, these all come off as very memorable due to the combination of terrific character designs, sound effects, and attack patterns that really make them stand out.

In between episodes, the game takes some influence from DOOM by giving you a full-screen essay on what happens with your character’s following exploits. The game also does have a few really interesting options to go along with the entire package. One cool feature the game has is something that has also been done in other indie games. But usually, they’ve been completely different genres. That feature is the ability to put on different filters to emulate the look of older platforms. There are palates for the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Nintendo Game Boy, and others. The game also has a CRT filter for those that want it. But rather than a simple on and off toggle, you can set a number of meters for the level of detail you want. You can also set variables for how pixelated you want the game to look.

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Admittedly, some of the retro settings can actually make some of the enemies harder to see, so in some cases, the game can become more difficult than it otherwise might be. You can also put on some more contemporary special effects like Ambient Occlusion. In short, the game does give you a lot of options if you’re into customizing the look and performance of your games.

This is also another game that has a fantastic soundtrack. Jerry Leha and Luke Wilson have put together a list of songs that fit the world of the game perfectly with a mix of Heavy Metal, New Wave, Industrial Electronica, as well as some orchestral elements blended into each of them. It’s a great game!

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Not everything in the game is as good as it could be. As I said, the optional filters can sometimes make things hard to see. The other thing some might not like is that the game retains a lives system from the days of Wolfenstein 3D. So, unfortunately, you won’t be able to press a button to quicksave the way you’ve been doing since the days of Quake. If you die, you’ll have to redo everything you have in that stage up to that point. Fortunately, there are ways to find extra lives, and updating your arsenal will definitely mitigate that.  Still, these won’t be considered transgressions by everyone. Especially for those that might point out how a quicksave feature could be abused by constantly pressing it after killing each and every enemy.

Ultimately though, this is worth picking up. It’s a great blend of Pre-DOOM conventions and modern conveniences of the genre. One that you really have to see to believe. A number of games today take inspiration from DOOM, it’s less common to see them take it from Wolfenstein 3D. The fact that this one does and does it well makes it really stand out. With it putting in current things like a WASD and mouselook control scheme it makes it still feel like a contemporary game when playing it. It’s got awesome art design, great characters, imposing bosses, and a solid leveling system. But be aware it does have a couple of early conventions you may not be used to if you weren’t around for the glory days of early id Software and Apogee.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

 

Sydney Hunter & The Curse Of The Mayan Review

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Over the last decade, there has been a slew of independent studios bringing us amazing platformers. Many of them taking elements of the mega-hits of yesteryear and working them into their projects. Sometimes in new ways, other times in a sendup. Today’s game is actually a sequel of sorts. Not only is Collectorvision an independent developer, but they’re also well known in the world of homebrew.

PROS: Spot on controls. Fantastic visuals. Reference humor.

CONS: No volume options to speak of. Backtracking elements kneecapped.

SMURF YEAH: *Not* Gargamel has a surprise for you.

Sydney Hunter has been known for a while in the homebrew community. For those who don’t already know, a sizable number of developers continue to produce and sell games for long-defunct platforms. From the Atari 2600 to the Intellivision. From the Vectrex to the Dreamcast. New games come out for game systems that haven’t been on a store shelf for purchase for decades.

Collectorvision made Sydney Hunter games for the Colecovision, Intellivision, Commodore 64, Sega Master System, Super Nintendo, and others. For years now he’s been an underground mascot star. Like a hardcore band that finally gets some mainstream attention, Sydney Hunter has finally gotten his MTV moment with this game.

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That’s partly due to the work John Lester of Gamester 81 fame has done for this title. Not only did he pen the storyline elements and collaborate with the team on character design he tirelessly promoted the game at conventions. Especially shows that focused on the Retro games’ scene as the earlier games were made for retro platforms.

The final game we have here is going to appeal to far more than the core fanbase that has been playing the previous games on their old Colecovision and Super NES consoles. Because it does a lot of things right and excels at all of the most important elements. There are a couple of problems too. But even the best games have some of those right? That said, the pros here are well worth the price of admission. There are some of the best elements of games of yesteryear here peppered in with some honestly funny dialogue.

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The setup here is that Sydney Hunter finds himself looking for treasure in old Mayan ruins where he sees a mysterious arcade cabinet which disappears shortly thereafter. He ends up having to figure out what exactly is going on. After finding some tablets in the game you’re able to understand what the inhabitants are saying and from here things become far more understandable. There is a rogue diety that as broken up a giant stone calendar into several pieces and recruited key people to guard them as they set their plans into motion.

The structure of the game puts you into a hub world where there are a number of different entrances. Each of these leads to a different stage. It’s pretty much akin to the portraits and paintings in Super Mario 64 doubling as doorways. In any event, each stage requires a certain number of crystal skulls to enter. Every stage in the game is a labyrinth of sorts. Some are a little bit more linear than others and none of them are as convoluted or as involved as something like Metroid. Be that as it may some of the aforementioned crystal skulls you need to pick up are hidden off of the beaten path. So you can expect to spend a lot of time searching around for them.

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Often times there are hidden paths you need to uncover in order to search for these skulls and other secrets or items throughout the game. There are also several locks of varying colors in most of the stages. These require keys to the corresponding color. Some of these are in plain sight while others are hidden like the crystal skulls. In order to find some of these hidden paths and hidden items, you’ll need new weapons or items. When you first start the game, Sydney is armed with only a whip. But over time you’ll find boomerangs, spears, and a myriad of items to help you progress.

On top of that, you’ll find beverages to restore your health and a lot of jewels that can be used in the hub world’s shops as currency. The exploration isn’t as involved as something like Metroid, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any depth to it. it feels a lot closer to something like Pitfall! but with a dash of Montezuma’s Revenge thrown in. The platforming has a floatier feeling than most other bump n’ jump style games of yesteryear. That said, there are elements of NES stalwarts from Capcom and Konami’s time on that console. The combat in the stages clearly feels inspired by Castlevania, while Boss encounters combine that feeling with elements of Mega Man and Disney’s DuckTales.

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At one point in the game, there’s also a nod to a licensed title that appeared on the Colecovision and Atari 2600. Smurf: Rescue In Gargamel’s Castle. At one point the folks at Collectorvision had hinted at an aftermarket port of that game to the Intellivision, and with this nod having a similar visual style to the games on that console this could be an inside reference. Still, even if you’re uninitiated with the Sydney Hunter series, the similarity to a certain licensed game from 1982 is undeniable and is quite welcome.

Reference humor aside, the game does have some pretty funny dialogue as you talk to NPCs, and whenever Sydney is about to confront a boss. These sections move the story along, but also make some observational comedy. It’s the sort of humor you find in a lot of the more popular newspaper comic strips of old. But about modern things and retro games. On your initial playthrough pay attention to it. It does pretty well most of the time.

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I did have a couple of problems while playing the game though. The first one is that there are absolutely no sound or audio options. Live streaming my playthrough was hindered by this as I had to really tinker with my streaming software to find a balance between game audio, and my microphone audio. I also had to tinker with my settings in Windows to fine-tune it. Simply having sliders for Game music and Game sound effects would have made this far simpler to avoid. Even if you aren’t a streamer it will annoy you when you have to scramble to find your TV remote or Alt+Tab to your desktop to get to the volume options in the event you don’t have speaker volume at your fingertips.

The other major issue I had was finding there were a couple of times in two of the stages where I realized I was going to have to backtrack to find a key to move forward. The trouble was in these instances there was no way to do so. So instead I had to walk into a chasm and die to force a restart at the last checkpoint so I could redo what I did properly, then go in a different direction to hunt for the key first. Nothing that made the game bad by any means. But it was an annoyance. So it is something you may want to keep in the back of your mind.

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That said, this game pretty much gives you unlimited lives and you can go along at your own pace. Be that as it may, the game isn’t a cakewalk either. There are definitely a few moments throughout the campaign that will give you a challenge you’ll feel good about overcoming. Some of the bosses will confound you the first several times you die fighting them. But over time and repeated attempts that light will go off. “Oh, THAT’S what I need to be doing.” You’ll tell yourself then go onto win the day.

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Ultimately, Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan is a really cool game. It has some very fun and nostalgic gameplay notes. It nails the NES aesthetic it’s going for as well as the Intellivision aesthetic when it comes up. The Famitraker soundtrack by Ben Allen is also really awesome. It blends the tribal element you would expect a game in this setting to have but then melds it with that classic NES sound few games not published by Capcom, Konami, or Nintendo themselves could match. And while I can’t say the tracks are as memorable as some of the ones in this game’s peers (Shovel Knight or The Messenger for instance) It is still an excellent OST that is worth experiencing. In fact, you can buy this OST from Ben Allen himself!

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In a competitive crowd of games that use the NES aesthetic, Sydney Hunter really stands out. Like an Indiana Jones film, there’s a fair amount of variety. Adventure, exploration, some combat and even a few somber moments. If you’re looking for a new platformer to get into, check this one out. It has a couple of bumps in its road, but it’s still a road I can recommend traveling down.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

SNK 40th Anniversary Collection Review

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These days it seems about any game company that’s been around for over a decade has a collection to sell. It seems like every new device that comes along will be guaranteed to have a version of the Namco Museum or a compilation of Atari classic games on it.  And that isn’t a bad thing. There are a lot of fantastic games from yesteryear, going all the way back to gaming’s infancy. But due to whatever reasons, these collections don’t always come out so great. Sometimes they’re barebones. Sometimes they’re altered for the worst.

PROS: A great selection of classics and a fair number of extra features.

CONS: Some of the games’ controls had to be changed and the compromises aren’t great.

WHY NOT BOTH?: Some titles here come in a couple of versions.

That doesn’t seem to be the case with this one. SNK’s collection is quite good. One thing right away that I appreciated about it is that it takes the focus off of their NEO GEO platform. In the past, SNK has had a number of great NEO GEO compilations. It’s no surprise as it was arguably their most popular platform. But some people often forget SNK has been around for far longer than the NEO GEO and this collection celebrates that fact. Most of the games here are pretty big classics. Particularly in the realm of run n’ gun games and beat ’em ups.

SNK 40th Anniversary Collection gives you some of the more popular arcade games of their time. You get all three of the Ikari Warriors games; Ikari Warriors, Victory Road, Ikari III: The Rescue. You get Guerilla War, P.O.W., and Time Soldiers all of which were known for their 1980’s B Action film influences, and the twin knob shooting action that made many of them famous. They also give you TNK III which was one of the earliest games to do so.

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Other highlights are the inclusions of Athena, Psycho Soldier, Street Smart, and BEAST BLASTER. I was also happy to see that the compilation includes the arcade version of Vanguard, and it even references the Atari 2600 port in it. Strangely enough not by name. But this is where the collection of games goes beyond simply dumping ROMs in an emulator and calling it a day. This game includes multiple versions of many of the games. In the case of Crystalis, you’ll get both the Famicom and NES ROMs. In the case of Ikari Warriors, you’ll get the Arcade version and the NES version. All of the games are emulated very well and most of them will include a variant version be it two localizations or two platform versions.

This is a really nice feature and one I’ve found myself using fairly often. Well except in the case of the Ikari games since given the choice the arcade games are vastly superior to their NES counterparts. Another really nice thing is the game has scans of the different regions arcade fliers, home version box art scans, and more. They also go into some level of depth when talking about the history of each of the games in the collection.

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Frankly, it’s very easy to recommend this one to anyone who grew up with these games in the arcade or newcomers who want to see what came before. Although I do have a few minor complaints about the package that I’ll get to momentarily. Another inclusion that should probably be a prerequisite at this point is the list of visual options. You can enable different borders on the screen, change the aspect ratio, and you can put on filters to simulate a vintage TV or monitor. Digital Eclipse which also did the Mega Man Legacy collection for Capcom, has done great work here as well.

However, there are a couple of things that just didn’t make sense to me. I don’t know why SNK couldn’t mention the Atari 2600 or NES or Famicom in the documentation by name. Especially since you get Crystalis in both NES and Famicom formats here. Plus, with Vanguard being acknowledged prominently on “The biggest console in North America” old geezers like me are going to know the VCS version is referenced while newcomers are going to be left to guess. Not a major problem, but it just seems a bit weird.

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Second, is that some of the styles of a game genre don’t translate well to a d-pad or a thumbstick. And one such style is the light gun, rail shooter. This was true when Operation Wolf was new, it was true when House Of The Dead 2 was all the rage, and it’s true now. SNK brought back Beast Busters here. And I’m glad it’s here because it was an esoteric game I remember playing a lot in the arcades as a kid back in the day. When more popular games were taken up it was one of the ones you and your friends gravitated to because no one was mesmerized by it the way they were by one of the beat ’em up machines at the time. It’s a fun game. One that I was elated to see presented in this collection.

However, it is a light gun game and the movement of your thumbstick or d-pad cursor can never match the movement of your eyes and hand. As such, playing it in this collection is MUCH harder. As of this writing, I see no option to use a mouse with this game on PC or a motion control option on the Switch. These options would have been much better compromises. Even if it meant those versions would be more preferable as a result. Thankfully, you can just keep pouring in credits like you could in the arcade if your pockets were bottomless. But it would have been nice to have a couple of more control options for this one.

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Still, I do like this collection a lot overall. There is a nice range of games you’ll know, others you may not know, and the historical extras are all a nice touch. Some of these games may not have the panache SNK put into their later NEO GEO games, but they are a lot of fun and hold historical significance in the realm of arcade games. As well as versions for Nintendo’s original 8-bit powered juggernaut. Adding ROMs of ports to other platforms of the time would have been even better since players could have compared them and enjoyed their favorites. But I’m sure there are also some licensing and contract concerns that made that unlikely. Still, I enjoy firing it up a lot. Digital Eclipse even gave SNK the treatment they gave Capcom’s Blue Bomber by making the soundtracks of games playable in a separate player.

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It’s a collection that will skew toward the older crowd, but there’s enough here that anyone will find something they’ll enjoy checking out from time to time. Especially anyone who enjoys run n’ guns, shmups, and other arcade staples of the 1980s and 1990s. There’s also the knowledge that many of the characters that debuted in these games would show up in some of the NEO GEO’s biggest franchises. So even fans of The King Of Fighters or Metal Slug may want to look into this one if they haven’t already.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

RAD RODGERS Review

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It’s a constant theme in the realm of lower-budget games. Games that re-create the things we love about the old games we grew up with during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Many of these games take the approach of even looking retro. Eschewing modern visuals for the classic sprite work reminiscent of games on the Nintendo Entertainment System or Sega Master System. Or even the Super Nintendo Entertainment System or Sega Genesis. But every so often something comes around that celebrates the other pillar of classic gaming: Home computers.

PROS: Genuinely funny jokes, and performances. Level design. Character design.

CONS: Some serious bugs. One gameplay loop can be monotonous.

REFERENCES: The humor is very much going to appeal to Family Guy fans everywhere.

RAD RODGERS comes to us from Slipgate Studios, which (as Interceptor) brought us the reboot of Rise Of The Triad. As in that game, things are very much tied to the early days of Apogee/3D Realms as the game has a slew of nods to those classic DOS games of yesteryear. But instead of simply cribbing the art style of old the game instead takes a slightly more modern approach. Giving us a game that hearkens back to the old days of Halloween Harry while looking more like something that would have released near the end of the PS3/360 run of indie games.

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The game starts off with the scenario we all loved seeing back in the days of Captain N Game Master. A child, Rad Rodgers is seen playing his Super NES when his Mother tells him he has school the next day and needs to go to bed. Reluctantly, he listens only to have the console mysteriously come back on to a screen of white noise. When our hero gets up to check out the problematic game system he is transported to the world of the game he was just playing moments ago.

Here you meet Dusty, voiced by Duke Nukem himself, Jon St. John. Dusty becomes your sidekick and helps you on your way by allowing you to climb certain surfaces as well as allowing you to do a super move at the cost of a bit of a meter. Dusty also serves another important purpose that I’ll get to a little bit later. Obviously, Rad Rodgers is excited to be in a fictional world. But not all is well in this video game land. The cartridge the world takes place in is filled with glitches and bugs that impede anybody’s progress.

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So Rad Rodgers must not only save the world from a terrifying villain, he also has to rid the world of bugs in order to proceed. This is where Dusty’s other major contribution comes in. Throughout each of the mainline stages are some segments where Rad Rodgers simply cannot pass. Sometimes it might be a jump he won’t be able to make. Other times it might be a door that needs to be unlocked.

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This forces you to find areas that will transport Dusty into this top-down perspective world where he must play one of several minigames. Some of them involve navigating a maze looking for the missing geometry you need. Others involve you connecting electrons in a specific manner in a certain number of turns. All before you run out of a pixel meter. Which you can refill by killing enemies in the mode. The thing is while these sections do break up some of the action, they can become monotonous as there isn’t a whole lot to figure out in them. In later levels they throw more enemies in there to make it harder, but that only makes them feel a bit more dragged out.

Once you clear these areas and continue though it’s back to business. The game will continue on. Each of the maps also has a plethora of secrets to find in them. Sometimes they may be a weapon, other times collectible gems or even 1-Ups. Stages are very reminiscent of classic Apogee games. Especially the first two Duke Nukem games, Halloween Harry/Alien Carnage, and even a splash of Monster Bash for good measure. Imagine the labyrinthine layouts of the former games with the familiar floaty computer jumping of the latter. Things can be quite the challenge too. Some areas require a mastery of timing, as you’ll have to shoot a switch to open a door within the next few seconds and get past death beams, five bad guys, and maybe a tough climb on the way.

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Throughout each of the areas are a number of homes you can enter for items. It’s here that the game really pours on the reference humor with characters that mock not only the old Apogee games, but take a few stabs at modern games and classics from Nintendo. But it does this in a tongue in cheek way. Of course you can turn on a setting at the beginning of the game where the sound samples are going to go for crass, R-Rated fare. You can turn this off if you’re playing it with or around small kids. But this is the reason why the game has an M rating. Some of the jokes can be pretty raunchy too. Obviously, humor is subjective.

But if you love shows like Family Guy, or South Park you’ll probably like a number of the gags as it again, excels at making jokes referencing itself, and things of yesteryear. If that sort of humor isn’t your cup of tea then you may want to turn off the R-Rated setting. Generally though, it feels like a “What If?” scenario where Apogee had beaten Rare to the punch in a crass platformer. You can expect comparisons to Conker’s Bad Fur Day. If I had any complaints about the humor it’s just that they didn’t record enough jokes. Because after a while you will start hearing the lines repeat enough that they can be beaten into submission.

 

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Some of the aforementioned homes are worth exploring though, because the game does feature a number of secret characters and collectible hats. And in most cases, these are where you will find them. One of them is a playable inhabitant, but most of the other characters are Apogee/3DRealms characters. Duke Nukem is here, so is Bombshell (Ion Fury), Lo Wang (Shadow Warrior Reboot), as well as a couple of classic characters. And in order to clear any given stage you’ll need to find four different pieces of a medallion. These can be hidden anywhere so secret hunting actually helps you proceed a lot. Finding the secret characters is also going to be of value because every character has a secret move they can do and each of these works to make certain areas more manageable. Bombshell for instance rolls homing grenades. Lo Wang on the other hand has his trusty sword for melee kills.

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After clearing a stage you’ll go to a Super Mario World style overworld map that follows your exploits. Between stage spaces on the map you’ll land on minigame spaces. Most of these are pretty good, though others might be a bit bland or confusing. The standout of these are the pogo jump stages that are a complete reference to id Software’s early Commander Keen as that character often pogo jumped his way through stages. These are designed similarly to the Squid Jump game from the original Splatoon as you have to pogo jump as far up as possible before water fills the chasm below you. Touching the water kills you and the mini game ends. The other standout for me were the pinball tables. These were a complete throwback to Epic’s Epic Pinball. Here, you’ll try to not only get the High Score on any given machine, but you’ll also try to collect items like gems that you ordinarily find throughout the game’s stages.

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Things do ultimately culminate in one heck of a boss fight that even manages to utilize the glitch world mechanic I spoke about earlier pretty well. It’s not the most challenging final showdown in an action platformer, but it is one you likely won’t clear on an initial attempt. Especially if you play the game at one of the higher difficulty settings. The finale does feel pretty satisfying though, and does open up the possibility that another Rad Rodgers title may see the light of day.

Personally, I hope it does. I definitely enjoyed much of my time with the game. The platforming feels tight most of the time. It has fun gunplay, and it has some really interesting level design. On paper everything should lead to a really high score. The potential is certainly there. But unfortunately there are a number of problems that bring it down.

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While the audio is terrific as I mentioned earlier, there should have been more lines of dialogue or the lines they did record should have played less often. You’ll hear the same quips a bit too much at times. I do love the quality of the audio. Sound clips from Shadow Warrior, and Ion Fury in particular come in very clean and crisp. I also love the art style of the game. It has a Saturday Morning cartoon look had Dream Works made 3D computer animation in 1990 the way it does today. Unfortunately, though that mainly applies to the characters. Backgrounds on the other hand can sometimes feel drab. It isn’t that things look bad. They don’t. But there does seem to be an unevenness to it all. On one stage when you’re going through a forest it looks absolutely brilliant. But on another stage where you’re in a volcano, some areas can just feel bland. It’s a shame because again, the platforming and action is really fun. There is also a two player simultaneous option, something you don’t see as often anymore. In addition to this, the game also has a Battle mode where you and a friend can play a single screen death match mini game.

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What really hurts the game however are the technical bugs. Upon completing the game, I found that if I loaded my save to go back and replay levels I might have missed something in, I would run into hangs or even soft locks. Not having played every version of the game (I played through on the Nintendo Switch) I can’t say if some are better than others, but this can be really annoying. Especially for those who want to go to previous areas off of a completed save rather than starting the whole game over. Thankfully, throughout my initial run I didn’t really see a complete lock up, I did have a moment where the collision detection was off during a teleportation section and I was placed on spikes rather than the door next to the spikes. I also had one moment where Bombshell clipped into some world geometry and got stuck. I had to start the entire stage over again when I couldn’t get her loose. There are tiny bugs like that. They never make the game unplayable but they are enough to sour one on the experience.

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Be that as it may, I think the good outweighs the bad, and the underlying game is very entertaining. It has great gun play, great platforming, and I found myself loving the reference humor. If you can live with some technical problems and one mechanic that can feel a little boring at times, you’ll find a very fun and competent platformer. Rad Rodgers is quite enjoyable. It’s far from perfect, but not everything needs to be perfect to be fun. It isn’t going to be a Super Mario Odyssey, but it isn’t going to be an Awesome Possum either. It’s not a horrible game by any means, but it is a bit rough around the edges. Reading through the end credits you’re also going to see a lot of familiar names. Even some legendary ones. So it feels bad having to point out some of the game’s technical problems knowing the level of talent involved. Still, I enjoyed my time with Rad Rodgers in spite of the issues and I hope there will be another one. Clearing the game hints that there will be. Hopefully it will be more refined.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

SENNHEISER GSP 500 Headset Review

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So it’s happened. Your gaming headset has finally worn out, or it’s gotten so much use it’s begun to fall apart. Perhaps you’ve always had a subpar set, and now you’re finally ready to invest in something that should last you a long time. Maybe you’re a big proponent of having the best audio quality you can afford for listening to music on your device. But you also want something you can use to communicate with your teammates.

PROS: Insane audio quality. Comfortable cups. Replacable cabling.

CONS: The absolutely most finicky people may need an accessory.

NICE TOUCH: The headset hanger that clamps onto any desk or entertainment center.

I was pretty much in that exact boat. I’ve had a number of headsets over the years. Of varying quality. Of course on the absolutely lowest end, I was pleasantly surprised by the YouUSE headset from Five Below.  A great option for those on a shoestring budget. But this is in the complete opposite end of the scale. My trusty Turtle Beach EarForce X12’s were finally falling apart. Quite literally. The material around the headband began flaking up, and the cabling began getting jumbled up. The microphone also began getting a lot of echo and feedback issues. I think it had a break in the wire somewhere. But for a long time, they were my flagship set, and even used USB power to give it some bass boost.

In any case, I had to start researching replacements. And when I began looking at the higher end of the scale, one company consistently seemed to get more praise than a lot of the more well known audio brand names. Sennheiser has been around since 1945, but here in the USA they’re not as well known except in enthusiast circles. You’re more prone to seeing the Beats ads on TV or the Turtle Beach range of products in a store. And of course, you will find PC Part vendors and peripheral makers’ names on stuff.

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Based out of Germany, Sennheiser has a storied history of highly regarded audio equipment. They make everything from microphones and speakers to industry equipment broadcasters, recording companies, and movie studios use. And since audio is their core business they put a great emphasis on getting it just so. Suffice to say, it isn’t cheap. But it is high-quality stuff you’re going to get for the price they’re asking.

I was fortunate in that while researching what I wanted, my family had done the same and chipped in at Christmas to get me today’s pair of headphones. Which are actually a tier above the set I was going to eventually purchase. The Sennheiser GSP 500 is a fantastic headset in the realm of boutique level options. You’ll find the level of presentation begins once you open the box. The inner packaging is molded to fit the headset nicely, keeping things from jostling around during shipping. Upon inspection, you’ll notice that there are no cables coming from the headset despite being billed as a wired connection.

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Well upon closer inspection you’ll see a hole near the left speaker cup. The cable on this headset is modular. And there are two cables included. The first is a Y cable for 3.5mm jacks. Basically, this is the one to use when you’re using the headset with your computer. One plug for the speaker jack on your computer, and one for the microphone. The other cable is for console setups like the Sony PlayStation 4.

The microphone is a broadcast-quality microphone. It sounds clean, it reduces background noise and in the time I’ve used it I find it rarely echoes unless I have the software settings on my computer really cranked. When playing online with other people I have yet to have anyone tell me they can’t hear me, or that the audio is too fuzzy or that I sound like I’m underwater. This has been a massive improvement over my faltering X12 set. Streaming also seems to have seen an improvement. People have yet to really complain about issues hearing my voice or not hearing my voice.

 

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On the audio front, I can’t complain about a single thing really. The first thing I noticed upon using them is just how many small details I was hearing that I seemed to miss with the other headsets I’ve owned. For example, when streaming Splatoon 2 a few days ago I could hear clanging steel beams in the distance of Sturgeon Shipyard Something that I never picked up on my X12s. During the gameplay, I even heard enemy players slowly swimming in their ink much more noticeably than I had in the past. On other headsets, I had to really try to focus my listening to find that small detail. With the GSP 500’s I didn’t really have to put that kind of effort in. The sound was clear. It was still lower than the music and weapons fire. But it was fairly obvious when people were trying to swim by slowly. That bubbling noise was much more easy to hear.

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When using the headphones for non-gaming media, the same praises can be thrown the GSP 500’s way. When watching videos, shows, and films the spatial sound quality was fantastic. The separation between characters and audio effects was very impressive, and listening to music was even better. And while this set doesn’t have anything powered or boosted by a USB cable, it doesn’t need to. The bass, treble, highs, lows come through with flying colors. It doesn’t matter what kind of music you’re into, it’s highly unlikely you’ll find anything to complain about here. In fact, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever want to go back to the last set you’ve used.

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I also love the fact that Sennheiser had the foresight to put a volume knob on the headset itself. One of the annoyances I’ve had with other headsets I’ve owned is the placement of a volume dial on the cord. This has often resulted in the dial hitting the desk or getting stuck on the desk when I’ve moved, or have gone to get up from my chair for whatever reason. Another nice touch is that the microphone mute button is enabled when you fold up the microphone. If you need to mute yourself during a game, lift the mic back up, and you’re quiet. No flimsy switch to deal with. It’s nice and intuitive.

Of course, if you’re like me you may spend hours at the computer. If you’re using a headset instead of a set of speakers and a microphone comfort is going to be a concern. The GSP 500’s have an easily adjustable headband with a nice amount of padding. If you put them on very tightly I could see that resulting in some minor annoyances. But I’ve had no issues with comfort. These things feel great. The padding on the speaker cups is soft and very comfortable. The headset feels like a warm, inviting pair of the best earmuffs you’ve ever owned. Moreover, they’re removable. So if you plan on using them for many, years and you worry about them getting messed up and worn out from years of dirt or sweat you can replace them without having to replace the entire headset.

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My set also came with a nice plastic headset holder which nicely fits onto any desk or entertainment center. It’s a solid plastic build too. It doesn’t feel cheap, flimsy, or brittle in any way whatsoever. In fact, the headset has that same feel. None of the plastic parts feel subpar at all. The underlying construct of the hinges is a solid metal too so unless you’re just really rough on your equipment you can expect it to hold up fairly well.

The other bonus that came with mine was a desk mat sized mousepad. Not a major feature but it is a nice little inclusion that feels like a “Thank you for buying our peripheral.”. It isn’t the highest grade mousepad you’ll ever own. But it does save you from having to go buy another one down the line when the one you’re using gets too worn out to bother with anymore.

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In short; this is the best headset I’ve ever owned. As much as I loved my Turtle Beach set, this blows it out of the water. I can hear little details in games, films, shows, and songs that my last set barely picked up. The spatial qualities make everything sound much more immersive. The microphone quality is a massive jump over my previous one. The modular cables make worrying about tripping over something less anxious. (Not that you want to trip over a cable anyway.) The placement of the volume knob is a small thing, and yet something I wonder why isn’t far more commonplace.

If I wanted to really get nitpicky, I could complain, and whine about wanting even more spatial sound awareness or bass. If you buy these and find that you do in fact want more amplification Sennheiser does sell the GSX 1000 audio amplifier which is advertised in the documentation for the GSP 500. It’s a device that can better simulate a true 7.1 surround set up. But seeing how I don’t have one, I can’t tell you how much better your experience will be if you invest in one. As it stands, the GSP 500 is a winner on its own and I highly doubt you’ll have a complaint about the sound quality upon putting them on. Sennheiser also warranties the headset for two years so you can have them repaired if something does go awry at that time.

If you’re looking to invest in a high-end audio solution the GSP 500 is one of the best sounding and versatile headset options out there. I can easily recommend this one.

Final Score: 10 out of 10

Valfaris Review

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A couple of years ago now, a small independent action platformer got some attention. Slain had a brilliant art style that was combined with a soundtrack by Celtic Frost’s Curt Victor Bryant. If you wanted a video game that instantly made you think of Heavy Metal music, Slain could easily come to mind. It had a botched launch as there were a lot of technical problems. But the developers truly did overhaul everything to do customers who backed the game justice. And with Slain: Back From Hell they largely succeeded.

Valfaris is the new game from Steel Mantis. Much like Slain, it has a gristly, horrific art style. It too has a soundtrack by Curt Victor Bryant. But it seems to be advertised as more of a Contra inspired game rather than a Castlevania inspired one. Did the folks at Steel Mantis give us an exhilarating Run N’ Gun that old-school NES era Konami fans the experience they remember?

PROS: Builds on everything the developers learned when making Slain.

CONS: It’s a triumph! But it isn’t quite the Contra-like the trailer teases.

METAL: Everything you see and hear screams “Crank it to 11 & break off the knob!”

One thing you can absolutely tell if you’ve played Slain before playing this game is that Steel Mantis learned many good lessons from that process. Right on the title screen, you can notice some cool details. Just like Slain, it oozes Heavy Metal. Your character is dressed like a Warhammer 40k Chaos Marine. There are mountains of fossilized remains of people and creatures everywhere. And you can notice a faded 3D render of the face of the protagonist as if it were made for an early Windows 95, PlayStation, Saturn, or Nintendo 64 game. It brilliantly blends the eras of the 16-bit and early 32-bit and 64-bit processor powered consoles.

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Upon beginning the game you’ll see a cut scene setting up the story. As Therion, you’re off to a mysterious space station; Valfaris upon it reappearing near a red giant. It was once your home and with its discovery, you decide to investigate. Upon landing on the citadel world it immediately becomes apparent that evil forces have taken it over. So right out of the gate, you’ll be confronted with enemies.

Now while many might think of this game as a Run N’ Gun in the vein of Contra or Metal Slug, it really isn’t. You will be getting many cool weapons throughout the game, and you will be shooting a lot of stormtroopers, monsters, space insects, and more with them. But it doesn’t have that constant, “Go! Go! Go!” pace of a Run N’ Gun. Save for a couple of enemies that actually spawn enemies and a couple of auto scroller moments you can take moments to breathe. And while the game’s stages are linear, there are a number of hidden areas you’re going to want to seek out. In reality, it feels somewhere in between Konami’s two biggest franchises of that bygone era.

 

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Basically, it builds on the core gameplay introduced in Slain, and it does so beautifully. It feels very refined in the melee combat. Of course, all of the game’s enemies have an entirely different speed. So while you can indeed, expect to use parrying to your benefit you can’t expect it to be predictable. In Slain, knowing exactly when something was about to hit you was, strangely enough, easier than it is in Valfaris. Fortunately, parrying isn’t quite as necessary as it was in Slain, although there are definitely some moments where it is beneficial. So beneficial in fact, you’re going to want to get that timing down for when these moments come up.

So like Slain you have the ability to swing melee attacks, and you have a block button. The block can not only block attacks but as mentioned can also parry attacks if you hit one a split-second before it hits you. Underneath your health bar is a second bar that is tied to the blocks. Killing enemies with a melee attack can often refill it by dropping blue mana. This meter will deplete when you block attacks, and some enemies have powerful attacks that can take it to zero after one block! So there’s another reason to try to master parrying.

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Of course, the big addition to the gameplay here is the shooting. The game starts out by giving you a laser pistol and a lightsaber. But as you play through the game, you’ll discover newer weapons to use. Some of these are out in the open, but other ones will require you to find secret rooms or alternate paths in levels. Which is why the game never really hits the pace of a proper Contra game. You’ll need to take your time to look for these visual cues. It definitely is a bit peppier than Slain though. And while this game doesn’t have as many one-hit deathtraps in the background as Slain did, you still have to pay a lot of attention to the background. Some enemies really blend into the scenery and can knock you into pits, pools of acid, as well as other deadly places.

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Speaking of scenery, again, I have to point out the painstaking detail of the graphics here. There is a brilliant use of color shading and terrific palettes for every possible section. The environments are wide and varied in Valfaris. One moment you might be in a war-torn battle station. Another, you’ll be in a space bug-infested jungle where even the vines are sentient and lethal. Each stage has a multitude of bosses, most of which are insanely difficult while at the same time being completely fair. When you die in this game, 95% of the time you know it is your own fault. There are a handful of times where a Boss will pull a cheap trick at the last second or the rare platform that looks wider than it actually is. But on the whole, everything feels on the level. So the game fosters an environment where even though you’re going to die a ton, you’re also going to feel determined even if you find you’re getting mad at yourself for messing up.

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Obviously, the soundtrack goes along with everything perfectly, as Curt Victor Bryant returns from Slain to continue the shredding. Honestly, the music in this also feels a lot more varied than in Slain, as he touches on the many subgenres of Heavy Metal. There are orchestral moments that lead to a Symphonic Metal opus. There are classic Power Metal moments, Speed Metal tracks during some intense moments, and more. There isn’t much in the way of vocals here, but it’s totally fine. In fact, vocals might even distract from the action going on at any moment,

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And like Slain, you can expect to see a lot of intense, unsettling animations as enemies explode into gibs, get cut in half, smashed by parts of the scenery and more. Getting back to the gameplay, there are also Super Weapons you can use that also uses the mana the blocking function does. These do a lot of damage while consuming a lot of your meter so you may want to use it sparingly. In my playthrough, I tried to use them mostly for the more intense boss fights. Of which there are many. All of the weapons, the melee ones, guns, and super guns you find can also be upgraded at checkpoints. Throughout the game, you’ll find special items you can use to do so. Each of these can be leveled up to around four times and the cost to do so increases each time. As you play you’ll really want to think about what weapons to upgrade. Each weapon is effective on all of the enemies, but some are more beneficial on some than others. So there’s an element of Mega Man here for you to consider as well.

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When you do clear the game it will give you a pretty satisfying ending. Throughout the game, it definitely leaves some nods to Slain, but you don’t have to have played Slain to understand what is going on here. After the credits roll you’ll be given an end screen showing you how many times you died, how long it took you to beat the game as well as how many items you’ve found so that you’ll be inspired to play through the game again. It does try to get you to at least attempt a 100% completion run.

While as of this writing I didn’t see it on my physical Switch version of the game, the game’s Steam page does list a New Game + mode being added to the game. So if you want an even bigger incentive to go back to it once you’ve beaten it, you potentially have one. Ultimately though, even if you only play through it once you’ll feel very accomplished. This game pulls no punches. Even the most grizzled video game veteran will be challenged to the nth degree. But again, the whole thing generally feels fair. When you start to notice patterns and understand what you need to be doing things don’t feel so frustrating. They make you feel more determined. You can win the day, you really can. Valfaris is one game you should definitely look into. It’s gorgeous, sounds amazing and is filled with challenges. Just don’t come into it expecting a Contra-like. It is more of an Action-Platformer than Run N’ Gun. But still one of the best experiences you’ll have.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

ION FURY Review

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In recent years we’ve had a few high-profile games that hearken back to the early days of the PC FPS. There was a pretty great Rise Of The Triad reboot, a few years ago. Bethesda brought back DOOM, and New Blood Interactive has hit it out of the park by publishing DUSK, and AMID EVIL. But where all of these games bring back the elements of old using modern technology, Voidpoint went for the new game in the 1990s mold a different way. They actually went with technology that was released in the 1990s.

PROS: An excellent use of the 1996 3DRealms Build Engine in an all-new game!

CONS: There isn’t much for you beyond a terrific single-player campaign.

JON ST. JOHN IS BACK: But not as the gun-toting action hero he made famous.

Ion Fury had a few swerves on the lead up to release. When I bought it in Early Access eons ago it was called Ion Maiden. And it was one bug-ridden demo level. Once the issues were hashed out, it was one excellent demo level. But it hit other speedbumps like a potential lawsuit from a major record label and Iron Maiden because of the letter “R”.

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But a lot has changed since then and now that the game is officially out we have a new name, full-fledged campaign, and some other bonus content for good measure. Voidpoint also built this entire game on the very same technology 3DRealms used itself for Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior.  The game runs in a modified version of Build Engine that works under the modern Windows 10 environment. No need to fire up DOSBox, or write a batch file. It runs natively.

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But they didn’t just reskin a bunch of Duke 3D content. Everything here is all new. A cast of wild and inventive new enemies. A bunch of fun and interesting new weapons. A plethora of crazy new enemies to turn into gibs. A slew of stages that will have you really thinking about how things work in between volleys of enemy waves and hellfire.  They did a lot to push 23-year-old video game engine technology beyond what was thought possible. It even simulates some room over room scenarios with some clever tricks as Build technically was never designed to do so. We wouldn’t see that until iD Software created Quake.

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So the game is technically impressive, but how is the gameplay? Honestly, it’s quite good. If not for a few things I’ll get to later on, this could be the game people wanted Duke Nukem Forever to have been. You play as Shelly Harrison, the protagonist of the little-known twin-stick shooter Bombshell. Ion Fury is technically a prequel to that game. In any case, Shelly is after a mad scientist Dr. Jadus Heskel. Like many fictional insane villains with a Ph.D. Heskel has an army of twisted designs and is bent on taking over the world. He also has many acolytes in his group. So you can expect to go up against every sci-fi, and Saturday Morning Cartoon enemy trope you can think of.

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There are the cultists, zombies, cyborg ninjas, terminators, demons, death bots you would expect to face in a game like this. But there are a lot of other hidden surprises. But the game also gets points for being a bit more original with the designs of most of its rogues’ gallery. You’ve seen these kinds of enemies in many games over the last four decades. But they do have terrific, original costumes most of the time. Though there are a number of them that do not differentiate themselves from the henchmen in the late-night B-movies that inspired them. Though the ankle-biting enemies in this game will likely infuriate you as it can be impossible to see these heads with spider legs when they’re clipping behind 2D scenery sprites like trash cans or trees.

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Regardless of that annoyance, the stages in this game are very well thought out. As you get further in the game they become pretty intricate, rivaling some of the biggest maps from DOOM, Duke Nukem 3D, and Shadow Warrior. In late-game stages, you’ll often find the familiar color-coded keys bring you back to earlier areas or open up previously inaccessible paths. Simply trying to complete some of these can take you close to an hour. Possibly more. Then there are the secret areas. Some of them are obvious. If you’re going down a hallway, and see an air vent you may as well shoot the cover off and climb into the air duct. But others can be rather obtuse.

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If you’re just looking to blow through the game without worrying about finding every last secret and Easter egg, it will still take you a considerable amount of time to do so. As I’ve mentioned before, these levels are quite large with intricate paths. Then there are the set-piece moments peppered in. These are the times where you’ll hear Dr. Heskel taunt Shelly while the game introduces a major puzzle, new enemy group, or a boss encounter. These are done exceptionally well by the actor who brought Duke Nukem to life in Duke3D; Jon St. John. Here, he does a fantastic job of portraying a stereotypical supervillain. Even if the rest of the game doesn’t do much to flesh out the character, Jon St. John makes up for it a bit with some great delivery.

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And while Jon St. John isn’t reprising his most famous video game role, there is someone bringing you the snarky one-liners. That’s Valerie Arem. She’s the voice behind Shelly Harrison and Harrison brings the B movie quips as well as Duke Nukem did. Whether she’s blowing up cyborgs with bowling bombs, discovering new weapons or interacting with things in the environment you’re going to hear some great line delivery. Sometimes the game may replay them a bit too much. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. It really does feel like you’re playing a Duke Nukem 3D spinoff.

Of course, the modern standards that have been added here also make the game much easier to play than the old Build Engine games in their vanilla forms.  But it won’t be an easy game. When you’re not facing hordes from recently opened monster closets, you’ll rack your brain trying to figure out which path to take in the maze you’re currently in. And again, the visuals are all new in spite of running on modified old tech. The gritty textures and sprites will feel both new and familiar. For younger players who never experienced Duke Nukem 3D or Blood or Shadow Warrior back in the day, it might just give you enough understanding of why those games are considered classics while giving you a fantastic new experience.

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All told you’ll spend anywhere between 7 to 20 hours clearing the campaign, and for the completionists out there you’ll spend even further trying to get every last secret. All while jamming to some pretty great Electronica by Jarkko Rotsten that hearkens back to those 90s DTV films that used to adorn the video rental store walls.

When you clear the campaign there is a horde mode to play, but honestly, it feels pretty weak compared to the main game. Even if it can’t compete with the massive player bases of things like Overwatch I think a Deathmatch or Capture The Flag mode would have been much more fun. Barring that, an actual Co-operative campaign option would have been even better, giving players more replay value as they could play with friends on a second or third playthrough.

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Still, for what it is, it is a fun ride that gives you what it advertises; a fun, modern shooter built to appeal to the classics on a classic engine. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in playing, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy your time with Ion Fury. It’s a very well-made game that does what it does well. It pushes old tech to the limit while providing FPS fans with a new game. You’ve seen a lot of what it does before, yes. But it somehow doesn’t feel derivative. It’s a fun game with a cool protagonist.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Black Jewel Review

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Conan The Barbarian. The Beastmaster. He-Man, and The Masters Of The Universe. Swords and Sorcery were a staple of the 1980s  action genre in nearly every medium. Even in the realm of video games where we saw hits like Golden Axe and Rastan. The 8-bit powered computer scene had ports of these as well as games based on the aforementioned properties. The biggest being the Commodore 64.

PROS: Challenging. Recreates the look, and sound of a C64 Accurately.

CONS: Hit detection on traps could be a little more forgiving.

ONE LIFE TO LIVE: Like the title of a defunct soap opera, you have one life.

The Commodore 64 is one of the greatest platforms of all time. There were thousands of games released on it. Some are even coming out on it today. Black Jewel is not a C64 game, but it is a terrific sendup. From the moment you start the game you’ll see the unmistakable BASIC screen load the game. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear you were running an actual C64 image file in an emulator. But you’re not.

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The game’s developers were heavily inspired by the classic computer, and it shows. The game’s video introduction sequence mimics the classic loaders of the ’80s showing off flashing colors, a detailed splash screen for the title, and music. And immediately the soundtrack will enamor anyone who hears it. Gianluca Pappalardo is the name credited with the soundtrack and they succeed with flying colors here. The music not only fits the Barbarian action hero vibe the game goes for but accurately simulates the sound of the SID chip as well. Despite being a game for Windows, it sounds like it could have come from the Commodore 64’s Sound Interface Device.

So it’s been established this game accurately mimics the look and sound of a Commodore 64 computer. But how is the actual gameplay? Here, the game continues that Commodore 64 inspiration. Black Jewel is an action platformer that requires meticulous planning in order to get through each scenario. It’s got the exciting battles you’d expect from something like Rastan, yet you’ll need to treat each stage as if you were playing Another World. While there are no puzzles, you still kind of need to see each room as a puzzle.

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At the beginning of the game, you’re told the story. It isn’t very deep. But it doesn’t need to be. An evil warlord named Darkor has stolen a Black Jewel. A mystical artifact that has allowed him to terrorize the land and enslave its inhabitants. As Ryan, you take up arms and go on the quest to save the land by reclaiming the Black Jewel. Of course, this will involve killing Darkor.

This is all much easier said than done. Because Black Jewel is a tough game. As I’ve stated before this is heavily inspired by early computer games. The controls are simple enough. You move left or right with the arrow keys and press the *D* key to swing your sword. And you’ll be pressing up to jump because there were only one button joysticks in 1983. You can, of course, use a controller with the game, but you’ll still be pressing up for jumps.

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The game moves along at a perfectly fine speed. But keep in mind you’re a big, lumbering barbarian. So you’ll have floatier jumping than in something like Mega Man. The scenes are also modeled after the flip screen mechanics of early home computer games too. Remember, scrolling games didn’t become the standard until the latter half of the decade. The level design in Black Jewel is also built off of the history of the time as well as the appearance. And frankly, it’s very good.

Each stage is made up of several rooms, each taken up by a screen. Each of which will have an enemy to dispatch or an obstacle to overcome. When you’ve completed it, you can go to the next one. Some of these will be simple things like jumping over spikes. Other times you’ll be tasked with killing two bad guys while avoiding fireballs. This is the kind of stuff you would see even in adventure platform games in 1994. Black Jewel will not only test your action game skills but your puzzle-solving skills too. Again, despite not having what many would call puzzles.

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At the end of each stage, you’ll fight a boss. Each of them has to be dispatched in order for you to continue. Most of them can be pretty tough as they utilize a couple of attack patterns. They’ll sometimes throw you a swerve by switching them up when you least expect it, so you really have to be on your toes. Defeating them opens up the next stage. It’s here you’ll notice something. Stages do not get splash screens or other introductions. You will just see the scenery change. Also, it won’t take you long to notice something else. That giant sword at the bottom of the screen is getting shorter.

That sword is actually your health meter. When it’s gone, so are you. Game Over. You have exactly ONE LIFE to clear Black Jewel. When I said this game was tough, I wasn’t lying. Now that doesn’t mean that it is impossible. It can be beaten. It isn’t a long game. And it even has health potions to restore your meter to varying degrees. Some will fill it 25% others 60% and others will top it off. That said, one ought to pay very close attention to what is going on at any given time. Because you can take damage without realizing it.

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My one main problem with the game is it doesn’t quite go far enough in showing what is a background, or what is a deadly trap you shouldn’t step on. Oh sure, you’ll figure it out too late eventually. But that also means you’ll be back at the title screen. Now some things are obvious. Skulls and spikes usually mean trouble. But another object might seem innocuous until your sword starts draining. Also, you should keep in mind when something does hit you, to back away immediately. You do not get to take a hit, fly back, and get 3 frames of invincibility as in some of the classic action games you’re used to. If you’re standing on a spike, a pixel too deep into an enemy or a boss that sword will be a mere hilt in seconds. Fortunately, you’ll find you can skip over some of the bad guys instead of fighting them. But this does not work on bosses.

Still, considering that Oscar Celestini set out to make an homage to these early Commodore 64 action-adventure style games, Black Jewel is a success. The animation is phenomenal. The sprite work and backgrounds are amazingly detailed. Plus everything looks so true to the C64’s 16 color palette and aside from a full widescreen image, it’s almost 1:1 to the untrained eye. I won’t lie, at times the gameplay might feel a little rough around the edges for people used to faster-paced arcade slashers. But once you’ve died a few times, and gotten used to the mechanics it becomes a remarkable game.

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If you grew up gaming on a Commodore 64 this love letter will very likely appeal to you just from the look and sound alone. If you didn’t, it’s still a pretty fun game. The combination of action and adventure elements are great. There’s a balance between hacking up bad guys and planning out how to get through each room with as much health left as humanly possible. You can’t just rush into it like you would a Golden Axe machine set on Freeplay. And yet it isn’t so cerebral you’ll need to do math equations. It requires both approaches and a bit of patience.  It’s highly unlikely you’ll clear it on your first attempt or even four-hundredth attempt. But it doesn’t wear out its welcome by going on for hours either. Black Jewel may be tough, it may be esoteric. But to borrow a phrase from famous YouTube star Metal Jesus Rocks, it certainly is a “Hidden gem.” You can pick it up on Steam if you like what you see here. Overall, I can recommend you do.

Final Score: 8 out of 10