Tag Archives: PC Gaming

Some advice from a collector.

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With some out-of-town family visiting, and some heavy work days, I unfortunately won’t have a review this week. So instead I’ve decided to do something a little bit different with commentary. It’s no secret that I love all kinds of games, especially some old ones. Some of you may wonder just how to get your hands on some of the games I’ve reviewed. Here are some small tips I’ve found over the years. Maybe they’ll help you in rounding out your game collections.

Keep everything. (At first)

Well, I should be a bit more specific. That stack of old games in the cellar. That tub of old games in a closet. Don’t just toss those. Carefully go through them, and replay them. Unless you’re in a situation where you honestly have no room of course. Then you’ll want to either research the values, and get some money back, or donate them to a charitable cause. But if you’re going to build a collection, look at what you already own. Keep the stuff you really enjoy, or what you’re intrigued by. You’ll probably even find some stuff you don’t remember buying, or getting. It’s the perfect time to experience them.

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Focus.

When you’re just starting out, don’t try to get every little thing you get your hands on. Rather focus on one or two platforms. There are a few approaches you can take. A lot of people like to start with something they grew up with. For older hobbyists that usually means something like the Atari 2600, Commodore 64 or the NES. Some of the younger blood may shoot for PlayStation, and Nintendo 64 games. Nostalgia makes stuff  more palatable when you start out. Plus buying everything you stumble upon will become a problem if you only have so much room.

Network.

If you find an independent store you like, don’t be afraid to talk up the staff. (When they’re not busy. I cannot stress this enough. If there’s a line, a parent asking them about a game. A lot of stock to put out. Don’t bother them when they have a lot of stuff to do.) When there’s a free moment, on a Tuesday afternoon you can build a rapport. Just by talking about games, or other stuff. Over time they may find out you’re collecting primarily Sega Master System stuff, so when something good gets traded in they may ask you if you want to buy it first. As you’re a regular, who buys a fair amount from them. And likewise, you may discover an employee digs Tiger Handhelds. So when you find one at a yard sale for a few dollars you let them have it. (So long as the store lets them accept gifts.) It’s a nice gesture that lets them know you appreciate their professionalism, and stellar service.

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You can also use social media to find a trade group in your area. Then you can meet other local players, and collectors in your area. There’s a good chance someone will have a game or accessory you’ve been looking for, and they may be willing to give it to you for a bit less than the average online or store price on it. And you’ll want to spread that around. If you’re looking to unload something, give a fair price on it. And be open to trading. Sometimes you’ll get a few really cool pieces for one thing you have that isn’t so easy to come by. More important than your collection, will be all of the friends you make in the process. Real friends who care about you as a person, and vice versa. The hobby isn’t merely about amassing stuff. It’s about having people to share it with. Don’t discount the friends you make online either!

Don’t be a completionist.

This is a huge one for anybody who collects anything. I once mentioned this in an interview with Chasing HappiNES I did last year (Check out his channel, it’s pretty great!) but it bears repeating. Completionism can get really bad, really fast. Because it can become an obsession. It happens in every hobby. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, often times there are variances in collectibles. An example I like to bring up is the 2002 iteration of Mattel’s Masters Of The Universe toy line. Not only did collectors have a vast roster to try to find, but there were several versions of He-Man, and Skeletor released. Battle Sound He-Man, Jungle Attack He-Man, Smash Blade He-Man, to name a few! But it didn’t end there because many of the toys were released on cards that were written in English, as well as on other cards  that were written in multiple languages. But that still isn’t the end, because you had to factor in that there were minor paint differences, and chase versions of most of the characters. To be a completionist in that line meant not only buying each character, but buying them two or three times for the card differences, paint differences, etc. After all, if you wanted to own everything in the line, that meant all of those variants too!

Believe it or not, it’s the same when game collecting. If you look at the Atari 2600 you’ll find several versions of most of its first-party games. Early games were numbered with a text label. Then they were re-published without the numbers. Then they were published again, with the box art on a black background. Then a silver background. Some of them even came out again, on a red background. Even third-party games were often released multiple times, on different labels.

It doesn’t end with the Atari 2600 though. Many NES games, Super NES, and Genesis games came out with alternate boxes, and labels. Add multiple regions, variants of those regions, and you have yourself a ton of clutter. Instead of all of that, focus on getting good games, you know you’ll play.

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Embrace importing.

Let’s face it. Some games are pricey. Insanely pricey. If you want a legitimate copy of Mega Man 7 for the Super NES but don’t have the $170 or more, there is another way. Getting Rock Man 7 for the Super Famicom for $30. It’s the Japanese version. It can be played on an American Super NES with the assistance of a pair of pliers, and five minutes. Truth be told many pricey games are somewhat affordable if you import them from other territories. Now, in some cases running them is pretty easy. In others not so much. So you’ll want to do some research. But another reason to get into importing, is that you’ll be able to play a ton of stuff that was never released Stateside. Really good stuff!

There’s no shame in Digital Distribution.

Some games are not only pricey, they’re impossible to find, and have no international release. Other games have rights issues, that get cleared up, but only temporarily. Also, there’s the fact that some of us have no room to store every platform ever. Thanks to services like Steam, and GoG on PC you can get some of those old games digitally. If you own a Wii the Nintendo Wii Shop Channel is still up for the system. That means you can still buy some TurboGrafx 16, Genesis, Master System, games. The current E-shop on the Wii U, and 3DS is still going too. Of course there are also the Xbox, and PSN stores for those platforms. None of these stores are perfect, and there are some issues that DD doesn’t solve. You can’t download the games again if the stores close, and you can’t resell them if you don’t like them. But it is a convenient, and affordable option for some titles. As with importing, some games are much less expensive digitally. Some can only be purchased digitally.

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Take a risk on mystery games.

Cartridges for some platforms are decades old. While you generally want to have loose games in the best possible condition, sometimes you have no choice but to buy a game with a torn label, video store sticker, or crayon, or marker on it. Sometimes because it’s one of those elusive titles. But sometimes you’ll find a cartridge for your system of choice with no label sitting in a store. Usually insanely cheap because the staff have no idea what game it is. Buy it. When you get it home, and slap it in your 2600 that blank Activision cartridge could be another copy of Pitfall or it could be a rare copy of Double Dragon! It could also wind up being a counterfeit, but if you got it from a reputable store it should be refundable. Which reminds me.

Make sure you’re getting authentic games.

Bring the proper tools with you when you go shopping. A reputable store should let you take apart that Super NES Game Pak if you’re about to drop $100 on Chrono Trigger. There are a wealth of great resources out there on how to spot these ‘Pretend’ games. The YouTube channel Metal Jesus Rocks put together an excellent video about it. You should definitely check out. Handheld games seem to get hit the hardest, but there have been counterfeit cartridges as long as there have been video game consoles.  It’s unfortunate, but you’re going to need to do the research. Especially if a game you want isn’t cheap.

Get out of your comfort zone.

Maybe it’s a series you never bothered to look at. Maybe it’s a genre you never gave a chance. When you go thrift store shopping, pick up that RTS sitting unopened for $3. Try out that obscure game nobody has ever heard of. Many times you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Other times you might be disappointed. But you can say you’ve experienced a wider variety of experiences. You could also discover a developer whose work you enjoy.

Go where nobody else is going.

I live in a small state, where big towns, and cities are surrounded by towns composed of miles of woods. During the spring, and summer when yard sales are most prevalent these are the places I’ll have the most luck. Why? Because most people don’t think to drive an hour away to a town with no major businesses. But they should. Usually these residents are just looking to get rid of things too. They’re not interested in making top dollar. They’re just looking to get it out of the house. They also don’t want to go an hour into town just to recycle things, or donate things. If your area has any passing similarities to mine, it’s a tactic you may want to employ for yourself. These are the places you’ll have a higher chance of finding a bundle of games, or an old console or computer for cheap. Just make sure you max out the gas tank before heading out. Getting stranded in a town on a barely traveled road isn’t fun.

I also have luck on more recent platforms when going to stores nobody expects to have things. Sometimes an office supply store, home care store, or department store (that deals mainly in apparel ) will have games for seasonal impulse items. After that season ends, they’re put on clearance to move. So next time you need a new pair of shorts in the summer, or are in sudden need of glassware, take a look while you’re there.

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Don’t be afraid to go third-party on Amazon.

I’ve gotten a number of good deals from third-party vendors on the site. Commando for the Atari 2600 with the manual being the best one.  But I’ve gotten other stuff too, like a never opened Sega Arcade Smash Hits bundle for IBM/PC (DOS). You almost never see those loose. Let alone new. Now this does require some research on your part. You have to check the customer ratings, and you might have to contact the seller before plunking down the money. Sometimes  you’ll find a particular seller doesn’t primarily deal in games, and may have a detail wrong. Remember to keep all of the sales info, and copies of any conversations in case you have to return it. And take photos if it comes in a vastly different condition than described, or if it’s a counterfeit. There’s some risk involved here, but it can be mitigated with good practices. Of course if something sounds too good to be true it probably is. If you see a $300 game listed for $5 there should definitely be some skepticism on your part.

Don’t lose sight of what’s important.

Partaking in any hobby is fun, and can even be healthy. It keeps your mind working, and gets you out of the house. But if adding that copy of M.U.S.H.A. to your Genesis collection is going to mean being late on a utility bill, or eschewing a financial obligation you should wait on getting the seminal shoot ’em up. This might sound obvious, but if you’re missing rent, or can’t walk through your home without tripping over something you may want to downsize, and re-evaluate a bit. You can replace items. You can’t replace people.

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Don’t think of your collection as an investment.

Sure, some games are rare, and expensive. But not all of them will stay that way. If you happen to have something that is sought after, and pricey good for you. You may be able to find a buyer, and put that cool $300 toward this month’s mortgage. But unless you’re running a business,  don’t look at your heavy hitters as bankable guarantees. Actually, even if you own a business you can’t count on someone waltzing in with $700 to drop on your copy of Flintstones Surprise At Dino Peak. Look at your collection for what it is; a fun appreciation for the history of the medium. A bunch of titles you can revisit. Perhaps with friends, family, other players, and younger people interested in what came before.

There will always be some titles that hold value. But in the 1990’s everyone thought their copies of Superman #75, and X-Men #1 were going to be akin to winning the lottery. They weren’t. X-Men #1 had one of the highest print runs of any comic book ever, and only the first print run of The death of Superman was ever worth anything. Plus the poly bag it shipped in wasn’t acid free. So ironically, only the ones people actually took out to read once, are in better condition. Even those, only fetch around $10 these days. So if you bought one in 1993, almost 24 years later, that’s a profit margin of around $8.

Don’t buy new releases expecting them to make you wealthy. Yes, it is true most of the more valuable old games came out in the final years of a given platform’s prominence. But that doesn’t mean in 15 years the average person is going to give you the money they were going to put down on a car for a copy of Pepsi Invaders either. They could. But that shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion in your mind. If you do sell a game out of your vault, don’t cheat yourself. But don’t expect to get top dollar either. Sometimes things happen that throw a wrench into such get rich quick schemes anyway. When Devil’s Third was quietly released in limited quantities scalpers were charging double the MSRP to the tune of $120. Not long after, a second printing happened, and today, a new copy is a mere $40. A fair number of people are stuck with a bunch of extra copies out there. All because they thought it was a guaranteed meal ticket. It wasn’t.

Have fun.

Hobbies, are supposed to be an outlet. A break from the stress, and anxieties of every day life. So have fun. Share photos of that new pick up. Schedule a day to invite people over to play some Colecovision together. Stay up late one night after work in multiplayer with friends. Take the significant other out with you game hunting. Spread the joy around.

Alien Syndrome Review

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Choplifter HD Review

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Released in 2012, Choplifter HD is another modern update of a classic game. But is this something you should download to your trusty computer, Xbox 360 or PS3? Or should you go back, and free your Apple II from storage?

PROS: Classic gameplay with a few novel conventions

CONS: Graphics snobs may turn their noses up at the 1997 era visuals

REALLY?: Scoop Sanderson? You couldn’t create a better Anderson Cooper parody?

In 1982 Dan Gorlin coded what would be a classic computer game. Choplifter was published by Broderbund Software. First on the Apple II, and was then ported to other 8-bit computer platforms like the Commodore 64, and Atari 800. It proved so popular that eventually Sega would pay Broderbund for the rights to port it to arcades, where it became even more popular. Choplifter exploded onto 8-bit consoles after that, including the Atari 7800, Nintendo Entertainment System, and Sega’s Master System. But in order to fully explain the good, and bad about today’s game I have to first talk about what made the original so great.

Choplifter was novel at the time because it wasn’t the typical arcade blaster most games of its ilk were. True, you did shoot down infantry, bomb tanks, and avoided being shot down. But most important was the fact that you had to rescue prisoners of war. In the game you flew out of your base over a side scrolling battlefield much in the same vein as Midway’s Defender. The difference being that you had to land over prison camps, and wait for the prisoners to board your helicopter, then hightail it to the beginning of the level to drop them off before heading out to get more. With every trip, the enemies became more relentless. They would employ more, and more manpower to stop you. Every wave graded you on how many prisoners you could rescue. The more lives you saved, the higher your score.

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Choplifter was also notable because of how you controlled your helicopter. You could have a left profile to fire at left targets, a right profile to go to the right targets, or face the foreground to attack foreground targets. By the time it hit arcades the game also had a fuel meter which added a little more strategy because it forced players to estimate if they could risk getting more prisoners or if they would have to go back for them later.

So here we are 30+ years later with Choplifter HD, a remake available through digital distribution channels like Steam, and it’s still on PSN for PlayStation 3, as well as XBL for Xbox 360. How does it stack up?

Well for the most part it plays pretty much exactly the same as the original game, and its variants. Most of the game will have you looking out for prisoners to pick up, and bring back to base. It also carries over the fuel system from Sega’s revised arcade port. As a result, Choplifter will really feel to familiar to anyone who grew up playing the original game. But by today’s standards some may feel the formula could become monotonous after a while. This is where developer inXile really took me by surprise. This new version adds a few new mission types to the mix. In some stages you will be tasked to instead take out certain targets rather than save people. In others you will have to prioritize saving injured prisoners on death’s door over other prisoners. Still in other missions you will merely have to get from one side of a map to the other without getting shot down.

To keep things fresh they also added a few hidden secrets, and objectives. The most common one being the rescue of ever annoying news anchor Scoop Sanderson. Making a name only a few letters away from the real person is both hilarious, and pretty stupid. But to be fair, the characters do have some funny one liners even if they are repeated fairly often. For the truly devoted, there are also loads of video game cameos to be found here. Not the least of which involve Super Meat Boy, Duke Nukem, and Minecraft.

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As in the original, expect later levels to be very difficult even on easier difficulty settings. The game begins to really throw everything including the kitchen sink at you. Tanks, Fighter planes, EMP bombs, Snipers who have pin point accuracy, and hordes of zombies (Yes they even made a few George Romero stages for you) all come gunning for your chopper.

Another cool feature of this remake is the fact that you can unlock more powerful or more interesting helicopters to replay earlier stages with. Some will make some levels easier, others will make them more challenging. It isn’t much, but it does give players a reason to go back, and revisit it. Of course, like many games these days you can pony up real world money to buy DLC. Namely more choppers. You really don’t need to do this, as the DLC doesn’t make the core game feel any more or less complete. There are also a host of achievements players can go after if they are really dedicated to do so. Plus, the game doesn’t go on forever like other updates of classic games sometimes do. There are just enough stages to get your fill without it getting too old too soon.

Visually the game is far from ugly, but it’s also nothing special. Characters are low poly count, and low detailed. Textures are fairly crisp, but also not overtly detailed. There are some mild lighting effects but again nothing that will wow you. But if you look a little closer you will find some details to appreciate. Shooting infantry will result in some 80’s action film cliché’s like oversold falls, or giblet showers, or in some cases flailing around while they burn to death. Explosions look the part, and the sound effects are mostly pretty good. As I mentioned before some of the dialogue is pretty funny. But the main voice of your helicopter pilot can grate at times. It also becomes obvious through longer play sessions that they have the same actor doing several parts. But in the end it’s a pretty minor quibble for a game like this.

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Choplifter HD is one of those fun diversionary games that is perfect for the digital download environment. It’s something you can play in short bursts, or for hours on end. It’s inexpensive so you really aren’t out a lot if you don’t enjoy it. But for those who do there is a lot to like. It’s too bad the graphics couldn’t have been just a tiny bit better because at first glance they may remind you of some of those cheap shovelware games you find in supermarket discount bins during the holidays.

That’s not to say graphics make a game good. But in a case like this with a game with little fanfare, the casual observer may make the mistake of passing it up. Even for an equally priced download that truly is shovelware in sheep’s clothing. Honestly there are far worse things you can spend money on than Choplifter HD. If you’re even the slightest bit curious about it do give the game an honest shot. It’s a fun update of a vintage game. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, nor does it do too little. It isn’t the prettiest update around, but it is a pretty fun break from everything else.

Final Score: 7 out of 10.

Double Dragon IV Review

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Double Dragon. It was one of the most successful franchises Technos Japan ever put out. In 1987 this series began life as an arcade game, where it kick started the Beat ’em up genre as we know it today. It was so popular, it was ported to nearly every platform imaginable, including the Atari 2600, and the Commodore 64 would see TWO versions. The most popular of the ports was the NES version, which played differently, and expanded the stages. This trend of expanded, and added levels would continue with Double Dragon II, and become one of the best games in the NES library. Even though Double Dragon games would continue to appear on everything, the NES versions would always stand out. This new game is an homage to that fact.

PROS: Looks, feels, and plays like an NES Double Dragon sequel. New content.

CONS: Severe lack of basic options. Background graphics don’t always jibe with sprites.

GEARS: If you thought Double Dragon II had tough platforming sections……….

Technos Japan has been sold around a few times over the last decade, and with every sale something has been attempted with Double Dragon. The GBA’s Double Dragon Advance came out to some acclaim remaking the original on the handheld. Double Dragon Trilogy gave us the three Arcade versions, but with some nagging issues. Way Forward’s Double Dragon Neon came out to some mixed reception. Some thought it was good, others not so good. But all agreed it was a bit of a parody of the series, and the time it came out in.

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Arc System Works has instead played Double Dragon straight. Double Dragon IV takes place in the series’ continuity, placing it after the events of Double Dragon II, and before the events of Double Dragon III. The story here is that after the defeat of the Black Shadow Boss, there was a worldwide Armageddon. The breakdown of society led to rival street gangs gaining more notoriety. The Lee Brothers end up fighting a new threat along with the old ones. The story even works in Technos Japan’s other game, Renegade. The Renegade gang here are actually very close designs to the bikers, and martial arts masters introduced in that series. Which is clever as it cements the notion that all of these games are part of the same universe. Double Dragon, Renegade, and maybe even River City Ransom.

Unfortunately, the Cinema screen texts don’t always explain everything very well. So if you don’t take the extra few minutes to play it out in your head before starting the next stage, you can get confused. Of course being a Double Dragon game, at some point Marian gets taken hostage again, and you have to get her. But rescuing her isn’t the main objective in this iteration of the series.

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The game itself reminded me an awful lot of Capcom’s Mega Man 9, and Mega Man 10. Arc System Works has taken essentially the same approach here. Many of the character sprites you went up against in the NES versions of Double Dragon I, and II are all here. The Renegade characters have been redone in a way that fit the style of those games as well. But Double Dragon IV also gives us a number of entirely new characters to fight too.

As Mega Man 9 brought back the familiar movements, and play control of Mega Man 2, Double Dragon IV looks, plays, and feels like Double Dragon II. Except it doesn’t retain the arcade version’s punch, and kick mirroring. In that game facing right or left would remap the attack buttons. In this game the punch button is always the punch button, and the kick button is always the kick button. If you loved playing the first three NES Double Dragon ports, you’ll absolutely love playing through this.

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Making the game feel even sweeter, are the new moves they’ve added. You can do a few new standing, and wake up attacks including this M.Bison\Vega\Dictator torpedo move. But your enemies have also been given a lot of new moves. Abobo has a new bad ass dragon punch. Burnov has an upgraded back drop. Linda has a crippling new back elbow. That’s on top of the super moves the new cast has. Expect a lot of out of nowhere RKO levels of shock on your first time play through.

Double Dragon IV is also one of the longest games in the series. It’s almost as long as Super Double Dragon/Return Of Double Dragon on the Super NES. Most of the stages go on for at least as long as a typical NES entry’s stage does. But there are some that are shockingly short, and others that are mystifying long levels. Some of these also see the return of Double Dragon II’s platform jumping death traps. Others also see the return of mazes. So choose the right doors! These sections can frustrate you if you don’t get them right. Not just because losing tends to do that, but because you have three lives, and five continues to beat the entire game. Most screw ups in these areas cost an entire life bar.

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But if you keep playing, and slowly mastering the super moves like the Jean-Claude Van Damme Cyclone Kick, Dolph Lundgren Jugular Uppercut, and Chuck Norris Kneecap to the face of body launching, you can win. Like the NES forebears, it’s all about learning the timing of these moves, and on what frames to break them out on. Really, other than the cruelty of some of the jumping puzzles, and some backgrounds not meshing well with the sprites (Some of the backgrounds look like the digitized photo backgrounds on Super NES, and Genesis games) fans will like it. If you’ve never played a Double Dragon game it’s still a fun time, though they geared things toward those who have been fans since the late ’80s. The soundtrack is also very good, both reprising series’ mainstays, and bringing new songs. You can choose to play with an all new up tempo synth rock inspired soundtrack, or you can play the game with the soundtrack done entirely in chip tunes. Either is great!

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As a game, it’s easy to recommend Double Dragon IV. It’s fun to play, and again feeling like they took the lessons of Capcom’s Blue Bomber retro comeback to heart. They even went as far as updating Double Dragon’s NES fighting game mode. That’s right, as you play you can unlock the game’s characters for a 1-on-1 street fight. And it’s as fun as you remember. It won’t be a replacement for your Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, or Guilty Gear fix. But it is a nice distraction from the main game. If you beat the game there’s also a survival mode called Tower you can play. Basically, you survive enemy waves for as long as possible.

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Sadly, I can’t whole heartedly tell you to rush out, and buy this. Because there are a couple of major problems with it. None of them stem from the game play, but they are all bothersome. The first problem is the lack of options. There are none. At all. You can remap your controller, or keyboard. That is it. No video modes. No rendering multiple resolutions. No filters. Nothing. The second issue is that the game has no in-game full screen ticker. Those with minimal computer knowledge will be completely bewildered that they have to play the game in a window. A window that you can’t even resize. Those who do know a little something will be pressing ALT+ Enter to force it into full screen. The third problem is, that even though you can force the game into full screen, you can’t do anything about the aspect ratio. You can’t choose between 4:3 or 16:9 or 16:10. In short, you’re stuck playing windowed unless you know to press ALT + Enter on your keyboard. With zero options.

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I don’t think anyone expected a smorgasbord of PC options. But most games at the very least give a few filter options, and some resolution options. This game is also locked to 30 fps, and you can’t even turn off V-sync. Most PC players want the option as it frees up performance, even if it means seeing some screen tearing. It’s unfortunate that Double Dragon IV is this devoid of any performance options, or options for visual flair.

Overall, Arc System Works has given us an excellent Double Dragon sequel. But it has been marred by a terrible menu, and menu U.I. I can’t speak to the console version of the release in this regard, having only played it on the computer. Even still, for console players, the lack of any filter effects may be a turn off. At least it may for those who prefer to simulate the color blending look of an old CRT with their retro themed games. Or digital retro re-releases for that matter. If you can deal with the anemic menu options, and missing features you’ll still have a fun time with Double Dragon IV. If you can’t, then you may want to see if Arc System Works patches in some menu fixes first.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Rise and Shine Review

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Duos can be very effective in storytelling. Sherlock Holmes had Watson. Batman brought on Robin. He-Man had many allies, but usually rode into skirmishes on Battle Cat. Ren, and Stimpy. The list goes on. There’s a strength in a duo’s ability to give subtext to a story or a series of stories. Their relationships grow as time goes on, and what each of them bring to the table can be as engrossing as what happens around them. It has even been effective in video games. Rise, and Shine is another game that uses the duo very well.

PROS: Beautiful art. Interesting characters. Reference humor.

CONS: Fairly short experience for some. High difficulty for others.

CAMEOS: Far too many to note, and not in ways you’d expect.

Rise, and Shine takes place in a world called Gamearth, a planet under assault from Space Marines. Everything is laid to waste as the invaders kill all of the inhabitants, or turn them into monsters. As Rise, you’re given a magical revolver named Shine, when you see a Hyrulean gunned down in front of you. Before dying, he gives you Shine, and you move onto a quest to get to the Odyssey Temple.

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The setup immediately throws you into the action, and introduces new mechanics as the story moves along. Rise, and Shine is advertised as a twin stick, run, and gun game. But it really isn’t. There are elements of that to be sure, namely in the combat sections. But the reality is that the game shares a lot more in common with old cinematic adventure-platform hybrids. You’ll enter sections, and have to solve a puzzle to move forward, in every room. Even many of the fights you’ll end up in, are won by solving a puzzle.

In many ways it reminded me of Another World, a game that influenced many, many games after it came out. Games like Flashback,  Fade To Black, and the Oddworld games all had elements of Out Of This World. Rise, and Shine does as well. But the twin stick combat does make it considerably different. The game also throws in a number of challenging puzzles that take advantage of combat mechanics. Again, you’ll move with one stick, while aiming with the other. On PC you can move with the WASD, keys, and use a mouse to aim, or you can use a game pad with twin stick controls. But also remember, the game will transition from these brief Metal Slug meets Robotron moments, into the aforementioned Another World meets Max Payne moments.

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At one point in the game you’ll be given different ammunition types. Electrical bullets, as well as normal ones. The electrical bullets can be used on certain enemies, or switches. Other times you’ll need to use the normal bullets. In battles you’ll often switch between the ammo types, as some enemies, and even bosses will require hot swapping between them.

Eventually you’ll have two other mechanics to master. Exploding bullets that act as remote mines, and bullet time zones. Many of the game’s puzzles will require you to learn them in order to get switches, doors, or other paths to open up to you. There are also a few times where you’ll need to be perceptive, or go off of the beaten path to find secrets, items, and other assorted Easter Eggs.

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Rise, and Shine also has a very captivating style to it. It has a crisp, computer animated 2D look to everything. But unlike some other games that have gone for a similar style, this doesn’t feel like a Flash cartoon. The attention to detail alone makes it highly worth looking at. The color gradients, the outlines, and lighting make characters, and backgrounds pop. It really does feel like a child’s pop up book come to life. Albeit, with a gory M rating. Rise, and Shine has some absolutely nightmarish imagery.

Heads roll. Bodies get crushed. Entrails, and limbs are strewn about the streets. Pools of red splash with every kill. Plus with the high difficulty, you’ll likely witness your own demise hundreds of times. As a matter of fact, the high body count, and number of your own deaths are worked into the story. On top of that, the game is loaded with all kinds of game references going back to the industry’s infancy. Be that as it may, you’re going to see a lot of Nintendo references compared to most others. Still, it’s a fun ride, through, and through.

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One complaint some will have is the length of the game. One of the things the game seems to take away from Another World is a focus on telling its story in a highly stylized way, with as few technical problems as possible. Another World is quite the challenge on the first run through, but once you memorize its puzzles it can be cleared quickly. The same goes for Rise, and Shine. As of this writing I’m on the game’s final boss, and I’ve spent a good 4 hours of play time getting here. Most people seem to be in the 5-8 hour range, but for those who pick up things faster, they may clear it in 2 to 4 hours. That said, the final stage has an obscene level of difficulty, I haven’t been able to clear.

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This is something the individual potential player will have to take into consideration when thinking about picking it up. But if you do, you’ll find just that. A highly detailed, fun experience with a lot of challenge, and a very clear focus. Outside of a shorter experience, there isn’t very much to complain about other than the difficulty spike in the last stage. In my time with it I’ve yet to find any major bugs, or crashes. Everything performs well, and it is just as responsive on a controller or with the keyboard. Though I personally had an easier time aiming with a mouse, than a thumb stick.

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In the end, Rise, and Shine is a pretty good game. One that gives fans of adventure-platform computer games, and fans of brutally hard games a great time. But if you’re somebody who is wary of shorter games, or you’re easily frustrated by difficult games, you might want to wait on this one for a while.

Final Score: 7 out of 10.

 

 

Shower With Your Dad Simulator 2015 Review

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“What?” “Really?” I can hear you ask. “What the hell is this?” asks another. True, this is an absolutely bizarre game, with a premise that can easily be misconstrued. But, things aren’t always what they seem. If you open this book, you’ll find the cover doesn’t give you nearly enough information to come to a conclusion. This pool is both shallow, and deep.

PROS: A surprisingly deep puzzle game, with a load of content. Dark comedy.

CONS: Premise will make some uncomfortable. Dark comedy.

MULTI-TRICK PONY: This could have easily been a one-joke distraction. But it isn’t.

Shower With Your Dad Simulator 2015 came out two years ago, and instantly got under the skin of many. The theme of the game, really is just centered around bathing. But with no other information upon the release, people were put off. It’s easy to see why. But, this game manages to skirt by with its shock value, and dark humor.

Oddly enough, that’s because the game delivers much more than that. It’s shocking yes. It wears its absurdity on its sleeve like a badge of pride. But once you get over the hurdle of actually installing it, and booting it, there’s a solid, fun game to be found underneath the joke. And throughout that game, it throws in a lot more humor. And just when you think it’s about to beat a dead horse, it rides in with an entirely new horse, making jokes that have nothing to do with communal showers.

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The base game mode is a match-up puzzle game. You start out by choosing one of three Father, and Son duos. The game begins, and as the son, you have to find your father before the time runs out. If you can do that, you’ll add more time to the clock, and do it again. This cycle repeats until you mess up, and choose the wrong parent. Basically, you’re shooting for a high score. But it doesn’t end there. As you do better, new things are added to the game. You’ll find bars of soap that double your score. Other power-ups are unlocked as you improve. There’s a razor that shaves the fathers’ heads. There’s a pair of water wings, that don’t do much of anything. You can even find giant mugs of craft beer, that make the game harder as they affect your movement.

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Beyond these power-ups, the game begins to throw in obstacles to mess you up. Wet floor signs, you can bruise your legs on. Which will slow you down for a few seconds. Water puddles that make you slip, and slide randomly if you touch them. Often into the wrong dad, and getting you a Game Over screen. Persevering only makes the game do more to thwart your attempt at a high score. Putting curtains over the fathers after a split-second so you may potentially guess wrong. Adding more fathers that look similar to the one you’re supposed to meet up with, so you’ll pick the doppelgänger instead, and lose.

The second mode is a variant where each time you meet up with your dad, you’re given the role of a different child. This makes the game even harder. There’s a third mode where the dads fall from the top of the screen, and you have to grab the correct father based on the child you’re cast as. In this mode you use the mouse to stretch your hand out, and move with the arrow keys.

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But the game doesn’t end with these solid puzzle games. Shower With Your Dad Simulator 2015, has a bunch of hidden mini games you’ll unlock over the course of your play time. Some of these are even weirder than the base game. One of them is a gritty, film-noir themed point, and click adventure game. The story centering on a broken shower in a police station. This one even finds time to make jokes about the genre in addition to the shower, and bathing puns. Another one has you going up against a ninja, and his five sons, while another mini game is a shmup, where you pilot a bathtub. The latter of which involves shooting down other tubs, while trying to fly your own tub in the style of Flappy Bird.

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For a budget title, built around a joke, the game has a lot of effort thrown in. The simple graphic style still incorporates a lot of small details. Streaks on the floor when you hit one of the puddles. Wet floor signs, falling over when you bump into them. The visual effects when you get a power-up. This even goes on when going into one of the unlockable mini games, or even the Commodore 64 lampoon when booting the game. The music in it isn’t too bad either.

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Sometimes something comes along so weird, so strange it has to be seen to be believed. It’s even rarer when that thing, has good gameplay underneath all of that mystifying oddity. Shower With Your Dad Simulator 2015 is one of those things. If you can get around the absurdity of it all, you’ll have a fun time with it. It isn’t very long, but it is fun in short bursts, and those short bursts can add up quickly.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Mighty No. 9 Review

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Released last year under a mountain of controversy, Comcept’s, and Inti Creates’ spiritual successor to Mega Man was met with reactions from reviled to merely tepid. Suffice it to say, people didn’t like it. This didn’t come without good reason. But now that the dust has begun to settle, there’s a question left over. Is Mighty No. 9 really that bad?

PROS: Voice acting, character designs, a few inventive moments.

CONS: Unbalanced stages, poor graphics, technical issues, dash mechanic.

LUCK: You’ll need a lot of it in key areas.

In some ways, yes Mighty No. 9 is that bad. I listed many of the reasons under the cons. Graphics are the first thing we notice when firing up any game. In this game your first thought is going to be “Oh no.” Remember the later Mega Man X games on the PlayStation 2? Mighty No. 9 has a very similar look. 2.5D with low quality textures, and simple geometry. In this game everything renders at 1080 p so it looks a lot sharper. But it also makes many of the games sprites look grainy, as they don’t appear to have been made in HD. So the higher resolution actually makes some parts look worse.

This is especially true of explosions, bullets from your arm cannon, menu items, and background touches. This results in some really jarring moments. On the plus side, the character designs are pretty cool. Especially when you meet the other bosses. These are the moments that remind you of classic Mega Man games, fighting robot masters in confined spaces.

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Gameplay is about what you’d expect. Like the Mega Man, and Mega Man X series you choose the order of stages in the hopes of finding the best route through the game. Every boss has a weapon you can assimilate, and you have to figure out which weapon defeats which boss. Unfortunately, even this aspect of the game isn’t nearly as good as it is in the games it borrows from.

There are several reasons for this. The most obvious being technical issues. For whatever reason, Mighty No. 9 suffers from terrible slowdown in certain spots. Reportedly, some versions are far worse than others. I played the PC version, so I can’t comment on any of the console versions. But I think it’s safe to say no matter what version you play, you’re going to get frustrated. There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason why the slowdown occurs. I tried lowering the settings to rock bottom, it still happens. And there are a fair number of options you can change in the PC version. You can also play it with a keyboard, but you really do want to use a game pad. Especially with some of the problems here.

These issues don’t make the game impossible, but they immediately begin to sour you on things. Lowering the fun factor further is the unbalanced nature of stages. When playing any given level you’ll often find a spot that has over the top difficulty in it. Usually involving enemies that swarm you, a pixel perfect jumping section surrounded by traps that kill you instantly, or both.

Now, the Mega Man series has sections filled with death traps that require pixel perfect jumps, and maneuvers. The differences are that 1.) in most cases they don’t come out of nowhere, and 2.) the controls are tighter. In Mega Man, these areas often come up after you’ve been eased in. A room will introduce you to something new to learn. You’ll use that in subsequent rooms, each gradually adding onto the challenge until you learn well enough to feel comfortable taking on that giant trap. Case in point, the infamous death beams way back in the Quick Man stage in Mega Man 2. You got a taste early, but after figuring it out quickly, you played through the stage, and when it brought it up again, only harder, it was a challenge. But it didn’t feel insurmountable. You got a feeling of persistence.

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In Mighty No. 9 these sections seem to just come out of the blue. Moreover, you don’t have quite the same level of control. So you’ll get into an area, have no idea what to do, and just be plunged into it. No teaser, no taste, no feeling of “Oh THAT’S what I need to do.” When you finally do figure it out, it won’t be a sense of discovery, it will be a sense of dismay. “Are you kidding me?” is probably the most common question you’ll scream aloud. Your fun will be decreased even more when you discover that instead of refining things, the game brute forces you through by giving you random power ups as you near the end of your lives. As if to say “Here, take a lot of damage, but scrape by with some beefed up power, and E-Tanks.” That doesn’t make it more fun, that just cements the fact that the designers realized they’ve created a chore rather than a challenge. There are also a few gameplay moments that get repeated throughout stages, the biggest being what I call swarm rooms, where you have to clear a wave of enemies before you can continue.

Another difference between this, and Mega Man are how you find replenishments. In the Mega Man games, you gain health, and ammunition two ways. Finding them drop out of robots when you kill them, or else in the play field. Sometimes you might have to solve a puzzle or have a certain robot master’s weapon to get them. But pretty straightforward. In Mighty No. 9 you have to use the game’s dash mechanic. This works like the one in Mega Man X. You can press the shoulder button, or double tap. When you shoot low-level bad guys enough times, they’ll glow blue, red, green, or yellow. Then you have to dash into them. The blue ones fill your E-Tank (of which you can have two), the green ones speed you up, and the red ones make your arm cannon more potent. Yellow reduces the damage you take from getting hit. You’ll also have to use the dash to get over a lot of the game’s pitfalls.  The thing is, the dash is also a tad bit slippery here. So you’ll sometimes hit spikes you wouldn’t have in Mega Man X, or fall into pits you wouldn’t have in Mega Man. This makes those aforementioned death sections all the more infuriating. So again, it’s no wonder this game has the bad reputation it does.

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But I will say it isn’t all bad. The bosses, and subsequent fights are generally pretty cool. These are the parts of the game where it starts to feel a little bit more like a good Mega Man game again. There are some interesting patterns to learn, and the designs of the bosses are honestly pretty awesome. They also make some of the death sections moot if you play them in the correct order. This is because they come back to help you in the story, which clears out some of the hazards. In these moments, Mighty No. 9 becomes pretty fun, and entertaining. This is in part because of some wonderful performances from the actors. All of the characters have personality, and flair because of them. Even Steven Blum shows up in it, as a boss!  That boss fight is also interesting because they do something original with it. You have to explore the level, and find him three times before it unlocks the boss room for you to face him. It’s a genuinely fun moment. Of course, the discovery of boss order is also ruined when you realize that the correct stage to play adds a second advice tab on its description. If you click said tab, you’ll hear the boss you defeated last, give dialogue. At this point, you just look for whichever level has the extra audio log displayed before entering.

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Another fun moment, (aside from an infuriating death trap section) is when you get to take control of the Roll stand-in, and infiltrate a base. It’s a Metal Gear themed stealth mission. But it’s done well, and shows off a completely different play style rather than just slap Mighty No. 9’s mechanics onto a different model. Even the boss in the level takes advantage of that. The final stage is a hodgepodge of everything you force yourself to learn throughout the game, and without giving too much away, the final encounter both requires you to know the mechanics, as well as getting lucky with item drops. At least in an initial play through. I will also give the soundtrack a nod in that the end credits feature a really cool performance from Mega Ran, as well as a chip tune OST you can turn on in the options. None of them are as memorable as the ones in early Mega Man games, but they aren’t half bad, and fit the action well.

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Mighty No. 9’s story isn’t too much different from the original Mega Man’s either. All of the robots in America go haywire, and Mighty No. 9 has to go save the day. The alterations here are that the enemy robots aren’t destroyed. Instead, their defeat somehow removes the computer virus making them go awry, and they grant Mighty No. 9 their weapon program afterwards. There’s even a Dr. Wily stand-in, although they throw in a twist you can see coming from a mile away.

If you do happen to become a super fan somehow, Mighty No.9 does have other modes that unlock as you play. These are a combination of timed challenges, co-operative challenges, and then some competitive internet speed runs. The trouble is, that with the lack of online players you’ll likely never play the speed runs, or co-op challenges.

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Mighty No. 9 made a lot of Worst Of 2016 lists. Really, the game itself probably isn’t the worst released last year. It has numerous problems, no doubt. But it’s still functional enough to play through. There are bright spots in it where it becomes fun as well. If not for the technical issues, and design flaws, this could have been above average. And you can see while playing where whatever happened behind the scenes during development killed potential. If the game looked as good in those early teasers, and played as well as the NES Mega Man games like it was supposed to, we’d be looking at a really good game. Instead, we’re looking at a barely average game marred further by a controversial development cycle. We’ll probably never learn what went wrong, or why it took so much money to give us something this ugly, unbalanced, and hobbled. If you’re morbidly curious about it, you could do worse. But you should probably invest in that Mega Man 2 Game Pak  for your NES instead. Or any of the Mega Man collections. Really any Classic Mega Man game will do.

Final Score: 5 out of 10

Redout Review

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Futuristic racing games seem like a rare treat these days. True, Wipeout reappears on every Sony platform at some point to some fanfare. But the racing subgenre was once more packed with contenders. F-Zero, Extreme-G, even Star Wars Episode 1: Racer are looked at fondly by many, many people.  But beyond Wipeout, not too many other games have taken a stab at serving the fandom over the last decade. Fortunately there are signs that this might be changing. In 2015 Shin’en gave us Fast Racing NEO on the Wii U in the absence of Nintendo’s own F-Zero. Last year, a small outfit out of Italy published today’s subject. 34BigThings has given the world not only a game inspired by the two biggest franchises in the subgenre, they’ve made something on par.

PROS: Gorgeous! Insane sense of speed! Superb controls!

CONS: Some of the ships look derivative. High learning curve. Minor bugs.

VR: The game supports most major PC headsets.

Released in September of 2016, Redout was a pleasant surprise. It quietly appeared on Steam, and as more people discover it, it seems to generate a very positive reception. With good reason. Upon picking this up with the Steam wallet card I was gifted for Christmas, I too, have a positive reception. Redout is a game for anybody wistful for the days of those racers I mentioned earlier.

It should be mentioned, that while it takes inspiration from those old games, it also doesn’t play entirely like them. There are definitely elements that you will see upon firing it up, but it still retains its own identity. There are enough unique things here that F-Zero, and Wipeout fans will still need to practice, and learn these nuances. But don’t let that scare you off from checking this out. Because this game is a lot of fun to play.

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For starters, the game has an intense sense of speed. Especially if you tweak the options on your computer for the best possible performance. Redout is a very scalable game. It runs on Unreal Engine 4. While this means you can have a lot of visual effects going on a more powerful machine. It also gives you a great many options to tinker with. The graphic settings are pretty robust giving you several areas where you can tweak details. Resolution, texture quality, visual effects, and even frame rate capping is here. Personally, I would set your cap to unlimited, unless your specific machine tends to jump around a lot in terms of frame rate. And unless you really can’t deal with tearing, I recommend turning off V-Sync too. If only because the higher your frame rate, the better these kinds of games perform.

But no matter how you prefer to play, there are a wealth of options on hand here. The game also allows you to play it with a keyboard, and mouse set up, but honestly, you’ll really want a game pad. Once you start playing, it really becomes apparent it was designed with game pads in mind. I tested the game with both, an Xbox 360 controller, and the Steam controller. Both of which seemed to work just fine. There are several preset configurations for game pads in the option menu as well. You can try to play with a setup closer to F-Zero GX, where you can use the shoulder buttons to drift left or right. There’s also one geared more toward Wipeout enthusiasts too. But honestly, the game’s original layout seemed to work the best for me.

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You control steering with the left stick, and you can use the right stick to control your pitch, and yaw. You use the right trigger for gas, the left for braking, while the face buttons use items, boost, and change perspectives.

Redout has three modes. A career mode, a single race mode, and online multiplayer. The main attraction is the career mode. As going through the career you’ll eventually unlock vehicles, tracks, and some bonus content. The single race mode lets you choose a course you’ve unlocked, the race type, and you’re off to an exhibition match. Online multiplayer is also what it sounds like, playing online against other players, or your friends.

Going back to the career, the game will start off by having you select a vehicle. You’re given a small amount of money to select a ship. Redout has a wide variety of vehicles to choose from. It even takes a page from more realistic racers like Gran Turismo, or Forza by having different manufacturers of ships. Under each manufacturer are a few different class ships to choose from, and each manufacturer’s ships handle differently from their competitors’. One vendor may offer vehicles that are heavier, and can take a lot of punishment, while another offers high acceleration vehicles that don’t grip the track as well. Each of these is balanced pretty nicely against the opposing vehicles. It really boils down to your specific racing style. Over time you’ll earn enough in-game currency to buy them all.

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Once you’ve levelled up your pilot rating a few goal posts you can also equip power ups. The power ups in this game differ from other games in that they really don’t do much to damage, or destroy opponents. They’re designed to help you pilot your ship more effectively. There are several power ups, but you can only use two at any given time. These are divided between passive, and active items. One category is a line of power ups that is used automatically, while the other contains items you have to engage by pressing a button.

These items will improve your boost, slipstream, or handling. There aren’t any real offensive arsenal at play, save for one EMP weapon used to disable other racers’ power ups. Each of the items can also be upgraded four times, increasing their potency, and effectiveness during an appropriate race.

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I say appropriate, because there are a bevy of categories here, and not every one of these allows for their use. You can use them in standard races, which are what you might expect. A set number of laps, with a certain number of contestants. But then there are races called Pure races, which won’t allow you to use your power ups. Other than that handicap, you play the race as normal.Up from there are Elimination races. You’ve seen this in some other games, where the last place racer is kicked out every lap, until just one racer is left. In Redout, the last place racer also explodes for dramatic effect. It’s kind of like you’re Keanu Reeves in Speed, but you didn’t go nearly fast enough, and Dennis Hopper gets away with killing you scot-free.

Beyond those there are time-trials, and tournaments where you traditionally shoot for the fastest time possible, and do races in succession. But Redout doesn’t end there. The game has an Instagib mode! Normally the realm of First-Person Shooters, Instagib allows for no mistakes. If you hit anything, you die, and the race ends. Joining that mode is the Arena race. This applies the race rules you’ve seen in F-Zero X, and F-Zero GX to the game. In these races, there are no re-spawns. If you blow up, it’s over. The races go until you’re either the first place winner, or the only surviving pilot.

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Still not sated? How about Speed challenges, where not only do you have to be fast, you have to do specific tasks in the race? Or the Survival, and Last Man Standing matches that again, take away re-spawns from time trials, and pure races? The game also has a scoring race that scores you on how well you’ve done, and even what it calls a Boss race. In the Boss race, they tie together several tracks into one track, and expect you to shut down everyone else.

It is true that some of these races are similar to others with challenging tweaks. But at the end of the day, Redout still gives you a lot more variety in its campaign that a lot of high-profile racers do. Not only that but the racing on display here is fun, addictive, and is a joy to see in action. Over the course of the career mode you’ll discover new tracks, earn money for power ups, and new vehicles. As I mentioned before, there are different statistics for the various ships you’ll pilot. So depending on the track you’re on, and the kind of race you’ll be in, you need to handle each scenario differently. You may find for one type of event you want the zippier, lightest ship possible. But for another you might find you have a better time with something slower, and durable. Of course, you may just like one specific style for everything. But to entice you to experiment, throughout the career mode you’ll be offered endorsements.

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If you choose an endorsement you’ll have to use a specific car, set in a specific way. But if you win events under these conditions you can earn the car for a lot less in currency. If you lose though, or change vehicles, or settings, the contract gets voided. Now some of you might be concerned you’ll never see all of the content the game has to offer due to the time spent, needing to win to get ahead. Something that makes Redout approachable, is that you don’t have to be very good. You get points to spend in this game for almost anything. Even if you lose a race, you get points. Even if you re-do a race 23 times in a row, and lose every time until the 23rd, where you place third, you’ll get points.

You can then use the points on power ups, or vehicles to ease your burden. Obviously, if you do well you get a lot more money. But the money you get in a loss isn’t paltry either. It isn’t until much later that losing becomes a little bit of a grind. But the important thing, is it doesn’t feel like a grind at all. That being said, spend your money wisely. There’s nothing worse than spending all of your cash on a ship you think is going to win, only to find out it’s too high a rank for the event you’re having trouble with. Or that it isn’t the best option for S curves, and the track has several S curves. Redout forces you to research.

But we come to racing games, for the racing itself. Redout has impeccable racing. Make no mistake, it’s a very formidable game, but winning is achievable. I’m not particularly talented at racing games. But even I managed to get a first place medal on a handful of courses. The high sense of speed is something this game does exceptionally well. In fact, there were a few times on tracks where I caught air, and felt a mild chill as I nose-dived back onto the track. The implementation of plane controls with the second stick is also very clever. It does it a little bit more realistically than even Nintendo’s flagship series.

That’s really saying something. Because of just how on point F-Zero has generally been. But again, it also doesn’t handle like F-Zero. It may have a convention or two in similarity, but it’s still very different. One thing you really need to get a handle on is the drifting system, which uses the Yaw position to tilt your ship just right so you don’t run into the guard rails. The game can chastise you for mistakes. Hitting the guard rails makes you lose speed, and a ton of health. Changing your pitch isn’t only for jumping off of ramps. You’ll need to raise the nose off of the ground when headed into loops, or corkscrews too. Because otherwise your front end will grind into it, again, cutting your speed, and damaging your ship. The longer you can go without making mistakes, the more health you can recover. The game rewards you for doing better this way.

Over time, you do begin to improve as you memorize track layouts, and figure out just where that drift is going to be needed, or where you need to be positioned for that upcoming ramp. All while going at a breakneck pace. If you thought F-Zero GX, or Wipeout 2048 were fast (and they were), this game gets even faster. Especially if you’ve tweaked the game for performance over style.

But even if you prefer style. The game is still very brisk. It is also a really great looker. The screen shots, and videos don’t look nearly as good as it does in action. 34BigThings has gone with a simplified look, and yet the art style goes a long way to hiding the lower triangle counts. The result is something where you have the bright vibrancy of TRON, married with elements of both realistic, and animated features. You won’t have a lot of time to appreciate it while you’re racing. But when watching the camera pan over the track before a race it looks wonderful.

Musically, it’s really good too with the caveat you have to love electronica. Everything goes for a bouncy, soft, style of techno music. It is beautifully composed, it fits the driving well, and you can even buy the soundtrack separately to play in your actual car! Even though the synths used rarely, veer into sharpness they do run up tempo, and a fast beat to the music. Now, if you prefer other genres in rock, pop, or hip-hop you may find yourself turning off the music in the options menu, and playing something else. But, I would still recommend you at least give the soundtrack a try. Because it is really, really good.

Of course the sounds of the Twin Ion Engines, and collisions are on point here as well. Speaking of TIE Fighters, the game does sometimes wear its influences on its sleeve a bit too much. Just in the case of some of the ship designs. There are clearly pod racers in it, and you’ll see some elements of other Sci-Fi franchises in the ship designs. It’s the most noticeable with the pod racers though.

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Online races are an awesome time as well, when you can find them. As of now that’s the only major issue with Redout. Not a lot of people seem to be consistently hopping onto the multiplayer. Which is really sad, because when you do find some competition it is some of the most enjoyably cut throat experiences you can have. The net code seems solid, I rarely had any major lag when playing. The racing is just as brisk, and over the top in multiplayer as it is in the career mode. This is a game where the skills you gain in the single player, carries over to the multiplayer. Hopefully, over time the game can find a big enough audience who will give the online racing the love it deserves.

But even if that doesn’t happen, you can still host private games with your friends, and the amount of stuff to do on your own is still staggering. The wealth of single-player content will have you playing this game for a very long time. One thing everyone will especially love, is that A.I. racers don’t rubber band after the first class level. So it really does come down to your skills on the track. Even after you’ve unlocked everything, you’ll want to go back, and attempt to get gold medals on anything you haven’t. Plus 34BigThings seems committed to supporting the game for a while.

Which is good, because the game has one minor bug that irks me, and it will probably irk you too. When you exit the game, it resets the option menu settings. So every time you play, you’ll have to re-select what you want. In the grand scheme of things it isn’t a huge deal, because most everything else is so great. But it does grate on the nerves. Overall, though, Redout comes highly recommended. It’s everything a futuristic racer should be. Fast, frantic, addictive, and fun.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Slain: Back From Hell Review

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Generally I don’t do end of year lists, because I simply don’t have the resources to play everything. But sometimes that can be a good thing as this year proved that many games have been, and will be taken out of the oven too early. Slain is one such game. At least it was initially according to most who looked at it.

PROS: Everything you love about Castlevania 1, Golden Axe, and Heavy Metal!

CONS: The insane difficulty of NES Castlevanias.

DIE: Everything will kill you in this game. Usually in horrific, and gory ways.

When Slain was released, the initial reception wasn’t very good. Performance was terrible on many computers, it had bugs, crashes, and other problems. But things didn’t stay that way for very long. Where other developers may have spent eons trickling out patches to try to get things working, made excuses, or worse, given up entirely, these guys didn’t. The people behind Slain put out major overhauls for a few months. Once the game was in the state it should have launched in, it was given a subtitle to reflect it, and relaunched.

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So this revamped version I received for Christmas is really good! It has brisk action. It has a blend of fighting, and puzzles. It has really inventive character designs, and a head banging soundtrack. What it doesn’t have is a ton of exploration, a deep story, or a wide cast of playable characters.

You see, at first glance many people will think Slain is going to be a Castlevania clone, and they would be partially right. But these folks aren’t thinking of the  right Castlevania games. These days a lot of people are wistful for the entries like Symphony Of The Night, or Aria Of Sorrow. Versions of the formula that mixed in the exploration of Metroid into the series. Leading to the term Metroidvania. But Slain follows more closely to the first Castlevania most people who owned an NES played. Castlevania.

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So what you’ll be doing here is going through linear stages. At the end of each stage you’ll fight a horror themed boss, and then move on. After you complete the first stage, you do get to go to a hub level, where you can choose the order you want to play the stages in. Well, partly. Because two of them are locked until the second, and third, are completed. You can also replay any stage you’ve previously beaten. But no matter what order you choose there aren’t any changes. Each of the six stages does give you a pretty wide variety of settings. The entire game is oozing in Heavy Metal. The style of the characters, and even the pixel art itself, is right out of album covers. Old school fans will immediately think of the art on albums by Iron Maiden, early Metallica, Sepultura, Dio, Thor, and Iced Earth.

You’ll be fighting in old burned out towers, desolate plains, ethereal worlds, and blood soaked towers. There are also booby traps everywhere. Trap doors that will have you falling on spikes. Blood puddles that pull you down, and drown you. Background statues that attack you, ceilings that crush you, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The enemies will take you back to times of playing Castlevania. Albeit with a dash of Golden Axe. Instead of fighting one or two enemies at once, you’ll often be swarmed with five or six. All of the enemies look gorgeous. As far as monsters can. The details in the sprites are just as impressive, and imposing as the backgrounds. Plus, every character has a ton of animated detail. If you take five seconds to analyze something as simple as a skeleton walking toward you you’ll notice it instantly. He’ll then hack you to death with a machete because you weren’t paying attention.

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Which brings me to the death animations of your character. Because it goes along with everything else. You’ll see your organs fall out after a monster has you disemboweled. You’ll see the flesh fall off of your bones when you fall in an acid pool. You’ll see your head get severed by an enemy knight. or your character become paste when he gets crushed. The ways you go down in this game can give Mortal Kombat a run for its money.

So how do you survive? Well the game does take a few cues from Castlevania in that you’ll have to plod through areas, avoiding traps, killing enemies, and trying to make jumps without bats or Medusa heads knocking you into pits. The game also has both a health, and power up bar. But the similarities begin to end there. For starters, instead of picking up random secondary weapons from candles, you have a charge attack. The longer you hold the charge, the more powerful a burst of fire you can throw.

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But I can already hear you asking where to find mana to replenish your secondary ammunition. You find it in battle. Slain, has a pretty respectable fighting system. True, you can hack n’ slash your way through via Golden Axe inspired brute force. But you’ll actually have an easier time once you discover that timing is everything. Slain gives you an attack button, a jump button, a secondary attack button, and a block button. Holding the block button can , well, block attacks from enemies. The thing is blocking too many attacks will actually cause you to go into a hit stun, where enemies will finish you off.

However, if you time your block perfectly, the enemy gets hit stunned, allowing you to get off a critical hit. Many enemies will die after one or two of these, and it is here you get mana. But it goes further. Some bad guys will shoot projectiles at you. Instead of blocking these attacks, you can time your primary attack. Hitting the projectile at just the right time will knock it back, like a baseball. This is crucial to master, because for some of the larger enemies, mini bosses, and bosses you can’t survive without it.

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And before you go thinking you can instantly make the game go from difficult to easy by doing this, every enemy type has a different timing requirement. In the case of boss fights, you’ll also need to learn their patterns. Attack at the wrong time, you’re dead. Go on a flurry of hits blindly, and you’ll soon be on the business end of a super move that will one shot you. Even if you have full health at the time.

Still, you’ll need to master every trick at your disposal, because much like the early Konami, and Sega games that inspired it, it is difficult. But difficult in a good way. You’ll die 20 million times. But every time you’ll still want to play again. It gets you hooked on perseverance. That constant feeling of just one more try. You will give it one more try, and another, and another. Because every stage has a hidden piece of a talisman you’ll need to find. There are also elemental versions of standard swords, and axes. But the way they’re implemented is really cool. Again, the amazing sprite work, and animation is on display. These weapons aren’t just recolored, and buffed versions. The wild designs make each of these feel unique. Like the embers of fire trailing off of your flame sword. Or the water, and ice dripping off of your axe. Slain always has some new detail you’ll be discovering.

The soundtrack also takes inspiration from vintage metal, though it has elements of subgenres. There are moments where it feels symphonic, other times there’s a sense of power. Often times it will evoke crunchy, speedy licks, and solos. Curt Victor Bryant (of Celtic Frost) did a wonderful job giving players a soundtrack that matches the imagery in Slain. Again, it will remind you of early metal albums. If you grew up in the 70’s or 80’s listening to a lot of the heavier, darker albums, you’re going to love the music in this game.

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Unfortunately, the story we’re given isn’t nearly as interesting as the world it takes place in. You play Bathoryn. An old, expired warrior who is resurrected, and commanded to liberate six realms from monsters. There are some dialogue boxes between Bathoryn, and some of the characters, like the being who wakes you from your slumber. Or the banter with boss characters before, and after fights. But the exposition doesn’t show you the story, it just tells you what is happening. You go tracking down a villain named Vroll. He shows up from time to time to taunt you on your quest, and sometimes just before a boss fight. Throughout the game you also run into a mysterious mystic, who grants you the aforementioned weapons, as well as introduce some of the new enemies. The final confrontation does fill in some of the blanks, and there is an interesting twist at the end. I just wish the narrative could have been as interesting as everything else.

Be that is it may, Slain: Back From Hell is an excellent game overall. It is true, that it has a very high difficulty, but then so do many good games. If you’re someone who is willing to press on, there is a lot to like. Even if you’re not a big fan of Heavy Metal, the game’s horror elements, and atmosphere will still keep you entertained for hours. It isn’t a very long game at just six stages. But the challenge will have most people playing it for a long time. Even if you do become good enough to master it, you’ll likely come back to it for replays, or speed runs.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Toy Bizarre Review

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As we get closer to Christmas, this year I’ve found myself going through my library, and replaying old games. Part of this is due to nostalgia. The years of childhood Christmas memories. Gaming with friends, and family. It’s great being able to experience some of this old stuff in my collection, and it’s also great being able to share those experiences with others. Seeing how we are in the holiday season, we’re looking at a holiday themed game.

PROS: Frantic, and enjoyable.

CONS: Long load times.

NEAR EXCLUSIVE: Only saw release on two computer platforms.

Toy Bizarre lives up to its namesake. It centers around toys, and it’s bizarre. The game takes place in a toy factory where the automation has gone awry, creating killer toys. If the box art is any indication, it also happens to be Santa’s workshop. So Toy Bizarre also appears to have a bit of Silent Night Deadly Night embedded inside.

Each level of the factory is a single screen affair, and right away you’ll notice the gameplay is a little bit reminiscent of Nintendo’s Mario Bros. But only slightly so. In Mario Bros. You would punch floors from below creatures to knock them upside down so you could then bump them off the screen for points. Here, you’ll have floor layouts, and entrances similar to the ones in Nintendo’s platformer, and there’s some bumping things off-screen for points. But there’s a lot more going on than that.

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One major thing you’ll find are little valves throughout the level. If left unattended they eventually inflate balloons. If you don’t pop the balloons in time they will float to the top of the screen, and pop. If you let the balloons pop on their own the explosion will summon different kinds of toys. Touching these toys is fatal. In order to remedy that you have to get them to land on specific surfaces. While they’re on these surfaces, you can quickly jump to a switch that will temporarily deactivate the toys, so you can destroy them. Each level has a certain number of balloons to be destroyed while the punch clock winds down. The faster you can do this, the more time you have left at the end, which also gives you more points.

One strategy a lot of people will also go for on their quest for a high score is to shut off valves. This is an excellent strategy to employ. However there is yet another hurdle the factory throws at you. Remember those cheap wind up walker toys we’ve all had at one time or another as children? You know the type. They have a key or knob sticking out of their back, you twist it as far to the right as it can go, then set it down. The toy then walks around until it either falls off of a table, or collapses on itself.

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Well imagine if there were a giant, life-sized, killer toy android that worked that way. Because apparently, Santa Claus invested in one of them in his toy factory. This automation has also gotten the HAL 9000 virus, and decided that you need to die for it to complete its mission. Not only do you have to avoid this thing at all costs, The android will turn on any valves you’ve previously shut off, allowing for more balloons, more killer toys, and less time on the clock. There are even bonus stages called Safety Checks where you have to shut off all of the valves before the android can turn them back on. And the android will manage to get a couple of then on. In later safety checks you’ll sometimes contend with multiple androids.

If all of that sounds confusing, fear not. It becomes easy to understand once you’ve played the game for a few minutes. Once you understand it, you have yourself a very addictive, and entertaining holiday puzzle-platformer. But it gets better! Because every stage has a different layout from the last. Where in Mario Bros. the only deviation were new enemies to figure out how to defeat, in Toy Bizarre you have to also learn maps.

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One saving grace are power ups called Coffee Breaks, where you literally grab a cup of coffee, and everything stops. During the coffee break you’re basically invincible, and you have a few quick seconds to clear everything before the balloons, toys, and evil androids get back to work. If you’re good enough at Toy Bizarre you can start to loop stages. Again, being an arcade puzzle-platformer you’re not in pursuit of an ending, but a high score.

The game was designed by Mark Turmell who did a number of computer games for Activision. One of the best being Fast Tracks, which I’ll have to get around to doing a review for. But Toy Bizarre is another Activision game from the era, that isn’t as fondly remembered as the heavy hitters they put out on the Atari 2600, and other platforms of the time. Which is a shame, because almost everything about the game is spot on. It holds up in almost every way. The hit detection is great. You’ll rarely have a moment where you hit an enemy, and can’t believe it was a possibility. Due to the kind of game it is, later stages do tend to put in more, and more obstacles that the majority of players find difficult to overcome. But it doesn’t feel like your deaths are cheap.

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And while visually one could argue it doesn’t look as nice as Mario Bros., one can’t deny it is a cut above what one would find on average back then. It still looks nice enough. It does a lot with the simplicity. Factor in the ominous song that plays between rounds, and you’ve got some eerie atmosphere going on in a soulless toy factory. The only major problem with Toy Bizarre are the load times. Activision released the game on three formats for the Commodore 64. Datasette Cassette tape, 5.25″ Floppy Disk, and Cartridge. The cassette version by far has the worst of the load times. Most tape games can take several minutes to load into memory, but this game is insufferably long on tape. The Floppy Disk version is nowhere near as bad, but still takes longer than a lot of other games on disk. Which is weird considering just how small the game is, even for the time. The cartridge version is obviously preferred in this regard. But keep in mind that cartridge versions of C64 games can be harder to find since most users had a Datasette drive or a Floppy drive. That doesn’t necessarily make them rare, but they can be uncommon. As such expect the cartridge version to set you back more than the other formats.

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The game also came out for the ZX Spectrum in Europe. I don’t have either the computer or that version of Toy Bizarre, so I really can’t compare the versions. Though the game was published by Mastertronic in some territories outside of North America. No matter how you slice it though, aside from terrible load times, Toy Bizarre is one of the best Santa themed games to be experienced. If you have a working C64, track down a copy. The only other way to find it, is if you can track down the Activision Commodore 64 15 pack collection for Windows 95. Which can be a hassle to get running on a modern PC.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.