Tag Archives: PC Gaming

Super Mario Multiverse: Mario Bros.

 

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Well, the stars have aligned, the time has flown and here we are. The Well-Red Mage invited I as well as a slew of others to take part in the Super Mario Multiverse special crossover event. In it, you’ll see some words about the many, many, MANY games featuring Nintendo’s mustached mascot. Everyone remembers Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and Super Mario 64. But not a lot of people comparably talk about the first major game where his name was in the title.

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Mario Bros. came at a weird time for many of us. It bridged the gap between Mario’s adventures as a construction worker trying to save his girlfriend from a crazed ape and his time as a plumber trying to save royalty from a dragon turtle. And while a lot of people knew about it well in advance of Super Mario Bros. Some people didn’t. In fact, some people still don’t know it’s a thing. Imagine my surprise for instance, when a former coworker tried playing it on the Famiclone handheld I’d brought in for my lunch break one day. He kept trying to jump on the shell creepers and flies to no avail.

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Travel back to 1983 however, and you’ll find there were a few home versions released across several platforms. In Japan, the Famicom obviously got a version. But Hudson Soft also ported the game to the PC-88 computer. Ocean Software would port the game to a slew of computers in the European market including the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. Here in the United States Atari would get the publishing rights and proceeded to release the game for the Atari 2600 and Atari 5200.  The 5200 version is interesting because the console largely used the same components as Atari’s 8-bit computer line, the 400/800, XL (and later under Tramiel) XE. Despite this fact, the 5200, and 400/800 versions were different games. When the XE came out years later, a vastly superior version came out from Atari Corp. which was backward compatible with the 400/800 and XL lines. It makes one wonder why this couldn’t have simply been on the 5200 years earlier.

Atari also published North American computer versions on its Atarisoft label. Most famously for the Commodore 64. Of course, the North American video game market crash was right around the corner. So before long Warner Communications (Warner Media) would sell the home division of Atari to Jack Tramiel, who had been pushed out of Commodore. This version of Atari was called Atari Corp. to differentiate itself from the Arcade division Warner still owned. Which they sold to Midway, who renamed it Atari Games West, folded it back into Midway, and then Midway sold itself to Time Warner. (Warner Media.).

 

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But I almost went on a tangent of coincidence there. We’re talking about Mario Bros. And Atari Corp. would port Mario Bros. to the Atari 7800, and the Atari 400/800/XE. At a time when the NES was already killing it with Super Mario Bros. Though you can also find Mario Bros. on the NES as well. It’s also interesting how the porting rights worked out back then as it often led to computer platforms getting two versions of the same game. In this case, Ocean brought Mario Bros. to European C64 owners while Atari brought Mario Bros. to North American C64 owners.

 

As an aside, there were a bunch of unofficial ports and sequels like Thundersoft’s Mario Bros II, which was more or less a reworking of Mario’s Cement Factory into a bottling plant. You filled cases of bottles and put them on a truck. And if you messed up, the boss would come out of their office and berate the Mario Bros. Thundersoft was mostly known as a group of European code crackers who would give away retail games with the anti-piracy measures removed. But this seems to be the one lone quasi-original thing they did. which they also gave away. It does, of course, use Nintendo’s characters and concept. But it doesn’t seem to have lifted graphics. Many of the other ports and clones of Mario Bros. walked much closer along the line of legality.

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Nintendo itself has also given the game these stealth reissues over the years. As a mini-game in Super Mario Bros. 3 then again as a mini-game in Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga. The port jobs, in general, are pretty good. Save for one or two bad ones, every one of them gets the core concept right. Some even go above and beyond. Atari’s Commodore 64 (as Atarisoft), and Atari 2600 versions are fantastic. Yes. The Atari 2600 version is a great version of Mario Bros. Atari Corp. also re-released it when they brought out the 7800 version which is also an excellent version of Mario Bros. In PAL (European) territories the 2600 re-release came as a red label variant no less, driving completionists just a little bit more crazy as there were already two domestic silver label variants in the wild.

 

Despite, all of the ways that Mario Bros. has been available to play though, a lot of people never checked it out. Particularly, Stateside. There are a few reasons for this, but many hypothesize the North American video game market crash certainly didn’t help. Fewer people were getting games as there was a lot of drivel out there at the time. There were also a lot of consoles out there. Sure most of us remember Atari 2600, Colecovision, and Intellivision. Thanks to the wealth of info out there today many of us wish we had maybe gotten a Vectrex. But ask the average person about an underlooked good system like the Magnavox Odyssey 2, and you’ll get a blank stare. Ask about the Emerson Arcadia 2001 and they may start wondering if you’re from another world. Or on a watchlist.

 

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These days, people worry if a fourth contender tries to enter the console market. Well, back in 1983 there were far more than four video game systems on store shelves. And most of them looked about the same in what they could do. Even the ones that looked better still had very similar games on them. There were also a lot of tiny upstarts throwing whatever they could at the wall to see what would stick.

 

And the home computers were running the same games at a higher fidelity, running their own deeper experiences the consoles didn’t have the features to handle, and they were getting down to similar prices. Before long everything would implode and Mario Bros. was one game that for at least a few people got lost in the shuffle. Some of this was felt in arcades too. While I can remember seeing Donkey Kong, and Donkey Kong Jr. among the machine selection at Chuck E. Cheese, I really only remember seeing Mario Bros. at Riverside Park when the family went to Agawam, MA. on a summer day. (It’s Six Flags New England now.)

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My first experience with the Atari 2600 version was at a friend’s. They had the Atari 2600 Jr. as well as an NES. I had never seen it before. But there it was. And while it isn’t the prettiest version of the game, it nails most of the gameplay down. There are a couple of tiny things missing like the ability to jump on the POW block. But the most important stuff is there. I’d imagine a lot of people’s first experience with a Mario game was Super Mario Bros. if it hadn’t been Donkey Kong. The NES was a juggernaut largely in part because of it. And it’s much more vast, and a more complex game compared to regular Mario Bros. But here’s the thing. Everyone who has played Super Mario Bros. but not Mario Bros. Should play Mario Bros. And before everybody jumps down my throat just hear me out.

First of all, it’s a really fun game. One that has a great sense of risk vs. reward. It’s also quite competitive when you get a second player as Mario and Luigi have to rally to outscore one another. It even can be dastardly when you’re intentionally bumping your opponent into enemies to stay alive longer. But more importantly than that, many of the things you love about Super Mario Bros. began here. Shellcreepers were the forebears to the Koopas. Coins are a big part of both games. and it got the ball rolling on Mario’s platforming style. There will be plenty of times you find yourself in situations where pixel-perfect jumps and timing are the only way to get out of hot water.

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Mario Bros. is also where the earliest series’ jumping physics got started. While not the same as in the Super Mario Bros. trilogy on the NES, they are similar. You can see what that classic bump and jump gameplay was built upon. Most of the Super Mario games feature bonus stages and even those are in Mario Bros. in the form of coin stages. Speaking of coins, they make that familiar sound whenever you collect them. But in Mario Bros.,  you had better get all of them if you want that sweet stack of bonus round points. And Mario Bros. even proves itself a viable stage in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Even more so than Donkey Kong’s 75m stage.

It’s a game that is important on so many levels and is sadly overshadowed by historical factors and future Mario releases. Thankfully, Nintendo often reminds us of this with its presence in newer releases. And there is a slew of ways to play it today. Any number of the aforementioned home ports are out there for collectors to seek out. And you can still get the arcade version on the Nintendo Switch through the e-shop. The Nintendo Online service also includes sone NES and Super NES ROMs you can download at no additional charge. One of those games is the NES port of Mario Bros. So if you own a Switch, and have been considering paying the annual $20 to play against your friends in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe or Splatoon 2, you’ll also be able to check out NES Mario Bros. without having to track down the original Game Pak.

In any case, the next time you find yourself in a conversation about important Super Mario moments, remember that between chasing down a gorilla to save his ex-girlfriend and chasing down a dragon-turtle to save his current one, Mario ran a successful plumbing business with his brother Luigi. And it was during those years he gained the skills he needed to save the Mushroom Kingdom hundreds of times over.

Sydney Hunter & The Curse Of The Mayan Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

SNK 40th Anniversary Collection Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

RAD RODGERS Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

RadRodgersVisuals

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

RadRodgersBugged

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

Final Score: 7 out of 10

SENNHEISER GSP 500 Headset Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GSP500Jack

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 10 out of 10

Valfaris Review

ValfarisTitle

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

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

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

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

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

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

ValfarisFirstStage

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

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

 

ValfarisNPC

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

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

ValfarisAutoScroller

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

ValfarisUpgrades

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

ValfarisACESHIGH

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

ValfarisFatalities

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

ValfarisBoss

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10

ION FURY Review

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

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

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

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

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

IONFURYTeens

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

IONFURYSpiders

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

IONFURYJump

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

IONFURYReflection

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

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

IONFURYMonsters

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

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

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

IONFURYApogee

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

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

IONFURYComic

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Black Jewel Review

BTBlackJewelTitle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BTBlackJewelGameOver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Earth Defense Force 4.1 Review

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Sometimes you have a rather hectic day. When you get home you want to play a game. But you want to play a game that doesn’t require a lot of detective work or puzzle solving. You just want something fun. In many ways, that’s what this series really is. Starting way back on the PlayStation 2 with Monster Attack, and Global Defense Force this is a line of games that sees you shooting waves of creatures.

PROS: A lot of old-school arcade action. Camp.

CONS: It could become monotonous for some players.

EDF!: You will hear this war cry constantly.

Originally released as Earth Defense Force 2025 on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360,  4.1 is an updated re-release for the PlayStation 4 that later came to Microsoft Windows via storefronts like Steam. It has everything EDF 2025 did, plus some bonus content. And on top of that, there were some DLC missions released one can buy if they wish. But there are a lot of stages in the base game to cut your teeth on.

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So what is the objective in EDF 4.1? As is the case in the rest of the series, you’ll be tasked with entering large maps and killing waves of monsters. Frankly, the game controls like a champ. Everything is pretty brisk, smooth, and responsive to boot. Especially on the Windows version which allows you to play it with a keyboard and mouse.

Over the course of 89 missions or so you’ll be tasked with gunning down, incinerating, and destroying thousands of giant insects, robots, and more. Generally, that’s what each mission boils down to. Going into one of the game’s 16 maps, and killing the biggest hordes you’ve seen this side of Serious Sam. But where Serious Sam has a path in each level with a horde/power-ups/horde cycle it also lets you spend hours hunting for secrets in any given level. EDF veers even more toward classic golden age arcade games in its play. It’s fast, and constantly throwing things at you like Robotron 2084, but then has a bunch of Role-Playing elements to keep things fresh.

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For instance, the game has three classes from the outset with one appearing later. You can be a Ranger, which plays a lot like the characters in most First, and Third-Person Shooters. On foot, blowing away monsters. There’s also the Wing Diver who gets a jetpack, and laser weapons. She can be very effective. However, it takes some time getting used to dashing around. She also has limited time she can fly around with the jetpack before having to land and recharge it.

From there you have the Fencer who is a heavy weapons expert. This class has a risk/reward element due to the expanded might, but complexity, and slower speed. Finally, you have the Air Raider who can call in pilotable vehicles, forcefields, and healing stations.

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Each class has several weapons to choose from in the fight against the threats. But here is where the game sinks its claws into you: You have to get the new weapons by finding them as drops when killing monsters. Moreover, the best weapons are more commonplace on higher difficulty settings. So to get the best gear for later missions you’ll want to play the first few on tougher settings. This way you have a leg up on the tougher ones.

But where the game really shines is in the multiplayer options. You can play the game in split-screen, or you can play the game online. The game was clearly meant for multiplayer as the different classes can complement each other when coming up with a strategy in any given level. The Wing Diver can be useful against the areal enemies while the other classes can deal with ground threats. It’s much easier to coordinate battle plans with friends than it is trying to get the NPC Allies to do their jobs.

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While EDF isn’t the best looking game out there, it does look really nice. The maps are large and relatively expansive. The textures are fairly sharp, and while the geometry may not match that of other contemporary titles it does allow for better performance. Even my aging computer ran the game maxed out, at a relatively high frame rate. The audio department is more of a mixed bag. Most of the music is standard fare, but the sound effects and voice samples are quite good. Some of it comes off a little hokey at times, but that just plays into the Kaiju theme.

Really this game can be quite a lot of fun. Especially when you have a few friends to play it with. It might not be the deepest experience as you’re going to do variations of the same thing most of the time. But it does mix it up quite a bit with the focus on multiple enemy types, and grinding away to better gear. That said, it isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea because it can get a little repetitive. Especially for those who choose to go it alone. Still, it is fun enough to recommend. If you’re easily distracted you’ll want to play it in short bursts. Nevertheless, as time goes on and you open up more content you’ll likely find yourself going back to it, shouting your war cry with your fellow brethren.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

GATO ROBOTO Review

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Like the term or not, Metroidvania games have seen something of a resurgence in the world of independently made games. Large maps where you have to slowly discover and uncover areas through exploration have been around for years. But the best games with this design philosophy have had their own little hooks that make them stand out from the crowd. Axiom Verge, VVVVVV, and The Messenger all had unique takes on the idea. And Gato Roboto also has its own things it brings to the table.

PROS: It’s Metroid, The Nodes Of Yesod, Blaster Master, and Mega Man. With KITTIES!

CONS: Short. Veterans may find their way through even faster.

HUMOR: This game will get some laughs out of you.

Let’s get this out of the way. Gato Roboto is an excellent game. I think most people who buy it will enjoy it immensely. You’ll enjoy the gameplay, laugh at the jokes, and the Undertale inspired character designs are pretty good too. Aesthetically, Gato Roboto also wears the clothes of games played on our IBM PC Compatibles, Apple II’s, Commodore 64’s, Atari 800’s, and ZX Spectrums back in 1984. Outside of a handful of other mentions, most games that take the retro look take inspiration from the NES. So Gato Roboto stands out from the crowd a tad bit more in this regard.

It also helps that everything about this game is so darn cute. It’s like the folks at Doinksoft pretty much knew this was going to have to resonate with the Hallmark Card crowd, and it really does. You play the role of a cat who is on a military vessel with its owner. You, being a seemingly oblivious pet step on a keyboard which causes the navigation system to go off course. This results in a crash getting you and your owner marooned on an alien world. Your owner can’t escape the wrecked ship, so you agree to go do the job they cannot. Fortunately, they know a little bit about the planet and give you some clues.

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Before long, you’ll discover a lab that looks suspiciously like the save stations in Super Metroid. You’ll also find a vehicle that looks suspiciously like the vehicle from Blaster Master. And like the latter, throughout your adventure, there will be times you’ll need to get out of it. The difference is in Gato Roboto you’re entirely defenseless when roaming on foot. These moments have an element of stealth gameplay, where you have to sneak around or approach a situation like a puzzle. When riding around in your vehicle you convert into a tiny kitten themed mech. And much like the Metroid games, you’ll have to find items to give you more powerful weapons, longer health bars, and the ability to go places you previously could not.

It also has a bit of the pre-Metroid exploration games like The Nodes Of Yesod, and The Arc Of Yesod. Those games also had you rolling around a large map for items. But they didn’t scroll. Gato Roboto has some areas like this, where the screen just flips to the next one. And with the art style used, it really fits the motif. Even if it can be jarring with the spots that do have four-way scrolling.

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If Undertale made you laugh, it will be apparent to you that Toby Fox was an inspiration here. There is a lot of similar humor here. Characters balk at certain interactions. They’ll make references that are just vague enough that the intended audience gets them. And there are a few spots where they go the opposite direction with reference humor to make sure everyone gets the gag. They also throw in some stuff that only pet owners or the friends or relatives of pet owners will get.

Through it all, everything feels pretty tight. There aren’t too many moments where you’ll die and wonder why. That said, things do feel different when exploring the world on foot than they do when you’re piloting a vehicle. You have a little bit more momentum when scrambling around on four legs. You have a different arc and sense of gravity when jumping. There are also places you can go on foot that you can’t when piloting your mech. It all feels really good.

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Boss fights usually feel right out of the Metroid games. Though there are a few that will hearken back to the NES Mega Man games. One fight, in particular, reminded me of a very specific Sonic The Hedgehog fight. While another reminded me of playing Super R-Type. So there are a number of old-school references geezers like me can enjoy along with the contemporary ones those I have a decade on will love as well.

Throughout it all, the audio soundtrack complements it well. If I had any complaints about it, there isn’t any particular tune that really stood out to me. Nothing that I know will make me go “I know this was from Gato Roboto!” years from now. But there’s nothing here that will feel out of place.

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The only thing I feel that some people won’t like is just how short it can feel. My first playthrough was done in less than four hours. I found nearly 75% of all of the items in the process. By contrast, I probably put a good 20 hours into The Messenger, and Axiom Verge each. Be that as it may, Gato Roboto’s vehicle mechanic and collectibles do feel unique from other exploration games. It’s also a good candidate for speed running. In fact, one of its achievements on Steam is centered around it. As for the collectibles, you can find up to 14 hidden cartridges in the game’s map. If you manage to get them, they’ll allow you to change the color scheme from black and white graphics to other two-toned visual solutions. But more importantly, finding them all will allow an NPC to give you better equipment. If you go for a 100% completion run this might extend that playtime a bit. Especially if you decide to do that before trying to speed run the game or getting through it without going for the better items.

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In conclusion, Gato Roboto does do enough to set itself apart from other Metroidvania style games. It’s very funny, has some challenging bosses, and some of the items can be pretty tough to get. I just wish it could have been just a little bit longer. On the other hand, a good game should leave you wanting more. Gato Roboto is a good game. One you ought to check out. Especially if you’ve already played some of its acclaimed contemporaries. And even if you haven’t, you’ll still likely enjoy it a lot. Especially if you like to get legitimate moments of comic relief in your games. Gato Roboto is one stray worth taking in.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.