Tag Archives: Platformer

Freedom Planet Review

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Sonic The Hedgehog. He’s seen a number of ups, and downs over the years. The consensus seems to be his earliest adventures on the Sega Genesis, Sega CD, Sega Master System, and Game Gear were his greatest glory days. Fast, frantic, platforming action that involved any number of paths to victory. But after the Dreamcast faded into obscurity Sonic went in all kinds of directions. Many of them terrible. A few of them average, and a few that were pretty good. But I’m not here to talk about Sonic this time.

PROS: Really amazing pixel art, chip tunes, and the game play you remember.

CONS: The shortcomings you remember. Padding.

BIKES: If running fast isn’t enough you can speed around like Chris Pine in Star Trek.

When Sonic The Hedgehog was released it was only a matter of time before the imitators would come about. People dump on Bubsy, but that game was far from the worst clone. Awesome Possum, Aero The Acrobat, even The Road Runner had a Sonic inspired game. So with so many others that didn’t hit the mark, what makes this game stand out in the sea of Sonic contenders?

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For starters, Freedom Planet absolutely nails the feeling of Sonic The Hedgehog. The physics, the sense of speed, all of it. If you’re a big Sonic fan who longs for a return to the 16-bit glory days of yesteryear, buy it. I could end it there. I’m serious. This is bar none, one of the best Sonic clones you can get. But there are a lot of things that set it apart from its biggest inspiration.

Freedom Planet has a deeper, darker, storyline than the Sonic games. Most of the Sonic games feature Dr. Robotnik/Eggman imprisoning animals, stealing emeralds, and holding the world hostage. Freedom Planet instead involves a much more detailed plot. It opens up with a King being killed by a despot in cold blood in front of his son. Who is then taken hostage, and forced to fight for the despot. It wasn’t something I was expecting going into this. But it got my attention for sure.  From there you discover that there is an all-powerful stone that three kingdoms on the planet safeguard, and of course the despot wants it for himself.

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From here the game opens up, and you can choose to play either an adventure mode or a standard mode. Playing the adventure mode, will let you experience cut scenes, and the stages are played in different orders depending on which of the three characters you choose. Going with the standard mode eschews the cut scenes, and you play every stage in order. Like a traditional platformer from the era the game pays homage to.

The interesting thing with the adventure mode is that you’ll get a slightly different experience each time you play through it. That’s because the game is played through the eyes of each character. The three characters are: Carol, a green wild cat. Lilac, a purple dragon, and Milla (an unlockable character), a dog. Each of the characters has their own attacks, and abilities making each play through a little bit different. Carol has some speedy punches, and kicks. She can also ride a motorcycle if you find gas can power ups. Lilac has a useful double jump. Milla has a shield, and can throw cubes.

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Once you start playing though you will immediately be reminded of Sega’s most popular mascot platformer. The same sense of speed. The same loops, twirls, and crazy tracks fill the game’s 14 stages. With all of the collectibles, 1-Ups, power ups, and health items in each of them you can opt to try to find everything, or you can try to clear everything as fast as possible. I know I’ve waxed on about how many Sonic influences there are, but the game also has a surprising number of similarities to Capcom’s Mega Man X series too. This becomes apparent in the game’s combat, and enemy designs. Instead of jumping on bad guys to defeat them, you’ll punch, kick, or hit them several times to take them out. Freedom Planet is also a big fan of putting in multipart stages, and mini-bosses. Some of these are really imposing, and lead you to believe you’re at the end of a stage. Only to discover you still have a way to go.

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Boss fights themselves are grandiose in Freedom Planet. These moments feel more like playing an arcade beat ’em up than they do a platformer. Although you’ll discover they have attack patterns, again in the vein of a Mega Man X title. But some of these, especially toward the end of the game can be really impressive in both challenge, and visual flair.

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Freedom Planet also has the courtesy to grant players four different difficulty levels. If you’re absolutely horrible at this sort of platformer, or even platformers in general the Casual setting is for you. It is nearly impossible to lose a life if you’re even remotely good at these kinds of games. But from there you have Easy, Medium, and Hard difficulty settings. With the latter going very much into the “Get good!” end of things. Aesthetically, everything in the game is beautiful. Galaxy Trail’s pixel artists should be commended for just how well they’ve recreated the look of games of the early 90’s. As you play through this one, you’ll be constantly reminded of those days on the Genesis, and Super NES. It really is a beautiful game to look at. The soundtrack is just as good, going for the twinge lo-fi synth of the Sega Genesis, and early computer sound cards like the AdLib. The tunes themselves are filled with hooks, and melodies you’ll want to hum along to. If you want a game that will satisfy your nostalgia, while giving you something new, this fits the bill.

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There are also some other small galleries you can visit when not playing the main game. Throughout the main game are cards you can find, and these will unlock sound files, songs from the soundtrack, and concept art in these galleries. Not something that the average player might get into. But for players who become big fans of the story, characters, and lore, it gives an incentive to replay the game a few times.

Of course, I did have a few minor complaints with this one that may be bigger concerns for someone else. First off, because it adheres so closely to many of Sonic The Hedgehog’s rules it has some of the annoyances. There are times you’ll have to make blind jumps, only to land on an enemy or a hazard. This can lead to some moments of trial, and error. While not a major problem that ruins the game, Some might feel it detracts from an otherwise enjoyable experience.

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Another issue is near the end of the game there is a shoot ’em up stage, and it doesn’t feel up to the same standard as the rest of the game. The bigger issue is there is no checkpoint after completing it. It is considered a part of the following stage, which is a pretty long one. So if you run out of lives, shut off the game, and come back to it later you’ll have to play the entire shmup part again. So unfortunately, instead of feeling like some variety, it ends up feeling like padding. Again, not a problem that makes the game unplayable by any means. But it really could have used a checkpoint at the end.

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Overall though, Freedom Planet is a wonderful platformer. It feels like an homage to Sonic, and Mega Man X while also being unique enough to stand on its own. It has some of those mechanics, but it adds enough of its own original ideas, and tweaks thus avoiding becoming a forgettable wannabe. In fact, the game did well enough when it launched three years ago that a sequel is around the corner. So whether you play it on the Wii U, PC, or the recent release on the PS4 you won’t regret it.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Jumpman Review

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You wouldn’t know it at face value, but you’re on a mission to defuse bombs on another world. A world of bombs, killer robots, and a lethal pixel. In addition to a host of other horrific adversaries. It all sounds like a side scrolling action platformer or run ‘n gun. But you’d be wrong. Jumpman is one of the strangest, yet greatest puzzle games ever made. Debuting on the Atari 8-bit family of computers, it appeared on the Commodore 64 soon after, along with the IBM PC, and Apple II.

PROS: Excellent gameplay. Fun animation. Great musical numbers.

CONS: Bland graphics.

APOGEE: The Duke Nukem publisher felt the ire of Epyx.

Jumpman may seem a bit esoteric today, but there was a time when he was almost as popular as Bomberman. That’s because he starred in two of the most fun arcade puzzle games to ever grace a computer screen. As I mentioned at the start, the storyline of the game doesn’t accurately describe what is going on at face value. You really have to start playing the game before you realize that it does.

The goal of Jumpman is easy to grasp. Defuse all of the bombs in the level before losing all of your lives for big points. If you manage to do this, you’ll move onto the next level. You’ll also get bonus points for having more Jumpmen in reserve. So a high performance level is key. Created by Randy Glover, and released by Epyx, there is a wonderful use of the easy to learn, lifetime to master principles behind many great games.

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The game eases you in, with a couple of pretty simple to understand levels. You’ll go about your goal of defusing bombs, and slowly notice changes to a given stage. Pieces of scenery disappear, creating new gaps to jump over. A floating pixel will chase you down, and kill you if you get in its line of sight. But the obstacles only increase as you complete levels. It isn’t long before you see killer robots that change position every time you defuse a bomb. Or a plethora of bombs falling from the sky. Or flying saucers. Or rabid bats. Sometimes the challenges aren’t adversaries. Sometimes they’re things like moving ladders or other scenery.

Every one of these attempts to impede you can be overcome with enough practice. Over time, you begin to recognize patterns, and figure out what you’re supposed to do. But it doesn’t become a cakewalk, because actually doing what you’re supposed to still requires dexterity. When you clear a level, you’ll hear one of a multitude of cheery carnival tunes. These go along with the circus-like feel of the game’s introduction animation.

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Jumpman gives you nine lives to get through the stages. You can choose from several difficulty settings which will start at a stage where the appropriate difficulty jump occurs. You can also select Grand Loop which does all 30 levels in a row. Or you can choose the Randomizer, which plays the levels in a random order. Beyond that, you can also choose a game speed. The center value of 4 will run the game at the standard speed. The max speed of 8 is probably too fast for all but the most devoted player, and the minimum speed of 1 makes the game exceptionally slow. The speed setting is a nice option though because it can make the game a bit more interesting. The game can also be played by up to four players alternating turns.

Visually, Jumpman isn’t much to look at.  stages are made of simple shapes, and a handful of colors. Jumpman himself, is little more than a stick figure. But the gameplay in Jumpman is amazing. Moving about the levels is very smooth, and the controls are tight. One interesting thing the game does is allow Jumpman to climb anything he touches. If you go for a jump, and your hand nabs part of the scenery, you’ll climb it! There are also some cool navigational variables thrown in, in the form of ropes. Green ropes can only be climbed up, while blue ropes can only be climbed down. Between this, and the other mechanics introduced through enemy character types Jumpman becomes surprisingly deep for such a simple game.

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There are a few minor differences between the different versions of Jumpman. The original Atari 400/800 version features some really slick transition animations between levels as you clear them. It also has a pretty cool stage destruction sequence when you run out of lives, and get a Game Over.  The Commodore 64 version has a little bit more detail in the graphics department. It gives our hero a shirt, and pants through some simple colors. The music sounds a tiny bit better too. It is missing the stage transitions, and if you lose you don’t see the level explode. Instead, you get a harmonious musical number as the backgrounds, and characters slowly become the same color.

Over on the Apple II, you won’t see the transitions. Visually, it’s somewhere between the Atari, and Commodore computers. It has the Commodore’s background colors, but the Atari’s blank Jumpman. The IBM PC port was outsourced to another developer. It pretty much plays the same as the other versions although the terrible PC speaker sound, and CGA color scheme make it the worst in terms of visuals, and sound.

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Jumpman was also followed up by Jumpman Junior, which is really a companion version of the game. It was made for Commodore 64, and Atari 8-bit users who didn’t have a 5.25″ Floppy drive. Being a cartridge game makes it one of the more sought after games for collectors. It’s pretty much exactly the same game as Jumpman, except it has only 12 stages. At the time cartridges didn’t have as much storage capacity as the floppies, and cassettes did. Still, for many retro fans,  it isn’t the full Jumpman experience unless you have both games. It was never available for other computer formats, although it was ported to the Colecovision.

Long after Randy Glover left the game industry, A programmer named Dave Sharpless ported the game, and it’s expandalone to MS-DOS under the title Jumpman Lives! The game was published by Apogee in 1991. The thing is, that while Epyx had long been a shell of its former self, it was still around. The remake caught the ire of Epyx, and Apogee would cease selling it immediately. Epyx wouldn’t be around much longer though, after getting out of bankruptcy, and focusing on Atari Lynx development the company was sold off, and dissolved.  Jumpman Lives! Is a fairly rare computer game as a result.

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In the end, Jumpman, and Jumpman Jr. are games that really deserve more recognition than they get. At least when compared with other retro games. Things may look more like a carnival than a space station, and the bombs may look more like flowers. But once you get past the rudimentary look of everything you’ll be engrossed in one of the most addictive puzzlers of all time. If you can find the original floppy disk, the cartridge based companion edition, or even the unlicensed, unofficial, Apogee remake, give it a go. Jumpman Junior was also included in the C64 DTV, as well as the recent Colecovision Flashback by AtGames. So if you don’t have one of these old computers or consoles, there are other legitimate ways to add this masterful game to your collection in some capacity.

Final Score: 9 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.

Psycho Fox Review

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Platformers have always had a presence in gaming. From Donkey Kong, to Super Mario Bros., to the Giana Sisters to Sonic, there has been no shortage of bump, and jump fun. In the 80’s, and 90’s platformers were one of the most popular genres. Nearly every publisher at the time tried their hand at making platformers. Vic Tokai was one of them.

PROS: Great graphics. Wonderful music. Nice use of physics.

CONS: Controls take a bit of getting used to.

CONNECTIONS: There are two seemingly unrelated games connected to Psycho Fox.

Vic Tokai had one cult hit on the NES. Kid Kool was loosely based on a celebrity, and it starred a kid who ran, and jumped his way to victory. But it did do one thing that made it stand out from other platformers of the time, and that is physics. You had to get a running start to get anywhere in the game. While even Super Mario Bros. had elements of getting places with masterfully running, Kid Kool made it the sole focus. But in doing so, Kid Kool became one of the most despised games of its time. It had many blind jumps that resulted in a lot of restarts, it didn’t have the best collision detection, and many cheap deaths.

Enter the Sega Master System. Vic Tokai would bring about a new game to Sega’s 8-bit offering, using the lessons learned from the poor reception of Kid Kool. In Psycho Fox you play as a fox who is trying to save the world from an evil fox named Madfox Daimyojin. At a first glance, you might think this game looks, a bit more Alex Kidd, than Kid Kool. But stick with it, and you’ll find it is quite a fun, and brutally hard game at the same time.

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As we’ve established, Fox has to run, and jump his way to victory. But the game feels a bit more refined. You’re still going to need to get running starts, and time jumps. But stages don’t feel quite as much like a guessing game. That’s because in this game, there are a couple of paths you can take. You can take a high route, or a low route. Taking the higher paths will usually lead you to secrets, and more opportunities to speed. The lower routes are usually a little bit easier, and don’t require quite as many jumps of faith. But there are also more enemy encounters in some stages when taking the lower path.

The biggest secrets are warp zones. Many platformers over the years have had secret ways to skip ahead. But in Psycho Fox you have to not only discover the area it resides, but you have to literally punch a hole in the level. Once done, you can climb into the hole to cut ahead. Beyond trying to find the secret warp zones, another improvement on the formula set up in Kid Kool, are the bonus characters.  Like Kid Kool, you can find an animal helper who acts as an extra hit point, and a boomerang. Defeating enemies, and finding eggs will often give you items. Usually you’ll find money. But sometimes you’ll find sticks, and of course the aforementioned helper.

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Here’s the thing. You’ll want to hang onto the sticks you pick up. Because you can control different characters with them. Pressing pause on the Master System will bring up an inventory screen, where you can use your sticks to turn into one of three other characters. A monkey, a tiger, or a hippopotamus. Each of these has added abilities over using the fox. The monkey can jump higher. The tiger can run faster. The hippo can break through certain objects.

At the end of every stage you get put into a lottery depending on your financial collection. You’ll bet, and guess a path. Guess correctly, and you’ll win items. Guess wrong, and you won’t have a bonus going into the following stage. Stages are broken up into seven worlds. Each of these has three stages in it, the end of which culminates in a boss battle.  Most bosses break down into a routine of luring the boss into a position, and then using a background item to damage them. Others play a little more traditionally with you having to throw yourself on top of them a number of times to defeat them.

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Psycho Fox has a very similar art style to Kid Kool, sharing some of the same character sprites, as well as some of the items in the stages. But Psycho Fox also looks significantly better. The colors pop more, and things look crisp. Some of this is likely due to the graphical quality the SMS has over the NES. But there are other NES games that still look better than this one. The point is it is a big improvement over Kid Kool’s visuals.

Psycho Fox also has a very catchy, hook ridden soundtrack. The tunes may not be quite as memorable as a Mario or Sonic soundtrack, but it’s very good. It’s bouncy, optimistic, and you’ll be humming along with it in no time. The rest of the sound is nothing to write about home though. Just the standard boops, and beeps many games of the era had. But again, the songs are so good, you won’t really pay any mind to it.

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All of this said, Psycho Fox still has one area that may drive some folks crazy, and that is the high level of difficulty. As I’ve said before, this game is hard. Most of the challenge is fair, but there are still moments where you’ll have to take a blind jump, landing you on an indestructible enemy, or in a bottomless pit. It is by far, not an impossible game, and you’ll be able to clear it if you can resolve to approach it with patience. But sometimes the trial, and error feeling can creep in, and sap some of the fun. It is still a big improvement over Kid Kool though, and is something that is manages to be pretty decent.

As a platformer Psycho Fox isn’t a great game, but it is better than average. It doesn’t hit the lofty levels of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. or Sega’s own Sonic The Hedgehog. But it also doesn’t  crash, and burn the way many nefarious examples have. It isn’t Bubsy 3D bad. It isn’t Awesome Possum bad. Being slightly above average isn’t a bad thing. It just means there are better titles to get first. But Psycho Fox is also a Master System game, a console where the best platformers starred Alex Kidd, and Sonic. There wasn’t much else. Especially not in the USA. So if you collect for the Sega Master System you’ll probably want to check out Psycho Fox anyway. Just keep in mind that it isn’t a common game, and that it isn’t cheap. But if you already have all of the Alex Kidd games, or you find a bargain, Psycho Fox is still worth checking out.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

Werewolf: The Last Warrior Review

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Last week I looked at a rare, expensive, and weird shmup from Meldac on the NES. Well the Nintendo Entertainment System was home to many oddball ideas. As we get closer to Retro World Expo, I thought I’d dig through my collection for another NES game to showcase. Werewolf: The Last Warrior is not only a little strange. It’s also very cool, and is a game every NES collector, and owner should play.

PROS: Graphics, and sound. Very challenging.

CONS: Some will find it too challenging. This is definitely NES Hard.

RISE FROM YOUR GRAVE: Aside from one similarity it’s nothing like Sega’s Altered Beast.

Werewolf: The Last Warrior is awesome. You play a human who collects items, and then gets to turn into a werewolf, and mess people up. I know I’ve just described Altered Beast. But this is nothing like Sega’s arcade cab turned Genesis launch title. Because it isn’t a beat ’em up game. It’s an action platformer.

But many of the best NES Game Paks were action platformers. In fact many of the best video games of the era were action platformers. So what sets Werewolf apart from the pack? (I think I just made a pun.) A number of things. Right away one thinks of the RISE FROM YOUR GRAVE moments. Throughout the game you’ll find power ups that beef you up, grow your attack power, and of course let you be a werewolf.

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As a werewolf, you do a lot more damage to enemies, and you can do cool stuff like climb walls, do awesome backflips, and more. You become the werewolf by collecting enough red *W* symbols you find. They’re often hidden on pedestals you have to punch. You can actually become a super werewolf that the game names Warwolf. You can become Warwolf by finding enough orbs. Giving you an even bigger reminder that Altered Beast is a thing.

When you’re a super werewolf, you’re practically unstoppable. The game instantly feels like a Dolph Lundgren movie. You dispatch enemies quickly. You can super jump into areas you couldn’t before. But there is a kryptonite to your furry Superman. They’re blue colored *W* symbols. If you touch one you’ll go back to being a human.

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You do not want to be a human for very long in Werewolf. Everything, no matter how weak, will ultimately kick your ass. The game throws a ton of stuff at you. The roster of enemies on display is actually pretty large, even if they aren’t necessarily the most original. You’ll run into ninjas, goons reminiscent of the ones found in Rolling Thunder, soldiers, bad guys with jetpacks, and more.

Every one of the game’s five stages are broken up into two parts. Sometimes they’ll be straight forward. Other times they’ll be a maze you have to explore your way out of. At the end of the first part of any given stage you’ll fight a mini boss who kind of resembles Street Fighter’s Zangief. After you defeat him, you’ll move onto the second half. If you can beat the second part of the stage, you’ll go on to fight the boss.

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Each of the five stages also has something kind of archaic about them. The first time you play it you’ll try punching any where a power up may be, and this is how you’ll most often hit a blue power down, and screw yourself over. There are also some holes in the cut scenes you can nitpick. The story is that a mad scientist named Dr. Faryan has assembled a group of super-villains to take over the world, and you have to stop them. It’s the paper-thin B-movie plot you’d expect, but it isn’t air tight. For instance, in one scene you climb up the right side of a building to chase a Juggernaut knock off. The next portion of the stage you move left, and have to jump off of the left side. Yet the following cut scene has you falling off of the same side you climbed!

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Nitpicking  aside, the game is really challenging thanks to the cues it takes from Castlevania. It has the same slow, plodding movement as that game, and a lot of enemies showing up right when you need to make a pivotal jump. Blend that with some of the moments where the game kind of expects you to know to do something when it hasn’t shown you how, and it can get frustrating. That’s really the only major criticism here. Werewolf can be quite cryptic at times, and it will take you many attempts at it to figure things out. Especially if you manage to find the game cartridge, but not a manual.

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And no, it isn’t the biggest deal in an age where you can pretty much run an internet search for instructions, or a walk-through. But it does make one wonder what the thought process was when putting the game together. Still, Werewolf is a really enjoyable game in spite of the difficulty, and being sometimes unclear. The soundtrack isn’t particularly long, but the handful of chip tunes are really thumping speed metal send ups, with catchy melodic hooks. Which goes with stabbing jet pack wearing mercenaries,  countless henchmen, and ninjas very well. Just make sure you’re grabbing not just health, from fallen enemies, and mystery places. Grab any hourglass too. Each stage has a time limit after all, piling even more pressure onto you in this high difficulty contest.

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Between the music, mostly solid platforming, and the detailed sprite work on display it is one of the more engrossing games in the NES library. I’m honestly surprised it doesn’t get as much attention as some of the more expensive games of its ilk these days. If you’re collecting NES games, and have been eyeing stuff like Power Blade, and Vice: Project Doom, you should have this on your radar. It isn’t quite as polished as V:PD. There are some times where the cryptic nature forces a restart. But it is still a terrific game nonetheless.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Pitfall! Review

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To some, this is going to seem pointless. To others, there may be a bit of intrigue. David Crane was one of the original pioneers at Activision. Long before it was the behemoth it is today. It started life, as one of the original indie studios. Looking to come up with something original on the biggest console of the early 80’s, Pitfall! became one of the biggest hits to ever grace a system of the era.

PROS: A classic that still holds up today.

CONS: Some versions don’t have the most responsive controls.

GATORS: Nearly four decades later, they’re still one of gaming’s most nefarious enemies.

Pitfall! was a smash hit. It spawned numerous product tie-ins, and even a Saturday morning cartoon. When you play it, it is easy to see why. The setting was something different. Instead of a high-action arcade game, Pitfall! is a platformer that takes place in a jungle. You play as Pitfall Harry, and his goal is very simple. You need to find 32 treasures within a half-hour. On three lives.

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The thing is, while your goal can easily be surmised in a sentence, actually doing so is very difficult. There are a lot of traps, and obstacles set up to impede or completely derail your progress. Barrels slow you down, most everything else will kill you. Unattended camp fires, snakes, all add up to the pressure. Two of the game’s key enemies are some of the most iconic. The trademark scorpions, and the alligators. You can cross lakes by jumping on their heads when their mouths are closed. If they’re open, you’re getting eaten, unless you happen to land on their eyes. Scorpions show up in the underground areas, and take a lot of practice jumping over.

Each screen presents you with a challenge to overcome. Some are non-existent, displaying only a couple of holes, and a ladder. Others are the aforementioned lakes, tar pits, and deadly creatures. There are no maps. You have to go out on your own, exploring the jungle screens until you find a treasure. Gold bars, silver bars, rings, bags of money, all waiting to be claimed.You’ll notice that there aren’t any weapons, or attacks in this game. The only thing you’re doing is running, jumping, climbing ladders, and swinging on the occasional vine. Which lets out a chip tune of the Tarzan chant.

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But despite the fact you’re really only given two commands, you’ll find the game has a bit of complexity. Aside from the challenges of the many traps, is the use of the underground tunnel system. Using the underground paths will take you three screens left or right, rather than the usual one. There are also brick walls placed to keep players from abusing this fact. This also brings about an overall puzzle to the game: Finding the proper path. You have only thirty minutes to clear the game. So unless you’re going to look for a walk through online, you’re going to play the game many times to figure it out. Even once you figure it out, it doesn’t make the game easy to complete. You still have to make each jump count.

But the rabbit hole goes even deeper. Because every treasure type you collect gives you its own specific point value. Every mistake you make that doesn’t cost you lives, costs you points. Fall down a pit, lose points. Touch a barrel, lose points. This means to be truly great at Pitfall! Not only must you have a shot at beating the game, you must have a shot at beating it without making any mistakes. Moreover, as quickly as possible. This makes the game one of the earliest speed runnable games in video games. In fact, Activision, Imagic, and others gave out physical rewards to players who could prove themselves contenders. In the case of Pitfall! The best players were sent exclusive iron on patches.  These can fetch a fair amount online when they turn up. In any case, getting a perfect score of 114,000 is easier said than done.

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The Atari 2600 original version of Pitfall! is probably the most impressive due to all of the limitations David Crane worked around to bring the game to life. In his GDC panel six years ago he talked about them, and the 1,000 hours of work it took to make. Even if you’re not technically proficient it is a fascinating story to hear.  The 2600 version also plays spectacularly well, has very responsive controls, and is easily one of the best games on the system.

But there were other versions that came after. The Intellivision port is very similar, with a minor bump in graphical fidelity. It retains nearly everything from the 2600 version, though the Intellivision controller is a bit stiff, making some of those split-second timings a bit more difficult to adhere to. As such the game is among the hardest versions. Though it is entirely possible to complete with enough determination.

The Colecovision version has similar controller issues to the Intellivision version, although the visuals are even bumped up more. This version was also used as a reference for the MSX computer port. The Commodore 64 version also looks similar to the Coleco port. But the C64 version has a different color palette, better sound, and more responsive controls. Mainly because it feels similar to the Atari 2600 original.

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The game also ended up on the Atari 400/800 computers, and the 5200 console. These look almost identical to each other. The game controls better on the former, mainly because of the 5200’s notorious controller problems. Finally, there was also a release on the Apple II computer. But despite the improvements some of the other versions add in the graphics, or sound departments, the 2600 version seems to have the most responsive controls. It’s also the most common version, making it the least expensive version. It has also been re-released several times over the last 30 years. There were a few Activision Atari 2600 game collections that included the game.

Pitfall! is a true classic that everyone who loves video games should play. It’s as important to the hobby as Space Invaders, Pac-Man, or even Super Mario Bros. are. While later games in the franchise may have tarnished its branding, The original remains among some of the best platformers ever made, with its emphasis on treasure hunting, pixel-perfect timing, and inadvertently becoming one of the earliest examples of speed runs. It’s a timeless game for good reason.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Jet Gunner Review

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These days it isn’t hard to find a game with graphics inspired by the Nintendo Entertainment System. Some of them are terrible, others are pretty great, and some fall somewhere in between. Jet Gunner is one of the better ones you can add to your Steam library. Because it does give you what it promises, and even goes beyond.

PROS: Nintendo hard. Performs well. Very generous Easter Egg.

CONS: Lack of options.

JETPACKS: May be making a resurgence in games.

Jet Gunner does give you what it promises, an action platformer that will remind you of NES games by Capcom, and Konami. The story is simple. A giant brain controlling the world’s robots has gone mad, and attacked humanity. As the last human in the military you have to single-handedly destroy the robots, and brain. Basically, a B movie level plot that could have been in many NES games.

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Jet Gunner is an action platformer that has the pace of NES Contra, with enemies out of Super C, and Castlevania. It also has the re-spawning enemies, and jumping challenges of Mega Man. Keep in mind when I say this, I don’t mean they’ve lifted any sprites or designs. Rather, that these elements were clearly inspired by those games. Jet Gunner also does a few interesting things with these elements so it doesn’t feel like you’re playing a cobbled together pretender.

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There are sections early on that will keep you on your feet, or off of your feet. Buildings crumble beneath you. Cars try to run you down. Chunks of the scenery fall from above. This game can be ambitious at times. It also has a jetpack mechanic. Double jumping will launch you into the air. Some of the game’s platforming is built around it, putting you through jumping puzzles to get 1-ups, health or weapons.

The weapon variety is actually pretty nice. Again, it will likely remind you of the NES Contra games. There’s a machine gun, a spread gun, a flame thrower, a gun that shoots flaming buzz saws that boomerang, and others. Most of the weapons feel pretty useful except maybe for the spread gun. It shoots a high, and low arc. But nothing straight in front of you. Each gives only a finite amount of ammo though, so you don’t want to shoot these things haphazardly.

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The game also borrows an element from Shatterhand, and that’s giving you random robot helpers. Weapon pickups have two different colored boxes. One color gives you the gun, the other will spawn a robot helper with that weapon. Unlike Shatterhand, you don’t need to collect multiple letter combinations to get them. One box is all you need.

Across the six stages you’ll go through the usual video game locations, cities, jungles, oil refineries, and the like. But again each of them does something different to keep things from getting monotonous. Ironically things can still feel a little monotonous due to the lengths of the stages. Each gives you a lot to see, but go on for six sections each. Every stage has multiple bosses though. Each one of these ranges from a spin on a Contra boss to something creative, and original. When you find the former, you’ll just smile, and remember the stage 1 fortress, or the stage 6 Robot. But when you hit the latter you’ll be amazed, and wonder why every boss couldn’t be on the same caliber. The game also does save your progress after you beat each stage, and you can continue as many times as you want.

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Jet Gunner has a couple of minor bugs, in the vein of things you’d find in some actual NES games. At one point I glitched through a platform on the second stage. They’re very uncommon, and sparse so you won’t really see them very often. The only other complaints I had were the lack of options. You can run the game windowed, or full screen. You can also turn off Vsync to get better performance. But this is one of the rare cases I’d advise you leave it on because everything flickers, and you’ll be running into invisible enemies. You can play with either a keyboard or an Xbox 360 game pad. If you have any other game pad you’ll have to use an external mapping program like Xpadder in order to use it.

The graphics, and sound on display do very well to emulate the feel of an old NES Konami game. It uses a nice palate for backgrounds, and the foreground characters have a fair amount of detail. The characters are all one color though, so they don’t have some of the definition  some old games had. Still, it’s nothing to sneeze at. The music isn’t all that memorable, but it does fit the general theme of the game. Jet Gunner also has one hell of an Easter Egg. If you dig through the game folder, you’ll find it includes a second game. An entire second game. It’s cool to see any developer go the extra mile to give you value. You basically get two games without even realizing it.

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Overall, I’d say Jet Gunner is a worthy addition to your Steam library. It might not be the best looking indie game, but it does give you what is advertised. A challenging action game with NES inspired graphics. It’s fun to play, and while levels can get a bit long-winded, the length is mitigated by the ability to save, and continue. Plus you’re getting a second game included with it without even knowing about it. If you were to give this to someone, you could actually get away with saying “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Rogue Stormers Review

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A number of years ago, Black Forest Games had released Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams, an expansion pack, and a spinoff. These games of course were continuations of the classic cult Commodore 64 game. But back in the days of the sisters, Rainbow Arts had also made one game that wasn’t consigned to cult status.

That game was Turrican, a multi scrolling action platformer. It would go on to be a pretty big deal, with sequels appearing on various computers, and consoles. Including the Super NES. Of course not every game in that series would be a Rainbow Arts game. But the first one was. One of the biggest hooks was its jetpack. Something not a lot of games have done as well. It also came out at a time when action platformers were becoming the norm.

Many innovations were happening with arcade style games. A couple of years earlier Konami would release Contra. Before that Atari would merge fantasy RPG mechanics into a top down action game with Gauntlet. Going back farther than that, we can see Robotron would give us a new control scheme. What does any of this have to do with today’s game? Quite a bit.

PROS: Looks gorgeous. Frantic, and fun combat. Cooperative multiplayer!

CONS: Brutal difficulty.

HUMOR: There’s a lot of subtle, and not so subtle comedy. Stabbygale.

Rogue Stormers started life as an Early Access game on Steam. Originally called Diesel Stormers, Black Forest Games was forced to change its name during production to avoid a lawsuit by a clothing company. But regardless of the name change, the game carved out a niche for itself. It stayed in the beta program for two years where it went over a couple of major revisions.

The final game is a combination of action platforming, and rogue like titles. At first glance some might think it is a Risk Of Rain clone with a bigger budget.(If you’ve never heard of that game CheapBossAttack recently did an excellent review of the PSVita version.) But they would be wrong. Rogue Stormers does have some similarities with that game in that it has waves of bad guys, unlockable characters, and some randomized stages. But from there the similarities really begin to end.

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Rogue Stormers actually has more in common with the games I mentioned earlier. At its heart you’ll be playing a twin stick shooter. You move through the game with one stick, and fire with the second. You’ll also be equipped with a jetpack right out of Turrican that will let you hover for a few seconds after you jump. You can also dash along the ground or in the air. So even though you’ll be in the midst of a lot of chaos, you’re also given a pretty great level of control.

Your character also has their own specific special attack. There are five characters in total. Each one with their own pros, and cons. They act as individual classes as in Gauntlet. Just as that game had different characteristics in each class, so does this game. The first character is given a machine gun, and a damage booster. As you unlock more you’ll find an opera singer with a flamethrower. A bar waitress with a shotgun, a warrior with slime themed specials, and finally a sniper. Not only do these characters have different play styles, but they all have their own personality.

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There are two main ways to play the game, a single player story mode, and then there is a Co-op mode. The story mode tosses you into six stages before a final showdown. As in multiplayer, you’re never going to play the same level twice, even though the objectives are in the same order. The game will put you into a randomly generated stage made up of around 9-12 rooms. Every time you play you’ll have a different mix of rooms but with a unique objective for each mission. Because of this, each stage is its own little adventure. You have to explore the stage thoroughly in order to find the end. You can try to rush your way to the end, but if you aren’t very good at classic action games of yester year it isn’t very advisable.

Going through the levels, you’ll find there are a number of portals in rooms. Step around half way into any given room, and these portals will open up. Hordes of orcs, and other enemy types will attack. You’ll find some reprieve after you defeat any given horde, as you pick up health, and experience points. Each of these is important to collect, and this is also one of the reasons why you may not want to rush to the objective too quickly. The game starts you off with only so much health. Taking hits from anything can damage you, and while some small arms fire may not worry you at first, it does add up. You also only have one life per game. One life. Should you die, you have to go all the way back to the start.

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Fortunately, the levels, and enemy corpses are going to drop experience points. You get to keep your level going after deaths, and restarts. Most importantly, filling an entire experience bar will give you a randomly generated perk. You get to keep these perks even after you die, so eventually the difficulty may become a bit more manageable for you as you progress. I’m not very good, but even after five or so restarts, I managed to have a few. The other thing about the single life system is that it will again, hearken back to the 1980’s arcade game feel. Back then, if you ran out of lives you started over. Oh sure, there may have been the odd game that allowed for continues. But your low score was a sign to everyone that you spent a lot more than a token.

This can be seen as or a good or a bad thing, and there are valid reasons from either viewpoint. On the bad side, one might point out that the lack of continues may mean that some players won’t see a lot of what the game has to offer. On the other hand, the campaign is only six stages in length. The meat, and potatoes are really in the gameplay. Personally, while losing can be frustrating, it somehow doesn’t feel completely unfair. It’s an awful lot like a bullet hell shooter in that regard. Again, I barely beat games like R-Type, Abadox, Gradius, or Contra when I was a kid. When I did it was after hundreds of attempts, and continues. But there was a lot of fun to be had in that challenge, and I think there is here too. Considering that you do get some perks, and other characters you get to keep once you’ve unlocked them, it does get easier.

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That being said, this is still a pretty difficult game. Most players aren’t going to burn through it in 20 minutes. But stick with it, and you’ll feel vindicated when you finally complete a mission, or defeat a boss. In addition to perks, characters, XP, and health pickups, the game does have a number of awesome weapons, and items you can use during a play through. There’s the awesome spread gun, that feels right out of Contra. Handy for taking out small mobs, or dealing big hits on bigger enemies. There are portable land mines. There are cool remote turrets. There are attachments to your primary guns that cause extra damage to enemies.

All of the game’s weapons are fun to use, and feel useful. While you might find you like using one pick up over another, you’ll never feel the secondary weapon you have is worthless. Some of them might work on one particular type of enemy better than another. But everything is still very effective. You just need to take your time, experiment with weapons, and learn how they work against each obstacle. Once you become proficient with a few of these items, and discern some of the enemy patterns things can become quite addictive.Deaths go from rage quitting to “One more game.”. I also have a word of advice for you; always pick up gold drops.

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Gold drops are another important utility in the game. Each stage will have a hidden shop room you can use to buy temporary buffs for your character. You can find gold any number of different ways. Most commonly, you can raid the corpses of fallen orcs. But there are treasure chests, that have gold, and other items too. Some require a key, usually found by exploring. There are also red colored chests, and lottery machines you can use your gold on. I wouldn’t advise the red chests, as there’s a high chance you’ll actually lose health. But the lottery machines will often give you a secondary weapon or more gold. Secondary weapons can also be found by freeing prisoners peppered throughout the land. If you do choose to go spelunking for the shops, make sure you grind as much gold as humanly possible because some of the better items are pretty pricey.

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Multiplayer also makes the game a lot more palatable, as this gives the game more replay value. Basically, the co-op mode can be played online or offline. Up to four people can play together, and it’s everything in the story mode just with your friends or strangers. Offline co-op is one of the best things about Rogue Stormers. So few games have couch multiplayer anymore. Especially on the PC. It makes this game again, feel like being in an arcade in the 80’s or 90’s. Which is great. The rogue like elements actually help it in this regard. Were this a fully traditional experience, like Turrican or Contra, or Commando players could memorize where everything is going to hit them from after a while. Seeing how they recycle rooms here that can still happen. But you also have the rooms in different areas each time. There’s always a chance to be caught off guard.

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Rogue Stormers also has a story, though it’s pretty cut, and dry. We meet an evil orc, named Hector Von Garg. He convinces the kingdom of Ravensdale to turn against the Rogue Stormers, before enslaving everyone. Now the heroes fight to dethrone him. Throughout the game you unlock bits of story lore which come in the form of newspaper clippings. The story isn’t much to write home about, but the art, and character designs most certainly are. Everything feels new, and yet familiar. Sometimes things look right out of Warcraft III, with the exaggerated looks of the orcs, and yet the game has a lot of its own style. There are clearly influences from Warhammer, but again everything still has a distinct look. From the orcs in hot air balloons, to the magic squids you can fly. Backgrounds have the gloomy, dreary atmosphere you would expect in a war-torn fantasy world. The little details in the environments give this game a nice dose of personality.

The soundtrack, and effects are also really worth a listen. The mix of electronica, rock, and orchestrated music fits the dystopian environments brilliantly. It almost feels like a sci-fi film at times, which is probably fitting considering some of the steam punk influences with some of the game’s antagonists. Composer Jonathan van den Wijngaarden brings the same quality of work to this game, as he has in many a big budget title. The results are fantastic. If you’re a fan of ambient orchestration you might want to nab the soundtrack.

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The game also has a pretty respectable level of options for you to tweak. You can change your resolution, window size, and even a number of lighting, and texture quality settings. As well as change the level, and type of anti aliasing. I would have liked to have seen some more of these options available rather than general sliders for categories. But Rogue Stormers is still a cut above other games in this regard. On the plus side you can use any number of control options. I tested the game with a Steam controller, Xbox 360 controller as well as my trusty G402 mouse. All of them worked flawlessly. While I would still recommend you use a controller, if you don’t have one, you can still be effective with  a mouse.

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Performance is pretty good overall. Though I found in my case sometimes things would chug along at maxed settings during major explosions, or if a large number of enemies appeared in certain rooms. Dialing things down slightly did help. To be fair, I was also running the game while I had a lot of other things running on the machine. Nevertheless, If you are on an older machine, consider turning off the FXAA, and SSAO, it won’t look too much different, and you may avoid some of those drops. Other than that everything ran very smoothly, and performance was really nice. The requirements aren’t absurdly high either. Minimum specifications are almost a decade old as of this writing.

 

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While the combination of bullet hell shoot ’em up, action platformer, and rogue like elements may not sound like they’ll gel to some, here they do. Rogue Stormers is a lot of fun to play, especially with three friends. It probably isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it is something I recommend picking up. Particularly to anybody who loves golden age arcade games like Robotron, or fans of those old action games on the computers, and consoles of yesteryear. Although Rogue Stormers veers that way, fans of rogue like games still might want to check it out anyway. It does use the chosen elements of that subgenre very well. Even if you’re not one for any of those types of games you may want to give it a look. It’s different enough from either it still might just appeal to you.

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The only thing keeping it away from sheer impeccable status are the lack of online players, and a couple of very minor things akin to nitpicking . Like being forcibly warped to the other players if you disagree on where to go, or the sometimes finicky flying squid. Really nothing major. Of course if you don’t have friends over very often the lack of online players might be a sticking point. But, if you can convince a few of them to nab a copy, or you’re able to plunk down a little bit extra for a two-pack, you’ve got one of the most entertaining multiplayer experiences of the year. Online or offline, Rogue Stormers is a cult game worth joining. A very difficult one. But so was Demon’s Souls.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review

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Earlier this year Nintendo brought back its discounted rerelease line. Nintendo Selects, which has gone by other names on previous consoles includes some great Wii U stuff this time out. Super Mario 3D World, Pikmin 3, and the NES Remix pack being popular choices. But there was another inclusion that doesn’t seem to get as much recognition.

Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is the follow-up to Donkey Kong Country Returns. A game that came out on the Wii, and has also been re released in this iteration of the Selects line. Both of these games were developed by Retro Studios the studio known for the excellent Metroid Prime Trilogy.  DKCR was met with a lot of praise as well. Tropical Freeze was also lauded, but didn’t make the splash previous Donkey Kong games have.

PROS: One of the best Donkey Kong Country games ever. Possibly the best.

CONS: Some might find the game too brutal under the cute exterior.

SADISTIC: The Snomad penguins. Explosives. Death traps. A Gundam. YES A GUNDAM.

Which is a shame, because Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a really good iteration of the series. In fact in many ways (as blasphemous this may seem to some), it is actually better than the Rare games released on the Super NES. It takes everything that was great about those classic Game Paks, and eschews some of the annoyances. All while having its own feel, and taking some chances.

The first chance the game takes is replacing the antagonist. Donkey Kong is celebrating his birthday with his friends Cranky, Diddy, and Dixie when a chill blows out his candles. Upon looking out the window, the Kongs see a massive army of penguins, walruses, and seals converging on the island. The invaders effectively take over Donkey Kong’s homeland, and so he has to drive back the occupants, and save the day.

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But as in the days of Rare, things won’t be easy in this Retro helmed game. The Snowmads (This is what the antagonists are actually called) have created some of the most difficult platformer stages ever conceived. One thing you’re going to notice right off the bat are how each world has a theme. You’ll also notice each stage within the world has a spin on that theme. In one world you’ll see fruit themed levels, some are jungle stages with a fruit theme. Others have a more science fiction feel, but still incorporating a fruit theme. Giant blades chop up watermelons, and oranges. Watermelons, and oranges you happen to need to walk on to get ahead.

All of this stuff isn’t just for show. Much of it is actually built into the game play itself. An enemy may set a platform on fire. You can put out the fire, but then the platform has a finite number of seconds it can support your weight. Part of a level may sink into the icy ocean, but Donkey Kong needs to follow that sinking part in order to uncover a secret.

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The game has a plethora of secrets too. The number rivals that of the Super NES DKC, games as well as Super Mario World. It even takes a page from SMW by adding secret exits in many of the stages which can then lead to secret stages. The game also has a pretty good variety of things to do. Some stages are your typical horizontal, or vertical platforming stages. Others are rail sections invoking the mine car play of the original games. There are also on rail rocket levels, where you have to control a rocket by pumping a gas button.

Tropical Freeze reuses these mechanics a number of times throughout the game. But each time it does, it finds a way to make it feel different or new. Sometimes this can be a simple perspective change. Other times it can be an excellent use of the world’s theme. Often times you’ll find stages that combine all of the mechanics to make for a really challenging experience.

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Speaking of challenges, on top of the secret stages, the game will give you the optional task of collecting not only the letters K-O-N-G but puzzle pieces too. Finding enough of these will unlock some sketches, and test renders. The letters are usually in plain sight. But the puzzle pieces aren’t. Often times they’re found in hidden pathways, or behind a piece of scenery. There are also hidden mini game rooms in levels. These will take you back to Donkey Kong 64’s numerous ones. Completing these also gets you puzzle pieces.

Normally you might not want to bother with that sort of thing. Except that in this game finding all of that stuff, along with every secret exit will unlock a hidden world, as well as an even more difficult mode. This mode makes you complete the game with a single hit marker, zero checkpoints, and without any help from the other Kongs. It even kneecaps you by shutting down the game’s shop system, which I’ll explain a little bit later.

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While some of the later stages can feel punishing, they don’t usually feel unfair. Save for a few exceptions, you’re going to know it was your own fault for dying. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult. Tropical Freeze is unabashed in its insistence you suck it up. Yet, it still manages to throw you a few huge bones. First of all, it is very easy to earn 1-Ups. There are the expected 1-Up balloons. But there are tons of bananas, and banana coins in every stage. More than enough for you to earn several extra lives. In fact, even the worst player can probably expect to have over 50 lives by the time they reach the final boss.

The other major favor the game provides is the shop. Going in with your banana coins allows you to buy an extra heart for the health meter, Barrels to start with Dixie, Diddy, or Cranky who act as assist characters, and an invincibility potion among other things. There is also the gum ball machine for you to be given randomly selected collectibles. Again, while they might not be something most players care about, those who go for pure completion of their games will. That means in order to play the secret world, and hit up masochism mode, getting those models is worth it.

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Tropical Freeze also has a two player mode. In this mode players work cooperatively to get through all of the game’s worlds, and stages. Both players choose their Kongs, and controller of choice. This mode can be a blessing and a curse. While tackling the bosses may prove easier, some of the levels might actually prove harder. Why? Because like Battletoads, both players are going to need to be at around the same skill level. Particularly when getting to later levels, where being on the same page is paramount. Thankfully, if one of you fails, it doesn’t completely penalize the other player. But in sections where things are easier with say, Donkey Kong, and Dixie Kong, losing Dixie Kong will make it that much harder.

Speaking of the Kongs, each of the three has their own distinct advantages. Cranky Kong, the withered grouchy, old Kong will give you the option to bounce higher off of his cane. Think of him a lot like Scrooge McDuck in DuckTales. The difference being you can’t just hold down the jump button to bounce on forever. Each bounce requires a perfectly timed button press to master.

Dixie Kong has her helicopter blade move where her hair twirls around for flight. She also has an advantage in water stages, as her hair lets her fight water currents that the other Kongs simply can’t compete with. She’s probably the one most players will align with most. I know in my play through, I found her the most versatile character.

Finally you have Diddy Kong, and as expected he has his trusty jet pack. This lets you hover for a few seconds, and it gives you some assistance crossing some gaps in the game. It is even helpful in other areas as well. Overall I didn’t use him as much as Dixie, but there were some cases where hovering did work better than flying.

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That’s another thing about the level design. Some stages are really built around having a specific Kong employed to help you. Don’t get me wrong, each of these stages can be completed without using any of the Kongs. But using a specific Kong is necessary for navigating some areas, or even finding secrets. Case in point, using Cranky to pogo jump off of a spiked ball onto an owl, and into a hidden puzzle piece. Or using Dixie to fight an underwater current to swim to a secret exit. The game has a ton of this stuff, which makes me wonder how some players are good enough to beat the hidden hard mode.

Bosses also follow the fair, but difficult design philosophy. When you first encounter some of the game’s bosses you’ll want to rip your hair out in frustration. But if you persevere, and don’t give up you’ll eventually learn their pattern. With enough practice you’ll realize what you have to do during that pattern, and rise above. Eventually you may even find clearing some of the bosses easy. Except for that fish boss. That thing has to even stress out the masters of Donkey Kong.

But even after you clear it the first time you’ll want to go back to find all of the things you missed. The game has a wonderful amount of creativity behind it. Whether it’s finding new ways to use its mechanics, the music, the art style, or the new characters. Even something as simple as giving the Kongs a new enemy to face really does help the game grow beyond the designs we’ve seen since 1994. For some it may feel like going from Bowser to Wart. But that isn’t a bad way to mix it up.

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I didn’t even talk much about the graphics, and sound. These are both astonishingly well done. While some screen shots in this review or footage on YouTube might give you a good idea of how things are, it looks even better on your TV or monitor. The character models have a lot of small details that you might not appreciate at first, until you realize just how few games really go this extra mile. Even games on more potent hardware. The fur on the Kongs. The engravings, and dings on the Snowmads’ armor. The textures on not only objects, but the terrain. These little touches really do show just how much work Retro’s artists put into a project.

Beyond the graphics, are again, little flourishes in the animation. The expressions on the enemies’ faces changing. The look of water pouring from the background to the foreground. The transitions the game often employs continue the attention to detail throughout the game. You might not have time to look at some of it because you’ll be trying to survive. But if you have 70 lives stored up, risk ten of them to take in some of this stuff. It may not be the flashiest stuff you’ve seen in a game, but it does make the world seem just that much more alive.

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The music, and sound effects are also exceptional, with little grunts, squeals, and other noises going along with the animated characters nicely. The soundtrack also has a wider variety of genres than you might expect. You’ll have the typical tropical island themes, but also some nice instrumental folk music, tribal drum music, some alt-country themes, and the game even manages to throw in some heavy metal now, and again.

If you have a Wii U, and haven’t played this one yet you might want to give this a spin. It’s a lot of fun to play, has a lot of charm, and a lot of challenge. It definitely should hold a place among some of the best platformers in recent years. Retro Studios really did outdo themselves with this one. Though giving that one relentless penguin a Gundam may haunt me the rest of my days.

Final Score: 9 out of 10