Tag Archives: Platformer

Halloween Forever Review

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In the world of indie games it isn’t uncommon to see games that try to emulate the titles that inspired them. But when taking into account how many of these games exist, being one of the games that emulates them well is a pretty big feat. Being one of the games that not only does the memory of classic games justice, but does so with unique personality, and original additions deserves commendation.

One such game is Halloween Forever, and I don’t just say that because I saw the game’s artist do a live stream creating pixel art on Twitch. I bought the game (yes, bought. It wasn’t given to me, and I wasn’t asked to review this.) after discovering the channel because his stream turned out to be quite informative. After downloading it, I fired it up to find that it really is a fun, and interesting game. Like the Arcade, computer, and NES games that it pays homages to, it’s a challenging action-platformer. The most notable, and noticeable inspiration here is Capcom’s Ghosts N’ Goblins.

PROS: Cute characters. Animation. Music. Humor. Play control.

CONS: Confusing menu navigation. Blind jumps.

SANTA: Putting demons on the naughty list.

Before you can start the game, you’ll have to go through an options menu. This is where nearly all of the faults in Halloween Forever lie. Unfortunately you’ll need to know how the controls are mapped in order to navigate them, which you won’t. This oversight is the sole glaring issue. Because you can’t simply use the arrow keys, or the W,A,S,D, keys in a way that you would expect.

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That’s because you can’t see the default layout – to get into the menu options – to change said layout. So you’ll spend a good ten minutes figuring out what keys do or don’t select. Or you’ll take a wild guess, and try clicking the options with a mouse to find it actually works. When you do get into the control settings you’ll find the default settings a bit weird. W jumps, A,S, and D move you left, right, and let you duck. The Left key shoots, the Up key lets you interact with doors, ladders, and other things. You can re-bind the keys to something you like better, so if you want to play with a more traditional two button lay out you can. Still, navigating with the mouse through the menu options is going to make life easier. Fortunately you can also use a compatible game pad like the Xbox 360, Xbox One, or Steam Controller.

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Rounding out the options are the choice between whether to play full screen or in a window, and some configuration menus. There’s an interesting option in here if you find the game too trying for you. You can enable a 99 lives setting. Keep in mind the game more or less considers this a cheat code. So if you turn this setting on, the Steam achievements will be disabled as long as the mode is enabled.

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When the game boots, you’ll see a short sequence of cinema screens that give you a concise understanding of what your goals are. An evil wizard who looks suspiciously like a robed Skeletor has cast a spell to curse the world, and make Halloween last forever. Thus throwing the world into chaos, as it is invaded by monsters, demons, floating Gorgon heads, and of course; Leatherface. This of course, doesn’t sit well with a certain pumpkin who rises from the patch, and decides that he will be playing the role of He-Man in this Halloween themed adventure.

Once you’ve started the game, and you’ve selected your options you’ll get to choose a character. I’ll come back to this in a bit. When you first start the game you’ll pretty much have the pumpkin man you’re introduced to in the opening cinematic. The other option is Santa Claus. Yes. Santa Claus. You’ll find out later on that there are a lot of folks who have a stake in this mission to take down this reaper.

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You’re then shown a map that lays out the order of the stages you’ll have to go through in order to win the game. Then you’re off to the races. Right away, you’re going to notice the way the game looks. Then you’re going to realize that the game looks much better in action than it does on its description page on the Steam store. The graphics are a little bit simplistic, for some. But the number of frames in the animation, and the little details in them are not. I have to commend Imaginary Monsters for this. Characters run around smoothly, and they have a lot of nuances you’ll appreciate if you pay attention.

Fabrics flow around. Projectiles have visual flair on them. Bad guys’ eyes animate while the fireballs they shoot from their sockets are also animating the aforementioned flair. The bosses you’ll run into continue these things. So while the game does have an aesthetic that falls somewhere between a Commodore 64 game,  and an early 90’s MS-DOS platformer it’s more complex. These are the little things that would have meant multiple disks or a longer download back then. Of course the gameplay itself comes right out of the early days of NES games.

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As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest influences is Ghosts N’ Goblins. You’ll move about a lot like Arthur did in that game, with an attack, and a jump. You can also double jump in Halloween Forever. Your attack has an arc to it. So you have to plan ahead when you attack enemies as you need to land your shots just right. But that isn’t to say Halloween Forever is a cut, and paste clone of Capcom’s arcade game. They may share some movements, and settings. But that’s about where it ends. It does have a couple of other influences, like Castlevania, and Mega Man. Perhaps even a dash of Monster Bash. But even this is largely just in the occasional trap. Or in ensuring the bosses have a readable attack pattern. Which they do.

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But beyond that, you’ll find an entertaining, and charming action platformer. One that has a lot of endearing character designs. Not just in the heroes you control, but in the enemies you’re forced to confront. There’s a cuteness factor in the super deformed style these characters are portrayed in. This continues even into your projectiles, like your pumpkin man’s candy corn, or Santa’s barfed up Christmas presents. It’s really something that will make you smile. Everything controls smoothly, and responsively. Climbing ladders, switching platforms, taking out baddies all feel tight.

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What won’t make you smile (aside from the options menu) are some of the challenges in Halloween Forever. A couple of the later boss fights are downright brutal. Even after you’ve figured out their patterns. Of course getting to those fights requires getting through a gauntlet of platforming challenges. Each of the five stages might seem straightforward on the surface. But each has a few secret paths through them as well. If you find these secret paths you’ll be able to collect a hidden rune. You’ll also find other characters that have been taken, and held hostage. Which you’ll really need to do. Because once you rescue these characters you can play through the game with them. Each of these characters plays slightly differently from one another. Some have better attacks for certain situations than others. One may make one boss fight a lot easier, but might have a tougher time getting through another part of the game. Also rescuing these people means that reaching their holding cells in subsequent play through sessions will net you 1-Ups in their place.

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If you beat the game, and see its ending though, the game isn’t over. Each playable character has their own ending, and chances are you’ll want to see each of them at least once. All in all, this has at least as much content as the titles that inspired it had. The chip tunes are awesome, and while this game may be short, and sweet it is pretty sweet. An absolutely terrific first effort by Imaginary Monsters, and I’m surprised it hadn’t caught my attention when it was originally released a year, and a half ago. The only major issue on display here is the screwy options menu you’ll be better served using a mouse for. Beyond that, one might complain about a blind jump or two. But that’s really about it. If you want something cute, entertaining, and don’t mind it being a bit esoteric, Halloween Forever is for you. It’s tough, but not insurmountable. It also has a lot of charm. It’s a really fun game you ought to check out.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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Owlboy Review

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The Super NES is known for many great things. Obviously Nintendo’s own wonderful games, and some of the most memorable efforts from names like Capcom, Konami, Square, and Natsume. These efforts often resulted in excellent adventure games, action RPGs, and action platformers. In recent  years a number of new games have shown up paying homage to these titles. But not all of them have done it as well as Owlboy.

PROS: Beautiful visuals. Tight controls. Engrossing story.

CONS: A few annoying bugs. Objectives aren’t always clear.

PIXEL ART: This game really does raise the bar for the art form.

Owlboy is easily one of the best modern platformers done in a style that resembles the 16-bit titles of yesteryear. Immediately you’ll be blown away by the insane amount of detail in the pixel art. The shading of the grass, the gradients in the clouds, and the plethora of tiles that make every background, and object stand out. Not only is there a great amount of detail, but so much of it is animated. Animated so well, in fact, that it matches the characters with their text balloons almost flawlessly.

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Speaking of facial sprite animation, and text balloons, Owlboy has a story on par with many coming-of-age animated Disney films. When the game begins you take control of an owl named Otus. Otus isn’t well liked by most of the inhabitants of Ville. He’s mocked, teased, bullied by many of the other owls his age (often because of his muteness), and he’s ostracized by adults. He gets blamed for things he has little to nothing to do with. He has one friend named Geddy who works defense for the town. Things change drastically one day, when a mysterious troublemaker distracts the two, and allows an invasion of pirates to occur.  From here, our pariah has to go on a three arc adventure to become the hero.

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Along the course of the story new characters get introduced, and this is where the game’s mechanics start to really take shape. Owlboy combines the Platformer with Adventure, and Action RPG elements to create something pretty special. You’ll explore different towns, and talk to NPCs the way you might in a game like Ys, or Faxanadu. You’ll explore areas the way you do in Metroidvanias. You’ll get into boss fights on par with those of the Classic Mega Man series. The developers at D-Pad even went the extra mile to make the shop one of the most entertaining moments in the game.

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Otus can run, jump, fly, and do a couple of  roll attacks as you go through the game. But he can also pick up some of the NPC characters you’ll meet, some items, and even some enemies. All of which are needed to solve puzzles, and get to a lot of areas. Most of the puzzles are fairly challenging to solve, involving every possible thing you can lift. Throughout the campaign you’ll also find fruits, and vegetables that replenish health too. Around halfway through the game you’ll find a shop. It works a little bit differently than the typical shops in most RPGs, and Adventure games.

Rather than simply buy items with the money you have, the shop keep sends out employees to just give them to you once you have enough coins. They don’t take the coins from you though. So it’s almost like a level up progress bar accented with comedy. These moments are quite hilarious too. The game makes excellent use of its characters, and animation to deliver laughs. Rather than simply give you the normal mundane experience of grinding money until you can buy the best kit, it’s gives entertainment. And these funny moments fit right in with the rest of the story.

 

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The story is great, the characters, are great, and everything else for the most part is as well. Not only do you get a bunch of interesting challenges to solve, but you’ll also do your fair share of platforming. Any good platformer requires excellent, and responsive controls. Owlboy has them. As you jump, fly, and switch characters around, things feel natural. So while things may look insurmountable at times, with enough practice you’ll get through them. The game utilizes the Adventure feel of checkpoints rather than the life system many retro-platformers do. These are fairly numerous, so there aren’t very many times you’ll find yourself re-doing long stretches of hurdles upon a mistake. That isn’t to say things will be easy. There were a few parts of the game that I found myself spending thirty to forty minutes on because I didn’t do just the right move. Or because I didn’t kill an enemy quite fast enough. But again, perseverance pays off. If you don’t give up, you’ll get through it.

The game is a lot of fun too. It scratches the itch of just about any old-school experience you can think of, and it’s engrossing. It makes you feel accomplished when you do something grand, and it doesn’t feel discouraging when you fall down. There are also plenty of moments that will just wow you. From riding rock dragons, to infiltrating bases, to the tremendous boss fights, there is a lot to love. Boss fights bring back the era of memorizing patterns. Much like the Mega Man, Castlevania, and Contra games of old, each fight makes you watch for openings. Eventually you’ll realize the boss is doing the same thing, and you’ll learn where to move, or which character to utilize, at what time. Most of them have several forms though, and with each form, a new pattern to learn. But through it all, you’ll have a great time. Whether you were in that era or not.

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As I’ve stated before, Owlboy looks astonishing. But the soundtrack goes along with it all so beautifully. The game has a wonderful orchestral score that flows from scene to scene, and area to area. It’s as if a Metroid game were filled with symphonic songs inspired by classical composers. None of it really comes off as cliché either. It’s almost expected in any fantasy setting to hear strings, and woodwind instruments. But here again, it feels like an animated Disney film. There are up tempo notes of optimism when things are looking up for our characters, and there are bombastic yet somber moments when it looks like all is lost. It probably isn’t the sort of thing you’ll listen to on a work commute, but it does accent the story, and gameplay very well.

It would be easy to write the game off as some niche experience for geezers like me who jammed on Ys III, Mega Man X, and ActRaiser on the Super NES back in the day. But it really isn’t, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you skip it because of that impression. Yes, indeed, there are plenty of things to like for those who were around for the 16-bit console wars of the 1990’s. But the new twists on gameplay, identifiable characters, and well told story, are things anybody who likes video games can experience. Owlboy joins the ranks of well-crafted, memorable indie releases like Axiom Verge, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, Undertale, and VVVVVV.

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It isn’t without its faults, as even the best games have some issues. In the case of Owlboy it seems to be bugs. Minor bugs, but annoying nevertheless. One of which seems to screw up your controls at random. Loading from the last checkpoint seems to fix it. This only happened to me once, near the end of the game. But it’s still worth mentioning. Another is how, at least on PC, the game still runs in memory even after exiting to the desktop. Pulling up the Task Manager in Windows allows you to shut it down, but it’s still 30 seconds of annoyance. There are also a couple of times in the campaign where it isn’t always clear where you’re supposed to go next. But this is really a minor nitpick since you’ll be spending a good portion of time just exploring anyway.

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Overall though, Owlboy comes highly recommended. It’s fun, engrossing, and has something for just about anyone. It’s a game that will likely garner an emotional response from you, thanks in part to the excellent animation. It’s a game you’ll likely cherish in part because of the story, and characters on display. But it’s also a game you’ll likely enjoy going through due to the top-notch play control, and well crafted gameplay. Owlboy is a must play addition to any collection.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

Super Mario Odyssey Review

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It’s hard to believe Mario has been with us for nearly four decades. It’s even harder to believe, but there isn’t a bad Mario title. Some are objectively better than others. Old timers like me can remember playing as him in Donkey Kong. We have fond memories of going to the arcade with friends, and playing the original Mario Bros. Obviously everyone from 7 to 70 has probably played Super Mario Bros., Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, or Super Mario Galaxy. Again, nary a blemish to be found. The latest adventure continues this trend.

PROS: Pretty much everything. Get this for your Switch if you haven’t already.

CONS: One slight hiccup in performance in the Seaside Kingdom. If you NEED to nitpick.

FROM OUT OF NOWHERE: Rock n’ Roll anthems hit you like an RKO from Randy Orton.

Let’s get this out-of-the-way right away. If you have a Nintendo Switch, and you still don’t have this game it should be your next game purchase. If you don’t have a Switch, it should be one of the first games you get when you get the system. Super Mario Odyssey is not only a wonderfully crafted platformer, it’s one of the most engrossing video games on the console.

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As usual, Bowser has kidnapped Peach again. So Mario heads out to stop his nemesis yet again. This adventure, however is different for a multitude of reasons. This kidnapping attempt Bowser has decided to marry the Princess by force. When the game starts you’re treated to an opening cinematic where Mario is in the process of trying to save Peach. Unfortunately for our hero, Bowser works him over. After suffering a hellacious assault at the hands of the King of the Koopas, Mario is thrown off of an airship to his doom. To add insult to injury, Bowser shreds Mario’s trademark hat to really drive home to the viewer that all is lost.

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Mario is then tended to by a hat named Cappy. It turns out that Bowser devastated an entire kingdom inhabited by sentient hats called the Cap Kingdom. It is also revealed that the bridal tiara Peach was forced to wear is Cappy’s significant other. So Cappy decides to help Mario rescue Princess Toadstool. This is also where you’re introduced to this game’s trademark feature: Possession. Mario can throw Cappy, and if he lands on certain objects, and characters they can be controlled. It’s not something most of us probably think of ever seeing in a Super Mario Bros. title, and yet here it is.

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This makes the game feel very different from previous games in the Super Mario Bros. universe. Yet Super Mario Odyssey also retains all of the things you would expect to see in the long running franchise. This entry leaves the linear design of the two Galaxy games behind. It also abandons the design of the 3D Land, and 3D World games. Instead, Super Mario Odyssey returns to the freedom of Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario 64. This time around Mario can travel between Kingdoms using an airship of his own called the Odyssey.

 

As you might expect, you’ll be going through these Kingdoms looking for coins, and items in order to earn entry to another. In this game the coveted item will be Power moons. You have to collect so many for the Odyssey to be able to continue onward. There are a couple of spots where you can choose which of two places to travel to next. But there’s no major hub the way Peach’s castle in SM64 was. Still, while you’ll open most of the Kingdoms in a set order, the stages themselves are open. So you’ll spend a lot of time tracking down moons.

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A lot of the moons are hidden in plain sight, but there are a lot of them that aren’t. Getting some of them involve going on fetch quests. Others involve beating platforming challenges. Still others will require you to win at a mini game, or explore off of the beaten path. Some of them are purchased in shops, while others require you to buy a specific costume with a Kingdom specific currency so you can go to a specific area. That’s not counting the number times you’ll need to possess a particular enemy. Or the number of times you’ll have to solve a puzzle. Or to have a keen eye in the 2D areas I’ll get to later.  You’ll also have to contend with a lot of different bosses to get many of the moons. The most obvious being the Broodlings. These are a group of evil rabbits who have jobs planning Bowser’s forced wedding ceremony. But they’re also Bowser’s hired mercenaries. You’ll have to defeat each of them. But they’re not the only threats you’ll face. Super Mario Odyssey has many bosses hidden within it. You’re going to see all kinds of massive adversaries. Some of whom are going to come completely out of left field.

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There are 880 Power Moons to be found which means you’ll be playing this long after you’ve experienced the storyline. Those who love to get their Mario games to 100% completion can even buy another 119 on top of those. But along the way you’re going to continually be astonished, and amazed. Super Mario Odyssey has something for fans of every era of the character. There are homages to Donkey Kong, Mario Bros. Super Mario Bros., and pretty much every game in the series is referenced in one way or another. Some of the most creative moments, are the inclusion of 2D sections that use the sprites, and tiles seen in Donkey Kong, and the NES Super Mario Bros. games. But it even includes the newer enemies, and characters in the mythos in that same style. These sections are often blended into the contemporary look of everything else, and they work seamlessly together. Sometimes the game incorporates puzzles that can only be solved by transitioning between the 2D pixel game play, and the modern 3D space.

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Mario controls as fluidly as ever too. If you fall off of a ledge, get shot by a Bullet Bill, or land a quarter of an inch in front of a Goomba you’ll know it’s your fault. Another thing that might surprise you is the fact that the traditional system of lives is gone. You’ll have unlimited lives in Super Mario Odyssey. Your punishment for getting killed, is the game takes some of your money from you. However, don’t think you’ll be blowing through this one in a day. A lot of players might think that not needing 1-Ups, and Continues makes this game easy. It really doesn’t. In the early goings, things might seem like they’re simple enough. A few easy to nab moons. Running to the beacon of light to progress to the next story mission. Simple, right? While you might be able to get through the first handful of required areas, and claim their moons without too much trouble, later ones aren’t so easy. Some of the later stages require some significant puzzle solving, and a bit of dexterity. This is a Super Mario game after all.

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You’ll need at least 124 Power Moons to be able to get into the final boss showdown. If you’re persistent you can probably get there within a day of non-stop gaming. But with everything there is to do, and see, you’ll probably want to explore for more moons, and secrets in that time instead. Some of the areas can’t even be reached until after you complete the campaign, all but guaranteeing you’ll be playing this long after the big showdown. Another thing that sets this game apart from the other Super Mario Bros. games is the vastly different environments in each of the game’s kingdoms. Not only do they have different themes, each of the themes has a completely different art style. The Luncheon Kingdom has a minimalist look, all rendered in soft neon colors. Take your ship to the Metro Kingdom, and everything goes for a more modern, photorealistic look. Head to the Seaside Kingdom, and things look absolutely beautiful. Plus the inhabitants of each Kingdom are completely different from each other as well, lining up with the aesthetics of the area perfectly. There are also all sorts of little visual touches that you’ll appreciate. Like the rain effects in New Donk City, or the soot that lands on Mario whenever he walks through fire.

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The soundtrack is absolutely spectacular. If there’s one thing this title has over many other games it’s the music. Everyone has likely heard Jump Up Superstar, as it has been in all of the promotional material for the game. The trailer, the spots at conventions, you can even buy the song on iTunes. But everything else on the soundtrack is just as good as that title track. From the orchestral pieces to Big Band Jazz, to Heavy Metal to Power Pop. Even if a certain genre isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll recognize the sheer talent, and greatness of the compositions. All placed in parts of the game that suit themselves best. There is just so much to like here. No matter what you’re doing the music thumps along perfectly. It’s energetic, and light-hearted when it needs to be. It’s ambient, and dark when it needs to be.

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Quite frankly, so much of Super Mario Odyssey is done so well, it can be difficult to find anything all that wrong with it. Controls are spot on. The environments, character design, and sound are all simply brilliant. Some of the mission types repeat here, and there. By the second or third Kingdom you’ll pick up on the general formula. But again, everything is done so superbly, it feels like nitpicking just mentioning it. About the only technical issue I ran into at all, was a very minor hiccup when running along the beach in Seaside Kingdom. Once. Ever.

 

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There are several other things I haven’t mentioned yet, like Amiibo functionality. Pretty much all of Nintendo’s releases utilize them in some way, and Super Mario Odyssey is no exception. If you buy the three figures specifically made for the game they’ll give you different wedding themed costumes you would ordinarily have to get in the game far later. They’ll also give you the bonuses associated with the non-Odyssey themed figures of those characters. Peach gives you a Life Up Heart, Mario gives you a few seconds of protection, while Bowser gives you purple coin locations on your map.

Some of the other figures you have knocking around can also end up giving you some early access to some of the game’s costumes. But generally just about any figure will get you something. You can also show your Amiibo to a machine Toad appears with after you clear a few kingdoms. Then it will bring back rewards at a later time. Another interesting Amiibo piece of trivia has to do with some cross-promotion with Kellogg’s. The cereal vendor has made a promotional Super Mario cereal you’ve no doubt heard about if you live in the United States. The cereal box has an Amiibo NFC chipset glued to the inside so you can actually scan the cereal box for the same rewards most non SMB related figures do. With one exception: There’s a line of dialogue that may bring about a smirk upon seeing the game recognize the cereal box.

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There are a ton of crazy items in the shops. It is worth looking into them for the costumes alone. Which is good, because after finishing the story the game opens up a host of new areas, moons, coins, and other content. Some of the post campaign moons are tied to unlocking items in the shops. So you’ll definitely want to be looking into them. Many of the costumes get pretty wild too. Some of the ones I really like include a clown costume, a samurai costume, and a couple of retro costumes.

If getting to new areas wasn’t enough, some of the kingdoms have super-secret warps hidden in paintings in them. You can even get a glimpse into some of the kingdoms you may not have visited yet when you find one. Some of the game’s moons even require their use in order to be obtained. Beyond that, there are a number of crazy features you’ll just sort of stumble upon. Like the ability to steal a moped, and drive around on it. Or an RC Car mini game, where you get to use an RC Car in attempt to speed run a track from Super Mario Kart.

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The map I mentioned earlier is part of an overall travel guide you can pull up. It has maps for every one of the worlds you visit along with checklists. You can also pull up the little tutorials that explain some of the more advanced techniques. This can be handy for those who haven’t picked up a Mario game in years, or for someone who has honestly never played a Mario game. It’s also a place where you can review things that you might have forgotten how to do during the course of your time with it.

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Another really cool feature is the camera mode. It really enhances the screen capture function in the Switch. Normally, for any game you can press the camera button, and take a screen shot. But in this game you can press the Down C button first, and pull up a camera mode. In this mode you can zoom in or out before taking a shot. You can also tilt the camera, and apply a number of filters to the image. The absolute best of these are the vintage console filters. One of them is supposed to be the NES palette although in some situations it seems closer to something like the Commodore 64. Another is a Super NES palette, and a third is based on the original Game Boy. Plus you can slap the game’s logo in the corner of your photo. Then you can use the social media function on the Switch to post it to your Facebook account, or Twitter account. It might not sound like much, but you can honestly get pretty creative with what you’re given here.

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It’s hard to say if Super Mario Odyssey is the best Mario game of them all, but it’s absolutely in the running. It’s one of those rare games that makes you feel like you’re 8 years old again, experiencing the series for the first time. It’s so full of awe. It’s so full of wonder. Even though you’ve likely been playing Super Mario Bros. games, and spinoffs for most of your gaming life. It’s a celebration of every era of this universe, and its characters. While at the same time making the entire game feel new. Sure, you’ll spend a lot of hours hunting down the items, and MacGuffins to see what comes next. But it rarely, if ever feels like busy work. With the wonderful environments, stellar game play, and absolutely fantastic soundtrack this is one Odyssey you’ll want to embark upon.

Final Score: 10 out of 10

Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back Review

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Every now, and again there will be a remake, or a reboot that just makes you ask yourself “Why?” Sometimes it’s a property that is universally reviled. Other times it’s something that wasn’t so bad it could make a Worst Of list, but not particularly good either. But to the surprise of everyone, someone, somewhere, decided to do it anyway.

PROS: It’s good. Seriously! It’s good!

CONS: Unbelievably short. Recycles a lot from a much more noteworthy game.

RETURN: The game promises Bubsy will.

Bubsy is one such franchise that falls under this scenario. Back in the days of the Super NES, and Sega Genesis, Accolade brought out their own mascot. The hope was they would have a game that could rival the two biggest franchises in the platformer genre. But while Bubsy wasn’t the horror show some folks make it out to be, it wasn’t great either. There were some problems on its quest to out-Sonic Sonic The Hedgehog. It had collision issues at times. It relied a lot on blind jumps that often led to cheap deaths. Every stage had multiple paths, but these paths could be confusing, and sometimes even malicious. Some would take you to traps, others would even go to the beginning of a stage!

A lot of the folks who complain about Bubsy, forget it did well enough to warrant, a sequel, a spinoff for the Atari Jaguar, and another sequel on the PlayStation in the form of Bubsy 3D. Hell, there was even a short-lived cartoon pilot, and a comic book series. But then, the series went dormant. Over time, popular opinion on these games soured, and these days it’s rare to hear anyone heralding any of them as an essential game in the genre. Still, when compared with some of the other Sonic, and Mario clones of the time, the first three Bubsy games weren’t all bad.

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So now around two decades later we have Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back, and; it’s honestly not that bad. In some ways, it’s actually quite good! The new Accolade, (which owns some of the original Accolade’s IPs) hired Black Forest Games to give us this new game. For those who don’t know, Black Forest Games is the studio that gave us the excellent Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, and its expansion pack a few years ago. So Accolade chose a studio wisely.

Bubsy is a 2.5D platformer that runs on the same engine Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams did. In fact, it has a lot of the same hallmarks, and mechanics. No more blind jumps, or awful hit detection. In this new Bubsy, you’ll know your mistakes are on your end. Stages are straightforward, but they do retain the idea of different paths. However there is no longer the brisk running of the old 16-bit games. Bubsy runs along at a slower pace these days. But this isn’t a crawl either. The camera is much better in this game too. No longer do you have to worry about blindly falling into a chasm, or bumping into an enemy.

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As in first game, the Woolies return. Obsessed with yarn, they steal the world’s supply, including Bubsy’s private reserve. So you’ll go across three worlds, each with five stages on your mission to stop them. When you fire up the game you’ll get a brief storybook segment explaining the simplistic story arc. From here you’ll start the game. You’ll see a map with a path through it. Each of the regular stages marked by a red ball of yarn, and boss stages marked by a purple one. Defeating a boss opens the next world, and you’ll repeat the process.

Each stage will give you achievements for meeting three metrics. Not losing any lives, entering a yarn room, and finding every T-shirt. When you’re in any given stage you’ll go around trying to get as many yarn balls, and T-Shirts as possible. You’ll also need to find a certain number of keys, if you want to be able to open the yarn room. The T-shirt mechanic is a little bit different from the way it was in the old games. Instead of having several types, here your first acquired shirt will allow you to take a second hit before dying. Any shirt you find while you’re able to take a second hit, will net you a 1-Up.

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So you’ll go along trying to find the end of any given stage while accomplishing these metrics. You don’t have to meet any of them to complete a given level, but it can help by boosting your score, and the number of lives you have in reserve. Each of the stages will have a variety of Wooly threats. Some of them will appear on foot, others will hover around on jetpacks. Sometimes you’ll find one in a small saucer shooting at you. In addition to the Woolies themselves, you’ll contend with spike traps, water hazards, and even killer sand sharks. A lot of sections with these dangerous environments employ many of the obstacles introduced in Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams. There are fans that can push Bubsy up if he’s floating above them. There are sections with falling boulders. Near the end of the game, there is even a section where a room fills with lava, before draining it, and filling it again. Even one of the enemy types cribs an attack pattern from the knights in Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams.

That isn’t to say the game is nothing more than a re-skin. There are plenty of differences. For instance, the deep, world shifting, and puzzle mechanics are exclusive to Giana Sisters. There aren’t many super secret areas, in the extent of that game. And the focus in that game was a lot more on challenging areas, and secrets than in Bubsy. Bubsy still tries to go more toward the 16-bit games’ feel. You’re going to try to find the fastest route possible unless you want to hunt down every last ball of yarn, and T-shirt, all without dying. Still, after playing Black Forest Games’ flagship franchise, you will definitely notice when one of its mechanics makes an appearance here.

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Visually, Bubsy looks quite nice. The game hits the Saturday morning cartoon look even the old games tried to go for. There are all kinds of nice visual touches throughout the backgrounds. There are even a few clever sight gags if you take the time to try to find them. The same dry comedy, and corny wordplay humor also return from the old games. Every now, and again you’ll see the character break the fourth wall (sometimes literally) with a joke. They even reference some of the criticism laid at the feet of the old games. One example is when the hero excitedly reminds the audience about how falling from beyond a certain height in the old games would kill him. There are also the expected cat themed pun titles for each stage. Boss fights are pretty fun encounters too. You’ll have to learn some intricate patterns in the later fights, but all in all they’re pretty fun.

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The audio is easily the strongest part of the game. They contracted the great Chris Huelsbeck to compose the game soundtrack, and it’s wonderful. Every stage has some catchy, bouncy New Wave, Synth-Wave, and Synth-Pop tracks that stick with you long after you’ve stopped playing. The sound effects are very nice with high quality explosions, splashes, and Saturday morning cartoon effects. The presentation is just great. Honestly, over the course of the game, you’ll have a good time.

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Unfortunately this iteration of Bubsy does have one major issue, and that’s its relatively short length. Part of this is due to the small sizes of the earlier stages. If you don’t make too many mistakes, and you’re not out for every last collectible they don’t take long to finish. The difficulty level is also very, very easy. For most players anyway. If you’re someone who has played a lot of platformers, you can probably clear the game in under two hours time. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, are the large number of lives you can stock up. You start with nine (because you’re a cat.), and if you don’t make a lot of mistakes by the end of a given stage you can have nearly twenty.

The other is in the boss fights. When you die, you don’t start the boss fight over again. You’ll re-enter the chamber, and the boss will have the amount of health it had when you died last. For most people, if you have more than five or six lives, you’ll get through these fights with little issue. Players obsessed with completion may squeeze out a bit more time. If you’re looking to collect every last trinket, maybe you can pull it off in three hours. Ultimately, some people won’t mind this. But most people likely will. If you’re someone in the latter camp, you may want to pick up another platformer you haven’t played yet instead. For example, Black Forest Games’ own Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is one of the best platformers to be released in recent years, and as good as this game is, Giana Sisters is still leagues better overall.

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But if you’re a big fan of the Bubsy games in general there’s nothing really bad here. It’s short, and it borrows heavily from a better game. But it’s still pretty good. Just know you’ll have to spend a lot of time re-playing it in speed runs to maximize your enjoyment out of it. The best audience for this game is probably younger children who are just getting into platformers. It’s got enough challenge for them, with plenty of charm, and atmosphere. Upon completing the game there is a hint that there will be another game in the series. If, and when Accolade brings it out, hopefully they’ll address the short length, and commission some more unique ideas. Bubsy’s latest endeavor isn’t a bad game, but there are a lot of better options in terms of the amount of content, and challenge.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Kero Blaster Review

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I had a birthday a couple of weeks ago. It was an inconvenient time to hang out or grab a few beers with anyone. I was working, everyone I know was busy with their own work, and life stuff going on. Plus as you get older birthdays tend to become less, and less of a big deal anyway. But one of my friends from an old job was kind enough to send me a couple of games on Steam anyhow. One of these was Kero Blaster.

PROS: Great music, pixel art, and mechanics.

CONS: Minor technical hitches.

MASH UPS: It feels both very NES, and C64. That’s a winning combination.

I’d never heard of Kero Blaster. Despite the fact that it’s made by the creator of Cave Story. The little Steam tile didn’t look so hot when I opened my email. But I installed it, and after a title screen crash, the game started working properly. Fortunately, once I got my Steam Controller working I was pleasantly surprised. Kero Blaster does an ingenious thing by showing you controls right on the Title Screen. You have to clear the little blobs off of the screen, and you then answer a phone to start the game.

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From here you choose the save file you want to load, and the game starts. Upon playing for the first time, you’ll see a cut scene where a cat calls you into the office to bark at you. After the reprimand you go to an elevator where two scientist cats send you on missions. As you play through the game, you’ll get more cut scenes between stages that explain more of the storyline.

Honestly, the storyline is pretty good. It doesn’t make much sense at first, but over time the pieces are filled in, and you’ll find it’s quite funny. You play a frog who works at a company called the Cat, and Frog Company. Where the owner, a cat, progressively gets less, and less healthy looking. There is a bunch of workplace humor peppered in there over the game’s several missions. There aren’t too many games that make me legitimately laugh out loud. But this game has its moments. I think fans of comedic anime, and manga will laugh a few times playing this as well.

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Once the initial cut scene ends, you’re sent off on your action platform adventuring. The game seems to take influences from games that made the NES, and Commodore 64 platforms famous. Kero Blaster’s jumping mechanics remind me very much of Turrican. Jumping has a similar slow, yet precise feel to it. Also like Turrican, is the jet pack you’ll eventually get, allowing you to do double jumps to get to higher ledges. However the stages themselves are structured more like the ones in a lauded NES action game. Some stages have a Mega Man feel, others seem like something out of Castlevania. On paper, these are three series that have little in common. Yet the elements of each that were borrowed, and tweaked work really well together.

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Much like Mega Man, and Turrican, you’ll be doing a lot of shooting. Killing low-level enemies, medium enemies, and then fighting a giant boss monster at the end of every stage. Boss fights usually result in you finding a new weapon to use. Each of these is handy in specific situations, but they can all be used on the overwhelming majority of enemies. Unlike the Mega Man games, you play the game in a linear fashion, and there’s no real boss order as a result. But the boss fights do involve looking for patterns to mitigate damage taken. Again, it hearkens back to many C64, NES, and SMS games. Like a lot of other platformers out there, there are mid level shops in every level. Here you can spend coins dropped by defeated enemies. Doing so lets you level up your weapons, health meter, and buy help items. Kero Blaster has a pretty high level of challenge. But to make things a bit easier you get to keep your upgrades when you run out of lives. You also have unlimited continues, so if you persevere, you can eventually beat the campaign. When you do finish it, you’ll unlock a hard mode. So if you’re the type who loves old school difficulty, there’s something more for you to shoot for.

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The game has a wonderful aesthetic, that again, reminds me of Commodore 64 platformers. It’s displayed in a letterbox aspect ratio, with a limited color palette. Sprites are large, and backgrounds feature some nice detailing. I also really love the character designs in this game. There is a lot of variety in the enemy types here. Some are hilarious references to other games like crabs that behave like the Sidesteppers in Mario Bros. Then there are the aforementioned blob creatures which begin showing up in a number of ways. There are even Mega Man X style mid bosses here. While the graphics remind me of the C64, the audio very clearly hearkens back memories of NES soundtracks. The NES APU had a pretty distinct sound, and Kero Blaster does a pretty good job emulating it. Many indie games do so as well, but the compositions here are what set it apart from the pack. Many of the songs in this game are on par with those in titles like Shovel Knight. They are quite honestly that good. Very addictive, catchy songs that fit the action nicely. In addition to those though, there are some lilting, atmospheric chip tunes for accompanying environments too.

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That isn’t to say I didn’t have any issues with Kero Blaster. The .exe randomly crashes on my set up. Rarely when I’m playing the game, it usually happens when launching or exiting. Still, it has been often enough that it’s worth bringing up. Playing the PC version I have no idea if this is the case on IOS, or PlayStation 4. But at least on PC, expect to see a crash to the desktop once in a while.

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The default button layout is also not ideal. I was constantly pulling up the menu when I didn’t want to, or pressing shoot, when I meant to press jump. Fortunately the game does let you remap buttons on your controller, and keyboard. So you’ll certainly want to do that. Once you’ve done that, there isn’t much to complain about. Of course, some may be fine with the default controls. This may be different on the other releases too, as I have not played either of those versions.

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There are also a couple of areas I felt the collision detection could have been just a tiny bit better, as certain projectiles wouldn’t seem to hit the character, and would still net damage. It never felt the game was too hampered by this, but you may feel some of your deaths are cheap. These moments were rare in my play through, but still felt annoying when they did occur.

Finally, the game does not allow you to move your character’s stance while firing. If you’re walking right, mowing down waves of baddies, and suddenly get attacked from above you have to stop firing, then aim up, and begin firing. Again, not something that breaks the game, but if you don’t know this going in, you’re going to be upset.

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Ultimately though, I really do recommend this one. It isn’t drawn out with padding, nor is it something you’ll likely blow through in an hour. At least not on the first play through for most. The problems it does have aren’t so bad that they make things feel unplayable. It has likable characters, a fun story, and some genuinely good stage design. It’s a fun to play action platformer for your computer, IOS device, or PS4. And you get to torch monsters with a flamethrower as a frog. Slippy wishes he could be even one tenth of that level of bad ass.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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