Tag Archives: Retro Gaming

Commodore 64 mini-guide, and a concert I went to.

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Sorry for being a little bit late this week. I was able to see a fantastic concert for the first time in many moons. I had to take full advantage of that fact. I got to see The Dollyrots for the second time ever (They don’t get out to New England very often), and it was awesome. An area band, Chaser Eight opened for them, and had an absolute killer set. Then the Dollyrots got on stage, and crushed it too. If you’ve never heard either band, and you like rock n’ roll, do check them out. Chaser Eight is pretty great, with elements of Alt-Rock, Glam, and straight up rock. It just works. The Dollyrots on the other hand, are an amazing Pop Punk trio led by Kelly Ogden, and Luis Cabezas. They have a really great blend of the sound of the early Rock groups like The Ronettes, and 1970’s Punk bands like The Ramones. Over the years they’ve grown as musicians but the roots are still apparent. It was a great show. Both bands were very approachable, and kind. They hung out with everyone at the bar after playing for a bit, and visited with fans like family you love, but don’t get to see all of the time. It was awesome. If either comes to your area, go see them. If they’re in your town as you’re reading this, just stop reading, and go see them. What are you waiting around for? Go!

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Okay, you’re back? Good. I hope you had as great a time as I did. Anyway, lately I’ve talked a lot about the mighty Commodore 64, its library, and a great C64 peripheral. It’s one of the best platforms of all time. It was sold more than any other computer in its day, and there are a plethora of great games on it. With those, the demo scene, and even a few great bands using its sound chip, you may have thought about getting one. As a lifelong fan of the computer, I can point to some facts, and information you’ll need to know if you’re going to collect for the C64. Now this isn’t going to be the most in-depth look at the platform. There are books that go into the detailed information over the course of several hundred pages for that sort of thing. But these are some key things to look for, and some things to be aware of. There may even be a few things that intrigue a casual reader. So feel free to read on.

First of all, there were a few models. The first version is often called the bread bin model. This came in a couple of variants. The silver label variant is the earliest version, and is sought after by the most devoted Commodore fans. These have the logo in a silver style paint. The drawback with this variant is it has a 5 pin DIN connector for video, where the later models (which had a rainbow of colors next to the logo) used an 8 pin DIN connector for video. Later models also added support for S-Video which is a major jump over the stock RF cable, and switch box that all models can use. The image will be much cleaner, and clearer. Provided of course you track down one of the cables.  After the bread bin model, Commodore released the C64c, which has many of the same updates as the rainbow variant of the bread bin. It also has a couple of chip refinements, and a redesigned bezel.  It should also be noted that while you gain the S-Video, and slightly better power connector in later models, you lose the ceramics for heat reduction on chips. To remedy this, later models have a metal shield inside to draw some heat, but this still isn’t always an effective solution. In Europe some later models didn’t have a metal shield, but a metal coated cardboard one, which trapped heat in some cases.

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Aside from the revisions to the standard Commodore 64, there were alternate versions altogether. The SX-64 was one of the earliest portable computers, as it had a built-in screen, and floppy drive. These things weigh a good 20 lbs. though, so they’re not portable in the sense you’re used to.  In Japan, there was a short-lived version of the C64 called the Commodore MAX. But this cut some functionality. So it didn’t compete on the games or business end, and quickly disappeared. There was also the C64 Game System. But this cut out all of the computer aspects of the computer to play cartridge games. Unfortunately this also broke compatibility with most of the game library as by 1990, the best titles were on tape or diskette.  All three of these variants are considered collector’s items. But unless you just have to have a conversation piece in your collection, I would focus on a regular C64 instead. These alternate versions can also be expensive.

The one noteworthy alternate Commodore 64 is the Commodore 128. This doubled the amount of memory in the computer, and could run all of the C64 software. The catch is it has to be run in C64 mode, as some of the revisions to the hardware led to some incompatibility in 128 mode. But the 128 did well with business, and productivity users, as there were applications that did take advantage of the extra memory. There were two versions, the standard C128, and the C128D. The latter made the keyboard an external peripheral, and included a built-in 1571 floppy diskette drive. The C128D can get expensive as a result, as finding one with a working drive is getting harder.

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There are a couple of risks involved when getting into the platform. But these can be mitigated if you’re wise enough to do a couple of simple things. First, when you find a potential C64 purchase, confirm it is working. If it’s a store, they should be willing to hook it up, and confirm it’s operational. Second, make certain the Power Supply Unit not only works, but is in great shape. The PSU actually has two rails inside. One powers the motherboard, and most of the system, while the other powers the sound chip. As a means to control costs, it is encased in a resin material. However there’s a chance even a working PSU can overheat. Depending on the problem, a bad PSU can fry components inside the computer. That’s why it’s imperative you get a plug-in as pristine condition as possible. You’ll want to make sure it sits out in the open where heat can escape, and if you’re paranoid, you can always have a small desk fan blowing on it. Also keep in mind some of the later bread bin releases may have heat issues from the cost reduced RF shield. These are mostly in PAL territory releases. But again, keeping things cool can help mitigate a problem.

With that out-of-the-way, you’ll want to start gaming. But what else will you need? This depends a bit on what territory you’re in, and whether or not you plan to do any importing. Since I’m in the US, I’ll focus on that, but I’ll touch a bit on other parts of the world in a bit. When the C64 arrived on the scene, games for it started out on cartridge. They had about as much space as the ones found on consoles that were out at the time. Not every user had an external drive right away either, so it made sense for publishers to put games on cartridges. Some of the earliest software also came on cartridges, and this even includes diagnostic software, which may or may not work depending on the hardware issue. If applicable you can turn on the computer with a diagnostic cartridge, and it will let you run simple tests to determine if a chip has gone bad.  But this isn’t always a sure thing, since some hardware failures won’t give you anything other than the blackness of space on your screen. More on that later.

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So a lot of the earliest stuff was out on cartridge. Activision ported many of its console games to the C64 including H.E.R.O., Beamrider, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, and River Raid. But there were a number of great games on cartridge. Eventually however, publishers found alternatives that gave developers more space at a lower cost. The first of these were cassette tapes. Games, and other programs could be published on audio cassettes. These were also cheap, and so many titles started being released on cassette.

In order to run these programs you’ll need a datasette drive. These are basically old school cassette decks. If you want an in-depth look at how these worked, I highly recommend this video from the 8-Bit Guy. In European territories this is the format nearly all of the biggest titles came on, due to the lower production costs. There is one thing for newcomers to be aware of though, and that’s long load times. A lot of larger games on tape can take minutes to load. In the grand scheme of things it isn’t that big a deal. Even today’s console games can take eons to load if you’re playing them off disc, rather than installing them. Still, if you’re short on patience, you’ll need to learn to gather some if you need to run a game off of cassette.

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In North America, prices of writable media began to fall after a while though, and so many games began the move to 5.25″ Floppy Diskettes. these eliminated the storage concerns for a long time. When they cropped up again, many developers simply made games that took multiple disks to get through. To play these games you’ll need a 1541 or a 1541-II floppy diskette drive. There were a few aftermarket drives as well like The Enhancer 2000. In the USA, nearly every notable game came on floppy diskette. Even games that were previously released on cartridge or cassette tape. Most games released on floppy take a lot less time to load over cassette releases. However they’re not quite as fast as one would hope due to a slow port speed. To help with this, there are a number of Fast Loader cartridges you can get. These take some of the load off, and do shave some time off of loading. Again, 8-Bit Guy has a great video on the specifics of how this worked that I won’t go into here. Just know, that an Epyx Fast Load cartridge, or equivalent is something you want if you’re going to play games on Floppy Diskettes.

Once you have all of those in order, you’ll probably want to look into controllers. Most games took advantage of joysticks, though many also had keyboard binds. Almost any controller with a DB9 connector will fit the ports. Atari 2600 joysticks, Sega Genesis pads, and so on. However, it is NOT recommended you use a Sega Genesis pad, because the Sega Genesis pad draws more power than the controller ports need, so there is the chance you can blow a controller port in the process. So it’s best to stick to controllers built with either the C64, or Atari 2600 in mind. My controller of choice is the Slik Stik by Suncom. But there are no shortage of joystick options. Note that some games still utilized two button schemes, at a time when nearly all controllers were one button controllers. The work around most developers went with, was using the space bar.  Depending on the title it may take a little getting used to. In slower paced games it’s rarely a problem, in action games, you’ll want the joystick right in front of the computer so you can easily press the space bar when you need to.

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Now the thing to remember is, this is still a computer platform. So you can do more than game on it. In fact if you’re willing to learn the Commodore variant of BASIC, you can code your own homebrew games for the machine. Which a lot of people did. So you may even have fun tracking down old, defunct Commodore 64 themed magazines. Some of them have been archived like the entire run of Ahoy!. Not only do you get the sensation you feel when looking at an old Nintendo Power, you get programs. Long before the advent of getting a CD full of demos with your game magazine, computer magazines had program articles. You could type in these programs, save them to a diskette, and run them whenever you wanted. Many of them were written entirely in BASIC, although some were written in machine language, and you typed them into a HEX editor program. But you could save them to diskette! Some of these were really good too, like Mystery At Mycroft Mews, where you had to go around a town as detectives, solve murders, and bring the right suspect to trial.

Aside from gaming, there are a wealth of old productivity, and business programs you can find, but honestly, they’re not really going to be much value beyond the history. It is nice to see the original Print Shop in action, or some of the word processors of the time. But you’re probably not going to send your masterpiece novel to a literary agent on a 5.25″ Floppy these days. Still, you can still find old dot matrix printers, and the ribbons though they’re getting scarce.

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But in the more interesting range you can find things like the Koala pad, which is one of the earliest graphics tablets. You could draw with a stylus, and save your art to diskette. There were a bunch of clones that came afterward. But if you draw on a modern Wacom graphics tablet, and wonder where the earliest versions of the tech came from, their infancy took place on 8-bit home computers. You can also find the original 300 baud modems, that let users connect to services like Quantum Link back then (LazyGameReviews did a wonderful video on that service.) But these days, there are homebrew network cards, and browsers tinkerers can invest in.

One of the craziest things I have in my collection is the Hearsay 1000. A cartridge, and software combo that reads whatever you type, back to you. In a kind of creepy robot voice. The software is far from perfect, it doesn’t account for pronunciation, so it can only read things as they are spelled. So if you type in the name “Barbara” it will say it back as “Bar-Bar-A”. But this is where stuff like Dragon Naturally Speaking got its start. Building off of this early tech, or properly doing what it was trying to. If you find a Hearsay 1000, don’t use it while playing games with voice samples. It will yell “HEARSAY ONE THOUSAND!”, and then crash the computer. Then you’ll have to turn it off, disconnect the module, and turn it back on. Then load your game again. Considering you’re going to wait a while for Ghostbusters to load again, best to know that up front.

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Of course not too long ago, I reviewed the SD2EIC. This is a must own peripheral because you can make disk images, or download images of stuff you own to an SD Card. It’s also great if you do happen to have old disks with personal files on them, and want to save those along with your other programs. Plus the load times, are dramatically cut down.

One also needs to take into account the difference between PAL, and NTSC territories If they plan on importing. A lot of really great games including some of the best were exclusive to Europe. While most of these are playable on a North American C64, the speed differences can often lead to all kinds of glitches. Random characters popping up, graphics showing up in grayscale rather than in color, some extreme cases will involve lock ups, and crashes. One can convert their computer via modifying it, but this isn’t recommended if you don’t know your way around altering a circuit board. My advice is to either deal with the glitches if you import a game or follow the purist. Purists will import a PAL C64, peripherals, and either a PAL monitor or else using a scaler with their HDTV to run a native 50 hz signal from the computer. You’ll also want a power converter as the electrical outlets, and standards are different. If you’re in a PAL territory, and you want some of the NTSC exclusives, you’ll see similar issues. So again, purists will want to import an NTSC setup, and use a power converter.

While some of this may get a little complicated, it is worth the plunge. Once you have a fully functional C64 setup, there really isn’t anything else like it.  The unique sound of its sound chip (known as the SID) is popular to this day. The wide, and varied library gets you a large variety of original games, multi platform games, and arcade ports. As is the case with every platform you’ll find a lot of good games, some truly great games, and a fair number of bad ones. I highly recommend visiting Lemon64 for its wealth of information, and its game archive. Plus they have a very helpful community if you do run into issues. Thanks to them I discovered a wonderful hobbyist who does repairs, and builds a lot of high quality homebrew accessories, and power supplies. When my C64c gave me a dreaded Black Screen Of Death last month I got in contact with Ray Carlsen, After some back, and forth messaging I ended up sending him the machine. Having some background in PC repairs, and upgrades I had taken it apart, checked the motherboard, found no bad capacitors. The fuse was intact, and working. I didn’t see any corrosion on chips. But I had no way to test them, and I was stumped. Well he was able to determine I had a minor issue with my power connector, and that my PSU was on its way out. He installed a breaker to prevent the components from frying from a bad PSU. I also ordered one of his homebrew PSUs. When the computer came back, not only was everything working the way it is supposed to, but he somehow got it looking much newer than when I had sent it in. Now he isn’t a traditional business, so he doesn’t do bulk jobs. Don’t go looking to send him 50 broken C64 computers. That isn’t what he is about. But he’ll charge you a fair price to fix a single machine, and take a look at some of his PSU models. With the originals drying up, it can’t hurt to have a spare.

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The Commodore 64 may have been a home computer, but it was one of the most important platforms in video game history. It’s where many games went after the infamous crash in North America, and even after the rise of the NES it still retained a viable market share. In Europe it was also a major contender throughout the 80’s, and 90’s. Although there are some things to be aware of if you want to begin collecting for one, it can be a rewarding experience. Prices fluctuate constantly, but expect to spend between $50 – $150 for a working model with a good PSU. With that alone, you’ll be set for any cartridge games. But chances are you’ll want some of the higher profile releases. A 1541 Floppy drive will set you back about $50. There are deals out there to be had, but many of the cheap ones aren’t tested, so you may be buying a worn out drive. On the budget end though, Datasette drives are fairly inexpensive. So keep an eye out for one of those.

Then, you’ll be ready to pick up some C64 games! Just like on retro consoles, some games are cheap, and common. Some are rare, and expensive. A lot of times you can make out well, by buying lots. A lot of games don’t require anything beyond a floppy diskette, cartridge or cassette. But there are games that have manual protection. So do some research on a title before you buy it. For example, you’ll want to look for complete copies of certain RPGs as they require a code wheel, or manual as a means of copy protection. (IE: Type in the first word in the third paragraph on page 13.) Plus it’s nice to have the manuals, and keyboard overlays for flight sims, RPGs, or point, and click adventure games. Action genres usually didn’t have these vast control schemes requiring hot keys. But a handful did use manual protection so make sure the game you’re interested in isn’t one of them if you’re looking at a loose copy.

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Also be sure to keep your disk based games in sleeves when you’re not using them, and don’t let them get too hot or cold. Definitely keep them away from magnets, as that will corrupt the disk, and destroy your game. It was a lesson we children learned quickly back when home computers were first gaining prominence.  Finally, the Commodore 64, and other computers of the era were powered by variants of Microsoft BASIC. So you’ll need to know a few basic (Ha, ha!) commands. The most important being LOAD”*”,8,1 which for all intents, and purposes tells the disk drive to load the first file on a disk (Usually the executable) into memory. Then when the computer says ‘READY” you can simply type “RUN”, press RETURN, and fire up your game.

That should about do it this time. But keep in mind how many great things the retro games, and computing scene keeps pumping out for the mighty C64. Here’s hoping the new motherboards, network cards, card readers, and even homebrew games continue preserving one of gaming’s most iconic platforms.

 

 

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

SD2EIC Drive Review

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It’s no secret I’m a huge Commodore fan. As a child in the 80’s, I started gaming on the seminal Atari 2600. It’s a timeless system for many reasons, and I still fire it up a lot today. But when my father came home with a Commodore 64 bread bin it quickly became the de facto platform in our household. When the company redesigned the computer, and sold a cheaper junior model, my father bought one, and donated the old one to relatives. But from the moment I saw Forbidden Forest running off a cassette tape the first time, I was hooked.

Through the years I played tons of awesome games on it. It wasn’t until I was a Junior in High School that we would move to a modern MS-DOS X86 PC. Because that is how versatile the King of 8-bit computers was. The C64 launched in 1983, and wasn’t discontinued until 1994 when the company went out of business. It’s fondly remembered as a games machine, because it’s where many companies went during the console market crash, and where many indies that became today’s majors got their start.

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It was a big deal here in North America, but it was even bigger in Europe. There are countless games that never officially made it Stateside.  So the platform is also an importer’s dream. Provided of course you’re willing to wade through the landmine of PAL Vs. NTSC concerns.

But whether you’re a North American or European Commodore 64 owner, there’s no denying that over time some of our floppies, and cassettes are slowly wearing out. A lot of our disk drives, and datasette drives are going kaput. With only so many in the wild, it’s going to get harder, and harder to rebuild our beloved collections. But fear not! Thanks to The Future Was 8-bit there is a way to keep the memory alive, on the original hardware.

PROS: An SD Card reader that emulates Floppy, and Cassette drives exceptionally well!

CONS: Not quite everything is compatible.

BUT: Far more than enough is compatible.

At first glance, the SD2EIC just looks like an SD card reader in a cute 1541 floppy drive shaped casing. But it’s no ordinary SD card reader!  This device emulates an actual 1541, and datasette environment. It plugs into either the tape drive slot or the floppy drive slot (depending on the version you order), and the serial DB port.  From here you can put in an SD card with your Commodore 64 program files , and run them natively on the computer!

This can be done a few ways, you can download images (assuming you own the programs in question), or if you have the means, you can back up your files to a computer, and then transfer them to a card.  You can also migrate disk images from the 1541 floppy drive to the SD2EIC. This is a little bit more involved, since you’ll need a couple of extra cables, and you’ll need to find a Compression software that works with the platform. Once you’re set up though, you will be so glad you have one of these.

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The device utilizes a file browser software file you can download which lets you go through a DOS like directory system. This makes it easy for you to organize files, and set them up in an order you feel most comfortable with. The documentation included with the SD2EIC gives you a pretty detailed set of instructions on using it. For basic file browsing though, it is pretty straight forward. You can navigate using either the CRSR Up/Down key, or a joystick in port two. If you don’t feel comfortable configuring the software, you can order a preconfigured card with it. The card has the file browser, and a bunch of programs on it.

If that weren’t enough, the device also has three buttons on it which are used when using programs that require multiple disks. This is handy when running a game or other program, that would normally involve flipping a diskette over, or putting in the next diskette when prompted. Here you have forward, backward, and reset buttons which you can press in these situations. Two of the buttons also act as the power, and load/save LEDs on the 1541 floppy drive. It’s really cool, and a nice touch to an already great experience.

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The SD2EIC can read all kinds of C64 file images. It can run D64, T64 files as well as PRG files. Again, it can also run them sequentially. But the device can also save files. This makes the unit very attractive to budding BASIC programmers. If you know your way around code, you can use this in lieu of a floppy diskette drive. This is a great way to save your projects without fear of a 1541 drive dying, or your diskette wearing out, and your data going with it. Plus even a relatively small SD card can house thousands of programs, and files due to the small file sizes on a typical 5.25″ Floppy Diskette. It’s compatible with both NTSC, and PAL machines too, though if you put PAL files on your card, and run it on an NTSC machine you’ll likely experience the same random glitches, video issues, or occasional crashes you would if you were to run an imported game on floppy.

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One of the things that really impressed me was the build quality. Most commercial SD card readers, even ones made by big industry names can be flimsy. The SD2EIC I received is superb. It’s built with plastic made by recycling broken Commodore 64, and 128 computer cases. It’s sturdy, and even the cabling feels secure. It isn’t something you can be careless with, but it can withstand shuffling around your set up.

There are a handful of minor issues with the drive. The first is that you do not want to accidentally grab the wrong controller if you have two of them plugged in. Doing so will exit you out of the program, and drop you back to the BASIC prompt. The second is that the SD2EIC doesn’t emulate a 1541 drive at 100%. That’s because the 1541 floppy drive is powered by another MOS 6502 CPU just like the stock Commodore 64 computer. So there are a handful of programs that won’t work due to being written in a way that utilizes the 1541 floppy drive in a specific way.

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Nevertheless, I can still tell you that the SD2EIC is a must own peripheral for any Commodore 64 collector. The wealth of pros outweigh the cons of a few incompatible programs out there. Especially when you consider just how versatile it is. The ability to run backup images alone, is something that should put this on your radar. With 5.25″ diskettes drying up, breaking down, and working 1541 drives dying from old age, this is a very welcome peripheral for preservation. Plus, budding indie developers have a means for their BASIC, and Assembly language projects to be stored on a modern format.

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It’s amazing how many wonderful homebrew products keep coming out for this legendary machine. Over the last three decades there have been Ethernet cards, a web browser, and even a new motherboard! But this drive is going to be more, and more sought after as time goes on. And, as these are made from recycled Commodore computers, you may want to get one before they dry up. It is truly a must own peripheral for anyone interested in Commodore.

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Now it should be noted there are other ways to get the SD2EIC. You can buy the circuit board, and daughter board from NKC Electronics. It’s nice if you’re good at assembling your own casings, and doing your own electronics assembly, or repair. But going with this specific one makes things very convenient. Plus the use of recycled computers to make the attractive casing is a nice touch that keeps them out of the landfill. I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s true. TheFutureWas8Bit has really outdone themselves with this one. Whether you’re a long time fan, or new to Commodore. Get yourself an SD2EIC from them. You won’t be sorry. Even the care put into the shipping packaging will astound you.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Black Belt Review

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Throughout the history of video games, we’ve seen many cases where the same game can look markedly different between regions of the world. Probotector is one of the most memorable of these, as censorship in Germany saw Konami replace the soldiers in Contra with robots. Other than that, same game. Probotector was released in its robot, and non robot state throughout Europe on many computers as Gryzor.  But there are countless other examples. Today’s game was originally an anime tie-in.

PROS: Cool sprite effects. Solid controls.

CONS: Strange changes.  Poorer artwork than the alternate game.

LAZY: The box art. At least draw an entire character!

Hokuto No Ken, (more famously known as Fist Of The North Star) is one of the most recognized anime franchises of all time. But it wasn’t always so. Centering around a warrior in a post-apocalyptic future, it was widely known in Japan. It started life as a manga, and was later adapted into an anime. When anime became huge in the US in the 90’s it was one of the most popular shows newcomers gravitated to.  But in the early 1980’s it never officially came stateside. Only the most die-hard American anime fans knew about importing shows. Beyond that, the handful of shows we did get, were heavily cut, edited, or combined with other shows to make new shows.

Anyway, in Japan Fist Of The North Star would see a few releases across multiple platforms. It wasn’t until 1989 when we would see an official game by Taxan on the NES. But, believe it or not, we did see one before 1989. We would see Sega bring us a Fist Of The North Star game in 1986 on the Sega Master System. Albeit without the license intact.  In Japan it would retain all of the likenesses to the show it was based on. But since we wouldn’t get the show until 1989, Sega reasoned we wouldn’t know what was going on. Which is weird considering we got Zillion in all of its anime glory a year later.

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Be that as it may, they gave us the game under the alternate title Black Belt. Black Belt is the exact same game, except that nearly every piece of artwork has been altered, or replaced. Enemies. Background art. Our main character. The bosses. Everything. But this is still something you may want to check out. Whether you’re a fan of Hokuto No Ken or not.

Black Belt is a lot like early beat ’em ups like Irem’s Kung Fu Master. You’ll move in one direction killing, or avoiding enemies until you get to the end. What makes the game a bit different is the addition of mini bosses, bosses, and some violent imagery to boot. Granted, the original version is darker. But Black Belt’s grunts still explode when punched in the face, or kicked in the stomach.

So you’ll continue along blowing people up, and occasionally super jumping into the air to catch sushi, and kanji symbols for health. Every so often you’ll come across a mini boss. These guys are 1 on 1 match ups, that rely on memorizing patterns to win. Start going at them all fists blazing, and you’ll probably lose a life. But taking some time to learn when to strike will make these fights more manageable. A couple of stages have several mini boss fights in them. After defeating them, you will continue fighting waves of  grunts until you reach the boss.

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Boss fights change the game play a bit. The perspective in these matches is zoomed in, so the action resembles a tournament fighting game rather than a brawler. Just like the mini boss fights, each of these has a bit of a pattern to figure out. Boss fights are a bit harder though, because they won’t always use the same attacks in the same sequence. So there is a bigger importance on patience. Some runs through the game, you may take down a boss quickly, but other times you’ll be doing a lot of hit, and run tactics. Keep in mind that you’re also on a time limit too, so you’ll have to work smart.

Visually Black Belt isn’t half bad most of the time. Backgrounds are bright, colorful, and detailed. Most of the standard enemy characters have really cool designs too. The mini bosses are pretty awesome most of the time, with only a couple of them getting rather silly. The Bosses are a different matter. All of them pale in comparison to their Japanese counterparts. Garish, and corny these guys are some of the silliest bad guys you’ll ever see in a game. Things fare better on the musical front with some honestly catchy chip tune melodies in the soundtrack. Not all of it is great, some of it is banal background noise. But when the music is good, it’s good.

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It’s a short 5 stage run, but it controls well through it all. I still recommend using a Genesis pad or the Sega Control Stick over the stock Control Pad. Everything feels pretty solid, and responsive. The stock controller will sometimes have you going in the wrong direction or crouching when you don’t want to due to the mushy directional pad. But not often enough to ruin the experience either.

Even though the shift to generic characters, and backgrounds makes for a less exciting environment, Black Belt is still one of the better early brawlers. It manages to be interesting even though it looks uninspired. There isn’t much of a story outside of rescuing your girlfriend from a street gang. The usual B movie plot device of most brawlers. Be that as it may, if you’re collecting for the Master System, pick it up. It’s inexpensive, and has an interesting history behind it. Especially if you’re a fan of the anime that inspired its original Japanese release.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Beach Head II: The Dictator Strikes Back Review

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These days, there are all kinds of wonderful death match experiences. From Rise Of The Triad onward, First-person shooters have given players hours of competitive multiplayer. But back in the golden age, not as many games did this. Oh sure, there was the quest for the high score. However, many games had you on the same side, or alternating turns while competing for points. But when Beach Head came out it had a novel idea. Combining several games resulting in a really fun campaign. The sequel took that idea on step further.

PROS: Well crafted. As fun today, as it was when it came out years ago.

CONS: Last stage can go on too long between two great players.

MEDIC: The voice samples are some of the most memorable quips in a video game.

Beach Head II is one of the best competitive multiplayer games ever made. Released two years after the original game, it made one little change to its formula. This completely changed the dynamics of the game in this sequel. Instead of alternating turns, this game casts one player as the heroic army, and the other player as the dictator’s evil forces. The core concept is intact. There are a set number of scenes, each acting as its own arcade style game. Once that game is played, things move onto the next game, and so on. This tapestry of games, makes for an overall campaign, and storyline. Beach Head takes place during World War II. But the setting in this sequel is more contemporary.

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The first stage is an invasion. Player one air drops a squadron onto the shore, and from here they have to storm the Bastille. Player two has to do everything in their power to keep the heroes from getting inside, by using a giant turret. As the second player fires down upon the walls, the first player has to move combatants one by one, to the entrance. They can scale walls, or run down toward the next set. If they get to the bottom, they’ll succeed.  The more combatants they can get down to the bottom the better prepared for the following stage. This is also the moment you’ll see something else that makes the game memorable. This is one of the earliest computer games that implemented voice samples.

When one of the allied combatants get shot, it plays one of four samples. These are looped so the deaths will vocalize the same pattern of phrases. Even still, these are pretty great for the time, and are still pretty memorable. There are other samples that play in later stages too. Now one may think the odds are against the allied forces, and they are. But the heroes can throw grenades at the dictator’s turret. A successful throw will destroy it for big points, and the soldier will make it in, as a replacement turret spawns in.

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Stage two sees the allies taking control of the turret, and firing into the dictator’s military installation. Here the object is to provide prisoners cover as they try to shuffle along, and escape. The person playing dictator, can summon tanks, combat jeeps, a bomb expert to set traps, and even a guy on a roof dropping rocks onto the prisoner. Points are awarded to the allies for every successful rescue, while the dictator gets points for successfully murdering prisoners.

The third stage is a helicopter escape mission. The allied player loads the chopper with liberated soldiers, and attempts to get away. It’s a shmup level, but the dictator can control the many vehicles in an attempt to shoot down the chopper. If they’re successful the round starts again, with the allies trying to shuttle out any remaining prisoners. Obviously the allies get huge bonus points if they can successfully dodge all of the dictator’s assaults.

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The final stage sees the leader of the allies facing off against the dictator himself. Each on a pier facing each other. They throw knives at each other. After landing a few hits the victor will see their opponent fall into the sea. This battle goes on for ten matches. This is where the game’s one major flaw comes into play. The final battle can go on far too long. Once you have two evenly matched players, they can easily duck out, sidestep, and otherwise dodge dagger throws. A 30 minute match up of fun, can quickly become a several hour affair due to the last battle. In hindsight Access Software should have made this a two out of three falls match.

Be that as it may, the final battle is still a lot of fun thanks in part to the nice animation, and splendid sound samples. Hearing the dictator exclaim “YOU CAN’T HURT ME!” is a pretty rewarding experience. Once all of the modes are done, the final score is tallied letting you know which army was victorious.

Aside from the voice samples, the sound effects are really good. Explosions, gun fire, and other sounds are all a cut above most other games of the time. There is also a really nice chip tune of the US Marines theme song. Visually the game still holds up pretty nicely. The sprites all have a great use of shading techniques to portray details. And while not every thing is graphically impressive, it does an awful lot, with a little.

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Now in addition to the full on campaign, you can play the individual stages instead. This is nice if you really enjoy a specific level more than the other ones. But for most who go back, and play this one, going through the campaign together is really what makes things fun. One can also play through the game on their own as the allies. There are three difficulty levels, and the higher you go the more punishing it is. The highest difficulty is notoriously difficult, as the computer will rarely make a mistake. If you have nobody to play it with, it’s a fun ride. But the real entertainment comes from competing with a friend. I spent many Saturdays, and afternoons playing this with my brother, and friends from school back in the 80’s. It was one of the most fun multiplayer experiences on the Commodore 64.

But Beach Head II was also published on other computers of the time. If you collect for the Apple II or Atari 400/800 line, you can also find this game for those platforms. If you happen to live in Europe, you can also find versions for the Amstrad CPC, and the ZX Spectrum. No matter how you play it though, this is one awesome head to head game worth picking up if you have the chance.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Some advice from a collector.

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

Keep everything. (At first)

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

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Focus.

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

Network.

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

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

Don’t be a completionist.

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

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

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

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Embrace importing.

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

There’s no shame in Digital Distribution.

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

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Take a risk on mystery games.

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

Make sure you’re getting authentic games.

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

Get out of your comfort zone.

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

Go where nobody else is going.

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

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

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

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

Don’t lose sight of what’s important.

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

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Don’t think of your collection as an investment.

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

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

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

Have fun.

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

Towering Inferno Review

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Coming off the heels of a Zelda game, I doubt very many folks are going to be excited to see me talking about a game, based on a movie, on the humble Atari 2600.  It wasn’t the most acclaimed disaster film. To the younger crowd it may look too simple. Plus, 9 times out of 10 a game based on a film has turned out craptacular. E.T., gets an undeserved video game badge of awful. (It is, but there are far worse games out there.), There are no less than five, poorly received versions of Shrek out there, and there was even a bad Catwoman game based off an already panned Catwoman movie.

But sometimes, we are greeted with average, or even good movie licensed games. Goldeneye 007,  The Star Wars Arcade machine,  and Towering Inferno here. So often the thing that makes the adaptations go awry, is not staying close enough to the source material. Goldeneye tried to be a video game re-enactment. The Star Wars Arcade machine, focused on recreating one of the biggest moments in the film. But this game doesn’t do very much of that.

PROS: A frantic game with some risk vs. reward fun.

CONS: Not the best looking 2600 game. Poor sound.

FAVOR: The odds are not in yours.

The Towering Inferno was a disaster movie. We’ve had a few of them over the last couple of decades. There was a higher frequency of them in the late 1970’s though, and while it has some hokey moments, it remains one of the more memorable films of its ilk. This is due to a large cast composed of some of the best actors of the time. Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, even Fred Astaire were all in it. It also had some pretty good practical effects for the time. It gets played mainly these days on cable channels. Usually when nothing else is on in the afternoon on a Saturday. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. The synopsis is basically that an elaborate building was made. But stingily, and so a fire easily breaks out. This traps hundreds of people inside, and Steve McQueen has to lead the fire department in a rescue attempt.

The game version takes some liberties. There is a skyscraper, and it is on fire. But you’re an unnamed fireman. And there are nine buildings on fire. Not just one. At first glance, you won’t know what to make of things. You’ll see the tower, engulfed in flames, and then a helicopter landing. From there you’re immediately thrust into a screen, where the only two recognizable things, are your fireman, and the flames.

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But once you realize exactly what you’re supposed to do, it really does become an engrossing game. The screen is actually, a top down view of the floor plan. At the top of the floor is a white block, this represents the people you need to rescue. They’re also represented by a meter of stick figures along the top of the screen. The object is to get your fireman to the white block, and then carry the white block back to safety.

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But, in spite of the primitive graphics this is a pretty deep game. Towering Inferno has punitive things rarely seen in games of the era. For example, it isn’t just enough to get the survivors out, you have to get them out in time. You’ll hear a tone to let you know you’re about to run out of time, and when you do another tone will sound off. When that tone sounds off, a stick figure on your survivor bar along the top will disappear. Basically, the people you need to rescue can die of smoke inhalation. If all of the people die from smoke inhalation you lose. If all of your firemen are incinerated in the blaze, you lose.

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With this description, I’m sure some of you are asking yourselves “This game sounds impossible! How can this possibly be any good?”. The truth is, Towering Inferno may be a very difficult game, but there is a fun in the madness. When you get your fireman inside, you can  shoot your hose, up or down. You have to carefully maneuver between the flames to get to the survivors. You can clear the flames above or below you with water, but there isn’t a big emphasis on putting out the fire. You get 1 point for every flame you extinguish, but you get 25 points for every successful rescue. So you have to decide when it is worth going for the rescue. Often times you’ll find clearing one side of the floor might make it easier for you to get the people out. But chances are a few people will die when you spend a chunk of time putting out fire.

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Now, you can technically put out all of the fire on the floor, which will stop the survivors from dying altogether. If you’re successful, you can then easily take them out of the building. But this way is almost impossible to pull off. Because again, even if you can, there’s a good chance the fire will claim at least one victim. More often than not, you’ll need to quickly clear a small path, and rush to the door, then carefully make your way back. If you touch one of the fireballs on the way there or back however, your fireman dies, and the people go back to their original hiding place. I should also note the fires don’t stay in one place, they tend to move around a lot. So you also have to predict where it is going to go next.

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But if you are successful, you’ll see the helicopter land on the street, and the survivors run to an off-screen hospital for immediate treatment. The more that survive, the better. But you only need one person to live to continue on. If you can manage to get at least one survivor per floor, you’ll be greeted with victory music, and accompanying flashing lights. But the game isn’t over there. You get sent onto the next tower. The game version of Towering Inferno should have been called Towering Infernos. Because there are 9 buildings to get through.

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The game also has a bunch of difficulty modes. If you hit the Game Select switch, you’ll find the second mode lets you continue after losing all of your lives. This kind of defeats the challenge somewhat, but makes it a bit more possible to see all of the buildings. The third mode is what the game refers to as a practice mode. Basically, the game goes on forever, because if you lose, the floor you’re on starts over. You really don’t want to bother with it, unless you just want to blow through the different mazes.

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There are also two-player modes in the game. These follow the same rules as the single-player modes, just with two people alternating turns. Playing two-player match ups are a blast though, adding some competition to an already challenging experience. You can also turn flames in the walls on or off with the difficulty switches. Set to hard you can’t really see where they’ll burst out of a wall, where on easy you can. You can’t put out fire hidden in walls though, you have to wait for it to jump out.

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If you can look past the primitive graphics, you’ll find this game is pretty good. The gameplay has held up well over the years. I recommend using either a first-party 2600 joystick,  a Genesis game pad, or a Suncom Slik-Stik if you can find one. Any of these have more responsive movement which you’ll need in later stages. As you can imagine, the game gets harder as time goes on. Movement can be a little sticky at times, but nothing too bad. The sounds are the one area it isn’t up to standard on, but not so bad you can’t deal with them. Towering Inferno is far from the best game on the system, but it is one of the more interesting ones as well. Moreover, it’s a pretty good game, based on a film. You might want to add it to your retro collection if for no other reason. It’s not particularly rare or expensive either. If you’re collecting 2600 games, and don’t have it, check it out.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Sega Control Stick Review

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So you’ve got your Sega Master System, or Power Base Converter for your Genesis. You’re all set to play some Alien Syndrome or Penguin Land using your Genesis game pad. Because that mushy directional square on the Master System controller just doesn’t work as nicely. But wait! For some weird mapping reason, these games just don’t respond to your Genesis pad. You look online to see that you can clip one wire inside to make it work, but this will relegate your Genesis pad to Master System status forever! Fear not! There are other ways!

PROS: Pretty sturdy construction. More responsive in many games.

CONS: Left handed layout may take getting used to. Not as responsive in some games.

ADVANTAGE: Hard to say. But not going to look as nice as the NES Advantage.

If you’re upset with the performance level of the stock Master System controller you’re not alone. It’s serviceable, but in some games, the mushy pad makes you go down when you meant to go right. Or on a northern arc, when you thought you were pressing left. Sometimes a direct line of movement simply doesn’t happen when it should. Many collectors use a Sega Genesis pad. This works in most games, but there are a handful that don’t work with a never modified Genesis controller. Modifying one also kills the compatibility with the Genesis in the process. To avoid that, some have even gone as far as paying for custom controllers. While this is a wonderful option one can take advantage of, it’s usually pretty expensive. Not everyone collecting 8-bit Sega stuff can invest in one.

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Enter Sega’s Control Stick! It’s an arcade style joystick for the Master System, originally released in 1987. Right away, you’ll notice it has a sturdy build. It doesn’t feel flimsy in any regard at all. The base is nice, and hefty. The 1, and 2 buttons feel pretty good, and responsive.  The stick itself is also pretty solid. Everything goes the way it is supposed to, and it has a knob molded  like the shift stick on the Outrun arcade cabinet.

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In terms of build, this is pretty good, and may be something you’ll want to track down. I put it through the paces with a bunch of games. Alien Syndrome benefited greatly from the Control Stick. It was much easier to get going on direct paths, with far less accidental diagonal runs into enemies. The Control Stick also worked very well with Space Harrier, and After Burner. Moving around was very simple, and shooting things down went very well. It doesn’t replicate the arcade experience, but it is a bit better than playing with the stock pad. I also had a pretty good experience playing R-Type with it.

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Unfortunately not every game is well suited to the Control Stick. Double Dragon was still much easier to play with the Control Pad, as getting the two buttons down to jump kick was more accessible. Shinobi wasn’t any worse, but it also wasn’t what I would call better. Golden Axe was better in some regards, like pulling off the shoulder block. But in others it was worse, like trying to control the beast mounts. So really you don’t need to go beyond the Control Pad for either of those games. Platformers like Alex Kidd in Miracle World, and Psycho Fox also felt easier to play on the Control Pad, rather than the Control Stick.

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One point of contention some may have with the Control Stick is that it’s set in a left-handed orientation. I personally didn’t have any trouble adjusting to it, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily won’t. That being said, I don’t think it will be a major issue for most players. The Control Stick is also shaped in a way that you really can’t sit on the floor with one. You’ll either have to lie on the floor, or sit at the coffee table to use it. As solid as the base is, it can be easy to knock over due to the small size. It is also no frills, offering no extras, like turbo buttons, or other functions.

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Despite its faults I’d still recommend getting a Control Stick. Especially if you’re someone who loves playing Sega’s arcade shooter ports, or any of the Master System’s shmups. You can play other games with it for the most part, but it’ll be a mixed bag. Some games fare better, a few worse, and many not all that different. It’s also worth picking up for the handful of cartridges that won’t work with an unmodified Sega Genesis controller. This way you don’t have to break compatibility with your Genesis by modifying the controller. It’s also a curious piece to add to your SMS collection.

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The fact it also uses a stock DB9 connector means that it is also a great joystick for the Atari 2600, or Commodore 64. If you’re a retro games collector, you may have either of these in your collection. The Sega Control Stick has some versatility for you in this situation. It may not be the absolute best controller around, but it is a very good one worth owning. Particularly if you love Sega Master System shooters, or own multiple platforms from gaming’s early days.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Alien Syndrome Review

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Double Dragon IV Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 7 out of 10