Tag Archives: Retro themed games

Mega Man 11 Review

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After Mega Man 10 came out nearly a decade ago, Capcom slowly went silent on the Blue Bomber. One of their most prolific franchises, Mega Man has always been known for its excellent action platforming, wonderful characters, and excellent soundtracks. Other than perhaps Street Fighter,  the series is synonymous with the company name. After Keiji Inafune (the most recognized name attached to the character) left Capcom, however We rarely ever saw a mention of Capcom’s most recognizable series, or any of its spinoffs. For years many wondered why. Leading up to the release of Mega Man 11 here, the game’s director Kazuhiro Tsuchiya was interviewed by Game Informer. He reasoned that after Inafune left Capcom, the company wasn’t certain they could do an entry on the same level of the previous ten games.

PROS: Great visuals. Level design. Gear System is an excellent new mechanic.

CONS: The soundtrack, while good, doesn’t reach the lofty heights of older games.

NICE: The little touches you’ll notice throughout the adventure.

Well thank God the people behind this iteration decided to step up, and take a risk. Because Mega Man 11 is pretty great. It gives long time fans the challenging action-platforming they’ve come to expect. But it also builds upon the foundation that was solidified way back in 1987. In a way, they could have come out screaming “THIS AIN’T YOUR DADDY’S MEGA MAN!”, and they would be accurate. But before some of you worry, that proverbial Father will still find a lot to love about Mega Man 11.

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The storyline is tied to the game’s fancy new mechanic; The Double Gear System. Basically, Mega Man has two new powers he can use temporarily for a few seconds by pressing the corresponding shoulder button. Pressing the left shoulder button increases his attack power immensely. Pressing the right shoulder button temporarily allows Mega Man to go into a bullet time state like in the Max Payne games. Everything will go into slow motion, allowing you to quickly move around obstacles, and attacks.

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The emphasis however is on that word; temporary. You’ll only have a few seconds to use these powers. If you go beyond that, you’ll overcharge the move, and you won’t be able to use it again for several moments. So you really can’t rely solely on this feature to get through the entire game. But throughout the many stages you will reach sections where you may just find them helpful enough that you don’t lose a life.  In any event when you start the game you’ll find like most of the series, there’s an opening run of cinema screens that set up the arc. This time around Dr. Wily remembers back in his youth he created the Double Gear System. A device that accelerates the speed, and power of robots. But his research was barred when most of the other scientists in the community including Dr. Light feared (with good reason) the horrors that could arise from its abuse. Being the quintessential evil mad scientist, he decides all of these decades later to implement it. He kidnaps the latest run of Dr. Light’s robots, programs them for evil purposes, and installs the tech in them.

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Par the course, Rock begs Dr. Light to install the technology in himself when it is brought to his attention that he likely wouldn’t be able to stop Dr. Wily without it. So Dr. Light reluctantly does so, thus setting up the campaign’s backdrop. As is the case with the rest of the series, you’re going to go up against each of the Robot Masters. Then move onto Dr. Wily’s latest castle stronghold. Unlike some of the older games like Mega Man 3,4,5, or 6 Capcom doesn’t try to fake you out here. There are no Wily stand in castles to go through before Dr. Wily’s inevitable castle run. However that doesn’t mean that Mega Man 11 is particularly short. Even though it is one of the cut, and dry entries (think Mega Man, Mega Man 2, or Mega Man 7) the stages here are quite long. Every stage in the game now has three checkpoint rooms, and have a fair amount of obstacles to get through. Many of the Robot Masters employ mini boss rooms along the way as well. Sometimes twice.

 

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For those who have not played a classic Mega Man game before, you’re able to choose to play the stages in whichever order you choose. The hook is the Rock/Paper/Scissors mechanic that pertains to the Robot Masters you face at the end of every stage. When you defeat the Robot Master, you acquire their signature attack. Each one of the Robot Masters is weak against one of the other Robot Masters’ attacks. Not only do you need to beat all of the stages, but figuring out which boss is weakest against which attacks makes them more manageable. It’s also useful in determining which order will get you through the game the fastest.

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But even if you don’t figure that out on your initial run there are tools to help you. Returning is Auto’s shop. He’s the giant green robot who crafts items for you to buy with screws. As you collect them from fallen enemies, you can spend them on extra tanks to replenish your weapon ammo, and health meter. You can buy upgrades to your primary weapon, and even some items to negate some of the environmental hazards.  And even seasoned veterans may find themselves picking up lives, and E-Tanks because Mega Man 11 can get pretty difficult at times. Not only are there the expected Mega Man tropes, like robots jumping out of pits you’re trying to jump across, or crumbling structures you’re going across, but many new pitfalls too.

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Mega Man 11 is also very creative. Every Robot Master has a terrific design, and like all Mega Man games, their stages are built around their themes. Acid Man’s stage has many pools in which enemies will throw in chemicals. Each of which makes the pH level more lethal. Torch Man’s stage sends a column of fire after you, disintegrating everything in its path. Bounce Man’s has a deceptively deadly layout. It’s layered with cute looking enemies, bright pastels, and more. But upon further analysis you’ll find it one of the most challenging stages in the entire game. Block Man’s stage has a lot of falling boulders, and even some maze structures you need to get through as quickly as possible. Tundra Man’s stage is the quintessential ice level. But with plenty of wind gusts to make things difficult. Impact Man reminds me a lot of Optimus Prime. But with blades. But his stage feels like a continuation of the Guts Man stage in the original Mega Man. Of course with far more trick jumping, and a dash of Quick Man’s Mega Man II stage. Then there is Fuse Man’s stage. One of the highlights of the game, it involves a lot of puzzles centered around time. Rounding things out is Blast Man’s stage, which involves an evil theme park motif. You could almost place it in a Batman match against the Joker. The little henchmen robots throughout the level are cool because while they’re a nuisance, they’re also necessary. It’s a lot of fun.

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But as hard as the game may be, Mega Man 11 is always fair. When you fail you’ll know the onus is on you. Maybe you panicked, and jumped into something. Maybe you were hit by a laser, and fell down a chasm. Maybe the Robot Master shattered your dreams when you got to them on your last life. In all of these cases you won’t be able to blame anybody else. And yet, there’s something compelling about that. The sort of thing that always makes you want to attempt it again, and chip away until you come out on top.

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But Capcom has also put in multiple difficulty settings this time. The original NES outings usually had but one setting. Mega Man 10 had an easy, and hard setting. Mega Man 11 has four of them. Newcomer sets things up for those of you who have never played a Mega Man title before. Up from that is the Casual setting, which is geared for those who may be lapsed Mega Man fans. Then there’s the Normal setting which is the one geared toward seasoned veterans. But the game also has a Super Hero setting. This setting goes beyond the Normal setting by removing most of the pickups in every level, and increasing the damage enemy attacks do to you. Honestly, the four settings are pretty close to reaching about each player type. If you honestly have never touched a Mega Man game, you may want to get your feet wet with the first one.  Veterans may want to just dive into the Normal setting. But whichever way you decide to go, you’ll have a pretty good time with it. Although there is a sense of pride if you can clear it on one of the higher settings.

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With the well crafted level designs, and bright, colorful visuals that bring it all together one has to wonder if there’s anything wrong with this one. And to be honest, not that much. Again, the characters look like the evolution of Mega Man 8 (PS1/Saturn). The game looks beautiful. The backdrops are high quality, crisp blends of 2D art, and 3D models. Everything looks like it belongs in the Classic series though which is one that mostly appeared on the NES. Even 9, and 10 recreated that 8-bit aesthetic, and sound. But Mega Man 7 (Super NES), and Mega Man 8 took that same style, but updated it for their 16-bit, and 32-bit platforms. So this looks like an extension of those styles. If you ever wished more of the games looked like the artwork in the manuals, and other media you’ll be more than pleased here.

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And again, it isn’t just about how good it looks. It’s that the great visuals fit the narrative of each of the Robot Masters the way it has in all of the mainline games. This is also the first game in the classic series since Mega Man 8 to involve voice acting. It isn’t bad, but your mileage will vary. Some of it veers toward what was done in the PS1/Saturn classic. Bounce Man seems to really elicit memories of fighting Clown Man as the voice work goes for the high-pitched cuteness of an anime archetype. Some of the other actors went in other directions with their respective characters. And all of it works. But you’ll probably enjoy some more than others. As for Mega Man himself, again, he sounds perfectly fine. But if you’re coming into it after Mega Man 8, it’s a completely different take, and delivery. So how much you’ll like it may depend on whether or not you love the way he was portrayed in the eighth installment. As far as the soundtrack goes, it isn’t bad by any means. The electronica goes well with the action, and there are distinctive themes for each of the stages. However, it doesn’t stand out the way the rocking chip tunes of 1-6, 7, 9,and 10 do. The songs in Mega Man 8 also felt more memorable than these do. Be that as it may, I really wouldn’t call any of it bad. Just different, and depending on what you prefer, you may agree or disagree. Which is fine.

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Once you do complete the game though there are a few things here to make you want to play it again. The first being the challenges. As in the last two games, you can try to run a battery of missions with the goal of reaching achievements. Some of these can be done in the main game, but the majority are found here. You can also go to a gallery where you can read bios of all of the major, and minor enemies in the game. They even have the voice samples here so you can listen to them all. There’s not too much else in the way of extras, though on the Switch there is a surprise if you play the demo before playing the full game.

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Overall, I quite liked Mega Man 11. I played through it on Normal, and found that this time out the Robot Masters’ respective stages were as challenging as Dr. Wily’s Castle stages, which isn’t always the case in these games. Even still, I had a fun time. I yelled at myself for messing up at times. But I had fun rising to the challenge, and overcoming the obstacles it threw in my way. Which is the joy that all of these games deliver. All while delivering a new tool for you to use. Which you don’t have to. It is possible to get through the game without touching the Double Gear System. Though you’ll probably want to. At least on some of the tougher bosses. Still, this is a great entry in the long running series, and I can easily recommend it to not only fans, but to almost anyone who is remotely interested in it. It won’t be a cakewalk. But it does have that addictive “One more match.” feeling the series is known for. Don the mantle of the Blue Bomber, and save the world. If only the music could have been *that* much better it would have been perfect. As it stands, it’s still a highly recommended Mega Man game. Or Rock Man if you prefer.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams OWLtimate Edition Review

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Well, it’s been over a week, and I’m slowly on my way back to normal. I feel like I’m being stabbed whenever I cough or sneeze. If I get up or down out of a chair or bed everything is sore, and I can’t pick up anything heavier than 15 pounds for a while. Things were far worse when I first got out of the hospital though, and so it was a nice surprise to find one of my favorite games has gotten a second director’s cut. A super-duper director’s cut. An “Ultimate” edition. A OWLtimate” edition. On the Switch!

PROS: The additions are more substantial than they sound.

CONS: A couple of miniscule bugs. Physical release isn’t very wide.

EARWORMS: The new songs are as catchy, as the rest of the OST.

Well Deviot, you were enamored with the original 2012 release, its expand-alone on PC, and the Director’s Cut that combined both on consoles. Isn’t it a given you would like this too? Why even bother talking about this one? I can already hearing you ask. Sure, it’s no secret I love this game about as much as Mark Bussler loves Truxton. As I talked about way back in the original review, there is so much about the game to like.

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But where most reissues, do a couple of minor things, like clean up some graphics, or add some filters or history lessons  this one does more. The biggest inclusion is the introduction of five new stages. However instead of simply throwing them into a bonus chapter, and being done with it, Black Forest Games has peppered them into the existing worlds. This not only adds the new content into the game, but does it in a way that is going to feel benign to newcomers. At the same time, seasoned veterans will not simply blow through the original stages to get to these new stages.

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The new stages are also very, demanding! In a good way mind you. They’ve been placed near older stages of a similar difficulty level, while at the same time putting in sections that require a mastery of the base mechanics. So they will still feel like a gradual increase in challenge to those who have never played Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams before. But veterans who wish to find every last gem while using the fewest lives possible are probably not hitting one hundred percent on their first attempt either.

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So for those who haven’t played Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams before, and haven’t heard me sing its praises multiple times, this is the gist. Years have passed since the original Commodore 64 game’s time. But the inhabitants of the Dream world haven’t forgotten about those events. So one night as Maria helps her Sister to bed, a vortex opens up, and pulls her though. Giana jumps into the vortex after her, and this is where the main game begins. After being acclimated to the basic controls through a brief section, Giana sees the dragon from the original game swallow Maria whole, before he flies away. So from this point on, you have to go save your Sister from the belly of the beast.

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The meat, and potatoes of the game is this campaign which sprawls four worlds. The first three are the original three worlds (with some new stages peppered in), and the fourth world, the Rise Of The Owlverlord expansion. What really sets this game apart from other platformers is its brilliant use of morphing effects. At the press of a button the world shifts from a bright, cheery dream to a dark, dystopian nightmare. Each stage is filled with puzzles that require you to switch back, and forth between these worlds in order to solve them, and forge ahead. Not only must you get from one end of a stage to the next, you have to worry about your ranking when you do. You’ll be given a star rating at the end of every stage. You can get anywhere from one star to five stars. You have to average around a four star rating in order to open the boss stage in each of the worlds.

 

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So how do you get a good rating? Well the best way is to find as many of the gems in each stage as possible. There are five types, and many of the stages have hundreds to acquire. Blue gems are the standard ones. But there are also red, and yellow gems. This is where the morphing effects come into play, because the red ones can only be collected in the Dream world, while the yellow ones can only be collected in the Nightmare world. Moreover, when Giana shifts the world her abilities change. In the Dream world, she becomes a Punk Rocker, who can dash as a fireball. In the Nightmare world she appears in her trademark outfit, and can slow her fall with a twirl. As you get further in the game, you’ll begin to see where you have to switch between the two forms to get through sections. You’ll also want to have a keen eye for secrets, because it’s how you’ll find the coveted Master gems. These are giant-sized blue gems that are worth around ten gems. Plus they unlock a bunch of concept art!

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You’ll also want to collect the pink colored shield gems when you see them because they allow you to take an extra hit of damage before dying. Keep in mind everything kills you. You have a plethora of enemies. Owls, spiked crates, charging knights, to name a few. But then there are a bunch of obstacles to overcome, and traps to avoid. Saws, spikes, acid pools, boulders, walls that cave in, and then some. There are also moments where an entire section will flood with acid, and you have to go through a gauntlet of obstacles quickly in order to avoid being burned alive. But of course said obstacles will also kill you, so fair warning, Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams is not an easy game. But it does ease you into the challenge. The game slowly introduces new mechanics over time, and you’ll know what you need to do. But it isn’t going to do it for you either. It’s the kind of challenge a lot of old-school games had. Where failure only makes you more determined. Most of the time your deaths don’t feel cheap. When you mess up, you’ll be upset with yourself. Not the game. That said, try not to die more than a few times per stage. Dying less also gives you clout toward getting stars.

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Fortunately, if this sounds too daunting Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams Owltimate Edition, also has a few changes from the initial computer game release that make it both manageable, and involved. Like the previous console iteration’s Director’s Cut, the boss rooms have been converted into stage exits, and the boss rooms are now standalone stages. This makes the run up to a boss a little bit easier in that you won’t have to immediately go into the encounter after a long fought battle through a stage. But at the same time, you’ll still be going into those boss battles, all of which require pattern memorization, and fast reflexes to take down.

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This updated release also has two difficulties, Normal, and Hard. Normal acts as the Easy setting. Some of the sections remove some obstacles, or give players additional aid. Such as putting bridges over spikes, or putting extra shield gems in boss rooms. Hard mode basically plays as the hard mode from the original release. If you manage to clear the four episodes on Hard you’ll unlock Hardcore. Hardcore mode is basically the Hard mode but with no checkpoints. So if you die in a stage, you’ll respawn at the beginning of the stage. You won’t have to grab gems again, but you will be starting over. Of course the point of Hardcore isn’t collecting things anyway, it’s just trying to get from A to B on as few lives as possible. If you can manage to clear Hardcore mode, the game then unlocks Uber Hardcore mode. This tasks you with clearing the entire game on one life. And that means this is also the most difficult version of Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams ever released. At least in terms of this mode. Because now all of the boss encounters are standalone stages, and there are five other stages peppered in on top of those. Good luck to all of the speed runners out there who will be poised to pull that off.

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Speaking of speed running, the game does offer a Time Attack mode where you can play each stage individually, and try to beat the developers’ times. If you can do so, the stage will display a trophy on the stage’s icon. There is also a Score Attack mode where instead of going for time, you’re shooting for a high score. You get big points for gems, and taking out enemies. The game also includes all of the free holiday stages from the PC release, and the DC edition on the PS4/XB1(Digital)/Wii U. These are altered stages from the campaign made more difficult, and reworked with some Halloween, and Christmas decor. It is here you’ll also find an additional tutorial stage that guides you through some of the basic mechanics. I also found it interesting that the game has a surprisingly deep language setting hidden in the options menu. So if for some reason you can’t find this in stores in your area, it makes importing it on cartridge far more attractive if you collect physical games.

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And as in previous releases there are a lot of concept art, and renders you can unlock by finding the Master gems in the campaign. But not only did BFG make another expansion pack worth of stages for this release, they also added in some cut scenes. Now some who have already played the Director’s cut, elsewhere or the Rise Of The Owlverlord expansion on PC may find them familiar. But they’re all new. Except for the ones used in the World 4 stages which are mostly carried over from ROTO. And a lot of them, while still working in a simple, silhouetted, silent film way fill in gaps. You’ll actually get glimpses into the lives of Giana, and Maria outside of the Dream world. And some of it can be surprisingly dark for such an optimistic, care free character. Other clips cover Giana’s search for Maria. Some spend time focusing on Maria, and there is one particularly cool moment where we get to rock out with Chris Huelsbeck!

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Of course, Black Forest Games managed to get Chris, and Machinae Supremacy to come back a third time for a couple of new songs. Once again, these songs shift along with the world as you play. So again, when playing in the Nightmare aesthetic you can hear Chris Huelsbeck’s  New Wave synth compositions, and when in the Dream aesthetic you’ll hear Machinae Supremacy’s SID Metal interpretations. And again, they flow along seamlessly so as you shift back, and forth you’ll be in the same place in either version of the song. It does so much to add to the game’s atmosphere.

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If you haven’t already played the game elsewhere you’ll find the graphics are wonderful. All of the scenery has vivid detail in every little model. Trees, benches, bridges, garden gnomes, mushrooms, and the bones, stones, crumbled structures, gargoyles, and toadstools they shift into are breathtaking. As well as the matte painted backgrounds that add, a nice sense of depth perception to it all. It’s 2.5D after all.  There are a fairly wide variety of settings throughout the game as well. Lush forests, eerie swamps, cold dark castles, and even airships! Again, the level of detail in the textures, and models in the backgrounds is pretty impressive despite the simpler geometry.

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And there are a lot of little touches throughout the game. When climbing bookshelves, you’ll see little pages falling out of books. When you’re twirling your way through the forest you can see leaves blow by in the breeze, and little blue jays fly by in the background. Eventually you’ll run into the gumball machines introduced in Giana Sisters DS. These will put a translucent pink bubble of gum around you, and you have to navigate areas by continually pushing a button while steering with a thumbstick. It’s like Joust. But with gum. There is a lot of creativity on display in this game.

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Plus the characters all manage to have such great details on their models. Giana’s cool little skull has representation on her Punk Rock skirt. You can see the little feathers on the owls. You can see the little buckles on the knights, or the spikes on the blowfish. Even the water sheen on the turtles looks pretty cool. When you get to the dreaded Gurglewocky dragon to save Maria, you’ll even marvel at the level of facial animation on the boss. It’s hard to believe the game is nearly six years old at this point, but it still impresses.

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As much as I’m imploring everyone to check this one out (again), there are a couple of things that keep it just shy of perfection. There are some very minor technical bugs in this release. I ran into one, solitary clipping glitch in my initial run, which made me have to restart the level as I got stuck in a platform. I couldn’t repeat it, so odds are it’s fairly rare. But it was disappointing. I also hit a tiny bit of slowdown in one of the stages in World 4 for about 3 seconds in handheld mode. But the rest of the time, the game seemed to run at or around 60 frames no problem. Chances are it performs better on a HDTV, I never noticed any dips when playing docked. But honestly I played mostly in handheld mode as I recovered from my surgery.

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Frankly, very minor issues considering how great the overall game is. Overall, the performance is very good, and unless you’re an absolute nitpicker you may not even notice it. As it stands I only ever experienced the one hiccup in performance. So having said all of this should you pick it up? Well I suppose it does depend a little bit on the situation. If you have a Switch, and have never played this one on a computer or another console, this is a resounding “Yes!”. This really is one of the best platformers to see release over the past few years. The unique art style to the beautiful graphics, and especially the way the soundtrack is worked into everything. The level design is top-notch, and again, while there is a lot of challenge here, it isn’t unfair, and can become quite addicting. It really does stand out in a way that other modern platformers have not. Everyone should really check it out.

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Having said that, should you buy it again if you’ve played it elsewhere? For some I would definitely say “Yes.” If you loved the previous releases, there’s a substantial amount here for you. Plus we’re talking about the Nintendo Switch, which means it’s also portable. If you’re taking a vacation trip, and don’t want to bring your bulky laptop with you, this is a great version of the game to take along with you. It’s also something you can play a stage of on your commute, or hanging out while getting coffee. But if you’ve played it to death elsewhere, and don’t care about the new content you may give it a pass. But why would you want to do that when Giana Sisters is just so good?

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The issues it has may hold it back from perfection, but the additions to an already great game certainly make it the Owltimate edition. If you’ve got a Nintendo Switch, and love platformers Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams Owltimate edition is pretty much essential. It’s just odd THQNordic doesn’t seem to be giving the physical release a wide one. You’ll need to either go to Amazon or Best Buy (as of this writing) to get it. Otherwise you can get it on the Nintendo eshop as a digital download.

Final Score: 9.5 out of 10 (BUY IT NOW!)

Retro World Expo 2018 Recap

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It seems like only yesterday I attended Retro World Expo 2017, and here I am talking about the fourth iteration of this convention. RWE 2017 was an absolute blast, and RWE 2018 was also an absolute blast. I made my way to the Hartford Convention Center Saturday morning to find that this year’s entry was different. Instead of going up the center’s escalator, and lining up, this year used the ticket booth section of the lower floor. This was an improvement, as it made figuring out where to go much more seamless. There was however one piece of confusion that a convention center employee had to solve, and that was the front door. Some guests inadvertently cut the line by going right to the booth before it was made clear they had to go to the rear entrance of the lobby to enter a line.

That said, everything moved smoothly, and even though I’d arrived behind a few hundred people, I was getting my bands in less than ten minutes. For whatever reason the QR code did not display on my pre-registration form when printed. But the ticket attendant was easily able to find my info, see I had prepaid, and give me my wristbands for the weekend, and after party. Once inside, I went upstairs to find not one, but two amazing custom vehicles.

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The first was a really cool Jurassic Park themed vehicle. The paint job was right out of the films. Impeccable. The pattern was spot on, and had a nice gloss finish. There was also a plastic triceratops near by to finish off the movie vibe. Great stuff. Next to that vehicle was none other than Russ Lyman’s Super Mario Kart 2.0. Sadly, earlier this year he lost his original Super Mario Kart in an accident. Fortunately he was able to replace his vehicle, and over time modify it. The end result is an even better design than before, sporting a beautiful multicolored design, and a breathtaking Super Mario Bros. pit crew portrait by Tom Ryan Studio. Both vehicles were parked out in front of the convention floor so that attendees could take photos.

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Some of the earliest guests I met were Daniel Pesina, Rich Divizio, and Anthony Marquez who were character actors in the original three Mortal Kombat games. All of them were super cool, and down to Earth folks. I talked with them about how big a part of my teenage years that the MK games, and Street Fighter were for me. As well as pretty much everybody else. I ended up buying a promotional poster style photo, and all three of them were kind enough to sign it for me. If you ever have the opportunity to see them at a show, you ought to take it.

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As I wandered the floor, I veered into the arcade area where I saw something both wondrous, and disappointing. The KRULL arcade cabinet. Based upon the cult 1983 Sci-Fi Fantasy film; you’re sent through a number of action sequences loosely based on those found in the movie. It uses a twin-stick setup similar to the one in Robotron 2084, and it is a lot of fun to play. Sadly, the machine was out-of-order, so I couldn’t actually play it. I did however get a few photos of it, since actually laying your eyes on one these days is a rarity. Should you find one in working order at a barcade, amusement park, convention, or other situation, do play it. It’s pretty cool.

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Around this time Russ Lyman bumped into me, and we began catching up. Around this time I spotted the Imaginary Monsters booth, so we walked over, and I introduced him to the developers. (Full disclosure, I know two of them personally.) The team is working on a new Metroidvania style game called Abyxsis: The Demon Reborn. They brought a demo version to the show, and what they showed was pretty good! It obviously has a way to go before completion, but I liked what I saw. In it, you appear to play as a winged monster who has to traverse dark labyrinths to find NPCs, power ups, and other items. Like Metroid, there’s a sense of exploration. But at the same time, your character has the ability to do some really fun aerial moves. This looks to be one of the themes of navigation. What they showed was also pretty tough. Enemies take a lot of damage, and can put you down quickly. Again this is all subject to change being a fairly early demo. But the tight controls, wonderful pixel art, and map design are promising.

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Imaginary Monsters wasn’t the only indie studio to attend though! Adjacent to their booth was a studio called Jumpmen Gaming. They had two games they were showing off. The first was Project Myriad, a hexadecimal tower defense game with puzzle elements. I didn’t get much time with it so I certainly can’t review it here. That said, it might be something worth looking into if you’re a fan of the genre. I’m not fond of using the phrase “Fan of the genre” as it tends to be overused. But in this case I think it’s applicable. It clearly looks to do something different with the concept by going with a hex display, something usually geared toward a special niche of war games. The puzzle elements seem to add some flair as well. If any of that sounds like something you would like to try, it was recently released on Steam, and isn’t too expensive.

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The other game they showed was Sentinel Zero. This game was in its very early stages. This upcoming release is a horizontal shoot ’em up game in the vein of R-Type. What sets it apart are its cartoon vector graphics. The presentation reminded me a lot of early Newgrounds games written in Flash. Think Alien Hominid. But the little that was shown was pretty fun. You earn power shots by filling a meter. You fill the meter by shooting everything. The hook seems to be quickly filling the meter, and unleashing charged shots as fast as possible. They also had two bosses to show, one of which was a giant spider. Again, it has a long way to go before being ready for prime time. But it looked like good start for a project by a two-person upstart.

Another interesting looking indie game demo was Depths Of Sanity by a studio called Bomb Shelter Studios. I didn’t get any real footage or screens of this one as I didn’t get the chance to try it myself. But it was intriguing. It appears to be an underwater action, and exploration game where you’ll pilot a submarine, and find all kinds of upgrades for it that allow you into previously inaccessible areas. Like a Metroidvania with elements of Blaster Master thrown in for good measure. Again, another early build. It does have a store page on Steam with a release date of Q4 2019.

Finally, Giant Evil Robot was back with the recently released full version of Mecha-Tokyo Rush. This is a combination of endless runner, and Mega Man clone. Things seemed a bit better than the build I saw last year. I didn’t have time to really play it though, so I can’t really say much in terms of its final state. The game does have a free to play model however, so you really don’t have anything to lose if you want to check it out.

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After taking my initial walk around the floor, I went to the first of the panels I attended. The Connecticut YouTube panel. This panel featured Ryan Alexander (RAXTheGreat1), Mike Levy (Dongled), Sam Hatch (Culture Dog), John Delia (The Video Game Years), Paul Barnas (Retro Gaming Arts), and Russ Lyman (Russ Lyman). For those who don’t know, Retro World Expo has roots in Retroware TV, one of the earliest video hosts before YouTube became the de facto delivery model video content creators use today. Many don’t realize Retroware has its own roots in Connecticut. So it only makes sense to have a panel dedicated to some of the online content creators who are local to the area.

But while the panelists are natives of the State, the information delivered in the panel is applicable to anybody getting into video content on the internet. I would even go onto say a lot of it is applicable to any creative endeavor online or off. A lot of the questions posed to the panelists revealed some insightful answers. When asked about the motivation behind creating content everyone unanimously agreed one has to do it first, and foremost out of a love of it. Few, if many creators of any medium become overnight success stories. One shouldn’t make a video expecting to be the next James Rolfe. If it happens, fine, but going in with that expectation is a recipe for disaster. More than likely, you’re not going to garner a massive flood of views, and subscriptions when you start out. Even the creators who are big names today, often took months or years of work to become those big names.

Continuing from there, Mike Levy brought up the importance of making content you, as a creator want to make. Chasing trends isn’t going to work because it isn’t genuine. Others pointed out that potential fans may be able to sense that as well. When the subject of potential collaborations between creators came up, Mike, and Russ also pointed out the need to have a fleshed out idea to present. It isn’t enough to simply ask another creator to do a crossover project. Especially since they’re often pressed for time for their own projects, jobs, and lives. Instead one has to have a project idea ready to go, ideally with what role the person has in mind for them. The creator may still decline depending on the given situation. But they’ll be more likely to at least listen to what it is you have to propose.

Other panelists also drove home the importance of consistency. Trying to keep content coming out for the audience to experience. At the same time though, they did acknowledge there were times where a legitimate break is needed. Commitments, responsibilities, and other things may eat into time normally allotted toward creative endeavors. Sam, Paul, and John also talked about the guilt creators often feel for missing self-imposed deadlines, but acknowledged sometimes it’s unavoidable. Another topic was the importance of lighting, and audio in videos. Even a high quality camera can’t compensate for a lack of light, or bad audio. If the audience can’t see you, or your audio is too distorted or too light or too loud it can turn them off. Even if the content is good. Russ pointed out an episode he made on this very subject.

There was also a discussion about the recent controversy over former IGN writer Filip Miucin’s theft of YouTuber Boomstick Gaming’s Dead Cells review, which led into a wider discussion of online content theft. While some felt Miucin likely felt pressured by deadlines, everyone agreed that plagiarism was despicable behavior. Some of the panelists were rather shocked when they found their own content re-uploaded by other people without permission.

On the lighter side of things, there were some humorous moments where the panelists discussed changing trends in online video. At one time, many preferred long form content. But these days some viewers complain if it isn’t quick, and digestible in a few moments. One particularly funny point was when the crew talked about the trend of unboxing videos being popular. The joke that stood out centered around an unboxing video where the box would house smaller boxes within boxes like a set of nesting dolls. It was also in this panel that Ryan would point out some new YouTube creators were in the crowd.  Nerdy, and Squirdy are YouTube newcomers, and after checking them out I think Ryan may be onto something. These two have a nice variety of different gaming content you just may want to look into.

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After the panel I walked back down to the main floor, where I got in some arcade gaming in. Every year Retro World Expo has a respectable number of arcade machines set up, as well as console set ups where attendees can play without quarters or tokens. Every machine is set to Free Play mode. Some of the machines I saw this year that I don’t remember seeing last year aside from KRULL, were a Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi machine, The Simpsons Arcade Game, and a Dig Dug cocktail table. Over the course of my time at the show, I played a fair amount of Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, Final Fight, Shinobi, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Dig Dug. There was also a Ghouls n’ Ghosts machine, but it was always in use. One of the guys in my local trade group managed to find some time on it though, and even cleared it on only a few lives! Impressive.

I also wandered the floor this year looking for some Atari 2600, and Commodore 64 game deals. On the first day, I managed to track down a boxed copy of Gravitar, and a loose copy of Cruise Missile. The latter of which I had never seen before. Apparently it was released in 1987, and is a shmup involving above ground combat, and subterranean combat in the vein of MagMax. I also saw many of the guys from RF Generation were back, as well as Steven Christina Jr, and Karly Kingsley from Super Retro Throwback Reviews. I sat down with them for a short interview they should be airing in the coming weeks. SRTR was also raffling off a bunch of cool PS4 releases, as well as an NES Classic, and a Super NES Classic so I bought a couple of tickets to try my luck.

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At around 4 o’clock or so I attended the Mortal Kombat panel with  Daniel Pesina, Rich Divizio, and Anthony Marquez. They were joined by Sal Divita. Sal was instrumental in bringing the NBA Jam series, and its spinoffs to arcades, and consoles. But he also had involvement as Nightwolf in Mortal Kombat 3. In addition to that, he still saw a lot of the development process on all of the early Mortal Kombat games. Daniel, Rich, and Anthony brought a lot of insight into the world of game development as they talked about the creation of Mortal Kombat. It was an idea that almost didn’t come to fruition, as Midway was hoping for a licensed project with Jean-Claude Van Damme. But when that fell through, Midway allowed Ed Boon, and John Tobias to move ahead with their ideas.

As it turns out, there was a great deal of painstaking work involved in the original games. Every video taped action the actors made, had to be cut down to 8 frames of animation due to memory constraints. Not only that, but many of the characters’ moves had to be shot multiple times when it was discovered that being even the slightest bit too close or far from the camera would make sprite sizes inconsistent. Midway also had a very low-budget for the early games so the crew had to use make shift lighting using office desk lamps, and some sessions were filmed using a camera owned by John Tobias’ father.

As for the controversy surrounding the game’s violence level, when it came to politicians, Midway’s stance was to ignore it. But the actors were contract players, not official Midway employees, so they were unabashed in defense of their work. All in all, a very informative panel not only for fans of Mortal Kombat, and fighting games, but for anybody interested in video game development, and history.

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After that panel I wandered the floor some more, stopping to talk to friends, and acquaintances whom were either shopping, gaming, or vending. I also finally met The Gamescape Artist in person. My first contact with him was during a fellow blogger, hungrygoriya’s live streams (If you love old school JRPGs, check out her blog, or channel. It’s great!). He’s a friendly guy, and quite the painter! He has a wide range of paintings of iconic video game scenes to choose from, and he also does commissions. They’re high quality, highly detailed pieces, so if you’re looking for something to spruce up your game room consider giving him a shout out.

I also ran into the makers of an independent games’ magazine. Old School Gamer Magazine is just what it sounds like. It’s a new publication with articles covering retro games, as well as modern stuff inspired by retro games. The format is a little bit different from what I’d expected. It reminded me a bit of 1980’s computer magazines like Compute!, Ahoy!, and Commodore RUN, minus the program code you could type in, and save to a floppy for free software. The issue they gave me was the fifth one, and it came with a cool poster of the cover art. The representative informed me that they give away the digital version for free via email, but for a fairly low price you can have the physical magazines mailed to you every month. If you miss the days of getting Nintendo Power, GamePro, EGM, and Computer Gaming World at the newsstand, go check it out to see if it’s right for you.

I also met a group of Video bloggers who do VLOG articles, and live streams. The Geeky Panda covers convention cosplays, as well as games, and have an active Twitch page you can check out if so inclined. They play a bunch of stuff including Resident Evil VII, and Fallout IV. If you’re looking for a new variety streaming channel to follow, they may be your ticket.

After the show floor closed I walked over to the adjacent Hartford Marriott’s hotel bar. Normally I would have paid a visit to the City Steam Brewery, but the after party started an hour after the main show ended. I felt I wouldn’t make it back in time. Fortunately the hotel bar did have City Steam Naughty Nurse, so I pre-gamed with the delicious Amber Ale. After that, I went back to the convention center for the after party event which was a lot of fun.

There were a number of things to check out over the course of two hours. You could play arcade cabs that were set up in one of the rooms. Big Bucks Entertainment ran a special edition of Press Your Luck, where contestants who landed on a Whammy had to take a shot. Host Davira Kuy was also doing so in a rather impressive Quan Chi (Mortal Kombat 4) cosplay. The Imaginary Monsters developers were there, so I introduced them to my friends, and acquaintances, as everybody mingled. There was also a fun Drink, and Draw event going on. It was a nice way to end the first part of the convention.

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I commuted back home after that, put away the first day’s pick ups, and got some rest. Day two was a Sunday, so after services, I headed back to Hartford to catch what I could. I did manage to get into Pat Contri’s panel which had some updates on projects he has in the pipeline. He, and his team are working feverishly on the follow-up to his excellent NES collecting guide. This one will be centered on the Super NES, and will be in a similar format. There will also be an alternate cover for the PAL readership. He is also looking into updating the original NES book with some improved screenshots. So future print runs may include these. But the biggest news is that he is working with some other creators on a documentary video about the video game industry’s shift away from physical media. The project will talk about both the pros of such decisions, and the cons of such decisions. The teaser he revealed does look quite promising.

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At the end of the panel he brought back the NES Challenge, and I was able to be a contestant in the second bout! In a cut throat match of Donkey Kong Jr. Math, I barely managed to squeak out a victory! The first round pitted two fans against one another in Balloon Fight, while the third round pitted a couple against one another in an Abobo Vs. Abobo match in Double Dragon. The winners were granted a download key for a digital edition of his NES guide, while the losers were granted shoe string budget games for the Atari 2600, and Sega Genesis. A great panel overall.

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I also got to see Norman Caruso’s Gaming Historian panel again this year. This time he did a live episode centered around a certain Nintendo made boxing franchise. I won’t say anything else about it, but like all of his episodes, you can expect to be amazed as there will be some revelations you won’t believe. This year he also changed game shows. Instead of video game history themed Jeopardy, he did video game history themed Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? This year’s contestant won last year’s Jeopardy game only to discover he won a T-shirt that didn’t fit, so this year he was attempting to win the appropriate size.

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The last panel at the show I caught was a special panel centered around the history of Castlevania, and the Metroidvania formula used in modern independent games. Mike Levy was joined by Marc Duddleson (My Life In Gaming), Mike Desiderio (Rewind Mike), and Pam Dzwonek (Cannot Be Tamed.). Throughout the panel they went over many of the games in the series, and talked about the transition from action platformer to the Metroidvania style most think of today. But they also brought up the fact that there were times where the series hasn’t simply abandoned one style for the other. Marc, brought up the fact that the Nintendo 64’s entries in the series have many similarities to the NES trilogy with a focus on platforming, and combat. Pam, and Mike talked a bit about how even Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest had RPG elements that in some ways can be seen as a forebear to the labyrinthine designs seen in later games.

But they also discussed many newer games like Axiom Verge, Hollow Knight, and Mystik Belle. Here, Rewind Mike pointed out that some of these games veer more toward Metroid, while others veer more toward Symphony Of The Night in terms of design. He also mentioned Abyxsis after seeing it on the floor earlier in the day, and having liked what he had seen. Things closed out with some Castlevania trivia, with the winning attendee getting a Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest Game Pak signed by James Rolfe, and many of the online personalities who attended the show. From Mike Levy’s personal collection no less. And no, I did not win. My Castlevania knowledge is rudimentary. Although I do surprise people when I point out Konami did port the game to many 80’s era computer platforms. Also they’re expensive. If you thought the NES cartridge is steep, try getting the Commodore 64 floppy disk. Anyway, it was a great panel.

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I spent most of my final moments of the show on the floor again. I found a few great deals over that time. The crown jewel was the copy of Bubble Bobble for the Commodore 64 a friend of mine had at his booth. Most people remember the NES release, but the C64 version was pretty much on par, and you don’t see it as often. Another vendor had a slew of boxed, and unboxed games, so I looked through the vast selection where I found a copy of Pengo for the Atari 2600. It’s not a release that you see very often at all. It had no tag on it so I asked for a price. When they replied “It has a ripped label so ten dollars.” I just said “Done.”, and picked it up.

I was demoed a party card game called Cheer Up. It plays similarly to Cards Against Humanity, but with its own twist. It goes through rounds in three steps while also simplifying it with a three-letter system. This opens things up by having three card answer types, but also color coding them to make things easier to follow. It wasn’t something I got into, but that’s probably me not being as drawn to board games as other people. I can see the appeal though for those whom have guests over often. Basically, the person asking a question gets every other player to submit answers from their hand, with the funniest one getting points. If you have people over for regular game nights, you might want to see if it’s for you. They have a free digital download version on their site which is nice, because then you can try it to see if you’ll enjoy it before buying a copy.

I also spotted a booth hosted by another YouTube up, and comer GothamLounge who does Long plays with commentary. If you’re stumped on a game, you may want to see if it’s something he’s played through. He seems like a nice fellow, so I wish him luck on his online endeavors. As I was catching up with friends, and acquaintances before the show closed I was tracked down by the Super Retro Throwback team to discover I had won the Super NES Classic Edition raffle! So I guess this was my “steal” of the show as I ultimately got one of these ridiculously cheap. A special thanks to them for interviewing me, and hosting the raffles. I also nabbed some sweet Splatoon themed stickers, and buttons from the always great Elijah Taylor, and JustM3hStudios booths. If you see them at a con near you check them out sometime.

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All in all, I had another great year seeing some great panels, scoring some deals, and meeting up with friends like The Best Spuds. But there was so much going on it was impossible to get to everything. I didn’t get a chance to talk to a number of guests. I didn’t get to say “Hello” to The Gaming Historian, RGT85, Game Dave, or Bob Backlund. (Yes, the great wrestling legend Bob Backlund was at the show.). There were a ton of interesting people there this year, and I’ve undoubtedly missed some of them. I apologize in advance.

But even if you weren’t interested in any of the guests there were a lot of other things happening. The Arcade games, and console games were set up to go all day. There were pinball machines to play. There were tabletop miniature games to play. There were live musical acts to jam out to. There were several tournaments going on as well. The ever popular Fortnite had a singles, and doubles competition, there was a Mario Kart 64 competition, a Goldeneye tournament, even a Nintendo World Championships tournament.

There was also a cosplay contest going on this year, and the massive auction made a return. Unfortunately for me I missed it. I was told somebody won a complete Commodore 64 setup (including a vintage monitor) for well below value. Some years the auction can actually lead to deals for some con goers. And even if none of that appeals to you, there are always a lot of vendors to check out. You may not get insane deals, but you can almost bet at least someone will have something you never see when you go hunting locally.

Congrats to everyone at the convention for putting on another great show this year. I hope to be able to make it out again next year. And thanks to all readers who made it this far. As you can see, I had a lot of ground to cover, and I still didn’t get to everything. If you’re in New England next year when it rolls around, check it out. It’s well-organized, entertaining, and they squeeze a lot into it.

The Messenger Review

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Sometimes a game comes out with a ton of fanfare, but ultimately lets everybody down. This is not one of those games. The Messenger earns every ounce of excitement, and praise preemptively thrown its way. Nearly everything about this one is so on point you can stop reading, and buy the game. In the words of Triple H, it is “That damn good.”

PROS: Sprite work. Controls. Music. Story. Humor. Nearly everything really.

CONS: A bug that makes a certain section of the game nearly impossible to solve.

NINJA GAIDEN: The original NES designers were invited to play it, and loved it.

The Messenger was largely advertised as a love letter to the trilogy of NES Ninja Gaiden games. Upon booting up the game it’s easy to see why. The action, cinema screens, wall climbing, and secondary weapon throwing are obviously influenced by those classics. Devolver Digital even had the two lead designers of Ninja Gaiden play their demo before release as they couldn’t wait to see their reaction.

But while The Messenger would have likely done well enough as a mere homage, that wasn’t good enough for the team at Sabotage. The Messenger does so much more than mimic one of gaming’s best action platform games. It uses that formula as one small piece in a much, much larger puzzle. A puzzle that will likely take you hours to solve.

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The Messenger centers around a Ninja clan that gets attacked by monsters. As one of the Ninjas, you’re chastised by your sensei for not taking your training seriously. You’re told a super warrior is supposed to save the day, but unfortunately for everyone this person doesn’t show up in time. The monsters wipe out the village, and you’re about to be destroyed when they show up just in time. The enemies retreat, and this warrior gives you a scroll. You’re told to deliver the scroll to the top of a mountain, and so you go on your way.

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I won’t go into the rest of the surprisingly deep, and convoluted storyline here. But rest assured it is quite good. Filled with twists, turns, and even a lot of sardonic humor. I laughed a lot at the various jokes throughout my time with the campaign. But at the same time, I was pleasantly surprised at just how invested in the overall story I became. Plus the gameplay ties into everything very nicely. When the game begins, it truly will remind you of the NES Ninja Gaiden games. You have a similar run speed. You have similar jumping physics. You’ll even have a sense of familiarity as you can climb certain walls.

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But The Messenger throws in its own entirely new mechanics that set it decidedly apart from Ninja Gaiden. Most notably the extra jump you can get by killing enemies, or hitting specific targets. If you get the timing right, you can jump, hit a target, and jump immediately after to get extra air. You can also gain momentum by repeating the process on subsequent targets. This allows you to kind of hop distances between targets, and get through areas faster.  As you progress, the game makes mastering this technique essential, as it begins throwing in jumping puzzles, as well as highly challenging platforming sections where you’re surrounded by bottomless pits, spikes, or other death traps.

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The game goes along much like those old NES action games. You’ll battle your way through a stage, then fight a boss, watch some dialogue boxes, or cinema screens, and move on. However each stage has a few checkpoints after every few gauntlets. Some of these gauntlets are shops, where you can spend the diamond shards you find on upgrades for your ninja. Some of these give you more resistance to damage. Some of these give you more attack power.

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Over time you’ll also acquire new abilities like a wind suit, and grappling hook. And later in the game you’ll need them because stages are built around their use. It’s crafted so well, and so engrossing you’ll want to keep playing until you get to the final showdown with the demon army, and win the day. Throughout it all, you’ll be blown away at the NES inspired sprite work, and Famicom-esque chip tunes. It’s nothing short of amazing, and you’ll love every minute of it.

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Another interesting mechanic is that while old school, this is another game that ditches lives. Instead of dying a set number of times, or having a limited set of continues, you simply keep playing. Now the original first two Ninja Gaiden games on the NES had unlimited continues. However this game does something a bit different. When you die, a little red bookie monster shows up. He steals any money you make until his debt for respawning you is paid. So while the game becomes more forgiving, at the same time you do well for not dying. Because not dying means more money, and more money means getting all of the items, and upgrades sooner.

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When you finally defeat the Demon army’s second in command you’ll probably do what I did. Think there’s one last stage where your endurance, and cunning are pushed to the proverbial limit. Then one grandiose boss fight, and a satisfying finish. Well this is one part of the game I have to spoil in order to talk about the entire package. I’m not giving away details, just know that nothing could be further from the truth. The game basically comes out, and yells “Surprise! Now you’re going to play a Metroid clone!” The game really opens up at this point, and connects every stage you’ve played together. This makes one overarching world, and you’ll be sent throughout it.

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However, The Messenger does not go sending you on power up fetch quests, in order access the new areas. Rather, you have to go find items that act as keys, and find NPCs to further the story. You can buy map markers in the shops, but even then, getting to those places is going to be very intimidating when you first attempt it. These new areas are filled with new traps, and puzzles. There are also challenge rooms where you can try to get these green tokens. If you find every one of them in the game there’s a surprise waiting for you. But that’s not even the best part.

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The Messenger also adds a dash of stage morphing. It may just remind you of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, although it isn’t done in the same way. The storyline adds an element of time travel, where you go through portals that send you 500 years into the future. And then other ones send you back. When you go into the future, the 8-bit NES aesthetics change to 16-bit Super NES aesthetics! The music also goes from sounding like the Famicom, to sounding like the Super Famicom, and Mega Drive decided to go on tour together. The soundtrack in this game immediately skyrockets from a pretty great one, to an absolutely stellar one. Not only that, but the game uses the time travel mechanic in some pretty intricate ways. Like Metroid Prime 2: Echoes did, The Messenger will make you go to one area of the map in the present, go through a portal to the future, so that you’ll come out in the right place in a different section of the map. Then you’ll go through a portal there to come back in the present where you’ll meet an NPC, or find a room with a green token challenge. Or something else entirely.

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The story also begins to get both more interesting, and more cryptic when you discover a hub section, and you’re discovering entirely new areas that were never part of a previous linear stage from the first act of the game. They’ve done a terrific job with all of this, and that’s before you even get to the impressive boss encounters that follow. They make the early bosses you may have found difficult seem like you were lifting feathers before. But it does this by easing you over time without you even realizing it. It’s an action game, that becomes an adventure game, that implements a feeling you get when playing an RPG.

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And I think that’s probably the best thing about The Messenger. It’s like you’re playing two completely different games back to back. You played Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword Of Chaos. But instead of credits, a dying Jaquio goes “It’s not over. You have to defeat Mother Brain now, or the world will end! Ha. Ha. Ha.” The fact that it makes you feel elated, rather than angry is quite the feat.

So with all of that said, is this a 10 out of 10 game that will forever be the title future indie games are held to as a standard? Not quite. Though it is very impressive, and should be something you should buy I had one major problem with it. At one point in the game there is a section where you have to navigate an area by listening for sound. Well for whatever reason, the game would not play the sound properly. It made finding my way through a complete crapshoot. I had to guess my way through as if I were playing the final stage of Super Mario Bros. And while this isn’t something that breaks the game, as you can still get through it. It does ruin the intended experience of hearing what you need to hear in the place you need to hear it in order to follow the right path. I’m sure in time they may fix it with a patch. But as it stands it’s just enough to keep me from calling it near flawless.

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Still, if you were hoping for a wonderful homage to Ninja Gaiden, you’ll get it. If you were hoping for something more than a wonderful homage to Ninja Gaiden you’ll get it. The Messenger truly is one of the best games to come out this year, and is something you really ought to check out. It’s one of the most engrossing games you’ll play this year. As impressive as the trailers may be, it’s still the kind of game you have to see to believe. Go buy The Messenger now. Even if you’re just stumbling upon this review 500 years from now.

Final Score: 9.5 out of 10

Boulder Dash XL 3D Review

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Way back in 1984 came an excellent platform puzzle game called Boulder Dash. It was a big hit on home computers of the time. The Atari 400/800 version came first, but the game made its way to the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and some of the consoles like the Colecovision. There was even an NES port. Over the years it has seen newer versions. Some by First Star Software, the company who created it. Others by different developers who were licensed to do so.

PROS: A really great take on Boulder Dash with some refinements.

CONS: Some of the tweaks aren’t intuitive.

ROBOTS: Your quasi-human miners have been replaced by automatons.

In 2012, a small outfit called Catnip made a new version for the Xbox Live service, and computers called Boulder Dash XL. It replaced the main characters with robot interpretations, but it retained the spirit of the original game fairly well. It also added a few new spins on the game which I’ll get to in a bit. Boulder Dash XL 3D is a port of that game to the 3DS. This port was done by the folks at Ludosity who went on to make the well received Princess Remedy games on Steam.

For the uninitiated, Boulder Dash is a series where you collect diamonds while mining. You’re given a few minutes to get a certain number of diamonds, and then make your way to the exit. You do this, by moving around the stages, digging dirt, and picking them up. The challenge of course is trying to get these without getting crushed. Much like the rocks in Dig Dug, digging out the dirt from beneath the boulders will cause them to fall. You can also be crushed by the very diamonds you collect.

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But where Dig Dug focused more on defeating all of the bad guys in the stage to advance, Boulder Dash does a lot more with the boulders (hence the name.). Boulders, and diamonds will shift to the left or the right as they fall on top of one another.  When you first start out, the earliest levels are pretty easy to figure out. You’ll find you can get the required number of diamonds, and get to the exit. There’s a bit of risk/reward too in that you can also try to get all of the diamonds for bonus points rather than just the required number to exit. Of course, getting all of the diamonds requires nearly flawless puzzle solving skills. Often times making a mistake will not only keep you from getting that last diamond, but may get you trapped between boulders, forcing you to restart.

But its a very engrossing formula, and this version adds a host of new mechanics to an already fun game. There are transporters, there are boxes that turn boulders into diamonds, and vice versa. They even added a few power ups on some levels that are used in a number of puzzles. That’s in addition to some of the newer takes on enemy types featured here. There is a large wealth of content here too. There are around 100 stages or more for you to play through. This edition also has several modes in it.

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The primary mode is the Arcade mode, where the game puts you through the 100 stages in a row. This mode works with the traditional Boulder Dash rules. You’re given a time limit, and you have to get the qualifying number of diamonds to make the exit appear so you can escape as quickly as possible for the most time points. Again, getting every diamond is worth a huge bonus, but you risk running out of time, or trapping yourself if you don’t get them just right.

Next up is Puzzle mode, which gives you a 25 stage gauntlet. Every stage you complete can be replayed at any time, but you’ll have to beat them all in a row in order to see them all. This mode eschews the time limit, giving you more time to experiment, and figure out exactly how the level designers wanted you to find your way out of the mazes.

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Zen mode is essentially the Arcade mode but without the time limit. So in a way it feels like a giant practice mode where you can try to fine tune your techniques on each of the stages to minimize the amount of time it takes you to clear them. It’s pretty neat from that particular perspective, but most will likely prefer the Arcade mode over it since it’s a lot more high stakes, which feels more rewarding when you succeed.

 

Score mode features four stages where you can either try to go for the time bonus or you can try to get every last diamond possible. To get the best scores, you’ll likely have to skip a number of diamonds as it’s a balance of knowing how many diamonds, and how many seconds left on the clock will get you in terms of points. It’s an interesting concept some players may enjoy. To me it isn’t as interesting as the Puzzle mode, or as fun as the Arcade mode. But still fun to check out.

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Retro mode is one of the coolest inclusions in this game. It’s a combination of stages from the original game, as well as all new stages specific to this iteration. The interesting thing it does is replace all of the textures with the original 8-bit tile sprites from the Commodore 64 version of the first Boulder Dash. There are 25 stages in this set, and for older people like me who pick this up, the nostalgia it conjures up is great. But for people who never played the original, the newer stages are still a nice challenge. So even if you pick this up having never played the original, this mode gives you more content to enjoy.

 

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Visually, the main game on display here is pretty nice. The blocks, boulders, and diamonds all look pretty good, and the monsters all have pretty interesting takes on their original designs. There’s also a pretty good use of lighting considering the obviously smaller budget when compared to a lot of the big hits on the 3DS. Be that as it may, the change from the humanoid miners to robots is a bit weird. It by no means hampers the game. It isn’t going to make any old timers scream “Sacrilege!” to the heavens. It’s just a small change that doesn’t make any sense. As for the 3D, I couldn’t really test that out, as I own a 2DS which doesn’t have the 3D functionality. But honestly this isn’t the kind of game that requires 3D to enjoy. In terms of performance, I didn’t run into any major issues, though there was some minor slowdown when I caused a slew of boulders to fall at once. Still, it didn’t get in the way of the actual game play.

There isn’t much in the way of good audio here though. The soundtrack doesn’t have the up tempo, frazzled chip tune theme of the original. It has a mostly forgettable set list, with one or two songs that can even annoy a bit. Some of you may disagree, but honestly I think you’ll enjoy it more without the music playing. The sound effects themselves are fine. You can hear the falling boulders, and explosions perfectly well, and they fit the game as intended.

 

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Boulder Dash is one classic game that is perfectly suited to a portable platform. It’s the kind of game you can attempt to clear a map or two in during a lunch break, or commute. But you can also spend a weekend away, putting in a few hours into going for a high score, or solving puzzles. It’s also just a great game in its own right. This version on the 3DS is a pretty fun, and convenient iteration of the game. It’s probably not going to live up to the lofty heights of the original versions for those who grew up with them. But be that as it may this is (as Metal Jesus Rocks might say) a hidden gem in the 3DS library. It’s addictive. It’s fun. It’s Boulder Dash.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Insanity’s Blade Review

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A number of titles have been Frankenstein’s monsters. Taking ideas, or mechanics from a variety of games, and combining them to bring something new to the world. It happens in everything, as any great idea has the potential to be improved upon, or repurposed for something else. Sometimes this gives us something glorious. Other times something banal, and uninspired. Sometimes something completely terrible. But a lot of times we’ll see something great trying to break out of some shackles.

PROS: Soundtrack. Graphics. Character design. Borrowed elements are good ones.

CONS: Glitches. Performance issues. Annoying bugs.

CAVALCADE: There’s a line of large, and obscure references on display.

Insanity’s Blade is a pretty cool game. Right off the bat, its cinema screens, and characters will remind you of Golden Axe. Begin playing, and the movement will possibly bring out memories of playing Rastan. Some of the enemy designs, backgrounds, traps, and weapons will bring about memories of the first four Castlevania games. The loot you pick up, and the rising coffins then make you remember Ghosts N’ Goblins. If all of those references weren’t enough for you, the dagger throwing, and climbing may even remind Commodore fans of First Samurai (an obscure game that was also ported to the Super NES.).

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All of these elements do work well together too. Stages have elements of all of these games. But connected in ways that flow well. One may see this, and figure it would feel disjointed. And they very easily could have. But fortunately, everything was well researched by the level designers in this regard. Moreover, many of the stages have branching paths. So it gives the game a little bit of replay value, as you can opt to take different routes on a second play through.

Also great is the inclusion of two-player arcade co-operative play. You can also opt to play either a story mode, or an arcade mode. Both of these are basically the same game, but the arcade mode reduces the story bits, and the mandatory side quest stages that I’ll get to later. Quite honestly, there are a lot of things to like in Insanity’s Blade.

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As you may already know, Insanity’s Blade is an action platformer. So again, you’ll be going through stages in the vein of early Castlevania titles. Expect pixel-perfect jumping. Floating heads. Spiked walls. Pits. The most brutal retro Konami stuff. There’s even some Mode 7 like effects that take you right back to Super Castlevania IV. But as I said earlier, there are plenty of other games it takes inspiration from. You’ll have the same movement speed, and jumping arcs of Rastan. You’ll start out the game with a mere punch, the ability to grab enemies, and a jump button. But you’ll find over the course of the game, you’ll get to shoot knives.  Think Shinobi.  (For an interesting twist, these can be disabled in the options menu.). Blowing up enemies drops coins, and money bags seen in Ghosts N’ Goblins as I said before. Pick up all of the money you find because hidden in every level is a shop castle that rises from the ground. These shops have weapon, and health upgrades in them. You’ll want them because like Magician Lord, the better the firepower, the longer you’ll live. The thing to remember is once you go inside them, they won’t come up again until you lose the level, and have to start over. So don’t go in them until you’re sure you have enough gold to afford what you want.

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Beyond the shop weapons, are weapons you’ll get on your quest. There’s a couple of swords, a Castlevania whip, among others. These are usually dropped by bosses, and tie into the game’s storyline. Bosses are another point in the game where I was reminded of First Samurai. Because like that game’s bosses, these are large, weird, and take a ton of punishment. Of course they also continue the look of all of those mentioned 8-bit, and 16-bit era console, arcade, and home computer games.

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The storyline is a bit simplistic, but works for the game fine. You play a character named Thurstan whose family is killed in an attack on his village. So he goes on a revenge mission looking to kill off the hordes of monsters responsible. He’s joined by a dwarf named Finn who gets roped into the adventure. Things get a bit weirder when they happen upon a sorceress, but I won’t spoil the story for those who haven’t played yet. It does what it needs to do, and according to the developer, was adapted from a graphic novel. Between the cinema screens, and labels you’ll be greeted with a map where you can choose either the next stage, or a side mission. Side missions usually have boss fights you need to do as they give you items required to complete the game. Other times you’ll face a gauntlet of enemies, or rescue some NPCs. The game also throws in a classic shoot ’em up stage near the end of the 16 stage adventure. There are plenty of things on hand for those who loved all of its influences.

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Playing through Insanity’s Blade though, you’ll find there really is a great game trying to break free of some small problems. Which is a shame because what is great, truly is great. The problems are two-fold. On my system which isn’t the latest, and greatest but is still well above the system requirements I ran into slowdown. This is the biggest issue. The game will randomly become jittery, and sluggish before going back to normal. It doesn’t make things unplayable, as the slowdowns are but a hiccup in the grand scheme of things. But when they happen during a tricky jump, or a trap you’re trying to avoid it can be very annoying. The game also doesn’t have an option to turn Vsync on or off.

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The second problem I ran into were a number of graphical bugs, where a background tile appeared where a foreground tile should have been. Also, as great as the visuals are some characters blend in with the backgrounds, and you won’t see them until after you’ve taken damage. This especially sucks when it happens by a pit, or other trap, and the knock back pushes you into said pit or other trap. I also had a couple of random crashes to the desktop. Again, nothing common enough to make the game unplayable, but still enough to grate.

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Be that as it may, I still had a good time playing through Insanity’s Blade. It’s now been out a while so I don’t see the hitches being resolved. But hopefully their upcoming Battle Princess Madelyn avoids these problems as the new game seems to have the same vivid pixel art style, and action platforming in mind. I also forgot to mention Insanity Blade’s soundtrack which has both an 8, and 16-bit option for its chip tunes. It’s pretty solid, and while it doesn’t reach the lofty heights of the NES Castlevania Trilogy, it does go along with its action fairly well. There are also a number of secrets hidden throughout the game, so it does give you another reason to go back, and replay it from time to time.  It’s a fun game. It’s just got a couple of quirks that keep it from being as memorable as the titles that inspired it.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Choplifter HD Review

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

PROS: Classic gameplay with a few novel conventions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 7 out of 10.

Double Dragon IV Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Super Cyborg Review

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Man, I have been finding a number of spiritual successors lately. Last time around we saw an excellent Metroid clone with a number of cool tweaks, and spins on the idea. This time I’m reviewing a really good Contra clone. With elements of Probotector. Because that game is the same game as Contra, just with the human characters replaced with robots.

In this game you play as a robot. Well, at first. More on that later. Super Cyborg nails down everything about the NES version of Contra, its sequels, and the rest of the series with pinpoint accuracy. If you’ve been stewing because of how Konami has been letting all of their franchises lie dormant, this is a game you’re going to adore.

PROS: Feels exactly like NES Contra. Added customization.

CONS: Limited number of controllers supported. May feel too derivative to some.

KONAMI CODE: Not here. Bur there is a NOT KONAMI code most of you will NEED.

I’m glad I found Super Cyborg. I stumbled upon it during the recent Steam Summer Sale. I had no prior knowledge of its existence. No buzz. No info on a board. Nothing. At least for me, this was a diamond in the rough. Upon looking at the quick little trailer, I thought it looked like an interesting Contra inspired game. I picked it up.

Well it isn’t just interesting. It’s phenomenal. In terms of how close the game play is to NES Contra it’s almost 1:1. You play a robot out to save the world from an alien invasion. Like the game it is cribbing from. You get three lives, and sent on an overwhelming seven stage mission of mayhem. The first stage has a few visual nods to Contra. It starts in the jungle, and though the stage layout is completely different the theme is there. It ends at a fortress as well. But with a completely different, and original boss.

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From there, the game goes through different themed areas, and this is where it makes an attempt to differentiate itself from its inspiration. The inside of the base has its own distinct style. The third stage has more of a late game Ninja Gaiden look. There is a spider filled cavern stage. Throughout the campaign, the game does try to retain its own identity. In spite of just how much it feels like Contra. Of course, even some of that goes out the window when you get to the Super C inspired top down stage, and the final stage.

It really does feel like Contra too. As I said before, it feels almost 1:1. The movement is almost identical. The somersault jumping is almost identical. The shooting feels nearly identical. You can fire up. You can fire ahead, or at a diagonal slant. You can fire straight down so long as you’re in the air. One key difference is there is a “Lock” feature, where you can press a button to disable walking. In theory, some sections may be more manageable with it enabled. You can stay just outside the hit box of a projectile spewed out by a boss. Or you can keep yourself from walking off of a ledge. In practice, you’ll almost never use it because of just how much stuff is hitting you at any given moment. Super Cyborg also adds a secondary charge shot to every gun in the game. It does more damage. But because it’s so slow; again you’ll rarely use it with all of the chaos.

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Because just like Contra, the attackers never cease. They keep re-spawning, charging, and coming from all directions. Sit in one place too long, they’ll appear from behind. Or jump from above. Or crop up from the background scenery when you least expect it. Even Contra’s weapons are heavily referenced here. Barrels float through the sky in weird patterns. Shooting them drops a letter. Each letter is a different weapon. The letters may be different in some cases, but the projectiles have the same properties. The machine gun bullets are here. The laser gun is here. The coveted spread gun is here. The clear screen is here. Even the rapid fire is here.

And like Probotector, you’ll play as a robot. At first. You see, once you complete the game you’ll be able to play as a Rambo knock off, giving the game an even closer resemblance to Contra. One cool thing here is you can customize the colors on your character sprites when you start the game. The enemies are pretty varied throughout the campaign with all sorts of aliens, mutants, and strange creatures. All of them share attack patterns with Contra’s many soldiers, and creatures.

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Boss characters are original creations, and yet they could probably fit into a Contra game. There are some standouts here like the giant heart boss, the mechanical bee, and the game’s final boss. This thing has seven forms, and only gets more difficult as each form is introduced. Frankly, it goes from being a very difficult Run n’ Gun to a very difficult Bullet Hell. Think Toaplan difficult.

Honestly, the whole game is pretty difficult for many of the reasons outlined earlier. But again, so was Contra. It also has the simultaneous two player mode you know, and love. The game is fun, and hectic enough with one player. Two player mode makes this even more fun. On top of that, Super Cyborg includes Peer to Peer internet play. You can host a game, and let a friend or stranger connect through Steam, and away you go. Basically, it’s the same thing as the standard two player campaign. But now you don’t have to worry about your friend actually driving to your house.

Of course no NES Contra experience would be complete without the Konami code. Because, for the majority of us, getting through the game was almost impossible on three lives. Super Cyborg doesn’t have the Konami code, but it does have its own extra lives code that you’ll also have to input quickly on the title screen. It will give you 40 lives, and because the game has user files, you can actually save your progress between levels. Which is nice in case you find yourself getting too frustrated in your attempt to win. You can come back to where you left off. Moreover, Super Cyborg has three difficulty levels; Easy, Normal, and Hard which is unlocked after you complete the game once. Easy is about as hard as NES Contra. Until the last boss where it gets pretty difficult. Normal adds more enemies, and projectiles. The final boss gets much more health here. Hard difficulty is so over the top, it’s really recommended for those who love an almost masochistic challenge.

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Super Cyborg isn’t terribly long, and it needn’t be. It isn’t very original. But that isn’t what it was going for. It’s a game trying to fill a void Konami left, by letting its franchise lie dormant. As a spiritual successor to that franchise Super Cyborg truly succeeds. It is a great game for anybody who loves Contra, as the entire game is a love letter to Contra. It’s also a pretty fun action game in its own right.  Super Cyborg might not look quite as good as Contra. Some of the sprites can look a little rough around the edges. But it still manages to get a pretty good NES inspired look all around. You can also toggle a CRT blur effect, and sprite transparency effects on or off depending on how you like your retro-inspired games to look. The music is pretty great. Stage three’s up tempo chip tunes really stand out. But overall the music, and sound is really good.

Where the game falls short is in the options menu, and controller settings. First off, the options navigation takes some getting used to, as it isn’t mouse driven. It has a weird lay out, with pull-down menus. It isn’t difficult to use, but it isn’t very intuitive. But the biggest problem is that it doesn’t support a very large variety of controllers. You can play with the keyboard. You can play with the Xbox 360, or Xbox One controllers pretty seamlessly. Even third-party versions, as they use the same driver in Windows. But beyond that, it’s tough to say. My Steam controller didn’t work right away. After a day or two, it miraculously decided to. So I don’t know if that was just an issue with my configuration, or if it was a Steam client issue an update fixed. Chances are if you’re using a Steam controller you’re probably going to be able to play the game just fine.

But for some of the other controllers out there you’ll have to use a third-party program like Xpadder if you want to get them working with the game. Other than that speed bump though, it’s a pretty great game I can still highly recommend. It can be pretty difficult, and it might tread a little too closely to Contra for some. But it is also a lot of fun. I know I’ve repeated myself a lot in this review. But if you’ve longed for a proper Contra game for a while, you just might want to check this one out.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Axiom Verge Review

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Wow. Just wow. This is one of the most impressive games I’ve played through in a while. It would be easy to write Axiom Verge off as a Metroid clone. Because when you get down to brass tacks, it is. It drops you in a map, and forces you to explore. Forces you to find the exit, only to tell you you’ll have to go back to that area to get something later on. The thing is there are but a mere handful of examples of games that tried to do something a Nintendo game did, and did it well. There are even fewer that have managed to do it as well. Especially this well.

Axiom Verge has. This game feels like it could actually fit in the Metroid universe somehow, or that you could call it Super Duper Metroid, and that it is the successor to Metroid fusion. Metroid fans would be completely okay with that. That isn’t an exaggeration or hyperbole here. It is seriously THAT good.

PROS: Spot on labyrinthine level design. Pixel Art. Chip tunes.

CONS: Not the most original story. (But still good!)

SECRETS: Who knew nostalgia could be so trippy?

I could end the review with that introduction. It really does live up to the hype it has had for almost a year. But a lot of you who missed it, or have been on the fence, or for those who are skeptical you might need more. Axiom Verge is the tale of a scientist who is transported to another world when his experiment goes awry, and his lab explodes. If that sounds a bit familiar it’s because that is also the setup to Eric Chahi’s Another World (a.k.a. Out Of This World). But beyond the initial intro, it is a completely different narrative than that game’s. You’ll meet other characters while heading back, and forth through areas who give you a little bit of back story. But they also don’t spell everything out for you either. Your character asks questions, tries to figure out where he is, and in the process some key things are revealed. But the details are kept vague. Not everything is revealed, even when you finish the game.  But the characters do get enough development that you can at least get behind them, and they are memorable. Notably the giant mechanical beings you’re introduced to. All of them become more important toward the end of the final act.

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That said, the story isn’t the strongest part of the game.  Although it is told better than many game stories. Still, you’ll see a lot of inspiration from stories you’ve seen in other mediums. But like the game it writes a love letter to, it lets the gameplay tell the bulk of the story, and it’s better for it. You can take your time, and try to really find every possible item, or secret. You can try to rush through to the end as fast as possible. In fact, Axiom Verge even has a speed run mode. Of course, choosing it shuts off one of the really cool features in the game.

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The boss fights are another area where the game really excels The sprite scaling does a wonderful job of showing you the scope of any given battle, while throwing you into a situation where you have to act fast. But in doing so you have to analyze the situation. “Do I have the right tools for this fight?” “Is there a discernible pattern?” “Is there something in the background I should be paying attention to?” You’ll have a limited amount of time to ponder these questions because once you’re in a boss chamber it’s sink or swim.

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Not only does the game have a large number of areas to explore, there are secret areas beyond those. These areas actually kind of screw with your mind a bit, because of a really cool set of visual effects. When you get near one of these areas, the game’s graphics will suddenly add scan lines much like you’d find playing old games on a 30-year-old standard definition television set. Get a little closer to find the brightness, and contrast will change. Actually go into one of these areas, and things can even become a bit surreal. Moreover going into these areas usually hides an item or a power up you’ll probably want.

 

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Interestingly, the game will  increase the number of these secret areas depending on the difficulty you choose to play, with the easiest setting giving you the fewest, and the hardest setting giving you the most. Do note if you play the speed run mode you can’t get into any of these areas when playing that mode. Speaking of the graphics, these are some of the nicest retro-themed visuals of their type. They’re on par with games like Shovel Knight most of the time, and sometimes even exceeds them. But where it really stands out, are some of the eerie character, and object designs. They both clash, and fit in with the rest of the game’s art style. It looks really good.

The visual cues of the secret areas, also tie into the game’s story somewhat. Over the course of the game these  secret areas, and even some normal areas will be blocked by garbled graphics. These look comparable to what you’d see on your television if you put in a dirty cartridge into an old game system. At some point you can find a power up that lets you clean up these graphics, in order to enter these areas. it ties into one of the details of the story too. If you do find yourself really invested in the storyline, there are also a number of journal entries, and logs hidden throughout the game as well.

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The game also has an amazing soundtrack, with a lot of different influences felt throughout the game. Like Metroid, each of the areas in Axiom Verge have their own particular background music. You’ll hear Industrial Synth in one section. New Wave in another, Electronic Tribal in yet another, Synth Pop in yet another, and so on. Most of this music is very memorable too. Even though much of it is ambient, fitting the scope of the game’s world, you may find yourself hearing it hours later. In your mind, as an ear worm on loop. If you find you really enjoy the music, you can purchase the soundtrack as well.

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There is an immense level of replay value here. With over 20 weapons, items, data logs, you’re probably not going to see everything on your first play through. Between these, and the secret areas in the game you can easily spend days playing it before finding everything. Then factor in the speed run challenge, and that’s even more play time.

But the most impressive thing about the game is that it was all made by one person in their spare time. Thomas Happ deserves all of the praise he has received for this game. It is an amazing feat when one considers how much is crammed into this 175 megabyte folder. To put that into perspective, Super Metroid had at least ten people working on it. Sure, one could argue it’s easier now to make a game like this than it was in 1994, But the amount of effort, and care put into this title really shows.

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I really couldn’t find much fault with anything during my play through. Sure the story borrows from other tales a bit. But it isn’t a bad story. It might be a Metroid clone, but it’s a damn good Metroid clone.  One that frankly still does plenty enough to set itself apart from Metroid. Functionally, I never had a crash, everything performed well, and I never saw a glitch in nearly 16 hours of play time. The PC version also has some basic options that can be toggled if you have a fairly old computer.

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Axiom Verge really does live up to the lofty praise it has gotten. It’s simply a must play game whether you choose to play it on a PlayStation 4 or a computer. The game is also coming soon to the Wii U with some enhancements for the game pad. This is a game that I highly recommend you pick up. It’s interesting, fun, and will keep you busy for a while.

Final Score: 10/10