Tag Archives: Retro themed games

Hellbound Review

Well coming off of a round up of old-school inspired shooters coming soon, this time out we’re looking at relatively recent one. Hellbound is a game that wears its DOOM fandom on its sleeve. Almost to a fault. But can it hang with id Software’s long-running demon slaying series?

PROS: Visual Fidelity, Rock solid controls. Fast and fluid combat.

CONS: Lack of personality. Bland vocal performances.

MOTHER#$%#^*: Our hero loves to cuss for the sake of cussing.

Hellbound has a lot of really awesome things going for it. It looks spectacular, almost as good as the recent DOOM games. It plays as fast-paced as the recent DOOM games. It has some pretty great locales. It’s got a pretty good variety of enemy types. And there’s all kinds of little nuances in it you’ll likely appreciate.

In short, it’s very fun, and the majority of people who pick it up will likely enjoy their time with it. But there are some caveats with that statement.

Before I get into them though, Let’s go over what you get here. Hellbound as you can probably tell by now, is a shooter inspired by DOOM. Its protagonist isn’t a Space Marine stopping an invasion from Hell through a teleporter experiment gone awry on Mars. Instead you’re a being known as Hellgore who was a soldier killed on Planet Hell, and was resurrected for the sole purpose of revenge. The entire populace was wiped out by a being known as Ferlord, and his army of demonic minions.

With that quick setup Hellgore begins his mission of carnage and bloodlust. While the game definitely references the original DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D in its marketing, it clearly feels more akin to the 2016 version of DOOM. The level designs are pretty good and do offer some of that classic colored key hunting. But much like DOOM 2016, the overall size and scope of the maps are much smaller than they were in 1993. And while you will have to backtrack to a few previous areas to use that red key you just found, the jaunts are much shorter, leading to a more linear, modernized feel.

That in of itself isn’t a bad thing. The stages do have a nice flow to them, and there are even a couple of puzzles that will likely stump you. But it isn’t the same thing as it was in the old games that inspired it. In the original DOOM there were stages you could conceivably spend two hours on looking for secrets alone. That isn’t to say there aren’t some clever secrets in Hellbound because there are. A good number of them too. And while things aren’t as free as they were in DOOM 1993, that doesn’t mean there’s no exploration. This isn’t the hallway, cutscene, hallway formula of some of the blockbusters of recent years either.

Where the game begins to fall short is that there isn’t a lot of its own personality. While the main character (voiced by Artie Widgery) puts out some nice delivery, the dialogue at times is just crass for the sake of being so. I know there was a lot of shock value in some of the glory days of early PC FPS games. But something about it doesn’t seem genuine. Even though it’s very clear that everyone involved in making this poured their hearts and souls into doing so, in some ways it feels tied a little too close to DOOM. In the best and worst of ways.

In the best of ways, it’s that it nails the action. As I mentioned it has a very DOOM 2016 feel although you don’t have a melee attack or skill tree system. But all of the guns are DOOM style mainstays. You have a pistol, a shotgun, a beefier shotgun, a minigun, a plasma rifle, and a rocket launcher. They also have one weapon, the Head Crusher which is basically a baseball bat in lieu of the Chainsaw you’d have in DOOM. Of course if all else fails, you can still punch demons. The game also has soul orbs that are basically the super health orbs from the original DOOM. These give you up to 200% health. Then they veer a little bit into QUAKE territory by giving you a Hell Damage icon that is effectively Quad Damage. So a lot of enemies will explode, and harder targets go down faster for a time. Then there’s the Hell Skin which is basically the armor version of the damage icon. Finally there’s the Hell Speed which makes you run even faster.

On the flipside though, the character designs are largely DOOM stand ins. And while that wouldn’t be a bad thing, the characters are clearly meant to resemble their DOOM counterparts. The former humans are probably the biggest divide in design. But the Vladers, Karnals, and Pygons are very clearly Imps, Pink Demons, and Cacodemons from id Software’s frontrunner. So much so, at times you might find yourself wondering why you’re not playing DOOM 2016.

I don’t want to make it sound like this game is a bore though, it truly is not. It is good. The gameplay is exceptional at times. I only wish it differentiated itself just a little bit more. One thing some people won’t like however is the short length. It’s about the length of a single episode of one of those games it takes its inspiration from. Fortunately the gameplay is there. So for many, you’ll want to go back and replay it on a higher setting for more of a challenge. And if you still need more after that, there is a horde mode where you can choose an arena and see how long you last.

Ultimately, it has enough entertainment value to keep you going through it. By the end of the game I found myself hoping there was more. And that’s a good thing in a way, because it held my attention. It’s a really fun shooter. Unfortunately it doesn’t have the personality of something like DUSK or AMID EVIL. Yes those games were also inspired by old games, but they had environments, characters, and designs you can more easily get behind. DUSK had great horror elements in its simplistic look. Even though it took its shooting cues from QUAKE, it still felt very much like its own thing. Hellbound doesn’t. It feels more like a glass of RC to DOOM’s glass of Coca-Cola. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the best of these titles can stand on their own merits. And while Hellbound is excellent at what it does, it isn’t going to be something you might play over the game that inspired it. Even with voice samples, Hellgore isn’t as interesting as Doomguy.

I know I’m talking in circles now, so to recap: Hellbound is a very fun DOOM-like that you’ll really enjoy if you’ve already played DOOM 2016 and DOOM Eternal to death and want something very close to their template. But I wouldn’t get it over DOOM 2016 if you haven’t played that already. And there are other retro-themed shooters with more personality, games that stand out more than this one to consider. My hope is that they’ll continue Hellbound though. Perhaps a sequel that expands upon the excellent gameplay here, and comes back with some more original characters and locales. There’s a fantastic foundation here. It just needs a little something to stand out from the crowd of similar games also inspired by the games that inspired it.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Retro Shooter Preview Round Up

Man, I know it’s been a frustratingly long hiatus. I’ve been working overtime at my job most weeks over the last several months. This has limited my free time, so I’ve ended up focusing more on my Twitch channel over the blog. Over there I play a wide variety of stuff as well as a fair amount of Splatoon 2. But lately I have been going through a number of FPS games in Early Access. Some interesting preview builds of games that hearken back to the early days of Apogee and id software. Being that they aren’t done, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend getting them right now. One of the risks in buying anything in Early Access is that there’s no guarantee the games will be done. And this isn’t the most original idea for an article as several bloggers and YouTube creators have made similar ones. Be that as it may, these are some of the ones I’ve found pretty interesting upon buying. Games you may want to keep your eyes on.

Of course, the resurrection of what many consider the original shooter formula isn’t new. They’ve been slowly coming out for a while. New Blood Interactive has been hitting it out of the park with games like DUSK and AMID EVIL, but we’ve seen plenty of other games too like the Rise Of The Triad 2013 remake, Ion Fury, and others. Anyway, these are of the preview versions I rolled the dice on, and some of my thoughts on them after playing them.

Prodeus

This is one of the most promising of the bunch here. If you really enjoyed the DOOM 2016 remake or it’s DOOM II: Hell On Earth inspired sequel DOOM ETERNAL, but wished it hearkened back to the old games a little more, this could be for you. What makes this one stand out? Well it has the DOOM 2016 look in terms of its world. It also has a similarly streamlined layout in terms of maps. Things are a bit more linear than they were in 1993, but it still retains some of the colored keys and secret hunting. But it also blurs the line more than the official Bethesda/id/Microsoft property does because you can have the enemies represented as either fully rendered models or you can choose to see 2D sprites! And while there isn’t quite enough there for a full campaign yet, the game does have a level editor and many fans have already done a bunch of fantastic community maps. The game also does an interesting Super Mario World style overworld map, showing you what you’ve beaten, and if you’ve found specific exits for secret levels.

ULTRAKILL

New Blood Interactive is one of those publishers that does appear to finish their Early Access projects, and all of them have been must play experiences so far. DUSK and AMID EVIL are two acts that are going to be tough to follow. But ULTRAKILL seems poised to do pretty well for itself. Where DUSK combined Quake’s aesthetics and gameplay and Deliverance’s unsettling backwoods horror, ULTRAKILL pushes the low polygon retro look further. Where AMID EVIL brought back the Heretic/Hexen feel that has languished, ULTRAKILL brings in elements seen in all kinds of games, old and new. It has a melee system that is tied to its health system. You punch away projectiles. Punch enemies so they’ll bleed on you and fill your health meter. But it also has a creative kill system in the vein of PlatinumGames’ Mad World, or People Can Fly’s work on Bulletstorm. You continually have to dash out of the way of projectiles one moment, and find creative ways to take out waves of enemies the next. If all of that isn’t enough for you, stages are chock full of secrets and the game already has several secret stages that each play absolutely nothing like the rest of the game. It’s also got an interesting yet popcorn storyline. Mankind is dead. Blood is fuel. Hell is full. The soundtrack is also this nice rush of industrial metal and techno subgenres.

Viscerafest

Like ULTRAKILL this game also has an importance on dashing and punching. But for different reasons. Instead of being creative for point awards, and continually refueling your health meter, this game has you doing it for survival and resource conservation. You see each stage only has so many ammunition pickups. So if you go full Lundgren on every alien you see, you won’t have the buckshot you need to kill a larger enemy type, or destroy a damaged wall to get that secret item you spy on the other side through a window. Another cool thing about this game is the save system. Instead of going full old-school and giving you a quick save function or rather than go full new school and implement a checkpoint system, they give you beacons. These beacons are limited, and found throughout levels. You can then plant one on the ground to create your own checkpoints. This is to keep you from cheesing your way to the top by quick saving every time you kill something. And it also keeps you from having to redo something you had trouble with clearing. You have to be careful though, because you can plant one too early and still have to redo a tough monster closet, or too late and miss something important. The game also has a unique art style as like Prodeus before, you have sprite based enemies and pickups. There’s no option to switch to models, but it works for the anime and Blake Stone: Aliens Of Gold pixel art blend they have going on. (Well I was reminded of Blake Stone anyway.) Cut scenes are done in these fantastically done animatics (Think Street Fighter V’s cinemas) while in-game graphics have everyone looking fresh out of an Apogee PC shooter circa 1993.

This one also throws in some sarcastic one-liners with its protagonist. Like Shelly in Ion Fury, Caroline here will do the same. Unlike Shelly, Caroline is far more psychotic. She relishes blowing away bad guys, eating the hearts they leave behind when they’re punched into giblets, and causing mayhem. There’s a lot more dark humor here, and the game never tries to be something it isn’t. It also has a rather fantastic Industrial Metal and Electronica soundtrack. This one by Michael Markie. The game only has one episode done, but the final game looks like it will have three based on what the current build’s hub level looks like. There are also a ton of skulls to collect throughout the stages, and it looks like there will be a place in the hub level for you to use them at some point. I really enjoyed playing through this game’s build. So I’m hoping the full game lives up to the first episode. The one bug I ran into (one that disables all of your weapons except the pistol) is apparently already being worked on. So the developers have been going out of their way to talk to players which is a positive sign.

Maximum Action

Maximum Action is an odd case. It started out nicely enough to intrigue New Blood, even getting partnered at one point. Then they were mysteriously dropped and the updates seemed to trickle. The game was picked up by Balloon Moose Games and carried on. A few days ago a major update finally dropped, adding a new stage and cleaning up a few things as well as changing composers. The game hasn’t excited me the way the others have, but there is a really cool hook here, and that is each level is a different movie scene. You basically play through the stage as pretend Dolph Lundgren, and at the end you can watch the replay. Which is pretty cool. And so the scenery of each stage is inspired by different action genres. Some have you doing James Bond style stealth missions. Others have you blowing away 80s drug dealers like the protagonist of a 1987 direct to VHS vehicle. And each stage also works as a sort of puzzle game as you have to figure out which bad guy to take out in which order. Or where certain bad guys enter a scene. Or when a vehicle will tear through. So it’s like a cross between Hotline Miami and Duke Nukem 3D. There are some goofy bugs though, particularly in the game’s playback feature where you can watch your performance. Here’s hoping this one can come out with some major fixes, because there is a really fun idea underneath it all. The Goldeneye 007 era blocky enemies are also entertaining.

HROT

HROT is another game that takes inspiration from the original Quake. It’s got the similar brown, drab palette. What really sets this one apart though isn’t just the Eastern European horror show it puts on display. It’s set in Czechoslovakia during the 1980s and the story centers around some mysterious activity. It’s entirely coded by one guy in Pascal. That in of itself is quite impressive. It’s also got some fantastic level design, on par with the classic id game. And like DUSK it does a lot with very little. It’s a bit on the short side as of now, but it’s one hell of a short ride.

WRATH: Aeon Of Ruin

3DRealms is publishing this one by KillPixel and what stands out on this one is that it is actually being made in id Software’s original Quake engine. But it does diverge from the Quake mold a bit. After all Quake II skewed the series purely into action, while Quake set things up in more of a dark, foreboding adventure mold for a possible continuation of its story. While Wrath doesn’t completely do that as it still has plenty of monster closets to deal with it does change things up a bit. Similar to Viscerafest you’ll need to collect items to create checkpoints. You’ll find a wide variety of different weapons to dispatch monsters with. The game also takes the hub world approach with different areas opening up levels to go through. Think in the vein of something like the original RAGE. There’s a fair amount of variety in terms of the different environments too. And despite the focus on exploration over action, there is still plenty of action. You’ll come away from many firefights on your last legs, praying you’ll find some health and ammo before finding another group of bad guys. Like Viscerafest and ULTRAKILL, Wrath also adds a dash attack. This function is quite useful navigating some of the vertical sections here as well as allowing you to conserve supplies by stabbing low level enemies instead of shooting them. It’s a pretty feature rich game too with a lot of customization options for all types of PC configurations. However, I have never gotten it to play nice with screen overlays, so I haven’t been able to livestream it myself. Still, it’s another interesting one you may want to look into.

And with that I’m off. I do have another few shooters in my Steam wish list so as I get to them I may do another one of these preview lists. And when some of these are completed I may be doing full reviews of some of them so stay tuned!

Streets Of Rage 4 Review

SOR4Title

Man, the past several days were an on and off again situation with getting electricity. With the recent tropical storm, there were issues plus I lost it for a day this past Sunday after hearing a loud hum, then seeing downed wires outside. And the power was shut off after that so the five trucks of linemen could redo the street.

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It got me thinking about the backdrop to Streets Of Rage 4. Mr. X is gone from the city and for a decade some normalcy returns. But suddenly the violent crime level skyrockets. The power of both electrical and local civic variety is transferred to a new criminal enterprise: The Y syndicate. Led by the evil Mr. X’s twin progeny. They’ve recruited a lot of the original enemies you remember from the Sega Genesis days, along with a number of new surprises.

PROS: Comic book visuals. Groovy soundtrack. Gameplay.

CONS: Some cheap A.I. May seem too short for some.

SEGA: Should have Lizardcube give Golden Axe and Comix Zone this treatment.

This new Streets Of Rage has a very nice comic book look to the whole affair. So much so, that I immediately began to wonder what a new Comix Zone might look like if helmed by Lizardcube, the studio that brought us this sequel. It’s bright, and colorful in a way that still fits the dystopian, chaotic remnants of a city now ruled by criminals B movie vibe it goes for. The artwork and animation here are fantastic. Streets Of Rage 4 also has a lot of cool galleries where you can see the concept art. And it goes a step further than some other games here because you get to see a lot of the work in progress rather than a handful of sketches or prerendered graphics.

SOR4Comics

Unlike many comic books, they haven’t kept the game in the same narrow 20 year period of the character’s lives. Old stalwarts like Axel Stone are… well, old. Not elderly just yet, but you can tell he’s been out of action a while. It’s like they took a splash of The Expendables movies and sprinkled it on top. But much like River City Ransom: Underground’s mainstays, they haven’t let themselves go either. And there are a couple of newer characters introduced here. Cherry, Adam’s daughter makes her debut along with Floyd who is this really cool combination of Mortal Kombat’s Jax and Final Fight’s Mike Haggar. Of the roster I found him to be the most enjoyable to use.

SOR4Surround

But everybody is viable and you’ll unlock other playable characters over the course of multiple playthroughs. You’ll also be enamored with the soundtrack here as you get renditions of classic chiptunes as well as some new jams that complement those nicely. It goes along well with the theme of bridging the classic trilogy of brawlers with some modern-day visual flair. But the game also has a number of unlockable retro characters seemingly right out of the Sega Genesis games. There are also some hidden boss encounters that take you back to the 16-bit console’s sprite style. Think almost like the retro stages employed in games like Shadow Warrior (reboot) or Rise Of The Triad (reboot).

SOR4StainGlass

The game also has several difficulty settings. If you beat them they open up tougher versions for you to try your hand at. Including a No Death Run mode where you can attempt to beat the entire game on one life. Yes, many games have added this feature as well, but it does still give a devoted fan something of merit to shoot for. This game, in particular, is one of the toughest games to employ this. Even on the lower difficulties, it can be pretty easy to lose lives when you get sandwiched between mid-card enemies or go up against some of the cheaper bosses. So expect to have nerves of steel should you want to attempt a no death run on the highest of challenge levels.

SOR4Cinema

As for the gameplay, it’s classic Streets Of Rage. Lizardcube has gotten nearly 1:1 with the feel of the older games. It felt closest to SOR2 for me, though I’m certain any superfan who disagrees will tell me why I’m wrong. Be that as it may, it is a beat ’em up. On the surface level, it might seem like “Go right, and mash punch” is the only thing you do, but on further inspection, it really isn’t.  Streets Of Rage 4 has mostly pretty good hit detection, if you miss, you likely weren’t close enough or were too far above or below the enemy for it to land. This follows a lot of the classics. Attack diagonally, and try to get in grapple moves for big damage. Though every enemy in the game needs to be approached differently. One enemy type may deflect or reverse holds. So you’ll have to punch them a million times. Other enemies are blocking happy so you have to bait them into whiffing an attack. And yes, you can expect the A.I. to employ the classic brawler bull of sandwiching you between four bad guys that interrupt you when you’re beating up one of them. But figuring out ways around it are a staple of the genre.

SOR4Arcade

The thing is, with all of the tools and variety it doesn’t feel old or repetitious. The game also doesn’t wear out it’s welcome. It’s a relatively short game. One that honestly ends almost too abruptly for me. I would have liked to have seen some more stuff fleshed out. While this isn’t a game you’ll come into looking for a deep storyline, it does feel a bit too superficial. Outside of a little bit of exposition, we don’t get much about the new crime boss duo. We don’t see how or if Mr. X died. We don’t see how the kids come to power. It’s kind of like “Hey! Our dad is gone, but we’re taking over.” And the abrupt finish to it puts it a step below vintage brawlers in this regard. Again, B movie stuff, but even the old games in the series along with Final Fight, and Double Dragon did this a little better. Not by much. But enough that it’s noticeable.

SOR4SpiderDemon

That said, at this level, I’m really nitpicking. Overall, I rather enjoyed Streets Of Rage 4. There’s enough here for the old-timer teens of the 90s to love, and for those who are newer to enjoy as well. It’s as silly and over the top as always while letting you feel like a badass the entire time. And it’s a cut above some of the other beat ’em ups that we’ve seen recently.  Whether you’re a long time fan who has waited for eons for this release, or you’re someone not experienced with Beat ’em ups looking for something new this is one worth picking up.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

PROJECT WARLOCK Review

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Well I know I’m once again way behind schedule and probably hemorrhaging eyeballs faster than Ric Flair would bleed in his wrestling matches. Not that it is anyone’s problem other than my own. But when there’s a scare, you’re told you’re essential and said essential gig is the one that pays regularly, online endeavors have to take a back seat. Well, that or you quit. But that wouldn’t leave me with many prospects. So we have to count our blessings, prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

All of that said, I pray for everyone affected by this pandemic and hope those who haven’t contracted it never do. Personally, I know a few people locally whose relatives were infected and it hasn’t been easy for them. It’s been said a billion times, but unless you’re completely out of food, don’t leave the house. And if you are, go to the store, buy two months worth of stuff and go directly home. It isn’t worth the risk. I had a customer complain they had to spend time with their kids. I couldn’t believe it. I told them to appreciate the time with them now rather than regret not having the time when they’re in their 90’s lamenting the fact they never spoke to one another.

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Anyway, I was fortunate enough to find some time to stream a couple of nights last week. So I managed to play through two games and I thank any of you who dropped in. Whether you chatted me up or just lurked. The first of these was today’s game. PROJECT WARLOCK. While the second was BLAZING CHROME which I will get to in a future review. PROJECT WARLOCK (Which demands an all-caps introduction. It really is a cool sounding name. Like something out of the B movie selection in the action movie section in the video store, we had back in 1993. But I’ve gone on a tangent.) is another in a line of games that pays homage to First-Person Shooters of yesteryear. But this one takes a little bit of a turn by going way back. Way, way, back to the earlier games put out by id Software and Apogee.

PROS: Great level design. Great characters. Great aesthetics. Customization!

CONS: Some people aren’t going to like having a lives system.

SURPRISE!: The game loves to throw a few curve balls from time to time.

Many games, of course, are inspired by DOOM, Quake, or Duke Nukem 3D. Some of these have even gone as far as run on those games’ classic engines. But this one goes back even further. Back to the days where every room was designed with cubes and 90-degree corners. Catacomb Abyss, Wolfenstein-3D, Blake Stone: Aliens Of Gold are the types of games this one takes much of its inspiration from. However, the game runs on Unity, and as such isn’t completely bolted down to those games’ limitations. However, it sticks to most of them while allowing for different ceiling and wall heights as well as elevators. Plus there are some nice skyboxes and interactive sprites and textures. The end result is something that feels like a combination of the aforementioned games and Rise Of The Triad. A classic that was born of a heavily modified Wolfenstein-3D engine.

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Unlike Rise Of The Triad, there aren’t any bizarre cultic terrorist organizations portrayed with digitized actors in the vein of Mortal Kombat. But you will be gunning down many, many enemies, collecting boatloads of treasure, and looking for many secrets. For those who have never played any of the First-Person Shooters prior to DOOM, this game may seem fairly restrictive at first. This hearkens back to a time when FPS games only had one set height for the floor. There were no stairs. There were no cliffs. It was rare to even see a puzzle involving switches. Secret areas were accessed by physically moving cubes of the environment back so many paces. In short, these were mazes like you would see in an early arcade game like Berzerk or in Muse Software’s Castle Wolfenstein (A game inspired by Berzerk that in turn inspired Wolfenstein-3D) but in the first person.

That meant hours of pushing on walls for those who wanted to find every conceivable secret in between blasting enemies. A lot of that experience has been recreated here. But it also has a couple of modern conveniences that make the experience a lot more interesting as well as enjoyable. For starters, this game has a contemporary control scheme. Back before Quake gave us this control scheme, most FPS games were controlled by using the arrow keys to move forward, backward, and to turn. You would fire by pressing CTRL, and if you needed to strafe you had to hold the ALT key while pressing left or right. The Spacebar opened doors. Even today, many people will download a source port when they buy a classic game like DOOM because going back to that setup feels archaic. Even to many veterans who are used to it.

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Project Warlock eschews that and retains the WASD, and a mouse control setup we’ve enjoyed since 1998. Be that as it may, this is still very much inspired by those pre-DOOM years so you won’t be jumping or crouching. But don’t worry, because these limitations actually forced the developers to get far more creative. Which is quite common when creating anything. Intentionally limiting yourself means inventing new ways to implement ideas you really believe in and Buckshot Software has done a phenomenal job with this game.

While the limitations may sound like a bad idea to some, they’re done very well here. Level designs are quite elaborate here and can get really deep. You may think you’ve hit a brick wall in finding the exit, then retrace all of your steps to find a door that was hiding in plain sight. Or you may think that secret you discovered was a monster closet because it was, but getting through it got you a weapon earlier than expected.

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The art design goes along with very well. They have done a fantastic job with all of this. Each of the game’s episodes has a completely different setting with a cast of enemies to go along with it. When you first start the game you’ll go through an initial stage that gets you acclimated with everything while being a surprisingly challenging stage. Frankly, it’s one of the toughest parts of the game. But you’ll want to press on and defeat it because things will become more manageable over time.

Eventually, you’ll find yourself in a small fortress stage that acts as a hub level where you’ll be able to level up your abilities, weapons, and choose missions. It feels a lot like the system in Bioshock, except you don’t have to choose to harvest Little Sisters and tick off Big Daddies. As you play through the game you can find stat building icons and you’ll also level up by mowing down hundreds of enemies. After so many stages you’ll find yourself back here, where you’ll be able to spend those upgrades on beefing up weapons, spells, and abilities.

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The game gives you two styles of assault. Traditional weapons you’d expect like guns or grenade launchers and Magical weapons like you would see in a game like Heretic. The magical weapons and spells use mana while the traditional weapons use their own ammunition.  Over time you’ll begin to make yourself bigger and better as you increase your health bars and add crazy enhancements to your arsenal. For instance, you can turn one weapon into a rail gun, or make a wimpy handgun go from a pea shooter to a hand cannon.

This actually means that earlier stages in many ways can seem more difficult to clear than some of the later ones. But this doesn’t make things feel insurmountable, rather it gives the game an RPG like affair in the sense that when earlier enemies that felt unkillable go down in a far more reasonable amount of time. Project Warlock also calls back to the old id/Apogee days by having episodes. Each episode has a few ranges of stages within them and culminates with a boss fight. Each episode also has its own particular look and feel. The first episode features a lot of horror and fantasy themed characters and settings. The episode after that goes for an icy tundra theme with winter stages, and enemies like abominable snowmen and creatures stuck in panes of ice. Other episodes have ancient Egyptian themes or industrial sci-fi themes. The final episode homogenizes all of these together.

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After a predetermined number of stages within each episode, things will take a break to send you back to the hub for more leveling up. Keep in mind the episodes have to be played through in sequential order. You can’t play them at your leisure the way you can in Wolfenstein 3D. At the end of each episode, the related aforementioned boss stage opens up and commences. Some Boss fights in this game do move beyond the typical “Shoot the Cyberdemon until it dies” meme battles you remember from games like DOOM. All of them are visually creative and have a number of things going on. One of the battles takes place against a giant Sphinx that goes in a different direction you might expect it to. Another boss implements a switch mechanic in its combat. Overall, these all come off as very memorable due to the combination of terrific character designs, sound effects, and attack patterns that really make them stand out.

In between episodes, the game takes some influence from DOOM by giving you a full-screen essay on what happens with your character’s following exploits. The game also does have a few really interesting options to go along with the entire package. One cool feature the game has is something that has also been done in other indie games. But usually, they’ve been completely different genres. That feature is the ability to put on different filters to emulate the look of older platforms. There are palates for the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Nintendo Game Boy, and others. The game also has a CRT filter for those that want it. But rather than a simple on and off toggle, you can set a number of meters for the level of detail you want. You can also set variables for how pixelated you want the game to look.

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Admittedly, some of the retro settings can actually make some of the enemies harder to see, so in some cases, the game can become more difficult than it otherwise might be. You can also put on some more contemporary special effects like Ambient Occlusion. In short, the game does give you a lot of options if you’re into customizing the look and performance of your games.

This is also another game that has a fantastic soundtrack. Jerry Leha and Luke Wilson have put together a list of songs that fit the world of the game perfectly with a mix of Heavy Metal, New Wave, Industrial Electronica, as well as some orchestral elements blended into each of them. It’s a great game!

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Not everything in the game is as good as it could be. As I said, the optional filters can sometimes make things hard to see. The other thing some might not like is that the game retains a lives system from the days of Wolfenstein 3D. So, unfortunately, you won’t be able to press a button to quicksave the way you’ve been doing since the days of Quake. If you die, you’ll have to redo everything you have in that stage up to that point. Fortunately, there are ways to find extra lives, and updating your arsenal will definitely mitigate that.  Still, these won’t be considered transgressions by everyone. Especially for those that might point out how a quicksave feature could be abused by constantly pressing it after killing each and every enemy.

Ultimately though, this is worth picking up. It’s a great blend of Pre-DOOM conventions and modern conveniences of the genre. One that you really have to see to believe. A number of games today take inspiration from DOOM, it’s less common to see them take it from Wolfenstein 3D. The fact that this one does and does it well makes it really stand out. With it putting in current things like a WASD and mouselook control scheme it makes it still feel like a contemporary game when playing it. It’s got awesome art design, great characters, imposing bosses, and a solid leveling system. But be aware it does have a couple of early conventions you may not be used to if you weren’t around for the glory days of early id Software and Apogee.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

 

Sydney Hunter & The Curse Of The Mayan Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

ION FURY Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Black Jewel Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Battle Princess Madelyn Review

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Ghosts N’ Goblins is one of the classics that is often imitated these days. It isn’t hard to see why, as it’s pretty much a winning formula. A hero that can only take two points of damage before dying, must go on an action platforming adventure of quarter-munching proportions. Some of these games simply take that essence, and try to provide a carbon copy. Others take the idea, and try to build upon it.

PROS: The brutal, unforgiving, and yet somehow addictive fun you love.

CONS: Bugs, minor collision detection issues. Inconsistencies.

GHOST PUPPIES: May haunt your dreams, but they can also help you.

Battle Princess Madelyn is one such game. It uses the combat of Capcom’s classic series as a foundation, and puts a large skyscraper of ideas upon it. For the most part it works because it does something substantial. It has not one, but two campaigns to play through. The first of which combines the tried, and true combat with adventure game, and JRPG conventions.

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The primary campaign is a Story mode. It opens with a little girl named Madelyn lying in bed playing a Minecraft clone on her tablet. Her Grandfather comes in, and in true The Princess Bride fashion proceeds to read her a bedtime story. He tells her the tale of a warrior, coincidentally also named Madelyn in a European kingdom in what is presumably during the Medieval period. This Madelyn has a tiny lap dog named Fritzy. With the castle overrun by monsters, the little canine sacrifices his life to save the Royal Guard.

After some dialogue with her Grandfather, it turns out that Fritzy’s soul isn’t content to go to the afterlife just yet. As a spirit, he decides to follow Madelyn into glorious battle. Over the course of the game Fritzy goes from being a merely cute avatar that follows you around, to being a very useful back up character that will help you immensely. While the initial area looks like it will be another Ghosts N’ Goblins clone, (Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts to be specific), That is quickly proven not to be the case, as a fellow warrior sends you into town.

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Once in the town you begin to do things that are more akin to an Adventure or JRPG. You have to talk to townspeople, whom give you vague clues, or demand you go on fetch quests. You eventually find your way to the castle where key members will send you on the adventure. The castle is also home to two major spots. A toy room, and another room that becomes important much later.

Over the course of the game you’ll find dolls of low-level enemies, major characters, and bosses. Collecting every one of these gets you the best possible outcome, so its something you just might want to invest in. The other room becomes important later in the storyline, and involves warping you around to various areas.

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The game’s many stages are interconnected though not as intricately as something like Metroid. Be that as it may, you’ll still want to map it out, because you’re going to spend a large part of the campaign going sector to sector on foot. Why? Well remember the villagers I mentioned before? Many of the fetch quests they send you upon involve finding, and rescuing their friends from zombies. Aside from that there are also ghosts that can lead you to other secrets. And there are many hidden paths, shortcuts, and items that you’ll have to destroy parts of environments to even find. Basically, if you want to get the best possible finish you’ll need to do a lot of rescuing, and a lot of discovering. The rewards for many (but not nearly all) of these feats are the aforementioned dolls. Each of these dolls gets you one step closer to unlocking the door in the toy room, and the resulting end game.

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Not only that, but the only way to open up the game’s shop to buy power ups is tied to one of these fetch quests. Many of the villagers throughout the game want you to find one of the items they’ve foolishly lost. Each of the game’s areas has a village of their own, and many of their citizens lost these items in other areas. So you’ll be warping around a lot too.

Throughout it all though, the game has that classic Capcom arcade game play down to a science. Well mostly. The majority of the time you’ll feel like you’re playing the unofficial sequel to Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts. Zombies rise from the Earth in much the same way. There are all sorts of monsters, and demons that show up out of nowhere, and you’ll have to master your jumping, and shooting pretty quickly. Where things falter a bit is in the hit detection.

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Unfortunately, there will be a few times where you’ll have your foot stand near, but not on a hazard. But the game will say “Nope. You touched it.” which leads to a cheap death. Other times you’ll suffer cheap deaths when enemies spawn on you, or shoot a projectile that gets stuck in a part of the environment. Thus making hitting it unavoidable. These aren’t heavily widespread moments, but it can be enough to get frustrating. In the case of the story mode, this is mitigated by having pretty decent checkpoints, you’ll automatically start in when you run out of lives. When you die, you’ll start right where you died too, so at least you won’t have to start an entire section over.

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Eventually you’ll find your way to boss rooms. Throughout the game you’ll need to find keys to the boss rooms, so again, keep exploring. Boss fights are quite frankly the highlight of the game. All of them can hang with the best fights in some of the best Super NES, and Sega Genesis games of yesteryear. They’re very inventive. Even when one of them might seem generic, like the Spider bosses, or the Skeleton, they do things that throw that impression out the window. Either through the environments they take place in, or through their attack patterns, or even character mannerisms.

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When you defeat a boss, and move to the next area you’ll almost always find yourself near a town, and in that town you’ll find a fast travel artifact. Late in the game you’ll need to collect items to be reassembled in that second room I mentioned earlier. Here you’ll feel like you’ve reached the end. But you’re still far from it. It opens up all new areas that can only be accessed in the room, and you’ll also find your dog’s soul will now become even more useful. Over the course of the game you’ll acquire the expected knives, spears, lances, and such. All of which you can cycle through using the left shoulder button. But you’ll also start finding puppy soul powers you can use. These can help immensely, especially on bosses. Do keep in mind however, that these have limited supplies shared with your lives. So you’ll want to save these for key moments.

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Upon beating the story mode, you’ll find you won’t be done. You can go back, and find all of the dolls you missed. But beyond that you can play the Arcade mode. This mode is very much a Ghosts N’ Goblins experience with stages feeling more linear, and with the brutal challenge fans of that series would expect. You’ll have to start a stage over when you’re out of lives. Lives are really tied to Fritzy’s meter more so here, as when it becomes depleted completely you know you’re going to start the level over. Thankfully, you’ll still start where you last died. At least until the meter is depleted. You also get to use Fritzy’s powers in this mode as you find them by holding the attack button until it’s charged. Keep in mind as in the Story mode this will deplete the meter, so it reduces the number of lives you can use. Over time you can refill the meter the better you do. Getting to the end is a lot more streamlined as a result. Stages don’t feel exactly the same, as large chunks are completely different. Though you’ll still go up against the same bosses. Be that as it may, it’s still quite a tough game that will take all but the most devoted players a while to get through. Mostly due to the overall challenge of it. But some of the problems from the Story mode do rear their head here. So while the stages are shorter, and in a specific order, they add their own challenges, and sometimes the technical issues can make them even tougher. You can basically keep continuing, but each time means you’ll start the current stage over again, through all of its phases.

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The most striking thing about the game is just how good it looks, and sounds. This game is a wonderful send up of Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts. It has an amazing portfolio of sprite graphics, and animation that look like it could have appeared on Nintendo’s 16-bit juggernaut or even Commodore’s Amiga line of computers. The game even has a soundtrack that will evoke memories of the Commodore Amiga, early MS-DOS Adlib sound, and even a dash of the Sega Genesis for good measure. But even beyond that, you can have a more modern, CD quality orchestrated soundtrack if you choose. The game also has an optional scan line filter if you prefer a slightly blurred look to everything rather than have everything looking crisp.

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Still, on the whole it’s hard not to recommend this one. There may be some inconsistency in the FMV sequences, and the rest of the graphics. There may be some hit detection issues, and you’ll suffer a few cheap deaths here or there. But when the game is at its best it works so well it just has to be experienced. With two primary modes to play, it’s almost like having two games in one. Of course the main attraction is the Story mode. The variety of missions, and side quests while similar, will appeal to a lot of people who might normally skip it out of fears of the high difficulty, as it is a bit more forgiving. Be that as it may, the Arcade mode is something any fan of Capcom’s classic arcade game might want to play. The combat, while not perfect, is noticeably better than many of its peers. If not for the handful of technical issues you’ll likely run into, this would be a must own. But just because it falls a few notches away from perfection doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be played. It is true that it can feel, cheap, relentless, and unfair at times. But it’s also a lot of fun the other 90% of the time, with its solid action, loveable characters, and the fact it makes you want to spite it by beating it. It isn’t going to be for everyone. But for fans of adventure games with an old school twist, or Ghosts N’ Goblins fans yearning for the day when Capcom will finally take their money, it’s worth recommending. If this sounds like you Battle Princess Madelyn is still worth firing up on your computer, Xbox One, Switch, or PlayStation 4.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes Review

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Ah, No More Heroes. It quickly became a cult classic on the Nintendo Wii. At the time, some didn’t think M rated romps were a good fit for Nintendo’s EDTV console. Not when most of them were coming out in HDTV resolutions on its competition. But a few games tried to prove that line of thinking wrong. Some were very successful. Some were spectacular failures. But others, like No More Heroes would be successful enough to make due, but not successful enough to be the next big thing either. Still for those who gave it a shot, there was little else like it. Suda 51’s action game had his trademark art style, dark sense of humor, and even a bit of self-depreciating charm. Backed by a surprisingly deep, if twisted storyline with some art house, and anime trappings.

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The action in it was a lot of fun, made proper use of Nintendo’s motion controls in its gestures, and had variety. It had fun mini games too. It was a fun game bogged down by an uninteresting sandbox that tied the stages together. The game still did well enough to warrant a sequel which streamlined things for the better. It also expanded the storyline, involved new characters, and enhanced the combat. Around this time the original game even saw a PS3 port that utilized the Move controller. No More Heroes became a series known for its cult film trappings, and solid action. The two games followed the exploits of Travis Touchdown, an assassin tasked with a number of hit jobs that would also uncover some deep, dark secrets of his own life.

PROS: Retains the mainline games’ style, humor, and storytelling. Shout outs to indies.

CONS: The combat can feel threadbare.

DLC: Will hopefully fill out the gaps.

Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes should not be approached as a No More Heroes game however. Admittedly, leading up to the release the developers had said as much. But even so, this game sadly doesn’t live up to the bar set by the two major releases back on the Nintendo Wii. This one is a mixed bag. It absolutely does have some entertaining things about it. It retains a bunch of the humor the series is known for. You’ll be laughing at some of Travis’ wisecracks. You’ll enjoy a bunch of the reference jokes the game throws in too.

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You’ll also enjoy an entertaining story. In this adventure, Travis Touchdown has had a break, and run away. He’s left everyone behind, except for his cat, and gone into hiding. Unfortunately for our assassin, he has been tracked down by the parent of one of his numerous victims. In the ensuing fight for revenge, the rivals get sucked into our hero’s Death Drive MK-II console. A demonic version of the Sega SG-1000 (Sega Mark II), where they find at the end of the game cartridge, an epic boss fight of sorts. The story then leads them to track down other cartridges to get to the bottom of the mystery.

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After the initial stages, and ensuing boss fight you’re taken to a hub in the vein of a standard No More Heroes title. You can save your game by going to the bathroom. But you can also do some other things. Hopping on your desktop computer, you can shop for T-shirts. You can buy them using the coins, and tokens you find in the various stages, and then go to the bathroom to change into them. One thing I will commend the game for here is that it gives a lot of independent small business studios some credit by including many shirts tied to their indie games. There are shirts for The Messenger, Hotline Miami, and Hatoful Boyfriend to name a few. Beyond that there are name drops throughout the campaign. This is a game that celebrates the creativity of smaller studios.

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Between cartridge games you’ll return to the real world where you’ll go back to the hub area where you’ll have to get on your motorcycle to further the story. These sections generally don’t have much of any interaction, but they do use the opportunity to reference the old days of text adventures, and early CRPGs. You’ll get to see 8-bit era cinema screens in a familiar two-tone green. At least it will be familiar if you grew up in a time when most Elementary school libraries had an Apple II where you would play MECC’s The Oregon Trail, and Infocom’s ZORK. These sections do continue the narrative nicely, and again, do include a lot of terrific, and funny dialogue. If you’ve been invested in either of the mainline No More Heroes games, you’ll find a lot to like here.

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At the end of these sections you’ll get the next cartridge for your Death Drive MK-II, and continue on. The general flow of the game will involve you playing through a cartridge level, saving your progress, reading a text adventure section, and then playing the next cartridge level. And that would all be fine. As I’ve said, the game has a great sense of humor, an interesting story, and Suda 51’s trademark art style. The game looks cool. The game sounds cool. Unfortunately, it doesn’t play as cool.

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The problem with Travis Strikes Again, is that it can feel monotonous. Since Hack n’ Slash games, and Beat ’em ups are mainly about slamming around bad guys, or cutting them into confetti they have to do something to stand out. Travis Strikes Again may look like a No More Heroes game, and it even retains the fact you have to recharge your beam katana battery. But it doesn’t have the variety in combat that No More Heroes had. You can jump. You can dodge. You can do a couple of fancy air moves. You still have a light, and heavy swing. But the game feels slower. You don’t get the wide variety of combat animations. You don’t get a rewarding combo system. Yes, you can see you’ve hit enemies so many times without getting hit. But it doesn’t feel right. There’s just something a little bit off. It’s also shorter than the mainline games. Which in this case is probably for the best.

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In its defense, it does offer an upgrade system that allows you to add some special power moves to the repertoire. As you take down enemies you can go into a sub menu after pausing the game. Here you can add these moves to the A,B,X,Y buttons. You can then hold the L button while pressing them, and you’ll fire it off in whatever direction you’re facing. And there are a number of them that you’ll discover over the course of the game. You can even save different load outs, and then swap them out. Which admittedly is handy for certain bosses or middle tier enemies. You can also use your experience to level up, which lets your basic attacks do a little bit more damage.

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The thing is, that due to the sluggish combat, a lot of your super attacks will count as a miss when you get hit trying to use them. They also have a massive cool down period. So there will be times when you’re just getting trampled, unable to fire them off. They also don’t chain with your regular moves very easily. When you do get them to work they are pretty effective though, and they look really cool. When things go your way you can clear a mob of enemies or at least buy yourself a bit of time. There are a lot of power ups for you to choose from. There are some that work as a Star Wars Force Push. You can knock back an opponent or a few low-level enemies. Another one summons a giant laser blast from the heavens. Another one will daze your opponents so you can get in a few hits.

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It’s very unlikely you’ll get to use all of them in an initial play through. But you’ll have to be good at keeping just enough distance away from your enemies to use them effectively. It leads to a lot of simply mashing X. And while many hack n’ slashers may indeed involve mashing X, the fluid animation, and combos hide that fact well. Unfortunately this game doesn’t quite pull it off.

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As a result, this one isn’t something you’ll want to spend every waking hour playing until the very end. Which is sad, because the other stuff surrounding the game is pretty interesting. One thing this game does do that is nice is it allows a second player to play as Travis’ rival Bad Man. And so you can have a friend join in which makes up for some of the average combat. The game does try to break things up a little bit by putting in a few different genre missions. For instance one stage sees you playing a drag racer with Vectrex styled graphics in between brawler sections. Another one looks, and plays like a fancier version of Mine Storm. All of these moments are incredibly fun, and look great. But it doesn’t make up for the ho-hum fights. Where this one does excel in gameplay are the boss encounters. All of the boss fights are really well put together, with multiple forms, and involve mastering some intricate attack patterns. And they feel satisfying when you do finish them off.

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Of course if you buy the game on cartridge it includes download keys for the season pass which will get you the DLC for the game. The DLC gets you new campaigns starring other characters from the No More Heroes franchise. Hopefully these additions will have the interesting combat features the base game lacks. However you should know that the downloadable version is ten dollars less, and doesn’t include the DLC. Buying the pass is ten dollars. So when taking that into account there really isn’t any difference other than the physical release is basically forcing you to buy the Season pass by bundling it with a key. I normally don’t talk about pricing in my articles because I don’t always get games in their release window. But in this case I have, and it seems a little disingenuous for them not to point this out on the box. You’re not getting the key for free, you’re paying the same. If you’re a collector, and want your Switch games on cartridge that’s something to be aware of here. If you’re more a wait, and see type when it comes to digital expansions, you may just want to get this digitally.

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Overall, I wouldn’t call this one a bad game. It plays fine, doesn’t seem to have much in the way of technical faults or major bugs hobbling performance. And again, it does have a pretty surreal, and interesting storyline. It’s funny. It has a great style. It’s just too bad the combat doesn’t keep pace with everything else because it takes up most of what you’ll be doing outside of the text adventure story sections. Die-Hard fans will want to jump in on this one. But if you’re a newcomer to this franchise, and you have a Wii knocking around, check out the mainline games before getting into this side game. I really wanted to love this one. The original two games were some of my favorite hack n’ slash titles. But as much as I love those cult classics this one simply isn’t as much fun.

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Hopefully, a third mainline No More Heroes game will learn from this side outing’s missteps, and return the franchise to its former glory. Travis Strikes Again isn’t a bad game by any means. But it isn’t a great game. It’s average. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are better games of its ilk to choose from. If you eat, sleep, and breathe anything Suda 51 does, you probably own this already. But if you’ve been on the fence, you might want to wait before jumping in. They did recently update the game with an opening cinematic tying the series to Killer 7. There are also ties to Shadows Of The Damned in the campaign. So perhaps in time they’ll improve the combat. With two upcoming episodes there is the possibility that DLC will do that. But that also rides on the number of people who will want to return to this one after playing the base game.

Final Score: 6.5 out of 10 (Better luck next time!)

River City Ransom Underground Review

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Back in 1989 those of us with an NES likely had a copy of River City Ransom. It was a landmark game in that it was one of the earliest games to meld the Beat ’em Up genre with RPG elements. It was made by Technos Japan, who were mainly known for the Double Dragon games by that point Stateside. But RCR was a port of the third game in their Kunio-Kun series. In Japan the main character appeared in several games. Many of which would appear in the USA but with many alterations.

River City Ransom was pretty popular in its heyday. While it was never as beloved as Technos’ Double Dragon games, it was a game that had a Nintendo Power feature back in the day. It was a game many people fondly remember playing, and its one you should have in your collection if you don’t already. For those with a Switch, it’s included in the NES game bundle you get when you buy the online service.

PROS: Everything great about the NES original, and then some!

CONS: Confusing quest routes. Cheap segment.

ABOBO: Bridges the worlds of Double Dragon, and River City Ransom.

A while ago, Arc System Works acquired the Technos Japan assets, and began making games in these classic series. They made Double Dragon IV, and here we have a new entry in the River City Ransom series. Created by Conatus Creative, and published by Arc System Works, River City Ransom Underground continues the saga. All with the same blend of Beat ’em Up, and RPG conventions the original was known for, and lauded for.

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It’s also a direct sequel. Taking place nearly 40 years after the NES game, River City Ransom Underground begins with a prologue mission where Alex, and Ryan have to once again defeat Slick. The leader of the most ruthless gang in River City. Shortly after this epic battle Slick goes to prison, and River City High School explodes. After this mission ends the game fast forwards to present day, and we are introduced to some new characters in the process.

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It seems that while life might have improved for the characters at the end of the original game, it didn’t stay that way. With a new River City High School, came a plethora of new gangs, and the resurrection of the original games’ gangs. And with that, River City Ransom Underground truly begins. This is a modern continuation of a game, that really understands what made the original so great, while also building upon it.

As I mentioned before, what really set the original RCR apart from other games of its ilk, was the inclusion of RPG elements. Not only did you have to beat the snot out of people to survive an area, you had to do it to level up. It wasn’t enough to level up either. You had to find dojos where you could buy new moves, or shops where you could buy food. This game continues that tradition. You can fully expect to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars you steal from fallen enemies on this stuff. And spend it you should, because learning advanced techniques, and stocking up on cheeseburgers is the key to victory. When you first start out of course you’ll be relatively weak, and you can expect to die quickly. But over time, as you put muggers, bullies, and nearly every High School student stereotype in the hospital, you’ll grow stronger.

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And you’ll be backtracking to earlier areas for new items, or new paths that open up later. Again, an element that feels very much out of a Role Playing Game. This entry also adds a number of things to the formula. For starters, there are a large selection of playable characters. Many of these are new to the series, as this story introduces the next generation of descendants to us. So you’ll find many new teenagers out to rid the city of evildoers. But throughout the story you’ll also meet characters from the original game like Alex, and Ryan. There are also other characters old, and new who will join the roster if you defeat them in glorious battle. This adds a bunch of replay value to the game too, because of how differently each of these characters plays. Some of them are slower characters that rely on grapples, and holds. Some of them are ranged attackers. Others are brawlers that retain that old-school play style you expect from a Beat ’em Up genre title.

 

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On top of this, the game allows for up to four players to go through the campaign together. So now you can add an even bigger sense of frustration if one of you in your circle of friends is worse than everyone else. Or a sense of camaraderie if you’re all fine with each other’s level of ability. But to be honest even when playing with less skilled friends, this game is still a lot of fun. Between the action packed brawling, there are stretches of time where you’ll be exploring for new story missions, or events.

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The game also has a day, and night cycle in it. So some of these only happen at specific times. If a certain boss you need to kill only shows up at night, you can’t really head to fight them during the daylight. You’ll have to spend the daylight hours doing something else entirely. But this works to your advantage, as it gives you time to check out shops, restaurants, and dojos. Keep in mind however that even these are built around the game’s clock. Stores have their own hours. So if it’s 10pm in the game time, you’ll have to skip that trip to the game store. Hit up the burger joint instead.

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Of course as alluded to, you get money by fighting bad guys. When you knock their teeth in, they drop cash you can then pick up, and hoard. You can also get money by punching parking meters, or certain vending machines. Be careful though. Because another new feature in this one is borrowed from a place you wouldn’t expect: Grand Theft Auto. If you should accidentally injure an innocent bystander in your pursuit of street justice, they will call the cops on you. If this happens you’ll see a badge show up with a timer, and you’ll be facing the cops until it gets down to zero. Not only that, but if you resist arrest instead of running away, and lying low they send tougher officers after you. Beating up the police also gets you news coverage, which also beefs up the calls for backup.

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Over the course of your adventure you’ll also find hideouts. In these secret (and not so secret) areas you can manage inventory, change between characters, look at achievements, and save your game. It’s also useful for getting a more detailed description of your current objective, as you can read the last bit of dialogue without it going by too quickly to be able to finish it. The game also ties the worlds of Technos Japan’s big two franchises River City Ransom, and Double Dragon together. How? By featuring copious amounts of Abobo. Double Dragon’s epic villain shows up a number of times throughout the campaign, and even plays a role in the story arc I won’t delve into here.

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Another aspect of the game that you’ll love is just how funny it is. Whether it’s a well-placed reference joke, or genuinely funny dialogue the game will make you laugh. And it isn’t really self-parody most of the time. Although there are a number of times where the storyline in the game involves gags that are over the top, they still fit the world. They’re still in line with the humor found in the original NES game. The aesthetics of the game also play into this too. the pixel art is an obvious homage to its 8-bit era origins. But it’s also retained the humor. Characters have exaggerated expressions. They have animations that follow along with the theme. They look like they belong on the NES. But the advanced number of frames, and level of detail in the background animations obviously couldn’t be done on the little toaster that could. There are also a bounty of Easter Eggs, and appearances from characters in indie games.

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The soundtrack is very good. While not every song can live up to the lofty bar of the original game, there are plenty of them that do. Expect to hear some great up tempo chip tunes, with many catchy hooks. There are also slower, ambient songs in areas that call for it. There’s enough variety here for everyone though you’re going to be so busy you may not have time to truly appreciate it.

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There are a couple of minor issues with this game to be aware of. The PC game has one technical issue in that initially only the Xbox 360 controller is seen by the game. If you set the controller options in Steam to whichever controller you want to use however, then the Steam client will override the game allowing it to be played with whichever controller you’ve selected. The only other issue is that near the end of the game you’ll have to go through a massive gauntlet with no major save point in between. The game isn’t impossible by any means mind you. But this artificially increases the difficulty in the last act as a result. Be sure to stock up on items before tackling it.  The saving grace is that some previously locked doors stay open if you fail. There’s a couple of annoyances during missions where the map doesn’t always make what you’re supposed to do clear. There’s the fact that you lose half your money when you die. But in all fairness the old game did this to you too. And if a quest ends with a boss fight grin, and bear it. Because if you go back to a hideout to save you’ll have to do it all over again anyway.

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Beyond that, though this is a very entertaining, and interesting sequel of sorts. At first things may seem insurmountable, but after a few deaths, you’ll eventually begin to level up your characters. Then sections that were once almost impossible will suddenly be fairly easy. Allowing for four players makes the game even more fun than it already is, and the solid game play solidifies it. The wide variety of playable characters also adds a lot of replay value as you’ll have to approach each wave of enemies very differently. In short River City Ransom Underground is a wonderful game even if it can be a little rough around the edges. Surprisingly it’s the only River City game not on consoles as of now. But there are ports for Apple, and Linux available for those with computers that aren’t running Windows. The game can also be found on GoG. as well as Steam.

Final Score: 8 out of 10