Tag Archives: Retro

Empire Game Expo Recap

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Over the last several years, I’ve visited ConnectiCon in July. It’s in my backyard. It’s a smaller show but every year the names become bigger. It’s got a sense of community, and it’s generally become something I look forward to. Unfortunately, this year with some stuff going on in my personal life and some shake-ups at work I wasn’t able to put in for the time off this year for the 3 to 4 days to visit. It looked like I wasn’t going to be able to get out to a convention this summer.

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But I unexpectedly won a ticket from Mike Levy for Empire Game Expo. And fortunately, I was able to get my schedule reworked to compensate for the one day. So I printed my QR code and directions for the trek to New York’s Capital. I hadn’t been that far into NY since I was a kid. Getting there was fairly easy for me. It was a jaunt from I-84 to I-87. A long, “L” shaped two-hours or so on the road. There’s a lot of beauty along that ride. A lot of scenery. That said, there were some really shaky moments in the early leg. I-84 needs a fair amount of work in my neck of the woods. It needs even more, the closer you get to Newburgh. But I’ve begun to ramble.

The convention was in The Red Lion Hotel in Albany, NY. The venue was actually quite nice. Clean, Spacious, and there’s even a massive indoor pool for those staying there. There was a slew of old, and current consoles set up in free play areas, as well as a rather impressive vintage computer exhibit set up where you could play on old computers.

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Imagine my surprise when I saw both models of the Commodore 64, both running on vintage Commodore monitors, running C64 games. Moreover, they had other classic machines like the Atari ST and Apple II running too. If that wasn’t enough, there was a bench filled with old DOS, and Windows configurations ranging from the days of the XT to the days of the Pentium III. It warmed my heart to see the classic computer formats get some well-deserved attention.

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I also got some time in with the Atari 2600 version of Missile Command and had a respectable score no less! There were many of the consoles you would hope to see at a convention, present and operational. There were also a handful of arcade cabinets above the pool area. It felt a bit anemic though as there weren’t very many games to choose from. After getting home and doing some research this wasn’t really the show’s fault. It’s whatever machines the hotel decided to have up year-round for guests.

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In addition to that, there were a few games that there were tournaments for.  There were Tournaments for Goldeneye 007, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Super Smash Bros. Melee, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. going on. There were also Events for Tetris, Apex Legends, Fortnite, along with a couple of fighting game tournaments for Tekken 7, and Street Fighter II Turbo. Not a bad selection of titles for competitive players.

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I did manage to get into a couple of panels. Mike Levy and Russ Lyman had a joint panel together talking about DIY projects, as well as going over some tips for people getting into collecting old games. Russ talked a bit more about how he made some of the cosmetic modifications to his car. Like making knobs for the stick shift, inexpensively painting the car, and how he had the custom decals made. He also brought up some simple, yet innovative ways to hang your photos, posters, and other framed art. Mike discussed simpler modifications one can do to their devices that don’t require solder jobs. He also shared some handy tips on removing used game store price tags from the DVD case overlays commonly found on games. He also brought up the importance of wrapping your wired controllers, and ac adapters properly. Both guests pointed to the episodes on their respective channels on these topics.

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Mike also had the opportunity to host a panel with Rodney Alan Greenblat. A renowned artist who you likely know as the father of PaRappa The Rapper. It was a fascinating panel. Not only for fans of the games and the stories behind their creation. But because of the long body of his work and some of the personal stories he spoke of. Mike Levy will have the entire panel up on his channel in the coming days. But some of the highlights for me were his work with bands. In addition to the sculptures and paintings, he’s done prior to being involved in game development he has done many album covers for musicians and artists. Two that really stood out to me were Shonen Knife and Puffy AmiYumi. 

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I did get to ask him about some of the differences between working on art for musicians and game development. And he pointed out that more than any other medium, video games were far more collaborative. While often times, a rock band may have a creative vision he or another artist has to work within, that’s about all the hands involved. In most cases anyway. With a video game project, there are artists to work with, animators to work with to ensure everyone is happy with how things move. Sound effects teams and voice actors have to have input or information to work with to ensure the voices properly portray the visuals, and mannerisms of the characters we interact with. That’s before factoring what executives and legal teams may do.

Someone else asked about the omission of a Hell-themed stage in Um Jammer Lammy. This was one such case. The executives in Japan and Europe liked how the game was coming along just fine. But the North American branch wasn’t behind the idea of a Hell level. So they pushed for it to be changed. As a result, the team was told they had to create an entirely new level for North American players. Which proved to be challenging because the game was nearing the end of production.

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He also talked a bit about his works on books and art about Buddhism. As well as his shop in Catskill, NY where he has a lot of his art on display. It’s open three days a week. He still works fairly regularly on new art and other projects. He also would love to do another PaRappa game, but due to the way, the rights fall it requires the approval of several decision makers. And many of the folks who worked on the old games aren’t with Sony anymore. Still, he holds out hope he’ll be able to get out another game in the series.

Overall, a fantastic panel. I didn’t talk about nearly everything in it, so I highly recommend you check it out for yourself when Mike gets it uploaded to his channel.

I didn’t get into any of the other panels, but Cherami Leigh and Mela Lee were there. Both of whom are well known in the realm of voice acting. Many anime titles and video games feature their work. Mela Lee was featured recently as Jade in Mortal Kombat 11.  There wasn’t much of anything in terms of food in the convention. But one vendor there was called Bard & Baker cafe, they made some fantastic pastries. I bought a carrot cake muffin which was able to tide me over until later. Their core business in Troy, NY combines a board game center and a cafe’. If you’re in that area and like having some good food while you play Stratego with a friend, check them out. 

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Speaking of vendors, there was a room filled to the brim with vendors selling everything from retro games to collectibles to crafts. I picked up a couple of things while I was there. A shop called Infinite Lives was there and among the slew of vintage games they had stood one lone copy of Polaris for the Atari 2600. This was one of the fabled Tigervision games. A line of games by the company that would become Tiger Electronics. This particular one is based on the Taito arcade game of the same name. And while this game isn’t nearly as tough or as expensive to find as the coveted River Patrol, it isn’t something you’ll see very often. As such, I pretty much had to get it and the price was fair.

A couple of vendors I recognized as they were friends and acquaintances from Connecticut. Antoinette who you might recognize from The Best Spuds channel does a lot of really great art. Glossed Over was there too. They take the best looking ads from old magazines and turn them into something you can easily frame. I picked up a Japanese Splatoon 2: Octo Expansion ad, and a gorgeous Sin & Punishment: Star Successor spot from them. Russ Lyman and Mike Levy shared a booth where they had some art and retro stuff of their own for sale.

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But the biggest purchase I made actually came from Underworld Gamez. This is an organization that puts fighting game tournaments together at conventions. I didn’t realize they had a lot of merchandise. However, I was elated when I found a pair of Callie and Marie plushies for well below the online prices. It was the perfect gift for someone other than myself, so I hope they’re enjoying them.

I did want to point out a couple of nice booths despite not buying anything from them because they did wonderful work. Toying Around is a store in Johnstown, NY. that deals in a lot of pop culture merch and games. But they also had some nice silk screened trucker hats. And while I didn’t see a print that worked for me, they appeared to be higher quality than I usually see at these sorts of events. Plus the representative was a rather friendly fellow. Another one was Sticky Kitty Studios. This booth had a lot of handmade crafts, but it also had these really nice custom winter hats decked out with video game graphics. If they pop up at a con near you go look at their stuff.

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All in all a pretty fun time. And from what I understand this is a spin-off convention from the much larger Retro Game Con which is held further west in the Syracuse, NY. area. For an inaugural year, this was quite a nice convention. It had compelling guests, a large number of vendors, and a few great tournaments. And it had a vintage computer gaming area. Something even some larger shows do not have. I didn’t even get to mention the Video Game Trivia event, Cosplay contests, Board Game Tournaments, or that Super Thrash Bros. was there to play a show. Extra Life also raffled off some great stuff for charity.

If I were to suggest anything for next year it would be to bring in a wider selection of arcade cabinets rather than relying on the hotel’s small segment. There was an after party too, but with the long commute ahead of me I didn’t stay for that. But ultimately I had a nice experience. I wish everybody involved the best. This has the potential to become a great event for anyone in that part of the State of NY, as well as visitors to the area. If you live in upstate NY and have longed for a local show to go to, do check it out if you can. There’s at least something for everyone.

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OLD SKOOL AV to HDMI Converter Review

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Well, a few weeks back I talked about the Elgato HD60 PRO PCI Express card I picked up and the fairly nice experience I’ve had with it. But as terrific as it is, it doesn’t feature legacy ports. If you’re like me, you’re not going to be content with only capturing footage, and screens from current consoles. You likely have a lot of older devices, and games knocking around that you want to hook up. You might want to stream these games. Or, maybe none of this describes you, and you simply want to hook up your old PlayStation to your new TV. But alas, that TV has nothing on it other than an HDMI input or two.

This is where you’re going to need an upscaling device. There is a slew of different upscalers to choose from. The most famous one being the Framemeister. Of course between the massive amount of features and the fact that it is no longer produced, it’s pretty expensive. It also isn’t something a lot of people necessarily need. Unless you have a lot of SCART compatible computers, consoles, and just have to go the extra expensive mile for clarity you can spend less.

PROS: It’s inexpensive! It does what it advertises!

CONS: There aren’t many advanced features.

BAH: Another device that doesn’t include an AC Adapter.

The Old Skool AV to HDMI converter can be had very cheaply. I only paid around $20 at a local small business for mine, and I went in completely skeptically. In my case, I needed something to temporarily use until I could get something a step up. Was I right to feel a bit cynical? A little bit of “Yes”, and a little bit of “No.”.

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For the money, the device does what it advertises for the most part. On the plus side, it’s compact. This makes it easy to store and keeps it out of the way at your desk. Or helps you reduce the size of your nest of wires behind the TV. When you open the package you’ll find the converter itself, a USB cable, and some documentation on how to connect it to your devices. On the converter, there is a switch to change the output between 720p or 1080p. Sadly, there’s no AC adapter to go on the end of the USB cable. If you’re using this with your TV, you’ll have to repurpose one you already own, or you’ll have to buy one.

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I tested the unit out with my Elgato HD60 PRO, and I had some mixed results. Generally, it worked as advertised. I was easily able to fire up my NES and play Rolling Thunder with ease. I noticed little to no difference between setting the device on either 720p or 1080p. Most of the other games I tried after worked fine as well, although some of the tricks programmers used with the tech of the time don’t display as they did on a modern TV.  For instance, when playing Batman: Return Of The Joker, Batman’s wave blaster projectiles would sometimes cut out of the image.

Nothing that makes the game unplayable, but something to be aware of. Some old games may have quirks that a low-end solution like this won’t solve. Another thing to be aware of is input lag. Some games like Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! are harder to beat on a modern TV because HDTVs have to convert the signal from analog to their digital displays with a built-in scaler. This process takes some time, and so games that require split-second timing will have a noticeable pause between the time you press a button, and seeing the results on the screen.

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Depending on the scaler in the TV this process can be any number of milliseconds. External upscalers can reduce this significantly by converting the signal before it even gets to the television. But it won’t eliminate the lag entirely. Even the best devices won’t eliminate all lag. How does the Old Skool do in this regard? Well depending on what you’re using there can be different results. On my capture card, I did notice a tiny amount on Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!. Not enough to make the game unbeatable, but definitely harder than when playing on an old CRT. On my 720P set, which has composite inputs, it did a little bit better than the set’s built-in scaler. At least in terms of lag. It fared better on the newer 4k set in the living room, but it was still noticeable.

That said, the majority of my old stuff worked just fine for the most part on everything I threw at it, on all three setups. However, one thing that is a little disappointing, is it cannot push a 4:3 aspect ratio. So everything will be stretched out to fill the screen. On my capture card, even selecting a “Do not stretch” option in the software wouldn’t put the aspect ratio in a standard 4:3, although I could go down to a 480p resolution. That made the image look a little bit muted, but didn’t perform much better than taking a 720p or 1080p option.

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On the TVs, I had to force a 4:3 option through their respective menus. Otherwise, the default was to simply let the box stretch everything to full screen. Going with the 1080p option did look the cleanest, and so that’s probably what you’ll want to use unless performance issues crop up on your specific set. In my case, I didn’t notice much in the way of artifacts, or bands in spite of the stretched image.  Putting it to a 4:3 aspect ratio through the TV menus did make it look a bit better.

In spite of the issues I’ve mentioned here, I can’t really say this is a bad product. For the low price, it does allow you to get most of your vintage consoles, DVD players, and VHS decks hooked up to a new TV or capture card. It has a respectable picture quality, and performance is pretty good for the most part. If you’re really just looking to play your Sega Genesis games, and you only have an HDTV with HDMI inputs this will fit the bill. You can also use this for entry-level streaming, or capturing game footage for a video project. It’s going to be a fine enough solution for the average person who wants to play their old games, or dip their toes into streaming said old games.

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But, if you’re somebody who is into speed running old games you may want something nicer, that reduces input lag further than this will. If you’re a competitive gamer the same may also hold true for you. Those who are deep into the hobby of old games might want something that can support more input options like S-Video, SCART, or even VGA. So that they can have the best possible image quality when playing their Sega Dreamcast on a modern TV. SCART is also ideal for anyone importing platforms from PAL territories, as it was a standard there, and some of those platforms never really made it to North America in a major way. If you’re interested in importing something like a ZX Spectrum or BBS Micro you’ll probably want a higher ended scaler that supports the standard.

Be that as it may, for a mere $20, even some of those better served by a higher ended solution may want to pick up the Old Skool as a stopgap measure. At the very least one can competently play their old games, or stream their old games with it until they can afford to buy a better solution. Some of the converters out there can become cost prohibitive.

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While it has its faults, and you can’t expect miracles in the tier it occupies, the Old Skool AV to HDMI converter gets the job done competently. You get what is advertised. Nothing more. Nothing less. if you’re an absolute perfectionist or someone who has to have better than average performance you’ll want to invest in something a bit better. For a lot of other folks out there, as long as you’re okay with a no-frills experience you’ll be happy with this device.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Pass Or Play with Russ Lyman

I recently had the opportunity to do a crossover project with Russ Lyman. Russ has a great channel on YouTube where he talks about DIY (Do it yourself) projects, as well as videos on video games new, and old. Along with reviews, trips to conventions, and other events,  as well as other pop culture stuff. Be sure to check him out! Anyway, I was fortunate enough to do a guest spot on his Pass Or Play series where I talked about Beach-Head II: The Dictator Strikes Back for the Commodore 64! Previously I did a long form review here on the blog, but it was fun to be able to work with Russ, and get out a condensed version. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you’ll check out Russ Lyman’s other work!

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

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review

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Well between the overtime, and festivities, Christmas, and New Year’s were quite busy. I had a great time with family, and I hope everyone out there had a wonderful, Merry Christmas out there as well. I didn’t get much in the way of entertainment gifts, though I did get a case of Pocky, and a really nice solid state drive. The sole game I received is the one I’ve been playing feverishly in my free time unlocking characters. That would be today’s game. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has come out to critical acclaim. Is it worthy of the praise? In a lot of ways it certainly is.

PROS: Every character, stage from the previous game, and then some!

CONS: Trophy hunting is gone. Online performance can be spotty.

PIRANHA PLANT: Is a free character for those who register by 1/31/19.

For the five people who don’t know what Super Smash Bros. is, it’s a long running series that combines fighting game conventions, and party game conventions into a unique fighting game with its own rules. Most fighting games are one on one affairs where the goal is to knock out your opponent by kicking his or her teeth in. Some of them have intricate combos (a series of moves that can’t be blocked) that require dexterity, and ring awareness to input properly. Most of them have flashy special moves, and they feature some equally flashy ways to finish off an opponent for bragging rights.

But over the years many games in the genre became so complex that it intimidated newcomers from trying them out. At the same time, in the days of the Nintendo 64, most fighting games were going to the PlayStation due to the cheaper storage space of a CD-ROM. Many of the high-caliber fighters didn’t make it over to Nintendo’s console. But Masahiro Sakurai had secretly set up a new project over at  HAL. It would evolve from four generic placeholder characters in an arena to Nintendo characters in a variety of arenas. Smash Bros. replaces the “Send them to the hospital or morgue to win.” rule set with a Sumo wrestling “Knock them out of the ring, and keep them out of the ring.” rule set. You pick a character, multiple opponents pick a character, and then you can duke it out based on either time (knock more people out than anyone else) or stock (be the last one standing with any lives) rules.

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But what makes the series compelling for every type of player, are the move sets. Every character uses the same basic inputs. There’s an attack button, a special moves button, a jump button, a block button, and a grab button. If you press up, down, or left or right, with either an attack or special button press you’ll do a different attack. There are also Smash attacks which are another three, more powerful moves you can do if you press attack with a direction at the exact same time. From the second game onward, you can use a right, thumb stick to do the Smash attacks instead. Every character has the exact same inputs, so you don’t have to spend hours learning how to press down, down-forward, forward, punch to do something amazing.

But while the simplicity appeals to newcomers, the series does have a fair amount of depth in its combat. There are still combos, two-in-ones, and other advanced techniques to learn. You can learn how to roll dodge, and parry. While the inputs are shared across the board, the characters’ moves are mostly unique. And from the third game onward, the series even implements super finishers for the characters.

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To make things more interesting the series lets players use randomly dropped items, which can be anything from bats, to laser guns, to assist trophies that summon run ins from characters who are not selectable fighters. They fight on behalf of the player who threw them. And to top it off, the games have all let players turn the items off entirely, select the few they want, or leave them on. The second game Super Smash Bros. Melee, is where the series really took off in popularity, and proved the series could be a viable competitive fighting game. Dedicated players have spent years mastering the game’s mechanics, and continue playing it today. Their efforts even got the series enough attention to end up in high-profile tournaments like EVO.

Over the years Nintendo’s brawler has added different tweaks, and features to the formula. Melee added an Adventure mode. Brawl expanded the roster further, and expanded the Adventure mode. Wii U/3DS improved the roster, cut the Adventure short, and improved the mechanics. All while giving each version unique stages to incentivize buying both versions.

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So what does Ultimate bring to the table? What new features, and refinements can you expect over previous editions? Well for starters, you’ll eventually get to use every character who has ever appeared in a Super Smash Bros. title. I say eventually, because as in previous games you have to unlock them by playing. However, this time around unlocking them is much easier. You can go through any of the game’s modes to add them to your roster. Playing standard matches by yourself or with friends has them showing up every few rounds or so. You can also go through the returning Classic mode, or the all new Spirits modes.

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Ultimate’s most drastic change is indeed the inclusion of Spirits. These replace the trophies from the last few games. While the trophies were a nice way to celebrate Nintendo’s history, and wealth of characters, ultimately it had little impact on how the games played. Spirits add an almost Role-Playing Game element to the action. They can be picked up primarily either by playing through the Spirit Adventure mode, or the Spirit Board. Although you’ll find in other modes you can gain them as well. Spirits can enhance your fighters by adding other properties into the mix. They can buff your attack power, defensive power, grab power (for holds or throws), or be neutral, helping stats equally. This is also where the RPG elements come into play, because over the course of the game you can level them up. You can add secondary Spirits to many of them, as they’ll have additional slots. Doing this effectively adds even more stats. Beyond that you can also feed them snacks you earn in every mode, which will boost stats further. When you get some Spirits to level 99, you can even find ways to prestige them (Think like the resets in Call Of Duty. Not exactly an RPG, but an element that could work in one) by starting them over at level 1, while retaining experience. Henceforth making them more potent.

You can even choose to allow the use of Spirits in standard matches with your friends, which admittedly throws off the balance, but can result in fun experimentation. Going into the Spirit Board will let you enter fights where you can potentially win a new Spirit to use should you win a given match. This works similarly to the matches you’ll enter in the Spirit Adventure mode, which more or less replaces the previous games’ takes on a Story mode.

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This time around instead of having sets of stages, or a huge Metroidvania styled map the game keeps things simplified with Spirit matches. However these are peppered throughout a massive map, and it does utilize the Spirit system in other ways. For instance, the map has a resemblance to a table top game board. It’s covered in fog, that clears partially when completing certain events. It also has JRPG like shops, and training centers on it that can be found, where you can spend prize money on new Spirits, or to buff existing ones. And of course, this is the mode that tells the storyline, so you can expect to see the majority of it here. When you start off, you’ll find the world of Smash Bros. under assault from an army of Master Hands. A mysterious force pretty much kills every one of our favorite combatants, with only Kirby surviving unscathed. The antagonist imprisons our combatants, and creates countless evil clones of them. From here you’ll go about the board, fighting battles, getting Spirits, and equipping them. Over the course of the adventure you’ll level them, swap them, in between battles. Each battle you’ll get an overview of your opponent, and what Spirit they are using, as well as any special rules that have been employed.

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Not only will you have to win battles against evil clones, you’ll also have to win battles with the original characters. If you do this, you’ll break the spell on them, and they’ll join your party. They’ll also become unlocked for you to use in multiplayer. Because of that, many players may want to play through this mode, as you’re essentially going to unlock everyone over the course of the campaign. However, there are 74 characters here. The first 8 of whom are already playable in multiplayer. But, for those who don’t, they can also be unlocked by playing other modes. If you’re really desperate there is even an exploit circulating around YouTube. But even then you’re going to be grinding a while.

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You can also lose these battles to unlock characters, and if you do they’ll go back to the end of the line. So your next unlockable opponent will be different. The game does have a seemingly random rematch option though. Getting back to the Spirit Adventure, you can expect to spend days, or even weeks to see everything. Even after unlocking all of the characters in the game, I still have a long way to go in terms of completing this mode. There are many battles, shops, training centers, and chests for you to uncover. There are even centers where you can put one of your leveled Spirits back to their original stock settings! At face value one might ask why they would want to bother doing this. But again, like an RPG, sometimes you might find you’ve increased all of the wrong stats. Maybe it was a Spirit geared toward defense, but you found you hastily buffed up a bunch of attack properties because you weren’t sure what you were doing when you first started playing. It certainly beats starting the entire game over when you’ve spent the last 10 hours building up your Spirits, unlocking characters for multiplayer, and finding snacks to feed your Spirits.

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Not only can you buff up Spirits, but you can raise the stats of your actual fighters by using a skill tree. You can access it in the pause menu during the adventure, and you can use the Skill Spheres you pick up in battle to level up abilities. You can make yourself escape throws easier, or make your specials do more damage. There are a bunch of them, and doing this will help you a lot. Especially with some of the boss fights that have returned from previous games, as well as all new ones.

It’s a very lengthy campaign indeed. On top of freeing all of the characters, collecting Spirits, and levelling them up. Beyond the epic boss fights, and using Spirits to access previously closed areas on the map. In addition to all of the ways you can use Spirits in the campaign beyond merely powering them up, or fighting evil clones with them, there are three difficulty levels. There are also three endings! So yeah, you can expect to revisit this adventure many, many times.

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Beyond the campaign is the Classic mode. In this iteration the game does do things a little bit differently. Rather than simply give you the arcade style ladder you’re probably used to, it takes that ladder, and tweaks matches around the chosen character. All 74 characters get a personalized ladder, and even conditions. For instance Mega Man’s ladder follows the path of vintage Mega Man games. Even when you beat what you think is the end, it will surprise you. Or take Ryu’s ladder where all of the knock out rules have been changed to stamina rules. It makes going through this mode with every character fun, as you don’t know what to expect next.

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This time around, the intensity meter from the previous game makes its appearance in Classic mode instead. When you start out you can choose how difficult you want things to be based upon how many coins you can put toward it. There are also tickets you can spend to help push it up, but you only have so many. Though these can be earned seemingly randomly as well. The higher you go the more of the painting you’ll see, and the better your rewards for clearing the mode. Though the meter will go down if you lose, and continue. So if you want the credentials of being the best, you’ll have to win every match by a wide margin.

Obviously the meat, and potatoes of any fighter is the multiplayer. This iteration of Smash is no different. Beyond the baseline mechanics there have been a number of changes under the hood. The general speed has been refined, and the roster of 74 characters does feel surprisingly balanced for the most part. There are some characters who have clear advantages, but many of these come at the cost of a slow speed, or a high knock off percentage. There are still ways crafty players can get around these powerhouses. They also have the option to use Spirits in addition to the items. Which changes the dynamics greatly, as a lot of the Spirits share properties with the characters they’re based upon. This can make for a lot of interesting match ups for those who wish to experiment with them. Of course purists can ignore them altogether. Returning from the Wii U version of Smash, are the Omega versions of stages. These basically retain the look of the various arenas, but convert their layout to the bog standard layout of Final Destination. It makes every arena into a tournament arena, which gives some of the players who want to focus on the competitive end some variety.

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One feature I think any player will like is the ability to replace the Smash Ball item with a super meter. Instead of having to take your eyes off of opponents to break a ball, and maybe do your super without getting fragged, now you can do them traditionally. The meter will fill up when you’re damaging or taking damage, and when filled, you can press your Super finish. It’s great because if you’re a competitive player you can focus on the action, and if you’re a novice, you can still get the chance to see the spectacle of a flashy move more often. Ultimate also retains support for the Gamecube controller adapter, and controllers. So once again you can have up to 8 players for local, offline Smash Bros. matches, which are as fun as they are chaotic. Novices, and Pros alike will like that they now put up a wire frame grid during matches when you’re off-screen. This makes it a little bit easier to find your bearings. And the training mode can display the knock back, and Directional Influence stats if you wish.

Another returning feature is the photography feature, and I don’t mean simply pressing the screenshot button. Although you can do that. But the full-fledged photography feature set from previous entries is here. Pause the game during any match, and you’ll be able to fiddle with the camera settings. You can change the angle, and position. You can cycle between the characters to focus the camera on a specific one. You can zoom in, or out. You can even put on borders, or stamp the game’s logo on it. Then if you hit the screenshot button on your controller you can essentially  make a nice wallpaper to upload to your Facebook or Twitter feed. It may not sound like much, but it is a lot of fun to experiment with.

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Online fighting as you’ve probably heard, is a mixed bag. More often than not matches will perform well with one stipulation. That you play with people relatively close to you. Matches with local friends are usually fine. Matches with random strangers, could be fine, or they could be unplayable. Previous Smash games were often the same way. While I have had a better experience with this iteration so far, it still isn’t where it needs to be. Which is a shame because honestly the online play has some cool features in it. Setting up lobbies represents a wrestling arena, where you can clearly seat fighters, and spectators. You can jump into public lobbies too, and search by match types, and other stipulations. You can also go for quick play, where the game will toss you against random opponents. You can set preferred rules for this, so that if you only like to play stock, or love a certain item you can usually be paired with people of similar taste.  If you leave preferred rules off, you’ll be placed against any available players under any possible set of conditions. Again, if you’re pitted against players too far away, you can expect stuttering, warping, or general lag. You can mitigate this slightly by using a Cat5e cable, and a USB adapter with the Dock, as a wired connection is a bit faster than the WiFi connection. But this still doesn’t help much as you’re likely going to see issues more when paired against opponents who live far away.

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Still, if you can deal with a spotty match every few rounds or so, the online play is fun. I even like the feature they’ve added where you can play offline modes while you have the game look for opponents for you. Oddly enough though, other Nintendo franchises have given the option to choose between regional or global opponents. Mario Kart has consistently done this. And while a racing title is probably less taxing than a game like Super Smash Bros. due to the latter’s constant changing of inputs, it seems like it could be a helpful option. It’s also strange that Splatoon 2, very rarely performs poorly online. Still, when the game does perform the way it ought to, matches are an absolute blast. Of course like all fighting games, get used to being decimated. A lot of players are dedicated to mastering their favorite characters, and play continually to improve. But you can’t become anywhere near as good as they are without losing, learning where you made mistakes, and taking that with you into the next match. And there’s something to be said for not taking yourself too seriously too. There’s nothing riding on these matches. So don’t worry about getting bodied.

I should also mention that this game supports the Amiibo figurines from the last one, and that it will even allow you to import the data from the previous game on them into this one. Of course once you do, you can’t go back, and use it on the old game. If you want to use it with the old game, you’ll have to reformat the figurine, and start over on it. From there they work pretty much as they did in Smash 4. The difference is now you can give them Spirits which work similar to the stats in the previous game. You can train your figure to be an attacker, a defensive player, or somewhere in between. Not all of the strategies from the old game work quite the same in the contemporary one though. So expect some of your Wii U figurines to be inconsistent sometimes. Still, eventually they will get to a point where they’re almost impossible for you to beat. The real fun though is levelling up an Amiibo to be beast-like, and then pit it against a friend’s beast-like Amiibo for supremacy.

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If all of that isn’t enough for you, the challenges come back from previous entries. There are thousands of Spirits to unlock, as well as songs, and other things in the game. Some of which can only be found by completing tasks. One task may be to clear Classic Mode with a specific character in under a certain time. Another might be to accomplish something in the Spirit Adventure mode. You can also get some of this stuff in the game’s shop feature. Suffice it to say, those of you who have to see every possible bit of content in the games you buy, will once again be unlocking things for months on end. Ultimate also brings back the horde modes from previous games. Fight a bunch of waves until you clear the required number. Or go for the endless mode, and see how long you can last. A number of unlockable items are also tied to these. They wanted to be sure you would try everything.

And the game looks, and sounds beautiful through it all. All of the player models, and animations are phenomenal. All of the assist trophies, and items look top-notch. The little details throughout each stage, over every map are simply gorgeous. Everybody involved in the graphics, and sound have done a terrific job here. Even Mr. Game & Watch, one of the simpler characters has been overhauled. Every move he makes references one of his LCD titles more than ever. That’s just one example out of 74 characters. The cinematic videos from the campaign, and introduction are also fantastic. Even if they don’t always make themselves clear in the story, they do grab your attention. The massive amount of top-notch audio is breathtaking. Songs from countless other games show up, alongside some original orchestral scores, electronic remixes, and more. It’s a fantastic soundtrack. While the idea of using the music player mode as a giant Walkman might sound silly, an auxiliary cable in the car makes for a great commute soundtrack.

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Overall, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a must own game for almost anybody with a Switch. Some might complain a mode from an older game may have been omitted. Like the Trophies, and their related modes for example. But their replacements are well thought out, and fit the game nicely. In some cases, better. The Spirits may seem convoluted to some, but they make the Adventure worth checking out, and getting invested in. The Smash Tour isn’t here, but there probably weren’t a lot of people clamoring for it. The stage builder is gone, which is one thing I would have liked to have seen return. Be that as it may, the large roster, 8-player matches, multitude of ways to customize matches, are worth getting the game for alone. It’s also wonderful that those of us who invested hundreds of dollars into Nintendo’s figurines, and Gamecube controllers for the Wii U iteration can repurpose those things for this new one.

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For those who love this series, you’ve probably picked this up already. For those who are lapsed, or haven’t played one of these games before though, you should really check it out. This is a series that has always celebrated the history of Nintendo, and video games. There’s something here for everyone. Fighting game enthusiasts will find some advanced techniques to master. People who want to play something different with guests will likely enjoy the chaotic fun of Luigi shooting laser guns. Or the look of surprise on a friend’s face when they see their first stage hazard. Fans of Retro will love the 40 years or more of classic nods, and references in it. Even people who tend to like slower paced cerebral genres over arcade twitch game play may find they really enjoy the RPG elements of Spirit Adventuring. Plus the easier inputs can make it feel less daunting to any newcomer to the series. Of course if you’ve never enjoyed one of these games to any degree, this one won’t change your mind. But for most with a Switch, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate joins Super Mario Odyssey, The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, and Splatoon 2, as a sure first-party bet.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

The Messenger Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9.5 out of 10

Thunder Spirits Review

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Technosoft. Widely known as a tour de force on the Sega Genesis, they built a long running series of shoot ’em ups with Thunder Force. The original Thunder Force was exclusive to the Japanese market on several computers like the Sharp X1, and NEC PC 8801. But fast forward to the launch of Sega’s 16-bit powerhouse, and you’ll find its sequel present in the line up of titles. Thunder Force II combined the original game’s top down shooting, with horizontal side scrolling stages. It did well enough to spawn several sequels. Thunder Force III was one of the most popular of these. A game that did well enough to see an arcade version called Thunder Force AC. Thunder Force AC played almost like a director’s cut of sorts. It retained most of TF III’s best features, while replacing some of  the levels. It was later released on Sega’s Saturn console.

PROS: It’s Thunder Force III/AC. On the Super NES! With improved visuals!

CONS: Sound effects are weak. A couple of moments of slow down.

STRANGE: Naming conventions with some of the series’ titles.

But many don’t realize it was also released on the Super NES. And this version was retitled Thunder Spirits. Functionally it’s pretty much the same game as Thunder Force AC. Though it will undoubtedly be compared against the original Sega Genesis version. Much like Super R-Type though, Thunder Force AC/Spirits is again, a lot like a director’s cut. Like the original Sega Genesis version, you’ll be going through seven stages of hardcore shooting action. The first three stages are identical to three of the stages found in Thunder Force III. Most of the other stages are either altered, or completely new.

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One feature Thunder Spirits has lost in the translation from third game to arcade game, and back to console game is the stage select. In Thunder Force III, you can tackle the stages in the order of your choosing before heading off to the final leg of your journey. In Thunder Spirits, you’ll just quickly go from stage to stage in predetermined order. Another change is the number of continues, and how they work. In the original version you’ll be given several continues. When you’re out of lives, you’ll have a few more chances to redo the stage at hand. In Thunder Spirits you’re only given a mere three continues. However you’ll continue where you died, replicating the feel of the arcade cab it’s been ported from.

No matter which version you play however, you’re in for the kind of challenge that will make your palms sweat. Thunder Force games are of course shmups. So you’ll be assaulted from all sides at a constant pace. It isn’t a bullet hell shooter but it still has plenty of things for you to avoid crashing into while trying to blow away a multitude of enemy ships. In many ways it will remind you of R-Type. It moves along at a similar pace, save for a few moments where things intentionally go into warp speed.

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The warp speed moments often lead to maze sections where you quickly have to guess which path to take. Choosing the wrong one means you’re crashing in many instances which leads to a bit of trial, and error. But this sort of thing was also typical in the genre at the time, as you could find moments like this in the Gradius series for instance. Aside from these moments however, the game generally gives you enough advance a warning to avoid incoming projectiles. Still, you likely will have to memorize stages as you play through them in order to eventually beat them. It’s the sort of game where knowing when, and where enemies are about to strike is key.

Of course no shmup worth its salt is going to be fun unless it has cool power ups, and the Thunder Force series delivers them in spades. Thunder Spirits gives you a wide variety of them. You collect them by destroying certain enemies on any given level, then picking them up. You have stock lasers, but then there are a few different laser types from there. There are crescent-shaped lasers that do high damage at short-range. There are long-range laser beams that do medium damage at longer ranges. Another power up will send heat seekers above, and below you where they’ll follow along the floor or ceiling, destroying enemies. There are also the laser orbs. These will lock on to enemies, and go after them automatically. They’re not the most powerful of your beam attacks, but they do make many parts of the game easier to navigate.

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Rounding out the weapons are the satellites you can pick up, that surround your ship firing copies of your current weapon. You can also find temporary force fields, that allow you to take a couple of extra hits before you’re destroyed. Make no mistake, in any version of this one you’ll be destroyed. The Thunder Force games are all pretty tough. But once you begin to remember which obstacles come up at which time things ease. Also making things manageable is the ability to change which laser weapons you’re using on the fly. Over time you’ll learn what weapons work best on different enemies. Kind of like if your ship were Mega Man.

Thunder Spirits looks really cool too. The color palette is different from the one in Thunder Force III, and the HUD position is different. But by, and large it’s almost identical to what you would find on the Genesis. The new stages look awesome, and have a lot of really cool flair all their own. Unfortunately, some of this flair costs some performance. So expect to run into some slowdown against some mini bosses, and bosses. For whatever reason, the Super NES just takes a hit in these sections, resulting in a noticeable drop in frame rate. It doesn’t get to an unplayable level by any means. But things do slow way down.

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Beyond that however, the game seems to run fine in most other instances. Still, this will disappoint some players who have been used to playing Thunder Force III on the Genesis, and might be looking into this one. On the audio front the soundtrack here is outstanding, and can hang with the Genesis games. The fast paced songs are all here in that orchestral synth the Super NES is known for. The sound effects however, leave a lot to be desired. Explosions particularly are an issue. They have no real depth to them, and the boss deaths seem to go to a very fuzzy, low bit rate popping sound. The Super NES has always done much better in this regard in other games. So it is a bit disappointing.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t take away from the fun of the game.

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Overall, I’d still highly recommend Thunder Spirits though. While long time fans of the series might scoff at the idea of a TF III on the Super NES, it is in fact a terrific game. Even for those who may prefer the original cut on the Genesis, it is worth playing for the different stages, and updated ending. Likewise, if you have a Super NES, and a Genesis, playing TF III on the Genesis means experiencing a masterful shmup, and the parts of the game that Thunder Spirits replaced. Really, anybody who owns both 16-bit behemoths ought to check out both versions. For those who only have a Super NES in their collection, Thunder Spirits is still one of the best shmups on the console. It has everything you could want in a shmup. Great mechanics. Great visual design. A rocking soundtrack. Really the only things holding it back from perfection, are a handful of sub par sound effects, and some unfortunate slowdown. Still, it just goes to show how good Thunder Force games are. Even when they’re not at their best, they’re still some of the best shoot ’em up games you’ll ever play.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

WeaponLord Review

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Back in the ’90’s fighting games were in full swing. Easily the most popular genre in arcades, there were countless titles ported to the Super NES, Sega Genesis, as well as other platforms. On top of this, many publishers pumped out fighters hoping to be the next Street Fighter grade success story. As such, a number of games came out for home platforms in lieu of arcade machines. One such game was WeaponLord.

PROS: Beautiful graphics. Deep fighting system. Fun.

CONS: Figuring out the game on your own isn’t intuitive.

NAMCO: Is rumored to have loosely based its Soul Edge & Soul Calibur games off of this.

WeaponLord is both one of the most difficult, and yet rewarding fighting games I’ve ever stumbled upon. I found my copy at this year’s ConnectiCon, and knew basically nothing about it going in. As we did in the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s I went into this based on the label/box art. I suppose I could have used my primitive phone’s web browser, but that wouldn’t have been much fun.

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Anyway, WeaponLord focuses on fighting with swords, axes, hammers, and other melee combat weapons rather than martial arts moves. The brainchild of James Goddard, and Dave Winstead, this game is a lot like Barbarian. Except with a better roster, and interesting, complex mechanics. This makes sense when you learn that the Conan mythos, and other fantasy properties were an influence in its creation. Goddard, and Winstead had come from Capcom during the heights of the Street Fighter II phenomenon. Goddard also created the character Dee Jay who first appeared in Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers.

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Around this time the short-lived Xband modem was being hyped up for the Super NES, and the Sega Genesis. These two developers wanted to make a fighter that could take advantage of it, and try to get the lowest lag possible. This was a time when mainly computer games could be played one-on-one over a phone line. The concept, while not new, was very rare on consoles. The one high-profile example of the Xband was the 1v1 Deathmatch mode in the Super NES port of DOOM. Strangely the feature wasn’t even advertised in that game’s manual.

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Anyway, to make their game, Goddard, and Winstead would leave Capcom, and join Visual Concepts to make WeaponLord ar reality. Were they a success? Yes, although not nearly the success of the games their former employer made were. WeaponLord is an ambitious game, and it shows. The graphics, and animation are top-notch. Remember when I said Conan was an influence? The characters, and backgrounds on display will remind you of a Boris Vallejo painting. The pixel art, and sprite work details are nothing short of spectacular. Characters are fairly large, and everything looks breathtaking.

This comes at a high price however. This stuff takes up a lot of storage capacity, and memory. So the game has a small roster. This also means that matches are considerably longer than in other games, because things move along much slower. If you’re used to playing flashy modern fighters at 60 frames per second, you’re not going to get that here. You’re not going to get the standard pace of a 16-bit era Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat port either. However, if you come into WeaponLord with an open mind, and a willingness to learn, you’ll find a deep, and entertaining experience.

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As the game focuses on swords, clubs, and blades it doesn’t share a weak, medium, fierce attack setup, like many other games of the era did. Instead you have backward, and forward swings. There are three of each, and go from fast, but weak to slow, but strong. The basic moves also integrate your movement. So a crouching forward swing works completely different from a standing one, or while in the air. This may seem obvious to veterans of the genre, but it’s going to be a lot more noticeable to newcomers in this game, than some of the more popular fighting games out there.

Special moves don’t generally follow the circular, and charge motions of a lot of popular games. A number of them do, but you’ll find a lot of them if not most of them are similar to Primal Rage. You have to hold an attack button, do a motion while holding the attack button, and then release it. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you wrap your head around it, you’ll start learning how to link normal, and special moves together a bit better.

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But the game also has a very good parry feature. Holding a weak swing button, and moving forward, up, and down can perform a deflection if you time it properly. This puts the opponent into a short stun, and allows you to capitalize on it with a combo. But this feature is also risk vs. reward. Because if you do it too early you’re going to get stomped, and if you do it too late you’re already getting stomped. Unfortunately because of the era this game came out in, there isn’t any real tutorial to speak of in the game. You only have whatever information the manual lists, and nothing else. But that shouldn’t stop you from picking up, and enjoying vintage fighting games like this one. Especially when you stumble upon one that is this good.

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The depth continues when you discover that some moves will break weapons if you manage to land them, at just the right time, during the right frame of animation! If you manage to do this, your opponent’s attacks will actually do noticeably less damage! One thing that isn’t as deep, but is a cool Easter Egg is finding that similar conditions can actually damage your opponent’s outfit. Pieces of armor crack, hair gets cut off, textiles get torn. Seeing this stuff is pretty cool even today.

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It also wouldn’t be a 90’s fighter without a finishing move, and WeaponLord has its own take on the idea. Again, this is a part of the game that reminded me a lot of Barbarian, an old Commodore 64 fighting game, that while simple, featured gory dismemberment. WeaponLord doesn’t have the over-the-top fantastical fatalities associated with Mortal Kombat or Killer Instinct. Instead, it has long combo strings, that if you can pull off, results in decapitation, missing limbs, and disembowelment. These executions also play a part in the game’s story mode.

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The game has three main modes. First, there’s a story mode, where you take your character through an arcade ladder, and get some lore throughout the process. It plays as you might expect, going along, getting victories, and then fighting a boss character. Beating the boss character gets you an ending, and there you go. Except that WeaponLord’s story campaign changes based on the difficulty level you’re playing on, and whether or not you kill off your opponents. If you don’t kill these characters in your initial two out of three match ups, you have to fight them again later. These conditions also change the ending you’ll get, so it gives you incentive to play it a few times. Apparently the Sega Genesis port doesn’t eschew the rematch upon killing opponents. But the storyline is still a similar experience. If you pay attention to the storyline, you’ll find that the game has two stories. The story in the story mode takes place after the tournament, while the arcade mode tells the story beforehand. Beating the story with each character gives you part of a password you can use to play the story from the boss character’s perspective.

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The second mode is the bog standard arcade mode. Here it’s just a matter of clearing the arcade ladder, but without the additions of the story mode. But, if you want to get into the lore, you’ll want to play it for the prequel content. Finally, you have the Versus mode, which is the meat, and potatoes of any fighting game. If you can get some people over, you’ll have quite the fighting game night for many of the reasons outlined above. In all honesty this is one of the best fighting games on the Super NES in spite of the sluggish movement. On its face it may seem like yet another clunky, mediocre game. There were a lot of them back in the day. But stick with it, and you’ll find WeaponLord is a winner.

 

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WeaponLord was published by Namco, and so the innovations in this game appearing in its later series like Soul Edge, and Soul Calibur won’t go unnoticed. It’s rumored that the developers of those games were inspired by Visual Concepts’ barbarian fighter, and it’s easy to see why. Many of the things these games brought to the forefront of the genre were introduced in this obscure title. Had this game not come out the same year Killer Instinct was ported to the Super NES it might have gotten more attention. As it stands, this is one of those games you should really check out if given the opportunity. It has a steep learning curve, but once you pick up some of the basics you’ll find a very entertaining fighter filled with personality. It isn’t perfect by any means. The game could stand to perform a bit faster, and it should have spelled some of the combat out better. But this should not have its identity mistaken for mediocre stuff like Street Combat.

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It may be rough around the edges, but WeaponLord is awesome.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Super Monkey Ball 2 Review

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Again I apologize for the delays. The frequent trips to the doctor’s, and the ten-hour work shifts took up a lot of time this month. But I had one day in May free to spend with family, and that surprisingly leads to a game review. When you’re spending time with people who aren’t the rabid video game fans you are you want to make sure there’s something approachable. But something challenging at the same time. It would be easy to choose some Atari 2600 games. Many of them fit the bill. But it’s an hour’s work getting pre-composite systems up, and running on a modern TV. Then you must have a good scaler in the set, if you don’t you need to get your upscaler to bridge the VCR to the set. Your folks don’t have all day. And while there are some great experiences on current consoles, some of the older relatives may find the multiple functions required rather daunting. You need something older in a pinch, but you don’t have to go back to the 1970’s for your indoor picnic. You can break out a Nintendo Gamecube for this one.

PROS: Campaign. Mini games. Visuals. Pretty much everything.

CONS: Some mini games aren’t as memorable as others.

CROSSOVER POTENTIAL: Nintendo, and Sega collaborate a lot. Where’s Super DK Ball?

Following on the heels of Super Monkey Ball, Super Monkey Ball 2 is easily one of the best games on the Gamecube. (Admittedly, one can also get Super Monkey Ball Deluxe if one does not own a Gamecube, but does own a PS2 or an Xbox. It’s basically both games in one.) Released in 2002, Super Monkey Ball 2 is a bigger, and better version of the already excellent Super Monkey Ball. It has even better stages, and even more party games than the original, making it the preferred version to play at gatherings. Though the original is still a tremendously wonderful game everyone should check out if given the chance.

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So what do you do in Super Monkey Ball 2? Where does one begin? There are so many cool modes to play here. The obvious meat, and potatoes are the game’s challenge stages. What makes this fun, are not only the well crafted levels. But the fact you can play with three other people. The object of the game is to get your monkey through a goal ribbon. That’s it. Now that may sound easy, but as the old adage goes it’s “Easier said, than done.” When you first begin any of the modes, you’ll choose a monkey. Each of whom has some minor differences in how they control. Aiai is the main character. He’s the most well-rounded of the primates. Then there is MeeMee who is similar in stats to her co-star. Baby is the lightest of the monkeys while Gon Gon is the heaviest.

The challenge stages are broken up into three sets. A ten stage beginner set, a twenty stage intermediate set, and a fifty stage expert set. Everyone alternates turns, and turns end when someone succeeds or fails at a stage. Everyone also gets two lives, and several continues to try their hand at clearing the stage. If you can manage to get through an entire set of stages without using any continues the game will then enter you into a gauntlet of bonus stages, which increase the challenge ten fold. Some of the main stages can get to be quite the challenge. Some of the bonus stages can get almost sadistic as they require pinpoint accuracy, and impeccable timing.

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But through it all, none of it is really all of that infuriating. It’s just something really addictive. When you fail at a stage, you just want to attempt it again, and again until you’re victorious. The mechanics in the game work something like Marble Madness, where you’re pushing your monkey ball or pulling it back as you’re trying to navigate paths. Except it is then combined with mechanics out of a rolling ball sculpture. Some stages feel like you’re moving the stage around, while others feel like you’re in control of the ball. The only thing you’re ever-moving in these stages is the thumb stick. Again, many of the courses on display get pretty elaborate. Combined with the short amount of time you’re given to complete them, you can easily find yourself frantically trying to keep your monkey from falling into an abyss.

Super Monkey Ball 2 also has a story mode in it for those who want a solitary experience. Here, you have to go through 100 stages in a row to stop a mad scientist from taking all of the world’s bananas. Immediately you’ll wonder why Sega, and Nintendo haven’t done a Donkey Kong, and Super Monkey Ball crossover together. Be that as it may, these stages are very much an extension of the challenge stages. Just more of them, and more intricate in the second half.

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But if a massive story mode, and huge number of multiplayer stages isn’t enough for you, there are a plethora of mini games on hand as well. Some of them have to be unlocked by earning points in other modes. But you’ll have the best of them opened up almost immediately. There’s Monkey Race, which tries to combine the main game with elements of Mario Kart. This one is decent, but nowhere near as good as a proper Mario Kart game. There’s a fun brawl mode, as well as a boat racing mode. Then there’s Monkey Golf which is an interesting take on Golf, as well as a really fun Monkey Bowling mode. This one makes our monkeys into the bowling ball, and does all kinds of wacky things with the lanes. So you really have to nail timing to get a good angle, and approach each lane as a puzzle.

There are mini games based on Baseball, Tennis, and Soccer too. These play about as well as the Golf mode does. Monkey Dogfight is a pretty fun mode as well.  It’s basically a combination of one of the other mini games, and the Vs. mode from Star Fox 64. Monkey Shot is an on-rails light gun shooter. It’s a fun concept, but it would have been better if it had a compatible light gun to play it with. Still, you can move the cursor about at a fairly quick pace, so it’s still an entertaining diversion.  Monkey Billiards is a pool mini game where all of the balls are replaced with monkey balls. It’s cutely crafted to say the least.

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Arguably the best of these mini games is Monkey Target. I must admit it takes some getting used to. But once you understand how it works, it’s a phenomenal party game. Each player rolls down a ramp, and after launching off of the half-pipe at the bottom can open their ball. This converts the halves of the ball into a hang glider. From here, each person has to hang glide over an ocean, and try to land on a floating target for huge points. Depending on where you land, you’ll get a different number of them. To make things more interesting you can collect bananas in the sky for points, find stars to double your points, and even items to help you stop on a dime. For your landing to count you have to close the ball before landing. Falling on that 1,000 point spot gets you zero points if you land on your stomach.

But the best part about Monkey Target is just how deep it is, in spite of how simple it is. You have to account for altitude, and wind which are represented in your corner of the screen. If the wind is blowing west, and you try to move east, you’ll get some resistance. Also if you lose momentum your monkey starts to beep that they’re falling. This is where panic mode sets in when first starting out, and people pull back. But you can’t. It is here you want to push into a nosedive, pull back at the last second, and get a nice lift back into the sky.

Of course, in spite of how good you become at the gliding, some of these targets have shapes that make landing on them quite the task at hand. Often if you don’t line up your landing just right, you’ll roll off into the ocean, and sink. And, because this is a party game, your Uncle can employ dirty tricks like crash landing into you, stopping on your coveted point value, and knocking you back to that ten point border. Still, it’s a great time, and one of the reasons you’ll want to fire up the game beyond its primary puzzle stages.

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And it does all of this while looking, and sounding amazing. Character models have some nice little details on them. The bright colors, and lighting effects feel right out of Sega’s 00’s arcade era. It looks like the natural extension of a First-Party Dreamcast game. The soft Electronica soundtrack complements the game nicely. Even today, 16 years after its release Super Monkey Ball 2 holds up well. It’s a beautiful game indeed. It also supports the Gamecube’s Progressive Scan mode. So if you have the costly Gamecube component cable or you’re playing it through a Wii on component cables you can make it look considerably sharper than on the stock composite cables. There are some Third-Party HDMI solutions coming out now as well. Like this one reviewed by RAXTheGreat1. So that’s something you may consider looking into.

Overall, Super Monkey Ball 2 is a must own if you have a Gamecube. Especially if you have company over for events, or holidays. It’s a lot of fun. The original is also a blast, so you may just want to pick up both of them. For those who don’t have a GCN, but do have an old Xbox or PlayStation 2 Super Monkey Ball Deluxe basically contains both games. So be sure to pick it up. The series would continue on newer consoles, and even a phone app. But honestly SMB2 is the apex of the series. Hopefully Sega will revisit the franchise someday. Whether or not that happens however, Super Monkey Ball 2 is still highly recommended.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Holiday gaming gifting for the frugal.

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Man, what a crazy couple of weeks. I’ve been insanely busy with deliveries at my paid gig. Between this, and Thanksgiving week I haven’t had much in the way of *me* time. But I did find a few morsels of time finally this evening, so I’m trying something a little bit different. If you’re like me, the holiday weeks are not only very time-consuming, they’re wallet busting. Not only do you want to get the people closest to you something off of their list, you may want to do a little something for your friends. Or even Pete in accounting. But after getting that Nintendo Switch for your kids, that Gibson guitar your wife has been eyeing, and that new 4K TV for your aging parents, there isn’t much left in the tank.

Fear not! These are some pretty cool gifts you can pick up, that won’t break the bank. At least not too much. Some of these will be games, others trinkets. But hopefully they’ll give you some ideas. Some of these have deals that are ending soon, but I’ve tried to find some that aren’t too expensive at full price either. And some of these I’ve reviewed a while ago, but now can be had for less due to their age. But just because something is older than 6 months doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. It’s still new if the person hasn’t played it.

So let’s have at it!

Digital Games

Digital Downloads can be a great way to save some money, and still give someone in your life an entertaining gift. I do this a lot every year, and I’m sharing that tactic with you. Steam, and GoG have amazing sales every year. As I type this there are two days left to their respective autumn sales, and Steam will likely follow it up with their annual Winter sale. But even some of the console manufacturers have thrown in some discounts. So do look into Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft’s digital store fronts in case of any promotions they may happen to put up. Some games I recommend:

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Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams

Anyone who knows me, or has been reading awhile knows I’m a huge fan of this game. It’s one of my favorite titles ever. But even if I weren’t, the quality is obvious. It has wonderful graphics, an amazing soundtrack, and a cool morphing mechanic. It twists you between parallel worlds. One a whimsical dream, the other a horrifying nightmare. But you’ll have to use this to solve puzzles, collect gems, and succeed in general. It’s also got a plethora of secrets, and unlockable modes. It’s a scant $3.59 with it’s expansion on Steam until 11/28. PS4, and Wii U owners can track down the disc version for around $20 on Amazon.

 

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Ultionus: A Tale Of Petty Revenge

This one is a great choice for the friend who loves challenging action games, and shmups. Just know it is inspired by old computer games where movement was more calculated than it was brisk. That said, this one is a fun game for anyone who can get past that caveat, and it’s even better for one who grew up on the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, and Amiga. It has great pixel art, a great sense of humor, and a lot of love for Phantis. It’s just shy of $5 on Steam until the sale ends. Then it goes back to the regular low price of $7.

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Undertale

If you have a friend who still hasn’t tried this one out, it’s a meager $5 right now rather than the usual $10. At least on Steam. But even if you spend the full ten dollars, that’s about what you’d spend treating them to lunch at their fast food staple of choice. Undertale is pretty cool too. While I’m not the hardcore fan many people are, I can attest to the fact that it is a fun RPG with some great humor, swerves, and a love of 8-bit computers. It also implements some bullet hell shmup mechanics in a creative way. It also has multiple endings, giving it a good sense of replay value. It’s also on consoles, so you’re not limited to the computer, though you’ll likely pay less for the PC version.

Ikaruga 

You may not realize Treasure’s classic is on Steam, and that like the previous game on the list it’s $5. $10 normally. Here’s the thing. A lot of retro fans obsess over getting the Japanese Dreamcast version or the Nintendo Gamecube release. These can easily exceed $40 for a used copy, and well beyond that if they have their case, and manual inside. If you have a collector friend, who also has a PC, you may want to get this one for them digitally. They can enjoy it legitimately, and you can save a lot of money.

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The entire run of Ultima can be had on GoG fairly cheap. They have their own sale running alongside Valve’s, and have made these games even cheaper. For a mere $3.58 you can get the best of the series via two bundles. Ultima is one of the most important RPG series in the genre. Many of the conventions you see in RPGs, and even some JRPGs were inspired by Richard Garriott’s seminal series. It starts out simple, but eventually gives you a compelling overall story, and an open world to get immersed in. It may not look like The Witcher, but you should probably play these if you love RPGs. And while it might not elicit the same joy cloth maps, and trinkets do being digital, the GoG release means you don’t need to know how to use DOSBox. GoG releases have DOS emulation wrappers built around them, so all you have to do is click *play*. Later Ultimas didn’t have the core elements these did, so you may want to pass. But if you’re still interested, those are also on GoG’s sale. A great gift for the Retro RPG fan in your life.

The Witcher Series

Speaking of The Witcher, the entire series can be found digitally for very affordable prices right now. And with Steam’s winter sale coming up, you can remind yourself to nab them if you miss the current offers. If you didn’t already know this, these games offer vast worlds to explore, tons of missions, and all of the levelling up you could possibly want. CDProjektRed has made a trilogy of excellent RPGs that would please about anybody. These sales aren’t as deep as some of the other games I’m mentioning, but they’re still worth looking into.

Rocket League

Rocket League may not be the newest game anymore, but it’s as fun, and as compelling as ever. Plus with the recent release on Nintendo Switch, and cross-play, there’s never been a better time to check this game out. The PC version is only $10 in this current Steam sale. If you’re uninitiated with it, it’s like a mash-up of Super Mario Strikers, and RC Pro-Am. If RC Pro-Am could jump with hydraulics, and do bicycle kicks. It’s one of the most fun arcade soccer games ever made. Even if your friend doesn’t usually gravitate toward sports games, they’ll probably really enjoy this on whatever platform they have.

Insurgency

This is one modern military shooter worth playing, and the fact that it’s less than $2 during Steam, and Humble Bundle sales makes it even better. It’s a few years old now, but it still has a sizable community, and you can still get into a full game. It eschews just some annoyances other modern military shooters have. No grinding away for guns. No micro-transactions. Here every player gets points to use every round on their layout. Every weapon is available, and attachments, as well as side gear. The catch is you won’t have enough to equip everything so it balances out nicely. Too much fire power you’ll have no protection. Too much protection you’ll be slow, and low on ammo. It also encourages team work, and objectives over kills. Though you’ll still have players who care about kills, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Also there are no kill cams, and barely any HUDs to speak of. It’s a wonderful blend of Rainbow Six 3’s realistic damage, and movement, with modes popularized by games like Battlefield. If you have a friend looking for something different from the typical Activision or EA annual release, get them this one. If they like it tell them to keep their eyes out for the sequel. If it’s half as good as this one, it should be quite the game indeed.

Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus R/Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator

This may not be the latest, and greatest Guilty Gear game around. But it is the definitive version of the XX line. All of the Guilty Gear games have some astonishing animation in them, and a wealth of great characters to choose from. If you get this during the Steam sale, it’s a meager $3, and will give a fighting game fan who missed it, hours upon hours of fun.  If you do want to get that friend Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator instead, being that it’s newer, it will set you back $15. This one is more advanced, looks slicker (Runs on the Unreal Engine), and is also a blast. The fighting system also has refinements over the older series so it doesn’t play exactly the same. But either game makes an excellent gift.

Ys series (Most of it)

Ys Origin, the re-mastered Ys 1&2, Oath In Felghana (Ys III), Ark Of Napishtim (Ys VI), and Ys VII, all have huge discounts, with the oldest games coming in for under $5 in most cases. This is a wonderful series of action RPGs dating back to the NEC PC-8801 computer in Japan. In recent years XSEED, managed to get the re-mastered editions localized, and on Steam. Their tireless work is your gain, as these titles are worth every penny. If you have a friend who loves JRPGs, and hasn’t played this series, all of these are great options, though I may start them with Ys Origin. It’s a prequel that kicks everything off, and explains a lot of back story the original games only touched on.

Cities Skylines

If you have a friend who can’t get enough of old school management games, and they’ve blown through Civilization 5, Sim City 4, and the Tropico series like a hot knife through butter, they’ll probably dig this one. And with the current sale price of $7.49 it’s a steal. I recently watched my buddy Xonticus stream it for Extra Life. It’s easily as deep as any Sim City title, and it has a lot of its own cool little details, and world animations.

 

Physical Games

You can often times find pleasant surprises in the used, and clearance bins at traditional retailers. Here are some really good ones I’ve found over the past year. Of course your mileage may vary as stock, and prices change. But that said, keep an eye out anyway. You may just find one of these.

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Axiom Verge PC Game Trust Steel Book Edition (And other games in this format.)

Game Trust is a label GameStop created for some exclusive physical indie game releases. They partnered with indiebox to produce a few special editions of some of these games. For whatever reason, the company decided to put these titles on clearance. All of these are worth picking up if you see them in your local GameStop. Axiom Verge is probably the best of them. But they also did Steel Books for Guacamelee, Rogue Legacy, Punch Club, Nuclear Throne, Chariot, Thomas Was Alone, Stories: The Path Of Destinies, Awesomenauts, and Jotun. These editions not only include the digital key for Steam, but a physical disc with the game on it, as well as the game’s particular soundtrack album on a studio CD. The cases are made of aluminum, and are a sight to behold. I only paid about $5 for my copies of Axiom Verge, and Rogue Legacy. Hit up your local store’s clearance bins. You just might get lucky.

Bloodborne, The Last Of Us Remastered (Best Buy)

While I was out shopping for Christmas gifts, I noticed two pretty good games, are now at a budget price point. And even cheaper for the week of Cyber Monday this year at Best Buy. Bloodborne, and The Last Of Us on PS4, are only $20. But with this year’s sale, you can shave off another $5. If you have a pal with a PS4 who hasn’t picked up either of them, it’s a pretty good deal.

A plethora of PS4 Deals on Newegg.

I generally go to Newegg for parts. But a quick glance at their Cyber Monday deals tells me, to tell you, to go look at their store for PS4 game deals. A lot of games are ridiculously cheap.  Doom (2016), Dishonored 2, Ratchet & Clank, and Until Dawn are $15. Not bad at all for those on your list with a PS4.

“What if my friends have an XBOX One?”

Microsoft’s store has a TON of XB1 stuff at cutthroat prices. Injustice 2, Super Lucky’s Tale, Gears Of War 4, Fallout 4 (Standard), Prey, Watch Dogs 2 all were severed down to $20. Dishonored 2 is $12.

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Gaming Tchotchkes 

Sometimes you may go through a thousand awesome bargains, but realize your friend probably won’t be into any of them, because they’re not in their genre of choice. Or because they have them already. Or they’re on a platform they don’t own. Not to worry! You can still find something affordable, and fun to accent their favorite hobby in a different way.

Pint Glasses.

Maybe they drink beer. Maybe they drink soda. Maybe they only stick to water. Whatever the case, when you’re playing through a 140 hour RPG, mastering a fighting game character, or just enjoying some Pac-Man here are some great, stylish glasses to gulp down a beverage while doing so.

Obviously you can get some decent game-themed glasses at GameStop or Think Geek as they’re the same company. Often times if you catch a closeout you can get a pretty cool Pokémon, Zelda, Mario, or Pac-Man glass for a few bucks. And who doesn’t like to jazz up their glassware with a nice print. But you have some other options too. I’ve had some luck at Spencer’s Gifts. Last year I got my co-workers some Nintendo themed glassware, but also one in particular an excellent Cyberdemon glass from Doom.

Sometimes you can even find them in an unexpected place. Wandering through a Kohl’s I’ve even found a few Pac-Man glasses. But also don’t discount the idea of helping out one of your favorite internet personalities. As most readers know I’m a big fan of Classic Game Room. As luck would have it, the show has a wealth of show themed Beer Steins, Pint Glasses, and Coffee mugs along with the usual things you might expect. Some of them may even go on sale before the holidays arrive.

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T-Shirts, and Discs

Continuing on from that, if there is a game focused blog, or YouTube show your friend or relative follows, see if it has any merchandise. Many of them do put out DVD’s Blu Ray’s, and T-Shirts. Purchasing one of them not only gets your pal an awesome piece of swag, but supports a small biz, or labor of love in the process. Plus you know that nobody else thought to give the person an awesome Heyzoos The Coked-Up Chicken Stein. I know the focus here was to stay affordable, but some of these items are worth the extra money if you can get a few other people to go in on it with you. Pat Contri’s NES Guide Book isn’t cheap. But it’s also something one would definitely want to go with their game collection.

Individual Artists

A ton of really talented artists out there make some great gaming themed art. Like the YouTubers, and bloggers above a lot of the merchandise is similar. But when you get a print from Tom Ryan’s Studio, for example you’re getting quality. There are also a few great shops you can get stuff featuring independent artists work on. NeatoShop, and Teepublic have some terrific prints you can get from these artists, and they often have sales. Neatoshop’s print quality is a bit better, though Teepublic has a wider range of artists. In either case, you can get some memorable prints that won’t break the bank.

Action figures, and other knickknacks 

I’m not talking about the stuff from NECA that costs $30 (Though that Atari 2600 Texas Chainsaw Massacre Leather Face figure is pretty bitching). But hit up those clearance aisles, and you may be surprised with some cheap, but cool finds. Does your friend dig Funko’s POP vinyls? Often times some nice game themed ones will be closed out to make way for new ones. Why not get that co-worker a DOOM guy for a few bucks that they don’t already have? Another great option are the World Of Nintendo 6 inch figures from Jakks Pacific. These usually sell for $10 or less, and dress up any Nintendo fan’s shelf, desk, or cubicle nicely. And of course, The Amiibo figurines are another nice gesture, as the details on them are great. Even if they aren’t going to use them with a Wii U, 3DS, or Switch game.

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Retro

Of course if they’re into collecting old games, we instantly think of $170 copies of Mega Man 7 or $1,000 copies of Little Samson. But there are still a lot of great bargains on old games out there. I won’t list a ton of examples as I’m running long. But things like MagMax, Abadox, or Blaster Master on the NES can all be had for a few dollars. And these are really fun games that not everybody has. You just have to do some research to find some of these titles, and of course figure out if the person you’d give them to already has them.

Hopefully this has given someone out there with a shoestring budget some ideas. You can really find some good stuff out there without maxing out your card, or depleting your accounts. Obviously presents aren’t the focal point of the holidays. Appreciating those in your life, and helping those you can afford to should be. But we all have those people we want to do something nice for in our hobby. So look into these deals while they’re up for the next day or so. I apologize in getting to this so late, but such is the way of a busy week.