Tag Archives: Retro

Time Soldiers Review

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While the world was getting hyped about E3 last week (and yeah, there are some cool looking games coming down the pike. I’ve been peeking in on conferences when I can.) I was hunting for some additions to my collection. I stumbled upon a Master System cartridge I’ve rarely seen outside of conventions, and it was pretty cheap so I thought “Why not?” The box art alone was worth the price of admission. But I got a fairly compelling action title in the process.

PROS: A really cool take on the classic top down run n’ gun.

CONS: Difficulty spikes, occasional collision issues.

WOAH: Giant dinosaurs with laser guns. What’s not to love?

Originally a twin-stick arcade shooter by ADK (The folks who gave us World Heroes), Time soldiers was ported by Sega to the Master System.  Before you even open the box to put the game in you’ll marvel at the artwork. It has everything a child of the 80’s was into. Dinosaurs, rocket launchers, and tanks. Once you start playing, you’ll see it lives up to the lofty promises the box advertises.

The setup is that in the distant future, a despotic, intergalactic Warlord decides to conquer the Earth. To do this, he traps many of the world’s best soldiers in different time periods throughout history. The guy basically looks like the Anti-Monitor from The Crisis On Infinite Earths, and probably has a lot of the same powers. So “Why couldn’t he just destroy the world with antimatter?” seems like a good question to ask.

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Anyway, you have to go on a quest to rescue each of these warriors from their cells throughout history. On paper, this seems pretty straightforward. Go kill bad guys, and blow up stuff in a sequential order, and roll the end credits. Time Soldiers takes inspiration from earlier run n’ guns like Ikari Warriors, and Commando. You play from a top down perspective, and do just that. Kill hundreds of enemies who come charging at you guns blazing.

But what makes this game stand out from almost every other game of its ilk, is the fact that it is never the same game twice. Time Soldiers, places each of these hostages in a different place every time, and you have to kill a boss in order to proceed. Often times, the game will not place you in the proper time period from the get go. So you’ll play the first stage, and then be sent to a new era.

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Each of the eras has a few different versions, and these will vary depending on when you’re sent to that era. So if you get sent to the Prehistoric era on stage two, it will have one version. But get sent there again a few stages later, and it will be a variant. The game will also make you fight a mini boss if you’re in the wrong era for the current hostage you’re tracking down. Defeating the mini boss will then either open another time machine (which look suspiciously like the portals from Stargate) where you’ll have to go to another time period or it will summon the actual boss.

The bosses are pretty cool. They’re not nearly as difficult as the stages are. But they’re large, and interesting sprites. They remind me a lot of the encounters of Alien Syndrome, though the patterns are much easier to learn than in that classic. But don’t be fooled by a lower difficulty. Time Soldiers only affords you two continues  on the Master System. Since you die if ANYTHING touches you, this game still isn’t an easy one. Especially since the game may send you on longer paths during certain rescues. The saving grace are some boss warps that can skip you ahead to a boss fight. On the other hand, if you aren’t powered up, taking them down with a pea shooter makes things more intimidating.

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Time Soldiers does offer a wide variety of weapons. In that respect it can feel like Contra. The thing is, these armaments aren’t permanent. After so many shots, or so many seconds they run out of ammo. So often times you’ll want to conserve them for taking down bosses, or mini bosses. You get these, power ups, and boss warps by shooting specific enemies in any given level. Basically, you’ll want to shoot as many targets as possible, because as the game goes on things will only get tougher.

Time Soldiers has a really nice look to it, and embraces the absurdity of everything. Dinosaurs shoot lasers. Ancient Romans have shields that can take a ton of bullets before going down. The mini bosses continue the weirdness, with cutesy, pink helicopters just being the tip of the iceberg. Everything is colorful, and some of the backgrounds are interactive in a sense. Going over tall grass or mud will slow you down. There are a few catchy chip tunes to thump along with the action, and the sound effects stand out against some of the other titles in the genre.

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Overall, it’s a really good action game for the Master System, and easy to recommend you add to your collection. It’s also one of the more affordable obscure games out there. It was also available on some computer formats, but as I don’t have any of those versions, I can’t really comment on them. Still, if you have a chance to check one of them out, you just may want to. If I had any major issues with this Master System version, it would be the occasionally weird collision detection. Most of the time things go the way they’re supposed to, but I did notice a few occasions where I passed through enemies I shouldn’t have, or got stuck on a piece of scenery in one game, but not on a repeat attempt. It isn’t enough to ruin the game, but it is something holding it back a little bit. Otherwise, it’s a solid addition to any collector’s library.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

SD2EIC Drive Review

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

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

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

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

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

CONS: Not quite everything is compatible.

BUT: Far more than enough is compatible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Atgames Atari Flashback Portable Review

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Have you heard the cries? Everyone clamoring for an NES mini, a tiny replica of Nintendo’s seminal console with 30 built-in ROMs. But this isn’t an entirely new idea. For almost a decade now, Atari has been doing just that. Miniature versions of their most popular consoles under the Atari Flashback moniker. However after the fourth revision, they handed off production to a third-party called Atgames.

PROS:60 VCS games covering commons, rarities, prototypes & homebrew. In a handheld!

CONS: Permanent battery. Some of the game inclusions are odd ones.

STRANGER: You can buy one in Bed Bath & Beyond.

Atgames has the dubious honor of making All-in-One Sega Genesis clones with, bad sound emulation. But while their track record with the Sega license has been less than stellar, their time on the Atari Flashback line has been good. Since taking over the reigns from Atari for the most part, the casings have been similar. Although the insides have been different. They’ve been systems on a chip, with emulation. But these have been pretty good by most accounts. A move even Atari was doing with the line themselves, with the lone exception of the Flashback 2, which used the original MOS 6502 chipset the original Atari 2600 did.

With the Atari Flashback Portable, Atgames has taken the same principle, but moved it into a handheld setup. And honestly, it’s a pretty good handheld. Right away, you’ll notice that it isn’t very large. It’s smaller than any of the Nintendo 3DS family of consoles, or any of the Sony portable consoles. Being an All-In-One, it doesn’t have a slot for cartridges.

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In the box you’ll get the console, a small instruction manual, and a 5 pin USB cable. The USB cable will let you recharge the battery in the console using your computer. You can buy a USB wall adapter to charge it from an outlet separately. Also sold separately is an optional AV cable you can buy from Atgames directly. That will let you hook the system up to a TV with composite cable inputs. Nice if you have an older model TV, but with many new TVs this is moot in many cases since a lot of the new models don’t include legacy inputs. So if you do want to use this with a modern TV you’ll also need a composite switch box that will connect to a HDMI port in addition to a composite cable.

One nice thing is that the system comes with a pre-charged battery so you can play it once you open the box. On the underside is the power button, and along the top you’ll have a volume dial, AV out port, a headphone jack, and an SD Card slot. The face of the unit gives you a D-Pad, and a fire button. In addition to those, the switches from the original 2600 have all been replicated as buttons. So you’ll have a Reset button at the top right, a Select button, Left, and Right Difficulty buttons, and even a Black & White TV toggle button.

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They also added a pause button (something the original VCS never had), and a menu button which is used to back out of games to go to the game list. When you turn the unit on you’ll go right into the game menu. Each of the 60 titles has a photo of the original box art, or a mock-up of box art. Pressing the fire button will boot up the game you’ve selected.

Construction of the console feels pretty nice. The D-pad is comfortable, and responsive, as are the face buttons. It’s pretty comfortable to hold. It’s lightweight, but it doesn’t feel shoddy. Around the screen is a pretty nice piano gloss finish, and the screen itself is also pretty nice. It’s really sharp, graphics look crisp, and things are easy to see despite the small size. The viewing angle is pretty good too for what it is. If you tilt it wildly far of course, it isn’t going to look good. But you don’t have to look at the screen dead on either. As far as screens go for a budget AIO handheld like this, it’s very good.

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But the big reason Atari fans may want to buy this is because it has an SD Card reader. You can put 2600 ROMs on a card, and then run those games on the Atari Flashback Portable. This is a great way to play homebrew on the go. If you want to play Halo 2600, or Zippy while spending an hour in a coffeehouse you can do it. You can also run many of your personal backups on it. The downside with this is that the feature can be abused with people running pirated games on it. It remains to be seen what Atgames will do if this becomes a widespread issue. Companies like Activision are still pretty protective of their original games from the era, often releasing retro game compilations, and devices of their own. Keep in mind that not every SD card is viewable by the slot. Smaller capacity cards are more likely to work with it, than high-capacity cards (SDHC). Try to find a card with 2GB or less if possible.

Battery life is really good. You can get several hours of game time before you have to recharge the battery. But that leads me into the console’s faults. There are two major problems with the Atari Flashback Portable that I must note. As much as I enjoy the system for what it is, the fact that it has a permanent battery is a big concern. Granted it isn’t very expensive, but in a few years when it fails to hold a charge any longer you’ll have two options: A.) Run the system on a USB charger through an outlet or a computer. Or B.) Pray Atgames as a newer model out with the same or better features, and replace the unit with the new one. You’ll lose portability with the first option, and if the line isn’t in production anymore when it happens you’re forced to use it plugged.

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Going with common batteries may have decreased the play time you would have, but it wouldn’t make customers feel like they’re forced into replacing it. Alternatively, they could have gone with a replaceable proprietary battery. This may have made the device cost more, but again, people could opt to buy a backup battery instead of having to get a new system or plug it in all of the time once the initial battery died.

The second problem is the game line up. Don’t get me wrong, the overwhelming majority of the game selection is great. You’re getting must play titles like the 2600 versions of Asteroids, Centipede, Millipede, Missile Command, or Crystal Castles. There are gems on here like Yars’ Revenge, Secret Quest, and Solaris. You even get a number of rare games, prototypes, and indie homebrew games on here if you can believe it.

Where the line up falters are some of the inclusions. Atgames bundled in Circus Atari, Breakout, Super Breakout, and Demons To Diamonds. These games used the 2600 Paddle controllers on the original VCS. The games do play with the D-Pad, but the D-Pad doesn’t control these games nearly as well as the Paddle controllers did. Beyond that, the line up is solid. Though to be able to play the Swordquest games properly in a public setting you’ll need to download, and print the manuals, and DC Comics the original cartridges came with as they required them in order to play through them properly.

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But beyond those two major caveats, the Atari Flashback Portable is really awesome. Fans, and collectors will enjoy it because there is now a convenient way to play these on the go. Sure you can buy these games on Steam, and play them on your laptop. But the portable makes this quick, and easy. There are also perfect games for some situations on the console For instance; in a doctor’s office or on a commute, where you can shoot for a high score in that 15 minutes. Obviously one can spend hours playing on it as well.

It’s pretty cool all around, but it’s especially nice for people who are lapsed, who haven’t picked up a game for themselves in 30 years. It has a nostalgic factor to it. It’s also a great device for retro game fans, since they can play most Atari 2600 files on it. Sadly the emulation won’t run quite everything, but it does work with the majority of titles. One might also consider picking this up if they’re interested in experiencing Atari 2600 games for the first time, but aren’t interested enough to devote time, and money into collecting the original console, accessories, and game cartridges. It’s a great way for a newcomer to learn about the first mass market console without having to make a major investment.

If only Atgames went with a replaceable battery, and thought out the game selection better. This would have been a must-own. As it stands though, it is still a great device worth checking out if you’re an Atari enthusiast, or a newcomer who is interested in the history, and enjoyment of video games.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Dark Chambers Review

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Ah, Gauntlet. A long running franchise created by Ed Logg. Games were put out by Atari, and (after the arcade division was sold to them by Warner Communications) Midway (which was ironically sold back to Warner Bros.) in the arcades, and a wide variety of platforms over the years. But there was an obscure game that inspired Ed Logg to create Gauntlet. That game was called Dandy.

PROS: Excellent play control. Challenging.

CONS: Two players instead of four.

WEIRD: The game came out after the one its predecessor inspired.

Dandy was one of the earliest arcade style dungeon crawlers. Created by John Palevich, it was part of Atari’s, Atari Program Exchange. Basically, a scouting program that allowed budding programmers, of professional or amateur levels to submit software. Software that met the criteria would become commercially available through a mail-order catalog.

Dandy was created while Palevich worked at Atari. The game made it through the A.P.E. process, and would be released for the Atari 8-bit family of computers. The game became a cult hit within Atari, and a scant two years later Gauntlet would build upon Dandy’s core ideas, and become the powerhouse it did. In fact, Ed Logg credited Gauntlet’s inspiration to Dandy in 2012.

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This is where Dark Chambers comes in. Years later, after Warner sold the home division of Atari to the Tramiel family.  Atari Corporation would finally release the 7800, and would re-release the Atari 2600 as a slim model that became known as the Atari 2600 Jr. By this point Nintendo had reinvigorated the home console market, and taken nearly every publisher along with them. Sega, and Atari would see scant support releasing too far behind Nintendo. Both companies would do fairly well for themselves in the console space, but would still fall very short of Nintendo’s performance.

In order to compete Atari would find itself going to its computer market space, and securing ports to fill the some of the void left by publishers that followed Nintendo. John Palevich’s Dandy would be retooled for the 7800, and 2600. It was given a new title to separate this version from its predecessor.

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Dark Chambers may not be quite as robust as Dandy or Gauntlet. But it is still one of the best games you’ll ever find for Atari’s two greatest home consoles. Like the other two games, you have to explore dungeons, look for treasure, items, and health. All while taking down enemies, and trying to stay alive.

Unlike Gauntlet, there aren’t any classes to speak of. There aren’t as many on-screen bad guys as in Gauntlet or Dandy. You’re also limited to two players in Dark Chambers. To compensate for this, Dark Chambers’ villains are more powerful, and take several forms.  You’ll find reapers, wraiths, skeletons, evil clerics, and more across the 26 stages.

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Much like Gauntlet there are teleportation devices that spawn in endless waves of enemies until you destroy them. Destroying them can sometimes leave a health pickup, a treasure, or even a power up. Power ups are broken down into three items. There’s a dagger. Picking this up makes your shots deal a lot more damage. These are the most important pickups because in later stages you’ll be running into newer, more difficult monsters.

Almost as important is the shield. Picking this up means that if you get hit you won’t take as much damage. But don’t get careless, because you can go down fairly quickly if you get cornered. Shields, or no shields. There is also a hand gun. This doesn’t give you an actual gun, but what it does do is make your dagger shots much faster. Finally, there’s the wick bomb. This basically acts as a smart bomb, and kills all of the enemies on the screen.

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But even with these power ups, Dark Chambers isn’t a  cake walk. Finding the exit in each of the stages gets harder as you find locked doors that require keys, maps that can prove to be pretty intricate, and difficult mazes to find your way through. The enemies in the game also don’t simply die. There is an enemy hierarchy. If you kill a skeleton for instance, it will turn into a zombie. You can then kill the zombie. What this means is some of the really tough enemies will go down the scale as you kill them several times, until they become zombies you can kill permanently. On top of all of this you only get one life. No continues.

Obviously the 7800 version of Dark Chambers is the better looking of the two versions. There are some great textures for background patterns, and the details on the enemies is really nice. It can hang with the NES versions of Gauntlet, and Gauntlet II in terms of visual presentation.  But the 2600 version of Dark Chambers isn’t a terrible looking game considering the divide in horsepower. Walls are single color lines, but the character sprites are pretty good, using shapes to a great avail. As such, characters may only be one or two color sprites, yet convey the impression that they’re a lot more detailed than they are. When you see the game in action, it comes off as pretty impressive in spite of its rudimentary graphics.

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Moreover, the 2600 version’s mazes are zoomed in, scrolling vertically, but not horizontally. There’s a really cool fade effect when moving horizontally into the next room. Because of this the 2600 version of Dark Chambers can sometimes feel like an Action RPG even though it very clearly follows the same gameplay cues the 7800 version does. By contrast the 7800’s mazes scroll in all directions giving the game a faster feel. It ends up feeling a bit closer to the original Dandy, or Gauntlet in this regard, though again, with its own distinct rules. To be honest it’s well worth checking out both of these versions if you have the opportunity.

Sound wise there isn’t much to talk about however. Neither version gives you much of anything in terms of chip tunes, and the sound effects are all rather generic. They get the job done for the kind of game it is, but there isn’t anything memorable in the audio department.

Beating either version doesn’t give you an ending, or credits. It just starts over with a higher difficulty level. However you can start the game on various difficulty levels. In the case of the 2600 version, the difficulty is represented by a teddy bear which becomes more grizzled as you choose higher difficulty settings.

All, in all I highly recommend Dark Chambers. Especially if you’re a big fan of any given version of Gauntlet. I would also implore fans of modern-day rogue-likes  to give it a chance so long as they own a 2600 or 7800. It’s a lot of fun, and the one life challenge can make the game even more compelling to those who love their video games tough.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Tac-Scan Review

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Arcades were always experimenting in the early days of gaming. A number of games not only tried new things with game play, but with graphics technology. Atari made a number of games utilizing vector graphics instead of the more common place sprites. Asteroids, Lunar Lander were classics in their own right, but Tempest became a huge hit thanks to using the vectors to create a 3D visual effect. Of course the Star Wars Arcade game, and Battlezone took things even further. But Atari wasn’t the only company experimenting with vector graphics.

PROS: Fluid controls. Sharp graphics. Unique mechanics.

CONS: Short. Visuals haven’t held up as well as other vintage classics have.

CUT: The console port doesn’t have the transitions. Presumably due to technical limits.

Sega put out several vector based games. Among them was Tac-Scan. At first glance Tac-Scan may seem like a typical Golden Age shmup. As in other early shmups like Space Invaders, Galaxian, and Galaga the ultimate goal of the game is a high score. But Tac-Scan does a number of things that set it apart from the rest of the pack.

Tac-Scan gives you lives, but in a very different way. Instead of you having a set number of attempts, it puts them all on the line right away. You start with all of your lives flying through space in a Tac formation. Hence the name of the game. But it doesn’t end there. Each of your ships can be individually destroyed by enemy forces. Run out of ships, and you’ll see a Game Over screen. You shoot down enemy ships like in other games, however there are also mother ships you can destroy. Not only do these give you bigger point bonuses, but extra lives for every one you blow up.

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These lives are given to you in between waves. You’ll go through a sequence where you have to almost catch your reserved ship. As it falls down, you move your formation into position, and try to let the ship land into one of your open slots. This leads into the next wave. The interesting thing here, is that every second wave changes the perspective of the game! While Tac-Scan starts out as an overhead shooter, it changes to a third-person perspective during these waves. It feels like going from something like Galaxian into something like Gyruss seamlessly. After blowing away the following waves, you go through a wormhole, and back to the top down perspective. As this cycle repeats, the game gets faster, and it throws more enemies, and obstacles your way.

This continues until you can no longer replenish any ships in your formation. At which point you record your score, and either walk away or resolve to do better. But beyond the innovative transitions, the game also uses a paddle controller! This is interesting because so often the paddle was relegated to Breakout, and the games that built upon its core game play. Arkanoid, Circus Atari, Warlords are but a few such games.

But Tac-Scan is one of the only arcade cabinets that used one in a completely different genre. Not only did it use a paddle controller in a shmup setting, it did so with flying colors. Tac-Scan controls like a champ. Your ships steer around at high speeds, without a hiccup or a hitch. Everything feels smooth as you glide your ships along. When you finally lose, you never feel like you lost due to bad controls. You will very much put all of the blame on yourself.

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Sega didn’t end with an arcade cabinet however. They also ported the game to the Atari 2600. The VCS version doesn’t have the stylized line graphics of the arcade original. And to get any semblance of the game working on the console they omitted the third-person transition. But even though it takes a hit in the realm of visual fidelity it absolutely nails the game play.

The 2600 port uses the Atari paddle controllers, and the transition feels nearly flawless. Again, your formation flies smoothly, with little to no slowdown. Surviving wave after wave of enemy ships with any of your ships intact is still quite the challenge. The difficulty curve is well crafted as well. Early stages let you get a handle on the controls because the pace of the game is slow, and ships take long pauses in between firing. Surviving the first two or three waves will seem pretty feasible. The following stages increase the travel speed, and enemy accuracy a couple of notches. Eventually, everything becomes insanely fast, and requires every ounce of your hand, and eye coordination.

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Being that it is a high score game, it might not hold your interest the way some later shmups  may. Things like R-Type or Gradius where there are a set number of stages to complete, and an ending to experience may sate some players more. But there is something to be said for the days when getting the high score was king. It brings out a level of competition among players, and it’s something that can still be compelling today. It’s one of many reasons why a lot of Golden age games have stood the test of time.

Tac-Scan has the honor of both standing the test of time, and yet also becoming one of the more esoteric games of its heyday. Which is a shame, because it is such a good game. If you’re fortunate enough to have access to the arcade version you should really check it out. It uses vector graphics in a unique way while still being a very fun challenge. Alternatively if you have a PlayStation 2 you can track down the Sega Genesis Collection. Tac-Scan is an unlockable game in that collection. The only downside is you will have to play the game with a thumb stick, which isn’t quite the same as using a paddle.

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The Atari 2600 version, again, is pretty terrific. Despite the fact that it is missing a chunk of content, and doesn’t look as nice, it manages to be a pretty faithful port. But whichever way you decide to add the experience to your game collection, you’re in for a great time. It’s too bad that Sega let a lot of their earliest games fade into obscurity. This is one of them, and it is also one of the best games they ever put out. I would put it up there with things like After Burner, Out Run, Alien Syndrome, and Space Harrier. It is that memorable.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Zombie Nation Review

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Over the course of video game history, there have been a number of titles that have fascinated us. Sometimes they gave us something we never experienced before. Other times they tweaked or perfected an existing formula. Some of them pushed the idea of storytelling. But sometimes a game will surprise us with just how bizarre it can be. Zombie Nation is one of those games.

PROS: A fun shmup. Nice graphics.

CONS: Hit detection could be better. Brutal difficulty may turn off some.

A CAR PAYMENT: Is about how much this NES Game Pak will set you back. It isn’t cheap.

Released in 1990 by Meldac, Zombie Nation (or Samurai Zombie Nation as the title screen suggests) is a peculiar shoot ’em up. Instead of a space ship, or a fighter jet you pilot a disembodied head. The original Japanese version was called Abarenbou Tengu, and was released on the Famicom. In that version you play as a disembodied head as well. But in that version, the head is the mask of a Tengu.

In Zombie Nation the story goes, that a meteor crashes somewhere in a Nevada desert, and unleashes an alien creature named Darc Seed. Darc Seed takes over the world using magnetic rays somehow, and everyone is turned into zombies as a result. So the literal head of a samurai named Namakubi flies from its body, and goes on a mission to the USA to kill Darc Seed, and save the world. As well as regain his sword.

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Zombie Nation takes one idea from Capcom’s Mega Man series, by letting you select which stage you want to begin the game on. You can’t choose stages after that, they’ll play sequentially from that point on. So for example if you choose Stage 4, after you clear that stage, you’ll play Stage 1, then 2, and finally 3. If you manage to clear all four of the stages you’ll go to a 5th stage where you fight Darc Seed one on one.

Zombie Nation is a really short game. But what is going to keep you playing it for hours is its high difficulty. Even if you play the game on the easy setting, it is still very unforgiving. There are several reasons for this. First of all, the head of Namakubi is a very large character. Being this is a shmup, that means it is going to be very hard to dodge the enemy firepower, and obstacles. The game doesn’t follow the typical shmup health formula. In many of the most popular shmups like R-Type, getting shot by anything will kill you. No matter how many power ups you have, one hit, you die.

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Zombie Nation opts to give you a health bar instead. So getting shot will slowly reduce your bar until you die. You’ll also get continues when you run out of health, though these are limited. But you’re still going to want to avoid as much as humanly possible. Because not every attack, or projectile damages you equally. Case in point; the lightning. In nearly every stage there is lightning, or an equivalent. During which, cloud to ground lightning will appear. If one of the bolts so much as grazes you, your life bar goes down to one hit. A single hit by anything after that will finish you off.

The saving grace here is that you can try to replenish your health by eating people. The very people you’re trying to save will act as your nourishment. Floating heads are not the strangest part of Zombie Nation. You find this nourishment by destroying the scenery. Not only do you shoot eyes from your eye sockets at enemies, but at backgrounds as well. All while also puking up grenades. Destroy enough of a building? A hostage flies out to be eaten. Blow up enough of a mountainside? A hostage flies out to be eaten. But with the lightning, and hundreds of projectiles headed your way, getting these meals isn’t very easy at all.

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But there is another reason to eat hostages. Eventually you’ll upgrade your shots to be more powerful. Things that took five or six bullets to destroy before may take one or two. After you eat enough people you’ll even get a one-time use smart bomb.  One you use it however the power up shots reset, and you’ll need to feast on more hostages.

The four bosses are pretty zany too. Stage 1 pits you against a Gorgon version of the Statue of Liberty. Stage 2 has you facing Atlas. Stage 3’s boss is part of the scenery. In this level you fly through a sentient power plant, and have to blow up the core. Stage 4 throws you up against two snakes. Beat all of these foes, and you’ll go on to the final battle with Darc Seed. Who is just a giant grey, who just kind of lies there while you avoid marbles. An underwhelming affair to be sure. Especially after so many high stakes battles.

The bosses have difficult enough patterns to memorize, and move through. But what makes them even harder is that there are no health bars or other information on the screen. So you can’t tell how hurt you are, or how close you’ve gotten to victory. When you do defeat a boss it’s always a surprise. Even if you’ve become really good at Zombie Nation.

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But whether you’re good or bad, there is enough to like to recommend the game. It’s hard. But not as hard as a lot of other NES shmups. At least not once you figure out how to effectively avoid some of the more devastating things in it like the lightning. The hit detection could have been a bit better. Sometimes things you don’t think hit you actually did, and the inconsistent damage output of projectiles can get annoying. Still, the experience is mostly pretty fun, and it is worth experiencing the oddity of it all.

Be that as it may, Zombie Nation is also one of the more expensive NES Game Paks these days. It came out near the end of the NES’ life span. While not as rare as something like Power Blade 2, or The Flintstones: Surprise at Dinosaur Peak, it is a scarce game. So expect to pay an exorbitant amount of money to add it to your collection.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Abadox Review

Shoot ’em ups these days seem to focus a lot on the bullet hell approach. A subset of the shmup involving hundreds of projectiles, and enemies on the screen at any moment. Where touching anything at all killed you instantly. There is certainly merit in that approach, where completing the challenge is a badge of pride.  But in the days  where the genre was exiting its single screen infancy there were many other takes on the genre. Some games like Gradius, and R-Type would slowly veer into that direction. Others like Cybernoid would add a touch of trial, and error puzzling to the mix. As time went on, even the stories would take action sci-fi elements in addition to visual styles.

PROS: Inventive. Challenging. Beautiful visuals.

CONS: Short.

SALAMANDER: Abadox is often compared with Life Force due to the similarities.

One such game was crafted by Natsume. These days they’re primarily known as the house of Harvest Moon. But throughout the 1980’s, and 1990’s they would put out many, many well crafted action games. Action platformers, and of course shmups. Abadox at first glance is often mistaken for a Salamander (Life Force in the U.S.A.) clone. It has some similarities. You fight in an alien beast. You have power ups that beef up your attack power. It also had horizontal, and vertical perspective stages. But to its credit, Abadox has a lot more going for it. The gameplay while still a shooter, has its own feel. Things feel heavier in Abadox. Not so much slower, but heavier. This is partly due to the large characters throughout the game.  Even the smallest, grunt enemies are almost as large as your character. Because of this the game also doesn’t get into bullet hell territory. The game doesn’t need to. One hit from any given weapon can take you down unless you have some sort of power up. Suddenly, dodging 8 lasers, and three pellets goes from not being a big deal, to a pretty big challenge.

The story of Abadox isn’t a very complicated one, and doesn’t need to be. You play one of the few survivors of a planet that was eaten by an interstellar creature that is one part Galactus, and one part Death Star. You learn that your world’s Princess (Now a Queen) has survived, and is trapped in the bowels of the monster. So you take a page from Man-At-Arms, and go into the belly of the beast to free the monarch, and destroy the creature so it can’t digest another world.

The game starts with you skimming along the surface of the monster, and gets you acclimated to its formula. Each stage is a two-part affair, with each half pitting you against a mini boss. As you plow through enemies, in an attempt to survive there are symbols that join the enemy ranks. Destroying them allows you to collect a power up. Among them are better guns like spread guns, lasers that take down grunts in one hit, and shields that orbit you. There are also temporary invincibility moments if you play your cards right.

Abadox has some of the best visuals of any game on the NES. Every character in the game has intricate details, and many of the stage backgrounds are even animated. Years later, seeing the backgrounds of flesh contracting, and expanding as muscle spasms will impress you. Not only that but everything is memorable. Especially the boss encounters, some of which can even take up most of the screen. Also memorable is most of the game’s soundtrack. Composed by Kiyohiro Sada, many of these songs are catchy, and fit the action perfectly.

Abadox isn’t a particularly long game. It’s only seven stages long, but is still in line with most shmups of the time. It is also notoriously difficult, but in a good way. When you die you’ll often chalk it up to your own ineptitude. But if you have the patience to learn from your mistakes you’ll find a very good game that is both cruel, and fair. The game also has cheat codes for those who can’t seem to persevere. Though it’s recommended you do persevere because winning legitimately here feels very rewarding. Just know that even after you win it isn’t over. Because the game has a challenge that might just require you to break out the bullet hell skills if you manage to rescue your fearless leader.

Even if the genre isn’t your cup of tea, Abadox is highly recommended. It’s easily one of the best Game Paks available for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The game controls responsively, dishes out a lot of pattern memorization, as well as require the hand & eye coordination needed for the genre. It is certainly a challenge, but not impossible. That isn’t to say it’s all roses. The large sprites lead to slowdown in a number of places in the campaign. Playing for long periods as you try, and fail, can feel understandably repetitive.  Still, despite being mentioned by some of the more prominent bloggers, and internet video producers over the last few years, as of this writing it hasn’t skyrocketed in price yet. The game can be had for a few dollars loose. Not a bad proposition considering what the aftermarket values are with a lot of other shmups.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

SiN Retrospective Part 1: SiN Review

Originally released in 1998, Ritual Entertainment developed SiN from humble, literal in-house beginnings. It follows the story of HardCORPS police officer John Blade. As well as hacker JC Armack (A play on id software founder John Carmack’s name), and the nefarious plots by SinTek. A mega pharmaceutical company run by a voluptuous, and sultry mad scientist named Elexis Sinclaire.

PROS: Huge environments. Solid mechanics. Multiple paths.

CONS: Blocky graphics haven’t aged well. Later levels aren’t as interesting.

CHEESE: It has a lot of the fun, direct to video movies of the 1990’s have.

The game runs on id software’s Quake II engine. To go back to it today admittedly will have you wondering how games from the era could have impressed us so much. But if you can allow yourself to get past the blocky, low poly look of the characters, and 16 bit textures you will find a lot to like. Levels are huge, and intricate. There are branching paths ensuring you can complete the stages different ways, and enter following levels in different areas. Character designs are fairly original with only a few fairly generic ones crawling out toward the end. There are a lot of fun weapons, some cool boss fights, and even a vehicle section or two. Bottom line there is a lot to like.

Seeing how I’m doing this review as a retrospective, I’m doing something a little bit different. I’ll be going over the storyline. Broadly mind you, but there will be a number of spoilers. The game is also a retro game at this point so for a lot of people it shouldn’t be that big a deal. Nevertheless, there will be spoilers.

SiN opens up with the main character. Blade on a police chopper flying in to thwart what appears to be your typical bank robbery. As Blade you will have to gun down a bunch of low-level grunts, (Some of whom are dressed like ninjas with machine guns) to infiltrate a bank. It is right out the gate you will see Ritual made great use of the engine to do in-game cut scenes leaving pre-rendered CGI cut scenes for the very beginning, and end of the game. After making short work of these criminals you’ll get out of the chopper, and fight your way through the bank to get to the vault.

When you get to the vault you’ll be introduced to Vincent Mancini. Mancini is behind this elaborate heist, and has drilled under the bank for an escape route. As you pursue him, you’ll find yourself going through abandoned buildings filled with more henchmen. A short time later you will be introduced to Elexis Sinclaire in another in-game cut scene. She meets up with Mancini on the roof of a building, and argues with him. It turns out that all she had hired the mob to do at the bank was steal a safe deposit box, but instead Mancini had gone all out with a full-scale heist. Here we see Mancini is your typical idiot lackey type henchman. Sort of the Beast Man to her Skeletor. Or the Star Scream to her Megatron.

Anyway, Elexis injects him with something before flying off in a chopper because now her corporation can be tied to the robbery. As Blade you’ll follow on through a construction area eventually leading to a Subway. At the end of this subway level you meet up with a huge mutant monster in a battle that will remind you of the final boss of Resident Evil 2. He crashes through the roof of the train, then darts off after being severely damaged. When the train reaches it’s destination, the mutant returns, and you have to gun him down. This boss takes a TON of punishment. But when you finally beat him, the next cut scenes show HardCORPS taking in the body, and discovering the mutant monster was actually Vincent Mancini. The autopsy also shows signs of a lethal new street drug called U4 in his system, and that SinTek labs is known for making components to it.

The next stage will have you infiltrate SinTek’s lab division. This mission is one of the hardest in the game because you have to be very stealthy. There are a bunch of worker characters like scientists, receptionists, and other low-level drones you aren’t allowed to shoot. If you do, someone will hear it, and pull the alarms. If this happens there will be a horde of spider robots with chain guns swarming you. Plus turrets on nearly every ceiling gunning you down. Your only hope of beating this stage is to sneak up on the low-level characters, and punch them in the back so they can’t trip the alarms. You also have to do this away from security cameras, and you have to find hidden paths like one of the air ducts (You jump into off of a ceiling fan in the break room) to do it. At one point you even need to steal a yellow jumpsuit, and key card to advance.

By this point it should also be obvious that the game retains the “Get the key” aspect of games of the time. So expect to find yourself not only shooting down bad guys, but also looking for keys. However, the branching paths of the stages also lessen this, because if you know where to go you can avoid some (Though not all) of the key cards. That said, it never seems to reach the level of the old DOOM games where you needed them constantly. Here it’s much closer to Goldeneye 007 on the N64.

When you do get the key you’ll get on an elevator, to go underneath the lab, and it is here you first learn about their plan with drugs. You have to sneak around the labs until finally you find this one head scientist who has the key to get further. Up until now the only major environmental action you’ve had other than blowing up background objects is one bank vault password on a computer. But here you will have to log into a system, and turn off a fan. Run through the fan tunnel before it comes back on. Turn on another terminal to unlock doors. Turn on another terminal to get a scientists’ password for another terminal. And there is another terminal that opens up a lab so you can grab a U4 sample. After getting that sample there is another computer that controls a U4 scanner that you will have to jack into so that JC can read the data for your case. After all of that you have to escape the lab through an underground sewage pipe, and make your way to a warehouse.

In the warehouse you find out that Elexis is planning to poison the water supply with this U4 which will do to everyone what she did to Mancini. You also find out after going through this warehouse that she has a SECOND lab under the warehouse designing cyborgs much like the Strogg from Quake II. Much like everything else out of B movies in this story she wants to take over the world. (Though one wonders just how much money her company will have left after all of this elaborate spending. When they’re not wondering how she’s managed to keep all of this stuff a secret.)

After a hard-fought battle through these labs fighting off hordes of enemies you do catch up with Elexis who taunts you before unleashing two NEW types of cyborg killers. These are easier to take down than the mutant Mancini boss, but you do have to keep circle strafing, and sidestepping to stay alive.

I should have probably mentioned this earlier in the review but you don’t just walk over things in this game to get them, you actually have to press a button (Default is E) to pick them up. Some of the items you press a second button (Usually ENTER) to use them. In any event hopefully you’ve figured this out by now. In all likelihood you probably have. After you beat these bosses it still isn’t over because you’ll have to get outside to call a chopper to a pad which of course, is guarded.

The next stage will have you doing A SEWER LEVEL. But I have to be honest, the sewer stage in SiN is actually pretty well done, and is fun thanks again to branching paths. Also helping is the fact that it doesn’t sport the usual “Sewer” enemies although there are mice. (Brief tangent, this game has TONS of mice in it if you’re willing to look straight down when you take seemingly random -1 damage)

When you do manage to get through the end of this you’ll find yourself at the Dam where you will have to find your way down to a secret bunker to stop SinTek from poisoning the water supply.

When you do, you will find it was all for naught.

Why is this? Because Elexis Sinclaire has more dough, and parallel plot points than Dr. Wily, and every one of James Bond’s adversaries combined. While you were busy making the water line safe, she was out hijacking nukes, and taking them to her secret uncharted island base.

From this point JC sends you out to an oil rig owned by SinTek. After quietly coming up on a raft, and sniping some guards you begin your next quasi stealth mission. Elexis lands on the top of the rig with her helicopter, and tells everyone to kill you. So of course now you have to sneak to the top, blowing away everyone you see to get to her. Really everyone. Big guys with wrenches, more ninjas with tank guns, even a few of those cyborgs show up. This is one of the most fun stages in SiN due to the variety of enemies, and the various ways to the top you can go. When you get to the top you will actually be going down, because the elevator leads to another shipping area where SinTek is moving cases of stuff to the island. After dispatching guards, and getting a few more key cards, you flood the undersea base, and follow the shipments out to sea. In the sea you will have even more new enemy types like underwater deep-sea divers with harpoons, and giant blue crocodile/fish hybrids. Beating this stage is less about gunning down baddies, and more about finding air bubbles so you don’t drown. Also avoiding falling rocks, and spikes. It seems like there’s always something falling on you.

Finally you get to the end of the stage, and onto Sinclaire’s island. Here you have to fight your way to the top of a mountain. There are not only SinTek mercenaries to worry about, but you also have to re-battle some of the monsters like the one Mancini turned into. Getting up to the top you’ll drive a jeep through a section of enemies to a lab. Sadly this is the one section where the controls are HORRIBLE.

You can’t steer very lightly, it’s mainly hard left or right turns. So to get to the top you’ll be letting off the gas, turning, then gassing again. Thankfully it’s a very small part of the overall game. But it is a nuisance.

When you do make it to the top, and slay the last few bad guys though, Elexis captures you, and injects you with U4. What follows is the most difficult, and strange area of the game.

“Area 57” as Elexis calls it has you in the role of the mutant. Clawing is your only weapon, and you can jump slightly higher. You also have to do things just the right way or you have to start over. For instance, if you kill the mechs you can’t get into the pipes to get to the areas you need to go. Doors permanently close behind you so you have to make sure you did everything properly before going through one. Do the stage properly, and you’ll find the antidote to U4, allowing you to go back to being human. After this trial, and error exercise Blade will find himself in a really bizarre area with guys in sacrificial coats, and doing experiments on mutants, and chunks of flesh. When you finally escape this area you interrupt Elexis who is in the midst of a meeting with villainous characters.

She goes on about how she stole her father’s research, and through these twisted experiments she hopes to use her drugs to create the ultimate being. In doing so she can use them to enslave the world, and rule it. Blade crashes the party, and even stops the nuke from being launched.

Only to have her capture him again.

This time though instead of being turned into a mutant monster, Elexis decides to throw you into a giant feeding ground for what has to be the biggest monster boss since the Cyber Demon from DOOM.

This thing is HUGE, and takes a TON of punishment. Even if you found all of the hidden super weapon parts throughout the game (Yeah I forgot to mention that before) it is still going to be a hard fight.

Where as the Cyber Demon from DOOM merely required you to duck out behind a pillar between lobbing tons of gunfire, this thing has no pillars to speak of. There are boxes of ammo for your various guns to be found on structures around the ring, but getting them takes some luck because of how many missiles he fires at you. Not only that but the monster taunts you, after it takes so much damage, and then increases it’s attacks. When you finally do take it down you’ll be treated to one of the most tongue in cheek CGI cut scenes in gaming history.

Elexis is in a chair as Blade confronts her. Instead of shooting her, he allows himself to be tempted by her assets just long enough for her to press a teleport button on the chair conveniently between her legs.

Blade does pull the trigger, but not in time, and she beams herself onto an escape rocket.

Back at the station, JC taunts Blade, and the credits roll.

SiN was a long game for its type, and the story while not the deepest was better than a lot of the thin stories back then. There was also a lot of stuff I didn’t get into, like the myriad of hidden secrets. There are a lot of Easter Eggs in the game if you want to take the time to seek them out. Other technical aspects in the game are pretty good here. The AI, and graphics supported realistic (For the time) limb damage. So characters acted different, depending on the situation. Sometimes they would hide. Other times call for back up. Textures on the models changed to reflect ongoing shoot outs. Shot a guy in the head? A hole appeared, and they usually died instantly. Hit a limb? the texture turned to a blood soaked ripped one, and they ran away. Point blank shotgun blast into a bank robber? His entire torso would giblet.

The last real games to do any of this sort of thing were the sequel to this one, and the Solider of Fortune series (Which sadly only really offered giblets after first one, and it’s low-budget second sequel didn’t even give that.). Sure a lot of games let you hack terminals, but in SiN they went as far as making everything a true command line OS prompt (At least in the vein of the game). Some of them let you type in commands besides simply unlocking a door, or entering passwords. The branching paths were also novel because not too many games around then or even since outside of RPGs really offered that sort of thing. It keeps the game from feeling too linear, and it’s something I wish games would go back to.

I also didn’t really talk about the multiplayer, which by this point is pretty moot. Not too many people play it due to the age, and while it is a fun death match game, other arena shooters, and modern multiplayer games have upset it. Still, you may want to check it out if you have yet to play through SiN. There is also the expansion pack Wages of SiN which is comparable to a modern-day DLC bonus episode. In it, Blade has to take down a crime boss who has somehow managed to get ahold of SinTek’s mutant drug technology. It isn’t very long, but it does have a few references to the main campaign.

This game would eventually find its way to Steam, and GoG. Oddly enough the Steam version had some censored textures throughout the game. The game also disappeared from the Steam store front. Though its sequel is still there. Fortunately, if my review has piqued your interest, it is still on GoG. You can also track down the original physical CD-ROM. Just know that there are a number of issues you may have running it on a modern PC. The GoG version is probably your best bet at this point in time if you’re a retro gamer. Still, for collectors, the original game isn’t terribly expensive or rare.

Final Score: 8 out of 10 (Still worth playing many years later)

Sin & Punishment Star Successor Review

Treasure revisited their Sin & Punishment property many years after it appeared on the Nintendo 64. Fans would wait an entire console generation to see what would happen after the events of the first game.

PROS: Everything has been greatly improved.

CONS: High difficulty will turn off some. Co-Op feels like an afterthought.

MERCY: Don’t expect very much of it.

Sin & Punishment Star Successor takes place many years after the events of the Nintendo 64 original. Following the exploits of Isa Jo. The offspring of the original game’s protagonists. It turns out that the world of Sin & Punishment is actually a two-pronged multiverse split across two dimensions, Inner Space, and Outer Space. Within them a multitude of Earths. Inner Space is watched over by deities known as the Creators. The Creators seek to keep peace, and balance in the multiverse. They guide the humans of the Earths to defend themselves. A faction from Outer Space sends a spy under the guise of a human to Inner Space. The spy loses her memory however, and becomes infatuated with Isa. When Isa Jo doesn’t kill her, the Creators send an army called the Nebulox to kill the both of them. And so most of the game you will be playing fugitive.

The game is a rail shooter in the vein of the original. Only things are vastly improved here. Off the bat, you’re going to see the stark contrast in the graphics. This should be expected going from the Nintendo 64 to the Nintendo Wii. Gone are the blocky models, replaced with more detailed models. Stage textures, are also a huge step up. And while the Wii didn’t have the tech of its competition, Sin & Punishment Star Succesor, is still a beautiful game. Six years later it still holds up as one of the best looking games published by Nintendo. The game also runs even more smoothly than its predecessor. Almost no slowdown ever occurs, and everything is quite brisk. But the best improvement the game has over its prequel is the pointer control scheme.

The Wii was often criticized for games that poorly implemented gyroscopic movement. But this game makes the case for them, as moving the cursor is almost as great here, as it is on a mouse. The control layout is also able to be reconfigured. By default you move with the nunchuck’s stick, jump with the C button, and perform dodges with the Z button. You can move the cursor with the Wiimote pointer, and fire away with the B button trigger. Double tapping the trigger performs the melee attack that carries over from the original game. If you absolutely cannot stand to use the Wiimote the game does let you use either a Classic Controller or a Gamecube Controller. These work similarly to the Nintendo 64’s control scheme from the first game. But the accuracy is much better using a pointer. If you can get used to it, I highly recommend you go with it, as it makes aiming much easier.

Speaking of easier, the game also has three difficulty settings. There should be no shame in playing on the easiest setting here. As in the original game, Treasure brought a very high level of challenge. Even with unlimited continues, you can expect to spend a long time on the campaign your first time getting through it. Being an arcade experience, it isn’t a long game. Just like the last time around, a good player can clear it in a short period of time. But for those who don’t have the same level of hand, and eye coordination, it will be a big challenge. Even on the easiest setting. The game has plenty of bullet hell moments especially near the end of the game. Fortunately the game has some well thought out checkpoints to make things fair.

For those who seem to master shmups, and rail shooters though, the added difficulty settings should appease you. These greatly increase the enemies’ strength, numbers, and powers. But without falling into the trap of being cheap. It isn’t a case of simply throwing more at you. It’s done in a way that makes you approach things differently than you would on the lower settings. This allows things to feel fresh for those who plan to replay it a lot. The game also lets you play as either Isa Jo, or Kachi, the recon unit sent by Outer Space. If you play as Kachi your charge shot works a little bit differently. If you meet certain conditions during the campaign you’ll unlock the ability to switch between the characters during the campaign rather than choosing to play as one or the other.  There is an incentive for doing this. Because in order to see the game’s true ending you have to complete the game in that specific mode.

The campaign isn’t going to be as long as the typical console outing, but it is also a bit longer than the arcade games it is inspired by. The game has one especially nice thing about it, and that is its use of seamless camera transitions to change the kind of shooter experience on the fly. One moment you’ll feel like you’re playing a Star Fox game, as you’re riding along a Z-axis plane. But something will happen, and the camera will tilt around turning things into an overhead shooter. Or a horizontal one. Or a vertical one. There is always something new happening when you go through it the first time. Still, some might feel a couple of the stages drag on a little bit longer than they should. But in spite of that, the game doesn’t drag to the point of monotony. You’ll be blasting everything in sight most of the game, and yet it rarely feels old. It’s a fun, if fairly difficult ride with as many scenery changes as the original game has.

Another addition here is the inclusion of a two player mode. A second player can control a second cross hair on the screen, and help take down the hordes of enemies. Oddly enough though, the second player cannot play as an actual character. It takes away from the experience as player 2 can’t really have the same level of complexity going on as the first. In the end it feels tackled on, and it’s a shame as a full-fledged cooperative play through would improve an already great game.

Larger than life bosses are back. They once again require a combination of dexterity, and pattern memorization to defeat. Many of them will take several attempts to defeat when you first encounter them. If, and when you get to the game’s final boss you can expect one of the most stressful challenges you’ve ever seen. On the plus side it will force you to use every ability the game has to offer. On the flip side, it isn’t going to be easy. Again, even on the lowest difficulty setting, you’re going to be met with a very hard fight. But the perseverance is going to be worth it. The soundtrack makes a change too. In this game things veer further into Electronica. House, and Techno tunes thump along to the action while you hear some really great sound effects. Lasers, explosions, voice over, and roaring of the beasts complement each scene. This is especially true during the aforementioned boss encounters. All of it leads to a true sense of dread as many of these encounters are with bosses that have seemingly infinite life bars. Blue. Purple. Navy Blue. Green. Yellow. All before you get to critical red. While you’re trying desperately to win these fights you’ll see your life bar is not only a two color run, but the meter is smaller. Memorizing all of the moves at your disposal, and patterns are two of the biggest keys to victory.

Sin & Punishment II, also had an online leaderboard. With the Nintendo Wi-Fi service gone you won’t be able to use it. It doesn’t really impede the fun factor, but it was a nice feature in that speed runners could have an official record of score, and time. Fortunately for those with capture devices this can be done on streaming services, but that isn’t an option for everyone. Still, for most people it wasn’t a big draw upon release, and it shouldn’t impede your enjoyment of playing it. Sadly Sin & Punishment II, didn’t receive the attention or sales it deserved when it came out. It didn’t take long to see it slowly disappear at retail. It’s a shame because, the game is one of the best rail shooters to have ever seen release. It has all of the hallmarks of the genre, and a compelling, if strange storyline to boot.

These days the game can be found fairly reasonably, but don’t be surprised if it eventually follows the trend of Treasure’s other cult games. Someday it could become a hard to find collectible as more, and more fans discover it. If you stumble upon a copy pick it up. It improves on the original in every way, and is also one of the Wii’s best games. Sin & Punishment Star Successor should be in any shmup or rail shooter fan’s collection. It should also be in any Nintendo collector’s library.

Final Score: 9 out of 10