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The Messenger Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9.5 out of 10

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Thunder Spirits Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

WeaponLord Review

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

PROS: Beautiful graphics. Deep fighting system. Fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Super Monkey Ball 2 Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Holiday gaming gifting for the frugal.

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

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

So let’s have at it!

Digital Games

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

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Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams

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

 

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Ultionus: A Tale Of Petty Revenge

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

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Undertale

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

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

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

The Witcher Series

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

Rocket League

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

Insurgency

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

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

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

Ys series (Most of it)

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

Cities Skylines

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

 

Physical Games

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

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

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

Bloodborne, The Last Of Us Remastered (Best Buy)

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

A plethora of PS4 Deals on Newegg.

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

“What if my friends have an XBOX One?”

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

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Gaming Tchotchkes 

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

Pint Glasses.

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

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

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

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T-Shirts, and Discs

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

Individual Artists

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

Action figures, and other knickknacks 

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

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Retro

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

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

Fighter’s History Review

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It’s been said many times that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. While there is some truth to that old adage, sometimes it isn’t the motivation. In video games a popular idea being copied is nothing new. But sometimes a copied idea will still go in a different direction, and become transformative. Often times this has gone on to create genres. Street Fighter II was one game that had its idea taken, and tweaked time, and time again. Many times, good things came out of this. Mortal Kombat is an obvious example. But there were a number of great fighting games from SNK. World Heroes, Fatal Fury, Art Of Fighting, Samurai Shodown, and King Of Fighters. To name a few.

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But one could also argue Street Fighter built from the basics early karate games like Karate Champ, and World Karate Championship (Known as International Karate in Europe). The point is, that a lot of great games came out of experimenting with Street Fighter II’s rules. Two characters go one on one, until time runs out, or one player knocks the other unconscious. First to do it twice wins. Some did a lot of new things with that setup. Data East on the other hand, did not.

PROS: Graphics. Sound. Play control.

CONS: Not much to stand out from other games in the genre.

CLONES: Ryu, Chun Li, and Zangief doppelgänger fighters unite!

Fighter’s History is one of the more interesting video game clones in history. Because of just how close to Street Fighter II it truly is. The backgrounds may look different, and the soundtrack may be different. But that’s about it.  Nearly everything else in the game is almost identical to Street Fighter II. A couple of the characters are even a stone’s throw from being indiscernible from their Capcom counterparts.

In fact Capcom took Data East to court over the game’s similarities.  Which were acknowledged in the case. But Capcom would eventually lose on the grounds that the core tenants are those of the fighting genre, more so than those of Street Fighter II exclusively. Still, it was an interesting case that I’m sure one with a law degree would be much better adept at writing about.

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Anyway, the game was first released to arcades in 1993, and a year later to the Super NES. Again, the concept is the same as Street Fighter II. Nine fighters enter a tournament to see who will be crowned the best. So you’ll choose your fighter, and go into two out of three round match ups, and hopefully win your way to the top. Once you defeat the other eight characters, you’ll go on to face bosses who are behind the tournament. In Street Fighter games that usually means a mysterious dictator running Shadowloo or some other criminal empire. In King Of Fighters it’s many times Geese Howard. In Mortal Kombat it’s usually a demonic force led by Shao Khan or some other evil bad guy. In this game the mysterious K is Karnov. Yep! The fire-breathing guy with the beer belly you took on an action platforming adventure, or beat up in Bad Dudes is the boss. But before you fight him, you have to beat up a generic clown. A clown so generic, he’s just called Clown. With the other borderline infringement characters here, you’d think they would have attempted Not Joker, or Not Ronald McDonald. But no, you just beat up a clown.

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Be that as it may, Fighter’s History is also one of the better SF II clones of the day because it hearkens so close to the Capcom formula. Hit detection is pretty good, and the move sets work about as well as they do in the actual Street Fighter II games. I’ll give Data East credit in the graphics, and sound department too. Because even though a lot of stuff came blatantly from SF II, there are still moments of originality in it. Namely, the backgrounds. The details in the stages are quite nice. They could have just re-made versions of iconic Street Fighter II locations the way they did with some of the character design. But they didn’t. They made their own, with some of their own original background animations. It’s worth seeing them in action. The characters themselves are animated well, and when the game does give us a character that isn’t cribbed from a competitor, it works nicely. As much, as I harped on fighting a generic clown, and Karnov earlier, they do look pretty cool.

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Fighter’s History also does one thing few other fighters did back then, and that is it adds location damage. If you keep attacking one spot on your opponent, eventually that spot will change, and reward you with more damage. For instance, if you keep hitting the Ryu stand-in in the head, eventually he’ll lose his bandana. At which point subsequent hits will do more damage than they did earlier in the match. This does add a tiny layer of strategy to the basic fighting game rules set out by Street Fighter II. You can also play as the clown, and Karnov through the use of a code.

However, the game still pales in comparison when it comes to balance. Obviously no fighter can ever be 100% even across every one of its characters. But in Street Fighter there are enough pros, and cons to each to make them viable options for different kinds of players. Ryu is a good all around character. Zangief is all about powerful moves at the expense of speed, and energy. Dhalsim is a hit, and run strategists possible choice. Other games in the genre took that aspect of the game to heart more than this game did. Some characters may look the part, but weren’t given the same level of care. As such you have some characters that will dominate most of the roster once they’re placed in an above average player’s hands.

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Still, the game did well enough to get two sequels. The first of which was Fighter’s History Dynamite on the Neo Geo. This game continues the storyline from the original, as Karnov wants to essentially re-match everyone after his loss. The third game was exclusive to the Super Famicom, and came out in 1995. Over the years, the series has been briefly thrust back into the limelight, as SNK Playmore worked out deals to put some of the characters in some of the King Of Fighters entries.

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If you’re a die-hard fighting game fan, or you love curious titles with some historical significance Fighter’s History is worth looking into. It’s a cut above some of the other stuff you’ll find on the Super Nintendo like the awful Street Combat. (Oddly enough, another fighting game curiosity.). But if you’re not, there isn’t a lot of stuff here that will make you choose playing it over the ports of Street Fighter games, Fatal Fury games, or the World Heroes games. Those games offer more balanced rosters, and enough unique things to make you keep coming back. It doesn’t make Fighter’s History a bad game, and collectors may want to find a copy. But as far as its competition goes, a lot of it is superior or different enough to choose over this one. There aren’t even many modes. There’s the arcade ladder, a survival mode, and the quintessential versus mode.  It’s a good curiosity, and preferable to many a bad fighter. But unless fighters are your genre of choice, you’re better off playing the staples from Capcom, SNK, and Midway on the Super NES.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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.

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