Tag Archives: Retro

Super Mario Multiverse: Mario Bros.

 

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Well, the stars have aligned, the time has flown and here we are. The Well-Red Mage invited I as well as a slew of others to take part in the Super Mario Multiverse special crossover event. In it, you’ll see some words about the many, many, MANY games featuring Nintendo’s mustached mascot. Everyone remembers Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and Super Mario 64. But not a lot of people comparably talk about the first major game where his name was in the title.

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Mario Bros. came at a weird time for many of us. It bridged the gap between Mario’s adventures as a construction worker trying to save his girlfriend from a crazed ape and his time as a plumber trying to save royalty from a dragon turtle. And while a lot of people knew about it well in advance of Super Mario Bros. Some people didn’t. In fact, some people still don’t know it’s a thing. Imagine my surprise for instance, when a former coworker tried playing it on the Famiclone handheld I’d brought in for my lunch break one day. He kept trying to jump on the shell creepers and flies to no avail.

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Travel back to 1983 however, and you’ll find there were a few home versions released across several platforms. In Japan, the Famicom obviously got a version. But Hudson Soft also ported the game to the PC-88 computer. Ocean Software would port the game to a slew of computers in the European market including the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. Here in the United States Atari would get the publishing rights and proceeded to release the game for the Atari 2600 and Atari 5200.  The 5200 version is interesting because the console largely used the same components as Atari’s 8-bit computer line, the 400/800, XL (and later under Tramiel) XE. Despite this fact, the 5200, and 400/800 versions were different games. When the XE came out years later, a vastly superior version came out from Atari Corp. which was backward compatible with the 400/800 and XL lines. It makes one wonder why this couldn’t have simply been on the 5200 years earlier.

Atari also published North American computer versions on its Atarisoft label. Most famously for the Commodore 64. Of course, the North American video game market crash was right around the corner. So before long Warner Communications (Warner Media) would sell the home division of Atari to Jack Tramiel, who had been pushed out of Commodore. This version of Atari was called Atari Corp. to differentiate itself from the Arcade division Warner still owned. Which they sold to Midway, who renamed it Atari Games West, folded it back into Midway, and then Midway sold itself to Time Warner. (Warner Media.).

 

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But I almost went on a tangent of coincidence there. We’re talking about Mario Bros. And Atari Corp. would port Mario Bros. to the Atari 7800, and the Atari 400/800/XE. At a time when the NES was already killing it with Super Mario Bros. Though you can also find Mario Bros. on the NES as well. It’s also interesting how the porting rights worked out back then as it often led to computer platforms getting two versions of the same game. In this case, Ocean brought Mario Bros. to European C64 owners while Atari brought Mario Bros. to North American C64 owners.

 

As an aside, there were a bunch of unofficial ports and sequels like Thundersoft’s Mario Bros II, which was more or less a reworking of Mario’s Cement Factory into a bottling plant. You filled cases of bottles and put them on a truck. And if you messed up, the boss would come out of their office and berate the Mario Bros. Thundersoft was mostly known as a group of European code crackers who would give away retail games with the anti-piracy measures removed. But this seems to be the one lone quasi-original thing they did. which they also gave away. It does, of course, use Nintendo’s characters and concept. But it doesn’t seem to have lifted graphics. Many of the other ports and clones of Mario Bros. walked much closer along the line of legality.

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Nintendo itself has also given the game these stealth reissues over the years. As a mini-game in Super Mario Bros. 3 then again as a mini-game in Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga. The port jobs, in general, are pretty good. Save for one or two bad ones, every one of them gets the core concept right. Some even go above and beyond. Atari’s Commodore 64 (as Atarisoft), and Atari 2600 versions are fantastic. Yes. The Atari 2600 version is a great version of Mario Bros. Atari Corp. also re-released it when they brought out the 7800 version which is also an excellent version of Mario Bros. In PAL (European) territories the 2600 re-release came as a red label variant no less, driving completionists just a little bit more crazy as there were already two domestic silver label variants in the wild.

 

Despite, all of the ways that Mario Bros. has been available to play though, a lot of people never checked it out. Particularly, Stateside. There are a few reasons for this, but many hypothesize the North American video game market crash certainly didn’t help. Fewer people were getting games as there was a lot of drivel out there at the time. There were also a lot of consoles out there. Sure most of us remember Atari 2600, Colecovision, and Intellivision. Thanks to the wealth of info out there today many of us wish we had maybe gotten a Vectrex. But ask the average person about an underlooked good system like the Magnavox Odyssey 2, and you’ll get a blank stare. Ask about the Emerson Arcadia 2001 and they may start wondering if you’re from another world. Or on a watchlist.

 

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These days, people worry if a fourth contender tries to enter the console market. Well, back in 1983 there were far more than four video game systems on store shelves. And most of them looked about the same in what they could do. Even the ones that looked better still had very similar games on them. There were also a lot of tiny upstarts throwing whatever they could at the wall to see what would stick.

 

And the home computers were running the same games at a higher fidelity, running their own deeper experiences the consoles didn’t have the features to handle, and they were getting down to similar prices. Before long everything would implode and Mario Bros. was one game that for at least a few people got lost in the shuffle. Some of this was felt in arcades too. While I can remember seeing Donkey Kong, and Donkey Kong Jr. among the machine selection at Chuck E. Cheese, I really only remember seeing Mario Bros. at Riverside Park when the family went to Agawam, MA. on a summer day. (It’s Six Flags New England now.)

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My first experience with the Atari 2600 version was at a friend’s. They had the Atari 2600 Jr. as well as an NES. I had never seen it before. But there it was. And while it isn’t the prettiest version of the game, it nails most of the gameplay down. There are a couple of tiny things missing like the ability to jump on the POW block. But the most important stuff is there. I’d imagine a lot of people’s first experience with a Mario game was Super Mario Bros. if it hadn’t been Donkey Kong. The NES was a juggernaut largely in part because of it. And it’s much more vast, and a more complex game compared to regular Mario Bros. But here’s the thing. Everyone who has played Super Mario Bros. but not Mario Bros. Should play Mario Bros. And before everybody jumps down my throat just hear me out.

First of all, it’s a really fun game. One that has a great sense of risk vs. reward. It’s also quite competitive when you get a second player as Mario and Luigi have to rally to outscore one another. It even can be dastardly when you’re intentionally bumping your opponent into enemies to stay alive longer. But more importantly than that, many of the things you love about Super Mario Bros. began here. Shellcreepers were the forebears to the Koopas. Coins are a big part of both games. and it got the ball rolling on Mario’s platforming style. There will be plenty of times you find yourself in situations where pixel-perfect jumps and timing are the only way to get out of hot water.

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Mario Bros. is also where the earliest series’ jumping physics got started. While not the same as in the Super Mario Bros. trilogy on the NES, they are similar. You can see what that classic bump and jump gameplay was built upon. Most of the Super Mario games feature bonus stages and even those are in Mario Bros. in the form of coin stages. Speaking of coins, they make that familiar sound whenever you collect them. But in Mario Bros.,  you had better get all of them if you want that sweet stack of bonus round points. And Mario Bros. even proves itself a viable stage in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Even more so than Donkey Kong’s 75m stage.

It’s a game that is important on so many levels and is sadly overshadowed by historical factors and future Mario releases. Thankfully, Nintendo often reminds us of this with its presence in newer releases. And there is a slew of ways to play it today. Any number of the aforementioned home ports are out there for collectors to seek out. And you can still get the arcade version on the Nintendo Switch through the e-shop. The Nintendo Online service also includes sone NES and Super NES ROMs you can download at no additional charge. One of those games is the NES port of Mario Bros. So if you own a Switch, and have been considering paying the annual $20 to play against your friends in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe or Splatoon 2, you’ll also be able to check out NES Mario Bros. without having to track down the original Game Pak.

In any case, the next time you find yourself in a conversation about important Super Mario moments, remember that between chasing down a gorilla to save his ex-girlfriend and chasing down a dragon-turtle to save his current one, Mario ran a successful plumbing business with his brother Luigi. And it was during those years he gained the skills he needed to save the Mushroom Kingdom hundreds of times over.

Sydney Hunter & The Curse Of The Mayan Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

SNK 40th Anniversary Collection Review

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These days it seems about any game company that’s been around for over a decade has a collection to sell. It seems like every new device that comes along will be guaranteed to have a version of the Namco Museum or a compilation of Atari classic games on it.  And that isn’t a bad thing. There are a lot of fantastic games from yesteryear, going all the way back to gaming’s infancy. But due to whatever reasons, these collections don’t always come out so great. Sometimes they’re barebones. Sometimes they’re altered for the worst.

PROS: A great selection of classics and a fair number of extra features.

CONS: Some of the games’ controls had to be changed and the compromises aren’t great.

WHY NOT BOTH?: Some titles here come in a couple of versions.

That doesn’t seem to be the case with this one. SNK’s collection is quite good. One thing right away that I appreciated about it is that it takes the focus off of their NEO GEO platform. In the past, SNK has had a number of great NEO GEO compilations. It’s no surprise as it was arguably their most popular platform. But some people often forget SNK has been around for far longer than the NEO GEO and this collection celebrates that fact. Most of the games here are pretty big classics. Particularly in the realm of run n’ gun games and beat ’em ups.

SNK 40th Anniversary Collection gives you some of the more popular arcade games of their time. You get all three of the Ikari Warriors games; Ikari Warriors, Victory Road, Ikari III: The Rescue. You get Guerilla War, P.O.W., and Time Soldiers all of which were known for their 1980’s B Action film influences, and the twin knob shooting action that made many of them famous. They also give you TNK III which was one of the earliest games to do so.

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Other highlights are the inclusions of Athena, Psycho Soldier, Street Smart, and BEAST BLASTER. I was also happy to see that the compilation includes the arcade version of Vanguard, and it even references the Atari 2600 port in it. Strangely enough not by name. But this is where the collection of games goes beyond simply dumping ROMs in an emulator and calling it a day. This game includes multiple versions of many of the games. In the case of Crystalis, you’ll get both the Famicom and NES ROMs. In the case of Ikari Warriors, you’ll get the Arcade version and the NES version. All of the games are emulated very well and most of them will include a variant version be it two localizations or two platform versions.

This is a really nice feature and one I’ve found myself using fairly often. Well except in the case of the Ikari games since given the choice the arcade games are vastly superior to their NES counterparts. Another really nice thing is the game has scans of the different regions arcade fliers, home version box art scans, and more. They also go into some level of depth when talking about the history of each of the games in the collection.

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Frankly, it’s very easy to recommend this one to anyone who grew up with these games in the arcade or newcomers who want to see what came before. Although I do have a few minor complaints about the package that I’ll get to momentarily. Another inclusion that should probably be a prerequisite at this point is the list of visual options. You can enable different borders on the screen, change the aspect ratio, and you can put on filters to simulate a vintage TV or monitor. Digital Eclipse which also did the Mega Man Legacy collection for Capcom, has done great work here as well.

However, there are a couple of things that just didn’t make sense to me. I don’t know why SNK couldn’t mention the Atari 2600 or NES or Famicom in the documentation by name. Especially since you get Crystalis in both NES and Famicom formats here. Plus, with Vanguard being acknowledged prominently on “The biggest console in North America” old geezers like me are going to know the VCS version is referenced while newcomers are going to be left to guess. Not a major problem, but it just seems a bit weird.

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Second, is that some of the styles of a game genre don’t translate well to a d-pad or a thumbstick. And one such style is the light gun, rail shooter. This was true when Operation Wolf was new, it was true when House Of The Dead 2 was all the rage, and it’s true now. SNK brought back Beast Busters here. And I’m glad it’s here because it was an esoteric game I remember playing a lot in the arcades as a kid back in the day. When more popular games were taken up it was one of the ones you and your friends gravitated to because no one was mesmerized by it the way they were by one of the beat ’em up machines at the time. It’s a fun game. One that I was elated to see presented in this collection.

However, it is a light gun game and the movement of your thumbstick or d-pad cursor can never match the movement of your eyes and hand. As such, playing it in this collection is MUCH harder. As of this writing, I see no option to use a mouse with this game on PC or a motion control option on the Switch. These options would have been much better compromises. Even if it meant those versions would be more preferable as a result. Thankfully, you can just keep pouring in credits like you could in the arcade if your pockets were bottomless. But it would have been nice to have a couple of more control options for this one.

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Still, I do like this collection a lot overall. There is a nice range of games you’ll know, others you may not know, and the historical extras are all a nice touch. Some of these games may not have the panache SNK put into their later NEO GEO games, but they are a lot of fun and hold historical significance in the realm of arcade games. As well as versions for Nintendo’s original 8-bit powered juggernaut. Adding ROMs of ports to other platforms of the time would have been even better since players could have compared them and enjoyed their favorites. But I’m sure there are also some licensing and contract concerns that made that unlikely. Still, I enjoy firing it up a lot. Digital Eclipse even gave SNK the treatment they gave Capcom’s Blue Bomber by making the soundtracks of games playable in a separate player.

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It’s a collection that will skew toward the older crowd, but there’s enough here that anyone will find something they’ll enjoy checking out from time to time. Especially anyone who enjoys run n’ guns, shmups, and other arcade staples of the 1980s and 1990s. There’s also the knowledge that many of the characters that debuted in these games would show up in some of the NEO GEO’s biggest franchises. So even fans of The King Of Fighters or Metal Slug may want to look into this one if they haven’t already.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Retro World Expo 2019 recap

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Now in its fifth year, Retro World Expo is slowly growing into one of the best conventions in New England. There are consistently good guests and panels. There are always plenty of things to keep you busy. And there are a lot of vendors with a variety of games, collectibles, and other stuff waiting for you if you’re out to shop.

Some of the layout concerns of previous years appeared to have been taken to heart. Checking into the show was easy. Just like last year, it was easy to follow the line to the window for people who paid ahead of time. Traffic for people paying for entry seemed straightforward as well. Going onto the show floor, everything was more condensed. There were as many vendors, guests, and events as last year, but it was less spaced out. But not so crammed that one couldn’t move.

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Getting there on time was impeded by some road work on Interstate 84 on my way in. So I missed about a half-hour of the morning festivities. This year, the convention moved all of the panels to the afternoon so that actually allowed some of the other events and attractions to shine a bit more.

 

This year Big Bucks Entertainment was back with their fantastic game show recreations. These events are great as Davira is able to get pretty good facsimiles of popular game shows going in a convention setting. This year he brought back Press Your Luck, and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? I caught the Press Your Luck show in the morning, and it featured one of the closest contests I think I’ve seen. The contestants were two guys and an older woman who didn’t really play many games. Her children did. Despite this fact, she managed to get enough questions right in the two rounds to earn a lot of spins. She went on to get a score in the tens of thousands before moving along. At the end of the second round, however, one of the other contestants had no money and only a final spin. They somehow managed to land on a streak of money and free spin combinations to nearly overtake the woman. But they couldn’t quite pull it off.

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Over the course of the contest, they had a charity tie in where audience members would be called upon some spins. If the contestant landed on a prize space the audience member would get a free prize. If they landed on a Whammy, the contestant would not only lose all of their money but the audience members’ prizes as well. Except for two of the audience members who were called up. They were kids, so even though they didn’t win they were given the free prize anyway.  Somehow there was enough time left that three other audience members were able to play a couple of Whammy rounds. This wasn’t as close as the primary round but it was still fun.

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I got in some time with a couple of Coin-ops. I played some Centipede, managing to beat the high score. Sadly, the machine didn’t save my score but Centipede is always a fun arcade game to play. This year the KRULL machine was back and it was in working order! Not only is KRULL a wonderful Sci-Fi action-adventure movie it also saw two licensed video games. One was on the Atari 2600, and the other was this cabinet. It’s a twin-stick shooter that is composed of different waves inspired by scenes from the film. You have to find the pieces to your Glave while avoiding boulders one wave. Then you have to recruit an army in another. Then you have to defend and protect your army in another. and so on and so forth. It’s also brutally difficult. But one of those brutally difficult games you keep putting quarters into because it’s just so cool.

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I browsed around the floor a bit looking to see if I could find anything on my list or any surprises. I actually found one vendor with a lot of random games and toys. While I didn’t find any games, I did see some Masters Of The Universe figures in pretty respectable shape. They were all loose, and most of them were incomplete. But they were selling everything ridiculously cheap. I found a Spikor in excellent shape. He was missing his cudgel but the figure itself had little to no paint wear. When I asked how much they wanted for it they said “Six dollars.” I bought it on the spot. I bumped into “Pixel” Dan Eardley and had a short conversation about MOTU and some gaming. PixelDan had missed last year’s show but was glad to be back out for this fifth show.

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I ran into another YouTuber shortly after that, Rewind Mike! He had come to the show scouring the floor not for games, but for albums. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with him but it was fun checking out a few booths and talking about our lack of luck finding what we were looking for. We also saw my pal TheReNesance! He’s also known as The Gamescape Artist and he is a fantastic painter. He does phenomenal artwork based on iconic scenes from video games past and present. He also does commissions! And he also has a YouTube and Twitch channel where he has footage and live streams of games as well as his work! Be sure to check him out!

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I then hit up PixelDan’s panel. It was an interesting one because he gave us not only a sneak peek of his upcoming Toysplosion episode (a series where he goes over the history of a different toyline each episode.) but he also let everyone in on some details about his upcoming project with Dark Horse Comics! He has helmed a comprehensive guide on all of the past Masters Of The Universe toylines. Masters Of The Universe (1982-1988), Princess Of Power (1985-1987), He-Man (sometimes called New Adventures) (1989-1992), Masters Of The Universe: Commemorative Edition (1999-2001), Masters Of The Universe: Modern Series (often called 200x) (2002-2004), Masters Of The Universe Classics (2008-present) The book won’t include things on upcoming lines or the erroneous merchandise. But it’s being designed to appeal to the casual fan who may remember a few of the toys they owned as children as well as giving hardcore fans a lot of the details they’re looking for. Personally, I can’t wait to check it out because I’ve been waiting for a guide like this for some time. So I hope it does well for Dark Horse and PixelDan. Dark Horse has put out similar books in the past for other properties including Nintendo’s.

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After PixelDan’s panel, I went to the XVGM Radio Panel where Mike Levy and Justin Schneider talked a bit about the differences between the Sega Genesis and Super NES in terms of sound. The Sega Genesis had two chips. Texas Instruments’ SN76489 and a Yamaha YM2612 for backward compatibility with Sega Master System titles. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System had a custom chip; the S-SMP which was made for Nintendo by Sony. The technical differences led to very different sounds. So after going over each sound solution, they compared the same tracks on both consoles, as well as play some of the most notable songs from each. The audience got to vote of course, and the matchups were mostly evenly matched, although there were a few decisive victories too. XVGM Radio is a pretty cool, and informative podcast where they talk about game music and often even get interviews with composers. So definitely check it out.

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I went back down to the main floor after the panel and ran into some other people. Peter Lazarski and Juu Hachi of Imaginary Monsters were at the show. Unlike last year they weren’t there to show off any of their game. They were just there as regular attendees. I saw some of the Cosplay contest with them before looking around the floor some more. There were some upcoming indie games there, however.

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Jumpmen Gaming was back with Sentinel Zero. Except that the game is no longer called Sentinel Zero it’s title has been changed to Cardinal Conclave. It has also changed focus. Instead of being a traditional horizontal Shoot ’em up, it has taken a page from Studio MDHR’s Cuphead by becoming more of a boss rush game. It still utilizes a shmup feel though. You’ll be going over a map much like Cuphead, choosing a stage based on your current level, and going into a boss fight. To be fair, a few of these still have a traditional lead-in where you mow down small enemies before contending with a boss. But for the most part, it’s a boss rush shooter. The game does play much better than the early build from last year and the graphics have been sharpened up nicely. I was informed it has entered Early Access on Steam. Just remember when buying Early Access games you’re buying something that isn’t done. That said, it does look promising.

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There was also an interesting game called Cloak And Dasher by a developer called Spirit Stone Studio. It’s a puzzle-platform game that puts you in the role of a cloaked fellow who can jump and dash. You have to play in these maps that are often a single screen where the object is to escape a maze. Unfortunately for you, there is a smorgasbord of death traps and enemies to contend with. The demo at the show was timed and you had to get through 23 maps before time ran out. You had unlimited lives. And what I saw was honestly quite fun. It has a visual style that is somewhere between Broforce and Super Meat Boy. The comparison is apropos because some of these stages could become pretty difficult. It had elements of several games, Super Meat Boy, Boulder Dash, Mega Man X, and Battle Kid all came to mind as I went through the demo. It too has an Early Access release on Steam.

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Joe Granato was back with NES Maker, and it is now a full-fledged product you can buy. If you didn’t read any of my previous recaps, he has been to a few previous RetroWorldExpo shows with it as it was being made. The utility was made during the progress of an NES game he was making called Mystic Searches. A vintage Action RPG made in the mold of games like The Legend Of Zelda, and Ys. In any event, working in 6502 assembly language and HEX editing was proving exhausting. So he and his team created a GUI mapper program that would let them design their game worlds on their desktop and then the program would convert everything to 6502 (The class of CPU in the NES and a host of other consoles and microcomputers of the 1980s) language. This would vastly speed up the production of their game. But in the process, they found they could also offer the utility they built as a standalone product for budding indie game makers interested in the homebrew scene. NES Maker is that utility. With it, you can make almost anything you want on the NES within reason. Of course, there are limits based on how the team designed the tools. But after only a fairly short time on the market it’s been a success. And there are already a lot of new games being made with it. It even has the ability to flash your games to physical NES Game Paks. So if you’ve ever dreamed of making your own games you can play on an original NES, it might be something you want to look into.

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Another returning studio was Giant Evil Robot who made Mecha-Tokyo Rush. It was an on-rails, auto-scrolling Mega Man clone that took elements of endless runners along for the ride. It seemed like a decent enough game, even with it taking a free-to-play model shortly upon release. However, this new game is a Mega Man clone that could prove to be one of the better ones out there. Star Girl Proxima has none of the endless runner stuff from their previous effort. It also looks a lot nicer, with a much better color palette. The controls in the demo they provided felt somewhere between Mega Man and Mega Man X. It doesn’t have quite the weight of the classic series, but there is a heavier feeling when jumping than in the X series. Your Star Girl can also dash like X, which is good because some of the jumps will require it. That said, it’s still a work in progress and while they said they’re shooting for a 2019 release, the build they showed off still had no proper end to it.

Still, even if it doesn’t make it out this year it is clear it’s already an improvement over their previous game. The demo had several sections where one had to have pixel-perfect timing to get around projectiles as well as one where a giant octopus robot destroyed parts of the scenery as regular enemies attacked you. It was a challenge, yes, but it felt good. About the only complaint, I had with it when asked by the rep was that in the early goings it wasn’t always clear where the backgrounds and foregrounds were. I kept accidentally jumping into pits as a result. They said it was something a few people mentioned so the final product will likely make platforms more obvious. Overall, I was pretty impressed with the demo. Hopefully, it will be indicative of what we can expect from the game at launch.

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As the first day winded down and the main floor closed it was time to get some food. My friends from Imaginary Monsters are also fans of Craft Beer like me. So we ended up going to City Steam Brewery which is a short walk from the Hartford Convention Center. Last year they picked up a new brewmaster who has been making a number of new and sometimes experimental beers. The three of us each ordered a flight, and the one interesting thing we all decided to try was their new sour beer. It’s called Our Princess Is In Another Castle. It’s made with peaches and jalapenos and it’s amazing. When they brought over the flights we could smell the peppers from the glasses. The spiciness from the jalapenos balances with the sweetness of the peaches really well. And while it isn’t a particularly potent beer, it is light, crisp, and delicious. The food there has also been very good. No place is perfect. But I have yet to have a bad experience. I was a little bit disappointed to see their menu has been simplified, but the quality of the meals were as good as ever. I had a Bratwurst to go with my Oktoberfest, Sour, IPA, and Porter flight. Then I ended up getting a pint of Our Princess Is In Another Castle. Peter got the Nachos, and as you can see in the image, he got his money’s worth. I ended up getting a growler of the Sour because it was that impressive. And I’m someone who generally prefers IPAs or Stouts.

After getting food we headed back to the convention center and caught the tail end of the afterparty. There’s about an hour-long lull after the day ends and then they put on an event where you can drink, listen to live music, and more. Falconeer was finishing up a set of Neo New Wave dance tracks. I proceeded to get destroyed by my buddy Aldo at a Street Fighter II arcade cab. (It wasn’t entirely my fault. The buttons were messed up.) while it was going on. And then I competed with Imaginary Monsters for a high score on After Burner. After that, I would see Mike Levy take on Aldo in broken Street Fighter II, and also lose. But it was still fun. Davira from Big Bucks Entertainment had also been running Celebrity Press Your Luck with some of the guests as contestants but unfortunately, I didn’t get back from the brewery in time to catch that.

With that, the first night ended, and I made the hour trek home. I caught some of my pal Sirhcman’s Livestream of Jackbox Party and then went to sleep. The next day, I would return for day two.

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Day two was considerably shorter but it was still packed with some interesting things. FRAG was there this year again, and they organized the various tournaments during the show. There were the fighting game tournaments, and such that you would expect. But there was also a retro game competition where you had to play each of the old school games set up, and they would record your scores. You could replay all you wanted in order to replace your scores with higher ones until the qualifying time was over. The top six would go on to do an entirely new set of challenges with the winner of that tournament round receiving a $100 credit they could use at any of the vendors at the show! It was a pretty cool idea, so I took a stab at it. While I did alright on a couple of the challenges, some of the games on the list I was just terrible at playing. On top of this, they used the NES version of Q*Bert which while not quite as awful as some would have you believe, is still tough to master thanks to the confusing control scheme options in it. Why couldn’t Konami just go with the diamond layout Parker Bros. did on their Atari 2600 port? But I’ve begun to ramble. The game selection honestly, was pretty good. There were scoring and speed run challenges on games like Mappy, Super Hang-On, Warioware, Spelunker, Super Mario 64, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater II, and several others. Of course, what drew me into the whole thing was spying an Atari 2600 running Kaboom! I managed to get a respectable 1,255 points in the game. And while that may sound low believe me when I say that most people have a tough time getting more than 300 points. Kaboom! is quite the challenge.

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Anyway, I obviously didn’t even qualify to make the top six player bracket. But I did have fun making the attempt even if it proved feeble. But at this point, I realized I was running late to check out any of the panels. So I managed to get into Pam D’s panel. She does a YouTube show  Cannot Be Tamed. She was showing off some footage for an upcoming video that I won’t spoil here, followed by some Q & A. Some of the discussions were about giving games a second chance, finding comparable features between two very different games made by the same company, and the perception some have about video games being for males despite the fact that women and girls have been gaming since video games have existed. Definitely an insightful, and engaging panel.

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I managed to catch the last couple of minutes of Joe Granato’s panel. He was going over some of the details of NES Maker I talked about earlier. One interesting thing that came up was when someone asked about the most difficult part of making things for the NES. He talked about how the NES’ limited RAM meant that he had to code a Bank Switching routine so that information or content could be swapped into memory at just the right time. Otherwise, things would exceed the memory limits and crash. He talked about how despite the limitations of the utility, people have already done things with it he didn’t think would be possible. Graphical effects like Parallax Scrolling was one example. Another was a complete text adventure.

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After his panel ended, Mike Stulir VP of the American Classic Arcade Museum had a panel going over the history of the ACAM and an overview of what they do. A labor of love, it’s a non-profit that tries to salvage, save, and even restore vintage arcade games so that future generations can experience the history of the arcade business. One of the more fascinating aspects of this is how involved restoring some of these machines can be. He talked about how they received an incredibly rare Death Race 2000 machine. It was produced by Exidy and was one of the first games that ignited the video game violence controversy. Inspired by the Death Race movie, the internal name was called Pedestrian, and the goal of the game was to score points by running over people with your car. Even though games of the time had graphics composed of simple shapes the concept started an uproar and the game would fade into obscurity.

Unfortunately, the cabinet they received had come from a basement that had flooded and it wasn’t up on a pallet when it did. So the particleboard Exidy used had rotted, and parts of the cabinet were falling off. Moreover, the side panel was even split in half so the structural integrity was unsalvageable. But the game’s motherboard, chips, and every piece of electronics were fine. So they were able to create a template from the cabinet parts, and reproduce a proper cabinet out of plywood. But the other problem was the screen printing on the old plywood wasn’t something easily created. They had to send the old plywood to a company in Florida who would scan it into their software and then ship them new decals. They also had to fly in a specialist from the Pacific Northwest to properly apply them.

Of course, all of this stuff costs money, and being a non-profit run by volunteers they depend on donations to keep the venture going. If that sounds like something you can afford to contribute to you can go right to their website to find out how. I got to ask Mr. Stulir about how restoration may affect the value of these machines as in other collectibles and antique markets things will plummet when there aren’t all original parts there. He said that they don’t like having to restore cabinets in the manner they saved their Death Race machine. But in cases like that one, they have to decide if keeping a machine playable is more beneficial than retaining every last original part. Usually, they prefer to find new old stock or take good parts from another otherwise unsalvagable machine to fix a broken machine with. With Death Race having so few still remaining, keeping the machine alive was a better fit so that visitors can still experience the game.

But that was just the introduction. The rest of the panel was devoted to the life of Ralph Baer. Most people know he was the inventor of the Magnavox Odyssey and that pretty much everything we love about video games can be traced back to his work. But did you know his family barely escaped Germany in the lead up to World War II, emigrated to the USA, and that he’d be drafted to fight in the war effort? He thought of a lot of ideas that wouldn’t be realized until decades later by others. Like the ability to use a modem to buy things off of an infomercial or remote classes where a viewer could interact with a teacher’s lesson from home. And of course, before the Odyssey became a reality his Brown Box would lay the groundwork in 1968.

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The last panel was the Connecticut YouTuber Panel. So Mike Levy (DYHPTG), Russ Lyman, Culture Dog, and Paul of Retro Gaming Arts returned from last year. New this year were Dan and Nick of The Best Spuds. As well as Geeky Panda who I met on the floor last year. And Steven Christina Jr. of Super Retro Throwback was also featured! He interviewed me at last year’s show. Each of the guests briefly went over their channels and played their respective trailers. They also took a moment to talk about RAX The Great’s channel. He was originally slated to return to RetroWorldExpo this year but had gotten a bad head cold and was unable to attend. All of the panelists talked about their various setups involved in making their content. They also reminded the audience that like any creative endeavor, go into making internet videos out of passion. None of the panelists made much money doing YouTube if any. There were some humorous moments in the panel too with some slight references to each other’s respective shows.

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With the final panel over with it was time to leave the Hartford Convention Center and make the hour-long trek home. The show is becoming one of my favorite things to look forward to every year. I get to see people I don’t get to be around very often due to life, and work schedules. I get to geek out with fellow video game fans, and in a way, it feels like you’re going home.  And there’s a ton of stuff I didn’t even get to take part in because it’s impossible to see everything. There were the tournaments, there were a few guests I didn’t get the chance to see or see again. Game Dave was there, Adam and Shane of Rerez were there, Jay Hunter of the Game Chasers came back, Stop Skeletons From Fighting was there, there were bands like RF Switch playing sets.  I’m missing a bunch more, there is just so much going on. And it all feels very community-driven where some of the larger shows are more about seeing new games or media six to twelve months before it comes out.  I could complain about not finding much to buy, but honestly, that’s more on me for having found much of what I wanted anyway. And between the final two panels I attended I did end up going back to the vendor, I found Spikor from and it turned out he had a Fisto with the armor and sword included for $15. So two MOTU figures in great shape are still pretty good. Here’s hoping a sixth RetroWorldExpo continues the tradition.

 

Empire Game Expo Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OLD SKOOL AV to HDMI Converter Review

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

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

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

CONS: There aren’t many advanced features.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Pass Or Play with Russ Lyman

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

Battle Princess Madelyn Review

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

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

CONS: Bugs, minor collision detection issues. Inconsistencies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10

The Messenger Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9.5 out of 10