Tag Archives: Retro

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.

 

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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

Thunder Spirits Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

WeaponLord Review

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

PROS: Beautiful graphics. Deep fighting system. Fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Super Monkey Ball 2 Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10