Tag Archives: Sega Master System

Black Belt Review

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Throughout the history of video games, we’ve seen many cases where the same game can look markedly different between regions of the world. Probotector is one of the most memorable of these, as censorship in Germany saw Konami replace the soldiers in Contra with robots. Other than that, same game. Probotector was released in its robot, and non robot state throughout Europe on many computers as Gryzor.  But there are countless other examples. Today’s game was originally an anime tie-in.

PROS: Cool sprite effects. Solid controls.

CONS: Strange changes.  Poorer artwork than the alternate game.

LAZY: The box art. At least draw an entire character!

Hokuto No Ken, (more famously known as Fist Of The North Star) is one of the most recognized anime franchises of all time. But it wasn’t always so. Centering around a warrior in a post-apocalyptic future, it was widely known in Japan. It started life as a manga, and was later adapted into an anime. When anime became huge in the US in the 90’s it was one of the most popular shows newcomers gravitated to.  But in the early 1980’s it never officially came stateside. Only the most die-hard American anime fans knew about importing shows. Beyond that, the handful of shows we did get, were heavily cut, edited, or combined with other shows to make new shows.

Anyway, in Japan Fist Of The North Star would see a few releases across multiple platforms. It wasn’t until 1989 when we would see an official game by Taxan on the NES. But, believe it or not, we did see one before 1989. We would see Sega bring us a Fist Of The North Star game in 1986 on the Sega Master System. Albeit without the license intact.  In Japan it would retain all of the likenesses to the show it was based on. But since we wouldn’t get the show until 1989, Sega reasoned we wouldn’t know what was going on. Which is weird considering we got Zillion in all of its anime glory a year later.

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Be that as it may, they gave us the game under the alternate title Black Belt. Black Belt is the exact same game, except that nearly every piece of artwork has been altered, or replaced. Enemies. Background art. Our main character. The bosses. Everything. But this is still something you may want to check out. Whether you’re a fan of Hokuto No Ken or not.

Black Belt is a lot like early beat ’em ups like Irem’s Kung Fu Master. You’ll move in one direction killing, or avoiding enemies until you get to the end. What makes the game a bit different is the addition of mini bosses, bosses, and some violent imagery to boot. Granted, the original version is darker. But Black Belt’s grunts still explode when punched in the face, or kicked in the stomach.

So you’ll continue along blowing people up, and occasionally super jumping into the air to catch sushi, and kanji symbols for health. Every so often you’ll come across a mini boss. These guys are 1 on 1 match ups, that rely on memorizing patterns to win. Start going at them all fists blazing, and you’ll probably lose a life. But taking some time to learn when to strike will make these fights more manageable. A couple of stages have several mini boss fights in them. After defeating them, you will continue fighting waves of  grunts until you reach the boss.

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Boss fights change the game play a bit. The perspective in these matches is zoomed in, so the action resembles a tournament fighting game rather than a brawler. Just like the mini boss fights, each of these has a bit of a pattern to figure out. Boss fights are a bit harder though, because they won’t always use the same attacks in the same sequence. So there is a bigger importance on patience. Some runs through the game, you may take down a boss quickly, but other times you’ll be doing a lot of hit, and run tactics. Keep in mind that you’re also on a time limit too, so you’ll have to work smart.

Visually Black Belt isn’t half bad most of the time. Backgrounds are bright, colorful, and detailed. Most of the standard enemy characters have really cool designs too. The mini bosses are pretty awesome most of the time, with only a couple of them getting rather silly. The Bosses are a different matter. All of them pale in comparison to their Japanese counterparts. Garish, and corny these guys are some of the silliest bad guys you’ll ever see in a game. Things fare better on the musical front with some honestly catchy chip tune melodies in the soundtrack. Not all of it is great, some of it is banal background noise. But when the music is good, it’s good.

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It’s a short 5 stage run, but it controls well through it all. I still recommend using a Genesis pad or the Sega Control Stick over the stock Control Pad. Everything feels pretty solid, and responsive. The stock controller will sometimes have you going in the wrong direction or crouching when you don’t want to due to the mushy directional pad. But not often enough to ruin the experience either.

Even though the shift to generic characters, and backgrounds makes for a less exciting environment, Black Belt is still one of the better early brawlers. It manages to be interesting even though it looks uninspired. There isn’t much of a story outside of rescuing your girlfriend from a street gang. The usual B movie plot device of most brawlers. Be that as it may, if you’re collecting for the Master System, pick it up. It’s inexpensive, and has an interesting history behind it. Especially if you’re a fan of the anime that inspired its original Japanese release.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Sega Control Stick Review

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So you’ve got your Sega Master System, or Power Base Converter for your Genesis. You’re all set to play some Alien Syndrome or Penguin Land using your Genesis game pad. Because that mushy directional square on the Master System controller just doesn’t work as nicely. But wait! For some weird mapping reason, these games just don’t respond to your Genesis pad. You look online to see that you can clip one wire inside to make it work, but this will relegate your Genesis pad to Master System status forever! Fear not! There are other ways!

PROS: Pretty sturdy construction. More responsive in many games.

CONS: Left handed layout may take getting used to. Not as responsive in some games.

ADVANTAGE: Hard to say. But not going to look as nice as the NES Advantage.

If you’re upset with the performance level of the stock Master System controller you’re not alone. It’s serviceable, but in some games, the mushy pad makes you go down when you meant to go right. Or on a northern arc, when you thought you were pressing left. Sometimes a direct line of movement simply doesn’t happen when it should. Many collectors use a Sega Genesis pad. This works in most games, but there are a handful that don’t work with a never modified Genesis controller. Modifying one also kills the compatibility with the Genesis in the process. To avoid that, some have even gone as far as paying for custom controllers. While this is a wonderful option one can take advantage of, it’s usually pretty expensive. Not everyone collecting 8-bit Sega stuff can invest in one.

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Enter Sega’s Control Stick! It’s an arcade style joystick for the Master System, originally released in 1987. Right away, you’ll notice it has a sturdy build. It doesn’t feel flimsy in any regard at all. The base is nice, and hefty. The 1, and 2 buttons feel pretty good, and responsive.  The stick itself is also pretty solid. Everything goes the way it is supposed to, and it has a knob molded  like the shift stick on the Outrun arcade cabinet.

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In terms of build, this is pretty good, and may be something you’ll want to track down. I put it through the paces with a bunch of games. Alien Syndrome benefited greatly from the Control Stick. It was much easier to get going on direct paths, with far less accidental diagonal runs into enemies. The Control Stick also worked very well with Space Harrier, and After Burner. Moving around was very simple, and shooting things down went very well. It doesn’t replicate the arcade experience, but it is a bit better than playing with the stock pad. I also had a pretty good experience playing R-Type with it.

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Unfortunately not every game is well suited to the Control Stick. Double Dragon was still much easier to play with the Control Pad, as getting the two buttons down to jump kick was more accessible. Shinobi wasn’t any worse, but it also wasn’t what I would call better. Golden Axe was better in some regards, like pulling off the shoulder block. But in others it was worse, like trying to control the beast mounts. So really you don’t need to go beyond the Control Pad for either of those games. Platformers like Alex Kidd in Miracle World, and Psycho Fox also felt easier to play on the Control Pad, rather than the Control Stick.

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One point of contention some may have with the Control Stick is that it’s set in a left-handed orientation. I personally didn’t have any trouble adjusting to it, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily won’t. That being said, I don’t think it will be a major issue for most players. The Control Stick is also shaped in a way that you really can’t sit on the floor with one. You’ll either have to lie on the floor, or sit at the coffee table to use it. As solid as the base is, it can be easy to knock over due to the small size. It is also no frills, offering no extras, like turbo buttons, or other functions.

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Despite its faults I’d still recommend getting a Control Stick. Especially if you’re someone who loves playing Sega’s arcade shooter ports, or any of the Master System’s shmups. You can play other games with it for the most part, but it’ll be a mixed bag. Some games fare better, a few worse, and many not all that different. It’s also worth picking up for the handful of cartridges that won’t work with an unmodified Sega Genesis controller. This way you don’t have to break compatibility with your Genesis by modifying the controller. It’s also a curious piece to add to your SMS collection.

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The fact it also uses a stock DB9 connector means that it is also a great joystick for the Atari 2600, or Commodore 64. If you’re a retro games collector, you may have either of these in your collection. The Sega Control Stick has some versatility for you in this situation. It may not be the absolute best controller around, but it is a very good one worth owning. Particularly if you love Sega Master System shooters, or own multiple platforms from gaming’s early days.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Alien Syndrome Review

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Throughout the 1980’s Sega was making its mark in arcades. It pushed what was possible in racing games, and rail shooters with Outrun, Space Harrier, and After Burner. It gave us the awesome Golden Axe, and the visually impressive Altered Beast. Unsurprisingly many of these games were ported to its own consoles, the Master System, and the Genesis. But there is one of their IPs that came, and went in this period. Something so familiar, and so different. Something so difficult, and yet addictive. I’m talking about Alien Syndrome.

PROS: Great visuals, atmosphere, music, and control (most versions).

CONS: Obscenely difficult. Dark Souls difficult. In deep space.

ALIENS: One of many blockbuster influences that can be seen here.

At its core, Alien Syndrome seems like a typical overhead shooter. You move either Ricky or Mary, depending on which player you are. As you go along, you kill various creatures for big points. But it isn’t so simple. Where previous overhead run n’ guns like Commando, or Ikari Warriors had you kill enemies, and charge to the end of a linear level, this doesn’t. Alien Syndrome is unrelenting about its premise. Your mission isn’t a simple matter of killing things, and getting to the end. Each stage is a ship, and on each of these ships are a number of survivors you have to rescue. Not only do you have to rescue these survivors, (who are stuck in cocoons the way the ones in Aliens were portrayed) you’re timed. Because each ship has initiated a self-destruct sequence a la Captain Kirk.

 

This is to ensure that the menacing invaders cannot make it to Earth in the event you fail your mission. Also because each stage is a ship, there are no straight runs to the north. Instead, each of the stages is a maze, with its own distinct layout. So you have to explore every last nook, and cranny looking for survivors. The survivors are represented by a row of heads. As you rescue them, they’re depleted from the bar. If things get tough, or confusing (which they will) each of the ships have a few maps. Finding these on the wall will pull up a map on  the screen. On the map are flashing pixels, that represent the survivors.

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Once you find all of the hostages, the game will prompt you to get to the exit so you can escape. But in each of the airlocks is a boss alien. These are large, and diverse. Each of them is imposing. Each of them has a powerful attack, and the later bosses employ some very tricky patterns. The bosses all look really cool too. For a title that has fallen into obscurity, it has some of the most memorable bosses in arcade game history. Even the very first boss, is the sort of thing you’ll wish were made into an action figure or statue. These designs are that good.

But, run n’ gun games are often only as exciting as their weaponry, and enemies. Alien Syndrome has a great many of each. Again, taking influence from the Alien movies, there are flame throwers, fire-ball guns, and grenade launchers. But there are others, like the blaster that shoots laser beams like the Imperial blasters in Star Wars. There are also temporary shields, and chess pieces you can find for points.

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How do you get these things? There are cubby holes on walls, marked with the appropriate letter for the weapon. For example L is the laser. The enemies are also varied throughout the game. In earlier stages you’ll fight brain slug creatures, but you’ll see everything from aliens to creatures that shoot their eyes as projectiles. Quite honestly, everything on display is really cool. Every ship has its own decor. So you won’t see a lot of the same tiles in subsequent levels. Some of the ships are what you would expect to see in a space-themed game. Steel floors, technical circuitry patterns for walls, and other touches. But other stages are completely alien (no pun intended.). Some ships seem like they’re made of flesh, others are like stone. Many of the stages have some really cool parallax scrolling effects on floors to represent pits or other pitfalls. And fall you will if you walk over them.

Alien Syndrome is quite the challenge too, because there isn’t a single moment where you aren’t attacked by a horde of aliens. You have to be quick on the draw, as well as quick to react. Dodging projectiles, enemy creatures, while trying to rescue people at the same time. The difficulty especially ramps up after the first stage, and the bosses will often hand you your own behind on a silver platter. There are also no continues, making your performance all the more important. It really does give you the visceral action of the genre, while providing other challenges.

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There are many ways to play Alien Syndrome as it was ported to a lot of platforms. Interestingly enough, the ports to Sega’s own Master System, and Game Gear resulted to almost entirely new games. The scrolling is gone. Instead things work on an almost flip-screen mechanic, only scrolling when reaching the end of the screen in a Castlevania door style transition. The other major changes are almost entirely different maps, and new bosses. The core concept is the same, and it retains the songs from the arcade machine. But these changes make for arguably the worst version of the game. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t play Alien Syndrome on the Master System. It is still a pretty good iteration. It’s brisk. It gives you the same style of gameplay in a new, and unexpected way. Rather, it isn’t the best option for those looking for a replicated experience on a retro console. If you do pick this one up though, you’ll want something other than the Master System Control Pad, because the sometimes mushy d-pad will have you accidentally walking into an alien, or projectile. I recommend the Sega Control Stick. It just seems more responsive in this game. For whatever reason, this game won’t see a Genesis controller properly, so the Sega Control Stick is the next best thing.

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The other two major versions I happen to own ate the Unlicensed Tengen NES port, and the Commodore 64 port. Both of these are pretty good, getting the stage layouts, enemy types, and overall feel pretty nicely. The Commodore 64 version fares especially well though, as it’s the most responsive version I own. Everything is fast, and smooth most of the time. While there can be a bit of slowdown when an awful lot is going on, it still performs better than the NES version overall. The C64 doesn’t have as large a color palette as the NES, but it somehow gets closer to the arcade experience in terms of visuals. The C64 also has the arcade cabinet’s animated attract mode, and a really good original soundtrack. It’s another example of the staying power of the computer’s SID sound chip.

But Tengen’s NES port is no slouch either. It still looks pretty good most of the time, and even manages to add some pretty cool cinema screens to amp up the experience. I should also note that while the C64 has the better soundtrack, the NES version also tries to replicate the arcade’s songs rather than experiment with them, or add new ones. While it isn’t as responsive or quite as fluid as the C64 version, it is the only one of the three to offer continues. On the C64, and SMS you’ll need to clear the game on a handful of lives. For those out there who don’t own a vintage computer, but you have an NES, and a SMS it’s a pretty close race. For authenticity the NES port wins, but the SMS version looks a bit nicer.

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Of course, all of this is moot if you have Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the Xbox 360 or PS3 though. Because the arcade ROM was included in the compilation. You’ll have a nearly 1:1 experience at that point. Be that as it may, most of the home ports all offer a pretty great send up of the original. Alien Syndrome also appeared on the Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, ZX Spectrum, Sharp X68000, MSX computers as well as MS-DOS.

It’s a shame this IP has lied so dormant over the years, aside from a brief, largely ignored game on the PSP, and Wii that played nothing like the original. Alien Syndrome is a fun, if difficult run n’ gun. If you have any of the platforms it appeared on, you owe it to yourself to track down a copy. If you’re blessed to live near an arcade that has a working cabinet, do yourself a service, and put in a few quarters. With its challenge, memorable characters, and insane bosses, Alien Syndrome is one arcade classic you’ll never want to forget.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Psycho Fox Review

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Platformers have always had a presence in gaming. From Donkey Kong, to Super Mario Bros., to the Giana Sisters to Sonic, there has been no shortage of bump, and jump fun. In the 80’s, and 90’s platformers were one of the most popular genres. Nearly every publisher at the time tried their hand at making platformers. Vic Tokai was one of them.

PROS: Great graphics. Wonderful music. Nice use of physics.

CONS: Controls take a bit of getting used to.

CONNECTIONS: There are two seemingly unrelated games connected to Psycho Fox.

Vic Tokai had one cult hit on the NES. Kid Kool was loosely based on a celebrity, and it starred a kid who ran, and jumped his way to victory. But it did do one thing that made it stand out from other platformers of the time, and that is physics. You had to get a running start to get anywhere in the game. While even Super Mario Bros. had elements of getting places with masterfully running, Kid Kool made it the sole focus. But in doing so, Kid Kool became one of the most despised games of its time. It had many blind jumps that resulted in a lot of restarts, it didn’t have the best collision detection, and many cheap deaths.

Enter the Sega Master System. Vic Tokai would bring about a new game to Sega’s 8-bit offering, using the lessons learned from the poor reception of Kid Kool. In Psycho Fox you play as a fox who is trying to save the world from an evil fox named Madfox Daimyojin. At a first glance, you might think this game looks, a bit more Alex Kidd, than Kid Kool. But stick with it, and you’ll find it is quite a fun, and brutally hard game at the same time.

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As we’ve established, Fox has to run, and jump his way to victory. But the game feels a bit more refined. You’re still going to need to get running starts, and time jumps. But stages don’t feel quite as much like a guessing game. That’s because in this game, there are a couple of paths you can take. You can take a high route, or a low route. Taking the higher paths will usually lead you to secrets, and more opportunities to speed. The lower routes are usually a little bit easier, and don’t require quite as many jumps of faith. But there are also more enemy encounters in some stages when taking the lower path.

The biggest secrets are warp zones. Many platformers over the years have had secret ways to skip ahead. But in Psycho Fox you have to not only discover the area it resides, but you have to literally punch a hole in the level. Once done, you can climb into the hole to cut ahead. Beyond trying to find the secret warp zones, another improvement on the formula set up in Kid Kool, are the bonus characters.  Like Kid Kool, you can find an animal helper who acts as an extra hit point, and a boomerang. Defeating enemies, and finding eggs will often give you items. Usually you’ll find money. But sometimes you’ll find sticks, and of course the aforementioned helper.

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Here’s the thing. You’ll want to hang onto the sticks you pick up. Because you can control different characters with them. Pressing pause on the Master System will bring up an inventory screen, where you can use your sticks to turn into one of three other characters. A monkey, a tiger, or a hippopotamus. Each of these has added abilities over using the fox. The monkey can jump higher. The tiger can run faster. The hippo can break through certain objects.

At the end of every stage you get put into a lottery depending on your financial collection. You’ll bet, and guess a path. Guess correctly, and you’ll win items. Guess wrong, and you won’t have a bonus going into the following stage. Stages are broken up into seven worlds. Each of these has three stages in it, the end of which culminates in a boss battle.  Most bosses break down into a routine of luring the boss into a position, and then using a background item to damage them. Others play a little more traditionally with you having to throw yourself on top of them a number of times to defeat them.

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Psycho Fox has a very similar art style to Kid Kool, sharing some of the same character sprites, as well as some of the items in the stages. But Psycho Fox also looks significantly better. The colors pop more, and things look crisp. Some of this is likely due to the graphical quality the SMS has over the NES. But there are other NES games that still look better than this one. The point is it is a big improvement over Kid Kool’s visuals.

Psycho Fox also has a very catchy, hook ridden soundtrack. The tunes may not be quite as memorable as a Mario or Sonic soundtrack, but it’s very good. It’s bouncy, optimistic, and you’ll be humming along with it in no time. The rest of the sound is nothing to write about home though. Just the standard boops, and beeps many games of the era had. But again, the songs are so good, you won’t really pay any mind to it.

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All of this said, Psycho Fox still has one area that may drive some folks crazy, and that is the high level of difficulty. As I’ve said before, this game is hard. Most of the challenge is fair, but there are still moments where you’ll have to take a blind jump, landing you on an indestructible enemy, or in a bottomless pit. It is by far, not an impossible game, and you’ll be able to clear it if you can resolve to approach it with patience. But sometimes the trial, and error feeling can creep in, and sap some of the fun. It is still a big improvement over Kid Kool though, and is something that is manages to be pretty decent.

As a platformer Psycho Fox isn’t a great game, but it is better than average. It doesn’t hit the lofty levels of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. or Sega’s own Sonic The Hedgehog. But it also doesn’t  crash, and burn the way many nefarious examples have. It isn’t Bubsy 3D bad. It isn’t Awesome Possum bad. Being slightly above average isn’t a bad thing. It just means there are better titles to get first. But Psycho Fox is also a Master System game, a console where the best platformers starred Alex Kidd, and Sonic. There wasn’t much else. Especially not in the USA. So if you collect for the Sega Master System you’ll probably want to check out Psycho Fox anyway. Just keep in mind that it isn’t a common game, and that it isn’t cheap. But if you already have all of the Alex Kidd games, or you find a bargain, Psycho Fox is still worth checking out.

Final Score: 6 out of 10