Tag Archives: Sega

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

Tac-Scan Review

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

PROS: Fluid controls. Sharp graphics. Unique mechanics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Retro World Expo 2016 Recap

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Last year’s inaugural Retro World Expo was a rousing success. It gave fans in New England a chance to meet YouTube celebrities, gorge on classic gaming, and mingle with thousands of fans. Not to mention the droves of exhibitors who showed up to sell their products. It was a great time last year.

Well, that success translated into an even better convention this year. This time the event took the course of a weekend, rather than one single day. Again, there were some great guests. Returning from last year, were  many of Retroware’s finest. Creators Lance Cortez, and John Delia were back, along with”Pixel” Dan Eardley, The Gaming Historian (Norman Caruso), and The Game Chasers. But joining them were Pat “The NES Punk” Conti,  the creators of Stop Skeletons From Fighting, and Mortal Kombat’s own Daniel Pesina.  Josh Tsui also made an appearance. He was one of Midway’s Mortal Kombat 4 designers. These days he heads up Robomodo, a small developer known for mobile. But they’ve also done some of the later Tony Hawk games.

But there were even more guests! Nick Mueeler, and Ste Kulou were there. They began HD Retrovision, a company known for component cables for old systems. They returned this year with Robert Neal of RetroRGB fame. They were there educating fans on signal types, cable types, the differences between them, and performance.

Wood Hawker was back again too. You may know him from his show The Game Quest where he travels the world hunting for games. He’s even done a number of crossovers with some of the biggest names on YouTube.

Antoine Clerc Renaud also made an appearance this year. He wrote much of the Complete History of Coleco, a book about the company behind the Colecovision. As well as the Adam, and several memorable toy lines.

Eric Lappe of The Video Game Years fame was also there, as well as cover sensation Banjo Guy Ollie! Rounding things out were RF Generation who have a database archive site where you can pull up information about games for a vast variety of platforms. They also do a solid podcast.

Beyond the guests were a host of bands who played shows throughout the two days in the arcade area. Epic Game Music was the most popular, but Lame Genie, The World Is Square, and You Bred Raptors were also heard during the convention. All of the bands absolutely crushed it, gracing the arcade with driving blends of hard rock, and (in the case of TWIS) folk. On the main show floor, Radlib was playing throughout both days.

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The arcade was bursting with classics this year. Centipede, Missile Command, Asteroids Deluxe, Crystal Castles, and The Star Wars Arcade game were on hand representing classic Atari. Representing Nintendo’s arcade heyday were Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye. Sega classics were there too. Turbo Outrun, After Burner, Thunder Blade, and Shinobi. There were a lot more games on hand beyond even those! Taito’s Jungle King/Hunt. Konami’s Gyruss, and Frogger. Capcom’s Final Fight, Street Fighter II CE, Street Fighter Alpha 3, Knights Of The Round, and Ghouls N’ Ghosts. Still need more? On the Midway/Williams front NARC, Mortal Kombat II, Mortal Kombat III, and Mortal Kombat IV could be seen. Namco’s Ms. Pac-Man was also on free play.

The arcade also had a pretty decent selection of Pinball machines. I couldn’t get them all listed, but the Nightmare On Elm Street machine was especially fun to play. Even though I’m terrible at pinball, I had fun failing miserably. Thanks in part to the great sound effects, challenging design, and fantastic aesthetic.

The console game room also returned, though this time it was given a different area, rather than share the floor space of the arcade with the cabinets. Again, there were a lot of great classic systems set up. Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis,  Atari Jaguar, and other old systems were prevalent. Although I didn’t see as many pre NES game consoles this year. A little disappointing for old timers like me, but the plethora of vintage arcade machines more than made up for it.

The console area also had a lot of tournaments run by Game Haven, which is this really cool LAN center in Norwalk, CT. They let you go in with friends, and rent time on computers, and consoles for tournaments, practice, or just to play for fun with friends in a local environment. So having them run the tournament ladders seemed like a good fit. There were tournaments for NHL ’94, and NBA Jam on the Genesis. A Mortal Kombat II tournament, and Super Street Fighter II tournament on the Super NES. For the competitive wrestling fan, there was also a WWF No Mercy tournament on the Nintendo 64. There was even a bonus challenge centered around the infamous E.T. The Extra Terrestrial for the Atari 2600.

Plus on top of all of these, was a Super Smash Bros. 4 tournament, which drew quite the following at the show. This one was hosted by Legacy Tournaments which specializes in regional Smash Tournaments.

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Of course there were also countless returning vendors. But among them were a couple of indie developers showing off some of their upcoming games. The first of these was a company called Giant Evil Robot. They were showing off a game called Mecha-Tokyo Rush. The version at the show was a nearly final version in a demo mode. Mecha-Tokyo Rush is an endless runner. But to set it apart from the plethora of other endless runners on the market, it implements elements of the Mega Man games. So you’ll be able to select stages, earn items from boss fights, and blast robots. But, being an endless runner you never bother with moving. The game just moves along, and you time your jumps accordingly. But you’ll do so while shooting . Visually, the version at the show didn’t look half bad. It had a decent 16-bit look to it. The full game will let players choose different characters, and items. The keys on the demo laptop weren’t ideal so I asked the representative if it would allow players to use a game pad, and I was told they may add functionality down the line. At launch it won’t. The game will be a F2P game with things you can unlock with game credit. I wasn’t given any specifics about it. The game does look a cut above some other F2P stuff you may have tried, so hopefully the final game turns out well.

The other developer booth was interesting because it was both about a documentary, and an upcoming game. The New 8-Bit Heroes is the documentary. It follows the designer of a new game called Mystic Searches, and the progress of developing the game. That designer’s name is Joe Granato. He found old design documents he made as a kid, and decided to make his childhood dream game. But here’s where things get really engrossing. The game was made to run on an NES. The NES like a lot of platforms in the 1980’s ran on a MOS 6502 processor, or variant. The Atari 2600, NES, Commodore 64, and many other platforms used it. Back then, most programs were written in assembly language, and translated into machine language. Which meant they had to be written in a language like PASCAL  or a complicated Hex system, and pretty much everything had to be coded in. Even the graphics, and sound.

These days, most games run on an engine. Many games share one. Unreal Engine, Unity, and others are used by countless games, which lessens some of the workload as an engine does a lot of background work freeing up programmers, artists, etc. to focus on other things. That’s probably an oversimplification on my part, but the point is, this makes things easier.

Anyway, during the course of making Mystic Searches, the designers quickly realized how long writing a game in  6502 assembly language was going to take. So they wrote their own Graphic User Interfaces for things. Things like placing graphics tiles. Things like attributing properties to objects. Eventually, they had enough GUIs made that they essentially built their own game engine!

So they’re going to be launching a Kickstarter for the engine. Not only will it let end users build a game with the included assets, but advanced users can import their own sprites, music, and content. It’s simple enough that an average person can make something on their own. But deep enough that aspiring developers can make something very involved. The hope is that the final revision will let people do different genres. RPGs, Shmups, Platformers, and more. But the most exciting part of all of this is that the program will allow end users to flash their games to an actual NES Game Pak!

They had a working prototype set up at the convention so that show goers could check it out for themselves. After trying it out, I was very impressed with what I was shown. I grew up typing game programs out of magazines in BASIC, or into Hex address compilers. Suffice it to say, I was pretty terrible at it. Even though technically all of the work (aside from hours typing it in) was already done for the reader.Plus playing a game, is more fun than typing in a game. But here, the tools, while still requiring a bit of learning, and experimenting, were still understandable. You don’t need to know how to code anything in order to use it. It reminded me a lot of using map editors for the original DOOM. Or games like the Shoot ’em up Construction Kit.

I asked a few questions during my time with it, and got a few details in the answers. I asked if there were any plans to have a business level license for other developers, and was told there really wouldn’t be. Anyone can pretty much buy the utility, and do what they want. The license does say however, that anyone who wants to sell a game they make with the utility cannot use any of the utility’s assets. Meaning they have to draw all their own sprites, background art, etc., as well as write their own music. The reason being that the utility was used to make Mystic Searches, and as such the assets are intrinsically tied to that IP.

But they want as many developers, and hobbyists as possible to use the product. So they aren’t looking to have the typical Business, and Consumer licenses many other software utilities do.

I asked if there was a way to import one’s own content, or even piggyback their own code onto the utility, and was told one can definitely do it. They really want the product to be as open as possible while keeping things simplified for beginners.

Another person asked about pricing. Nothing is set in stone, so they didn’t have a finalized price at the time of the show, but they were shooting for a sub $100 mark. This would give the customer the hardware to make their NES Game Pak when they were ready. They also said they may have one SKU for just the software utility, and a separate one for the hardware. They added, that there would be a list of suppliers for the hardware so that if one doesn’t want to buy it all from the developer, they can get the hardware elsewhere if they wanted to. Mystic Searches is shooting for a holiday release, while the utility release isn’t as concrete.

I asked about any plans for retailers, and was told they were discussing ways to possibly have a program with small businesses to print future games on demand. This could take some risk away as a small store wouldn’t have to buy a case of copies of Mystic Searches or future titles. Instead the store could print as few or as many as they needed. This would be an entirely different venture than the utility they were showing off however.

If the final products turn out as well as what I saw during the show, the homebrew community is going to be very pleased. Mystic Searches is looking to be a really good send up of games like The Legend Of Zelda, Ys I+II, and Crystalis. It’s also coming out in three different Game Pak casings. A standard gray color for $40. A black color with custom artwork by Morgan Davidson will set you back $64. Finally, there’s the limited edition wood grain version, which brings a hint of Atari 2600 heavy sixer to the Nintendo Entertainment System. This one is an expensive $128 as it is hand carved. Aside from the special cartridges it seems about in line with what most other homebrew games cost.

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There were a lot of panels this year, and I managed to get into three of them. The first of which was The Gaming Historian panel with Norman Caruso. This year, he did a live entry into The Gaming Historian series where he talked about the making of the infamous Super Mario Bros. movie. He went over many things that happened behind the scenes. Tension between the cast, and the directors. The constant rewrites to the script, some of which even happened during filming, and of course Nintendo’s involvement in the film.

After the history lesson, Norman took volunteers for another game of Video Game History Jeopardy. This year I was actually selected as a contestant! Competition was stiff though, as both of my opponents were very keen. One of them could have been a professor when it came to Sonic The Hedgehog which was one of the categories. After a very exciting game came the final Jeopardy question that nobody got right. But luck shined on me when it turned out my two opponents put everything on the line, and I had put all but one dollar on the line. I suppose watching a lot of Jeopardy as a kid paid off.

After the Jeopardy game, Norman took a quick Q & A session. One of the questions that stood out was when a fan asked what had happened to The Nintendo buyout of the Mariners episode of The Gaming Historian. Apparently it wasn’t Nintendo that had tied things up. It was the MLB. But not all hope for the episode is lost, both parties are trying to work things out.

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The second panel I managed to get into was Pixel Dan’s panel. Dan is the proprietor of a YouTube channel where he reviews toys. He also goes to toy shows all around the country, and interviews toy designers, and toy company representatives about upcoming toys. In the panel he talked about some of the more esoteric toy lines of the 80’s, and 90’s. Some of the stand outs were Food Fighters, a line where food items take the roles of opposing armies. He also brought up the Rock Lords line, a subset of the Go Bots line where robot warriors turned into rocks as opposed to vehicles. He also gave overviews to Army Ants, a line of army themed ant figurines  and Computer Warriors. This was an interesting if failed line of toys that transformed ordinary household items into secret military installations, and vehicles.

Rounding things out were the Stone Protectors, a line that combined the action of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with the classic wishing troll dolls. The end product was a group of Troll superheroes who fought aliens. The toys also had flintlock embedded in them so that when you used their action feature you could see sparks light up the gems in their chests!

It was a nostalgic look back at a time when toy companies were a lot more willing to take chances. A time when people designing toys had a lot more creative, and artistic freedom. These days companies are more risk averse since they no longer only have to compete with each other, but with game, and tech companies too. This results in a large reliance on licensed IPs like movies.

After looking at some great toy lines, Dan brought in Norman Caruso to show off the premier episode of From Plastic To Pixels. It’s a new project the two are working on, highlighting video games that have been based on toys. The first episode showcases the M.U.S.C.L.E. NES game.  They mentioned some of the games in future episodes, but you’ll have to watch the show to see what they are.

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The third panel I attended on Saturday was Pat Contri’s. Pat talked a bit about his new book,  Ultimate Nintendo: Guide To The NES Library 1985 – 1995.  In it, you’ll find every commercially produced game ever made for the console. Pat has painstakingly collected, and rated each title as well as given a rarity rating to each title. The titles don’t just end with the games Nintendo licensed. He included unlicensed games, and even the European PAL territory exclusives.

I asked him how long it took to make, because the production values ate amazing. He said it took him three years to do, and it had an impact on his primary projects like Pat The NES Punk episodes. Another person in attendance asked him if he would be doing a Super Nintendo guide. He didn’t rule it out entirely, but it isn’t anything pending right now. He did reveal however that there is a companion app being made for smart phones. The app will have the information in the book, as well as ties to online price guides.

At the end of the panel Pat selected fans to take the Pat The NES Punk challenge. There were three sets of fans put in one on one match ups. My friend Jordan managed to get into the first challenge, where he played Sky Kid against an opponent. There was an issue with the second controller though so instead the challenge was changed to Ghosts N’ Goblins. Whoever got the furthest on one life would be the victor. Jordan won this handily by getting to the first boss.

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The second challenge was a Vs. Excitebike matchup on the Famicom Disk System. The players in this round kept pace with one another going back, and forth a lot in a one lap race. The final challenge was an entertaining bout of two player Donkey Kong Jr. Math. The winners each received a digital version of Pat’s new book, and the losers won a bad game to rip on.

At the end of the first day there was also an auction for some really cool gaming items. A few of the arcade cabinets in the arcade were up for auction. After these were auctioned off, things moved into the panel room, and continued. Some of the items that went for huge money included old storefront Nintendo, Sega, and Sony neon signs. Some of these went for several hundred dollars. The first three Mega Man games were  sold, as well as the very rare Flintstones Surprise At Dino Peak NES Game Pak. This game went for $750, which is actually a little bit lower than the current average online price. I was really excited to see a boxed Commodore 128, and 1571 disk drive. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to be the winner of said computer. But it was great getting to see one  in such great condition. The winner also won an auction for the Coleco Adam computer.

After that was a karaoke session in the arcade room to close out the day.

Sunday, there were a few other panels including one with the Game Chasers. I unfortunately was unable to make it back in time for that panel. But I was surprised to see pro wrestling legend Tony Atlas walking the floor! He was very cordial, and was willing to make a second attempt at taking a photo when I had an issue with my camera. I bought a signed print from him. Really awesome experience.

I got the opportunity to talk to Pixel Dan, Norman Caruso, and Pat Contri over the course of the show as well. All of them were very kind, and very cool. If you haven’t seen any of their material definitely check it out. They’re very good at what they do. I also picked up Pat’s book, and I can say it is worth every penny. As I said earlier, it is a very impressive guide for anybody who likes to go back, and play or collect NES games.

Speaking of picking things up, there were a lot of excellent vendors at the show this year. Two Nerds returned from last year, selling some awesome screen printed glassware. Last year I’d gotten a great Samus Aran beer stein, which I use all of the time. I introduced one of my friends to their rep, and he immediately bought a Jack Skellington themed glass for his many servings of Pepsi.

Of course, Retro Games Plus was back, and if you’re ever in Connecticut it is always worth visiting their store for old games. They have some of the best selection, and pricing in the area. Level 01 was also present again, as well as one of the area Game Xchange  franchisees. These are also pretty good places to go hunting. Another area small business called 1UP was there as well. Which I can also recommend. It’s run by a husband, and wife duo who try to get out to as many conventions as possible. I’ve gotten things from them before, and it has always been in great condition.

But there were also a TON of new vendors this time around with a lot of great stuff. Some of which has generally been impossible for me to find locally. I was pleasantly surprised to find many of them had a great assortment of Atari 2600, Colecovision, Intellivision, and other platforms from the early days many of us grew up in.  My buddy Chris Trentham was there with a booth of his own. I got some nice deals on some Commodore 64 cartridges, as well as a copy of the scarce Frogger II for the Atari 2600.

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From one of the vendors (I feel bad that I can’t remember every one of them) I managed to snag a copy of Tac-Scan, and Jr. Pac-Man for my Atari 2600 collection, and I also found a great deal on the VCS version of Congo Bongo from of all vendors, a graphic design vendor called  DSquared. One of their artists, Doug Chapel was selling some Atari cartridges in addition to his artwork. We talked about VCS collecting, VCS homebrew for a few minutes. He does some nice stuff. If you need some custom art give their site a look.

While on the subject of art, there were a lot of artists among the vendors this year as well. Some of the other standouts were Justm3hStudios, an artist who does a lot of custom buttons, and sketches. A guy named Chris Vales was doing some impressive Overwatch themed work, and Tom Ryan Studios was there. I saw him previously at ConnectiCon. Another fantastic art duo you might want to check out is  East Of Haven. They had some terrific pencil work on display, and were doing commissions.

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Russ Lyman was on the floor getting some footage for his always fun, YouTube channel, and he may have received a few surprise cameos for an upcoming video. I also spent some time talking about games far worse than E.T.  with the terrific guys from RF Generation. Stuff like the Data Design Interactive stuff on the Wii for instance.

Sadly, I didn’t get to see or do everything. There was so much this year. I didn’t even mention the cosplay contest or the Table top gaming.  I really hope this year was more successful than last year, because this convention has the potential to become an annual tradition. It could also become as big as some of the other major conventions in time. It was a blast of a weekend, and with any luck at all I’ll be visiting again in 2017.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns Review

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Last week we looked at one of the most important games in history. It was one of the first platformers. One of the best early console, and home computer games. It was also one of the best games to debut on the seminal Atari 2600.  So a sequel was only natural. Unfortunately, the great video game industry crash meant that a lot of people never got to play it when it came out. Which is a shame because once again, David Crane’s Pitfall Harry, performed a few more major firsts.

PROS: Improved visuals, added music, effects, and more!

CONS: In some ways, this is an easier game.

SCORPIONS: Even deadlier now thanks to a glitch.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns is not only one of the best games on the Atari 2600, it is one of the most memorable experiences to come out of the golden age of video games. This is partly due to it being one of the earliest games to have features we take for granted today. The object of Pitfall II is also a little bit different here. In the first game, you’re trying to figure out a path through a jungle that will lead you to all of its treasures. All under a time limit, on two lives. All while doing it in the shortest time possible, with the least amount of mistakes.

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In Pitfall II, Pitfall Harry has to find a very specific diamond ring, as well as rescue his niece Rhonda, and pet mountain lion Quickclaw who have gotten themselves trapped in a cavern. These characters were first introduced in the Pitfall cartoon. So their appearance in this game could make the show canon. At least in the eyes of some. Gameplay is built off of the core of the first Pitfall. You still have a flip-screen mechanic when going left to right. But when going vertically the game adds scrolling into the mix.

It isn’t even something you question. It just feels like a natural extension of the game play. While you won’t be swinging over ponds, tar pits, and jumping on crocodile or alligator heads you still look for treasure. Sure, saving your relative, pet, and getting that diamond are the main goal. But if you want any hope of a perfect score you need to find every last gold bar too. Pitfall II also introduces a checkpoint system.

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These days, many games have checkpoints. But back in the days of names like Atari, Coleco, and Commodore the concept was rare. On home computer platforms you could save your progress in some RPGs. or your high score in some arcade ports. But checkpoints were especially rare on computers. They were non-existent on consoles. The fact you don’t have to start the entire game over if you make a mistake in this game was sorcery at the time. It also doesn’t have a count down, which may make you calmer.

Still, the one drawback to checkpoints in Pitfall II is that it makes the game much easier. There are also unlimited lives. So really it is impossible to lose. As long as you can get to the three main targets you can beat the game. To alleviate this sticking point, the game still has a monetary punishment for mistakes. You see, like its predecessor you lose a lot of money if you have to go back to a checkpoint. In fact, the further ahead of the last checkpoint you touched (a small cross on the ground you walk over), the more money you’ll lose. You also lose money if you fall, and land on your feet. So if you miss a jump, and land two or three levels lower (you can change your trajectory a few pixels by trying to move as you fall) your score gets lighter. You gain money for finding gold bars. You gain money for hitting each of your three metrics.

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Though there may not be a clock winding down to a Game Over for you should it get to zero, there is a clock. The game times you for your overall performance in hitting your three metrics. Which makes Pitfall II a speed runner’s challenge. Whereas before, the challenge was getting it all done in less than a half-hour making no mistakes. Now it’s about finding every last bar of gold, your ring, pet, and niece in the quickest time possible. Also without making any mistakes. Because you want to be the one with a perfect score in the shortest amount of time.

So while beating Pitfall II is easier than beating Pitfall, Pitfall II is actually harder when you put the restrictions of a speed runner on yourself. Because the dangers are not very easy to avoid. The very first enemy you run into will dash your hopes. If you fall into a hole early on you’ve missed the first bar of gold, and a perfect score. Playing the game with the mindset of a classic gaming champion can potentially keep you playing this game for years.

Visually the game sees a respectable jump over the first game. Little graphical details like the indents, and grooves on a boulder pop up immediately. The wider variety in enemies is also noticeable quickly. There are killer birds that I’m convinced were analyzed deeply by Konami’s designers. Because Castlevania’s Medusa heads fly in an eerily similar pattern. You also have bats to deal with, electric eels, and of course the classic mutant scorpions that are just as big as Pitfall Harry.

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And little glitches don’t break the game but add new challenges. If you climb a ladder to find there are scorpions above, and below you sometimes being in just the right place on the ladder will make them pace right where you need to climb off of the ladder. Sometimes the wave in the pattern of the flying birds may change, meaning you have to quickly realize where the arcs in it have moved to.

Of course, Pitfall II let’s you explore at your own pace. So when you’re first starting out, you may miss the diamond ring, or Rhonda on your first pass. Congratulations. The game doesn’t end, a little creature forces you out of Quickclaw’s cowering space. Now you have to go explore again. If you do beat the game, Harry jumps about with excitement as the theme song speeds up again.

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Speaking of music, Pitfall II was such a massive game at the time, that David Crane engineered a sound chip that is embedded in every copy of Pitfall II. The game squeezes every last bit of processing power out of the Atari 2600, and to even play music during it, would have been impossible otherwise. So Pitfall II is one of the earliest video games featuring some sort of tech being piggybacked onto its ROM cartridge. Something we wouldn’t see much again for a while. This can almost be seen as a precursor to Nintendo’s MMC chips used in some NES Game Paks.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns was also ported to a wide variety of platforms. The Commodore 64 version is one of the better known versions being redone from the ground up by Tim Shotter. The end result is a nearly 1:1 experience compared with the 2600 version. The Atari 800 version, and Atari 5200 version were given an additional subtitle called Adventurer’s Edition because the coder Mike Lorenzen added an entire bonus cavern as well as a second ending for those who beat the game, and then beat the bonus cavern.

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These versions look a little bit closer to the 2600 version than the C64 version does, though the C64 version gets a slight edge in the audio thanks to the superior sound processing power of its SID chip. Pitfall II also saw versions on the Colecovision, Apple II, TRS-80, and the IBM PCjr. One of the most interesting ports of Pitfall II is Sega’s. Sega got the rights from Activision to make their own version of the game for arcades, and for the SG-1000 console in Japan. This version is less a Pitfall II port, and more of a blend of Pitfall, and Pitfall II: Lost Caverns.

Of course every one of these ports has its own charm but the Atari 2600 original stands out due to its historical significance. That said, if you collect games for any of the platforms it appeared on, Pitfall II is a game you should pick up, and play.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Retrobit Retro Gen Adapter Review

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As those of us who buy, and play a lot of old games eventually discover, old consoles take up space. Sometimes old consoles wear out for good, and there are all kinds of third-party clone systems these days. But this week, and next week I’m looking at a couple of items that are more recent, having only been out a couple of years. Retrobit, makers of the Retro-Duo, have made retro game adapters for the Super NES. One that runs Sega Genesis/Mega Drive games, and one that runs Game Boy Advance games. This time I’m focusing on the Sega Genesis adapter.

PROS: Pretty great Sega Genesis/Mega Drive clone. Space saver!

CONS: Setup is a bit of a pain.

REGION FREE: Thanks to a handy switch.

As I said earlier, one of the pains with collecting old games is that there are a bunch of great consoles, and computers to pick up. Atari, Nintendo, Sega, Commodore, Coleco, Milton Bradley, you name it. There are a ton of them, and everyone has only so much space. Even if you’re extremely wealthy, you can still fill up that mansion pretty quickly.

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Another issue is when your Sega Genesis dies. Do you invest in an original one?, The CDX? A model 3? Or do you go with a clone? Newcomers to the hobby may ask similar questions? When it comes to the clones, times haven’t been as kind to the Genesis. The AtGames 80 in 1 models have been notorious for bad sound emulation. That system lets you use cartridges too, but many people question the quality of the build. Those same people may also question the build of the Yobo clone. There’s a pretty good store in my area that gets them in from time to time, and I have to say it’s certainly one of the more brittle clone units I’ve tried. Though at least it works better than the AtGames model.

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But Retrobit brings us something different. An adapter cartridge. That you can plug into your Super NES. You can then stack your Sega Genesis cartridges on top of it, and then viola! You’re playing Sega Genesis games on your Super Nintendo! Except not really. You see the term “adapter”, is a bit of a misnomer in this case. Because your Super NES isn’t really running the game at all. The Retro Gen adapter isn’t really an adapter. It’s a full-fledged Sega Genesis clone console. But with no controller ports, or power supply. Basically the system is designed to use the electricity from your Super NES.

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The drawback to all of this is that even though you save a big chunk of space by not having a Sega Genesis sitting in your entertainment center, you still need to take up a separate line of composite ports on your TV. Now if you only have a couple of old systems it isn’t that big a deal. You plug the RCA composite cables included with the system, into your TV, or RCA switch box, and call it a day. But if you’re like me, and have accrued more consoles than you have ports on the TV or RCA switch box, you’re going to have to swap something. This can be very annoying, especially if you tend to go back, and forth between old platforms frequently. So make sure you have a sizable switch box if you have more than a handful of old game systems.

Fortunately, there are a lot of  things to like about the Retro Gen. Hardware emulation is very good. The sound is substantially better than any of the other clones I’ve tried. It isn’t quite as good as running an actual Sega Genesis. But it’s close enough that all but the most critical Sega fan would mind. Picture quality is also very close to what you might find running on a Sega Genesis. It’s very good. I put the Retro Gen through the paces playing Golden Axe on it. I was very pleased with just how close it came to playing on an actual Genesis.

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Another thing that is nice is it works using your existing Super NES controllers. If you’re a purist, you can try to track down a port converter so you can use Sega Genesis pads. But the Super NES controllers work great. If you’re coming into it as someone who does not yet own a Sega Genesis, but you want to buy a few Sega games, this is cool because you don’t have to invest in added controllers.

The build quality is also really good. It is nice, and sturdy. The Retro Gen looks, and feels like a Super NES launch cartridge. Except it’s painted black, rather than gray. It stays pretty sturdy when playing, it doesn’t wobble any worse than Nintendo’s own Super Game Boy does. Which is great news to anyone who is going to pour a lot of hours into any of their favorite Sega cartridges.

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But the best part of all of this is the region switch along the side of the system. This gives the Retro Gen a leg up over a multitude of competing clones, and even the original version of the console. You can play imports without having to do anything to the system. Switch to the appropriate region, and the cartridge will think it’s being played on that region’s version of the Genesis. This makes the Retro Gen a must own, if you love to buy games that weren’t originally sold in your area.

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Overall, I highly recommend the Retro Gen. Even if the requirement of extra composite cable inputs on your TV, or switch box is a major inconvenience. The region switch, is a Godsend for importing. The fact that the audio, visual, and build quality is much better than some of the better known clones is also a huge plus. If you don’t already have a Sega Genesis, and you can deal with its one major caveat, give the Retro Gen a go.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Ghost Squad Review

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People often remember two things about the Nintendo Wii game library. First, the plethora of great Nintendo games. Everything from the Wii Sports pack in, to Super Mario Galaxy. Second, the walls of shovelware covering the platform section in their local game stores. But astute people know the system was home to a lot of really neat gems. It was also home to the resurgence of on-rails light gun shooting.

PROS: An excellent port on an excellent arcade game.

CONS: Short. Hokey voice acting.

WEAPONS: The variety here is staggering. Provided you replay it a lot

Ghost Squad sticks out in that ocean of light gun games, because of several reasons. First, it’s a port of an underrated arcade machine. Sega’s Ghost Squad feels like an evolutionary step above Vitrua Cop. It has that same twitch game play. Move into an area, stop. Then blast enemies as they appear. It has the same goofy delivery in its voice acting. But it has a distinct charm for that. The shooting requires speed, and accuracy like pretty much all of Sega’s arcade shooters have.

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On the Wii, it’s a pretty close conversion. The graphics are about on par with the cabinet, and everything feels nearly 1:1. That’s also a great thing because most people have never had the opportunity to play Ghost Squad in the arcade. Outside of Dave & Busters, not too many areas have a place where they can go spend an evening with friends plopping quarters into cabinets anymore.

As for the game itself, it’s a great light gun game, that takes a few risks, and innovations few other light gun games have taken. In Ghost Squad, you, and friends take the role of a private military force who are sent in to take out terrorists,  and rescue hostages. The game is only three stages long. But before you throw your hands up, and walk away, there are a lot of variants on those three stages. Upon your first play through you’ll only see them crop up occasionally, as the game gives you an option of which path to take. Depending on your performance of each mission, you can unlock new paths. This gives an otherwise short game, almost as many stages as other games of its ilk.

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Ghost Squad has three difficulty settings, and all of them manage to present a challenge. The game works almost exactly the same as Virtua Cop, in that when an enemy appears you’ll see a ring appear around them. When this happens you only have a brief moment before you’re hit, as this means you’ve been locked on. Harder difficulties make this happen faster, so get in the habit of trying to shoot them before the rings even appear. You can also shoot background items to find secret health power ups, and weapon attachments. But you have to be quick, and balance that between hitting the bad guys in time.

A lot of the game’s branching paths can be really interesting too. There are some that will see you rescuing a lot of hostages. In these the game goes out of its way to make you mistake a hostage for a villain. So you really have to pay attention, as shooting hostages is very punitive. Especially on higher difficulties. Other branching paths let you use cool gadgets like night vision goggles.

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The Wii version also has a few things over the arcade machine. Up to four people can play it together, making it great for parties. There are also a bunch of silly costumes you can unlock, and there are also modes. Paradise mode, that turns the enemies into swimwear clad beach bums, and your weapons are replaced with water guns. As well as Ninja mode, that replaces your bullets with shurikens.

Each time you play through the game you’re given a rating on each stage based on your score, whether or not you completed the objective, and your time. The higher your score the faster you can level up your character for playing through the game again. As you level up the character the game begins giving you extra rewards. Shotguns, SMGs, and other weapons, along with aforementioned costumes. You can also turn off the crosshairs in order to add more challenge to the experience. Doing so also rewards you with a much higher score.

The pointer controls are also perfect for a game like this (part of the reason why the genre saw such an uptick on the Wii), and in the case of Ghost Squad are implemented very well. It still isn’t the same as holding a plastic gun in an arcade, but it does manage to get close to replicating that feeling. It isn’t going to suck up hours at a time the way other games might, but it certainly can scratch an itch for parties, and family gatherings.

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Aside from the game’s short length, and blocky graphics there isn’t much to really complain about here. The branching paths do add some length to mitigate the issue, and the visuals aren’t the most horrible thing you’ll see on the system either. Really, the issues are relatively minor. Though with most of the internet functions shut down these days don’t expect to be able to use the worldwide ranking system.

If you missed out on this game in the past, I highly recommend picking it up now. Especially if you miss the bygone days of things like Operation Wolf, House Of The Dead, Virtua Cop, Lethal Enforcers, or the Terminator 2 Arcade machine. It’s a lot of fun to play, especially with friends, and it can be had ridiculously cheaply these days.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Energy Warrior Review

Well, after RetroWorldExpo, I was thrust back into a lot of back-breaking labor. A coworker had taken time off just as I was getting back in from the fun, and excitement. The good news: I picked up a bunch of hours to cover them. The bad news: I am completely wiped after doing so. The worse news: The game I found at the convention wasn’t too good. But to be fair, I wasn’t expecting it to set the world on fire.

Mastertronic was a pioneer in games in a number of respects. They were a really big deal in the UK for a while where they were founded. They even helped distribute the Sega Master System in Europe toward the end of their days. They were so successful in doing so, that the Master System dethroned the NES. Sega ended up buying their business. But before distributing consoles, they were known for publishing budget games for home computers. A lot of publishers were in this market. Notably, Firebird, and Cosmi (which is still around today.) Mastertronic eventually published games in the US, as well as in Europe.

PROS: Box art. Nice graphics.

CONS: Uninspired. Monotonous.

BOX ART: Where can I see that movie?

Most of Mastertronic’s titles were hit or miss. Some of their games were really fun, others not so much. Unfortunately Energy Warrior is one of their misses. That isn’t to say there isn’t anything good here. There is, but it ends up being banal in spite of those things. First off, I love the cover art. A soldier with a plasma rifle grimacing, as three menacing ships fly in from the background. Oh sure, there is definitely a B movie feel to the art, but it’s a great example of how important box art used to be in gaining interest. When you fire up the game, you’ll see some pretty nice visuals, and some excellent music.

Then you start playing, and well, there isn’t much to say. Energy Warrior is one part Defender, one part Sinistar, neither of which is a part that is really executed well. Visually it looks closer to something like R-Type or Turrican. But if you go into it expecting any of those games you’re going to be disappointed. The game splits up things into zones, each with ten areas. The areas basically look the same but with a few minor background changes, and different color layouts. You can go left or right for around 20 seconds before hitting an invisible wall, and being forced to go back.

During this process, an arbitrary number of enemies appear, and you have to shoot them. Eventually, a boss character will show up, and if you kill it, a tile is left in its place. The tile will have a bunch of symbols cycling on it. Some of them restore energy to your ship’s health meter. Some give you more smart bombs which kill everything on-screen, But most importantly is a key. Getting a key moves you to the next zone area. As you move between zones the enemies become fiercer, and the game adds a little bit more variety to their designs. Sometimes you may see a mothership zip by, but shooting one down inexplicably does nothing for you. Really you’ll just want to kill the grunts, and bosses.

If you do manage to get through all of the areas, and consequentially, the zones the game just starts over. There is no ending whatsoever. While this may sound okay, the game becomes really boring pretty quickly. Which is a shame. There are plenty of vintage arcade games that have you do the same thing over, and over. But they have something to grasp players, and keep them pumping in quarters. Space Invaders, in all of its simplicity, is an engaging game. Defender can become a pretty addicting shmup as well, because it juggles the archaic shooting with rescuing humans from becoming abducted. Even with their rudimentary graphics, those games have iconic characters, and they have smooth control.

Energy Warrior may have wonderful backgrounds. But none of the enemies are inspired at all. You shoot at skulls, clusters of circles, an eyeball, some individual circles, a diamond, and one cool looking fighter. That’s it, other than the bosses, which are usually dragons composed of circles, and a head. The enemy sprites aren’t even designed in a way that seems to fit with the rest of the game. Except for perhaps the mother ships that again, give you no points for taking them down. Moreover, while things may look fast, it can also feel sluggish at times, making it brutally hard to out run a huge cluster of enemies. Even if this had been purely about scoring points rather than a goal, it falls horribly short when you compare it to any version of any high score focused shmup. Gyruss, Defender, Galaxian, Galaga, and Phoenix all beckon you. The fact the game gives you a goal of going through 34 levels means you’re going into it with something to shoot for, like an ending. This game also came out at a time when Home Computer, and Console games were doing just that. In 1987 The Commodore 64 had seen some really great original games, as well as excellent ports of games like R-type, and Life Force. All with a goal of reaching an end, or deep experiences in other genres like adventure games, and RPGs. Which also explains why some budget publishers eventually had trouble. Some of those excellent games saw eventual price drops that made things like Energy Warrior less appealing.

That isn’t to say Energy Warrior is the worst game you can find for your Commodore or other 8-bit computer format. Or that there is no fun to be had. There are plenty worse games you can find. But the fun that is here wears off really quickly. If you’re a collector who simply must have every retail game ever published for the Commodore 64 then pick this up. If you’re like me, someone who buys old games to actually play what you missed, then put the money toward a different title. That box art sure is cool though.

Final Score: 5 out of 10