Tag Archives: Shmup

Sine Mora EX Review

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The Shmup (short for Shoot ’em up) is the one old genre that hasn’t reclaimed its popularity. At one time the likes of Space Invaders, Galaxian, and Phoenix ruled the roost. Then when platformers became big, the genre gave us 1942, Dragon Spirit, and Xevious. Then the Beat ’em ups, and Fighting games all but conquered the arcades. But the genre had continued popularity with the likes of R-Type, U.N. Squadron, and Truxton.

After this period though, the genre began to slowly fade into obscurity. It never truly went away. It still gave the occasional notable game like Giga Wing, or Ikaruga that became darlings. Today, the genre is still around, and there are countless great games in it. It even has a devoted, hardcore fan base. But where Street Fighter IV, and Mortal Kombat 2011 brought traditional fighting games back into the limelight, the same hasn’t been the same for old-school Shoot ’em ups.  Sine Mora EX has that potential.

PROS: Beautiful visuals. Great music. Refined mechanics. Fun.

CONS: Story can be hard to follow. Mini games don’t add very much to the experience.

4K: PC, and PS4 PRO versions support it.

Originally released in 2012 as Sine Mora, Sine Mora EX is a refined version that fixes bugs, updates the graphics, and expands content. It elevates a pretty good game, to a pretty great one. The game has a minimalistic menu. You have a Story mode, which is honestly a great way to play it when you start out. Then Arcade mode, which is going to be the option for advanced players who don’t want to bother with the lore. Score Attack, for mastering levels. There is also a challenge mode which gives you 15 endurance rounds. Then there is a boss rush mode, which lets you practice boss fights. But you have to unlock them by getting to them in the storyline first. So this is really going to be for those who are interested in speed running the game upon beating it.

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Rounding things out is a Versus mode. This is a small assortment of mini games. In most of them, you’ll pick a single screen arena, and battle a friend as little robotic orbs. Some of the stages have other hazards, or obstacles to maneuver around or destroy. But it’s pretty much kill or be killed. There is one interesting mini game that is different. Here, you each shoot at ships, but if you accidentally destroy a ship that resembles yours, the game ends. They’re a fun little diversion. But really, you won’t be coming to this game for it, and you’ll want to play the main game instead.

Sine Mora EX’s main campaign is awesome. Whether you play it in Story mode or Arcade mode, you’ll be thrust into a shmup that embodies elements of every subgenre. A lot of people have called this a Bullet Hell shooter. While there are moments where the entire screen is filled with bullets, that isn’t really the case. Some boss fights employ this, but you’ll find a lot of the missions themselves do not. Instead they take the movement of something like R-Type, or Gradius, and give you the challenge of avoiding walls, while shooting down enemies, and threats.

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But there are many things that make this game stand out on its own. The most obvious one being how it handles lives, and scoring. In a lot of challenging shooters over the years, games had either a scenario where a single hit on your ship killed you, or you had a small life bar allowing for a few hits before you would be destroyed. Sine Mora EX throws those mechanics out the window, and instead puts the onus on time limit. You have to beat the clock in order to win. “Great! I can get hit as many times as need be! This game is going to be easy!” you might be exclaiming to yourself.

Well get that thought out of your head immediately. Because your life bar is the time clock. If you make a mistake, and crash into something the game shaves off a second or two. If you get shot you’ll lose a few seconds. Suddenly that game has gone from being insanely easy, to pretty challenging. Moreover, they’ve made another swerve. Getting hit makes you drop power ups! So you’ll have to pick them up immediately.  But if all of this sounds too complicated, don’t lose heart. There are a number of tools to help.

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First off, and most importantly, you’ll gain time for every bad guy you destroy. You’ll want to crush as many of them as possible because time is life in this game. Keep adding to the timer, and you’ll see it to the end. The stages also have checkpoints. When you reach one it resets the timer. So if you’re low on seconds, and you reach one you’ll be in the clear for a moment. The game also gives you a wealth of power ups, smart bombs, coins, and even bullet time to use.

That’s right. Bullet time. Now it isn’t infinite. There is a meter that lets you see how much you have, and it drains when you use it. But during those Bullet Hell moments it can be a Godsend. Particularly when you just can’t seem to figure out the spread pattern. As you play through the game you’ll be going through different periods, and characters in the story. So there are a number of different ships you’ll pilot. They’re all designed to look more like planes, but considering the different settings the stages take place in, you’d assume they have features of a star or sea ship. But I digress.

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Each of the different space planes has a unique smart bomb that can be fired. Some of them shoot a super laser, others drop a ton of grenades, some shoot a plethora of missiles. You’ll want to know the nuanced differences though because they won’t work the same way in every situation. There’s also the risk, versus reward aspect here that can be really fun. Do you try to save up your smart bombs for the bosses or do you use them now while the screen is cluttered with grunts? There are also your firepower upgrades to grab, as they make your primary fire more effective. If you can get nine of them, and not crash or get shot you’ll chew through enemies. And then there are the time bonuses, and bullet time bonuses to nab. You’ll find the bullet time works wonders.

They also added a cooperative feature to the story as a friend can play as a gunner. It isn’t quite the same has having a second ship altogether, but it does give you some reprieve. They control a satellite which acts like one of the options from the shooters of old. This allows the first player to take on primary targets while they clean up small annoyances. Handy for boss battles.

Another thing you’ll appreciate is how the game puts in some challenges that have nothing to do with shooting weak points, or avoiding a hail of bullets. In one stage you’ll come across a section filled with sensors that, should you be detected knocks off all of your time. After exploding through all of my continues, and restarting, imagine my surprise when I found I had to fly in sync with piles of garbage coming from the background to avoid detection. It’s just a small thing, but it’s different from what many might expect.

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If you play through the Story mode, you’ll get voice overs that are in line with a Star Fox game. Just with more curse words. There is however, zero percent Slippy Toad in the list of ingredients. Kidding aside, you’ll also get some monologues between stages that try to set up motivations of pilots, and give you a little bit of narrative between stages. It helps explain why you have completely different vehicles, and settings every stage. Unfortunately it doesn’t always make the most sense if you’re only passively seeing it. Because of how everything jumps around. The story is a bit more cohesive if you pay attention to every last bit of dialogue, and you re-read every word of every monologue. But even if you’re invested in the story, you’re going to miss some of it as you’ll forget some of the chatter you just heard when it becomes time to blow away enemy targets again.

That said, the story itself is actually pretty cool. It centers around characters facing an iron-fisted Empire on a planet called Seol. It declares war on an opposing nation of inhabitants called Enkie. Both of the factions master time travel. One of the characters is out for revenge when the Empire kills his son for not wiping out the Enkie. So in a number of missions, you’ll follow his story arc. But the Enkie also want revenge on the Empire for driving them toward extinction. So in other stages you’ll be playing Enkie characters.  The story is an interesting one, and it even has a pro wrestling grade swerve in it that honestly surprised me. The problem with it, is the execution. If the game had done just a tiny bit better with the cut scenes, and shown more of it, instead of having you read it, it would have been a bit easier to follow. Still, if you take the time to pay more attention on subsequent play through attempts it gets a bit more enjoyable.

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Repeatedly playing in the Arcade mode is also where you’ll notice this game’s use of difficulty scaling. The game starts you at rank C here, and if you’re not doing so hot this is about where you’ll stay. By contrast, if you’re blowing through sections with ease you can expect the game to rank you up to B or even an A! Then it will punish the crap out of you. Enemies take more hits, shoot more lasers, and things get more hectic.  If you can’t hang, the game will knock you back down a peg or two. This is also where the game has a real chance of reinvigorating the genre for those who don’t come to it as often. At the same time it gives enthusiasts something they can really sink their teeth into.  Arcade mode also lets you select different planes to start with, so you may find some work better in some missions than the ones you have to use during the Story mode. Back to Story mode a second. In that mode you’ll have eight continues (though there is a slightly harder variant of Story mode) to complete the game. If you don’t get through the entire Story campaign  You can start on a higher stage when you come back to it later. Though you’ll start the way you did at the beginning which means you’ll be outclassed.

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Arcade mode eschews all of the story elements, reduces the number of continues, and exclaims “Come and get some!” You’ll be seeing all of the same levels, and bosses but with none of the narration. This mode is also a bit harder from the outset. But if you’ve plowed through the story, and want to go back to the game again, it’s a great way to experience it again. There are even a couple of power ups you won’t see in the Story mode. The game is gorgeous enough you may just want to replay it anyway. For a small game, it boasts some pretty great production values. Mind you it isn’t going to be quite the same as something from a AAA vendor. But it does so much with so little.  Though I suppose a big part of this is the involvement of Mahiro Maeda. When one of the people behind The Animatrix is designing bosses in your game, it’s going to show.

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The Nintendo Switch version of the game (which you’re seeing in this review) looks great. It has crisp textures, nice lighting, wonderful color depth, and detailed models. All running at a full 1080p with a fast frame rate. The Xbox One port is just as good-looking, and the PS4 version will even support 4K provided of course you’re using the PS4 PRO model of the console. The PC version of course will support it as well if you have the 4K monitor or TV to display it on, and hardware in the machine to run it that high. Which shouldn’t be much, as the system requirements aren’t very high for the PC version. As far as I could tell in my time on the Switch, I saw no real issues with slowdown, stuttering, or other performance problems. The PC version also gave me no real issues.

The audio is pretty good too. Grasshopper brought in Akria Yamaoka who did the sound direction on Silent Hill. Silent Hill made great use of ambient sounds for the horror vibe. Here he combines that ambience with an electronica sound. So it gives this a cyber thriller kind of score. Which you might not think much of at first. But when the bosses show up to crush you into dust, does it ever fit the theme. It may not have the same effect as it did in Silent Hill, where the discomfort melded with the fear. But it does make the encounters even more imposing. You might not worry about monsters getting you. But you’ll probably take the giant robot spider a bit more seriously.

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While by no means an expert on the genre, I do feel like this is the most accessible shmup to come out in years. It may technically be a re-master of sorts. But the game’s attention on the Switch has been getting people talking about them again. Oddly enough if you want a physical copy of the Switch version you’ll likely have to go online, as few retailers appear to have gotten it when it came out last year. At least Stateside. Target, and Wal-Mart have it on their online sites, but not at their stores. GameStop, Best Buy, and others don’t (of this writing) seem to have it at all. But you can find it through smaller businesses usually on Amazon. There’s also the option to import the European release. If you don’t care about physical media you can download it from Nintendo’s e-shop. The Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 versions however, seem to be everywhere. You can download those on their respective stores too. The PC version is available on Steam as well.

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Ultimately though, Grasshopper has put out a game that can be enjoyed by veterans, and newcomers alike. The easier Story mode (of which you can go with a harder version) does make things a bit more inviting for newbies. Even if the story could be executed a little bit better, it’s still pretty good for what it is. The Arcade mode is something longtime enthusiasts will more than likely love. Especially for those who may not have played the original Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Vita, and PC release. The scaling is also nice for those who are competent, but not masterful. If you love shmups, but somehow haven’t played this, pick it up. If you’ve never played a shmup, this is a great jumping on point to see if you’ll enjoy them. Hopefully we’ll see more Sine Mora in the future.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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Cuphead Review

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By now, you’ve heard the praise, the fervor, and the cries of sore losers everywhere. But the hype for this one really is deserved. Cuphead is a magnificent blend of gameplay taken from Contra, Gradius, and even some Mega Man for good measure. And while many games have done so, Cuphead is one of the ones that stands out from the crowd. If you haven’t already bought, and downloaded this game to your Xbox One or Computer you really ought to. But if you need more details before doing so, read on.

PROS: Amazing animation. Wonderful music. Spot on controls. Tough, but fair challenge.

CONS: Some bugs keep it just shy of perfection.

GENERATIONS: The animation on display will even amaze your Great Grandparents.

Cuphead is the result of a couple of high-risk takers. Studio MDHR started out with a vision: An action game that truly feels like playing a late 1930’s cartoon. Early on they discovered that making that vision a reality was going to be far more time-consuming, and expensive than originally thought. They ended up quitting their jobs, and re-mortgaging their homes just to be able to bring this title to market.

My hope is that this risk has paid off. Because the finished product is nothing short of amazing. Cuphead very likely has the best animation of any video game ever made thus far. Studio MDHR painstakingly made every background in the game by matte painting it. Every frame of animation was hand drawn on a cell before being scanned into a computer to be inked, and colored. As a result the game delivers on the core promise of looking, and feeling like a 1930’s animated short. The character designs are breathtaking. All of the hallmarks of vintage cartoons are here. The angled pupils, exaggerated movement, and pretty much everything you can recall from old Popeye, and Betty Boop serials are here.

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Studio MDHR even went as far as hiring an actual big band jazz ensemble to write, and perform the score for Cuphead. So not only does it look like an 80-year-old cartoon, it also sounds like an 80-year-old cartoon. Just seeing the game in action alone would be worth the price of admission. There is such a wealth of talent on display through the entire game that it’s honestly something that has to be experienced. In the realm of audio, and visual experiences Cuphead is nearly in a class all by itself.

But what about the game play? Well, it’s a fairly solid, and enjoyable experience. The game starts out with a very clever tutorial, and a classic story book introduction. Cuphead, and his brother Mugman go against their guardian’s wishes when they visit a casino. Unfortunately, the Casino is owned by the Devil, and he rigs the game at the Craps table to claim the souls of our heroes. But they plead for their lives so he tells them he’ll forgive their debt if they go get the soul contracts of the others in the town.

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So that’s the set up for just why Cuphead, and Mugman are off on their adventure. The game places you on an overhead view of a map, where you move the characters around, and choose a stage, or talk to an NPC. There are three maps, and you’ll need to complete every stage to move onto the next one. Each map also has a shop in it where you can use coins to upgrade your abilities. There are three main types of stage on display here. You’ll have Run n’ Gun stages. These play like you’d expect, taking homage from games like Contra, and Metal Slug. So you’ll have to fire where you’re going. You can’t shoot backwards while moving forward. The game play is not a twin stick style, rather a more traditional one. In these stages you’ll find the aforementioned coins. So you’ll certainly need to play these if you want any hope of buffing up your character.

Some of the items in the shops will give you a new style of weapon, or extra hits on your health meter. But any item you choose will have a side effect to balance things out. For instance, buying extra health comes at the cost of weakening your attacks slightly. But there are a wide variety of things to check out here. So you can swap out items for others after you’ve paid for them, and see what load out works best for you.

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There are shmup levels too, these generally play like the third type of stage I’ll get to in a moment. The difference being here, you’ll be piloting a plane, and fighting a multifaceted battle against a boss character. With the shmup mechanics here, the game feels a lot more like the memorable moments in old horizontal shooters like Thunder Force III, R-Type, Gradius, or Life Force rather than the more contemporary bullet hell shooter. Just because there aren’t zillions of things to avoid doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to avoid. These encounters throw plenty enough at you, and you’ll have to memorize attack patterns to survive. You can also shrink your plane so if you get into a situation you don’t think is avoidable, it may just be your ace in the hole.

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Finally, there are the Boss stages. In these you’ll use the Run n’ Gun mechanics in a multifaceted battle against a boss character. These fights feel closer to the classic NES Mega Man boss fights. than the ones in the old Run n’ Guns. One boss in particular will give you memories of storming Dr. Wily’s castle in Mega Man II. All of these bosses however will require you to learn patterns, and expert timing to get through them in one piece. Since most of the stages in the game are Boss stages you can expect to lose many, many times when you first attempt them.

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There are also a couple of side challenges where you’ll free ghosts by parrying other ghosts. You should honestly do these because the parry is a mechanic Cuphead uses to beef up your super meter. When you fill up the meter you can do a very devastating attack which is especially handy in boss battles. Anything colored pink in the game can be parried, and these challenges are the perfect way to master this mechanic.

Most of the stages in the game have an easy mode in addition to a regular tough as nails mode. You’ll need to beat the harder difficulty on bosses to get the contracts, needed to finish the story. But playing the stages on Easy will let you progress, and see what future stages have to offer. You can also go back to any stage you beat previously to replay it. Cuphead definitely has a high level of challenge. But the challenge is generally very fair. You’ll die hundreds of times over. But upon your expletive laden loss you’ll understand that your last death was your own fault. You jumped when you meant to shoot. Or you didn’t plan for a moving platform properly. Or you weren’t patient enough. Or you panicked, and walked into that projectile.

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Cuphead isn’t impossible though. Those who absolutely love old platformers, shmups, and classic action games from the days of Atari, Sega, Nintendo, and Commodore platforms will likely pick things up a bit faster. But that doesn’t mean someone newer to this type of experience cannot persevere. It’s the kind of game that requires patience, and practice to excel in. For some players it may take more time, and patience than others. But everything in the game is so captivating it’s worth checking out.

There are a couple of very minor issues I have with the game though. The most alarming are a few rare bugs. Admittedly these are rare, and in time they’ll probably be fixed. But they’re still a nuisance when they happen. One of them will glitch a low-level enemies’ health to a point it takes no damage. When this happens you can try to just skip past it. But that might mean you take damage in the process, and impede your ability to clear the level. Exiting the stage, and re-entering it usually fixes it in the interim, but that is also a nuisance. The other bug I’ve run into is an inexplicable performance hit, where the game will suddenly drop frames, and run ridiculously choppy for around 60 seconds before going back to normal. It’s especially annoying in boss fights. Closing the game, and re-starting the application again, fixes it in the interim. But it can be pretty annoying. I also wish there could have been a few more action stages over boss rush stages to add to the variety.

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Nevertheless, I can wholeheartedly recommend Cuphead to just about anybody who is even remotely interested in it. The animation, and soundtrack alone are worth the price of admission. Even for all of the complaints some may have with the level of challenge, the experience easily overshadows that. This is a game that is a wonder to behold. And while old-school arcade challenge may not be your Cuphead of tea, (I know, that’s a terrible joke.) Cuphead is still one of the most entertaining experiences you’ll likely have this year. If you relish a challenge, and love classic cartoons you should buy this for your computer or Xbox One if you haven’t already. You may want to look into this game even if you normally don’t care for this sort of fare. The amount of talent, and dedication on display is nothing short of captivating.

Here’s hoping Cuphead was a successful enough endeavor for a follow-up, or another game using the same wonderful artists, and animators. I know I’ve repeated myself a lot in this review, and I probably sound a bit redundant. But win or lose, Cuphead is one experience you just may want to roll the dice on. (I think I did better on that one.)

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Rise and Shine Review

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Duos can be very effective in storytelling. Sherlock Holmes had Watson. Batman brought on Robin. He-Man had many allies, but usually rode into skirmishes on Battle Cat. Ren, and Stimpy. The list goes on. There’s a strength in a duo’s ability to give subtext to a story or a series of stories. Their relationships grow as time goes on, and what each of them bring to the table can be as engrossing as what happens around them. It has even been effective in video games. Rise, and Shine is another game that uses the duo very well.

PROS: Beautiful art. Interesting characters. Reference humor.

CONS: Fairly short experience for some. High difficulty for others.

CAMEOS: Far too many to note, and not in ways you’d expect.

Rise, and Shine takes place in a world called Gamearth, a planet under assault from Space Marines. Everything is laid to waste as the invaders kill all of the inhabitants, or turn them into monsters. As Rise, you’re given a magical revolver named Shine, when you see a Hyrulean gunned down in front of you. Before dying, he gives you Shine, and you move onto a quest to get to the Odyssey Temple.

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The setup immediately throws you into the action, and introduces new mechanics as the story moves along. Rise, and Shine is advertised as a twin stick, run, and gun game. But it really isn’t. There are elements of that to be sure, namely in the combat sections. But the reality is that the game shares a lot more in common with old cinematic adventure-platform hybrids. You’ll enter sections, and have to solve a puzzle to move forward, in every room. Even many of the fights you’ll end up in, are won by solving a puzzle.

In many ways it reminded me of Another World, a game that influenced many, many games after it came out. Games like Flashback,  Fade To Black, and the Oddworld games all had elements of Out Of This World. Rise, and Shine does as well. But the twin stick combat does make it considerably different. The game also throws in a number of challenging puzzles that take advantage of combat mechanics. Again, you’ll move with one stick, while aiming with the other. On PC you can move with the WASD, keys, and use a mouse to aim, or you can use a game pad with twin stick controls. But also remember, the game will transition from these brief Metal Slug meets Robotron moments, into the aforementioned Another World meets Max Payne moments.

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At one point in the game you’ll be given different ammunition types. Electrical bullets, as well as normal ones. The electrical bullets can be used on certain enemies, or switches. Other times you’ll need to use the normal bullets. In battles you’ll often switch between the ammo types, as some enemies, and even bosses will require hot swapping between them.

Eventually you’ll have two other mechanics to master. Exploding bullets that act as remote mines, and bullet time zones. Many of the game’s puzzles will require you to learn them in order to get switches, doors, or other paths to open up to you. There are also a few times where you’ll need to be perceptive, or go off of the beaten path to find secrets, items, and other assorted Easter Eggs.

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Rise, and Shine also has a very captivating style to it. It has a crisp, computer animated 2D look to everything. But unlike some other games that have gone for a similar style, this doesn’t feel like a Flash cartoon. The attention to detail alone makes it highly worth looking at. The color gradients, the outlines, and lighting make characters, and backgrounds pop. It really does feel like a child’s pop up book come to life. Albeit, with a gory M rating. Rise, and Shine has some absolutely nightmarish imagery.

Heads roll. Bodies get crushed. Entrails, and limbs are strewn about the streets. Pools of red splash with every kill. Plus with the high difficulty, you’ll likely witness your own demise hundreds of times. As a matter of fact, the high body count, and number of your own deaths are worked into the story. On top of that, the game is loaded with all kinds of game references going back to the industry’s infancy. Be that as it may, you’re going to see a lot of Nintendo references compared to most others. Still, it’s a fun ride, through, and through.

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One complaint some will have is the length of the game. One of the things the game seems to take away from Another World is a focus on telling its story in a highly stylized way, with as few technical problems as possible. Another World is quite the challenge on the first run through, but once you memorize its puzzles it can be cleared quickly. The same goes for Rise, and Shine. As of this writing I’m on the game’s final boss, and I’ve spent a good 4 hours of play time getting here. Most people seem to be in the 5-8 hour range, but for those who pick up things faster, they may clear it in 2 to 4 hours. That said, the final stage has an obscene level of difficulty, I haven’t been able to clear.

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This is something the individual potential player will have to take into consideration when thinking about picking it up. But if you do, you’ll find just that. A highly detailed, fun experience with a lot of challenge, and a very clear focus. Outside of a shorter experience, there isn’t very much to complain about other than the difficulty spike in the last stage. In my time with it I’ve yet to find any major bugs, or crashes. Everything performs well, and it is just as responsive on a controller or with the keyboard. Though I personally had an easier time aiming with a mouse, than a thumb stick.

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In the end, Rise, and Shine is a pretty good game. One that gives fans of adventure-platform computer games, and fans of brutally hard games a great time. But if you’re somebody who is wary of shorter games, or you’re easily frustrated by difficult games, you might want to wait on this one for a while.

Final Score: 7 out of 10.

 

 

Cybernoid: The Fighting Machine Review

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Hewson. That isn’t a name that many people remember but it was an important one. Back in the mid 1980’s home computer gaming was on the rise. Computers were more capable than game consoles, and did more than play games. Families were opting into them as parents could figure out their finances on them, as well as work on them. Their children could do homework, run educational software, and of course play games.

Many developers cropped up out of this environment, as they could affordably code their own software. In the USA home computers would spare Activision from the console market crash, as well as allow Electronic Arts to slowly build its empire. It gave way to independent publishers too like Cosmi who would put out a lot of great budget titles. Japanese companies like Konami, Capcom, SEGA, Technos, and Taito would see official ports of their games on computers. But in Europe computers would prove arguably even more popular. Time Warp, Rare, Firebird, Codemasters, and Hewson are but a handful of European developers who would make a lasting legacy on these machines.

Hewson Consultants was one of the smallest of these studios. But it managed to put out some of the most memorable titles for the European market. Their biggest strength was arcade shooters. Over the years they would put out things like Paradroid, Tower Toppler, and  Uridium. But today’s game was one of their most noteworthy titles published.

PROS: Style. High difficulty. The C64 version’s glorious soundtrack.

CONS: May be TOO difficult for some. Short. Some versions have control issues.

DTV: Cybernoid, and its sequel are bundled in the C64 DTV Games in a controller system!

Cybernoid came out around the time when arcade shmups had transitioned to scrolling stages. But instead of going along with the likes of Gradius, and R-Type, Cybernoid retains vintage flip screen gameplay. That isn’t really a bad thing. The result is something that feels different, even if it is technically inferior. Cybernoid is a game that uses the flip screen mechanics to implement characteristics of an adventure game.

The story is pretty cut, and dry. You’re a pilot for a federation army sent into an asteroid belt to stop pirates from stealing your resources. Cybernoid is a tough game through, and through. When you fire it up, you’ll immediately have the sense things are going to be difficult. As the game doesn’t scroll between screens, each screen is its own puzzle, adventure shooter. Some areas will be a fire fight. Other areas will have a bunch of death traps you’ll need to carefully navigate. Sometimes you’ll find a combination of the two.

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The game becomes extra challenging when you realize that you’re also being timed. If you fail to complete a stage in time you die. In fact, many things will kill you. If your ship grazes a bad guy, you die. In true bullet hell fashion, the screen will be filled with projectiles. If a single one touches you, you die. If you crash into certain parts of the scenery, you die. But there is something really satisfying about Cybernoid in spite of the steep learning curve. When you finally solve a room, you will feel ecstatic. Then crushed when you lose your last life in the next room. But restart you will.

The game does give you a pretty high number of power ups to help you. How do you find these power ups? By killing everything you possibly can. Destroying enemies will allow you to salvage the wreckage for items. You can find missiles, force fields, option shields, and more. You’ll also want to conserve a lot of the power ups because in some rooms you’ll need them to destroy some of the obstacles. If you run out of supplies when you get to these rooms, you’ll be stuck watching the timer count down to your demise.

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Cybernoid isn’t very long either just clocking in at three stages. But those three stages will likely take you days of committed gaming to beat. Cybernoid was also released on several platforms, and depending on where you are in the world, some versions may be easier to find than others.

The 8-bit versions of the game are largely similar. Most of the ships, characters, and background textures are the same. The color palettes, and screen modes differ mildly between the versions. The ZX Spectrum, and Amstrad CPC versions look closest to each other while the Commodore 64 version probably has the best look of any of the 8-bit computers. Interestingly the Commodore 64 version also has an entirely different soundtrack than the other computer versions. The legendary Jeroen Tel wrote his own score for the C64 while the other computers had the original soundtrack by Dave Rogers.

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Here in the states though, most people are probably most familiar with the Nintendo Entertainment System version published by Acclaim. This version was done by a small developer called Studio 12. The NES version looks like it was based off of the C64 version, even the color palette used is similar. The NES version also has its own original soundtrack that is decent, but nowhere near the earworm level of the C64 version. The two versions also play pretty close to each other, though the C64 version feels a lot more responsive. On the C64 things feel a lot more fluid, and you’ll have an easier time trying to avoid huge swaths of projectiles. Though again, by no means will the game be easy.

This doesn’t make the NES version bad, but it isn’t the preferred version. This is because of a number of small things that hold it back. Things feel a little clunky when compared to the C64 version. Getting around a couple of the obstacles is harder as a result. A couple of enemy types were shrunk in size to compensate for this but it doesn’t help all that much. There are also a couple of minor bugs that rarely come up. But when they do, they can really annoy you. However, the NES version does have one advantage, and that is you can select between three difficulty levels. They don’t change the level of challenge dramatically, but if you’re getting creamed you can make things mildly easier. The NES version also has a cinema screen that plays upon your death, as well as an ending. Other versions simply restart the game with your current score intact.

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Cybernoid did find its way onto the Amiga, and Atari ST as well. These versions have better graphics than the 8-bit versions. But I can’t really tell you much about them as I haven’t spent any time with them. In my research I’ve found that many people who have played them aren’t particularly all that fond of them. They have a much lower reputation in terms of play control, and balance than their 8-bit counterparts.

No matter which version you go with though, you’ll be presented with a high level of challenge. Cybernoid isn’t particularly long, and may not have the constant action of classic shmups. But the blend of bullet hell, and flip screen adventuring make for a unique, classic. One that belongs in your classic gaming library.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Undertale Review

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Last year a game came out of the underground gaming scene. A game that scored a lot of points with critics, and spawned a vast fandom in a short amount of time. Like an up, and coming alternative band it quickly caught the attention of mainstream audiences. Undertale is a big hit with a lot of folks. So as we enter a new year, I start it out by seeing just what all of the fuss is all about.

PROS: A well crafted adventure with elements of many genres.

CONS: Some areas have an insane level of difficulty.

PRANKS: They will certainly be played on you.

Undertale tells the story of an unnamed protagonist. A small child falls down a chasm, and wakes up in a series of caverns. After you name the small child, and create a save file, you are off to go spelunking. Early on in the game you begin to meet characters, and interact with them beginning a theme of consequences. Undertale’s hook, is that it has a multiple number of endings depending on what you choose to do. Do you help someone, or do you decide to let someone else take care of them? Do you take those items, or do you decide that they don’t belong to you? Do you kill an attacker, or do you let them go free?

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Throughout your journey the game will give you many, many choices, and most of them do impact the story as it goes along. You can pretty much make whatever decisions you want at your leisure, through the overwhelming majority of the game. At its heart, Undertale is an adventure game. But it has a lot of elements from RPGs, Shmups, and classic arcade games. This is especially true in its battles, where even here, choices are impactful on what you’ll do next. The game does spend the first act introducing you to not only some important characters, but the mechanics as well. Navigating the early corridors, you’re put into some situations that boil down to tutorials. The upside is that they don’t come off as tutorials, and they don’t come off as mundane. You’ll play a few puzzles, do some interaction, and even use the battle system.

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Undertale’s battle system looks like an old NES JRPG. You’ll have options under an attack, action, item, and mercy tabs. Attacking pulls up a timing mini game that feels like a free throw mini game from an old 16-bit EA Basketball game. You have to line up your attack in the center of a bar. The closer you get, the more damage you’ll do. The action tab, will have a number of options for diplomacy, depending on the enemy. You can try your hand at these in order to open up some emotional walls in an opponent. If you play your cards right, you can use these to win fights without injuring or killing anyone. The item tab lets you go through weapons, health, and object items, while the final tab lets you either try to flee a fight, (sometimes you can’t.) or let the opponent go. In some cases you can’t let them go until you’ve succeeded in your diplomatic tasks.

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During these turn-based sequences, when an enemy attacks you, you’re thrust into a mini-game. Some of them are shmups. Some of them are puzzles, but you’ll need to become proficient at either in order to survive. Some of the bosses do an insane amount of damage, so you’re also going to want to horde a lot of health items throughout the game.

The rest of the game is typical adventure, and RPG fare. You’ll explore towns, talk to characters, buy items from shops, and sleep in hotels. There are also some puzzles to solve in order to progress, along with some secrets if you’re willing to go exploring. These secrets can be a great benefit. Some of them will make certain boss fights a lot easier, or uncover some backstory for you.

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Visually, the game goes for a combination of old art styles. Some will certainly see inspiration from the Nintendo Entertainment System. But the battles will evoke memories of early CRPGs being played on a CGA monitor. Other times I was reminded of systems like the Atari 2600, or the Commodore 64. Undertale doesn’t stick to a single retro inspiration, it tries to display a number of them. The writing isn’t half bad either. So often games try to tell jokes, or have a dramatic moment, and it feels like a plead to love the characters.

Undertale genuinely made me laugh a couple of times, and frequently introduced characters I felt like I could get behind. This isn’t to say that it is the best game at doing these things. But I can give it some credit for a job well done. There are also a number of moments where the game will outright try to mess with you. Some of these attempts are feeble. But there are others that are pretty great. A few of which took me back to playing Eternal Darkness on the Gamecube.

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Be that as it may, I think a handful of fans might be a little bit blinded. Undertale is good. In fact, it’s very good. But it isn’t the first game to do what it does. Nor will it be the last. Many games have tried to show the importance of choices, and their consequences over the years. Ultima, System Shock, Bioshock, Epic Mickey are but a handful of them. Some of these games did it better. Others as well. Yes, some may have even done a far worse job.

However, when you take the choice system away, what you’re left with isn’t much. You have a pretty good story in this RPG adventure. But the world is smaller than some of those old 8-bit JRPGs, and CRPGs the game is inspired by. There are also long periods where you aren’t doing much of anything if you’re not exploring something or reading dialogue. I also ran into a technical problem where every so often my character would automatically veer left. I tried several controllers on the off chance I had broken my Xbox 360 controller, but the same thing continually happened. The game also isn’t configured to take screenshots in Steam. I had a difficult time trying to get some shots for this review, frequently juggling between applications.

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Pointing these things out doesn’t mean I didn’t like the game, or that it wasn’t fun. The multiple choices, and endings do give players a lot of incentive to replay the game a few times. There are certainly enough likable characters, and moments that make it a story worth experiencing. Undertale definitely has the potential to become a pretty big franchise because of those things. But the game could also stand to let the player do more, through a bigger world to explore. It could use some more meaningful interactivity in that world. It doesn’t have to be Earth shattering stuff. But more than choosing to be good or bad in a random battle, or a sparse puzzle. There are hints of that very early on. It would have been nice to see some more of it explored in the middle areas of the game, and the final leg of the journey. Some players might be turned off by a very sharp difficulty spike near the end of the game as well.

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These complaints aside, I did enjoy my time with Undertale. I can see why it has quickly become so beloved by so many. Hopefully if, and when a sequel arrives it addresses some of the technical issues, and adds just a tad bit more to do without feeling like padding. In the meantime go ahead, and pick up Undertale. It may not be the flawless game some insist it is, but it is a very, enjoyable one. One you will likely become very invested in.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Ultionus: A Tale Of Petty Revenge Review

Back in 1987 Home Computer gaming was bustling. As Nintendo was slowly capturing, and rebuilding the console market in the states, computers continued to hold their own. Especially in Europe. Every genre continued to grow on home computers. Arcade shmups, and action platformers were also very popular. Many of the best arcade games saw ports not only on systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System, and Sega Master system, but the Commodore 64, Atari 8-bit family, and the ZX Spectrum too. This gave birth to a wealth of independent developers, and major publishers on computer platforms. Vying to make original games in these genres. One of these developers was Dinamic. Based in Spain, the company put out a number of titles across several platforms. One of their noteworthy games in the European market was a game called Phantis. A game that melded Gradius style space shooting with flip-screen adventure gaming popularized by the Nodes Of Yesod. It wasn’t a particularly remarkable game, but it was better than one of Dinamic’s earlier games, Game Over, which was a flip-screen adventure game. It was better enough that outside of Spain, the game was officially published as Game Over II. The game put you in a role of woman named Major Locke who has to rescue her boyfriend Arkon from the planet Phantis. The re-branded sequel, swapped the characters, and renamed Major Locke to Commander Serena who appears to have been influenced by the Taarna character in Heavy Metal. Over the years both Game Over, and Game Over II would become cult classics.

What does this have to do with today’s game? A lot actually.

PROS: Music. 16-bit style visuals. Plays homage really well.

CONS: May play homage a little too well for some.

A_RIVAL: Sends things off with a wonderful single.

Ultionus: A Tale Of Petty Revenge is one part homage to Phantis, and one part parody. The game opens up with a cut scene depicting Serena S (a play on the Game Over II character name) in her ship after having saved the universe again. She goes up on Spacebook using  ZX Spectrum to discuss it when the Space Prince replies with an insult. Serena then jets off on a mission to put the prince in his place.

The game begins almost exactly the way Phantis does. You’ll pilot a ship through the reaches of space in an R-Type styled shmup. Taking down waves, and waves of enemy ships, and asteroids. Asteroids are actually worth more points, and it’s also worth mentioning the scoring system. Getting a high score is definitely something to shoot for because there are hidden shops later in the game that offer you power ups for points. Doing well in the initial stage can help you be able to buy at least one of the upgrades for your character.

Eventually you’ll find your way to the second stage, which again, is awfully similar to Phantis. You’ll have to explore areas to find not only the hidden stores, but even general weapons, like super jump, and a laser pistol. There are actually four weapon slots, and four armor upgrades, along with a super secret upgrade. You’ll add other abilities to the laser pistol, as well as the armor by buying these. But don’t think it will be a simple matter to grind points, and enter the shops. The shops aren’t always easy to get to, and they require a secret coin to enter. The coins are hidden in the platform stages along with the storefronts themselves. Most of the game is made up of these stages. Overall, there are seven stages called zones, each one progressively upping up the ante. Ultionus isn’t a very long game, and it isn’t a cut, and paste clone of Phantis either. There are entirely new segments, boss fights are here, and the art in the game is spectacular.

Ultionus’ sprite, and background art is a love letter to 8-bit, and 16-bit computers of the late 1980’s. The game itself runs in a centered window the way many Commodore 64 games did, with the bottom of the screen used as a HUD. There are also some Commodore 64 BASIC characters seen in the scoreboard when the second level begins. There is also the fact that Spacebook is blatantly running on a ZX Spectrum in the intro, and all of the wonderful art looks like it could have been done on a Commodore Amiga.  The bosses especially echo this look. Each of them taking up an entire chamber, or a quarter of the real estate of the screen. All of the game’s bosses take a very old school approach. They require you to memorize their patterns of movement, while trying to avoid any projectiles they throw at you. It really makes for some memorable experiences, and joyfully stressful moments.

The game’s soundtrack is also really cool. Jake Kaufman, who is probably best known for his work with Way Forward games, shows up here with some chip tunes that encompass the action, and look. Every track, from the opening through the stages has a sound that takes you back to early Amiga, and early 90’s MS-DOS games like the ones Apogee put out. It’s a great soundtrack, that will sadly be overshadowed by his work on better known titles. Joining him is A_Rival who wrote the end credits theme called Wandering. This is also in the game’s trailer. This track has everything an electronic dance pop track needs, great use of different tones, a good beat, bass, and even some terrific vocals with catchy hooks. Again, it also fits the game’s world, and characters very well.

That isn’t to say everything about Ultionus is going to wow you, or that it is going to be in a pantheon of heralded games. There are some things that will simply drive many people nuts. One thing some people will have a problem with is the short length. Over the years, even indie platformers have delivered gobs, of content, and so we’ve become accustomed to longer games. While Ultionus knows what it is, and doesn’t try to be too much more than that, some may feel it isn’t enough. An average player can clear the game in a couple of hours, while the speed runners of the world can do so in 20 minutes. Ultionus didn’t need to be several hours long, but a couple of extra stages might have helped. Still, there’s something to be said for too much padding in a game, and it isn’t so short that you should be flipping tables either. Keep in mind that this is a love letter to a game that is almost 30 years old. A game, I might add that is substantially shorter than this one.

But while some may get over the short length others might not get over the controls. The game’s platforming stages feature the same walking speed, and low gravity jumps Phantis had. The game is built around these controls too. As such, you’ll be given a lot of jumping sections. Many of which require pixel perfect timing. Falling during these sections can land you in the midst of a horde of enemies. Or you can fall into a trap. Worst of all, you might miss one of many secrets, or an item when you really need it. The game also has a lot of areas where enemies warp in. True this is also carried over from Phantis, but it can be as annoying in that game, as well as this one. Although I do give credit to developer DarkFalzX for authenticity (They actually got the blessing of Phantis creator Carlos Abril during the game’s creation) updating the movement to be a little bit faster could have alleviated some of the ire.

None of this makes Ultionus a bad game. It’s just that it does mean for some it will be an acquired taste. Those raised on games like Phantis, Arc Of Yesod, or even console games like Power Blade or Conquest Of The Crystal Palace will probably get used to the slower movement, and jumps pretty quickly. Those who need all of their platforming to have the tight feel of a Super Mario Bros, or Mega Man game will need to have a bit more patience getting accustomed to it. To be clear; the controls are perfectly functional, everything works the way it’s supposed to. But it is also a different style that you have to be willing to practice a number of times before you’ll become proficient in it. But then many, many, games have done just that over the years. Hit detection is pretty good most of the time too. So even with the challenging jumps, you won’t feel cheated if you miss one. Enemy windows, are also pretty tight, it’s very rare to have a situation where you’ll take damage, and feel like the enemy didn’t actually hit you. Really, there isn’t too much to complain about in terms of functionality.

Fortunately, if you are the sort that feels uncertain about playing a game where timing, pattern memorization, and coordination may prove too difficult, the game has a multitude of settings. Playing the game on easy will give you infinite lives. You can play at your own pace, until you get each stage right. Setting the game on normal will give you the traditional action platformer experience. You’ll get a handful of lives, before having to use continues. There is also a hardcore mode, that increases the challenge a great deal. So those who complete Normal difficulty have an incentive to beat the game again. Speaking of incentives to replay the game, it has two endings, and in order to get the better one you’ll have to find a certain number of secrets. You can also go in, and play the individual levels once they’ve been cleared. Each stage also has checkpoints so if you lose a life you might not necessarily have to start a stage over from the beginning. The game also saves your progress at the beginning of every level. So you don’t have to play through all of the game in one sitting. There are also the achievements for those who love to hunt those down.

Ultionus also has a handful of options you can tinker with. There isn’t much in the way of video options, though you can choose the size of the window if you don’t want to play in full screen. There are some volume options as well. You can also play with the Xbox 360 controller or an alternative USB controller which is going to be the preferable way to play the game. However there are a number of keyboard control schemes you can use including a WASD set up. The lack of options is a little disappointing. Having the ability to bind keys would have been a better option for keyboard users, than trying to decide what pre-set configuration is best to use. If you have a controller, I highly recommend you use one, and if you don’t, you might want to buy one for this, and any other games that are better suited for one.

Overall, I would say Ultionus: A Tale Of Petty Revenge is really good. It doesn’t do anything revolutionary, but it makes a few funny jokes, and does do a pretty good job of bringing Phantis to a new generation in a roundabout way. It also improves on the Phantis design, and frankly manages to be a lot of fun in the process. It might not be a flawless game, it might not reinvent the proverbial wheel either.  But Ultionus is fun to play, and when you’re talking about an action game it had better be. The nods to the old school computer games, and the computers that played them are also a nice touch. Everything comes together to make an experience that most will enjoy.

Final Score: 7 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

Abadox Review

Shoot ’em ups these days seem to focus a lot on the bullet hell approach. A subset of the shmup involving hundreds of projectiles, and enemies on the screen at any moment. Where touching anything at all killed you instantly. There is certainly merit in that approach, where completing the challenge is a badge of pride.  But in the days  where the genre was exiting its single screen infancy there were many other takes on the genre. Some games like Gradius, and R-Type would slowly veer into that direction. Others like Cybernoid would add a touch of trial, and error puzzling to the mix. As time went on, even the stories would take action sci-fi elements in addition to visual styles.

PROS: Inventive. Challenging. Beautiful visuals.

CONS: Short.

SALAMANDER: Abadox is often compared with Life Force due to the similarities.

One such game was crafted by Natsume. These days they’re primarily known as the house of Harvest Moon. But throughout the 1980’s, and 1990’s they would put out many, many well crafted action games. Action platformers, and of course shmups. Abadox at first glance is often mistaken for a Salamander (Life Force in the U.S.A.) clone. It has some similarities. You fight in an alien beast. You have power ups that beef up your attack power. It also had horizontal, and vertical perspective stages. But to its credit, Abadox has a lot more going for it. The gameplay while still a shooter, has its own feel. Things feel heavier in Abadox. Not so much slower, but heavier. This is partly due to the large characters throughout the game.  Even the smallest, grunt enemies are almost as large as your character. Because of this the game also doesn’t get into bullet hell territory. The game doesn’t need to. One hit from any given weapon can take you down unless you have some sort of power up. Suddenly, dodging 8 lasers, and three pellets goes from not being a big deal, to a pretty big challenge.

The story of Abadox isn’t a very complicated one, and doesn’t need to be. You play one of the few survivors of a planet that was eaten by an interstellar creature that is one part Galactus, and one part Death Star. You learn that your world’s Princess (Now a Queen) has survived, and is trapped in the bowels of the monster. So you take a page from Man-At-Arms, and go into the belly of the beast to free the monarch, and destroy the creature so it can’t digest another world.

The game starts with you skimming along the surface of the monster, and gets you acclimated to its formula. Each stage is a two-part affair, with each half pitting you against a mini boss. As you plow through enemies, in an attempt to survive there are symbols that join the enemy ranks. Destroying them allows you to collect a power up. Among them are better guns like spread guns, lasers that take down grunts in one hit, and shields that orbit you. There are also temporary invincibility moments if you play your cards right.

Abadox has some of the best visuals of any game on the NES. Every character in the game has intricate details, and many of the stage backgrounds are even animated. Years later, seeing the backgrounds of flesh contracting, and expanding as muscle spasms will impress you. Not only that but everything is memorable. Especially the boss encounters, some of which can even take up most of the screen. Also memorable is most of the game’s soundtrack. Composed by Kiyohiro Sada, many of these songs are catchy, and fit the action perfectly.

Abadox isn’t a particularly long game. It’s only seven stages long, but is still in line with most shmups of the time. It is also notoriously difficult, but in a good way. When you die you’ll often chalk it up to your own ineptitude. But if you have the patience to learn from your mistakes you’ll find a very good game that is both cruel, and fair. The game also has cheat codes for those who can’t seem to persevere. Though it’s recommended you do persevere because winning legitimately here feels very rewarding. Just know that even after you win it isn’t over. Because the game has a challenge that might just require you to break out the bullet hell skills if you manage to rescue your fearless leader.

Even if the genre isn’t your cup of tea, Abadox is highly recommended. It’s easily one of the best Game Paks available for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The game controls responsively, dishes out a lot of pattern memorization, as well as require the hand & eye coordination needed for the genre. It is certainly a challenge, but not impossible. That isn’t to say it’s all roses. The large sprites lead to slowdown in a number of places in the campaign. Playing for long periods as you try, and fail, can feel understandably repetitive.  Still, despite being mentioned by some of the more prominent bloggers, and internet video producers over the last few years, as of this writing it hasn’t skyrocketed in price yet. The game can be had for a few dollars loose. Not a bad proposition considering what the aftermarket values are with a lot of other shmups.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Pigs In Space Review

The Muppets. What children of the 80’s didn’t love them? Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and of course the theatrical films. Even when they weren’t all that great, they weren’t completely lamented. Except for maybe the time they tried to remake The Wizard of Oz. Anyway, Muppets have been plastered on everything for decades. T-shirts, flat ware, a rather excellent toy line from Palisades Toys, the list goes on. Muppets even made their way into video games. Most of them have been simple, edutainment fare. Things for toddlers to learn shapes or colors or numbers from. After all, Sesame Street has been a pre school staple. But now, and again they’ve ventured out into traditional video games. This week I stumbled onto one of the more interesting, and yet disastrous ones.

PROS: Based on one of the best parts of The Muppet Show.

CONS: Inconsistent visuals. Poor controls.

PSYCHIC GAME: Predicted Gonzo was an alien 16 years before Muppets From Space.

Pigs In Space is loosely based off of one of the Muppet Show’s greatest skits. In it Miss Piggy, Captain Hogthrob, and Dr. Strangepork go on adventures in space that parody popular science fiction. One of their most notable skits, featured Mark Hamill reprising his role as Luke Skywalker, even bringing C-3P0, and R2D2 along. It was pretty funny, and something a lot of kids looked forward to back then. The game however shouldn’t really elicit that sort of nostalgia. Because it isn’t very good.

This is probably going to be a fairly short review because there isn’t very much to Pigs In Space. It’s a compilation of three games, two of which are fairly shallow. The game starts out with a title screen with none of the design of the skits’ popular moniker. Upon starting the game, you will see three heads appear underneath, and a scoreboard on the top of the screen. Just below the scoreboard are some X’s. These represent the number of lives you have left. Choosing each of the heads will bring you to a corresponding game. The first of these is Captain Hogthrob’s game. It’s the best game on the cartridge, and the only one that could possibly pass for an actual skit. It’s a parody of Space Invaders. The alien ships have all been replaced by Camila the chicken, and the space station that flies across the top has been replaced by a spinning Gonzo head. The Gonzo head is interesting, because not a lot of Atari 2600 games were doing the rotation effect this does. In any event, you move the Captain along the bottom eliminating chickens for points. Instead of landing on the ground for victory, they just push you below a certain barrier. The other thing they do is shoot at you the way you would expect. If you get shot, you turn into a chicken, and fly away. The game is the only one that doesn’t end until you lose all of your lives.

As a parody of Space Invaders it works, but the clunky movement, and single joke will have you wishing you had just played Space Invaders instead. Next up is Miss Piggy’s game. It’s a really bad Frogger clone. If you can even call it a clone. Floating across the screen are spaghetti, and meatballs. Because “Spaghetti Western” I can only guess. The object is to get Miss Piggy across the fast flying food, and into the ship. Once you do that successfully it’s back to the title screen. The faster you do it the bigger the point bonus. Of course if the ship makes it all the way across without you, you’ll lose a life, and have to try again until you’re out of lives. It’s short, you’ll probably play it once, and forget about it.

Finally there’s the Dr. Strangepork level. Strange doesn’t really begin to describe it. It’s a vertical shooter. You pilot the Swinetrek through what one can only guess is a cave. Gonzo appears on ledges firing laser guns. If one connects or you touch a wall, you have to start over again. You can shoot at the Gonzos but the game has you do so in the most asinine way possible. It shoots in the direction you last steered. Even more baffling is the arc of the shot is odd. It will go left or right, but also fall back. So landing shots requires pixel perfect timing. With enough practice you can clear the stage. There are no bosses, or tougher enemies on replay. It’s the same thing every time. Clearing the cave again, takes you back to the title screen. There isn’t much else to go over here aside from one crucial point. Points aren’t tied to any one game. Your score carries over between them until you run out of lives.

One interesting note about the game is that it is one of the few 2600 games to come out just before the industry crash of 1983. Which makes it one of the rarer games in the library. Although not so rare that you’ll pay a mint for it. It doesn’t have the status of scarcity of other noteworthy 2600 games. Pigs In Space is a morbid curiosity. Something that you may pick up to say you’ve experienced, or to boast it’s in your collection. Outside of those uses though it isn’t a recommended game. You’ll get a competent Space Invaders knock off, a bad Frogger clone, and a really strange vertical shmup. There are far better 2600 games to play. Really, really good 2600 games to play. Get this only if you’re into rarities, and collecting pieces of obscure video game history.

Final Score: 4 out of 10

Sin & Punishment Star Successor Review

Treasure revisited their Sin & Punishment property many years after it appeared on the Nintendo 64. Fans would wait an entire console generation to see what would happen after the events of the first game.

PROS: Everything has been greatly improved.

CONS: High difficulty will turn off some. Co-Op feels like an afterthought.

MERCY: Don’t expect very much of it.

Sin & Punishment Star Successor takes place many years after the events of the Nintendo 64 original. Following the exploits of Isa Jo. The offspring of the original game’s protagonists. It turns out that the world of Sin & Punishment is actually a two-pronged multiverse split across two dimensions, Inner Space, and Outer Space. Within them a multitude of Earths. Inner Space is watched over by deities known as the Creators. The Creators seek to keep peace, and balance in the multiverse. They guide the humans of the Earths to defend themselves. A faction from Outer Space sends a spy under the guise of a human to Inner Space. The spy loses her memory however, and becomes infatuated with Isa. When Isa Jo doesn’t kill her, the Creators send an army called the Nebulox to kill the both of them. And so most of the game you will be playing fugitive.

The game is a rail shooter in the vein of the original. Only things are vastly improved here. Off the bat, you’re going to see the stark contrast in the graphics. This should be expected going from the Nintendo 64 to the Nintendo Wii. Gone are the blocky models, replaced with more detailed models. Stage textures, are also a huge step up. And while the Wii didn’t have the tech of its competition, Sin & Punishment Star Succesor, is still a beautiful game. Six years later it still holds up as one of the best looking games published by Nintendo. The game also runs even more smoothly than its predecessor. Almost no slowdown ever occurs, and everything is quite brisk. But the best improvement the game has over its prequel is the pointer control scheme.

The Wii was often criticized for games that poorly implemented gyroscopic movement. But this game makes the case for them, as moving the cursor is almost as great here, as it is on a mouse. The control layout is also able to be reconfigured. By default you move with the nunchuck’s stick, jump with the C button, and perform dodges with the Z button. You can move the cursor with the Wiimote pointer, and fire away with the B button trigger. Double tapping the trigger performs the melee attack that carries over from the original game. If you absolutely cannot stand to use the Wiimote the game does let you use either a Classic Controller or a Gamecube Controller. These work similarly to the Nintendo 64’s control scheme from the first game. But the accuracy is much better using a pointer. If you can get used to it, I highly recommend you go with it, as it makes aiming much easier.

Speaking of easier, the game also has three difficulty settings. There should be no shame in playing on the easiest setting here. As in the original game, Treasure brought a very high level of challenge. Even with unlimited continues, you can expect to spend a long time on the campaign your first time getting through it. Being an arcade experience, it isn’t a long game. Just like the last time around, a good player can clear it in a short period of time. But for those who don’t have the same level of hand, and eye coordination, it will be a big challenge. Even on the easiest setting. The game has plenty of bullet hell moments especially near the end of the game. Fortunately the game has some well thought out checkpoints to make things fair.

For those who seem to master shmups, and rail shooters though, the added difficulty settings should appease you. These greatly increase the enemies’ strength, numbers, and powers. But without falling into the trap of being cheap. It isn’t a case of simply throwing more at you. It’s done in a way that makes you approach things differently than you would on the lower settings. This allows things to feel fresh for those who plan to replay it a lot. The game also lets you play as either Isa Jo, or Kachi, the recon unit sent by Outer Space. If you play as Kachi your charge shot works a little bit differently. If you meet certain conditions during the campaign you’ll unlock the ability to switch between the characters during the campaign rather than choosing to play as one or the other.  There is an incentive for doing this. Because in order to see the game’s true ending you have to complete the game in that specific mode.

The campaign isn’t going to be as long as the typical console outing, but it is also a bit longer than the arcade games it is inspired by. The game has one especially nice thing about it, and that is its use of seamless camera transitions to change the kind of shooter experience on the fly. One moment you’ll feel like you’re playing a Star Fox game, as you’re riding along a Z-axis plane. But something will happen, and the camera will tilt around turning things into an overhead shooter. Or a horizontal one. Or a vertical one. There is always something new happening when you go through it the first time. Still, some might feel a couple of the stages drag on a little bit longer than they should. But in spite of that, the game doesn’t drag to the point of monotony. You’ll be blasting everything in sight most of the game, and yet it rarely feels old. It’s a fun, if fairly difficult ride with as many scenery changes as the original game has.

Another addition here is the inclusion of a two player mode. A second player can control a second cross hair on the screen, and help take down the hordes of enemies. Oddly enough though, the second player cannot play as an actual character. It takes away from the experience as player 2 can’t really have the same level of complexity going on as the first. In the end it feels tackled on, and it’s a shame as a full-fledged cooperative play through would improve an already great game.

Larger than life bosses are back. They once again require a combination of dexterity, and pattern memorization to defeat. Many of them will take several attempts to defeat when you first encounter them. If, and when you get to the game’s final boss you can expect one of the most stressful challenges you’ve ever seen. On the plus side it will force you to use every ability the game has to offer. On the flip side, it isn’t going to be easy. Again, even on the lowest difficulty setting, you’re going to be met with a very hard fight. But the perseverance is going to be worth it. The soundtrack makes a change too. In this game things veer further into Electronica. House, and Techno tunes thump along to the action while you hear some really great sound effects. Lasers, explosions, voice over, and roaring of the beasts complement each scene. This is especially true during the aforementioned boss encounters. All of it leads to a true sense of dread as many of these encounters are with bosses that have seemingly infinite life bars. Blue. Purple. Navy Blue. Green. Yellow. All before you get to critical red. While you’re trying desperately to win these fights you’ll see your life bar is not only a two color run, but the meter is smaller. Memorizing all of the moves at your disposal, and patterns are two of the biggest keys to victory.

Sin & Punishment II, also had an online leaderboard. With the Nintendo Wi-Fi service gone you won’t be able to use it. It doesn’t really impede the fun factor, but it was a nice feature in that speed runners could have an official record of score, and time. Fortunately for those with capture devices this can be done on streaming services, but that isn’t an option for everyone. Still, for most people it wasn’t a big draw upon release, and it shouldn’t impede your enjoyment of playing it. Sadly Sin & Punishment II, didn’t receive the attention or sales it deserved when it came out. It didn’t take long to see it slowly disappear at retail. It’s a shame because, the game is one of the best rail shooters to have ever seen release. It has all of the hallmarks of the genre, and a compelling, if strange storyline to boot.

These days the game can be found fairly reasonably, but don’t be surprised if it eventually follows the trend of Treasure’s other cult games. Someday it could become a hard to find collectible as more, and more fans discover it. If you stumble upon a copy pick it up. It improves on the original in every way, and is also one of the Wii’s best games. Sin & Punishment Star Successor should be in any shmup or rail shooter fan’s collection. It should also be in any Nintendo collector’s library.

Final Score: 9 out of 10