Tag Archives: Shoot ’em up

River Raid Review

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Released in 1982, River Raid was one of Activision’s earliest hits. Long before being known for controversial business practices, and publishing another Call Of Duty annually they were a fledgling upstart. One that took the unbridled creativity of ex Atari programmers, and gave them credit for producing games. Many of the early Activision names went on to have big successes on the Atari 2600. David Crane, Garry Kitchen, were two of the big names. But River Raid was made by Carol Shaw.

PROS: Tight controls. Game play innovations. One of the 2600’s marvels.

CONS: The complete lack of a soundtrack.

RED ALERT: The panic ensues at higher stages.

She had done other games while working for Atari, like 3D Tic-Tac-Toe which added an awful lot of depth to a simple game. But River Raid was, and still is one of the technical marvels in the Atari 2600 library. It was also one of the earliest games that would publicly acknowledge a woman for creating it. Not only does the River Raid manual include a short bio about her (the way all of the early Activision game manuals credited their games’ respective designers), future ports made her name the marquee.

As for the game itself, it may seem like any other simple arcade style shoot ’em up of the era. But River Raid, does a lot of things that were revolutionary at the time. For starters, when you fire up the game for the first time, you’ll see visual details that many other 2600 games simply did not have at that time. Most of the 2600 shmups up to that point took place on a black background, on a static screen. River Raid also bucked that trend, by being one of the earliest shooting games on the 2600 to scroll vertically. Many other titles would also show up around that time to do vertical scrolling like Data Age’s Journey Escape, or Parker Bros.’ Spider-Man. Players who weren’t around for those early years of console games, may not realize just how big a deal this was.

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That one feature would set it apart from many other games released on the market from 1977 to 1982. But a lot of vertically scrolling games made for the VCS in 1982 onward would now have to meet or beat this standard. Graphically, River Raid is also one of the most visually impressive games on the Atari 2600. The game makes excellent use of color to determine where there is water, where there is land, and even has some pretty cool enemy vehicle designs.

The object of the game of course, is to try to score as many points as possible without touching any land. Or crashing into vehicles or bridges for that matter. You’re flying along a river of no return. As such, you’re basically flying just above the choppy waters trying to shoot down targets. You’ll be blowing up tanker ships, helicopters, and higher altitude fighter planes. The river is broken up into sections. At the end of each of these sections is a bridge that needs to be destroyed in order to advance to the next section.

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All of this might sound pretty easy until you also notice there’s a fuel gauge on the screen. River Raid also utilizes a fuel system. If your plane runs out of gas, at any time you’ll fall into the river, and explode. How do you keep your aircraft fuelled, and airborne? By flying over fuel tanks. But the little touches that add complexity aren’t over yet. You see, you can also accelerate, and decelerate your plane. pushing up on the joystick will speed up your plane, while pulling back will slow it down. What complicates matters is the fact that the faster you fly, the faster you run out of gas, and it becomes harder to maneuver small areas.

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Moreover, the sections of river become more, and more complex the further you go. The game speeds up, and you’ll see branching paths in the river at the last possible second. Then you’ll have to start making split second choices. Do you take the path with more enemies, and try to go for points? Or do you take the path with a lot of twists, and turns? The latter might not have enemies, but it does have a lot of fuel. On the other hand, the paths are narrow. So getting through without crashing into a riverfront house is going to prove difficult. And of course the game’s scoring system gives you some respectable points for blowing up fuel containers. But if you do that, you won’t be able to get all of the fuel out of them. Unless you become a top-tier player who knows exactly when to blow up the container while refueling. One thing that is nice, is that the game sets off a warning when you’re almost out of fuel. You also get extra lives for doing well. Every 10,000 points will give you an extra plane, though you will max out at nine of them.

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Of course, River Raid did so well on the Atari 2600 Activision would port it to most of the popular platforms of the era. There were versions for the Atari 8-bit family of home computers, as well as the Atari 5200. There were also ports for IBM PC compatibles, the MSX, ZX Spectrum, and Commodore 64 computers too. Activision even put out versions for the Intellivision, and ColecoVision.  Nearly all of these versions look much better than the 2600 original, but the 2600 version is arguably a little bit more responsive than some of the others. A few of the ports do add a few arrows to the quiver like tanks that shoot at you from the bridges, and faster attack helicopters. Still, no matter which version of the game you pick up, you’re going to have a great time. River Raid stands the test of time because of the core game design. Every aspect of the game offers you some element of risk versus reward. It also does this with some airtight controls. If you’re collecting for a platform it appeared on, you really ought to pick it up. Especially if that platform is the Atari 2600. The 2600 original is a pioneer on many fronts, and it’s still a blast today. Classic game enthusiasts are still trying to speed run their way to the kill screen of exclamation. Whether you grew up playing shmups in the era of Space Invaders or the era of Ikaruga, chances are you’ll be able to appreciate River Raid, and what it did for the decades of shmups that followed.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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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

Desert Falcon Review

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As someone who buys, and replays old games it’s unsurprising to see shmups for classic consoles skyrocketing in price these days. A recent trip to Retro Games Plus reminded me of that fact. But sometimes you find surprises in your travels. I picked up Shinobi III as it was priced at a bargain, and I found a late release VCS shmup die-hard fans, and collectors may want to look into.

PROS: Considering the limitations of the Television Interface Adapter, it’s impressive.

CONS: These limitations also hinder some of the play control.

HOLY CRAP: This game has quite the imposing boss. At least on the 2600.

Now before I start, I also have to point out that this one actually came out for two of Atari’s 8-bit consoles. The 7800, as well as the 2600. This review will focus mostly on the 2600 version, as I don’t presently have the 7800 cartridge.  I have however played it on the original Atari Flashback console, so I can comment a little bit on the differences.

Desert Falcon is played through an isometric view. Not a lot of classic shoot ’em ups beyond Sega’s Zaxxon have done this. But aside from that one similarity, it’s its own unique take on the genre. The game takes place in Egypt where you pilot a giant bird. You can move left or right, but you can also move yourself up or down as you fly. Going all the way to the ground will land the bird.

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Of course being a shooter, you’ll be shooting at enemies. These include enemy birds, fireballs, and more. But that’s not what makes this game unique. Throughout the game are hieroglyphs that you can land upon, and claim for yourself. Not only do these give you large point bonuses, landing the right combinations of them can give you power ups. It’s something that gives the game a way to set itself apart other than the setting. These power ups can warp you to the boss, give you invulnerability, or even impede the boss.

The game has one lone boss who appears at the end of every stage, the Howling Sphinx. You have to shoot him in a very specific spot in the face to defeat him, and he summons waves of enemy birds, while spitting fire at you. All the while, making a noise you wouldn’t think the 2600/7800 sound chip could make possible. If you defeat the boss, you get to fly through a bonus stage grabbing treasure before going onto the next stage.

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Desert Falcon isn’t a terrible game, but it is hobbled by some issues with its graphics. This is especially the case with the 2600 version of the game. It simply cannot produce the detailed sprites seen in the 7800 version. So while you can get a rough idea of what you’re flying over, like monuments, pyramids, and lakes you don’t get the level of depth perception it requires. It can be hard to tell if your too low, or not over left or right enough to avoid things. Touching anything in the game will knock you out, and you can only get knocked out a handful of times before seeing a Game Over.

You’ll also have to pay really close attention to where the bird’s shadow is on the ground. Because again, it isn’t always obvious if you’re on the same plane as enemies. The Atari 7800 version looks much more detailed, with a better sense of where everything is. As such if you have a 7800 this is the preferred version to go with. That being said, again the 2600 version isn’t bad. It’s one of the games worth looking into as it does push the graphics hardware even though other games may still look better.

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If you still don’t have a 2600, or 7800 there are legitimate re-releases of the game you can find. The 2600 version can be found on several of the Atari Flashback consoles, the compilations on the PS4/XB1, and Atari Vault on Steam (Which is a great compilation.). The 7800 version also appeared on the inaugural edition of the Flashback line of all-in-one consoles. If you do own either original system however, it isn’t a wallet buster at the time of this writing. It’s an uncommon game, but unlike some of the other obscure games out there it can be had fairly inexpensively. If you have the option go for the 7800 version. But if you love some of the more curious releases, the 2600 version isn’t a bad game to have in your collection.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

Fantasy Zone II Review

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Not too long ago I finally managed to snatch up a gem. It’s probably no surprise that this is a gem. In fact, if you have a means to play this one, you should probably stop reading, and go buy this right now. It really is all of the good things you’ve heard. It will please Golden Age fans. It will please shmup fans. It will please hardcore SEGA fans. If you dig video games at all, period. You’ll probably dig this game.

PROS: Colorful graphics. Great characters. Wonderful music. Pure joy.

CONS: Very difficult. But don’t let that stop you.

CONTROL STICK: You’ll want to use this (Or a Genesis Arcade Stick) over the stock pad.

Fantasy Zone II is the sequel to Fantasy Zone, a game I have yet to acquire on the mighty Sega Master System. It’s regarded as one of the earliest examples of a cute ’em up. A shoot ’em up where everything is bright, cheery, colorful, and cartoonish in aesthetics. You’ll notice this the second you see the title screen. Your ship, the Opa-Opa is a cute little pod with bird wings on it. Enemies are everything from flowers to flying turtles.

The game is a mixture of both Golden Age arcade shooter conventions, and the side scrolling shooter arcade games that followed. Every level sees you going along a backdrop that continually circles around itself. Basically, you’ll spend a ton of time blasting enemies with your lasers, and bombs. One button shoots the laser guns, the other drops the bombs. So you’ll cycle along the play field killing enemies, and then collecting the money they drop upon their deaths. Before long, you’ll discover some of the larger stationary enemies will open warp doors. These doors will take you to new sub-levels that basically work the same way. Every level has a store hidden within it too. Here you can upgrade your ship with new weapons, and abilities with the money you’ve collected.

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Once you’ve defeated every stationary enemy in the level, the door to the boss room opens up to you. Ideally, you’ll want to enter these encounters fully beefed up with extra power ups, and weapons. Because the boss encounters are where the game gets very challenging, very quickly. That isn’t to say the levels themselves don’t get difficult. They do. In a lot of ways they feel like an even harder version of Defender. Defender is a notoriously difficult arcade game. As every board just throws more, and more at you as you play. Fantasy Zone II, also does this. But on top of that, every enemy has its own attack pattern, and often times you’ll find yourself going after three or four enemy types at the exact same time.

The other major element of difficulty is in the power up system. Many of the upgraded lasers, and other items are timed, or give you a limited number of shots. So if you don’t hurry up, or you waste them on low-level grunts, you won’t have the extra might for the boss encounter. Moreover, if you lose a life, you’ll also lose any powers you purchased from the shop. Which means you’d better spend another ten minutes grinding money out of grunts so you can re-buy those power ups before fighting the boss.

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Here’s the crazy thing though. While all of this sounds like the kind of thing that would make you rip your hair out, and smash your Master System, it won’t. This game is quite honestly one of the hardest games you’ll ever play. Well unless you happen to eat, sleep, and breathe shmups. Then it may not crack your top ten. But for the rest of us, this game can be downright brutal. But it’s also downright compelling. Just like Defender did for so many of us growing up, Fantasy Zone II can be very addicting. Quite frankly, it is one of the most fun games ever. True, you’ll die, over, and over again. But you’ll probably play it fifteen times before giving up, and playing something else. Considering you’ll get better the more you play, that can add up to a couple of hours a session.

And as you improve, you’ll get to see more of the aforementioned boss encounters. Which just seem to add more craziness to the stew with every reveal. You’ll fight a killer space log in the first stage. Later in the game you’ll see the dragon boss from Space Harrier. There’s also a Mega Man styled boss rush for you to contend with at the end.

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As tough as this all sounds, things can be mitigated if you have the right tools for the job. Namely, a better option than the Master System’s stock game pad. I recommend using either a Genesis game pad, the Sega Control stick, or one of the arcade stick controllers that came out for the Genesis. It makes things much easier to play, as the stock pad’s D-pad just doesn’t have the precision required. Beyond control issues with the stock controller, I really don’t have much to complain about. Again, there is a high difficulty on display, but it’s also fair. When you die, you’ll know it was a lack of talent on your part nine times out of ten. It’s very rare, I’ve felt a death was cheap, or a fluke. I don’t think I ever ran into severe slowdown the way I have in some other games on the console either.

One of the other really great things about Fantasy Zone II is the soundtrack. These are some of the addictive chip tunes ever played back on the Sega Master System. If you have a modified console with the FM Sound Unit, or the Japanese Mark III with the FM Sound Unit accessory the soundtrack is even better.

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Fantasy Zone II isn’t the cheapest game you can find for your Master System these days, but it’s worth tracking down a copy. It isn’t anywhere near the cost of something like Power Strike (Aleste). But it’s going to cost you more than something common like Out Run, or After Burner will. If you don’t own a Master System, or a Mark III, or a Power Base Converter for your Genesis, there are alternatives. The game was ported to the Famicom, MSX Computer, and was also re-released on the Wii Virtual Console. If you have a PlayStation 2, there was a remake as part of the Sega Ages line. Sega also updated the game, and released it to the Arcades. Subsequently there is a version based loosely on that version for the 3DS. Fantasy Zone II comes highly recommended.  If you’re building a vintage Sega collection, or you just love old school arcade games this should be on your radar.

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.

 

 

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

GALAX-I-BIRDS Review

Well if you thought last week’s review was pretty over the top, here’s another Commodore 64 game from Firebird. Galax-I-birds (or Galaxibirds depending on who you ask) is a preposterous shoot ’em up that lampoons Namco’s classic Galaxian. It’s a joke game, but it’s a joke game made with some serious effort behind it.

PROS: It gets pretty hilarious. Solid play control.

CONS: You have to survive to get to the hilarity. Which isn’t easy to do.

WHAT?: If you can survive beyond hilarity there are Easter eggs.

Galaxibirds, much like Galaxian, is a very simple game. It can be summed up in a single sentence. You fly a space ship, through space, shooting birds. But that would be a disservice to the game. Released in 1986 by Firebird, Galaxibirds is a precursor to games like Parodius. Parody games that mock the absurdity of games by somehow being even more absurd.

When you first fire up the game, you’re greeted with a giant bird for the title screen. Press the space bar, and you’ll be greeted with a bunch of beeps orchestrated in a way to simulate chirping. This goes on while you see the instructions flash on the screen as credits scroll in the background. Behind all of that is the game’s attract mode.

Once you have selected the number of players, you’re ready to begin. A giant swath of swans will make a run for your ship. Blow them all away, and you move onto the next species. And the next, and the next. Right out of the gate you’ll be running into strange, and stupid ideas. After all, who would buy birds breathing in space? Let alone running kamikaze style into fighter ships?

But if you can survive beyond the waves of birds, you will have to fight waves of comedic genius. There are around 8 different ornithological species before doing so. Do note that each wave gets not only a new pattern, but a faster speed as well. The longer a ship survives the faster things also get. Because of that, a lot of people might not get to see the added jokes Galaxibirds has up its sleeve.

And these jokes lampoon early arcade gaming. If you do get to them, and are familiar with the top arcade cabinets of the early 80’s you’ll laugh. Trust me, the screenshots I have in this review do not do this game justice.  The jokes themselves are more or less done in the vein of new enemy types. Sure the birds themselves might elicit a funny, and confused feeling. But these will get you much closer to the feelings you might have had upon seeing Parodius, or Zombie Nation for the first time. The surprise, combined with the silliness results in a rather satisfying payoff.

There are Angels, there are Wishing Trolls. But funnier yet are the Easter Egg characters. The aliens from Taito’s Space Invaders, and the Vector drawn rocks from Atari’s Asteroids both make an appearance. The game even takes a shot at Karate Champ at one point. Which is strange since that game isn’t a vertical shooter.

You might ask yourself, “What about how it plays? Surely the comedic veneer is going to wear thin eventually.” Which is a good concern, and query to have. Yes, eventually the joke sprites will get old. That can take a while depending on your skill. Because again, you have to survive long enough to make it to the absurd waves. Galaxibirds is challenging. Easily as challenging as the very games from Namco, Atari, and others that it openly mocks.

Each wave of course is going to be a different enemy type. It works like most shooters of the Space Invaders era. You can move left, and right firing ahead of your ship. Every wave you complete displays a flag in the corner. Every ten flags results in a bigger flag. You start the game with three ships, and keep playing until your ships are eventually destroyed. After so many points, you can earn a new ship. But ultimately, it is a game about high score. You can also play a two player mode with each player alternating the joystick between deaths.

The game has pretty good hit detection, and movement too. So in most cases when you die, you really only have yourself to blame.  One thing to remember is that as in Galaxian you cannot fire a second shot until your blast either kills an enemy or reaches the top of the screen. You can hold down the button to keep shooting, but advanced players are going to rapidly press the button. Why? because it’s faster. Other times you might be better off not shooting, and waiting to have the perfect shot while avoiding birds.

Galaxibirds also adds the concept of movement patterns to its game play. Those of you well versed in bullet hell shmups will pick this up a little bit easier. But those who stopped playing these types of games after Galaga will have something to learn. If you can memorize or anticipate the positions that enemies will take during the game, it gives you a huge advantage as avoiding a crash is important. It’s one of the things that makes this budget game impressive. Combining elements of newer shmups, like enemy patterns to the Golden Age game play of early shmups. It is by no means the best shooter on the Commodore 64. Between Hewson’s many games, and excellent ports of games by Irem, Capcom, Konami, and Sega there is much to choose from.

But don’t let that dissuade you from at least trying this game. It isn’t often a comedy game is made well enough to be fun after the jokes stop being funny. The rockabilly chip tune that plays during the game is a nice touch too. If you’re worried you won’t ever make it to the most bizarre stuff, don’t worry.  The programmers actually hid a God Mode Cheat Code in the credits. And while this will certainly erase any challenge, it lets you at least see the crazy stuff for yourself. Keep playing in this mode, and you’ll start all kinds of zany events the developer probably never anticipated. Changing graphics, artifacts, scores rolling back to zero, among many other weird things. It would be an awe-inspiring moment to find someone who could get that far legitimately.

In short: if you love old school quarter munchers, and esoteric comedy, Galaxibirds might be the game for you.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

Ice Cream Surfer Review

Ice Cream Surfer is a Horizontal Shooter in the vein of Irem’s R-Type or Konami’s Gradius series. It’s loosely based on the Ice Cream Surfer online comic strip by Stephen Hausdorff. I say loosely because the comic strip has a much deeper lore than the game presents. It takes place in a world known as Ice Cream Land, where the two main characters, Ace, and Frozen attend the same school. Ace is a human character who is obsessed with super hero books, and is part of a club with other classmates. When Frozen, (a sentient piece of broccoli) isn’t allowed to take part in the clique, Ace leaves, and forges a bond with the broccoli. Frozen is also gifted in the sorts of mad science we’ve seen in superhero books for the last seventy-five years.

PROS: Zany characters, and stages. Fun, and challenging.

CONS: Technical hitches. Slowdown. Not much lore for those new to the IP.

WEIRDNESS FACTOR: It gets close to Plaque Attack.

The two partner up, and go on several adventures trying to do good deeds. Without giving too much away, at least for the time being, it’s a far cry from what we’re presented with in the game. In the game, Frozen takes the role of a super villain, who wants to destroy all of the junk foods in the universe. Ace, along with several other heroes have to stop him. Each of the heroes has his or her minor variances in how they play. So the difficulty, and challenge can change depending on which character you choose. The game also offers simultaneous two player cooperative play.

You can play as the following characters:

 Ace, who takes a page from Marvel’s Silver Surfer. He rides along on an Ice Cream Cone shooting bullets. He is a well-rounded character who isn’t too fast or two slow.

Super Cream, a Superman stand in who looks like the DC hero stuck in an ice cream sandwich. He is another well-rounded choice, who is preferred because his heat vision shots can get between enemy projectiles easier.

Sailor Twister, who is an obvious parody of Sailor Moon. She surfs along on an ice pop. Her shots are slower, and change direction every other shot. As such, she’s harder to use because you have to compensate for her slow firing rate, and changing aim.

Rei Tou is a Himura Kenshin inspired character who surfs on doubled ice pops. He doesn’t shoot, but rather swings a sword. When he does, a very small wave flies out in front of him. The problem is that the wave does not travel to the end of the screen. Rather a few pixels, in front of him. This makes him one of the hardest characters to use, as most of the grunts you’ll face have to be dispatched at point-blank range.

Hima is a giant yeti who can throw ice. He is the slowest character in the game. He also has a short attack range, as the ice melts only a few pixels away after firing. The difference is he is also more powerful. So his attacks are more effective on bosses. Of course, the fact that he is larger than everyone else also means that he’ll be hit easily.

The game is structured very much like the shmups of the late 80’s, and early 90’s. There is a lot going on at any given moment. But it isn’t as intimidating as bullet hell games, like Ikaruga. Still, that doesn’t mean the game is going to be a cakewalk for most players. Frozen’s forces always seem to fire projectiles in ways that you’ll barely be able to get through.  You will never have a dull moment, or time to breathe as you try to avoid all kinds of enemy firepower. Fortunately for you, there are power ups. You can collect letters I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M, you can collect gems dropped from every enemy you dispatch, as well as find ice pops, and spoons.

Spoons are this game’s options. In older games like Gradius, and Life Force, one could have an orb that acted as cover for your ship. In this game, spoons will bring a little dish of ice cream to your aid. Some shoot lasers, others just act as an extra hit. You can’t have more than one, so collecting a second spoon merely replaces your dish with a different one. The ice pops beef up your primary attack. Each one adding more power until you go from mere pellets to spread attacks, or giant beams. Collect enough gems, to fill a meter up near the bottom of the screen, and you can use a desperation move. Generally for most characters it acts as a smart bomb, taking out all of the enemies on-screen.

Ice Cream Surfer has a lot of really great things going for it. The cast of zany enemies alone are worth the price of admission. There are bears riding cans of soda, tomatoes sporting Duke Nukem haircuts, Gomer Pyle inspired eggplants, and floating cups of coffee. The bosses are even pretty awesome. In a lot of ways they may even remind you of some of yesteryear’s strangest shmups. Games like Meldac’s Zombie Nation, and Konami’s Parodius. A giant polar bear, a bowl of udon soup that turns into a sumo, and a giant sun are some of the crazy fights you’ll enter. All with the pattern memorization, and dexterity the genre demands of its players.

Ice Cream Surfer is also a short game, it’s only around six stages long (Upon beating a stage it can be selected as a starting stage.). But it feels about the right length overall. It doesn’t go on to the point of monotony. Nor does it end too abruptly. The game also takes advantage of the Wii U’s gamepad. It lets you either use its screen as a sort of HUD, or you can press the – button to enable off TV play. It isn’t a huge deal, but it is nice to see a small developer able to take advantage of it.

Unfortunately there is one glaring problem with Ice Cream Surfer. Slowdown. Just like the Sega Master System port of R-Type, you can fully expect the brakes to jam on. The game just cannot seem to hold a solid frame rate during some of the most precarious times, which makes the game run sluggish, and less responsive. It’s really a shame, because outside of that one major flaw, there isn’t much to complain about. At least as a game. Some fans of the comic may be perplexed as to why Frozen is simply thrown into the role of super villain. (at least until they beat the game.) But in the end Ice Cream Surfer is a surprisingly fun, and exciting shooter. It’s just too bad some technical hitches drag the experience down.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Expendabros Review

All too often games based on films, or other properties, in a word; suck. Expendabros is one of the rare exceptions.

PROS: Blows the last Expendables tie-in out of the water. FREE.

CONS: This is really less freeware, and more a glorified demo.

UNKNOWN: If this game has any actual spoilers. If it does. Expendables 3 will be weird.

Developed by the same team that is making BroForce,  Expendabros is loosely based on The Expendables 3. As such, the game works as not only a movie tie-in, but as a demo for BroForce as well. The game runs on the same engine, and uses many of the same assets that are in its predecessor.

Expendabros is up to four players on a single machine. It plays essentially the same as BroForce. Players will have to get from one end of the stage to the next. The whole affair is reminiscent of games like Konami’s Contra, or SNK’s Ikari Warriors. You will be attacked from every direction from grunts, mechs, gunners, and more. The game also throws in some really fun, and over the top bosses for you to conquer. Many of them are very challenging, and difficult to defeat. Particularly the end boss who practically turns the game into a bullet hell shoot ’em up.

Where  Expendabros differs from other 2D side scrolling shooters is its environments. Pretty much, every sprite the game displays is destructible. This means you can shoot your way through the terrain, almost like Dig Dug. Doing this can be both beneficial, and detrimental. It’s good because sometimes it means you can skip through a difficult section or get the jump on a deathtrap device. It’s bad because it also sometimes leads to dead ends or bottomless pits.

During missions, you will have to free prisoners from cages. When you do this you’ll slowly unlock members of the cast of Expendables 3. Unlocking the characters adds lives. But each character has their own abilities. Terry Crews gets a giant chain gun that is handy against bigger enemies. Dolph Lundgren gets a lot of cool explosives. Sylvester Stallone uses his dual pistols, while Jason Statham throws his trademark knives.

Unlocking the team members helps you last longer because when you die, another member is put under your control at random. It goes like this until you either clear the level or lose every team member.  There are also NPC characters throughout the game. You can interact with many of them, giving them weapons. Upon doing so these characters work a lot like the option orbs in Konami’s Gradius.

They will go about the level shooting grunts on your behalf. But they can, and usually will die from explosions, bullets, and things meant to kill you. You will also find flagpoles around the area. These act as checkpoints. Getting these raised means your next character will spawn next to one upon your death. Some of these are pretty difficult to get to. Especially in the later stages where the challenge begins to ramp up.

Visually, the game isn’t going to blow you away. It has a decent look to it going for a nice spin on the look of 8-bit, and 16-bit consoles. Between levels there are some pretty cool cinema screens that tell the story. Some of these are interactive QTEs.  Again, it goes a long way to try to bring back feelings of Contra, and Ikari Warriors. Games that actually took inspiration from theatrical, and direct to video action films.

The audio is actually quite nice. There’s an announcer in the vein of old Midway shooters like Smash TV. Guns, and explosions sound really cool while also being a throwback to the halcyon days of arcade cabinets. The Expendabros isn’t a very long game. You can clear it in four hours or less. But the game is a lot of fun for that short ride. By the end you’ll find the freeware title did its job, making you want BroForce. Or, like me, you’ll want BroForce as soon as it’s completed. BroForce is still in Early Access, and you may be wary of paying money for an incomplete game. To be fair, the developers at Free Lives have continually supported the title. But seeing how it isn’t done, you might want to choose to wait as I have.

As it stands, Expendabros is a really great introduction to BroForce, and one of the best freeware games you can get right now. The fact that it is this well put together, and a movie licensed game is a rare miracle. It isn’t often we see a good  game based on a movie, and rarer to see a free good game based on a movie.

Final Score: 8 out of 10