Thursday, January 23, 2020

A Little Something Extra

Getting bored with your Sega Genesis Mini? Not for long! Here's a handful of games you can add to the system to extend its replay value... it'll take maybe ten minutes using Project Lunar, and they all work fine with the the standard M2Engage emulator.

CHIKI CHIKI BOYS
Sega/Capcom

We're familiar with Chiki Chiki Boys now thanks to the Capcom Classics Collection games, but way back in 1993, the Genesis port of this obscure arcade title came as a big surprise. "Chiki what now? When did this come out? Who made this game, anyway? Capcom?! Why didn't I hear about this before?"

It's as tough as it is cute. And it's very cute.
What's even more surprising is that Chiki Chiki Boys on the Genesis is better than its arcade counterpart. It's been rebalanced for home play, so you can take more hits from enemies but you can't cheat death by dropping in more quarters. Here, you get one life and one continue... lose them both and it's game over. You can buy a continue to replace the one you've lost at the end of each stage, but the price goes up with every purchase, and the money you've spent is money you can't use on better swords and shields. Forget the cute, colorful graphics in Chiki Chiki Boys... you'd better get good in a hurry if you want to have any hope of finishing it.


Past that, it's the same game, a silly side-scrolling jaunt that borrows as much from the original Dragonball cartoon as it does past Capcom arcade titles. As a chubby warrior, you'll swat hairballs, lobsters, and animated peapods with your sword, scooping up the coins they leave behind and casting screen-clearing magic spells in times of distress. The action is kept simple and bosses lean toward the ridiculous, with a Dracula in boxer shorts being a highlight. The music is full of jubilant horns, adding to the game's optimism and peppy energy. Chiki Chiki Boys isn't long or complex, but it's fun the whole way through; the kind of game you might have rented on a whim in the 1990s and thought about keeping for a couple more days. B 

FROGGER
Majesco/Morning Star

This was the last officially licensed game released for the Genesis. "Too little, too late," you say? Hardly! This came at exactly the right time, the same year as the famous Seinfeld episode that paid tribute to the arcade game, and shortly before copyright issues took a hatchet to its soundtrack. Every home port of Frogger released since has had its music altered to keep the lawyers happy, and the game just isn't as fun without the original set of tunes.


It just feels right that Frogger was the last game
on Sega's most popular game system. I mean,
sure, we know it was a Konami game now...
That makes the Genesis version of Frogger by default the best one you can buy. It's not identical to the arcade game... the programmer who ported it wasn't good enough to reach the later levels, forcing him to make new patterns from scratch. However, if you're not earning six figure scores like George Costanza, you'll have to examine the game under a microscope to notice any differences. The attract mode which explains how to play is still there. The vibrant colors and tight, responsive control are still there. The sound effects, supplied by the Z80 processor which also powered the Frogger arcade game, are still there. If it doesn't hit the bullseye of arcade perfection, the Genesis version of Frogger is just a couple millimeters and a dorky new title screen away from it. B+

GAIN GROUND
Renovation/Sega

A personal anecdote, if you will. I learned to play chess at an early age, but I never learned to play it well. To truly master the game, you've got to plan your strategies well in advance. Moves that seem safe or even advantageous at the moment could lead to disaster five, ten, or even twenty moves later. Some people can see that far ahead, but alas, I don't have that gift.

It's just you against the world.
Sometimes literally.
Gain Ground borrows heavily from the mechanics of chess, while offering the immediacy of an action game, making it a gift for players like myself who admire the depth and variety of chess, but don't have the clairvoyance to actually play it. At the start of each stage, you're given a handful of time traveling soldiers, each armed with weapons from their respective eras. Some stages can be cleared by anyone, while others demand the skills of a specific character. A gunner is perfect for crowd control on a grassy plain, while the viking's high flying arrows are a must for picking off soldiers perched on castle walls.

Beating a stage requires you to either kill all onscreen enemies (and a few hidden off-screen, which surprise you at the worst possible moments) or lead all your soldiers to the top of the playfield, preferably after finding prisoners of war which add to your ranks. It's a refreshingly smart take on the top down military shooter, making it easy to overlook the dingy graphics and gameplay so unapologetically slow that it makes Ecco the Dolphin look like Sonic the Hedgehog. Stick with it... trust me, they're going somewhere with this. B-

SNOW BROS
Tengen/Toaplan

Simple as it may look on the surface, it's hard to make a game in the style of Bubble Bobble work. The success of this genre is entirely dependent on the strength of the title character's weapon... if it's versatile and fun to use, you're already three quarters of the way to a work of art. If it's boring and ineffective, congratulations, you've just made Super Methane Bros.

These Oscar the Grouch guys with the flames
are the worst.
Nothing's ever going to measure up to Bubble Bobble... even Taito's sequels weren't quite up to par. However, Snow Bros. comes mighty close. The weapon of choice in this faithful port of the Toaplan arcade game is a handful of snow. Keep throwing snow at a nearby enemy and they'll be packed into a snowball. Kick the snowball and it frantically bounces around the screen, bowling over any of the Muppet-like gremlins in its path. Send one snowball into another and they both go flying, doubling the destruction.

Knocking out foes earns you plates of sushi and strength boosting potions, but the satisfaction you get from taking out a crowd of goons with a well-planned kick is the biggest reward of all. Snow Bros. might not be up to the standards of Bubble Bobble, but with its candy-colored artwork and the two player gameplay that most arcade ports on the Genesis lack, it's a damn fine alternative and the best game of its kind you'll find on this system. A-

THE STEEL EMPIRE
Flying Edge/Hot-B

I'm the last person in the world who'd want to give Acclaim any, uh... acclaim. They made a lot of crap for the NES under their own label and their LJN subsidiary, and when they migrated to the Sega Genesis, they took all that crap with them. No, really, we don't want a Genesis version of Bart vs. the Space Mutants. We bought a Genesis to get away from your mountains of cartoon-licensed shovelware! 

The first stage starts with a tune that sounds
way too much like Airwolf to be a coincidence.
However, there was one time when Acclaim stumbled into the right idea. That's when they released The Steel Empire for the Genesis under their Flying Edge label. Sure, there were already tons of shooters for the system in 1992, but how many of those had a steampunk setting, with biplanes and zeppelins and flying fortresses that explode into ugly chunks of scrap metal? There are even newsreels at the start of each stage... they're hard to look at with all that flickering, but at least they show dedication. Hot-B is giving you a fantasy World War I that's cooler than the one we actually got, and by gum you're going to remember it!

The Steel Empire has some clever ideas, but it's also burdened with a lot of issues that makes it feel like it was built from the same rusty gears and springs as its improbable aircraft. The graphics are dim and grungy, with a layer of transparency in the second stage that must have looked nifty on a CRT twenty five years ago but is utterly horrendous on today's displays. The power up system prompts more confusion than excitement, with swirling badges that don't seem to do anything when you collect them. Then there's the slowdown... granted, there's a lot of action and some big, big ships in the later stages, but more work should have been done to keep this game running smoothly, especially on a 16-bit system. The game's supposed to take place in 1916, not 1986.


Having said all that, The Steel Empire is still very good. Not as good as the best shooters on the Genesis, but the bi-directional shooting which lets you defend your flank and a novel setting go a long way toward justifying its presence on the system. Plus it was released by Acclaim in the United States, which considering the rest of its library isn't so much novel as it is miraculous. B-

TODD'S ADVENTURES IN SLIME WORLD
Renovation/Micro World

Sometimes these jaws will just pop out of
nowhere and eat you. Hey, who needs a warning?
An unexpected port of the Atari Lynx launch title, Slime World is ugly, abrasive, infuriating, sluggish, clumsy... and those are its good points! What's bad about the game is that you may willingly subject yourself to all that punishment. For all its many, many flaws, Slime World will get its hooks in you with enormous, labyrinthine levels that just beg to be explored. You'll be swallowed whole by monsters you couldn't anticipate, struggle with an awkward menu system, and wince at the buzzer which blares whenever you're hit with droplets of slime, but you'll keep going, hoping that the next room leads to the exit and your freedom from this dreadful compulsion.

It's not good, is the take home here. Yet the obvious potential of a game like Slime World is what makes it all the more addicting. The concept of a space explorer fighting his way out of the bowels of a gooey planet with a Super Soaker is way ahead of its time, beating Splatoon to the punch by decades. Power-ups are well suited to the terrain, with filters that turn pools of slime into crystal clear water and mega bombs that clear an especially dangerous room of everything... including yourself, if you're dumb enough to stick around for the explosion. Finally, missions are incredibly long, with even the easiest one taking nearly ten minutes to beat. There's nothing else like Slime World on the Genesis... although honestly, maybe that's for the best. D+

VALIS III
Renovation/Telenet

What happens when you cross the girl-powered anime goodness of Sailor Moon with the tough platforming and on-the-fly character switching of Castlevania III? Regrettably, not as much as you might have hoped. Valis III hits the right notes visually, with cut scenes that border on gorgeous. The game was ported over from the Turbografx-CD, and while the voice acting is gone, most of the large, colorful still shots and even the animation has remained intact, to the credit of the design team. The quality artwork carries over into the game itself, with distinct run cycles for each character and parallax scrolling adding depth to the detailed backgrounds. 

What do you mean you don't know how to get
past this part? It says "sliding" right there on
the water tower! Can't you read Japanese?
Unfortunately, Telenet made a lot of questionable decisions that keep the gameplay from being as tantalizing as the visuals. The button layout is a confusing jumble... there's a slide, but instead of triggering it with down and the jump button as you'd expect, you've got to press down and the... character select button? You're regularly accosted by insectoid enemies, which are churned out from the sides of the screen and violently fling you backward on contact, sometimes into a pit. Magic spells are largely useless (in contrast to the handy axe and boomerang in Castlevania), and bosses sponge up all the damage you can send their way and more. If you had a nuclear missile to chuck at them, they'd laugh that off too.

Valis III may have been a necessary evil in 1991, but better side-scrolling action games would come to the system in the years since, and several of those come standard on the Genesis Mini. Just play Alisia Dragoon instead... it's right thereC-

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Smell 'Ya Earlier

If you remember Punky Skunk (and you probably don't, since there was very little about this platformer worth remembering), you may have heard that the game was originally planned for the Super NES before it migrated to the Playstation. Thanks to the efforts of game preservationists Kelsey Lewin, Cauterize, and the ever diligent Frank Cifaldi, now we have that early version of the game, titled Cooly Skunk. You can download the game from Gaming Alexandria... however, it's tricky to get running on emulators, with ZSNES refusing it outright. If you just want to watch a little footage of Cooly Skunk in action, you can check it out here.


While the game was modestly improved on the Playstation, with more colorful, less tile-heavy backgrounds, it feels more at home on a previous generation console, where mascot platformers were all the rage. Also, it's worth noting that while you can only play the first three levels of the game, all the assets for Cooly Skunk are in the ROM, and it's conceivable that it could be hacked in the future to make it playable from start to finish. If you wanted that. I did mention there were a ton of games like this on the Super NES and Genesis, right?

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Kamen Ground

You know how in The King of Fighters, members of the Ikari Warriors team have a lot of elaborate poses and attacks that don't seem to make sense for soldiers to use? There's a reason for that. Most of these are tributes to Japanese pop culture, particularly cartoons and tokusatsu, the spandex-clad superhero genre of shows which eventually spawned our own Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. The Rebel Spark, where Leona thrusts a knife hand into her opponent and makes sparks fly out the other side, is actually a finishing blow from the Kamen Rider Black RX series. 

Hey, don't get mad at me! I didn't come up with this!
(image from Den of Geek)
It's easy for Americans to miss this detail, given the fact that the only exposure most of us have had to Kamen Rider was that lame Saban series from the 1990s where the title character was an alien descended from insects, with a Furby as a sidekick. The 1990s sure were, uh... something, weren't they? Special thanks to Reddit for catching this reference.

There's something else I should mention before I go. Now there are two ways to hack your Sega Genesis Mini... Project Lunar and a build of Hakchi tailored to the device. Owners of the system are already choosing sides, with some players preferring the hack that came first and others appreciating the additional features of Hakchi. Games that won't run on the default M2Engage emulator can on Hakchi by using PicoDrive instead. Rumor has it that the option to switch emulators will soon be added to Project Lunar, making the decision to choose between the exploits that much harder. Eh, I'll just stick with what I've already got... no sense in complicating things.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Harder They Are, The Bigger You Fail

I've got some exciting news. Well, it's exciting to me, anyway! After repeatedly getting flattened by the final boss of Dead Cells, the Hand of the King, I finally took the creep down using this loadout:


At the start of this run, I noticed the game was being incredibly generous with its item drops. I was getting weapons and skills early on that normally wouldn't be available until the halfway point, leaving me a relatively easy path to the final showdown. There were a few slip-ups along the way... I got overwhelmed by the spider-like Hammers in the Prison Depths and lost my YOLO mutation to their endless swarm of Corpse Flies. Fortunately, I was able to swig down a health potion in the chaos and escaped to the next stage, where the enemies weren't nearly as relentless.

Ultimately, I claimed victory not only thanks to random chance, but the deliberate decision to concentrate my level-boosting scrolls on the Tactics attribute. That's the one which strengthens your traps, torture devices like crossbows and buzzsaws which let you do sustained damage to enemies from a safe distance. With the Tactics stat at level fifteen, ordinary monsters melted like butter, and even the King's right-hand man couldn't withstand my assault, falling after a couple of minutes. As you can tell from the image above, there was a synergy happening with my gear... the traps covered the ground in flames, while the weapons did extra damage while the Hand was burning. The Sinew Slicer caused bleeding, while the Double Crossb-o-matic salted the open wounds. Throw in a defensive bonus when I was standing near one of the traps, and the last boss didn't stand a chance.

Of course, I could play Dead Cells again at a higher difficulty level, but honestly? This was all the challenge I needed. In fact, it may have been a little more challenge than I wanted. I'll just pull myself away from the table before I get more than I can handle...

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Dead Cells

When I first saw the trailer for Dead Cells, with its title character getting crushed, stabbed, and splattered repeatedly on the way to a distant castle, only to respawn in a dungeon for another try, I didn't think I would like it. After downloading the game from Xbox Live Game Pass and being given the same rough treatment, I'm still not sure I should.

Objectively, Dead Cells is a good game. Hell, it's a great game, scratching that Symphony of the Night itch better than anything I've played since Dawn of Sorrow was released nearly fifteen years ago. Oh yes, I'm aware of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. I've played it, I've beaten it, I thoroughly enjoyed it. But that was merely a copy of Symphony of the Night, with some of the assets shifted around a bit. Dead Cells takes inspiration from the later Castlevania games, but the combat is more kinetic, demanding that you be sneaky and light on your feet. You take a couple swipes at an enemy, roll away as they warm up their response, then run in for another couple of strikes, until they explode in a shower of blood and gems. Better yet, toss a trap near where they're standing and watch with perverse glee as they're set ablaze or filled with crossbow bolts. There are dozens of weapon types, and while not all of them are especially useful, they're all plenty imaginative. A personal favorite is the beam of electricity which hones in on enemies and turns pools of water into crackling death traps.


Welcome to Stilt Village, filled with such colorful
residents as cannon-wielding pirates and zombies
with a nest of carnivorous worms for a head.
(image from New Game Network)
Unfortunately, just as you begin to appreciate the spritely and ever so sadistic gameplay of Dead Cells, and admire its desolate backgrounds, with shafts of light peeking from behind trees and through prison bars, you're hit with the bitter aftertaste. Dead Cells isn't just a search action game in the style of Symphony of the Night... it's also a rogue-like, which means that every playthrough is randomized and any progress you make can be ripped out of your hands at the whim of the developers. If you lose a life in the first stage, it's right back to the start you go, with minimal health and a couple of crapsack weapons. If you make it halfway through and get blindsided by unfamiliar monsters and obstacles, it's right back to the start you go! If you reach the end of the game after two long hours and get dusted by the comically overpowered final boss in a couple of minutes, it's... yeah, you see where this is going.


You remember the scene in Groundhog Day where
Bill Murray gets sick of living the same day over
and over, so he invites a marmot to drive him
off the edge of a cliff? You'll not just remember
it after Dead Cells, you'll empathize.
(image from Lion's Roar)
In all fairness, some of the game's most hard-fought items can be kept forever, particularly the runes which open paths to new areas. These new stages, including a subterranean graveyard where straying too far from a source of light leads to profuse bleeding and certain death, keep Dead Cells from becoming too tedious. Nevertheless, it's hard to stick with a game like this, which feels like a Mobius strip made of sandpaper. It's rough all the way through, and after a while, you're not really sure if it ever ends.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Gen-Assist

Oh boy! It's the last post of the year! It's the last post of the DECADE! 

Before I begin, there's a Twitter post you may have already seen from Cinemassacre regular and professional coat tail surfer Mike Matei, which reads as follows:

Retweet if you agree: If you use the “rewind feature” that’s now standard on many NES and SNES games available on Switch, you DID NOT by any stretch of the imagination beat the god damn game.

First, I don't personally use rewind in games. Not because of any silly moral objection, but because it's slightly disorienting and I find myself hitting the button by accident until I turn it off completely in the options screen. However, I do use save states, loudly and proudly, and you'll have to pry those from my cold, dead hands.

See, here's the thing. I'm not as young as I used to be. I'm not as patient as I used to be either, and I don't feel a pressing urge to torture myself for hours on end just to prove my worth as a gamer. It's a video game. I don't have to prove a damn thing to it... it's there to entertain me. If save states are necessary to wring all the enjoyment I can out of a game, I'm using them. If I need an outlet for misplaced bravado, there are achievements and trophies for that.

Second, look at the balls on this Matei guy! Mr. "No Shortcuts Allowed" has been nursing from The Angry Video Game Nerd's jewel-encrusted teat for years. He's been playing his entire YouTube career on easy mode! As far as I'm concerned, my success at Punch-Out!! is exactly as legitimate as his success as an internet celebrity. My own foray into YouTube may have been met with all the enthusiasm of a school of hungry candiru, but at least I earned that failure. 

Anyway. There was something important I wanted to tell all of you. Project Lunar, the hotly anticipated hack for the Sega Genesis Mini, has arrived! Here's an installation tutorial from Restalgia if you want to try it yourself. Trust me, you do.


In way of warning, there isn't enough internal storage in the Genesis Mini to hold the entire Genesis library. A few games don't work with the M2ENGAGE emulator, and tons of games for the system are best left forgotten anyway. Why bother with Back to the Future III when you can just watch the movie? Why play Bart vs. The Space Mutants when you can just watch old episodes of The Simpsons? Why spend time with Dark Castle when you can roll around naked in a bed full of mouse traps? Eh, you get the idea. Upload only the games you want to play, and you'll be happy. If you're having trouble deciding, maybe I'll make some suggestions in a later post.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The Bestivus Awards, 2010-2019

He's trying so hard to be gracious about it.
(image from IFC)
One of the most memorable moments of the Pee-Wee Herman Christmas Special (which should still be fresh in your mind, I hope) is that everyone who visits the playhouse, from regal cow puppets to camp icons like Charro, brings Pee-Wee a fruitcake as a gift. Does he want them? Of course not, but he accepts the rock-hard pastries with all the grace of a grown man with Peter Pan syndrome and an unwillingness to use his indoor voice.

So in that grand tradition, here's another gift you've already been given at least a dozen times... a best of the decade awards list! If it makes you feel any better, this one's been written from a different perspective than the others you've already seen. Instead of lumping together games from two generations of consoles, I'm picking one personal favorite for each of the dozen systems on this list. It seems more fair that way, since there's a pretty wide performance gap between, say, a PSP and an Xbox One.

If it doesn't make you feel better, just accept this present with gritted teeth and a weak smile, then use all the best of decade lists you've collected as bricks to build an extra room for your house. Hey, it worked for Pee-Wee. 


CURRENT GENERATION AWARDS

PLAYSTATION 4
Horizon Zero Dawn

There's no shortage of sprawling action-adventure games on the Playstation 4, but out of the ones I've played, I liked this one best. Mind you, I had to stick with it for a while, but once I got past the introduction and a hunting competition that doubled as a tutorial, Horizon Zero Dawn stole my heart... and a lot of my free time. 

It's one of those games where you could progress the storyline about humanity's fall from the top of the food chain, if you weren't too busy hiking from one end of the continent to the other, using arrows to break the fuel canisters of robot deer and picking fights with metal dinosaurs twenty times your size. Who would be stupid enough to take on a fire-breathing monster the length of a football field? You would, because it's tons of fun and you get to brag to your friends about it if you somehow survive. Plus you can use the scrap metal left behind to power up your- eh, who am I kidding? I don't care about the power ups... I'm just here to set traps and launch explosives at giant robot bears. Look, you'd understand if you had Zoids when you were a kid.

XBOX ONE
Killer Instinct

History won't look back fondly on the Xbox One. Customer-hostile decisions by former Microsoft Interactive chief Don Mattrick hobbled the system's reputation months before it was launched, and compromised hardware meant that it couldn't stand on equal footing with the Playstation 4. Even the user interface lags slightly, occasionally taking a couple of seconds for the onscreen cursor to jump from one menu option to the next.


Look, Microsoft owns the Battletoads. They had
to find SOME use for them.
(image from VG247)
Nevertheless, the Xbox One had its moments. Re-Code was a diverting blend of the post-apocalyptic setting of Horizon Zero Dawn and the dash-focused play mechanics of Mega Man X. Forza Horizon 3 sent players to Australia for a racing festival with hundreds of challenges and countless customization options. Want to tune your cars to enhance their performance, or even paint the sides with the cast of Animaniacs? Hey, if you don't tell Warner Bros., I won't.

Then you've got Killer Instinct, the game that convinced me to buy an Xbox One in the first place. This reboot of the flashy 1990s fighter buries the original with more accommodating gameplay and a wealth of content, including a Shadow Lords mode which sends up to three heroes around the world to battle the minions of Gargos, collecting helpful items and healing their wounds from previous battles. Maybe it's not better than the Playstation 4 exclusive Street Fighter V, but it feels like a lot more effort went into it.

WII U
Splatoon

I hate online gaming. Nintendo seems to hate online gaming too, which makes it all the more surprising that they managed to make a game that makes me hate online gaming just a little less.

In simple terms, Splatoon is a third-person, player vs. player shooter. That doesn't really do it justice, though... it's more accurate to say that Splatoon is a little like Counter-Strike, but a whole lot more like a day at Nickelodeon Studios, complete with cartoon sea life and rivers of Gak. Your goal is to tag as much territory as possible with your team's color of slime before time runs out. Your Inkling (a fashion-forward preteen squid) can hide from opponents and fill her slime tank by diving into puddles of the same color. However, contact with slime from the other team slows the Inkling down and can even "pop" her, forcing her to return to the starting point on the map.

There are other play styles, generally in the ranked mode, but I found Turf Wars to be the most enjoyable of the bunch. It's easy to learn, fun to play, and you leave each match refreshed and eager for more, rather than frustrated and discouraged. The Wii U didn't live up to my expectations, but Splatoon was one of those rare games for the system that left me with no regrets.


PREVIOUS GENERATION AWARDS

XBOX 360
Mass Effect 2

I bought an Xbox 360 in its freshman year, just months after its late 2005 launch. I own dozens of its games on disc, and at least a hundred of them digitally. It's my favorite system of its console generation, even with the red ring of death that forced me to get another one (and a later model, just in case). So when I say that Mass Effect 2 is the best game on the Xbox 360, that means something.


It just doesn't get any better than this.
Seriously, ask anyone.
(image from VG247's YouTube page)
I wanted to like the first Mass Effect, but the maze-like level structure and the wonky, luck-based combat system soured me on the game. The sequel keeps the compelling lore, complex characters, and branching dialog of the original, but keeps the stages streamlined and introduces fast-paced gun fights similar to those in Gears of War. The difference is that you're given enough time to swap weapons, issue commands to your squad members, and oh yes, breathe, keeping you from feeling overwhelmed. Also, you can use biotics to hold your enemies in mid-air, then fill them with holes as they helplessly dangle in front of you. Is it sporting? Nah. Is it sadistic? Sure. But is it fun? Ooooh yeah.

What I'm saying is that Mass Effect 2 is good. It's so good you'll want to buy all the DLC missions. It's so good you'll even do the boring stuff to make it last, like searching for minerals on distant planets while making the ship's computer reluctantly say "probing Uranus." It's so good that it... was better than the sequel and the hapless spin-off Mass Effect Andromeda. Maybe Mass Effect 2 was a little too good for its own good.

PLAYSTATION 3
Blur

Merging the competitive racing of Mario Kart with the more realistic settings and vehicles of Need for Speed isn't a "two great things that taste great together" combination. It's a "two great things that shouldn't taste great together yet somehow do" situation, like dipping fries into your Frosty or eating a bag of salted caramel Bugles. It works, but you're just not sure how.

Blur indeed works. In fact, it works better than most of the violent racing games released in the wake of Burnout 3: Takedown. Unlike Full Auto, it remains fun even after the sheen of the polished graphics and the thrill of charging down a city street with a machine gun lose their novelty. Unlike Split/Second, you can attack the other racers directly, rather than starting an earthquake somewhere on the track and hoping for the best. Blur even has an edge over Mario Kart in that its attacks pack a meaningful punch, and that there's no blue shell which flips the outcome of the race on its head. Instead you get a Shock, three land mines with a wide detonation radius that are difficult, but not impossible, to dodge.

Blur isn't exclusive to the Playstation 3, and it may not even be the best game released for the system after 2010, but it's some of the most fun I've had with this console. 

WII
Super Mario Galaxy 2


That must be the Super Mario world
I've heard so much about.
(image from VideoGamesBlogger)
There was really only one choice for this honor. The highlights of the Wii library were top loaded, with most being released between the system's 2006 launch and the end of 2009. That rules out the pack-in Wii Sports, Zack and Wiki, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and Punch Out!, among others. The later games on the Wii I either didn't play (Kirby's Epic Yarn, Skyward Sword) or didn't like (Xenoblade Chronicles, Rhythm Heaven Fever), so what else is left?

Well, Kirby's Return to Dreamland is a solid if predictable entry in that series, and The Last Story is fine if you like inscrutable action RPGs, but I'm going with Super Mario Galaxy 2. I honestly don't remember much of it beyond a planet shaped like Mario's head, but I did love the previous game from start to finish, and this was more of it. You really can't go wrong with a second helping of Super Mario Galaxy.


HANDHELD AWARDS

NINTENDO 3DS
Super Smash Bros. 4

It took a while for me to understand the appeal of Super Smash Bros., but thanks to this handheld extension of the long-running series, I finally get it. It's as full-featured as any of the previous Smash games, yet approachable in a way they weren't. If you want to get in some quick practice, just flip open the 3DS, start the game, and you're brawling in twenty seconds. Alternately, you can play one of Smash 4's mini games, fun diversions that also teach you the basics of combat along with the unique abilities of each character.

However, the headliner for this version of Smash Bros. (and a feature painfully absent from its Wii U counterpart) is Smash Run. Stuff the levels from Brawl's Subspace Emissary into a sack, smack them a few times with a hammer, and spill the pieces onto a table, and you've got a random jumble of gaming goodness that emphasizes the platforming aspects of the series. As an added bonus, it also lets you punch a bunch of creatures from at least two dozen other video games. What self-respecting nerd would want to miss out on a chance to sink their fists into a Pooka from Dig Dug?

PLAYSTATION VITA
Axiom Verge


Some games elicit oohs and aahs.
The reactions to Axiom Verge are
closer to "Ewws!" and "Aughs!"
(image from Engadget)
Axiom Verge is many things. It's creepy, weird, pretentious, discordant, and ugly, but it's also the best damn Metroidvania of the decade... no small feat as there's been so many of them. Paradoxically, Axiom Verge's success comes not only from how faithful it is to the first Metroid, but all the ways it breaks tradition with the games that have followed in its footsteps. Take for instance the double jump. There isn't one in Axiom Verge. Gaps between platforms are cleared by launching a drone over the chasm, then swapping places with it as it lands. Abilities like this demand unconventional thinking, but after a hundred or so of these search action games, unconventional thinking is exactly what this well-worn genre needs.

Glitching is the most important of Axiom Verge's out-of-left-field play mechanics. The lead character can alter reality with a glitch gun, turning once fearsome enemies into harmless clusters of graphic tiles and pulling platforms out of thin air. You could argue that making progress through Axiom Verge by tugging at its loose threads and unraveling it is a fascinating deconstruction of video games. Even if you don't want to dig too deeply into the philosophical underpinnings of the glitch gun, you've got to admit it's a damn cool concept.

PLAYSTATION PORTABLE
Grand Knights History

The PSP was near the end of its lifespan in 2011, leaning on a cane with one wrinkled hand while waiting to pass its baton to the Vita with the other. While the system was largely forsaken in America by this point, the Japanese weren't yet willing to let it go, releasing games for the PSP in 2011 and beyond. Not just the usual mediocrities designed to cash in on the latest cartoon, but good games! Games rivaling the best you'll find in the PSP library! Games like Grand Knights History.

Designed by Vanillaware and featuring the company's gorgeous hand-drawn artwork, Grand Knights History is a role-playing title where you assemble a team of young warriors, archers, and wizards, and take them on a series of scouting missions across a vast continent ruled by three kingdoms. Your goal is to give these squires enough training to serve your kingdom as knights. Eight years ago, there was an online component where you could pit your best fighters against those of other players, but even without it, there's enough in Grand Knights History to keep you engaged... and dazzled. When you're not staring gape-jawed at the graphics, you'll battle gangs of monsters in turn-based combat, with you and your enemies trading blows on a grid-like battlefield. Imagine a cross between tennis and chess with the usual RPG trappings, and you've got the right idea.

MOBILE
Forget-Me-Not

Smartphone games generally don't hold your attention for long, and they generally don't have the restraint to charge you once for the experience, opting instead to periodically halt your progress and demand micro-transactions if you wish to continue. I suspect the frequent tolls are why people don't play smartphone games for very long, and I'm also sure that the lack of them in Forget-Me-Not is why I've kept playing it long after its 2011 debut.

You pay for Forget-Me-Not once (or not at all on iOS devices), and you get millions of randomly generated levels and hours of Pac-Manly fun for the price of admission. You'll eat flowers, quaff strength-boosting potions, blast abstract monsters with an unending stream of lasers, gobble the fruit prizes they leave behind, and get blown to bits by kamikaze bomb creatures. And you'll keep doing all that, not only because the action is perversely compulsive, but because it won't cost you a cent beyond the initial download fee.


REALLY FRICKIN' OLD STUFF AWARDS

ATARI 2600
Galagon

The Atari 2600 wasn't supposed to amount to much; basically, it was designed as an evolution of the Pong machines Atari released in the mid 1970s. It had very little RAM, no video RAM at all, and its early cartridges topped out at around 4K, just enough for simple player versus player challenges like Combat. Nobody expected it to survive into the 1980s and beyond, yet it did just that, getting the Legend of Zelda inspired Secret Quest in 1989 and the puzzle game Acid Drop in 1992.


I don't get how it is, but here it is!
Forty years after its launch, software is still being released for the Atari 2600, albeit in an unofficial capacity by fans. The best of these games are seemingly impossible arcade ports by programmer John W. Champeau, and the best of those is Galagon, which faithfully reproduces the gameplay of Namco's Galaga while adding the option to play with a friend. Together, at the same time. Not even the arcade game let you do this! Whether you play it alone or with a buddy, Galagon runs more smoothly than the port of Galaga on the Atari 7800, making you wonder how Champeau managed to make this game run on the humble 2600 without it catching on fire and burning down his house.

ATARI 7800
Rikki and Vikki

Truth told, this puzzle/platform hybrid has issues. The control is a little sluggish, and because the lead characters crumple in a single hit, boss fights are unreasonably difficult. I was lucky to get past the mole in the first level, but the last level- reachable only with a second player- demands not just perfection, but perfection in stereo.

Having said that, the stunning presentation in Rikki and Vikki goes a long way toward smoothing over the game's flaws. Few games on the Atari 7800 look as good as this one does, and absolutely no games sound this good, not even the small handful of official releases with a POKEY chip built into the cartridge. The catchy soundtrack and expressive cartoon artwork lend a sense of professionalism to Rikki and Vikki that too many Atari 7800 games lack. Just don't expect the joys this title has to offer to come easily.

SEGA GENESIS
Darius

The last two years have been pretty good to the Genesis. Not only did it finally get a worthwhile mini console to make up for all those duds by AtGames, it's seen a handful of high quality homebrews as well. There's been Tanglewood, and Xenocrisis, and of course Darius, which was included as a bonus on the aforementioned Sega Genesis Mini.


Details like these close-ups of the Silver Hawk
ships would have wound up on the cutting room
floor of a eight megabit port of Darius.
At first, I thought Darius was a pointless addition to the Mini. Didn't we get a pretty good Genesis port of the sequel already? Twenty-eight years after Sagaia, why take a step backward? Two reasons, actually. The first is that Darius is held in fond regard by the Japanese. The game's been ported to a half dozen game consoles, handhelds, and home computers. Hell, there were two recent fan conversions of Darius for the Sega Genesis, designed independently of each other! The point is, Darius is big in Japan. Sagaia, maybe not so much.

The second reason is that it's a really good conversion of Darius, four times the size of the Genesis port of Sagaia and noticeably less compromised. Seeing what was done here makes you wonder what might have been possible on the Genesis if cartridge space hadn't been so tight back in the early 1990s.