Sunday, May 24, 2020

Neo-Geo Mini, Take Two

Yeah, I know Pac-Man just celebrated his fortieth anniversary, and I want to talk about it, really! But not right now. I haven't gathered my thoughts on the subject yet.

In the meantime, I'd like to talk a bit about the Neo-Geo Mini. Opinions on the pint-sized system range from "eh, it gets the job done" to "they were charging $120 for THIS?!," but thanks to the efforts of a handful of hackers, it's getting better. A guy named Shinrukus has been singularly dedicated to the device, crafting new firmware builds which expand the system's library of games. Not to be outdone, another hacker named hy-lo is working on the option to select a BIOS, restoring the blood in Metal Slug and eliminating the four credit limit in other games. (Back in the far-flung year of 1992, you'd buy a Neo-Geo game for two hundred dollars, and you get a dollar's worth of credits to play it. Gee, sale of the century there.)

The brass ring, of course, is eliminating the pixel smearing in the Neo-Geo Mini's HDMI output. Hy-lo claims that this is feasible, but may require "weeks to months" of reverse engineering. If you're not that patient, you could always buy the Neo-Geo Arcade Pro Stick for around a hundred dollars, which never had the problem in the first place. Personally speaking, I've got way too many joysticks already. I just got rid of a joystick... I don't need more freaking joysticks! I'll just wait for whatever solution these guys have to offer, whenever it's available.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Gorillas in the Switch

One of the fringe benefits of having a Switch is that I can finally have an arcade perfect port of Donkey Kong. That should have been a possibility at least twenty nine years ago when the Super NES was launched, and we shouldn't have to pay eight dollars for this long overdue privilege, but it is what it is. 

Anyway, here are some observations on the game so exciting it made an eight year old me pee his pants. (Look, I had a quarter and the Dairy Queen had both a Donkey Kong arcade cabinet and a pay toilet. Talk about Sophie's choice.)

• When I was a kid, there was only one way to play Donkey Kong... with the levels shuffled so that the player frequently had to play the barrel stage. The barrel stage is a Donkey Kong trademark, but it's also hard, with the rolling containers having a nasty habit of meeting you halfway on whatever ladder you're climbing. Each time you reach a new barrel stage, it gets harder, until DK starts throwing barrels with the uncanny precision of a trick bowler. Luckily, the Japanese game with its more straightforward level arrangement is included in the package. This means fewer barrel stages, and fewer chances for a zigzagging blue skull barrel to lodge itself into Mario's brain.


After all those barrels, you deserved that concussion.
• I've frequently bemoaned the lack of the cement factory stage in home Donkey Kong ports, but after some reflection it really does seem like the most expendable part of the game. It's not terrible, but it lacks the seat of your pants thrills of the barrel stage, the challenging jumps of the elevator stage, and the clever hook of the final encounter with Kong. Here, you just race up ladders, occasionally fighting the momentum of conveyor belts and bounding over cement pans that seem downright passive next to the barrels and fireballs in other stages. It's functional, just nothing exciting, which is likely why it was always the first stage to get the axe in the home versions.

• I mentioned the fireballs earlier, and they're worth discussing in further detail. They're tricky little bastards, moving erratically but with just enough purpose to make you think they're watching you... and waiting for you to screw up. Try to leap over the plumes of flame in the plug stage and they reverse course, guaranteeing a trip to the burn ward. Climb a ladder to reach that last plug and a fireball is almost certain to intercept you. One of the rare mercies of the barrel stage is that there's only one fireball onscreen (rather than the two in the elevator stage or the small army in the plug stage), but even it can catch you if you hang around the bottom of the playfield for too long.


Epyx later released a game called Jumpman Jr., which
somehow did not spark the wrath of the fiercely
litigious Nintendo. Maybe Howard Lincoln was on
vacation that day. 
• Hamster, the company that ported Donkey Kong to the Switch, refers to Mario as "Jumpman" in the instruction screen that briefly pops up while the game loads. I'm surprised someone still remembers! It's a shame Nintendo didn't make this Mario's official last name, opting instead for the redundant Mario Mario. (My personal choice would have been Mario Brothers, like the late pop psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, but I digress.)

• Hamster also gives you the option to play Donkey Kong with a border. Unfortunately, it's not the bezel art with a chibi Kong sticking his tongue out at Mario, who's always two steps behind his ape antagonist. It's a missed opportunity considering that Atari Flashback, also for the Switch, does have border art taken from the original arcade games. At least you can play Donkey Kong with its original vertical aspect ratio, although that doesn't work quite so well on the Switch Lite with its smaller screen and hardwired controllers.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

The East We Could Do

Just before my Nintendo Switch arrived, the eShop had wrapped up a sale on classic Data East games. This was frustrating, because Data East was a little piece of my arcade-hopping childhood, and it pained me to miss out on reliving that experience for a reasonable price. 

However, a friend on Twitter assured me that these games went on sale all the time, and that I'd get another crack at them soon enough. Sure enough, a few weeks went by and that friend alerted me that the sale had returned. I learned that pretty much everything in the Johnny Turbo's Arcade line was discounted to two dollars, so I hauled ass to the eShop to clean house.

Ugh. Didn't I get enough of you in GamePro?
Before you ask, yes, these games are presented by that Johnny Turbo. The hefty, hirsute hero appears in the corner of the menu, and each title is introduced with the nasal voice of his real-life inspiration, marketer Jonathan Bradstetter. It's anyone's guess why he's still using the name "Turbo," given that the console he championed went down in flames decades ago, and that these games have absolutely nothing to do with the Turbografx-16. (I mean, if Bloody Wolf was here, maybe? But it's not...) Nevertheless, he's here, and like the pesky mother-in-law who frequently stops by for unexpected visits, you'll have to accept that he's part of the overall package.

Speaking of grim acceptance, you should also know that the emulators running these games weren't designed by M2, or Hamster, or Code Mystics, which means that you won't be getting the features or the performance you've come to expect from those talented studios. The options in each game are typically limited to aspect ratio, a handful of video filters, and loading and saving your progress. 

This isn't really the way I want to play it. Can I- no?
It's this or nothing? Okay.
Controls are locked to B for jumping and A for attacks, which feels awkward on a Switch Lite. Say you want to move the heavy attacks to X and A in Fighter's History, or aim directly with the right thumbstick in Heavy Barrel, rather than slowly rotating the gun in either direction. That'd be nice, wouldn't it? Well, forget it. You're in Brandstetter's house now, and you play by his rules... his senseless, uncomfortable rules.

The games run well enough, but aren't airtight as they tend to be in M2's emulators. I've had Heavy Barrel loop back to the title screen after I finished the first stage (just one time, but the first time, which was a little alarming), and Night Slashers exhibited flicker and sprite issues. Admittedly, this was a pretty obscure game in arcades, and it could have had the same problems there, but you definitely notice it here.

Past these issues and the developers' tendency to play musical chairs with the insert coin and player start buttons, the games offered in Johnny Turbo's Arcade are as playable as they've ever been. Of course, not every game is as enjoyable as you thought they were when you first played them... as I quickly discovered with Bad Dudes. Let's look at the eight Data East games I purchased, shall we? I'll end each review with a final verdict; whether the game was worth the price or if it left me with two dollars of buyer's remorse.

BAD DUDES

I won't try to leave you in suspense... I mean, the warning is right there in the title. Bad Dudes was aggressively advertised by Data East, which claimed on the back of EGM that it would topple Double Dragon as the king of beat 'em ups. While the arcade version of Double Dragon has problems that are more obvious in hindsight, it's nevertheless a hell of a lot better than this

I can't believe I played the whole thing... (gurp)
Bad Dudes takes the flatness of a side-scrolling platformer and combines it with the sluggishness of a brawler, then tops it all off with a limited move set and a flood of cheap enemies barfed out from either side of the screen. You can't perform holds or throws, and you can't pull off slick combination attacks; not that they would be of much use since each cardboard ninja falls to a single punch. Aside from the bosses, which take huge chunks of your life bar in the later stages, nothing ever feels like combat against an evenly matched foe... just crowd control.

Sure, the graphics are a little crisper and more realistic than they were in Double Dragon, but there's no prettying up the repetitive gameplay and the control, which never feels as tight or as deliberate as it should be. We may not have realized it in 1988, once you play this for fifteen minutes, wishing you were doing anything else, it will be crystal clear... this sucks.

WORTH $2?: HA HA HA no

CAVEMAN NINJA

I have fond memories of Joe and Mac in arcades and on the Super NES... and this threatens to unravel that nostalgia. I used to play this with my brother and a friend, and it turns out that the experience is a lot different with two players. You've got someone at your side, helping you clear the screen of scruffy neanderthals. If you die, your next life appears where you lost the previous one. If you run out of lives, you drop more quarters into the machine and keep going, no worse for wear.

Single player Joe and Mac is not so forgiving. Your caveman has a deceptively long life bar that steadily drains on its own and loses great big chunks from contact with enemies. If you get hit three or four times, the screen fades to black and you're dragged back to a checkpoint, or forced to restart a boss fight. This turns what was a fun if insubstantial action game into a brutal test of your reflexes and memorization. Fail and you get to do it again. And again. And again. And- whoops, you just threw your Switch at the wall. That'll be expensive to fix!

The Super NES version of Joe and Mac had all the comical, color-drenched graphics of the arcade game, but was tweaked to be a more palatable single player experience. Levels were structured differently, the health bar was more honestly depicted, and getting hit cost you a lot less of it. It was simple fun even without a friend along for the ride, but the arcade game practically demands one. Understand this before taking the plunge.

WORTH $2?: Not without 2 players

FIGHTER'S HISTORY

I wish I could recommend this. I'm a fan of versus fighting games, and I even like Fighter's History, albeit ironically. It's dumb, shameless fun, with a cast of characters that straddles the fence between familiar and ridiculous. You've got an onion-headed Terry Bogard armed with baked potatoes, punk rock Guile, the Frenchiest French man in existence, and of course the blubbery Karnov, who serves as the final boss. When they win, they spout off impressively rude lines of dialog, and when they lose, they look like they've been beaten with the ugly telephone pole. If you've been playing fighting games for a while and can have a good laugh at their expense, you'll devour this one like Pringles. "This is the stupidest thing I've ever seen... and I want more."

At least the announcer is a little better in Fighter's
History, sounding like Dark Helmet threatening
Princess Vespa. It fits in a game that feels
like a parody of its genre.
If you like the cheese-slathered combat of Fighter's History, you're better off jumping straight into the sequel Karnov's Revenge. It's not only got more characters, with a wild ox offered as the final final boss, but the emulation is superior, with Hamster offering features that are deeply missed here. You can't change the button configuration, you can't change dip switch settings, and you can't lower the difficulty; something you'll desperately want to do, because the CPU fights like a rabid wolf when his life drops to twenty-five percent and the music picks up tempo. 

Fighter's History at least looks nice, in a store brand Street Fighter II kind of way, and the gameplay is on par with other games in the genre, but you can do better on the Switch. Hell, you can find a better game in its own series.

Worth $2?: Do you have an extra six dollars? Get Karnov's Revenge instead

HEAVY BARREL

Top-down military combat was big business in the 1980s. You had your Commando, your Ikari Warriors, and of course Data East's contribution to the genre, Heavy Barrel. It doesn't look substantially different from Ikari Warriors, with the same rotary dial joystick and waves of relentless enemies, but Heavy Barrel distinguishes itself from the rest of the pack with a clever hook. Specially marked enemies carry a key which can in turn open chests, which award new guns and bombs. These weapons are generally a lot more powerful than the ones in competing shooters, but the king of them all is a shoulder mounted laser cannon that must be assembled from six different pieces. Collect them all and the game is your bitch for about forty seconds.

Past the secret toy surprise, Heavy Barrel is a standard issue military shooter. It pumps out a lot more enemies than other games in the genre and it has a slightly more futuristic look, but if you've ever played Ikari Warriors, you can jump right into this one without missing a beat. It's a little repetitive- the industrial stage with its elevators and grated metal floors just never seems to end- but the arsenal of weapons and of course the all-powerful Heavy Barrel should hold your attention for at least a few levels. You can also invite a friend to play with you... just try not to get mad when he gets the super weapon first.

Worth the $2?: Yeah, I'd say so

NIGHT SLASHERS

Data East hit its creative peak with Night Slashers, a side-scrolling beat 'em up that replaces the usual sleazy thugs with decayed zombies and movie monsters. As either a Chinese martial artist, a brawny cyborg, or the hip descendant of the Van Helsing bloodline, it's up to you to send these wayward souls back to their graves. Punches and kicks are usually enough to get the job done, but you can also hammer the undead into the ground with an overhead smash, or resort to a stylish, screen clearing super move. It drains your energy, sure, but it's almost always worth the sacrifice.

Good luck putting Frankenstein back together
after this. Better get a ladle and a bucket.
There's so much attention to detail in Night Slashers that it almost borders on swagger. Zombies swing their shoulders wildly as they lurch toward you, hoping to sink their teeth into your flesh. Vampire hunter Christopher ends his combos with the flash of an enchanted jewel that liquifies any nearby undead creatures. Land a fatal blow on a boss and the flesh cascades from their bones, leaving a hollow skeleton behind. The monsters are brilliantly designed, with a puppeteer and his shambling blue sidekick being a highlight. Throw in responsive control and you've got a top-shelf product, easily on the level of Capcom's own beat 'em ups. Games like this will make you wish Data East had stuck around long enough for an encore. 

Worth $2?: Abso-freaking-lutely

NITRO BALL

"Hey boss, you know Smash TV? The game that's pretty hot over in America? We should make something like that."
"That's a pretty good idea. We can't JUST make a clone, though... not after that whole Fighter's History mess. What are you going to do to make it distinct?"
"Well, I... uh... people like pinball too, right? So we'll put in some bumpers, maybe a few of those little spinning card things..."
"You just pulled that out of your ass, didn't you."
"Please don't fire me."

Yes, Nitro Ball is the union of two play styles that no sane person would ever consider bringing together. It's got the rapid fire shooting action and the game show atmosphere of Smash TV, complete with an overly enthusiastic host and big prizes that pop out the thugs you've gunned down. However, instead of being reduced to a fine red mist, the goons you've blasted curl up into a ball and bounce around the playfield. For the most points, you'll want to lead their corpses into bumpers, drop targets, and holes that award a jackpot bonus. At best it's a fun added challenge and at worst it's a distraction, but it nevertheless serves the purpose of making Nitro Ball more than just a copy of Smash TV.

What's surprising is that Nitro Ball captures the sensory overload of a game show better than Midway's game. You're bombarded with loud colors, flashing lights, and urgent music, and the gift boxes from Smash TV have been replaced with sports cars, mansions, and glittering gold watches. The stages feel a little too confined in spots and the lack of twin sticks for firing is an inconvenience, but where presentation is concerned, Nitro Ball makes the game that inspired it look like an old episode of Jeopardy.

Worth $2?: Oh baby, yes!

SLY SPY

Sly, nothing! This game borrows so much from the James Bond franchise and does so little to hide the fact that you almost have to admire the brazen copyright infringement. As a secret agent with a three digit code name and a face only Timothy Dalton could love, you must infiltrate the Council for World Domination, fighting a metal-jawed giant and a heavyset man in a tuxedo who expects you to die. Yes, he actually says that... "I expect you to die." It's a small wonder that when Capcom sued Data East, they didn't have to wait in line behind MGM and the estate of Ian Fleming.

Party on, dudes!
Anyway. Sly Spy is a side-scrolling action title best described as the love child of Rolling Thunder and Data East's previous game Bad Dudes. You're armed with a gun, as are most of your enemies, but you don't crumple in a couple of shots like you would in Namco's game. It doesn't play as cleanly as Rolling Thunder, with your terrorist foes clumping together in large crowds, but Sly Spy does have the benefit of variety, with your secret agent diving from an airplane, racing through traffic on a motorcycle, and swimming through shark-infested waters. Unlike Bad Dudes, this game spends so much time changing up the action that you never have a chance to get bored. As a tip of the hat to Data East's other game Heavy Barrel, you can also build a devastating "golden gun" with pieces scattered through each stage. Really, it was like they were asking to get sued.

Worth $2?: Live and yes, buy

TWO CRUDE

Even Worse Dudes? Yes! But also no! Look, it's complicated. Two Crude is essentially a sequel to Bad Dudes, with many of the same problems. Levels are nearly as flat as they were in the first game and the combat is brain dead, but Two Crude's got two things going for it that Bad Dudes didn't. The first is that nearly everything you see in the post-apocalyptic wasteland can be picked up thanks to a dedicated grab button. See that punk running toward you? Grab him and toss him into a few of his friends. See that traffic sign? Rip it out of the ground and bludgeon somebody with it. See that totaled car? Yeah, you know what to do with that. It's ridiculous and not at all realistic, but it's nevertheless liberating to interact with things that would just be wallpaper in other games.

The second thing is that Two Crude, as suggested in the title, is joyously tacky. The grey of the dying city in the first stage is splashed with colorful graffiti. Enemies include a psychotic Santa Claus and a man who accessorizes with a ten foot snake wrapped around his body. Your mercenary wears shades and a mohawk, and is as likely to throw around a cheesy quip as he is a nearby Buick. It's still not a good game, but Two Crude at least has personality, and for some players that might be enough.

WORTH $2?: Maybe? I mean, if you like camp...

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

SNK-o De Mayo II: The Rage and The Fury

Honestly, it's been a while since I've updated this blog, and there are plenty of things I could talk about right now. At the top of the list is the Neo-Geo Mini, which arrived yesterday. All of the complaints you've read in other reviews are right on the money... there's no internal battery or even room inside the unit for a pair of AAs, and throw on the joystick is so pronounced that left and right live on opposite ends of the country. This presents a problem in shooters like Blazing Star, where it's tough to move diagonally, and the King of Fighters titles, which under better circumstances give the player finer control over their jumps than other fighting games.

Lowered expec-tayay-tions...
(image from Amazon)
However, the system was so cheap that I'd feel guilty dwelling on its faults. If I paid the full retail price for this, I'd be more inclined to bitch about the tiny LCD display and the games chosen for inclusion in the international edition. I like Metal Slug, really, but nobody needs this much Metal Slug. However, the Neo-Geo Mini cost me just thirty dollars. If I dared to complain too much about it, I'm pretty sure the Jess from twenty years ago would catch the nearest TARDIS to 2020 and kick my ass. Or just complain about my complaining... even in my twenties, I was never the ass-kicking sort.

Anyway, what else was I going to mention? Oh yes, Streets of Rage 4. For the most part, the game was worth the twenty-five year wait. The comic book artwork gives the series a welcome push into the 21st century, with plenty of details that would be easy to miss if you're not paying attention. The art museum has a golden turkey on display, which can't be eaten but works perfectly well for bludgeoning enemies. Characters from previous games that aren't playable at least make cameo appearances... Ash shows up in a poster in an early stage, and you'll find Victy the kangaroo tending bar in a later one. (It's probably best not to ask how he has the fine motor control to make drinks while wearing boxing gloves.) The game also plays much like it did in previous iterations, with launchers and juggles adding to the excitement, not to mention the combo potential. 

Oh, and there's four player gameplay, too!
And Adam is playable for the first time in
nearly thirty years!
(image from Newsbreak)
On the other hand, the new play mechanic that forces you to win back health you've depleted with special moves is aggravating. Generally it's not a safe bet when the screen gets congested, because someone will inevitably stab you in the back as you're trying to refill that bar. Also, the playable characters are either too fragile (Cherry, Blaze) or too damn slow. I understand why a bruiser like Floyd- basically a hybrid of Max Thunder and the widely disliked Dr. Zan- would need to be shifted down into first gear, but Axel too? I guess the last twenty five years weren't kind to his joints. On top of that, boss battles are a little drawn out and tedious, at least if you're playing alone. Estel in particular is the worst, constantly countering your attacks with overhead kicks and raining hellfire down on you after she's lost a little health.

Aside from these issues, Streets of Rage 4 looks and feels like where the series should be after a twenty five year hibernation. Maybe we shouldn't have had to wait that long for a sequel, but then again, maybe it was for the best, considering the game that almost became Streets of Rage 4.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Impulse Buying to Come Again!

Boy, that couldn't have been timed better. On the day I received my stimulus check, Amazon sells the international version of its bite-sized Neo-Geo arcade cabinet for thirty dollars. Yep, that's an insta-buy right there. It doesn't matter that I have a half dozen other mini consoles already or that I purchased the Humble Bundle with most of these games included a few years ago. It doesn't matter that it didn't get glowing reviews from critics, with many complaining about the blurry display on television sets. (Who needs a television? It has its own built-in screen, right?) It doesn't even matter that SNK forgot what microswitches were after all these years, because I wanted one of these bad, and for $29.99, there's no way I could resist. 

That's like, thirty dollars for forty games and a system that can play them. Do you know how much a Neo-Geo and forty games cost at retail thirty years ago? Eight thousand six hundred dollars. I'd be stark raving bonkers not to get this! And while I'm aware the Neo-Geo Mini's got issues, a lot of that stuff can be circumvented with hardware I already own, like the M30 joypad. An inevitable hardware hack will take care of the rest.


There was one other thing I wanted to mention before I go, because it's kind of important. Nintendo is closing the eShop for the Wii U and 3DS in forty-two different countries, mostly in the Caribbean and South America. Should this concern you? Definitely, if you happen to live in Barbados. However, considering Nintendo's past actions, this move probably won't be limited to travel hotspots like the Virgin Islands. Recall that early last year, the company shuttered its Wii eShop in America, denying millions of players access to the games they already purchased. This first step toward planned obsolescence suggests that the digital storefronts for the Wii U and 3DS will be on Nintendo's hit list next year. 

The company's aggressive retirement of its past consoles isn't just frustrating for the players who still use those products; it's downright bewildering when you consider that its competitors are less eager to nail the coffins shut on their legacy hardware. You can still download games for such oldies as the Xbox 360 and PSP, and either play them on those systems or their successors. Nintendo's insistence on giving their own games an expiration date not only reflects poorly on them, it casts a shadow on the concept of digital content. Does anything really belong to you in this modern age? At least one game company seems to think the answer is "no."

(Special thanks to CMunk, whose 7-12 Serif font was the closest I could find to the one used in mid-1990s Capcom games like Saturday Night Slam Masters.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The 'Ol Switcheroo

Remember when I'd occasionally review a handful of games for the Playstation Vita? You're probably not going to see much of that action now. Since Sony dragged that system out to the woods to be shot- I mean, let it live out the rest of its days in a grassy field with all the other retired handhelds- I'll turn my attention to the Switch instead. Here now are five games I recently played for the system, in no particular order.

WHIPSEEY AND THE LOST ATLAS
Blowfish Studios


It looks like Kirby's Adventure, it sounds like Kirby's Adventure. But brother, this ain't Kirby's Adventure. Just when you think you know what to expect from this peppy action title with a round pink protagonist, Whipseey throws you a curve ball and reveals itself to be more akin to the original Castlevania. 


This game has a thing for situations like this.
What would Sigmund Freud say?
It's not just the whip in the title, which doubles as a grappling hook and triples as a helicopter blade. It's that the hero, for all his resemblance to Nintendo's pink puff, has a decidedly Belmont-ish feel to his weight and jumps. It's rare to get thrown in a pit in a Kirby game, and even if it happens, you can fill your lungs with air and float out of the predicament. If Whipseey gets hit by an enemy while standing on the edge of a cliff, he's going in that pit, and no amount of struggling will save him.

What's most galling about Whipseey is that the level design and enemy placement conspire to take advantage of the title character's shortcomings. Seed-chucking creatures stand near the edge of platforms, demanding extreme precision with your whip. Other monsters rain down colorful pellets from the safety of perches Whipseey can't possibly reach with his jumps. Spikes and lava are instantly fatal, even with the window of invincibility you're given after colliding with an enemy. It's all very mean-spirited and very unlike Kirby, but luckily, it's also very short, so at least you'll run out of game before you run out of hair. C

PUZZLE QUEST: THE LEGEND RETURNS
D3 Go


Perhaps the brainiest of the match three puzzle games, Puzzle Quest demands a level of strategy and forethought far beyond the likes of Bejeweled or Zoo Keeper. (Not that Zoo Keeper, the other Zoo Keeper.) You're locked in battle against a series of computer opponents, and any moves you make could play right into their hands, giving them a chance to prolong their turns with four of a kind matches or damage you by stringing together skulls. Adding to the depth are magic spells, powered by the colored gems on the playfield. These harm or otherwise hinder your rival, but beyond that, using a spell lets you pass play to your opponent, forcing them to make a match that could spell disaster for them later.


Groot here beat the ever-loving sap out of me.
Unfortunately, the nature of match three puzzle games means that not every move is the result of deliberate planning. When pieces are removed from the playfield, a random jumble of gems and skulls is dumped into the bin to replace them, potentially causing chain reactions that have nothing to do with skill and everything to do with dumb luck. Worse yet, these chains usually come to the computer's advantage, robbing you of hit points and mana for spells. It's not as suspicious as the dice rolls from Culdcept, but it's nevertheless frustrating to watch the CPU get a cascade of matches in its first turn.

I've got other gripes, but they're mostly minor. The overworld map can be tricky to navigate and the game takes itself much too seriously, with dramatic dialog and a swelling orchestral score. You'd think the cousin of Candy Crush Saga would be just a teensy bit more self-aware. Nevertheless, Puzzle Quest is one of the standouts in the match three puzzle genre, even fifteen years after its debut. B

MARIO AND RABBIDS: KINGDOM BATTLE
Ubisoft


Mario sometimes gets compared to Mickey Mouse, and it's easy to understand why. They both serve as the spokesmen of the companies that created them, and they're both friendly... and safe... and a little dull, frankly. It's refreshing when these two mascots stray from the predictable paths set for them and dare to be stupid, which is why the recent Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts by Paul Rudish have been such a delight, and why gamers root for Mario's greedy, gross, and exquisitely strange doppleganger Wario.


Sherbet Desert? Oh, Sherbet DESSERT! Why did
it take so long for me to get that?
People were puzzled by the announcement of a Mario and Rabbids crossover, but in retrospect, it makes sense for the same reason Wario makes sense. It's because the Rabbids don't make sense, and Mario needs that injection of lunacy to keep his adventures from becoming too routine. This is definitely not a routine Mario game, and it's not just because the screaming, bug-eyed bunnies have brought toilet fountains and time-traveling washing machines to the Mushroom Kingdom. The gameplay itself is off-the-wall, a strategy RPG that weaves staples of the Super Mario Bros. series into the gameplay, and somehow makes the warp pipes, bricks, and stomping work in a completely different context.

For the most part, battles are all about sending your trio of characters behind cover, letting them safely snipe at their enemies with arm cannons. However, they've got the option to vault off a nearby teammate to increase their range. This is especially handy for Mario, who can chain the vault into a stomp, then either land a safe distance from the target he's squashed or blast them in the face with his cannon. Throw in a variety of alternate weapons and helpful techniques, and you've got a game that's as surprisingly deep as it is weird... and it's plenty weird. A-

SWORDS OF DITTO: MORMO'S CURSE
OneBitBeyond


There's nothing like a good old fashioned Legend of Zelda game. And since Breath of the Wild is nothing like one, you'll have to fall back on a substitute; something that can offer a quick, dirty fix for your classic Zelda cravings. Luckily, Switch owners have Swords of Ditto, an overhead view action-adventure title with dungeons to explore, puzzle-solving weapons to wield, and a labyrinthine castle at the end, overflowing with dangerous monsters.


You'll do WHAT to my WHAT now? So much
for dying with dignity.
However, there are a couple differences worth noting. The first is that Swords of Ditto is more contemporary and tween-focused than The Legend of Zelda. Instead of medieval pixel art, you get bright colors and round-faced heroes that look like they bounced out of your television during a Cartoon Network marathon. Instead of potions, armor, and swords, you're given hamburgers, stickers, and toys, and instead of a single elfen hero, your character could be just about anyone, from children to battle-scarred bunnies.

That leads us to the other difference... Swords of Ditto is a rogue-like, with its world built from scratch and the player forced to complete as much of it as possible before time expires. If you enter the final battle unprepared and lose, you have to do it all over again with a new hero and a newly constructed world. If you triumph against the witch Mormo, you... get to do it all over again with a new hero and world. There's a true ending in it for you if you manage to find the secret that breaks this vicious cycle. However, all but the most Zelda-starved players will be happy to beat this game once and move on with their lives. B

LUMINES REMASTERED
Bandai/Resonair


There was time for Klax in the 1990s, but every decade since has made time for Lumines. This musically inclined puzzler has a hypnotic draw even Tetris can't match, which is why the game jumped from its original home on the Playstation Portable to nearly a dozen other consoles.


The little guy on the left is pretty happy.
You will be, too.
There have been sequels in the years since, with licensed music from major recording artists and slight tweaks to the gameplay, but this is the original Lumines. Not much has been changed from its PSP debut beyond improved menus, but it was a well rounded package fifteen years ago, featuring puzzle and versus modes along with the standard single player challenge. It's hard to think of much that would have enhanced the experience. 

If you haven't played Lumines, try not to assume too much from screenshots. It looks simplistic, with the player matching just two colors rather than the usual five or six expected from a puzzle game. However, you'll understand its draw when the music takes hold of you and you're racing to build as many squares as you can before the steadily advancing timeline wipes them all away. The game would work even without musical accompaniment, but the pulsing background tracks accentuated by your every move makes Lumines more compelling... and compulsive. B+

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Switch Way Do We Go?

The Dr. Dolittle series of books includes a beast in its menagerie of animals called the Pushmipullyu. This creature is born with two heads, placed on opposite ends and each fiercely determined to go in its own direction. Of course, since the two heads share a body, the Pushmipullyu struggles valiantly but ultimately goes nowhere.


"Breath mint!"
"Candy mint!"
(image from Aiim)
From my admittedly brief time with the system, that's the impression I get from the Nintendo Switch. It's a console! It's a handheld! However, each of its two personalities undermines the ambitions of the other. As a console, it can't compete with either of its contemporaries (or indeed, systems from the previous console generation) because its compact size and low power consumption limit its scope. Games for the Switch lack the visual luster of the Xbox One and PS4 versions, because the system just isn't capable of it.

As a Switch Lite owner, I'm feeling the pull of the other end of this improbable beast. It's a handheld, but all too often, games designed for the Switch aren't optimized for a smaller screen, and your eyes suffer as a result. This became clear (or not... clear...) to me after playing Sega Genesis Classics. Rather than offering a simple, straightforward menu with large, instantly readable fonts, developers d3t insisted on a cluttered user interface based on a teenager's bedroom, which makes nostalgia a higher priority than utility. 


Yes, that's cute. Can we just cut to the chase?
On a television set, I'm sure it's just fine... I've got the same game on Steam and the GUI is relatively easy to navigate on a fifteen inch monitor, if far from ideal. (One could ask why they didn't use a drop down menu, like Digital Eclipse did in its Sega Genesis Collection for PSP. Of course, that was Digital Eclipse, which had established itself in the previous decade as the master of classic game collections, and this is by... d3t, which judging from their work here might have a hard time finding the peanut in the middle of an M&M.) However, on the five inch screen of the Switch Lite, the tiny angled fonts will make you look like this guy in a matter of minutes...


"Sorry sir, trying my best! Unlike d3t!"
(image from Imgflip)
What's most galling is that on Steam, there's an option to dispense with the clutter in this flawed collection and just play the games from a simple launcher. The game is shown on the top, while the options are on the bottom. You cycle through the library with the D-pad, press a key when the game you want to play is shown, and clamp clamp kabam, you're playing it. This option is not available on the Switch, the one place where it was needed the most. Bra-vo, Sega.

But wait, the tiny screen of the Switch Lite affects good games, too! There's an indie title called Swords of Ditto: Mormo's Curse, a whimsical action RPG best described as a collision between The Legend of Zelda and Cartoon Network's CalArts phase. It's colorful, it's silly, and it's fun to play... but the cartoony, low contrast text that fits the game's lighthearted atmosphere does not belong on the Switch Lite. I feel like I'm missing a lot trying to play this game on a handheld- details on the monsters are obscured into nothingness on that little display- but trying to read the dialog may end up capsizing the experience entirely. After a half hour of this torture I might beg Vic Tokai to come out of retirement and show some mercy to my poor, bulging eyes.


Image from Classic Game Boy Ads