Monday, January 27, 2014

Genesis DOES! (part 2)

Part two of the Genesis DOES! special is comin' at you hard and fast, with everything from sword-wielding shoguns to steel-plated sushi in the games reviewed. Hey, that's one way to get your recommended daily allowance of iron!


Of the three major game consoles from the early 1990s, the Genesis was most closely related to the mighty Neo-Geo, with a watered down version of its 68000 processor and Z80 sound chip. It stands to reason that the Genesis would have the best conversions of Neo-Geo games, and indeed, titles like Fatal Fury and King of the Monsters were consistently better on the Genesis than the Super NES. (We’ll not discuss that hideous port of World Heroes handled by Sega’s US division.)

This is what Genesis does that Nintendon't.
Yet even they weren’t as exciting as the originals. The Genesis was a smaller canvas than the Neo-Geo, and designers had to cut corners to make its games fit. Such is the case with Samurai Shodown, the best of the Neo-Geo conversions on Sega’s 16-bit system. In some respects it’s remarkably close to the original, but there are some features from the arcade game that the developers didn’t even try to include. Blubbery bandit Earthquake was squeezed out of the cast, leaving a gaping hole in the character select screen, and the camera is set at a fixed position, which takes away from the cinematic quality of the fights. The music is also a sorry spectacle, capturing exactly zero percent of the intensity and ancient Japanese flavor of the arcade game.

Still, the Genesis version of Samurai Shodown has just as much going for it. The characters are huge, brightly colored, and crisply drawn, and they animate just this side of beautifully, as you can see from these brief clips. The control is actually improved from the Neo-Geo original, with three dedicated buttons for both slash and kick, and the voice samples that are normally as smooth as granola on a Genesis sound remarkably clear here.

It’s no substitute for the Neo-Geo version, but Samurai Shodown is a good sight better here than it was on the Super NES, with its fights seen from three counties away and with a soundtrack performed inside a sewage drain.


Boy, do I have fond memories of this! Fire Shark was the first good game I had for the Genesis (no, Altered Beast and DJ Boy most certainly do not count). It’s an overhead view shooter, very much in the same vein as Raiden Trad, Truxton, and any one of a number of games where you frantically flail on the bomb button in times of distress. That’s not going to get you very far here, though… there’s a slight delay before the bomb explodes, forcing you to carefully time their use.

Nothing can withstand the might
of your bombs! NOTHING!
There’s one thing Fire Shark does that the millions of other shooters on the Genesis don’t… when your plane is clipped by a bullet or crashes into oncoming air traffic, you’ve got two seconds to keep firing before you go down in flames. This serves no purpose other than to give the player a false sense of hope, but it’s a nice touch. Incredibly sadistic, but nice.

Fire Shark was developed by Toaplan, a game company that’s best known for that annoying All Your Base meme but should be remembered for its excellent arcade games, including Out Zone, Snow Bros., and Alcon/Slap Fight, whose enhanced Genesis port missed this list by that much. The game was distributed in the United States by Dreamworks… not the Shrek guys, but a division of Toy Soldiers. Nobody knows for sure what Toy Soldiers was, but Sega Retro suggests the company may have been a part of Japanese publisher Nippon Computer Systems.


I’ve always preferred Street Fighter to Mortal Kombat, and to be perfectly frank, this is not the kind of game that shines on the Genesis hardware, with its weak voice digitization and low color output. Nevertheless, Mortal Kombat 3 was as good as it got for fans of the series, if those fans couldn’t afford a Super NES.

Back when Acclaim owned the rights to the home versions of Mortal Kombat, the games were ported to Sega systems by the godawful design studio Probe, makers of such “fine” products as Back to the Future III and the disappointing GameCube conversion of Crazy Taxi. Fortunately, when series creators Williams took the reins, they threw Probe out the door and hired Sculptured Software to design the Genesis version of Mortal Kombat 3 instead.

Sculptured Software had previously created the sublime Super NES version of Mortal Kombat 2, so you knew Mortal Kombat 3 on the Genesis had to be a step up from the previous two games. It is indeed as good as the hardware would allow, with more voice, better music, and the same intense action as the arcade original. Some people balked at the addition of dial-a-combos and a run button, but these features go a long way toward speeding up the gameplay and keeping it competitive with Street Fighter II, which had shifted into turbo the year before.

There was a sequel, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, but you don’t want that. You’d be better off downloading the fan hack Ultimate Mortal Kombat Trilogy, which offers all the characters Sculptured Software had to trim from the supposed upgrade, plus more fatalities than you can shake a severed limb at. Most of them don’t make sense and seem cobbled together with existing sprites, but that’s Mortal Kombat for you!

One last thing: Mortal Kombat 3 uses the same typeset as the decidedly more lighthearted Waku Waku 7, released years later for the Neo-Geo. Evidently, it was a really popular font back in the 1990s.

One other last thing: both Sculptured Software and Probe were subjected to the worst torture one could inflict on a game company, being absorbed by Acclaim in the late 1990s. When the nefarious crap factory went out of business, the latter company considered starting a new design team called Exclaim, but couldn't scrape together the capital for it. (Maybe the potential investors played some of their games and ran for their lives.)


Desert Strike, based loosely on the first war in Iraq, is one of the deepest action games you’ll find on the Sega Genesis. There are nearly a half-dozen objectives, a hundred hidden items, and countless enemies in the first mission alone!

One down... uh, two hundred
thirty six to go.
It’s also one of the toughest games you’ll ever sink your teeth into… and vice versa. After you pop this into your system, you’ll swear more before 9 AM than most gamers will all day. Success in Desert Strike (if it ever comes at all) depends not only on fast reflexes, but obsessive management of your armor, fuel, and limited supply of missiles. Run out of either of the first two and you’ll crash… run out of the latter and you’re as good as dead. Dark Souls has got nothing on this one.

Desert Strike is the first in a series of murderously difficult military themed shooters by Electronic Arts, including Jungle Strike (blow up Latin America… for America!), Urban Strike (blow up the inner city… for America!), and the advanced Saturn sequel Soviet Strike (blow up Russia… for America!). You’ll spend so much time indiscriminately blowing up people who aren’t you that you’ll wonder if you’re really one of the good guys.

The British press came to the same conclusion, angrily criticizing the storylines in the four games as “uneasily right wing,” “jingoist,” and “ugly American idiocy.” It’s a small wonder Electronic Arts didn’t respond to the criticism by releasing London Strike.


Taito had a Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde approach to the Sega Genesis. When it was bad, it was very,very bad, subjecting players to monstrosities like Growl, Rastan Saga, and Chase HQ II while cackling with sadistic glee. However, before the moon came out and its worst instincts were unleashed upon a hapless public, Taito crafted exceptional arcade conversions. One of their greatest gifts to mankind (or at least those members of the human race with a Genesis) was Sagaia.

Fish 'n ships.
Sagaia was the sequel to a shooter called Darius, which had two claims to fame. The first is that it’s got an aquatic theme, with steel-plated sealife serving as your enemies. The second is that the action is stretched across three screens, predating the widescreen monitors of the 21st century. This meant three times the onscreen hazards, and three times the challenge for the overwhelmed player.

Naturally, the Genesis couldn’t output to three screens at once, so Taito wisely chose to shrink down the playfield and added letterboxing to simulate an extra wide screen. It’s a fair compromise that worked much better than the later Saturn version of Sagaia, which let the player adjust their view of the action, either crushing the playfield into a tiny, distorted rectangle or leaving them without enough room to dodge bullets.

As shooters go, Sagaia isn’t the best the Genesis has to offer, but it’s a satisfyingly solid experience, with seven levels chosen from a massive pool of twenty-six, imaginative bosses, and a soundtrack that seems lifted from a Venusian game show. One highlight is Olga Breeze, the ethereal, clap-filled track that plays while you’re flying over the surface of the sun. You’ll probably want to listen to this strangely compelling piece of electronica on YouTube, because while actually playing the game, it’s often drowned out by the sound of your gunfire.

More to come!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Genesis DOES! (part 1)

I have a horrible secret to reveal to you all...

...I'm a furry.

That's probably not that much of a surprise, is it? After all, the mascot of my old web site, if you can remember that far back, was this kid.

He was never especially popular with my readers (gee, who'd have thunk that a diapered brown bear wouldn't go over well with gamers?), so I shuttled him off to an art gallery elsewhere on the internet. From that point on, I tried to keep my gaming and anthro interests separate, but lately the two halves of my personality have been on a collision course, and there's nothing I can do (or care to do, frankly) to stop them. Really, you guys are mature enough to accept my eccentricities, or at least politely ignore them. This isn't Something Awful, after all.

"Yeah, if it was, people would be reading it!"

Shut up, Byron.

Anyway, I've been on a Sega Genesis kick lately, and decided on a whim to review my forty favorite games for the system on my Tumblr page. Since nobody's been reading those, I've decided to bring them here as well, where they might catch a few stray eyes. Here now for your reading pleasure are the first five of the games in this special eight part feature...

That's me as a sloth bear.
You know, like Baloo from The Jungle Book and Talespin?
Just... just look it up on the internet.

Kicking things off is Bio-Hazard Battle, a supremely disturbing side-scrolling shooter that flew under the radar of most American gamers. The game was titled “Crying” in Japan for reasons which aren’t entirely clear, but it’s pretty obvious why Sega rechristened it when it was brought to the West. After all, it was released around the same time as a controversial film called The Crying Game, and Sega didn’t need that headache.

Anyway, Bio-Hazard Battle takes the bio-organic motif of R-Type and cranks it up to seventy five. The enemies are uncomfortably reminiscent of what the vet found in your cat, and even the player’s ships are bizarre, taking on the forms of insects and deep sea creatures. The running theme here is “creepy.”

The gameplay is kept straightforward, with just four power ups and two buttons. One button lets loose a thin stream of bullets; the other charges up a devastating blast. Each ship also has a satellite that orbits around it, catching a handful of the many, many shots that fill the screen at regular intervals. Bio-Hazard Battle is hard, sometimes to the point of being unreasonable. Nobody would blame you for choosing the easy difficulty setting, or cheating and giving yourself infinite lives.

The animation is a thing of grotesque beauty, with segmented worms undulating as they soar through the sky and your ship shattering like glass after it collides with them. The entire game looks marvelous, in an extremely pessimistic, nightmare-inducing kind of way. Huh, maybe that’s the reason the Japanese called it Crying…


Adapted from the crazy-powerful X68000 computer, Granada combines the tank combat of Namco’s Assault with the labyrinthine levels and crowd control of Atari’s Gauntlet. You’ll embark on a series of search and destroy missions, first hunting down generators spread across a vast playfield, then challenging a well-armed and often gigantic boss. The action is accented with a futuriffic soundtrack that would be right at home in an episode of Airwolf.

Granada was designed by a mid-sized Japanese developer called Wolf Team, which you may recognize as Namco Tales Studio. These days, they make RPGs and very little else, but back in the 1990s, they were known for intense, ambitious, and slightly wonky action games like this one. Some of the Wolf Team games that didn’t make this list include El Viento, Time Gal, and Earnest Evans… not the life story of Chubby Checker, but a platformer starring a man who desperately wants to be Indiana Jones but looks more like one of Pinocchio’s friends.

By the way, the game’s not called X-Granada-X, despite what the title screen may lead you to believe.


This game, a simple but incredibly addictive and stylish racing title, experienced a renaissance after being featured in a pivotal scene from the Disney film Wreck-It Ralph. However, I loved it before it was cool… especially on the Atari Lynx, but also on the Sega Genesis.

The Lynx version was technically more complete, with all the voice samples from the arcade game, but the Genesis port of Roadblasters had its own advantages, like a higher resolution and perfectly reproduced sound effects. It’s so close to the arcade game it’s downright eerie, translating into the same white-knuckle fun you had in the bowling alley or the rec room at your college. (It’s actually more fun than playing the game on MAME, which is so dependent on analog control that it’s practically impossible to play without it!)

Here’s something you may have missed… Roadblasters was actually designed to promote a series of toys released by Matchbox in the 1980s. That music you hear in the attract mode is actually from a commercial for the toys!


It almost feels like heresy to admit this, but I never cared for the Phantasy Star series. As a fan of twitchy arcade games, it’s not the kind of experience I hoped to get out of my Sega Genesis… and even if I wanted a role-playing game where the computer does all the fighting for me, I would have been better served with the Super NES and its own Final Fantasy series.

There were a lot of irksome design flaws in Phantasy Star I could never learn to accept, like the muddled science-fiction setting (why is there a mage in my party of futuristic monster hunters?), the unremarkable enemy designs, and an interface that’s almost as user-friendly as trying to program your VCR. Wat the hell is WAT? Is there a practical use for RYUKA? Would someone in this universe ditch the MS-DOS file names and just speak some bloody English?

Having said all that, even I have to acknowledge that Phantasy Star IV is the pinnacle of a genre the Genesis never did particularly well. The End of the Millennium was originally designed for the Sega CD, and you can see those lofty aspirations in its frequent, gorgeously drawn cut scenes (and its price… good lord, this thing was a hundred dollars when it was first released!). Even when it comes dangerously close to testing your patience with a not quite there English translation or way too many damn enemy encounters, Phantasy Star IV has a knack for winning you over with charming, sharply defined characters and memorable dialog. When a pervy old owl reveals Alys’ measurements, the ball-breaking bounty hunter reveals herself to him, and punches him out of his chair!

Sometimes, you almost wish Phantasy Star IV had been released on a compact disc, so the game could have lived up to its full potential. A little voice acting and some animation during the cut scenes would really have brought this one over the top.


Arcade’s Greatest Hits holds the curious distinction of being one of the only classic game collections for the Sega Genesis. That genre wasn’t really a thing until the mid 1990s, when uberconsoles like the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation had the muscle to emulate arcade titles from the 1980s.

The Genesis, blast processing and all, did not have the power to emulate these golden oldies. However, these five conversions by Digital Eclipse are the closest a game console ever came to arcade perfection before emulation made that a guarantee. There’s a bit of slowdown in some of the more intense games- the transition between levels in Robotron: 2084 is especially affected by this- but past that the games are exceptionally close to the originals. This extreme attention to detail was a Digital Eclipse trademark, until the company was purchased by Foundation 9 and the developers fled to greener pastures.

So, what games will you find on Arcade’s Greatest Hits? Well, there’s Defender, the viciously hard side-scrolling shooter with an intimidating control scheme. The arcade game had buttons for thrusting and even changing directions, but like most home conversions, you can wimp out and use the more intuitive joystick for both functions. Stargate is more of the same, except with more buttons, more enemies, and lots more personality. Once you’ve played Stargate, you’ll have a hard time going back to the original.

Joust is another arcade favorite, featuring an ostrich-riding knight doing battle with gladiators on buzzards. Repeatedly tapping the button (any button, the game’s not picky) sends your steed into the heavens, and colliding with the gladiators while your bird is higher than theirs turns them into eggs, which you can collect for bonus points. NES fans will notice that the game is very similar to Nintendo’s own Balloon Fight. Some people say that Balloon Fight is better, but of course, those people have no taste.

Rounding things out are Robotron: 2084 and Sinistar. Robotron is the world’s first dual-stick shooter, and is every bit as intense as later entries in the genre like Geometry Wars and Beat Hazard. Sinistar is the black sheep of this collection, a ferociously intimidating shooter that’s a bit like Asteroids, if the screen stretched infinitely in all directions and you were constantly being pursued by a hungry chrome lion head. If it’s your first time, keep a spare pair of underwear handy for when Sinistar awakens.

A second game in the series, Atari Arcade’s Greatest Hits, was released for the Super NES, but missed the Genesis, skipping right to the more capable Sega Saturn. It’s a good game in its own right, but Asteroids and Super Breakout seem a little passive next to the orgy of bright colors and big explosions in the Williams collection.


More to come!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Makes an Ass out of U and Wii

A year after I bought my Dreamcast, Sega cancelled it. Months after I bought my Saturn, Bernie Stolar made the infamous comments that it was a "stillbirth" and the system was "not Sega's future." Today, I purchased a Nintendo Wii U, and Destructoid reported that a new Nintendo console was coming soon. It wasn't just the same day according to the report's time stamp, it was practically the same minute. This story was published as I was sliding my debit card through the reader.

Man, it never fails.

Anyway, I'll talk about my experiences with the system in a future post. As soon as the steam stops shooting out of my ears.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Sound Bytes: The Case of the Mysterious Midway Track

Sorry I've been flying under the radar for the last few days, folks. While I was gone, I discovered something pretty cool that I'd like to share with the fine readers of this blog. Remember Midway Arcade's Greatest Hits? This collection of early arcade hits like Defender, Joust, and my abusive love interest Sinistar was released for every game console you can imagine... yes, even that one. However, the Sega Saturn version was my favorite of the bunch, vying with Japanese megahits like Dracula X, Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter, and Grandia for the title of the most entertaining title on this unappreciated system.

Unappreciated because of this guy, naturally.
However, the Saturn port of Arcade's Greatest Hits has a special surprise for players adventurous enough to pop the disc into their computers. There's a lengthy music track exclusive to this version of the game; a bizarre progressive rock epic that calls to mind the work of Tangerine Dream and Mike "Tubular Bells" Oldfield. I can't share the whole thing with you, but you'll find an excerpt from the track here.

On a whim, I decided to ask the game's creators (formerly of Digital Eclipse, currently with a new company called Code Mystics) about this mysterious track. This was their response:

The Code Mystics rep then provided a link to the band's Grooveshark page, featuring selections from Weird Blinking Lights' latest album, Traditional Synthetic Cuisine. The quality of these tracks is subject to debate- you're not going to get a lot of mileage out of them if you're not a fan of space rock- but at least this sheds some light on this eighteen year old mystery.

With that mystery solved, let's discuss more recent gaming news. Evidently Nintendo has changed its 2014 financial projections from a rosy one billion dollar profit to a thorny three hundred million dollar loss. It's important to point out (since nobody else will) that Microsoft has lost three billion dollars on the Xbox in the last decade, and that Sony hemorrhaged nearly that much in a single year. Nevertheless, the loss has got CEO Satoru Iwata sweating bullets and considering other income sources for this former industry leader.

What else U got?
(image courtesy of
Personally, I didn't think the Wii U was a fantastic idea. Its technology badly lags behind its competitors, just as the Wii had in 2006. Unlike the Wii, however, it doesn't have any compelling technology to offset that handicap; just an expensive boondoggle of a controller that adds more to the system's cost than its entertainment value. Having said all that, I also think it would be unwise for Nintendo to abandon the machine halfway through its lifespan. Sega had a nasty habit of turning its consoles into doorstops through the 1990s, and it took a wrecking ball to the company's reputation. After the Dreamcast was taken off store shelves, Sega vowed never to make a console again... a wise decision, as nobody with an ounce of common sense would consider buying one from the frustratingly fickle company.

My advice to Nintendo is to take its lumps in this console cycle, put more of its marketing and development muscle behind the 3DS, and when 2017 finally arrives, start fresh with an entirely new system... something more in line with its competitors. Withered technology is no longer working for Nintendo... these days, the strategy is making their products seem as stale as the name would suggest.

Speaking of stale, it may also be time to hand the aging and creatively tapped Shigeru Miyamoto his walking papers*... but that is a story for another time.

* Hey, put down the torches and pitchforks! You did play Paper Mario: Sticker Star, right?!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Bolded for Emphasis: The Bravely Default Demo

Playing Bravely Default reminds me of a scene from Futurama. I think it went something like this:

Fry: I just saw something incredibly cool! A big, floating ball that lit up with every color of the rainbow, plus some new ones that were so beautiful I fell to my knees and cried.
Amy Wong: Was it out in front of Discount Shoe Outlet?
Fry: Yeah.
Amy Wong: They have a college kid wear that to attract customers.
Fry: Well, I don't care if it was some dork in a costume! For one brief moment, I felt the heartbeat of creation, and it was one with my own.
Amy Wong: Big deal!
Bender: We all feel like that, all the time. You don't hear us gassing on about it!

Yeah, you saw this one coming.
(Image courtesy of
If only games this good were that common! I do not exaggerate when I say that I haven't been this enthusiastic about a video game since Mass Effect 2, Darkstalkers, or even the original Gunstar Heroes. Bravely Default looks incredible on the 3DS, sounds even better, and offers some of the most addictive combat you'll find in a turn-based RPG... and that's just the demo!

The steampunk town featured in the
Bravely Default demo.
(Image courtesy of
The attention to detail in Bravely Default is amazing, from the massive windmills and clocks looming over you in the city to the trail of footprints you leave behind as you journey through the desert. Wispy clouds lazily float past, casting shadows on the ground, and day turns to night, bringing more ferocious monsters with it. (What a horrible night to have a curse!) Your heroes even engage in a little cosplay, putting on different costumes depending on the jobs you select for them. The "performer" job class turns pasty white sidekick Ringabel into an Elvis impersonator... if that's not a first for an RPG, I can scarcely imagine the game that beat Bravely Default to it!

Speaking of music, Bravely Default has some of the best you'll find in a role-playing game, no small feat when you consider the epic tracks Square-Enix has served up in the past. The combat theme, Bell of Battle (or is it Conflict's Chime...?) is a rousing, urgent score that gets you pumped and primed for carving up cat wizards and giant scorpions. You'll be hearing it a lot over the course of the game, but there's a pretty good chance you'll download the track and listen to it even after you've put your 3DS to sleep for the night.

The two greatest words in the English
language! De-fault, de-fault!
(image courtesy of
Oh yes, about the combat! Fights are turn-based, closely resembling the battles from the early Final Fantasy games, but the developers have taken steps to ensure they don't slow to a crawl... like, uh, the later Final Fantasy games. Along with the usual combat options like attack, item, and magic, you've got two new choices, Brave and Default. Brave lets you take up to four turns at once, giving you a chance to put the hammer down on monsters or heal multiple party members. Default is the more conservative option, letting you save a turn for later while boosting your defense.

Personally, I've never found a practical use for Default, aside from unessential skills that require multiple turns to activate. However, Brave is extremely handy for tearing through lesser foes, or bringing down the strong ones before they get a chance to retaliate. Plus, your allotment of turns (called BP) are restored with each new fight, so hey, go nuts!

There's an even BIGGER dragon than D'gon?!
Help, mommy!
(image courtesy of
The only issue I have with the Bravely Default demo, aside from the fact that I'll only be able to play it thirty times, is that it's punishingly difficult. On my first try, I was advised by a non-player character that the path to the west of the city was full of easily dispatched chumps, along with a cave stockpiled with handy items. I quickly discovered that those chumps weren't so easily dispatched, and all I found in the cave was death, delivered swiftly by a massive fire-belching anklyosaur called a D'gon.

You're not going to survive long if you don't make frequent use of the town inn (mercifully, a budget-priced inn that cures all status ailments, including death) and prepare your heroes for future encounters. That not only means grinding for levels and buying better gear, but switching jobs to give your characters new abilities. As with many RPGs, patience is a virtue in Bravely Default... if you charge headlong into uncharted territory, humiliating defeats and hopeless battles of attrition will be your reward.

Even with its brutal (but not insurmountable) difficulty, the Bravely Default demo makes a strong case for purchasing the full game, which will be released next month for around forty dollars. It's much too early to tell if Bravely Default will be the best game of 2014, but if what I've seen from the demo is any indication, it'll give the competition one hell of a run for its money.

Regarding the controversy over the characters'
redesigned outfits: do you really want to see
these Precious Moments figurines in
skimpy clothing? (Please say "no.")
(Image courtesy of

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Can You Dig It? Heiankyo Alien... and Friends!

Image courtesy of
Before we begin, I'd like to introduce you to the glorious print ad for the GameBoy version of Heiankyo Alien, published by Eastern media giant Meldac. Back in the 1990s, when video game advertising was an embarrassing cavalcade of poor taste and focus-tested rebellion, Meldac's ad was a refreshing break from the status quo. So wonderfully bizarre! So uniquely Japanese! So different from the butts, nuts, guts, and smut other game companies were using in their own ads! It must have been marketing suicide for Heiankyo Alien, but you've nevertheless got to admire Meldac for its stubborn refusal to pander to a pubescent American audience.

"Knock it off, dillweed! Hey Butthead,
gimme some help over here!"
(image courtesy of Arcade Flyers)
So, what kind of game would inspire woodblock prints of half-digested samurai? That would be Heiankyo Alien, which stars a feudal lawman defending ancient Kyoto from aliens by burying the hungry invaders with a shovel. (Hey, it's not any less dumb than the ending of Signs...) This game was originally designed outside the video game industry, at the Theoretical Science division of the prestigious University of Tokyo. After it was brought to arcades by electronics manufacturer Onkyo, Heiankyo Alien was quickly embraced by the Japanese, inspiring dozens of home ports and knock-offs. Here now are a few of the more memorable ones...


Forgive the huge, off-center border. For
reasons that still remain a mystery, VIC-20
games force the user to adjust its position
with the function keys. It really was a
good game system, honest!
Be it ever so underpowered, there's no place like your first computer. Commodore's VIC-20 was mine, and it still has a place in my heart despite barely being more powerful than the breadbox it so strongly resembles. The little computer that couldn't struck a chord with the Japanese as well, with HAL Laboratories publishing its first handful of games on the system. One of these games, a Galaxian clone called Star Battle, was designed by Satoru Iwata, the current president of Nintendo.

The VIC-20's popularity in Japan meant that a conversion of Heiankyo Alien was inevitable, and this one is a dead ringer for the arcade game, aside from a different color scheme and the system's extra-chunky font. Unfortunately, since the VIC only supports single button joysticks, you'll have to hold down the trigger and press up to dig holes, or down to fill them. Alternately, you could tap A and D on the keyboard, but who uses a keyboard to play video games in this day and age? (Shut up, first-person shooter fans.)


The game doesn't get really hard
until the Sleestaks arrive...
This game is way too similar to the later TurboGrafx-16 title Cratermaze to be a coincidence, and indeed, there are family ties. The original game, Kid no Hore Hore Daisakusen (Hole Hole Kid's Big Scheme), was released in arcades back in 1987, and is extremely similar to Cratermaze, albeit with different level designs and a lot more enemies. Booby Kids is one of those console-friendly rewrites that were aggravatingly common on the NES... it's got the same characters but an entirely new setting and lengthier stages.

This time, the titular Booby Kid (I'm sorry... I'm really, really sorry. Please stop hitting me!) has to scoop up oranges in a prehistoric setting while dodging hungry dinosaurs and club-wielding cavemen. The stages are more open than they were in the game's arcade and TurboGrafx-16 cousins, but that just makes it harder to bury your foes... and if you stumble into a monster, you'll have to start your fruit harvesting from the beginning. Did I mention that the levels are kind of long...?


"Oh God, it's even more painful
than it looks!"
This game could have been a disaster of epic proportions and I still would have loved it thanks to Meldac's unapologetically Japanese ad campaign. The company let its freak flag fly at a time when Japanese culture hadn't yet been embraced by an American audience, and I have to appreciate that audacity. Plus, just try to tell me that a samurai beating an alien to death while being devoured by it isn't outrageously awesome. You can't, and if you did, you would be a dirty, dirty liar.

Anyway, Heiankyo Alien on the GameBoy offers two styles of play. The first is your usual vanilla Heiankyo experience... you guide a skirt-wearing stick figure through a simple maze, digging holes to trap the abstractly drawn aliens hoping to sink their teeth into you. However, the real fun's in the New mode, which takes the graphics and sound out of the 1970s and beyond what you'd expect from a GameBoy launch title. Distinctly Japanese details litter the landscape and the feudal music lends an air of authenticity to the action. The gameplay's not much changed from the original, but it's easier to appreciate when it looks and sounds this nice.


"Here I come to save the day!
Uh, somewhere else."
The origin of this game is a little confusing, so bear with me. Originally designed as merchandise for Japan's cartoon cat robot Doraemon, Cratermaze was also based on a Japanese arcade release... and was turned back into that game when it was released here in the United States. The fact that this cute and colorful game was brought to America in any form is a little surprising, but NEC had a bad habit of releasing games that had no hope of finding an audience outside Japan. The TurboGrafx-16's pack-in was Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, based on a cartoon that never aired in the West. 'Nuff said.

But back to Cratermaze. It's an overhead view maze game that's a few generations removed from Heiankyo Alien... instead of flat rectangles separating the pathways, there are brightly colored buildings and stone walls, and instead of relying solely on digging to defend yourself, you've got a wide variety of weapons at your disposal, including a yo-yo, bombs, and a freeze beam. In fact, the odds are stacked a little too heavily in your favor, so you'll want to pick the higher of the two difficulty settings to give yourself an honest challenge.


It's Nichibutsu's turn up to bat with the Heiankyo Alien franchise, and as usual, the company bunts for first base. In all fairness, Nihon Bussan's first Arcade Classics release was impressive, a collection of their two best arcade games (and Frisky Tom) with special enhanced modes. However, the sequel was schlepped off to an outside developer named Syscom, which had no idea how to bring the game to the Super NES.

Heiankyo Alien and Bomberman: Two
great tastes that taste great together!
Like peanut butter and barbecue sauce!
There are three modes here. The first is, naturally, a straight port of the arcade game, and it's about as good as other home ports if you don't mind slightly sticky control and misplaced digitized sound. The second is an odd hybrid of Heiankyo Alien and Bomberman, with wooden blocks scattered throughout each stage. Smashing the blocks could result in anything from a faster shovel to more aliens to a deadly rain of logs, which is a pretty good reason to avoid them entirely. 

Finally, there's the versus mode, which takes the "new type" mode, splits the screen down the middle, and puts a player on each half. Burying monsters sends them to the other side of the playfield to harass the opponent. This new wrinkle to the gameplay would be brilliant in a fiercely competitive, Twinkle Star Sprites kind of way... if you had any room to dodge the hungry beasties. Maybe "three strikes" would have been a better baseball metaphor for this game...

Okay, okay, I'm goin', already!
(Special thanks to Wikipedia for providing valuable information for this article, as always.)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

I picked the wrong time to start sniffing glue- er, collecting 16-bit games

Hey, dudes and dudettes! I'd like to apologize for my extended absence... shortly after my last post, I was socked with pancreatitus, a nasty, occasionally fatal disease that wrecks havoc with your lower digestive system. The symptoms of the disease had been there for years, but doctors had dismissed it as acid reflux or gastritus. Luckily, once the pain had reached its apex, I was taken to a better hospital, and they gave me a proper diagnosis. Two months of convalescence, another two months of rehabilitation, and countless pills later, I'm nearly back to normal, albeit with a pancreatic drain hanging from my gut. And, uh, $100,000 in medical bills. America... the best health care ungodly amounts of money can buy! (What, me bitter?)

Anyway, now that I've mostly recovered and my appetite for gaming has returned, it seems like the right time to start blogging again. My comeback was inspired by some of the big names in the business; guys like the anonymous editor of VGJunk and The Gay Gamer's impossibly cordial Bryan Ochalla. Beyond that, I need to sharpen up my writing skills, because lord knows I wasn't getting that practice when I was in the hospital for all those months.

So, let me get those of you who are just joining caught up. Last August, I'd gotten a Sega Genesis in the mail, along with a stack of games... most good, a few less so, and one OH GOD THE HUMANITY. After encasing Heavy Nova in concrete and burying it in a radioactive waste dump where it belongs, I set out to strengthen my rather anemic library of Genesis games. That... has not gone so well. The thrift stores in the Mount Pleasant area, which used to be a rich source of 16-bit software, have all been cleaned out in the five years since I lived there, leaving me with this...

Image courtesy of

...and dozens of cartridges just like it. You'll note the unusual shape and the yellow tab along the side... that's your warning that the game in question is by Electronic Arts, and is likely one of the company's throwaway sports titles. These games aren't bad, exactly, but they're not nearly as exciting as the system's finer moments. Moreover, from a collector's standpoint, they're damned near worthless, engineered to be antiquated the moment a new game in the series is released. You can't even use the cartridges as shells for reproductions, homebrew games, or flash cartridges, because they clash with standard Genesis carts and the yellow tabs get in the way of any modifications you'd want to make.

In short, I don't want these. NOBODY wants these, which is why they're in abundant supply in nearly every pawn shop, thrift shop, and consignment shop you visit. They'd be easy enough to ignore if there were something, anything else to buy, but it's all vanished, apparently looted by "Sumguys" and speculators. The story's the same everywhere you go, and the grass is no greener on the Super Nintendo side of the fence. It's hugely aggravating, especially when you consider that all the good stuff was there just five years ago. In 2009, you could find everything from Target Earth to Alisia Dragoon in the wild. This year, I found a lonely copy of Midway Arcade's Greatest Hits hidden in the detritus of EA's sports games, and I felt damned grateful for the opportunity. Maybe things are different elsewhere, but from what I've heard from other collectors, I kind of doubt it.