Saturday, February 1, 2014

Genesis DOES! (part 3)

Back in my days as a professional gaming writer, a colleague warned me that readers don't have the attention span to follow a series of articles about a single subject. With that said, here's the third part of a ridiculously long feature covering my favorite games from a long-dead game console! (What can I say, marketing was never my strong suit.)

Everyone’s chosen a side in the cola wars, but whether your preference is Coke, Pepsi, or even RC Cola, sometimes you want to forego the usual refreshments and try something refreshingly different. It was no different for Genesis owners… when the taste of Sonic the Hedgehog, side-scrolling beat ‘em ups, and vertically scrolling shooters weighed a little too heavily on the tongue, they reached for a tall cool glass of Ultimate Qix.
Hand grenades.
Ultimate Qix (or Volfied, if you prefer) is the 16-bit sequel to the Taito arcade game Qix, which challenged you to claim territory by drawing lines around it. As you draw, a swirling cluster of neon lines bounces around the playfield. Contact with this evil Kandinsky painting snaps your cosmic pencil in half; touching the “Sparx” racing along the lines you’ve drawn is likewise fatal.
Ultimate Qix keeps the basic gameplay of the original while enhancing the graphics and adding a few modern touches. The Qix is gone, replaced with a dozen futuristic bosses, and there are pyramids strewn throughout each stage which grant special abilities, if you’re quick enough to draw boxes around them. You’re supposed to trap the boss in a tiny portion of the screen, but if you’ve got the almighty star power up, you can end the battle of wits early and vaporize him with a deadly hail of lasers. Hey, screw the rules!
One word of caution to players eager to try this one… there’s a constant droning noise in the background of every stage. It’s supposed to add tension to the gameplay, but there’s plenty of it here without the splitting headache this noise will trigger. Get familiar with the mute button and you’ll enjoy Ultimate Qix a whole lot more.
(What’s the deal here, Taito? Was Zuntata on vacation when this game was being developed?)

Gauntlet is an undeniable classic; the perfect marriage of twitchy arcade action and deep role-playing fantasy. It was also pretty old by 1993, which is why a straight arcade port just wasn’t going to cut it on the Sega Genesis. The system was capable of more than this, and more is exactly what you get from Gauntlet IV.
Whatever you do, don't open that door!
Gauntlet IV offers all the frantic action of the arcade game, but you knew that already. Four player action with a Sega Multi-Tap? Check. More monsters than you could count and stages than you could possibly finish? Check. A sarcastic dungeon master who reminds you to “eat your food, not shoot it?” That’s a big check.
However, there’s a lot more in store for players smart enough to snap up this title. That includes a lengthy quest mode, an arena where you can battle your friends, and the biggest plus of all, an incredible soundtrack by composer Hitoshi Sakimoto, best known for his work on Radiant Silvergun and Final Fantasy Tactics. This music, hugely reminiscent of the Conan the Barbarian film soundtrack, sets the perfect mood for slaughtering millions of monsters.
Gauntlet IV may be a little simplistic by the standards of 16-bit RPGs, but hey, you try convincing three of your friends to join you for a rousing game of Sword of Vermilion.
Before Sonic the Hedgehog and that irritating Welcome to the Next Level marketing campaign, Sega was committed to making the Genesis the game system of choice for fans of the arcade experience. Case in point: Strider. Weighing in at a hefty eight megabits (trust me, this was a lot back in 1990) and designed by programmers on loan from Capcom, the Genesis version of Strider was the closest arcade conversion ever on a game system, until the Super NES version of Street Fighter II knocked it from its throne a couple of years later.
Screw Mario's hammer! This is the way
to deal with errant gorillas.
At its heart, Strider is a standard-issue side-scrolling action game, with futuristic ninja Hiryu charging from one end of a stage to the other, collecting power-ups and cutting down the enemies in his path with a nifty laser sword. However, it’s stylishly presented, with massive, color-soaked sprites and a breathtakingly acrobatic hero. Strider was also one of the first games with a running narrative woven into the gameplay, rather than waiting for cut scenes to tell a story. Hiryu slices his way through dozens of bizarre set pieces, including a perilous climb to the top of a power factory, a race down a hill littered with explosives, and a battle with the Soviet Politburo, whose members leap from their chairs to form a giant, scythe-wielding snake. It’s outrageous and incoherent, like a Paul Verhoeven fever dream, but just go with it!
Strider’s only problem is that it’s punishingly hard. Precise control of Hiryu’s graceful leaps and memorization of each level are an absolute must if you hope to make any progress. Worst of all, you’re only given a small handful of credits, ensuring that you’ll be playing (and swearing) for many hours before you reach the sinister Grandmaster Meio.
(By the way, is it me, or does “Grandmaster Meio” sound like a guy who raps about sandwich condiments?)

(I was recently informed by a reader- and I know, I'm surprised I have them too!- that "Grandmaster Meio" is a redundancy and that it should be either one of the other. I'll compromise and just call him "that cackling guy who's impossible to beat at the end of the game.")
If only we had the P-Beam in 1978...
I’ll probably be hung from a yardarm by other Genesis fanatics for recommending this over Phantasy Star and Ecco the Dolphin. Let them rage, though! I was raised on fixed screen shooters, from the original Space Invaders to Megamania to the king of the genre, Galaga, and this is the best one you’ll find on the Sega Genesis.
Space Invaders ‘91’s gameplay is predictably straightforward… aliens march across the screen, dropping down and reversing direction when they hit the edges, and you pick them off before they can reach the planet you’re defending. However, there are a whole galaxy of worlds to defend in this sequel, and plenty of new aliens to blast, each with a satisfying death animation when they’re pierced with your bullets.
Equally gratifying are the hidden achievement-like bonuses (make the middle invader your first target and your shields will be fully charged), the devastating power ups you’ll earn by nailing UFOs, and a fantastic soundtrack which proves that nobody can make the Genesis sound chip sing like Zuntata. Seriously, this is really, really good music. Highlights include… everything, honestly, but the nail-biting tracks from stages five and six stand out.
It may not be up to par with its closest cousin, Galaga ‘90 on the TurboGrafx-16, but as Space Invaders games go, this is one of the best. That’s pretty high praise when you consider the excellence of later titles like Attack of the Lunar Loonies and Space Invaders Extreme.
The bigger they are, the harder you fall.
Everyone who bought a Genesis had a reason to forsake Nintendo and join the 16-bit revolution. For some, it was the flashy (but ultimately forgettable) pack-in, Altered Beast. For others, it was Sega’s sleek new mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog. However, it was Forgotten Worlds that sold me on the system. When I first saw the game in action at a local rental store, I was mesmerized by its lush colors and eye-popping detail, which would never have been possible on the dated NES hardware. Not longer after, I sold my NES and thirteen games to the same rental store, and stepped up to the big leagues of the Sega Genesis.
With that personal anecdote out of the way, let’s talk about the game. Forgotten Worlds is a side-scrolling shooter and the follow-up to Capcom’s Side Arms. While that game was a little rigid with its robotic cast and two-way firing, Forgotten Worlds was filled to the brim with personality, with its two nameless heroes battling crowds of lizard men, possessed Egyptian barges, and goliath war gods. There are plenty of weapons available to our cosmic crusaders, and many are as impressive as they are deadly. A personal favorite is the flamethrower, which turns even the most stubborn bosses into charcoal in a matter of seconds.
At only four megabits, Forgotten Worlds isn’t a perfect conversion of the Capcom arcade game, but you’d have a hell of a time noticing the differences. Everything that matters is still here, from the omni-directional firing to the option to play with a friend. (You’re going to want to do this if at all possible; you’ll have a long, hard road ahead of you if you choose to go alone.)
Finally, Forgotten Worlds deserves credit for featuring a black guy who’s just as cool as the white one. African-American representation in video games was rare in the early 1990s, and not always flattering. Forgotten Worlds bucks this trend nicely, and believe me when I say the unappreciated African-American segment of the Genesis audience noticed.
Strider Hiryu has a robot smileodon as a pet.
Like most cats, it serves little purpose,
but damn, it's a robot. Smileodon.
More to come!


  1. Just a small nitpick, but his name isn't Grandmaster Meio. "Grandmaster" and "Meio" both mean the same thing, one in English, one in Japanese.

    1. Someone's reading this! Oh thank god! I thought I was talking into a wind tunnel for a while there.

      Er, anyway, I'll keep that in mind. For the future. The rap joke kind of falls apart if I fix it now.