Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Monday, April 27, 2015

Dreaming in Black and White, Part I

The original Game Boy was never my cup of tea, but I've decided to give the system another chance after all these years. I've discovered that it has the peculiar power to entertain in spite of its many handicaps... possibly because its limited hardware encouraged developers to think outside the front-loading grey box and try new ideas, rather than lean on the scroll/boss formula that was so common on the NES. Here now are four such games, along with a sequel to an early Nintendo release that goes a long way toward improving the original.

By the way, these reviews are a little more... spirited than usual. If you were wondering about the change in tone, you can thank Mike and his hard lemonade for that.


That thing on the top of the screen
is a seagull. I think.
I was looking forward to this one when it was first announced in GamePro, and frankly, I'm convinced that I was the only teenager who was. The initial descriptions made it sound like a revival of the clever Intellivision game Shark! Shark!, where you were a tiny guppy that gobbled up smaller fish to grow in size, eventually gaining the girth to take on more threatening prey. It was kind of like Katamari Damacy, except underwater and more pixelated. 

Anyway, Fish Dude is NOT the Shark! Shark! revival it appeared to be in those advertisements, but a lame aquatic take on Pac-Man, where you have to chase tiny fish and hammer the fire button to chew them. While you're hunting for dinner, larger, balloon-shaped fish will be hunting for you, and have a disconcerting habit of catching you while you're attempting to digest minnows. Forget about turning the tables on these apex predators, because you won't grow in size no matter how many fish you eat. You will get bored in a hurry, and you will want to throw your GameBoy into a river when you hear the tiresome jingle that plays each time you're given a new life, or start a new stage, or the game catches you scratching your nose. To quote Alex Winter in Freaked, "Boo, dude!"

EDIT: I learned (from a VGJunk review I hadn't even realized I read!) that your fish dude DOES grow in size after about three stages. You have to eat 45 fish to get that far, while in Shark! Shark!, your fish started growing after munching three or four of them. It will take the patience of Job and the willpower of mighty Hercules to stay interested in Fish Dude long enough for the lead character to get any larger.

FCI/Pony Canyon

Nothing can kill the ghost.
EVERYTHING can kill the bubble.
I'd heard positive things about this game, but refused to believe them, because it was released by Pony Canyon. You know, the same company that published NES games which were somehow more primitive than their Atari 2600 counterparts. Unbelievably, Bubble Ghost actually IS pretty good, calling my whole perception of reality into question. Black is white! Right is left! Dogs and cats, living together! Bill Murray playing Garfield in a movie after complaining that his character in the Ghostbusters cartoon sounded too much like Garfield! A Diet Dr. Pepper that really does taste like regular Dr. Pepper!

Well, life no longer makes sense, but at least I can take solace in Bubble Ghost, a fun puzzle game that's like nothing else on the Game Boy. You're a small spirit who's acquired Patrick Swayze powers, and can move corporeal objects around with sheer force of will. Usually that means blowing a bubble through tight corridors filled with sharp objects, but you can also blow out candles and scare serpents into submission by blowing into trumpets. The take home is that if Kirby sucks, the star of Bubble Ghost blows. The physics in the game are a little suspect- blowing on the bubble immediately changes its direction, which is not how things would work in real life- but the game is perfectly playable despite this. Also, be warned... that ridiculously catchy theme music is gonna bore its way into your brain and never leave. Tell Rick Astley to make some room.


Still not sure what that black stuff
is supposed to be.
I'll be honest with you folks... I don't like Kid Icarus much. Never have, really. I didn't even like Kid Icarus: Uprising, because after an initial honeymoon, it tied my fingers into knots with its ridiculous touchscreen-dependent control scheme. (If you're wondering, I'm typing this review with my nose right now.) Would it really have been too much to ask to build the 3DS with a second analog thumbstick, Nintendo? Oh wait, you needed to add that to a later model, so you could make more money off your own shortsightedness. All righty, then!

You could knock me over with a wax-coated feather when I played Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters and DIDN'T hate the experience. It's similar to the old NES game, but more merciful, thanks to a more handheld-friendly design but also because the developers learned some important lessons from the extremely flawed original. The action is a bit slower this time, and enemies aren't quite as numerous or aggressive, letting you power through each stage with a minimum of profanity and torn out clumps of hair. The game still strikes me as weirdly cryptic (what on earth are those hammers for, anyway?), but I'd rather play this than the NES game, with or without color.


Out of Gas bears a weird resemblance to another
unappreciated game, Fun House for the NES.
Miracle of miracles, it's another FCI game that doesn't suck! But to be fair, this was developed by Realtime Associates, a team of experienced developers that used to make games for the ancient Intellivision. (Shame they weren't hired to work on Fish Dude.) As you might have guessed, Out of Gas is full of old-school flavor, playing a lot like Atari's Asteroids. You use your thrusters to zip across each maze-like stage, bouncing off walls and blasting fuel icons. Some of these icons are numbered and must be shot in sequence, which means a lot of backtracking and careful navigation through deadly obstacles.

This game would have been easy to miss back in the day, but it's surprisingly entertaining in 2015, with smooth animation and surefooted control. There's even a bit of humor in the opener, with a futuristic cartoon character trying to score with his girlfriend... and failing miserably. Sorry, George Jetson... your rocket is going to have to stay in the launch bay.


I don't know how cacti can live that close
to ice, but okay!
I thought for sure Ochalla was gonna get around to reviewing this! Oh well... more for me!

Anyway, Astro Rabby is best described as an overhead view Super Mario Bros, or a caveman ancestor of the underrated Playstation launch title Jumping Flash. You're a robot rabbit, and it's your mission to recover the ten power-up parts stolen by the Dortoise Army. (Yeah, they've got a tortoise and hare thing going on in this game. Whatever greases the wheels of the plot, I guess!) You'll find the parts by stomping on question blocks scattered through a series of vertically scrolling levels. As a bunny, Rabby's got one hell of a jump, but falling into pits or colliding with Dortoise soldiers instantly spells his doom. You've also got a time limit, so if you don't find the part before time runs out, you can kiss your cotton tail goodbye.

Astro Rabby is a pretty decent game... nothing memorable, but competently designed and plenty original. What stands out the most is the bonus game, where Rabby must match pairs of blocks by stomping on them and listening to their audio cues. Expect to lose this one a lot unless you're fast and musically inclined.

More to come!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Ticket to Paradise

"From bikes to trains to video games..."
If you were wondering, yep, that's Urkel.
Recently, I found a fantastic post by Nadia Oxford on her Tiny Girl, Tiny Games blog, which takes a fond look back at the golden age of Toys 'R Us. These days, members of Generation X don't have much reason to step foot into the store except to pick up Huggies and Barbie dolls for their tykes. However, in the 20th century, when we were youngsters ourselves, the place was a wonderland, filled with every toy on our overly optimistic Christmas lists and even a few we somehow missed.

Toys 'R Us was also the place to go for video games, back in the days when adults didn't take them too seriously. Most retailers were reluctant to carry game software in the mid 1980s thanks to the industry crash of 1983, but I can't think of a time when they didn't have a major presence in Toys 'R Us. I recall visiting my aunt in Milwaukee back in 1986 and finding a wall of black tags with curiously pixelated artwork mixed in with old-school titles like Scooby-Doo's Maze Chase for the Intellivision. Those black tags were games for the Nintendo Entertainment System, a scrappy newcomer which would go on to dominate the game industry years later. I didn't know at the time that I was staring at history in the making, but significant moments like these tend to slip past you when you're a tightly-wound twelve year old.

A rare glimpse of the Toys 'R Us
game wall, circa 1991. Who was buying
all those copies of Budokan, anyway?
Nadia talked at length about the way you bought games at Toys 'R Us, and I'd like to touch upon this too. Most items you could just purchase at the register, but for games (which are a lot easier to slip under your jacket than, say, Malibu Stacy's Beach House), you'd need to take a few extra steps. Games were displayed on the wall as a series of plastic tags with images from the box on both sides. If you wanted to read the description on the back of the game's box, you'd flip the tag up. If you decided you wanted that game, you'd grab a ticket from a pouch under the tag. If the pouch was empty, that game was out of stock, and you'd have to pick something else.

When you were done, you'd bring your ticket to the register and purchase the game of your choice. You'd then take the receipt to an imposing concrete partition near the store exit. This was the electronics stockroom, a veritable Fort Knox of gaming goodness. After you slipped your receipt under the glass window set in the wall, then and only then were you given your game. 

A grown-up would probably find this arrangement needlessly complicated and time-consuming. However, to a child, it brought a sense of gravity to the game purchasing experience, something Nadia describes as a "solemn event." That game was going to be just as fun no matter where you bought it, but retrieving it from the grey brick fortress in the front of the Toys 'R Us made the purchase more significant. The fact that this was only necessary for games heightened that significance. You weren't buying some silly toy. You were buying a video game.

Well, they tried.
The power of that experience escaped me until Nadia's article made the memories come flooding back. I bought so many games with Toys 'R Us tickets, and they're always the ones I remember best. The charmingly hopeful Atari 2600 port of Kung Fu Master, a game that had no business being anywhere near that system. 1942 for the NES, which I'd played to the bitter end despite its shortcomings. Sagaia, a colorful Taito shooter that was one of the highlights in the early Genesis library. My last ticket was Panzer Dragoon Saga, claimed at a Toys 'R Us in Tucson and clearance priced at twenty dollars. (Wired editor Chris Kohler, still in his teens at the time, was pissed that I was able to get a copy for thirty dollars less than he did. Fifteen years later, with the game selling for hundreds of dollars on auction sites, I'd say he still did pretty well for himself.)

The new R-Zone. Boo, hiss!
Shortly afterward, I moved back to Michigan, and visited the Lansing Toys 'R Us with a friend. That location had been something of an old friend itself, but it had drastically changed from when I visited it as a child and a teenager. The walls of tags, the blue and yellow tickets, and the towering concrete stockroom were all gone, replaced with a new section called the R-Zone. (Not that R-Zone.) Games could now be taken directly to the cash register, with a lone security gate standing between them and the store exit. I didn't think much of the change at the time, but fifteen years later, a realization has hit me like a ton of those massive grey bricks. I left my Toys 'R Us kid in the 1990s, and I don't think I'll ever get him back.

(Special thanks to Nadia Oxford for inspiring me to write this, and to YouTube, Flickr's FourStarCashierNathan, and AtariAge for the images.)

Friday, April 17, 2015

Mental Grab Bag

You ever have a bunch of random thoughts that aren't necessarily related, but you wanted to share them anyway? I sure did, so let's get right to it!

It's not just an adventure, it's a job!
(Image from Giant Bomb)
 Donkey Kong 64 was just released for the Wii U, some fifteen years after its debut on the Nintendo 64. Normally this wouldn't matter much to me, as it's a tedious collectathon starring a cast of obnoxious mascots, the sort of thing that became RARE's calling card in the late 1990s. However, it also includes a conversion of the Donkey Kong arcade game that's more faithful than any previous attempt on a Nintendo game system. That's probably worth the ten dollars Nintendo is charging... but is it worth combing through dozens of levels for the teetering pile of Jiggies, Wiggies, Lennies, and Squiggies you'll need to unlock this bonus? Er, probably not.

 Speaking of Donkey Kong, did you know there's a grey market version of the game called Crazy Kong? The game was licensed only for markets outside America, but you can bet your sweet bippy it came here anyway thanks to Donkey Kong's massive popularity. As the name suggests, Crazy Kong was designed to run on the cheaper, less capable Crazy Climber hardware, which is like trying to toast bread with a cigarette lighter. You might get the desired results, but you're bound to be disappointed. One YouTube viewer described Crazy Kong's off colors and misplaced digitized sound as "terrifying," and after you've played a few levels you'd find it hard to argue the point. See for yourself!

"Hi honey, I'm... what the hell are you
people doing to my house?!"
 I've been itching to get my hands on a copy of Dead or Alive 5+ for the Vita, and after nearly a year of owning the system it's finally happened. I'm happy to say that it's a strong conversion of the game I originally played on the Xbox 360. There's probably a slight dip in the quality of the visuals, but you'd have to compare screenshots to notice the differences. More importantly, the game is a hell of a lot more fun than Tekken 6, with fluid combat and "danger zones" that let you launch your opponents off icy cliffs and the roofs of buildings. There's even a level set inside a ramshackle house, with fighters breaking the surrounding furniture and even the walls as they trade blows. It's not as epic as flinging people off mesas in the exceptional Dead or Alive 3, but it's unlikely the series will ever reach those, ahem, plateaus again.

Check, please.
 Mortal Kombat X recently made its debut on next generation consoles and PCs, and... I think I'm gonna sit this one out. There are plenty of reasons for fans to pick up a copy, but just as many reasons for less dedicated players to save their money, as Ben Kuchara points out in an editorial published on Polygon. It's not just the opportunistic DLC that leaves me cold (want easy fatalities? It'll cost 'ya!), but the violence, which bordered on excessive in the previous game and races a marathon over that line in the sequel. It was like series creator Ed Boon watched his nephew torture frogs in the backyard and started taking notes.

 I just spent some quality time with Kirby: Return to Dreamland on the Wii... or more accurately, the Dolphin emulator. One wonders why Nintendo released this game in such limited quantities, because it's arguably the best entry in an already ambitious series. It shares a lot in common with Kirby: Triple Deluxe for the 3DS, except the Miracle Fruit has been replaced with supercharged versions of Kirby's copy abilities and the graphics are even more incredible. I read on Wikipedia that Return to Dreamland was delayed for over a decade (three previous versions of the game were abandoned because the developers weren't satisfied with them, a testament to HAL Laboratory's dedication to excellence), but Nintendo probably should have held onto this one for just a little longer, so it could have been a launch title on the HD-enhanced Wii U. (And so people could actually play it.)

Here, have some pictures of Return to Dreamland. That ought to wash the taste of that Mortal Kombat fatality out of your mouth. (I can't guarantee it'll stop you from having nightmares about Crazy Kong, though.)

See what I mean? Absolutely gorgeous!

You may recognize this as Kirby's final smash
in the latest Smash Bros. game. I preferred the
one where he sucks all his opponents into
a stewpot, but whatever!

Hey, wasn't she from Bubble Bobble?

Kirby sweats profusely when he's low
on health. It's a nice touch!

Oh yeah, straight to the top, baby!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Building a Better GameBoy

The Gay Gamer's Bryan Ochalla declared this the year of the GameBoy (for the second year in a row! Wait, you can do that?) and invited me to try Catrap, a puzzle game for the old white brick that he recently featured on his web site. Okay, I'll bite... after all, I could use a break from all those bleary eyed nights with Super Smash Bros. There's just one problem, though... how? All the systems I've got that can play classic GameBoy games are in Michigan, while I'm currently stuck on the other side of the country. Looks like I'll have to improvise.

I made a fascinating discovery while looking for a solution to my predicament. Turns out that the best GameBoy model of all isn't a GameBoy at all. It's not even made by Nintendo! It's a PSP-3000, running the latest version of the emulator RIN. RIN does a lot of things that just aren't possible with Virtual Console games on the 3DS... for instance, both the sprite layer and background layer can be assigned separate color palettes, giving you improved contrast and better looking games. GameBoy games on the 3DS give you a single save state... RIN offers up to ten. There's just a small handful of GameBoy games for the 3DS... RIN can run nearly the whole library, including homebrews and licensed titles which aren't likely to make a comeback on modern hardware. Itching to kick shell with Konami's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trilogy? You've got the option here, but don't expect to see that kind of action on Nintendo's latest handheld.

Admittedly, RIN isn't flawless. Although you can customize the controls to your liking, the emulator has a tendency to forget your entries, forcing you to re-enter them each time you start a different game. You can choose your own background for the file browser, but the default is some barely dressed anime girl, and switching to something else is way more confusing than it ought to be. Finally, with so many titles to choose from, there's a risk you might play something you'll regret, like Primitive Princess, or uh... 90% of the GameBoy Color library. Nevertheless, once you've tried some games on RIN, you'll agree that there's no better GameBoy than the PSP. I know, that doesn't make any sense, but trust me on this one.

I'll review a handful of the GameBoy titles I played in a future post, so stay tuned!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Double Your Pleasure!

You'll pardon this brief indulgence before I begin today's blog post. I just received the Performance MegaRacer controller in the mail today. This torture device has a dial in the center that's supposed to simulate a racing wheel, but it has an annoying habit of snapping back in place when you release it and functions only as an analog stick when you connect it to a computer, making it useless for games like Arkanoid. I've heard that it works like a real arcade spinner with select titles, but with just three games confirmed to be fully compatible with its jog wheel mode (two of the Ridge Racers and Tempest X3), you probably won't be getting much mileage out of it. 

The MegaRacer costs about seven dollars with shipping on eBay. I'd suggest investing that money in something that will cause you less pain and suffering, like a cheese grater you can run across your knuckles. Why is it that every time I try to find a way to properly play dial-based games on MAME, it always ends like this?

Luckily, I've got more encouraging news to report. Recently, I came across a pile of LCD monitors at a ratty Goodwill store in Nogales. I'm not even kidding about the pile... seven or eight displays were unceremoniously dumped into a table resembling a shallow trough. They weren't exactly concerned with presentation at this store, let's just put it that way. However, this was easy to forgive when each monitor cost just four dollars, and several included DVI-I ports that can easily be connected to HDMI devices. They got eight dollars, and I got a monitor under each arm.

And what exactly did I intend to do with these two orphaned displays? Well, the monitor I had been using with my gaming PC wasn't cutting it... it was dull and blurry and in desperate need of replacement. So that was finally retired, replaced with a SyncMaster 731B that looked terrific after I rubbed off the scuffs with a few deft strokes of a pencil eraser. However, I still had one monitor left, an LG 1933TR, that worked just as well. It would be a shame to leave it in the corner to rot. What to do, what to do...?

Of course! You're brilliant, quickly forgotten taco spokestyke! My video card lets me connect multiple displays to my PC, so after digging out a tangled handful of cables, I did just that.

After setting up the two monitors, I fired up MAME, eager to try an old childhood favorite the way it was meant to be played...

It's Sagaia! This shooter was originally designed for dual monitor displays, giving the player a panoramic view of the action while letting Taito dish out twice the bullets and metal-plated guppies. Naturally, the home versions of the game were scaled down, with the Genesis version having shrunken down graphics and the Saturn port letting players zoom the screen in and out. Although technically a more accurate conversion, the Saturn game was arguably worse because it forced players to choose between a small portion of the playfield or a full view littered with tiny, scrunched up sprites. No longer, though! It's 2015, and you can have it all!

Look at the size of the Silver Hawk! Look at that sea set against a rocky shore! Look at those wispy clouds and the island in the distance! You weren't getting that kind of detail in the Genesis version, let me tell you.

Emboldened by the results, I decided to try another multi-monitor Taito game, The NinjaWarriors. I may have bit off a little more than I could chew with this one, though.

See, The NinjaWarriors was designed for three monitors, and although I had the displays to spare, I was starting to run out of power outlets and desk space. Besides, you don't really want to play The NinjaWarriors. Not when there's a much better version of the game for the Super NES... one that doesn't require a friggin' Jumbotron to play it.

You'll notice that I used my old monitor for this game. I just found it less disorienting to have two similarly sized displays, even if one of them doesn't look quite as nice as that recently acquired LG.

Oh yeah, now we're talkin'! This is Konami's X-Men, a beat 'em up so legendary it's still referenced in games twenty years later. (If you're wondering, the characters look a little goofy because Konami used the designs from Pryde of the X-Men, an animated special that aired years before the more familiar Saban series.) The X-Men game came in two flavors; a four-player model that used a single screen, and this one, which accommodated six players and stretched the action across two displays so everyone could fit.

The six player version of X-Men has one vexing flaw when you play it in MAME... player one is automatically assigned Cyclops, whose Type A personality rubs me raw and who looks like a futuristic condom mascot in this game. (Really Scott, lay off the spandex. Even the Power Rangers are laughing at you.) On the other hand, his optic beam makes short work of enemies, and really, just about anybody is better than Dazzler.

Not many games in MAME support multiple monitors, and it's not always a helpful feature in the ones that do. Having to scan two screens for bullets in Sagaia is a bit overwhelming, making me long for the humble but more merciful Genesis version I owned as a teenager. However, the technology is incredibly exciting and immersive in the small handful of games well suited to it. Once you've played X-Men with two monitors, it's hard to imagine it any other way.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Total Exposure: SNK Arcade Classics Vol 1 for PSP

Next to Nintendo's Playchoice-10, the Neo-Geo was the most successful arcade jukebox in gaming history. Designed with the most advanced technology the late 1980s had to offer, SNK's supercharged system had an unprecedented fourteen year lifespan, outlasting not only its 16-bit contemporaries but later consoles like the Nintendo 64, the Saturn, and even the Dreamcast.

Wait, isn't a hot dog just a dressed
up weenie...?
It wasn't just the future-proof hardware that carried the Neo-Geo into the 21st century, but the quality of its software as well. SNK was fiercely competitive with its rival Capcom through the 1990s, producing classics like Samurai Shodown, Metal Slug, and Shock Troopers that delivered the rich sound and stunning graphics expected from the arcade experience. Even in 2015, after decades of heightened expectations, these games are still as entertaining as they were when you first dropped a coin into them as a teenager.

The timelessness of the Neo-Geo's best games (and the obscene price of the system...) meant that a classic collection on modern hardware was inevitable. This brings us to SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1 for the PSP. The thought of shrinking all these great games down to a convenient travel size is a tempting one, but there are just two problems. The first is that the interface in SNK Arcade Classics is bloated, ugly, and dog-slow. Most of the content- even one of the games!- has to be unlocked with tedious achievements, and the software is walled off by layers of menus and access time. I've had more luck playing the games on MVSPSP, a homebrew emulator for the PSP, and would suggest going that route if you've hacked your system.

Two, not everything on the Neo-Geo was great, which you'll discover when you read these reviews. The quality of the system's library is higher than that of the Super NES or Genesis, because arcade games are held to higher standards, but there's still a lot of detritus on the Neo-Geo- and in this collection specifically- that doesn't stand the test of time. Hell, a lot of these games weren't even that great when they were first released! This list will help you get the most out of SNK's collection by separating the cream from the crap.


His game sucks, but Ryo throws
one hell of a kegger.
Gigantic, vibrantly colored fighters! A camera that zooms in to catch every brutal detail! Faces that realistically bruise and swell after taking damage! Thrilling cut scenes that rush you to each new battle! Over twenty years after its debut, The Art of Fighting still looks fantastic. As for the gameplay... boy, The Art of Fighting sure looks great, doesn't it?

Look, I'll give it to you straight. For all its visual luster, The Art of Fighting sucks as a game, and sucks hard. You're given a whopping selection of two characters, Ryo Sakazaki and his much too similar friend Robert Garcia. There's only one punch and kick, with a third button assigned to ambiguous "heavy attacks" and a fourth used for taunts. Damage is weirdly arbitrary, with some attacks shaving a couple of pixels from your health bar and others draining a third of it. Combos are all but impossible, aside from rapid-fire strikes like Ryo's Zanretsuken where the computer does all the work for you. The whole affair is clumsy, unsatisfying, and hugely frustrating, the perfect example of SNK's irksome habit of putting style above substance in its early fighting games.


I'm pretty sure I sent Pikachu into orbit
with one of those bats...
Baseball Stars was an NES obsession when I was a kid. You could build your own teams, improve your players' stats, and even trade them off to your rivals or fire them from the league if they weren't pulling their weight. The Neo-Geo version has... absolutely none of these features. It's understandable, of course... that deep customization just wouldn't fly in an arcade setting. Sure, there was technically a Neo-Geo home console, but which of your friends were rich enough and crazy enough to own one?

Baseball Stars 2 swaps the hands-on approach to the sport for a high-energy presentation that makes real baseball look like the World Boggle Championships. Athletes with impossibly thick arms step up to the plate, shown chewing tobacco in a cutaway shot as they wait for the pitch. Players lean against their bats for support when beaned with a pitch, and snap them in half after striking out. You might be tempted to break a few things yourself after a couple of innings, because Baseball Stars 2 is viciously hard. The computer opponent catches pop flies and tags out your players with ruthless efficiency, something to keep in mind if you've got a short temper or high blood pressure.


"Oh, my car! Er, my piano!"
You want to talk about getting burned? Ask the unlucky players who bought a copy of this dreck for $200, only to get thirty minutes of game and two minutes of entertainment for their money. There was no shortage of side-scrolling beat 'em ups available when Burning Fight was released in 1991, and you would be hard-pressed to find one more contrived and less thrilling than this. Of special note are the lead characters, an instantly forgettable, dreadfully animated trio who don't deserve to be generic thugs in Final Fight or Streets of Rage, let alone headline their own game.

One wonders why this collection didn't feature ADK's Ninja Combat instead. It's not, you know, good, but at least it's fairly original and runs at a faster clip than your usual Final Fight clone. Brightly colored shinobi Joe and Hayabusa choke the screen with throwing stars and recruit defeated mini-bosses in some of the most hilariously overacted cut scenes this side of a TurboDuo. "My name is KAGEROW! I was testing your POWAHH!" There's more amusement in those two lines than in all 54 megs of Burning Fight.


This old guy shouldn't be too tough to... uh oh.
The first of many, many, maaaany versus fighting games on the Neo-Geo, Fatal Fury laid the foundation for the long-running South Town series while easing players into a dauntingly complex genre. There's just one punch and kick, with a third button used for throws. Don't know how to use special moves? The computer will give you a helpful demonstration after every match. Having trouble finishing off that towering pro wrestler? Grab a friend and gang up on the poor sap in a two on one fight! Even the bonus stages are simplified, with the player hammering a button to beat virtual arm wrestlers.

Fatal Fury brings some refreshing twists to one on one fighters... believe me, this isn't the carbon copy of Street Fighter II that World Heroes was. Unfortunately, the years have not been kind to this game. The technique is appallingly limited, switching between the foreground and background seems to happen at random, and like The Art of Fighting, the game often makes its story a higher priority than the action, resulting in overly frequent cut scenes and weirdly stilted battles. (Knock the pole from Billy Kane's hand and you won't be able to hit him again until a goon tosses him another one. Okay, that's fair!) Fatal Fury is a fine way to familiarize yourself with fighting games, but by the time you launch Geese Howard out the window of his thirty story high rise, you won't want to stick around for the encore.


What is this, a fighting game
or a Russ Meyer film?
A crossover fighting game? What a fantastic idea! Eventually. I was as excited as anyone to play The King of Fighters '94 when it first hit arcades twenty years ago, but this game has serious problems which wouldn't be addressed until later entries in the series. Want to bring together your favorite stars from SNK's past? Forget it... the teams are pre-built, and typically come with three much too similar characters or waste a slot on dead weight. You'll also have to contend with computer opponents who love to step out of the way of your projectiles, mindbogglingly counter-intuitive super moves, and an obnoxious "chack" noise every time you hit a blocking enemy, which is distressingly often. No wonder one of the characters is named Heavy D!

Every King of Fighters game released since is better than this one, but since this is all you're getting out of this collection, you'll have to make do with sloppy thirteenths. KOF '94 does offer some amusement, though, whether it's hearing a thinly disguised Faith No More song in the Brazil stage, finding Guile's petrified remains in the villain's trophy room, or just the knowledge that at some point in the distant past, you were young enough and dumb enough to think this game was awesome.


Geez. My PSP is NEVER gonna survive this.
And you thought Wrestlemania was big! King of the Monsters expands the scope of sports entertainment, with towering kaiju using Japanese cities as their wrestling rings. Grab a suspiciously familiar gorilla, fling him into the power lines that serve as ropes, and drive his head into a nearby baseball stadium with a devastating suplex! Oh yeah, brother, he's gonna feel that one in the morning!

King of the Monsters is a big, big game designed especially for the high-octane Neo-Geo hardware. It would be hard to imagine a lesser console handling all this chaos, and indeed, later ports to the Sega Genesis and Super NES seem a little wimpy by comparison. However you play it, the game won't hold your attention for long due to a limited selection of attacks and gameplay that favors button mashing over skill. For the first five minutes, though, it's a hell of a rush to stomp buildings into powder as an oversized scarab named, ahem, Beetle Mania.


When he says "I'll be back," he means it.
Don't expect much rest and relaxation here. Last Resort is a white-knuckle shooter, very much in the R-Type vein but with artwork that leans toward the gritty and mechanical. If it tells you anything, the boss in the first stage is the mangled torso of the Terminator, rather than a Gigerian monstrosity ripped from the Alien movies. You're also given more flexibility with your satellite... you can orbit it around your ship to catch stray bullets, then launch it in any one of eight directions by holding down the fire button.

Beyond that, this is a very familiar experience, enhanced with all the luxuries 1990's most advanced arcade hardware can provide. Pilots are launched from the flaming wreckage of their ships, sirens blare in the background as you fly over a crumbling city highway, and your satellite leaves behind a trail of glowing crescents as it rams into its next target. It may not be the classic that R-Type or Gradius were, but where style is concerned, Last Resort can hang with the very best in the genre.


Seven different forms, all with the
same goofy walking animation.
Remember how amazed you were with the freakishly alien landscapes and five layer deep parallax scrolling of the Amiga computer title Shadow of the Beast? Remember how disappointed you were when you came to the bitter realization that the game wasn't anywhere near as impressive as the graphics? Prepare to experience deja vu all over again with Magician Lord.

This Neo-Geo launch title replaces the sprawling level design of Shadow of the Beast with more linear stages better suited to an arcade game, but you'll still notice similarities in the meticulously detailed, wildly original backgrounds... along with the way the lead character constantly dies at the hands of the game's overly abundant monsters. Your wizard can change into six alternate forms by grabbing crystal balls, but don't expect to get much use out of them unless you've got the mad skills to survive the legions of bullet-spitting monsters. Do expect a great deal of swearing until you get that good.


Metal Slug ranks among the best
the Neo-Geo has to offer.
Dazzlingly detailed, magnificently scored, and more intense than stubbing your toe on a honey badger, Metal Slug is the game that defined the Neo-Geo experience. Yet it was far from the first, released halfway through the system's lifespan. It wasn't even the first Neo-Geo game to borrow liberally from Konami's Contra series... although the lackluster launch title Cyber-Lip was quickly forgotten and best left that way. (Here's the big twist at the end... you and the second player are actually the villains. There, now you don't have to play it.)

Metal Slug, on the other hand... now that's a keeper. Imagine if you will a side-scrolling shooter that takes place during World War II, except the villain is Saddam Hussein instead of Hitler and all his soldiers are the biggest bunch of morons you could ever hope to meet. You'll meet dozens of scruffy P.O.W.s on your mission, who restock your supply of grenades and replace your wimpy handgun with such weapons of mass destruction as the rocket launcher and the shotgun, which reduces General Mordern's troops to a spray of red mist. Survive long enough and you may even find the Metal Slug, a surprisingly acrobatic tank which can double as a battering ram in times of distress. This game is one for the ages... it was fantastic in 1996, it's terrific nearly twenty years later, and it will be cherished by the archaeologists who find it in the rubble of our civilization two thousand years later.


The speedlines are how you know it's
a Japanese golf game.
Funny thing... I thought this golf game had been released much closer to the Neo-Geo's 1990 debut. But nope, it hit arcades in 1996, the same time as Nazca's more popular Metal Slug. And just like that classic shooter, Neo Turf Masters has all the earmarks of a Nazca release, from the bombastic music to a cast of characters stricken with severe prognathism. I mean, just look at these guys! I've seen smaller chins in a Rankin-Bass Christmas special.

Anyway, Neo Turf Masters is your typical golf game, with exciting cinematic cutaways (watch helplessly as your ball stops just short of the hole!) and brisk play mechanics specially designed to keep players moving and arcade owners swimming in quarters. If you don't make a shot in eight seconds, you'll be given a one stroke penalty. Bogey too many holes and your game will end before you can play the later ones. You'll also earn the derision of the chirpy announcer, Ellis LaPorte, who wisely stays hidden from view so you can't wrap a golf club around her neck. Some day, LaPorte, you'll get yours...


Sorry babe, gotta split!
After two years of cashing in on the popularity of Street Fighter II, SNK finally brings something new to the table with Samurai Shodown. It would be easy to dismiss this at first glance as just another Street Fighter clone, but the gameplay is altogether different; a tense stand-off where players wait for an elusive opening in their opponent's defense and drive a sword into it. There are no twenty hit combos here... three or four clean blows is all it takes to end a round. It may even end your rival's life at the end of the match, if your last strike is especially accurate.

Samurai Shodown isn't just a thrilling series of sword fights enhanced with SNK's typically brilliant graphics and sound. It's also an authentic Japanese experience, with taiko drums thundering in the background and characters inspired by Japan's feudal era. There really is a race of indigenous Japanese called the Ainu, and there really was a man named Amakusa Shiro Tokisada who was feared throughout the country. Of course, that was mostly because he was spreading unwanted Western beliefs... the dark sorcery was creative license on the part of the developers.


Wild horses (and everything else) could
drag me away from this one.
Oy gevalt, not another one of THESE! Sengoku is yet another generic beat 'em up, which tries to hide its flaws behind a rice paper wall of ancient Japanese iconography. The schizophrenic action is split between fighting the undead in abandoned cities and heavenly arenas. After their defeat, most enemies are squashed flat, for no other reason than the Neo-Geo can. (SNK's programmers were really fond of this special effect, making the Mode 7 in Super NES launch titles look tastefully restrained by comparison.) However, a few of the bad guys will change sides and fight for you, sometimes making the game worse in the process. With friends like these, who needs hundreds of the same enemies?

Locking swords with samurai zombies was a promising idea in need of a better game... which is why SNK took two more cracks at it. The second Sengoku smooths out some of the rough patches in the original (with a slight visual downgrade), while the third starts from scratch with a sleek combo-heavy brawler closer in spirit to Final Fight. You'd be smart to play either of the sequels instead, even if you have to find a real Neo-Geo to do it.


Welcome to Shock Troopers, where the
soldiers die both painfully and often.
From the makers of Shinoken comes... wait, don't run from the room screaming! This is good, honest! Every game system needs an overhead view shooter with a military theme, and Saurus delivers a doozy with Shock Troopers. It brings to mind classics like Capcom's MERCS, but throws in some welcome strategy by letting you roll out of harm's way and knife nearby soldiers for bonus items. There's plenty of variety in the levels, with your mercenary marching through ankle-deep swamps and racing across the highway on a motorcycle, and you'll find attention to detail in everything from the villagers who run from the ensuing carnage to enemy soldiers who writhe on the floor in agony after they've been gunned down. Shock Troopers' only major malfunctions are occasional frame rate dips and an intensely off-putting electronica soundtrack... everything else about this title is golden. It's just a pity Saurus dropped the ball with the sequel, with its doughy rendered characters and a triple helping of slowdown.


"Aww, do I gotta play this?"

"Yes, yes you do."

"You stink! I'm never talking to you again!"

"Go to your room."

(angry muttering is heard as loud footsteps trail up the stairs)
Me, when I found out I had to play this.

Well, I said I was gonna write about all the games on this collection, so here I go! Super Sidekicks 3 is a soccer game, as you may have guessed from the title and my lack of enthusiasm. It's got tiny but well animated players, plenty of teams from around the world, and tight, responsive control... not to mention a guy who has very little interest in playing it trying to pad out this review to an acceptable size. I was utterly hopeless at Super Sidekicks 3, frequently losing the ball to the sidelines, but I've seen players on YouTube who were able to dominate the game, firing ball after ball into the other team's goal box with little effort. I suspect you're not going to have much trouble winning this game if you have any interest in playing it. As for me, I think I'll stick with Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown.


The long arm of the law.
(Yeah, I was really reaching with that pun.)
And now for something completely different! After dozens of intense shooters and fighters, SNK shifts into first gear with the charming, if insubstantial, Top Hunter. This platformer puts you in the shoes of two bionic heroes, who use their stretchy arms to grab bumbling soldiers and slam them to the ground. SNK's favorite gimmick, dual plane playfields, are a key part of the gameplay, with Roddy and Cathy jumping between the foreground and background to reach handy items. Time ups are the most important of these... the Time and Super Time icons add precious seconds to the clock, giving you just enough time to reach the boss at the end of each stage.

Top Hunter looks marvelous, with each stage boasting its own distinct design and all of them bursting with bright colors. The gameplay may not appeal to everyone, though... the terrain doesn't present much of a challenge, and most of the dimwitted enemies can be dispatched with just a couple of hits. But really, challenge is hardly in short supply in the Neo-Geo library. If you want a game that will put its boot on your throat and press down until you black out, play Pulstar instead. If you're not up for that kind of punishment, Top Hunter is the way to go.


This is without question the Street Fighter-iest of the many fighting games released for the Neo-Geo, with precious little done to disguise its roots. Sure, the talents of Dhalsim are spread across two different characters (Rasputin gets his mysticism and fireballs, while Go-Go-Gadget Nazi Brocken gets his extending arms), and the cast borrows as heavily from historical figures as it does Capcom's World Warriors, but this is essentially store brand Street Fighter II. It even nicks from the original Street Fighter, with the strength of your button taps determining the power of your hero's punches and kicks. This control scheme was rather pointless on the four button Neo-Geo, but would get a lot of mileage on a later SNK game system, the Neo-Geo Pocket.

Now you got burned!
I'm rambling, aren't I? Okay, let's get down to brass tacks. Like several of the other games in this collection, World Heroes suffers in comparison to later entries in the series, with less technique and a smaller selection of characters. On the other hand, Alpha Denshi's demented sense of humor and repeated pokes of the hornet's nest that is US copyright law is a guilty pleasure right up there with devouring a family sized bag of cheese puffs. Where else can you see Joan of Arc respond to her opponent's chauvinist taunts by making them a knuckle sandwich? Or watch ninjas from Japan's feudal period carve a tribute to Arnold Schwarzenegger out of solid rock with their bare hands? Or fling Hulk Hogan into active landmines and electrified fences? (Yes, Hulk Hogan is apparently considered a historical figure now. Maybe if Isaac Newton had hit the gym, he could have been in one of these games, too.)

Friday, April 3, 2015

(I'd Like to) Club Nintendo

Hey Mario, are you gonna stand there looking angry for the rest of April or are you gonna let me have my free Elite Rewards game already?

(Also, stop judging me!)

I just wanted to make a quick post to ask if all you happy people would like to read a review of all the games on SNK's Arcade Classics collection for the PSP. It's not like I have anything better to do, but you might, since it'll be a lot to digest. Let me know, okay? Yes, all four of you reading this.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

It's Been Fun: The End of Club Nintendo

We interrupt these April Fool's Day pranks for news that's unfortunately all too real. Starting today, you can no longer register codes on Club Nintendo, the first step toward its permanent retirement. This is an especially bitter pill to swallow if you, say, bought a copy of Lego City Undercover for the Wii U and found one of these codes tucked inside the package. Heh.

Please love me!
I can honestly say that as a Wii U owner, Club Nintendo had made that system a lot more entertaining. Along with the previously shuttered Digital Deluxe Promotion, it added a dozen free games to my collection, including titles like Guacamelee and Pikmin 3 that I would have otherwise skipped. Club Nintendo also gave me an added nudge to buy titles I was on the fence about, like Bravely Default. Without the extra incentive offered by Nintendo coins, it's a safe bet that I'll probably leave those toss-up purchases on the shelf.

On the plus side, Club Nintendo is also offering a free game to Elite members, and there are some pretty sweet choices if you managed to earn Platinum status. How does Yoshi's New Island grab you? Oh, it doesn't. In that case, maybe Animal Crossing: New Leaf, or Mario Golf World Tour, or Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is more your speed. If you bought and registered enough games last year, you can download any one of these titles during the month of April.

This news brought to you by Perfection Bakery, located in sunny Worthington, Indiana. Stop in and try one of our delightful cakes, unless you come in with a gay lover, a wheelchair, autism spectrum disorder, unsightly five 'o clock shadow, halitosis, or a slightly askew tie. Then you'll just have to get a Pepperidge Farm cake from the grocery store down the street, you big jerk. Perfection Bakery: We only serve the very best. Which probably isn't you.

(rude cake image supplied by the Huffington Post)