Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Samba de Amiga! (part 1)

The holy grail for teenage nerds in the 1980s.
(image from Pinterest)
The Amiga was one of those systems I desperately wanted but which always seemed just out of reach. Originally designed in 1983 as a cutting-edge game machine, the Amiga hardware was purchased by Commodore two years later and repurposed as a home computer, competing with other 16-bit powerhouses like the Atari ST and Apple's Macintosh.

Yet despite the keyboard and floppy drive, the Amiga could never escape its true purpose. There was a lot you could do with the computer, from composing music to producing home videos, but Amiga owners always found themselves returning to its vast library of video games. Amiga games were typically designed in the United Kingdom, where the computer was most popular, and the European influence could plainly be seen in their lavish backgrounds and a quirky sense of humor.

I've got one of these now! Geez,
it took long enough...
(image from Amazon)
Recognizing the Amiga's strengths and the increasing popularity of the video game market, Commodore tried turning the machine back into a game console with the CD32 in 1993. Sadly, the company had been wrung dry of cash by that point and could no longer give its machine the support it needed to flourish. When Commodore went bankrupt a year later, it was game over for the CD32 and the rest of the Amiga line.

Yet even in death, the Amiga remained fascinating to me. I've spent hours playing its games in the WinUAE emulator, discovering everything I missed in the 1980s... as well as a fair share of titles I would have been better off leaving in the past. Even the lousy games have been an education, and here's what I've learned so far about the Amiga experience:

 The Amiga was, in its original design, limited to just 32 colors. The more clever developers could squeeze a lot more out of the hardware with a special technique called Hold and Modify, but this was better suited to static images, not animation (and by extension, games). The color palette would get a big boost years later with AGA, a technology which allowed later Amiga systems to display 256 colors out of a selection of... sixteen million? Yeah, I think I could work with that!

Left: Amiga (32 colors)
Right: TurboGrafx-16 (256 colors)
  You'd be amazed at what can be done with just 32 colors, though. Games like Parasol Stars and Snow Bros. match up fairly well with their console counterparts despite the Amiga's color deficit, and other titles like Super Methane Bros. and Zool are blindingly bright. However, the absence of color is deeply felt in more realistic games, like the ports of Mortal Kombat and Super Street Fighter II. If you thought the latter game suffered on the Genesis, you ain't seen nothin' yet...

 The Amiga is capable of producing crisp digitized speech and other sound samples... and boy did developers take advantage of it! Sometimes this resulted in powerful soundtracks like the one in Agony, but sometimes you'll wish the designers had shown a little restraint, like when every item you collect in Super Methane Bros. comes with its own wacky noise. There are a lot of items in that game, by the way. I hope you brought just as much patience for stupid sound effects.

Nope, you're done. Go home.
 The British seem to have a serious allergy to continues. Some Amiga games limit you to a couple, while others give you none at all. It's no wonder that when these games were pirated, they included "trainers" which gave players infinite lives or health. Infinite health might be just enough to finish a ball-buster like Shadow of the Beast...

 Some Amiga games give you music or sound effects, but not both at once. Sometimes you're allowed to choose between the two, but occasionally that choice will be forced on you. Platformers like Oscar and Zool have no background music and feel naggingly incomplete without it. And kind of creepy too, now that I think about it.

 The motif for the lion's share of Amiga games (especially Psygnosis games) is "progressive rock album cover come to life."  Be prepared to see a lot of surreal landscapes littered with aliens, dragons, and combinations of the two. (Admittedly, there are worse things than having your video game look like a Roger Dean poster.)

No controller standard
means you get to spend
some quality time with
your old friend, hand-
cramping 2600 joystick!
 The Amiga was designed with two DB-9 joystick connectors... the same kind you'd see on the Atari 2600 and Sega Genesis. There'd be nothing wrong with that, except there was never a standard controller for Amiga computers, forcing users to plug in their single button joysticks from the Atari era. This problem wasn't addressed until the CD32 was launched in 1993, and by then, dozens of games that had no business being played with one button were already available for the Amiga. Whoops...

 Originally, Amiga games had to be loaded from a floppy disc. If you have the option- and you almost certainly do if you're playing these games on an emulator- I would suggest using a virtual hard drive instead. You can set one up by using these instructions provided by GBATemp member Dansmell. When you're finished, you can quickly and painlessly access your games from Workbench, a user interface that's the rough Amiga equivalent of Windows. You can even use the hard drive file you made in the recently released UAE4All for the Playstation Vita, making it even more handy.

Oh, I'm not done yet! I'll be reviewing a handful of Amiga games in the second part of this feature, so stay tuned!

(Special thanks to Wikipedia, Old Computers, and Lemon Amiga for providing valuable information for this article.)

Friday, November 25, 2016

When Black Friday Comes...

Well, it's here... National Step All Over Your Fellow Man for Low Priced Merchandise Day. I wish there was a discount on thought-provoking comments, because man, my cupboard is bare right now.

Now that there's an Amiga emulator for the Playstation Vita, I thought I'd review a few of the games for Commodore's cutting-edge (for 1985, at least) multimedia computer. Turns out that running those games is more difficult than I'd expected, full of tedious disc swapping, load times, and compatibility issues. Ruff 'n Tumble, that bizarre yet brilliant hybrid of Metal Slug and Sonic the Hedgehog, runs a lot smoother than it had on the PSP, and is double the fun with an infinite ammo cheat and a dedicated button for jumping. However, the Amiga version of Snow Bros. won't work at all, and the ill-conceived ports of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II won't actually let you play them because they demand discs you've already put in the Amiga's virtual drive. So I guess that's not really an option until I work out the kinks.

I recently picked up a flight stick from St. Vincent RuPaul's (wait, that's not right...), so reviews of arcade games that use that style of controller are not out of the question. The only problem is that what a flight stick offers in immersive, seat of the pants excitement, it lacks in precision. It feels right to play Zaxxon with a trigger-mounted stick, but an ordinary gamepad makes it less likely that you'll crash into castle walls, enemy jets, and all the other hazards the game throws at you. Then again, even a really good gamepad can't fix Zaxxon's frustrating lack of depth perception. Sorry, but that altitude meter on the side of the screen just doesn't cut it in 2016. (or 2006. Or 1996. Heck, maybe even in 1982 when the game was released.)

Plan C would be to barf up a bunch of drawings I did on Miiverse over the last couple of months. I haven't been posting there as often as I did last year, but there should be enough fresh content to justify a post. It's kind of lazy, but hey, it's something.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Genesis Did

I've been feeling nostalgic for the Sega Genesis, so I thought I'd drop a few of its earlier games (and one of its later ones) into an emulator and share my experiences. Hey, it gives me something to do.


See? I wasn't kidding about the Cruz thing!
America deserved a really good Ghostbusters game after suffering through the overly complicated and underly fun home computer title by Activision... you know, the one that later migrated to every 8-bit game console under the sun and was somehow even worse on them. Fortunately, Ghostbusters for the Genesis is a step in the right direction, starting from scratch with platforming action that's like a more passive Mega Man. As Ray, Egon, or Peter (but no Winston? Tsk tsk, Sega!), you blast wayward spirits in a series of massive New York homes. The stage designs lean toward the confusing and you'll take cheap hits more than occasionally, but the control is very solid, with the trio making precise jumps with ease and locking themselves in place while firing diagonally... a handy skill when battling bosses three times their size. The graphics are also a highlight, with recognizable caricatures of the Ghostbusters cast. Bill Murray looks disturbingly like senator Ted Cruz, which is not the kind of scare you want from a Ghostbusters game, but that's still a big step up from the faintly detailed stick figures from the 8-bit titles... B



Death comes from all directions
in Dick Tracy.
Sega put its Shinobi team to work on this one, and the influence in its design is obvious. It feels a lot like the original Shinobi arcade game, with Tracy pushing his way deep into mob territory, using boxes for cover and picking off gangsters with a modest but effective pistol. It all seems pretty cut and dry... but then enemies appear on the other side of the street, and that's when things get interesting. The saffron-colored shamus is also armed with a tommy gun, letting him blast foes in the distance before they can catch him in their sights. You'll frequently have to juggle between the two styles of play to survive, keeping the action lively and strengthening the game's ties to the big-budget Disney film of the same name. The gameplay gets a little too overwhelming during boss fights, but the stylish presentation (including large, well animated sprites and a fitting jazz soundtrack) helps soothe the sting of being blown to bits by The Brow for the sixth or seventh time. B


Being pelted with Winnie the Pooh toys is
actually one of the least weird things
that happens in this game.
The gorgeous anime intermissions... the ludicrous level designs... the nagging sense that another developer could have done this better... yep, it's a Wolf Team game, all right! El Viento continues the Wolf Team tradition of quirky-but-not-always-in-the-best-ways gameplay with a fast-paced platformer set in the 1920s. Sometimes you'll be impressed with the way lanky magician Annet gracefully sprints through each stage, clearing her path with handfuls of boomerangs. Sometimes you'll get frustrated by the way she's shoved around by her enemies, without a brief window of mercy invincibility or any indication that she's been injured aside from a quickly draining life bar. And sometimes you'll just stare at the screen in bewilderment as Annet clashes with hovertanks, sewer mutants, and swirling lines of airborne cacti. Does El Viento ever make sense? Not really. Is it entertaining? Sure, if you can get used to the slightly off design. It's a Wolf Team game, after all. That comes with the territory. C+



Released late in the life of the Sega Genesis, Aero the Acro-Bat 2 was the last burning ember of the furry mascot era of gaming. Players were weary of the avalanche of Sonic clones that dominated the Super NES and Genesis, and were eager for fresh experiences on the coming generation of consoles. This made Aero 2, with its squeaky-voiced hero and cartoony animation, feel like a relic in the far-flung year of 1994. Twenty years later, with the resentment for video game mascots softened into quaint nostalgia, it's easier to judge Aero the Acro-Bat 2 on its own merits. By those standards, it holds up surprisingly well. The drill attack is more useful than it was in the original, there are hidden paths tucked everywhere, and set pieces like spinning gears and bells keep the player surprised and engaged. Aero's still not much of a character, awkwardly straddling the fence between cuddly and edgy, but the gameplay is just good enough to make it worth putting up with the contrived star's constant guano. B



The G.I. Joe Armored Battle Tank.
Get yours today for $29.99 at Toys 'R Us!
(Figures sold separately.)
If Dick Tracy is just too darned subtle for you, give Dynamite Duke a spin. It serves up all the big, loud, dumb action you could ask for, with the brawny title character gunning down soldiers, tanks, choppers, cannons... really, there's no soldier too small and no boss too big for Duke to blow to bits. He'll even roll up his sleeves and throw a few punches if anyone is stupid enough to challenge him to a fight.

Like the games in the Neo-Geo launch library, Dynamite Duke makes a strong first impression with its big, bright artwork and surprisingly smooth 3D effects. However, the thrills don't last because the game is neither long enough nor deep enough to hold the player's attention. You shoot everything in sight, you engage in CQC with brain-dead cyborgs who can't touch you when you duck out of the way of their attacks... the process repeats until you reach an infuriating final boss and the end of the game. The muffled sound doesn't do much for Dynamite Duke's long-term appeal either, taking the teeth out of the constant gunfire and explosions. C-



One nice touch: Cows peacefully graze
below you, unaware of the carnage overhead.
Raiden Trad suffers from being a perfectly competent game in a genre that's over-represented on the Sega Genesis. Shooters are a dime a dozen on this system, and this one in particular is so much like Truxton and Fire Shark that it's even harder to justify its existence. Having said that, if you absolutely must play a Raiden game, this is one of the better ports on an early 1990s game console. Compared to the Turbografx-16 version that came later, the colors are a little dull and you don't get that cool burst of shrapnel when your ship explodes, but at the same time, it's head, shoulders, torso, knees, and ankles above the embarrassing Super NES port. It's also worth noting that Raiden Trad is one of the few shooters of its time that shows you a little mercy after you die, summoning a fairy which showers your next life with power-ups. The game is hard enough in the later stages that you'll be grateful for the helping hand. C+

Monday, November 14, 2016

This Old Xbox

(cricks neck)

It's been a while, but let's see if I can still do this blogging thing. We're all frightened by what the election results have in store for us, but it doesn't have to stop us from living in the moment. Today we game, tomorrow we die!


Uh, er, anyway. You may recall that I bought an Xbox 360 E last year, since I've always liked the system and found a smaller, more reliable, less ridiculous looking version of it appealing. Problem is, I was too cheap to buy an official hard drive, and those are the only ones that offer compatibility with the original Xbox library. That machine I like a little less, but it nevertheless has a lot of cool games, and it was distressing that I didn't have access to them.

Feh. What else you got?
(image: Softonic)
So during the summer, I scoured the internet for a solution to my compatibility problem. Turns out you can get the patch you need to run Xbox games on an aftermarket hard drive... it just takes a SATA cable and a little work. Now my el cheapo drive runs classic Xbox games like a champ!

Wait, there's one other problem. All my legacy Xbox games are stranded in Michigan, and the only ones I've got here in the Southwest are Shenmue II and Sonic Heroes. No no, that won't do at all! Guess I'll have to rebuild my library with a little shopping. And there's no better place to start than Dead or Alive 3, my favorite game in the long-running series.

The perfect winter attire,
if you're a pneumonia fan.
(image: YouTube)
Dead or Alive 3 is one of the most common games in the classic Xbox library and can be had for a pittance... I scored a copy for five bucks, and I'm sure I could have paid less if I spent more time looking. More importantly, it's a fantastic fighter that somehow still looks incredible fifteen years after its release. Each stage feels like a tangible location rather than wallpaper, with ledges your opponent can be pushed off and walls they can be pinned against. The characters are gorgeously animated and only slightly artificial... you can find polygonal edges on their shoulders and clothing, but only if the camera's pretty close. For my money, it looks almost as good as the much later Dead or Alive 5, and worlds better than the crushing disappointment that was the fourth game.

(image: Wikipedia)
I also found a copy of Fable... somewhere. (Where the hell DID this come from, anyway? It's like it randomly materialized in my entertainment center.) This hasn't aged so well, but I suspect that was the result of its open world design coupled with a limited budget. Games are so polished these days that the little flaws that would easily be ignored in 2004- cheesy voice acting and an overuse of the Arial font in menus to name some examples- are a lot harder to shrug off now.

Anyway. Dated though it may be, Fable holds up better than its Xbox bunkmate Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. The characters are somewhat angular but have a charming cartoony design, with big, bulbous feet and exaggerated features. The gameplay is kind of awkward- it's entirely too easy to put away your bow when you wanted to fire it- but you see what Peter Molyneux was hoping to accomplish with this. The man promises entirely too much with his games, but at least he meets half of his lofty goals. I understand that there's a special anniversary edition with enhanced graphics. I may have to look into it, especially since the classic Xbox version doesn't play all that smoothly on an Xbox 360.

I think that's where I'll end this blog entry. Hey, I made it through the whole thing! Go me! Hopefully you'll be hearing more from me in the coming months.

Thursday, November 10, 2016


Well, that election sure happened. Look, I'm not going to spend a lot of time discussing it here... this really is not the place for politics. For what it's worth, I will say that America has made a dreadful mistake. We won't know whether he'll be just a bad president or one of history's worst dictators (I'm fearing the latter), but whatever happens, I'll keep writing for as long as I'm given that opportunity. The rights of free expression guaranteed by the first amendment are your greatest gift, people. Cherish them, fight for them. Die for them if you must.

I'll keep posting about silly video game nonsense here as long as I'm capable and motivated. People may criticize that decision as dwelling on trivialities in the face of something far more serious, but I've been immersed in the increasingly stressful world of politics for at least a couple of months, and I'll need this distraction to keep me sane. No apologies.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Radio Silence

Doo, doo dah. Bop bop, aah, aah.

Yeah, I'm probably not going to be doing much with the blog or my YouTube channel for a while. This year's election has seriously got me on edge. After that's over, my mother returns from Michigan, and I'll have to find a way to deal with that drama, too. Sorry. Hopefully when I come back, I'll have something worth reading for you guys.