Saturday, July 31, 2021

A Super Little Something Extra

Nintendo and Sega went in opposite directions with their respective micro consoles. Eager to cover as much of the system's history as possible, Sega gave the Genesis Mini a shotgun blast of software, with everything from launch titles to late releases, and from massive hits to head scratching obscurities. Some of the games included weren't expected by fans, but the quality of Alisia Dragoon, Beyond Oasis, and Super Fantasy Zone made these oddball choices hard to dismiss. On the other hand, titles like Sonic Spinball, Space Harrier II, and Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle were remembered all too well by Sega Genesis owners in the 1990s... just not very fondly.

What? No love for Skuljagger: Revolt
of the Westicans?!
(image from Lukie Games)
Nintendo took a different approach with the Super NES Classic, playing it safe with a smaller, more familiar, better curated selection of games. The system leans heavily toward Nintendo's own creations, and sleeper hits were generally left off the guest list... chances are, if you didn't hear about a game when the original Super NES was on store shelves, you won't find it here, either. 

Less dedicated fans will probably be satisfied with the twenty one uniformly excellent games offered on the Super NES Classic, but a few of us will want to color outside the lines and squeeze in a handful of carts that only we seem to remember, whether they were dug up at a thrift store or rented on a whim from the nearest Blockbuster. Luckily, the Hakchi exploit makes this possible, giving you a chance to get reacquainted with the titles in the Super NES library that everyone else overlooked. Titles like these...

E.V.O.
Enix/Almanic

Almanic- or Givro if you’re nasty- was never in danger of being mistaken for one of the top-shelf game developers of the 16-bit era, but it seemed to do its best work when freed from convention and allowed to tinker with its own nutty ideas. Fighting Masters, yet another versus fighting game? I’ve seen that before, and seen it done a whole lot better. E.V.O., a game where you climb the evolutionary ladder to become the ultimate life form and prove your right to marry planet Earth? That’s a new one on me!

A stronger bite, the first of your character's
many, many, many evolutions.
With a concept that wildly imaginative, the average gamer would want to play E.V.O. even if the game falls short of its aspirations. Unfortunately, the game boils down to 70% tedious grinding, 20% thrilling moments of discovery, and 10% overwhelming boss battles where even one slip of the controller is one too many. Buying fins, horns, and teeth with your EVO points to strengthen your creature and improve its chances of survival is a lot of fun! However, killing hundreds of sea worms, jellyfish, and dimwitted newts to earn those points, especially when your creature is at the trunk of the family tree and has few natural defenses, is considerably less entertaining.

The bosses that separate one era of prehistory from the next are never, ever fun, guaranteed to trap you in a stun lock and stomp you flat even at the peak of your evolution. Spend those hard-fought EVO points early, because if Gaia has to revive you after a boss has its way with you, you’ll lose half of whatever you’re carrying... and you won’t want to spend an hour earning them back. Nevertheless, there’s a peculiar draw to E.V.O.’s originality and entrancing music, even when the game insists on teaching you evolution through a million years of first hand experience. C

Firepower 2000 (aka Super SWIV)
Sunsoft/The Sales Curve

For whatever reason, some games just find more popularity in other regions. Castlevania was a massive success in America and is considered one of the heavy hitters of the NES library, but ask a Japanese gamer about “Akumajou Dracula,” its Eastern counterpart, and you’re likely to get a disinterested shrug of the shoulders. Similarly, Bomb Jack didn’t get much attention from Americans, but the game was huge in Great Britain, ported to no end of home computers.

So it goes with Silkworm. This Tecmo arcade release is ordinary on its face, but comes with a nifty hook... it’s actually two games in one, with one player driving a ground-bound Jeep and the other taking to the skies in a helicopter. Americans dismissed the game as just another military shooter, but the British loved Silkworm and demanded more. Since Tecmo didn’t make an official sequel, The Sales Curve took the initiative and created one of their own, calling it SWIV (Silk Worm in Vertical).

Strafing gives the Jeep a distinct tactical
advantage, letting it fire at enemies from
safe cover.
This brings us to the American localization of that game, Firepower 2000. Although borne out of love for the Japanese original, Firepower 2000 is as British as a shooter can get. Swarms of shiny, bulbous ships streak downward like comets, hoping to take you by surprise, and your vehicle erupts in a screen-filling explosion should the waves of bullet-resistant jet fighters find their target. Rumbling explosions and an angry industrial soundtrack (imagine if the Airwolf theme was composed by Nine Inch Nails) rattle your nerves as you carve a path to the next boss, stopping only to catch your breath and make sense of the puzzling weapon and power-up systems. 

Firepower 2000 isn’t the best shoot ‘em up on the Super NES, but it’s certainly one of the most relentless... and the option to pilot either a Jeep or a chopper lets you get creamed by the CPU in two entirely different ways. C+

Hagane
Hudson/Red

Bonk’s Adventure creators Hudson Soft and Red Entertainment join forces once more to give the world another anachronistic action game. This time, instead of a caveman butting heads with dinosaurs that somehow escaped extinction, it’s a steam-powered mech battling ninjas in feudal Japan, armed with swords, throwing knives, grenades, and the dreaded kusarigama. (Well, dreaded by the player, since this overgrown yo-yo is damn near useless in combat.)

Yeesh. This game was hard enough before the
Badyear blimp decided to stop by for a visit.
Hagane takes much of its inspiration from both Irem’s Ninja Spirit and Capcom’s Strider, which shouldn’t be so much a warning of its difficulty as a fifty foot tall neon sign promising you that you’ll get your face kicked in and your pride shattered. Just when you think you’ve been given a break from the dozens of tenacious foes pouring out from either side of the screen, a gargantuan airship parks directly overhead to drop more ninjas into your lap, while taking potshots at you from its side-mounted cannons. Later stages introduce mammoth worms bursting forth from the ground and energy flinging monks that are anything but pacifistic. It’s imperative to grab every 1UP you find and keep your modestly size health bar filled, because the “infinite continues” the game offers take you back to start of the last stage you reached, not the last area. If you couldn’t make it to the second stage, you’ll be starting from scratch.

The game’s monstrous difficulty is exacerbated by slightly dodgy control... good luck performing those aerial somersault consistently when you’re running for your life in the rage-inducing autoscrolling scenes! However, you can’t say Hagane doesn’t do its best to lure players into its treacherous web. Red flexes the Super NES’s considerable visual muscles until they pop, making the game’s steampunk weaponry and eastern ambiance blend surprisingly well together, and the tumbling system doubles your steel-plated samurai’s already extensive skills. Nothing comes easily in Hagane, but at least you’ll be rewarded for your investment of blood, sweat, and tears. B-

Skyblazer
Sony/Ukiyotei

You see a lot of praise heaped onto this game by other reviewers, which it deserves, but they also levy a criticism against it that I can't fathom. Evidently, Skyblazer is too... easy for them? Sure, it serves up extra lives like Halloween candy, but you’re going to need them all, because this game uses every trick in the book of level design bastardry. Vanishing blocks that are your only path to the top of a tower so high it’s liable to give the player nosebleeds? Check. An ice level that makes the already slippery hero even slipper-ier, complete with ice shelves that send you plunging downward when you step on them? Check. Pillars and spiked idols which you’ll have to leap across while they plunge down the edge of a waterfall? Oh yeah, big check there.

Nobody's dreaming of this Genie.
There are plenty of words you can use to describe Skyblazer, and after you’re splattered a few times by a falling ceiling, not all of them will be polite. However, the most accurate description you could use is “familiar.” Skyblazer was published by Sony and designed by Ukiyotei, who previously gave the world the surprisingly pleasant video game adaptation of Hook. Skyblazer is reminiscent of Hook in the way it looks, feels, and plays, but features new characters and a Hindu setting that offers a clean break from the Spielberg film. More importantly, Ukiyotei gave Skyblazer the Daft Punk “harder, better, faster, stronger” treatment, improving on every aspect of its past work.

Let me explain. It’s harder because, well... you already read the first paragraph of this review, right? It’s better because Skyblazer offers a more imaginative cast of characters and more abilities for its hero. Sky’s not stuck with a wimpy dagger and some magic pixie dust, but instead has a selection of spells that grows as he defeats bosses. It’s faster, lending a sense of urgency to the action that the frustratingly pokey Hook didn’t have. Finally, Skyblazer is stronger, because it doesn’t need to lean on a movie license to justify its existence, offering its own fully realized world. It’s not a perfect video game, due in part to Sky’s annoying habit of running a step farther than you intended, but at least this time, it’s a genuine one. B

The Violinist of Hamelin
Enix

When an army of demons strolls into town to demand a sacrifice, only the belligerant bard Hamel can save the day! But alas, Hamel doesn’t do anything for free. He insists on bringing one of the town’s maidens along with him on his quest to defeat the Demon Lord, and although Flute happily agrees, it’s a decision she’ll soon regret...

Never fear... the eponymous Violinist of Hamelin is too much of a gentlemen for that! However, he will stand on Flute’s shoulders, fling her into harm’s way, and even dress her in the most ridiculous costumes he can find, all in service of his noble quest. Then again, sometimes he does all that stuff just because he’s bored and finds it amusing. Okay, so he’s not that much of a gentleman.

Doing my best Jack Benny impression while
astride a young girl in a frog costume is,
alas, only the nineteenth weirdest thing
I've ever done in a video game.
Based on a Japanese comic series, Violinist of Hamelin is a familiar side-scrolling action game, given new life by its sidekick Flute. The notes from Hamel’s violin can subdue monsters, turn sprouts into towering tomato plants, and switch on machines, but there are some things the cranky musician can’t do on his own. Say there’s a platform that’s a little too high for Hamel to reach. Flute can give him a boost... even if she’s not thrilled with the idea. Find a pit of spikes separating Hamel from the end of the stage? Slap an ostrich costume on Flute, then have the bard leap on her back, and the jagged spines will never reach him. Flute might get cut up a little as her spindly bird legs carry them over the pit, but eh, she’ll live.

These slapstick antics (and a touch of puzzle solving that strikes a middle ground between Lemmings and The Lost Vikings) are the keys to this game’s success. Sure, the big sprites, colorful artwork, and a fitting selection of classical music add to the experience, but the Violinist of Hamelin probably couldn’t hold the player’s attention for long without Flute to carry it for him. B-

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

You Say Tomato...

Oh yeah, you can definitely tell this
came from the warped minds who
gave us Superstar Saga.
(image from ROMhacking dot net)

...and I say "translate-o."

Big news for fans of the Game Boy Advance today. There's an English translation of the obscure Japanese title Tomato Adventure, the fertile ground from which the popular Mario and Luigi series had sprung. If you ever wondered why the designers of Superstar Saga had such a fixation on garden produce, this will either answer your question, or just prompt more questions. Special thanks to Unknown W. Brackets and their team for this eagerly awaited translation patch, and ROMhacking dot net for sharing it with the world.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Video Olympics

image from Wikipedia

Oh man, there is going to be so much Pong at the Summer Games this year! Who's up for some dubiously titled Jai Alai?

No, wait, not like that. The 2020 2021 Olympics were introduced with dozens of tracks plucked from popular Japanese video games, including Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy, Sonic the Hedgehog, and, uh, more Chrono Trigger. Unfortunately, gamers were less enthused by the selection of tunes than you might expect; upset that the Olympics happened at all during a pandemic that's only worsened in Japan since the country put the games on hold last year.

In less important but certainly less controversial news, a hacker found a way to turn his coffee grinder into a peripheral for the arcade hit Bust-A-Move, with turns of the crank also turning Bub and Bob's onscreen bubble cannon. Is it strictly necessary? No... the game plays just fine with an ordinary joystick or gamepad. Is it nevertheless a fun way to immerse yourself in Bust-A-Move's color matching, bubble popping action? Yes. Can the coffee grinder bust beans while you bust a move, letting you brew a calming cup of joe after your inevitable, humiliating defeat at the hooves of a pink sheep girl? Surprisingly, yes! Like the Tomy Turnin' Turbo turned into a makeshift OutRun cabinet, the Puzzle Bobble coffee grinder is one of those whimsical projects that probably doesn't need to exist, but you'll be glad it does anyway.

One other thing before I go. I'm still using my recently acquired Super NES Classic, and I'm still enjoying the experience. Maybe I'll punch out some reviews of games that I installed on it with HakChi, since I wrote a similar article for the Sega Genesis Mini last year, and it's only fair that the Super NES gets its own moment in the sun. If you've got any suggestions for games that should be featured, let me know... I've already got Axelay, Violinist of Hamelin, and the massively repetitive yet strangely compelling E.V.O. in my reviewing crosshairs.

Friday, July 16, 2021

All Hands on Deck

image from Windows Central

We switched John's Switch Pro with a Steam Deck. Will he notice the difference? 

Here it is, folks... the high powered handheld everyone expected Nintendo to release this year. Since they didn't give us the goods, Valve stepped up to the plate instead, announcing this portable system with Steam compatibility, twin touchpads under the expected analog thumbsticks and buttons, and an AMD Zen 2 processor for the best performance you've ever seen in a handheld game system. PC Gamer reports that it's still likely to fall short of home consoles like the Xbox Series S, with less than half the compute units in its RDNA 2 graphics chip. Nevertheless, the Steam Deck has got a whole lot of muscle for a system weighing less than two pounds.

Better still is that if you already have a Steam account, you already have a library of games, making up for the Steam Deck's off-putting retail price of four hundred dollars. The base version of the system with 64GB of internal storage will be available at the end of the year, with more spacious premium versions offered in 2022. Color me cautiously optimistic... the number of games available on the Steam store is dizzyingly high, and if the Steam Deck can run at least 90% of them at acceptable speeds and without DRM making life miserable for the player, it's going to be more than worth the four C-notes.

In other news, someone is publishing a Super Smash Bros. like fighting game celebrating thirty years of Nicktoons! That's good! But that someone is Game Mill, which already released two disappointing go-kart racing games featuring Nickelodeon characters. That's bad. But they hired Ludosity, the creators of the well received arena fighter Slap City, to design the game for them! That's good! But we don't know who will be included in the cast aside from a handful of characters introduced in the trailer, and we don't know if any of these characters will have the voices from the original cartoons. That's bad, but at least the game probably won't have any potassium benzoate.

There's one other thing I should mention in this long overdue blog entry. That Super NES Classic I bought from ShopGoodwill a few weeks ago? It looks a little scruffy, but it's totally legit, and it runs like an ice cream dream... one without any potassium benzoate, of course. 

Mine at last! Bwa ha ha HAAA!
(image from Nintendo)

I'm not going to choose favorites between the Super NES Classic and my previously acquired Sega Genesis Mini... they serve different needs, but both have an equal place in my collection. What I will say is that the SNES Classic has the welcome touch of whimsy you'd expect from a Nintendo product. Leave a game in progress and you're given a save state, illustrated by a snapshot of the last screen you reached suspended in mid-air by a pair of tiny wings. Start a different game and the save state vanishes in a puff of smoke. Overwrite a previously existing file and the new save state muscles its way into that slot, forcing the old file out. 

The Genesis Mini opts for a colder, more futuristic motif, and while the angular text boxes and trails of light circling around selected games work perfectly well for that system, I'm glad Nintendo played to its strengths with its own throwback system. Like I said earlier, they're two very different machines, but they're both equally essential; two halves of a balanced whole. Genesis does what Nintendon't, and Super NES is what Genes-isn't*, but together, they're the total package.

* I don't know who came up with that retort. An EGM reader, most likely.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Roll of the Dice

The monsoon season has finally arrived. Sweet, life-giving, road-flooding water at last! That ought to cool things down for a couple days at least. Hopefully we won't be seeing any more week and a half stretches of 103 degree weather, either. I find it harder to update this blog when I'm in a liquid state.

Anyway! I was bitten by the frivolous spending bug this week and picked up a Super NES Classic from ShopGoodwill for a reasonable price (along with ShopGoodwill's less reasonable shipping costs). I have so many of these miniature game systems that it just felt wrong to not add one of Nintendo's to the pile, but I wanted to wait until the price was right.

Unfortunately, I discovered shortly after my purchase that the Super NES Classic is a frequent target of counterfeiters, and that they've upped their forgery game considerably in the days since the system was first released. This is how a phony Super NES Classic used to look when the real machine hit stores:

image from Amazon

There are all kinds of tip-offs that this is a bootleg, from the lack of official Nintendo branding to the completely redesigned box to the 9-pin D-shell connectors on the front of the system. The "Super Mini" proudly declares that it has 821 games, but I'm convinced that at least forty-nine of those are slightly altered versions of Hudson's Adventure Island.

The manufacturers of these fake Super NES Classics have gotten a lot craftier, though. Newer systems use the Nintendo logo, the Wii compatible controller ports, and even have the same FCC warnings stamped on the underside. Only the most subtle of hints reveal the ruse... an oddly shaped HDMI cable here, an incorrect serial number there, a lack of bumps near the controller ports indicating which one is player one and which is player two. It becomes much more obvious that it's an imposter when you turn it on and try to play the games, but by then, it's already too late. Bye bye hard earned money, hello paperweight.

Careful examination of the device ShopGoodwill was selling could have revealed any chicanery, but not when the seller was coughing up pictures like these...




I may need to get a refund on this system, but whoever was taking these pictures definitely needs to get a refund on their camera. Yikes.

Anyway. There were a lot of vague and even contradictory information in the pictures shown in the listing. The bumps on the controller ports are impossible to see from the angles the pictures were taken. The connectors on the ends of the controllers seem to be a dark gray, a tip-off of the system's authenticity, but it's hard to tell when the snapshots were taken with a Fisher-Price camera with Vaseline smeared on the lens. The included HDMI cable doesn't look anything like the ones packaged with a real Super NES Classic, but it could have just been lifted from a DVD player or some other old doodad, since the system in the listing didn't come with the original box or any AC adapter at all. 

My best hope lies with the serial number label, which has the proper UPC code and uses the SU prefix followed by nine digits. That could be faked too, but even the good bootlegs tend to be way off base here, using an incorrect font and the CU prefix from the older NES Classic. 

There's a chance this system could be the real deal, but I guess I won't know that for sure until it arrives and I'm able to test it. Best case scenario? I've got an easy way to play Super NES games on a big screen, without having to dig out my long-neglected Raspberry Pi. Worst case scenario? I've got another useless device to add to my bulging junk drawer. Cross your fingers for me... I could use the luck.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Senseless

You know, when you have a major contributor to the emulation scene, a community which is nowhere near as healthy as it was twenty years ago, a good idea would be to not chip away at that keystone with mockery and harassment until it falls apart and takes the whole damn structure down with it. Yet here we are.

I'm talking of course about Near, who coded emulators like Higan and Ares, and was repaid for their hard work and coding skill with constant cruelty that ultimately convinced them that life was not worth living. I'm sure most gamers wouldn't dream of subjecting someone to that kind of torment and cutting their own throats in the process. To the few who would... congratulations? I'm not sure what you thought you were trying to accomplish, but you sure did that thing you set out to do. That pointless, senseless, counterproductive thing that cost someone their life and robbed everyone else of their talent.

If Near never developed another emulator, translated another game, or wrote a single line of code again but remained alive, I would have been comfortable with that. Near didn't owe the emulation scene jack shit, and the scene, as weak as it is in 2021, probably could have scraped by without them. But let's look at this from another angle. What if this had happened twenty five years ago, to the creators of NESticle, or MAME, or ZSNES? Think of how profoundly that tragedy would have affected this hobby, and you in particular. All those obscure Japanese games you discovered in the 1990s, all the knowledge that was revealed about prototypes that were covered in magazines but never released, all that extra love you currently have for video games, would be gone in a blink. You'd be cheated out of that experience, all because a handful of nobodies drove someone to suicide for their own petty amusement. 

This couldn't have happened in the 1990s... things were different then, and the internet was not so overbearingly ubiquitous. Just remember that in another time, under different circumstances, so much could have been taken from you, for so little.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Crazy from the Heat

My apologies for waiting so long to update, folks. June decided to turn up the thermostat to seven trillion degrees, and it's been hard for me to do much of anything, aside from cry bitter tears that roll down my cheeks as salt crystals. I tell you no lie, this guy he does fry, and his cockatiel will lay only silt.

Anyway, quick updates. E3 is over, with Sony phoning in its presentation, but Microsoft and Nintendo doing respectably well. We're getting a big pile of games for the Switch, including the previously mothballed Metroid Dread, but we won't be getting a new Switch until next year at the earliest. 

My suspicion is that this is going to be more than just a tweak of the previous hardware, but a next generation system with its own game library (and possible backward compatibility with the previous Switch). I hope Nintendo just expresses this better than they had with the Wii U, or else they'll be in a lot of trouble.

Okay, that's probably enough out of me. I think I'll get back to my sweating and panting already in progress.