Home Alone

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Due to the holidays, this is running a bit late – sorry for that!

Home Alone (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is a platformer released for most common platforms of the time to tie into the film of the same name. From my limited research, it seems that most versions were the same game ported to different platforms with the exception of the NES version which was totally different. Gameplay is fairly simple: you can jump and move side to side, you can attack using your water pistol (which only stuns enemies for a brief period of time), and your goal is to gather as many family valuables as possible and shove them down the laundry chute. Once the right amount of valuables are in the basement, you’re given a key and can go into the basement for a boss fight and end the level. This sounds like a fine idea for a game, but unfortunately the execution is not what you’d hope for. For starters, controls are not tight enough for a platformer – running is always a crap shoot on when you will stop and start relative to pressing the button, so doing it precisely is  almost impossible. Kevin is also very fragile – take 3 hits and you’re dead. And while you can temporarily disable enemies, they can still damage you if you touch them in their stunned state. Lose all of your lives and you’re booted back to the beginning of the first level – this game is ruthless. All this adds up to an experience that is frustrating and unpleasant. Full disclosure: I played the SNES version of this game extensively as a kid, and only made it past the first level once.

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Visually, this looks fine on the Game Boy – certainly nothing to write home about, but it looks good enough. The opening and game over screens have some large detailed sprites of Harry and Marv, but otherwise there isn’t anything graphically that stands out as interesting.

Sound effects are fitting and I dare say good for the Game Boy – I don’t know if it’s the work of the developers or the sound chip but either way the effects are good. Music on the other hand is a fairly good rendition of the Home Alone theme, but that’s all there is – 30 seconds of the theme. Repeating constantly. Repetitive doesn’t begin to describe the monotony. If I had been a kid in 1991 who got this and a Game Boy for Christmas, I think I’d end up playing it with the sound off.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. Not great gameplay combined with frustrating childhood memories means this is done as far as I’m concerned.

Images courtesy of Game FAQs and  Giant Bomb

Batman Returns

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Up this week is a Christmas themed title (well, there are Christmas trees in the first level at least) – Batman Returns (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) on the Super Nintendo. Developed by Konami, it’s a side scrolling beat em up much like Turtles in Time. Only playable by one player at a time, you control Batman and beat up seemingly endless waves of the Penguin’s men. You have a basic punch and kick, as well as combos like slam and grab. There are also gadgets that you have access to, such as batarangs (which just stun enemies) and a grappling hook that can move you above the action. Rounding this out is a move that spins Batman in a 360 degrees and damages all enemies around him, but takes some of Batman’s life. Let’s talk about these kinds of life stealing super moves for a bit – they were very popular in the 90s, and I can understand from an academic perspective why a designer would want to do this (makes the player debate when to activate it because they will take a hit) but its never been a good mechanic. I accidentally activated it at least half a dozen times in my time with this game, and it was always not what I intended to do at all. I’m glad that this has disappeared in modern games, but it rears it’s ugly head here. Other than that, the gameplay here is great – controls are super responsive and Batman feels agile. Difficulty seems a bit higher than average unfortunately, but I’m sure a dedicated player could get through it.

Visually, the game looks great – scrolling backgrounds, well animated enemies, and cool effects – you can slam enemies into reactive background items like street signs and shop windows. It really looks great.

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Sound is also quite good overall. Music is the arranged type, and it sounds great. The music makes you feel like you’re in the film (I believe many of the tracks were either lifted directly from the movie or are modified versions). Sound effects were also great, with punches and kicks having the right amount of bass, and environmental effects like windows breaking and motorcycles revving sounding just as you’d expect.

Verdict: Play again! I love this genre and this is a solid entry. If you’re a collector, it’s fairly cheap and available – go for it if you like brawlers or Batman.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Sesame Street A-B-C

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Sesame Street A-B-C (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is an educational game released for the NES and contains two ‘games’, each with several modes that change the game play a bit. Designed for children, and to cash in on the success of the NES I’m sure, it is really basic and contains little replayability. I don’t say this to knock the game – it delivers on what it aims to do without a doubt – but an educational NES game isn’t where I would typically spend my time.

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Gameplay consists of first selecting which game you’d like to play of the two included (Letter Go Round and Ernie’s Big Splash). Letter Go Round has you select one of six modes, which are all minor variations of the same basic game. A merry go round rotates with six letters – hit A when the matching letter hits the bottom of the rotation. That’s it – pretty basic. Ernie’s Big Splash is a little more complex, but only a little. You have a starting point indicated by a faucet and rubber duck, and your goal is to place tiles to route the duck to Ernie. There are ten or so different tiles and you rotate through them using the d-pad and select by hitting A. Once you’ve successfully routed the duck to Ernie some music plays as the duck traverses the course you’ve laid out. There are only three modes in this one, and the other two only differ from the basic by placing a tile randomly on the board containing another sesame street character. Because these games are so basic, I played each one in about 20 minutes – I guess I could say at this point that I beat the game since there isn’t anything else for me to do in it.

Visually, there isn’t a ton going on here. While there are some impressively large sprites used in Letter Go Round when you finish a stage, there is no scrolling or parallax and both games exist on static backgrounds. This is not a great looking game – I’d put it near the bottom of the range of acceptable for an educational title.

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Sound effects were acceptable, and music was shockingly good. That’s not to say that it was good enough to hang with the greats on NES, but for an educational game of that era it was definitely above average.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. I can see breaking this out for my daughter when she’s a little older, but I have no more interest in it.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Gauntlet II

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Gauntlet II (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is an early arcade game ported to the NES featuring 4 player support via a multitap. Like its arcade ancestor, it is a top down dungeon crawler where your goal is to gather food and loot and make it to the end of the level. Food increases your health which slowly ticks down, and money simply adds to your score. Most levels have some sort of gimmick – the exit may move, the walls may be invisible, or there may be hidden tiles that stun you. This certainly adds some variety to what is a simple game. You can move using the d-pad and attack using the B button, but that’s it. Enemies are not very bright and simply swarm towards you. To be honest, playing this by myself was a bit of a bore – I imagine when it was new it was fairly fun, but the gameplay is very simplistic, repetitive, and not very interesting.

Visuals were fair, with sprites relatively small and lacking detail but enough to identify them at a glance. The system did seem to manage to keep lots of enemies, even of different types, on screen at the same time without issue. I will also say this – I did not see any sprite flicker at all when I played, which is a rarity on NES titles.

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Sound was sub par here. Stages did not have any music – in fact, the only music I heard in the game was at the title screen and between stages. Sound effects ranged from acceptable to screechingly loud and obnoxious.There was also some digitized voice work that was quite good. Overall though, sound is pretty bad here.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. Not very fun with just one player, and the simplistic gameplay and sometimes jarring sound effects mean I probably won’t go back.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

 

Panzer Dragoon Orta

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Panzer Dragoon Orta (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is a rail shooter exclusive to the original Xbox. The last Panzer Dragoon game released to date (and likely ever) it acts as a swan song of the series – a great entry to go out on.

You play as Orta, who rides a bio-mechanical dragon that shoots the hell out of everything. The story is, well, a little complicated, really strange, and has a dash of weirdness only Japanese games can provide. Like most rail shooters, your focus is placed on lining up shots and so you do not have much control over the dragon’s flight path – that isn’t to say you can’t steer slightly but it’s not the focus here. You have two main attacks – tap A for a stream of individual shots or press and hold A to fire lock on shots. Both attacks feel good and are appropriate in different scenarios although I will admit that I used lock on way more than the individual shots. Enemies can and will come at you from any direction, and you can snap the camera 90 degrees in either direction by pulling the left or right triggers – this is extremely intuitive and keeps you on your toes. At the end of each stage, there is a boss battle and (if you finish that without dying) you are treated to a scoring screen where you see statistics on accuracy, enemies killed, time taken, etc. and you are then given a letter grade. This is perfect for going back and trying to best your previous score. I have to finally mention here that the difficulty level here is a bit high – a lot of reviewers criticized it on release for punishing difficulty, and I was already having issues on the second level on easy. This is a challenging game for sure, so be prepared to die a lot when you start.

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Visually, the game looks wonderful. Bright colors, open levels, and a rock solid frame rate. Are there better looking games on Xbox? Sure, but not many, and much fewer if you restrict it to games that have such a solid framerate. Water effects are especially nice here, and I really appreciated the way they used water in the levels I played.

Sound effects are really terrific – laser blasts crackle, explosions boom, and warning bells give you a sense of urgency. Music is also quite good, with the soundtrack upbeat and electronic – it makes you feel like you’re in an arcade. Voice work was the original Japanese, which I thought was a nice touch even if it makes it a bit harder to judge if it was good or not.

Verdict: Play again! This is definitely challenging, but the bright graphics and the arcade like stage nature of the game will keep me coming back.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

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I have a confession to make: I’ve never played a Final Fantasy game. When I was younger, I didn’t care for turn based battle systems, and when I was older and in college, the anime styling was just not appealing. I’ve come around on both accounts, and was able to dig in a bit on Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia).

For those who don’t know, FFTA is a strategy RPG – you command a group of characters in turn based battles who then gain experience points and levels. I didn’t get far enough to see exactly, but it seems that there is also an element of loot with different equipment available to the various characters. This is a full on RPG no doubt, but with a more strategic combat phase. It’s a nice mix, but I will say that the various mechanics are a bit overwhelming to a newcomer like me – job and law systems, the different character classes and their attacks and roles in combat, and a map that allows you to place points of interest. Incredibly deep and complex. I could see spending the first dozen or so hours with this game to just learn and get a feel for it, then start over.

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The game is played from an overhead isometric perspective and the visuals are top notch. Sprite work is detailed and beautiful and the battlefield is readable at a glance – no small feat on the small screen and limited resolution of the GBA. I am still in love with the look of this game, it may be the best looking GBA title in my collection.

Music is overall great – but I can see it getting a bit stale after dozens of hours… not a fault of the game, but a limitation of cartridge sizes at the time. Sound effects crisp, clear, and perfect in every instance I saw. Overall, this is a great sounding game and it compliments the visuals quite nicely.

Overall I enjoyed my time with FFTA, but I think I need to read a beginners guide before I get too much further. The amount of time I dedicate to each title for this site is usually sufficient to judge – but in this case it wasn’t even close. I played close to double what I normally do and I was still a bit lost when it came to some of the mechanics. Thankfully, FFTA is compelling enough for me to keep up interest and follow through – I’m looking forward to playing all the way through in the future.

Verdict: Play again! This is fun and really deep – I can see sinking a ton of hours into it over lunch breaks.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Sonic 3D Blast

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Sonic 3D Blast (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) was a late release on the Genesis, and I never got around to playing it. The graphics looked strange compared to the other entries on the Genesis (which I have extreme nostalgia for and love) and in late ’96 I was starting to get into PC gaming and didn’t use my Genesis much. I’ve always heard that this entry is, well, awful but I wanted to check it out for myself.

In Sonic 3D Blast you have an isometric top down view of Sonic and the level. You can move him in any direction on a 3D plane and do the standard jumps and spin dashes.The goal here is to defeat enemies by jumping on them, then gathering up the flickies (small birds) that pop out and escorting them to a collection area – this is a much different game than the side scrollers. Lining up jumps is actually fairly difficult with this perspective, and I was never confident that I would actually hit an enemy once I jumped – the game does feel fairly generous in this (probably because the designers knew it was an issues) but it never feels natural and intuitive. The game seems very easy, and not very fun – and on top of that there is no save system – a ridiculous oversight.

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Visually, Sonic 3D Blast is one of the games from that time period that use prerendered 3D objects to generate sprites that are then put in the game (see Donkey Kong Country and Vectorman). Overall I’m not wild about this art style, but for what it is it looks nice. There is also an FMV cinematic intro, which is crazy to see on the Genesis (it is compressed all to hell though). Overall I would say the graphics are probably the one good thing I would take away from this game – they do look quite nice on the Genesis, cleaner and crisper than you would see for most titles on the system.

Sonic titles – to me at least – are well known for their music. It’s some of the best that we got on the Genesis, or hell the whole 16-bit era. Unfortunately, here it falls short. Way short. The music is overly happy and poppy and doesn’t really fit in with the game very well. It’s completely forgettable too. Sound effects are mediocre with little punch felt when destroying an enemy or opening a power up. At least the ring sound effect is the same as Sonic 3.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. This is a terrible Sonic game and while it’s not offensively bad, you really shouldn’t waste your time with it.

 

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare

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The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) was a video game tie in released in 1992 at the start of peak Simpsons. At the time, the show was approaching the height of its popularity (mid-90s would be where I would place that) and all the tie ins began. The toys. The games. The butterfinger commercials. You couldn’t go very far without being greeted by a Simpsons character by 1994, but in 1992 this was just starting. Unfortunately, other than the wonderful arcade beat ’em up, I’ve never played a good Simpsons game and this is no different.

The game starts with Bart working on his homework and falling asleep. Soon he’s transported to a dream world where he has to collect the scattered pieces of paper in order to assemble his homework. The game starts with you walking down a street full of obstacles and enemies. Lisa is a flying angel that will turn you into a frog, Otto is driving the bus so fast that you’ll get killed if you’re caught in the street, and severed heads of Jebediah Springfield bounce up and down toward you. Getting hit by any of these causes you damage, take enough and it’s game over. Your goal is to find bits of paper from the homework, and when you do you’re ‘treated’ to a mini game. I say treated lightly – the only one I got to was an exercise in frustration. That’s it. Complete all the mini games, and you win. The street level is always the same, and the single bonus stage I played had me fighting enemies that consistently hit me from off screen (unavoidable damage). When you die in the mini game, it’s game over and you have to start from scratch. Besides not being fun, controls were floaty and hit boxes were wildly inconsistent.

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The game looks.. fine. It’s not spectacular in any way, and it’s just so mediocre that I have almost nothing to say about it. It serves it’s purpose, it’s not terrible, but it does not standout in any way. It’s fine.

Music in this is pretty bad. They even screwed up the Simpsons theme by having it so compressed and low quality that it’s barely recognizable. The digitized voices are muffled and hard to make out. The best thing I can say about the sound is that the sound effects are simply acceptable. Poor quality in general.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. This game is not as bad as Bart Vs. the Space Mutants, but that’s like saying that being puked on is better than eating a shit sandwich: technically true, but both are very unpleasant.

Samurai Shodown

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Samurai Showdown (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is a fighting game released by SNK on basically every platform ever – seriously, check out the Giant Bomb page and look at the platforms list (at the time of this writing there are currently 17 platforms listed). SNK, for those who don’t know, is a large producer of arcade games focusing on fighting games and who released the NEO GEO home console and arcade system in the 90s. Samurai Shodown is one of their premier fighting game series, and I was excited to try it out given the pedigree.

I’ll admit right here and now that I’m not a big fan nor particularly skilled when it comes to fighting games. I certainly appreciate them in a casual way, but they aren’t something I normally seek out on my own. A surprise for me was that this title is actually sort of a weapons based fighting game – something I wasn’t expecting. You can pick one of several fighters and compete in a tournament. Each fight is best of 3 rounds, pretty standard fare for a fighting game. The controls felt pretty good once I got the hang of them but the style/feel of this is completely different from what I’m used to. There are certainly fast fighters in the mix, but there is a sort of – how to say it – a lack of transparency on what attacks will hit before others. Say you punch and so does your opponent at the same time… one of you will hit and the other won’t and it’s not really clear how that is determined. When you are knocked to the ground, you gain some temporary invincibility when you stand up – many times I was waiting for my opponent to stand up to attack them and my hits didn’t register. I know why this is done, but I fell into the trap repeatedly. On the bright side, going on the offensive and attacking feels deliberate – you can’t button mash and hope for the best here. Overall, once I got used to it the controls and gameplay felt really good.  Finally I should mention that while I’m sure there is some sort of story here, I only have a loose cartridge so it completely eluded me.

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Graphically this is a good looking game – but there are some flaws. Character sprites look good by and large, and the environments also look pretty great. Backgrounds have some limited interaction (such as slicing a bamboo stalk in half) which was a treat to see. Unfortunately, there is a lot of slowdown and backgrounds do not do any parallax scrolling – something I was hoping they would do. On the whole, I’d say the positives far outweigh the negatives, but if you hate slowdown you are going to have a bad time with this one.

Music was period appropriate and fits the mood of the game, but it’s not really great – I can’t see listening to the soundtrack outside of my play session. Sound effects otherwise were solid and are clearly where the effort went when porting this to the Genesis.

Overall I did enjoy my time with Samurai Shodown. The controls and fighting felt good, and the visuals were quite nice. It also takes advantage of the Gensis 6 button controller, which is very nice to see. I do also love the really goofy translation, which gives us such gems as “I thought I was dead. But I think I’m Cleopatra, too.” and “No one calls me freak and lives! No one but my wife, that is.” – really bizarre and fantastic.

Verdict: Play again. Not my favorite fighting game, but solid for sure – I’d like to finish the campaign and see what happens.

 

Castlevania (64)

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In honor of Halloween, this weeks entry is the much maligned Castlevania (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia). Interesting note, almost everyone I’ve talked to refers to this game as ‘Castlevania 64’ but it’s actual title is simply Castlevania. This title was Konami’s first 3D Castlevania game, and frankly, it shows – but it’s not all bad.

The game starts out with a big issue – there is no on cartridge saving mechanism, you need a memory card plugged into your controller to save progress. Since most N64 games did not use the memory pak, I never picked one up, so I can’t save my progress. This is really disappointing as according to Wikipedia, the on cartridge save system was in place in certain regions but not North America. I’m sure this was done as a cost saving measure, but its unfortunate. You can select one of two characters, then it starts you off. You play in third person view and have a few weapons to start. Most enemies aren’t too bright and you can dispatch them with little issue. My trouble came from the areas of the first stage where the skeletons will spawn endlessly – eventually you need to just run past them. The poor camera controls (I’ll get to that later) were probably my number one cause of death. Dying forces you to restart the level, there are no checkpoints that I saw. These combine to make a long play session an exercise in frustration. There is some light platforming in the game, and while I generally don’t like 3D platforming, it’s done well enough here.

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Castlevania is a good looking game, if not great. Like all N64 titles, it suffers from extensive fog and, frankly, unacceptably low frame rates. Castlevania isn’t the worst offender however, and it seemed mostly stable. Characters animated well for the time, and environments were fairly large. Also common for the time and system, the camera controls were terrible. I mean, really bad. There are 3 modes you can switch between but each of them is just as bad as the other two. Swinging the camera around when you’re moving between an indoor environment and an outdoor one is a sure fire way to get single digit frame rates. I’ve never been a fan of this generation of games primarily because camera controls hadn’t quite been “figured out”, and this is no exception.

Sound was a highlight here – I dare say my favorite part of the entire game. Music was very good overall, dark and moody and perfect for this type of game. There was some actual narration as well (uncommon on N64) and it was of good quality – in regards to both compression and voice acting.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. This is a novelty, but it has aged poorly and didn’t have enough going for it for me to go back to. A shame, as there is definitely some potential here.