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.

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Red Faction II

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Red Faction was a defining game of the Playstation 2 for me. The single player story line (which took heavy inspiration from Total Recall) was excellent, the technology that allowed you to blow holes into the environment (GeoMod!) was impressive, the weapon selection was great, and multiplayer was a blast. For some unknown reason, I never picked up Red Faction II (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) despite the fact that I was aware of it and I loved the previous entry – I have no idea why. Unlike the first entry, the story has you playing as a super soldier right away – no lowly miner gunning down tons of enemies this time. I don’t know if the story will improve, but based on the first hour or so of the game I would bet that it doesn’t. It’s not offensively bad or anything – but it’s missing the charm of the previous entry. Thankfully, the shooting is just as good if not better than the original, and just so that you’re reminded that this is a mid-2000s title, dual wielding weapons is a primary feature. Just like the original, there is a single player campaign as well as multiplayer – although only locally, no network play. The campaign was certainly varied enough, with you not just doing typical FPS levels, but there was also a set piece heavy section in the beginning where you run the gun turret on a plane – a nice change of pace and it was fun without overstaying its welcome. Menus were intuitive and buttons were almost always what you expected – fit and finish is top notch.

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Visually, the game looks great on the original Xbox. Models animate well, explosions look great, and most of the texture work is above average for the time. The only time I noticed any slowdown was when activating the night vision mode – otherwise performance was solid. GeoMod is also a great addition with you being able to blow holes in walls, and the physics for the debris created is pretty good for the time. This is a good looking game, not the best on Xbox but definitely competent.

Sound is really all over the place here. Sound effects are excellent for the most part, and the voice acting is generally acceptable to good. The voice acting had levels all over the place though – one person would sound like they were whispering while another was shouting in your ear. I have no idea what was going on in the studio when they recorded this stuff. Music is another downfall as it’s completely forgettable – I just stopped playing 30 minutes ago and wouldn’t be able to recognize a track if my life depended on it.

Verdict: Play again. While I still think the original is a better game, this was pretty fun.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Batman Returns

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Batman Returns (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) – a movie tie in – was released in the early 90s on almost every platform available at the time (in case you’re curious: NES, SNES, Master System, Game Gear, Genesis, Sega CD, PC, Atari Lynx, Amiga) – as is typical for the time period, most of these are completely different games. I actually have 2 different versions of this game, and today I’ll be taking a look at the Genesis port.

The Genesis version of the game is an action platformer. You take on the role of Batman and move through levels by walking, jumping, and using your grappling hook (similar to Bionic Commando). Enemies can be killed in one or two hits, and you have a fairly generous health bar. Unfortunately, that’s basically required – for a title released in 1992, from a design perspective it’s still clinging to the 8-bit generation. Levels are tough with enemies that get hits in automatically, jumps that are impossible to predict, and occasional attacks that are completely unavoidable unless you know they’re coming. This adds considerable length to a game, since you’re required to memorize large levels, but really kills the enjoyment. This was a plague on the NES, and it rears it’s ugly head here too. Controls felt good enough, but the punishing nature of the game really killed the fun for me.

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Sprite work is excellent for the most part here – particularly the simulated lighting. Animations are good across the board, and it has a decidedly darker tone – much like the film it is based on. They really, really nailed the look of the movie. If I have a complaint it’s that the title screen and menus are really bland almost as if they were done last minute.

In the audio department, this feels like an early Genesis title. Music is repetitive and overall mediocre. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good tunes here, but it’s underwhelming on the whole. Sound effects also are a bit low quality – disappointing.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. This does not compare well to the SNES version, even though they are different games.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge

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Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is an arcade flight game, with a focus on action. Set in a fictional 1930s, you take the role of Nathan Zachary – leader of a group of pirates. This is widely regarded as a cult classic for the original Xbox – unfortunately with the shut down of Xbox Live I’m unable to try any of the multiplayer features, so this will only be covering the single player campaign.

You start the game with a cut scene that I’m sure was quite good for the time, but has not aged well. You apparently lost your plane gambling and someone has decided to collect. Nathan wakes up in bed with some woman whose name we don’t know – he dashes off and recaptures his plane and the game starts. The whole intro sequence feels very dated, not just because of the cinematic, but because of the tone – yes he’s a womanizer I suppose, but adding the woman to his bed added nothing to the game and feels a bit tacky. Once you get past the tutorial, it plays very similarly to other games in the genre – fly missions to destroy enemy bases/equipment, or fly protection for your allies. Doing this, you will shoot down tons of enemy planes (don’t worry, the pilots always safely parachute out) and do a lot of maneuvers with your plane. It feels very arcadey but controls really well – gameplay reminds me of Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter – and its always fun to do dogfights in these types of games.

Visually, the game is stunning. There are a lot of titles on the original Xbox that hold up well and this is no exception. Your plane has some heat wash coming out of the back, draw distances are huge, models are fairly well detailed, and water looks great. This game looks and runs fantastically – I couldn’t ask for more.

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Audio is also excellent – voice work is better than average, sound effects are clear and correct, and the music is wonderful. The main theme as well as the background music during gameplay are just perfect, with an orchestral theme that seems plucked from an Indiana Jones movie. It all just fits perfectly. One complaint though, is that I heard the same excellent tracks repeatedly, so I wonder if the lack of soundtrack diversity will get grating after spending more time with the title.

Verdict: Play again! This was a lot of fun, and I can see finishing the story.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb