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.

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

Joe Montana Football

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Continuing the tradition of playing football games at the start of the 2016 season, next up is Joe Montana Football (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia). Joe Montana was released at the beginning of the Genesis’ lifespan and was a symbol of Sega’s intent to capture the sports market in the US. Sega of America signed a contract with Joe Montana to use his name and likeness in a series of games, much to the chagrin of Sega of Japan – the Japanese office was concerned that the titles would not make enough money to cover the cost of Montana’s contract. The game also had some troubled development – being delayed and moved to another developer before release. Despite this, a completely acceptable title came out the other side and Sega published several sequels until the contract’s expiration in 1995.

Because this is not an officially licensed NFL game, team names are just generic cities (Philadelphia, San Fransisco, Houston, etc.). There are very few modes (3 according to Giant Bomb’s wiki article) and the whole game feels very bare bones. I played the standard timed mode against the computer. There are a few options when you start, such as what opponent, duration, but nothing out of the basics. Joe Montana will give you advice before the game starts on the opponent’s weaknesses, but other than that and the title screen he doesn’t really make an appearance. Gameplay is pretty standard for a football game of this era – you control some players on the field, you pick plays – there is no team management aspects or play creation or anything that advanced. Controls are fairly intuitive and everything plays fairly well even if it’s no frills.

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Graphically, this is not going to win any awards. The title screen looks good but all the menus are spartan and the in game graphics look like they could have been done on an 8-bit system (there was a port of this to the master system). Really, the graphics are not impressive and I can’t imagine them being loved even in their heyday.

Sound effects were fine – nothing spectacular but certainly better overall than the graphics. Music was, well, limited. I only recall hearing one music track, and while it was good, hearing it over and over again would get tiresome quickly. Surprisingly, Joe Montana did do some voice sampling work at the title screen that sounds excellent – probably the best voice sampling I’ve heard on the Genesis – so there’s that.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. This one hasn’t aged particularly well and is too basic for it’s own good.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Phelios

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Phelios (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is a vertical scrolling shooter released on the Genesis early in its lifespan. Unlike most shooters that I can think of, Phelios is loosely based on Greek mythology – certainly an interesting setting for the genre. You play as Apollo and when your girlfriend Artemis is kidnapped, you leap onto your Pegasus and fight to get her back. That’s the entirety of the story, and it’s fine. There really only needs to be an excuse for the gameplay in these types of games.

As mentioned above, Phelios is a vertical scrolling shooter with a lot of the standard trappings – you shoot swarms of enemies that appear in a predictable manner (read: pattern memorization), you can move in the cardinal directions on the screen to avoid enemy fire, and you can pick up power ups to do more damage or give you ‘options’ which will further enhance your firepower. One small difference from the normal is that you can take more than one hit before dying (four to be exact), which is a nice addition because¬†Phelios has a difficulty level far above average. While I admittedly am not very skilled in shooters, the difficulty was pretty severe even on easy. Speaking of easy, one oddity I noticed was that when starting the game, you are given an option of two difficulty levels: easy and normal. The strangeness is that easy only covers levels 1-4, while normal is 1-7. I guess if you want the whole game you need to play on normal.

Visually, Phelios is pretty typical for an early Genesis title. Colors are a bit limited, and some sprites are more basic than they probably should be. This may make it sound like I’m down on the graphics, but I’m not – it’s just fairly standard for 1990.

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The sound effects are also pretty unremarkable, with some explosions and other sounds coming across as a bit weak. The music is pretty good but not really memorable. The developers also put a fair amount of voice sampling in the game, which is good for what it is, but the Genesis was never really good at doing voice samples so they are fairly hard to understand.

At the end of the day, I really like shooters like Phelios but I’m really, really bad at them. It seems to me that this is an above average shooter for the platform and release year, with an interesting backdrop.

Verdict: Play again – like most shooters, I’ll come back to this periodically but never finish it. I’m terrible at shooters.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode

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Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is based on a Japanese manga character who (from what I understand) has some similarities to James Bond. The game is notable for a few reasons – one, it has a diverse set of gameplay types and is fairly competent in all of them. It also has probably the most cinematic presentation I’ve ever seen on an NES title – there are full screen cut scenes with large detailed sprites. Also, it is notorious for being one of the few NES titles to feature sex – when injured, you can regain health by ‘visiting’ a female associate at a hotel. Growing up, I never heard of this game nor did I know anyone that had it – one of my favorite aspects of 8 and 16 bit systems is that there are a ton of titles waiting to be discovered, just like this.

Gameplay is a strong suit of Golgo 13, and it’s hard to describe – it does act like several different games in one. The primary mode acts as a platformer where you walk around a street and fight the occasional enemy – this mode reminds me of Rolling Thunder. Occasionally when walking, you’ll be interrupted with a first person shooting gallery mode, where you need to shoot down helicopters and ground based assailants who are shooting at you. There is also a side scrolling shmup style mode. All of this is impressive in that it all works fairly well. There are some issues with the normal platforming mode – mainly, you can’t duck and shoot at the same time even though enemies can so some damage is not avoidable. If you do manage to die (and you will – a lot), the game places you back at a recent checkpoint – a nice touch. I would have appreciated it if the developers had included a save slot or password system, but they didn’t. Bummer.

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Graphically, we have a mixed bag. The title screen, cut scenes, and story telling sections look great – in fact, I’m impressed they pulled it off on the NES. The side scrolling mode you’ll spend most of your time is – well, only ok. The character sprites lack any kind of detail and the backgrounds repeat far too often to not notice.

Music and sound effects are very good. Music wasn’t catchy enough to stick in my head the rest of the day, but that’s hardly a criticism. Sound effects were fairly standard for NES titles – nothing to complain about but not amazing either.

Verdict: Play again. The check points keep the frequent deaths from being frustrating and I can’t imagine this is a particularly long game.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

NFL Fever 2004

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In celebration of the start of football season, this week’s entry is NFL Fever 2004 (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia). Released for the original Xbox, it was part of Microsoft’s push of sports games onto the platform – there were 4 NFL Fever titles released, with this being the final entry. While sports games are typically not something I seek out, I find Microsoft’s entry into the console market fascinating and so I had to try this relic from that time.

Since I had limited time with the game, I jumped into some quick tutorials and then a quick game. The tutorials were fairly basic but they give you gist of controls (running, passing, tackling), and were easy to skip though or come back to if required. After that, it was on to the single game mode. I picked the 1990 Eagles (a nice touch that some ‘retro’ teams were included along with the current lineup at release time) and of course squared off against the 93 Cowboys. Controls were pretty good in general, passing and running felt intuitive from the beginning, but I will admit that there was a strangeness to the timing on the field that I wasn’t able to pin down. I was either moving a bit too fast or a bit too slow based on controller input and it felt – well, wrong. Overall the game was fun for what it was, but other than the retro teams, it didn’t wow me.
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Visually this is a great showpiece for the original Xbox. Characters are detailed and animate well, and the field looks great. Menus are clean and clear and communicate very well what you need to do. This is definitely some of Microsoft Game Studios best visual work on the platform.

Solid sounding hits, roars from the crowd, and believable announcers make sound effects a bright point here. There are some licensed music tracks for the menus, which were acceptable especially for the time, but they got a bit stale during my time with the game. I didn’t check to see if the game supported custom soundtracks, but if it does it’d be a welcome addition.

Overall, this is a solid title from my layman’s perspective. The controls feel good, there are a ton of modes and teams, and the whole thing feels very polished. Unfortunately, there isn’t much information online about the series so it’s hard to say how well it did for Microsoft financially. The NFL license went to EA in 2004 and has been renewed since – killing any opportunity for competition and leaving NFL Fever as a historical artifact of Microsoft’s first console.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. Nothing against the game itself, but sports aren’t really my thing.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb and Game Spot.

Wario Land II

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Wario Land II (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) has the honor of being the last first party game released on Game Boy. Almost a year later, an enhanced port to the Game Boy Color was released in North America, and this is the version I played.

While this ended up being a series in its own right, Wario Land games are really a spin off of the Super Mario Land series – with Wario making his first appearance in Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins. Despite the lineage, this is not your standard platformer. Wario is invincible – and because of this there are no lives. Being hit by enemies simply removes some of your coins or transforms Wario into something else but it’s never permanent. From what I played it was also very linear with one level leading directly into the next. According to Giant Bomb’s wiki, there are branching paths, but I didn’t run into any. As far as abilities are concerned, you can jump and do a dash attack that will break blocks and other destructible items, as well as kill enemies. If you jump on an enemy and knock him over you can then walk up to him and pick him up which allows you to throw him at other enemies. This took a bit of getting used to, but made sense given the lack of buttons on a Game Boy. Overall the platforming was pretty light, with more of a focus on puzzle solving and finding hidden rooms/items – a nice change of pace from your typical Mario game. One minor annoyance I found is that while the game auto saves on level completion, there is only one save slot – a real bummer. There are two mini games that I ran across – both reminded me of ‘memory’ and were fine. I probably could have gone without them, but they give you something to do with all the coins you’re collecting.

Visuals were good for the Game Boy Color with bright colors and well animated sprites. Because I played the GBC version, some of the backgrounds and sprites were a bit more detailed than in the original release, and it was definitely a good looking game.

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Sound was excellent with sound effects that were perfect and an absolutely killer soundtrack. This is R&D1 and Kozue Ishikawa at their best.Just fantastic.

Verdict: Play again! This was oddly satisfying and I can see myself playing more.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb