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Blacklightning

ITT BL reminisces over his entire game library

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I've had aspirations of making games someday, but I feel like I've been going out of practice after one too many burnouts. Just so I don't get too rusty, I decided to make myself a side project to keep myself occupied. I've spent the past half week or so listing and chronologically ordering every single videogame I can remember and care enough about to mention, and making at least one sprite based on each of them - or at least every little groups of them that can be considered a sub-series, as the case may be - and doing a little write up for each of them to describe the experiences I've had and the things I've learnt from them.

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Duke Nukem (Duke Nukem 1 / 2)

I feel like a lot of people don't realize that Duke 3D wasn't actually the first game in the series, but I don't think it's all that hard to imagine why - I'll be the first to admit the first two haven't aged all that well. Duke 1 was made in a time where PC Speaker was the only option for audio, so it's not terribly surprising that it's hard to get back into today. But it's also just really kinda basic even for a shooty 2D platformer, but I think a part of that was because this was made during a time where gaming as a concept was something a lot of people were still trying to figure out. Intentionally or not, Duke is essentially the template for most of Apogee's better known games afterwards (which I'll probably get back to in a few of their other games later on into this list), so it's not a huge surprise that he's seen as the face of the brand,

Duke 2, though still not a game I'd play for hours at a time, is where you start to see and appreciate Duke's growth as a character, and not just through the increased amount of text interludes between episodes. Duke is still a hero with shades of Arnold Schwarzenegger in him, and even today there's elements of that which never really left, but it's here where Duke's iconic sense of self-obsessed egomania starts to show. Example: the score pickups are merchandise. His merchandise. The game doesn't attempt to handwave this at all - in fact it doubles down in the readme by claiming Duke likes to collect his own merch. Sometimes it's just the little touches that count.

Duke would occasionally return to the 2D realm at points after this, maybe out of some misguided sense of nostalgia - of the ones I've played, Manhattan Project which is kinda just okay, and Critical Mass which is a laughable critial and commercial failure even compared to the likes of Forever. It's never really been his element, even with advancements the industry would discover long afterwards. But in these earlier times I could appreciate that a franchise might have some growing pains first before it achieved actual greatness later, which is the kind of second wind you see almost none of nowadays, where more often than not you're gone for good if you don't immediately hit it out of the park... but I'm sure we'll get to the reasoning behind that much, much later. All I can say right now is that I miss having a flamethrower you can use as a jetpack just by aiming it downwards in midair.

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Right, so I know I said I ordered all my games chronologically, but I'm making a special exception for the first 8 on my list because they're among the ones that I can say almost definitively that I played before all others. And I want to get these ones out of the way first because they're the games I would have played at my youngest and most impressionable - so more than likely, the games that form my core influences. And if you've taken one look at my avatar, you'll probably realize this next one is an influence I wear on my sleeve, so please try and act surprised when I reveal it's Sonic.

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Sonic and Tails (Sonic 1 / 2 / 3 / &K / CD)

My first experience with Sonic was renting Sonic and Knuckles from the local Video Ezy. I was about 4-5 years old at the time, and rarely made it past Mushroom Hill (I remember getting as far as Flying Battery Act 1's boss and immediately Game Overing because I couldn't figure out its gimmick). But before it came time to return it, I got exactly one Chaos Emerald, and I was so proud of it I left a handwritten note in the case as if I was doing the next renter some kind of favour. It's sort of weird to think about how far I've come since then, where I won't accept anything less than the full set whenver I work up the urge to replay it. The first one I actually owned was Sonic 2, and while it's still a good game overall, it'd remain my least favourite in the original series until I got to play Sonic 1 many, many years later.

Whatever the case, ALL of the original Sonic titles are incredibly replayable, but even though a lot of people will agree with that it's not often discussed why that's the case. And it makes me think back to that first time I played S&K all those years back, where I could never get further than FB act 1 but could never seem to express frustration about it. When I think about it further, at least part of it is probably down to old Sonic levels being basically playgrounds in of themselves. Yes, the levels eventually bottleneck because every act has a defined start and finish, but there's plenty to do along the way and plenty of different ways to approach it.

Most people seem to like thinking of Sonic as some coke-headed speedrunning fest, but I think it's important not to forget that the games used to reward people for going off the beaten path and looking for places they hadn't explored yet, which is a playstyle that should be worth every bit as much as just rushing it. Game Overing before Flying Battery was never an issue for me, because there was still more level to find, and even something as simple as a shield would be enough to help my dumb ass through next time. S3&K in particular even has the benefit of multiple characters with their own benefits, and it annoys me when people complain they have too much in common with each other because even the singular difference they tended to have back then (never mind all the passive stuff Knuckles benefits from) is enough to completely change how you interact with a level and make your playthrough fresh all over again, without the drawback of having to get used to entirely different mechanics, physics or fucking genres like later attempts would do.

There's not a whole lot else I can say at this point that this forum hasn't already discussed in exhaustive detail, whether it be concepts of flow and inertia preservation or the finer points of rolling physics or even just writing and characterization. But if you're disappointed you didn't get to hear me ramble on about the blue blur more, just remember that I've grouped these games based on a general playstyle and/or aesthetic that they all share in the same series - so this will definitely not be the last time you see Sonic on this list.

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DINO-Bunz (Dinoland)

Was... was that really his name? Bunz?

You know what, fuck it, I'm not gonna question it.

So Dinoland's a pinball game in which Bunz here, being an armadillo-esque dinosaur, plays the part of the pinball, so naturally he spends 80% of the game curled up. Right away that draws a lot of parallels to Sonic Spinball, but for all the infamy it has in this fanbase I honestly have to say Dinoland is actually the worse game by a pretty large margin. I don't know if it's just because of bad programming or because there's no real physics system at play in the way you move around, but launching the ball never feels quite... right, for lack of a better description. And although in both games the pinball is a living, breathing character in both games, Spinball is the only one that uses that to any meaningful effect by allowing you to influence the trajectory of your falls just enough to avoid a fatal pitfall that would otherwise be unavoidable. Dinoland's also the older game, though, so I can forgive a little bit of jank. It's not the real problem I have with this game.

Let's start with a problem both games have in common - you can't see the entire playing area of the board you're on at any given time, or even the entire half of the board you're on when they're split into two. So quite often, useful and even critical shots are offscreen from the flippers and have to be taken completely blind, which makes angles pretty difficult to guage even when you DO know the general area you want to be aiming for. To Spinball's credit, they sometimes remember to leave lines of blinking lights towards ramps you absolutely need to hit so at least you have a path to follow - Dinoland does no such thing. To make the same mistake on the same shot over and over because you have no way of eyeballing it gets annoying real bloody fast, and sometimes I hate that early pinball games couldn't just swallow their pride and make tables only a screen height tall to get around this problem.

Once you get past that, then what? For the majority of your time playing this, you're stuck on the same board, listening to the same music, struggling to find some way to progress. It gets boring real quickly. There are alternate boards to travel to, and there's two methods to find them. The first is to wipe out the dinos on the bottom half of the board until a different species spawns, and wiping out all of them turns the pit at the bottom into a warp that carries you to one of the two other boards. I never figured out how to trigger the other species spawning, and for all I know it could be actual random. The other method is a literal slot machine at the very top of the board, and being warped away is among the rewards for matching three icons. So naturally, most of the gameplay loop is spent on the top half of the board trying to make the slots do something interesting.

But it's all good once you finally get a change of scenery, right? NOPE. If you bottom out on either of the secondary boards, you don't lose that ball - instead, you're sent right the fuck back to the starting board and you have to do it all over again. It's not uncommon to enjoy the new board for all of two minutes before fucking up and getting sent right back because you're not familiar with all the new bells and whistles yet. Can you fucking imagine if Lava Powerhouse in Sonic Spinball sent you right back to Toxic Caves instead of letting you use another ball? It'd be enough to make you believe Toxic Caves was the game and all the others were just little bonus stages.

So imagine my surprise when I watched a longplay of this game yesterday to find that not only did those extra boards contain their own boss fights, the game has an actual ending - for which you need at least 9 billion points, just shy of the maximum that the game can display. So now I get to share with you the conclusion of this game that I've waited nearly thirty years to see:

Bunz gets his girl, Meeshell, but the Ice Age comes around, and EVERYONE FUCKING DIES.

Jesus christ, maybe I was better off not knowing. That shit would have scarred me as a kid.

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Billy Blaze (Commander Keen)

My experience with the Keen games is limited to Ep1, Ep3 and Dreams, but I'll mostly be talking about the former two. It's a platformy shooter, leaning more platforming than shooting, but the main thing I usually take from it is its unusual choice of controls - besides the movement keys it uses two buttons, and neither of them is a "shoot" button. You have one for jumping and one for toggling this pogo stick that makes your jumps higher in exchange for making you auto-jump when you hit the ground, but to fire your raygun you have to press them both at the same time??? It's hard to say with certainty why the controls were designed this way - old keyboards were notorious for eating inputs if you pressed too many of a certain combination of buttons at once, so maybe this was supposed to be some kind of hacky workaround? But whatever the case, it makes it hard to shoot without jumping by accident, and raygun ammo is pretty limited in this game, so definitely not the type where you want to miss shots by being a few frames late and jumping first.

Honestly though, it's the only real gripe I think I have with the game. Out of the Apogee era platformers, Keen is pretty easily my favourite of the bunch. There's something just endlessly whimsical about chanelling vibes of Dexter's Lab and Macgyver - the backstory of Ep1 alone has Keen create a functioning spaceship out of soup cans and random crap lying around the house, and that kind of sense of disbelief immediately sets the tone for pretty much everything that happens afterwards, where the implied threat to humanity is given equal billing as his parents finding out what he gets up to with his alter ego while they're gone. It's the kind of imagination that doesn't get seen much in videogames anymore, although I guess part of that is because Keen's target audience today is probably hooked on free to play mobile trash.

Speaking of which - fuck you Bethesda, for making Keen into free to play mobile trash. Don't go thinking I've forgotten the shit you pulled at E3 last year.

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Gen and Burn (Growl)

...although my copy was called Runark. This was one of two games (the other being Dinocity above) where I owned the JP version of the game instead of the PAL one, and to this day I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe my dad bought these on a flea market or something. But uh anyways, onto the game.

Growl is a Taito beat em up game where you play as either discount Indiana Jones or discount Randy Savage (The game actually has four characters, but the other two have identical sprites to Gen and Burn - yes, not even recoloured, identical), wildlife rangers hunting down a gang of poachers to beat the shit out of. And it needs to be said right away that Growl takes a sadistic, almost NARC-esque glee in mowing them down by the dozens - in the opening fight alone you're given a choice between four weapons, and one of them is a four shot rocket launcher that can literally blow them to pieces with spectacular explosions that light the whole goddamn screen up. Behind the brief power thrills, almost literally dozen to one ratio mooks and the occasional stampede out of nowhere taking care of fights for you, though, lies a beat em up that hates it when you use the punch button.

You probably think that's hyperbole. Lemme elaborate on that.

See, in most other beat em ups, fighting games or just about any genre with a melee attack period, one is guaranteed a moment's safety from the enemy you land a successful hit on - which is to say, they're stunned at least long enough for your attack animation to finish and reset you back to a neutral state from which you can act further. In Growl, the attack that is performed when you press the button is random. Of the 3-4 choices the RNG can roll for when you initiate an attack, one of them is a kick. This kick takes almost three times longer to recover from than any of the other moves, but shares the same hitstun as the other moves. What this means, effectively, is that at complete random the enemy can recover faster than you and punish you just for hitting them all, even in a one on one - and if you've been paying attention so far, you'll remember that most confrontations are definitely NOT one on one.

So how does one avoid this? One might say "just use a weapon". True to Gen's stereotype, the whip is by a pretty large margin the best weapon in the game, able to not only hit multiple enemies in a pretty long range in front but even behind him when he reels it back in - but you drop weapons whenever you're knocked over, and they despawn if you drop them one too many times. And projectile weapons obviously have ammo counts which are non replenishable. What I'm getting at is that you can't rely on weapons forever, or sometimes not even for very long. So what do you have that's dependable in the meantime? One might initially suggest special attacks, which are usually some variation of a helicopter kick that barrels through enemies and knocks down everyone in your way. This initially seems to have no drawback, but it actually drains health every time you use it - and because Growl uses a Golden Axe-esque health system where one bar reprents an indeterminate amount of health points, most of the time this health drain is invisible and you don't realize what it does to you until you're on death's door and realize you can't use it anymore. And that's before you learn some enemies recover faster than this attack too, and are in fact built to counter it and normal punches by design.

So what does that leave? Jump kicks. Lots. And lots. And lots. And lots. And lots. And lots of jump kicks. It's guaranteed to knockdown almost any enemy in the game, does about the same damage as the special without the health drain, and consistently puts you out of the way of retaliation by whoever you missed just by chaining another jump out of it. Being good at Growl isn't a matter of learning hidden and obscure techniques (which this game does actually have, not that I learnt how to pull them off consistently) or grasping any kind of meta the game throws at you - just realizing that the jump kicks are factually the best and safest move in the game and that you don't really have any option besides to cheese your way through it with them. It stops getting exciting pretty fast.

If there's a positive lesson to get out of Growl's design though, it's that you shouldn't be afraid to be ridiculous. It's one thing to be a game that's bland if not awful, but people will remember you if you're ridiculous no matter if you're good or bad for it. The first boss of the game wears a vest lined with sticks of TNT, and instead of falling apart when it explodes he gets launched into the air and sprints at you in an arm flailing tantrum, and he can do this multiple times. Wild animals help you out at several times throughout the game, sometimes completely unprompted, but I don't think any of them are as simultaneously hilarious and badass as being saved from a god damned tank by a rampaging elephant you had saved from captivity minutes ago. And without wanting to spoil too much on this front in particular, the final boss is quite possibly the most insane sudden twist I've ever seen in a beat em up game, ever - and that's even including the tank throwing, top hat wearing robot with machinegun claws that you fight moments before it.

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...on a more personal note I learnt while making today's sprite that you can make a guy look more buff just by adding an extra pixel's width to all their limbs and now I regret not doing that with Duke. Oh well, I'll get another shot later.

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10 hours ago, Tornado said:

WOW BLACKLIGHTNING YOU MUST BE PRETTY OLD

Turning 32 in about a month, actually. To my knowledge the games on my list start in the 1990s at the very earliest - looking back at Duke 1 and Commander Keen, though, I'm surprised sometimes they weren't made earlier than that.

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Bubby (Rainbow Islands)

Rainbow Islands is another example of jank that would have been perfectly acceptable in the day it was made, and everything is jerky instead of smoothed out, including the jumping - which isn't coded as an arc so much as "ascend X number of pixels and then go into falling state". You would think that would work against a game billed as a platformer, but honestly, I hesitate to call Rainbow Islands a bad game. In fact I'd go as far as to say it's pretty goddamn underrated.

The main attraction of Rainbow Islands is undoubtly the titular rainbows, which Bubby can create with a button press. And in much the same ways that say, Sonic's rolling is, they're deceptively versatile and can be used for a number of different purposes that tend to be discovered as a natural result of playing around with them. They function as projectiles and wipe out any enemies in their path. You can walk up onto them and cast more as you go, using them as impromptu stairs and platforms. If you jump on them in a certain way, they shatter, and the shards actually defeat enemies too, allowing you to attack enemies below you. You can even use them to collect pickups without walking up to them. Most of the time it's for platforming purposes - levels in Rainbow Islands only scroll vertically, the goal being to reach the top before the island floods beneath you. Simple jumping isn't always enough to make it all the way to the top. In fact, there's at least one stage in the game that doesn't have natural platforms at all, so learning how to carefully ladder up great heights without breaking your rainbows beneath you becomes a pretty important skill.

There IS one big complaint I have with it, though. The game has two endings, and getting the true ending is almost statistically impossible. The catch? Throughout the course of the game, you have to collect seven chaos emeralds big diamonds. You can get these as rewards for defeating bosses at the end of an island, but to make them spawn at all you have to collect a series of seven small diamonds throughout the island itself before the boss of that island. And how do you get those? RANDOM. FUCKING. DROPS. Enemies drop items when they're done dying from a rainbow, and the small diamonds is among their drop pool. So unless you somehow know how to game the RNG, whether or not you get the good ending doesn't depend on anything you do playing it, and even today knowing I haven't done it yet is still an endless source of irritation.

Don't let that give you the wrong idea though - it's still a very solid game overall, and I wouldn't dare set an impression otherwise. Maybe sometime after I'm done with this project I'll go back to this game on something with savestates, because unlike Dinoland I respect this game too much to just look up the real ending on Youtube and be done with it.

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Dizzy (Fantastic Dizzy)

Dizzy is a puzzle platforming game that I liked as a kid for many of the same reasons I liked Sonic - regardless of any progress you made, you could take a different route every playthrough and learn a little something new about the game every time. Whereas Sonic was all about several tiers of separate routes through one level, though, Dizzy is probably the first game I played that could be genuinely considered "open world". The majority of the map is accessible from the start with a little walking, and the areas that aren't usually only need a single item to open up. I don't even consider winning the game a requirement of remembering it fondly, because almost anything you do in this game can be considered an adventure in its own right - which is something that games several hundred if not thousand times its size routinely fail to accomplish.

I have to be honest with myself though, and say that the inventory system was very much a product of its time and would never fly today. For starters, you can only hold three items at a time. Once you know where everything goes, this simply becomes part of the routing process and can strategize dropping and swapping stuff when it's convenient, but when you're still uncovering stuff it can be irritating to come apon a dead end and realize you left the means of opening it on the opposite side of the map, or at the end of a very long minecart ride. Even when you DO have the right items for the situation, often you can only use it if it's in the leftmost side of your inventory, which often means dropping your entire inventory on the ground to reorganize the right item into that slot, and that doesn't feel like that should have been necessary? Especially when there are specific items - like the rope - that work regardless of which slot they're in.

I also have to give special mention to Zak's Castle at the end of the game, which is just straight up evil. We're talking borderline Sierra levels of evil here. To even get up there in the first place means a sequence of tricky platforming on clouds that you're constantly sinking through, and you still need 5-6 items to finish the game after that point - so even if your platforming is perfect AND you know the exact items you need ahead of time, you still need to do this sequence twice at bare minimum. And then once you've used them all up? Right before the final platforming section is a "star barrier". All those little star pickups scattered throughout the world like Rings? You need to collect them - all two hundred and fifty of them - to open this barrier, including the ones scattered throughout the aformentioned very long minecart ride. The game doesn't tell you this until you reach it, which is a certifiable ragequit moment because most people are running short on lives at this point and don't have resources to backtrack through hazardous terrain to mop them all up.

But if you'll forgive an unintentional pun here, the game is fantastic once everything clicks into place. It's one of the very, very few puzzle games I can ever replay even after knowing all the solutions, which is a mantle that seldom seems to get any praise in the gaming world. Codemasters is better known for racing titles overall these days, but I still think Fantastic Dizzy is an achievement they should be proud of, even all these years later.

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Shion (Wonder Boy in Monster World)

I'm honestly not sure if I can accurately convey my appreciation for this game in words. At least in my mind it is and always has been a classic, and I feel like it's right up there with Sonic in the amount of influence it's had in the way I look at videogames.

So where do I even start with this? I suppose with the inevitable comparison to Link he's going to get at some point - indeed, if Crusader of Centy is to Sega as Link to the Past is to Nintendo, then Monster World is probably a closer equivalent to Zelda II. But one thing I like about Shion specifically is that his motivations are completely his own. Sure, he gains the mantle of legendary hero eventually, but because he earnt it near the end of a long journey - he wasn't preordained to do anything, he just saw snakes start popping up on his front yard and decided "fuck it, I'll take care of this shit myself at the source". It's hard not to respect that in a fantasy game - even outside of Zelda, I quickly got sick of a PC's motivations being boiled down to "destiny decided for you that you have to do this", and I really wish it would happen more often.

Alright, but how does it play? It's pretty simple, but the best kind of simple - you have one attack (two if you're using a spear). and you have two shortcuts to use potions and limited use spells. You'd think that would make a game repetitive, but no, Monster World really manages to make that work by focusing their attention elsewhere. Even when fighting regular enemies you still have to keep your footwork up and chase them down to get follow up hits on them while they're reeling, not to mention anticipate whatever reaction they might have to recovering, and that's to say nothing of the boss fights which, with the exception of the first one, each have a unique design quirk that makes them stand out among all the others and can't ever be approached exactly the same way. I have a unique appreciation of games that design their difficulty curve around adapting to environments and behaviours rather than figuring out gigantic, usually clunky movesets, and I feel like that appreciation originally came from what I experienced in Monster World above all else.

But perhaps most importantly, it's where most of my philosophy on difficulty comes from. I don't think a journey has much point if there isn't hardship along the way, and the games that walk that fine line between imposingly challenging and infuriatingly difficult are almost always for the better for it as long as it's not a sudden spike upwards. And in the interests of honesty, Monster World isn't absolutely perfect in this regard - near the end of the game there's a section with two platforms that move whenever you jump between them without an indication of which one will move where, and you have to refight a midboss every single time you fail this trial and error sequence. But if you ask me, antagonists in gaming history are most memorable when the victories against them are hard fought, and I struggle to think of a different way to describe the Almighty Demon King and Biomeka besides "hard fought victories".

Look, if you haven't already, just play this game, okay? I don't know what else can be said if it hasn't already been sold to you, and if it's not considered a classic Genesis title in its own right then if you ask me it's been fucking robbed.

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Lemmings

This is a title that's seen a lot of audiences. PC, Genesis, SNES and Amiga just among the ones I can recall off the top of my head, to say nothing of the legacy it's had since. So in a way, it almost defies the need to introduce them. So instead I'll lead by saying I had the Genesis version, which will probably come as no surprise if you've been paying attention to my list thus far.

Which has the best version of the soundtrack and I will fight tooth and nail on this one

Anyway, Lemmings is a bit hard to classify. It's got shades of puzzle and real time strategy games, but doesn't really fit snugly into either niche. Essentially, lemmings file out of a starting point one by one, wander forth and only turn if they hit a wall, and it's your job to give them commands to save them from walking right into deathtraps and guide them towards the level exit instead. A lot of these are very simple solutions early on, like a single mass of solid ground separating start and finish and only requiring you to dig one tunnel to safety. Later on, though, you're simply given too many to take care of at once, usually requiring you to either guide your lemmings into a ditch and ramp up or through, or to sacrifice one to keep all but a select few behind, where they blend into a completely indistinguishable mess of white, green and blue pixels. And it's hard not to feel like a lot of it will boil down to luck.

There's really no way to target a specific lemming of your choice when they start to overlap on the screen, so it's rare that the finnesse you either need or want actually comes to fruition. At the very least it would've been nice to isolate which direction you want your command to be executed in, because quite often you'll waste them by making diggers punch air or making builders slap right into a wall next to them - and those commands have limited uses, especially later in the game, making the lack of precision all the more frustrating. Oh and just to rub salt into the wound, this version didn't have battery saves. Which in a pre-savestate, pre-emulator world, meant writing down a long-ass password somewhere every time you had to put the game down, and hoping you weren't called away suddenly before you had a chance to.

Honestly Lemmings feels like it could have solved a lot of problems if it just calmed the fuck down and not shoved like 100 individual units into a level at once. It's a great and original concept, but too much of it is spent hoping you pick the right individual lemming in an incredibly dense crowd, and that shit sucks.

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Axel, Adam and Blaze (Streets of Rage)

Well this is kind of a topical title now, isn't it? The government's overrun with tyarants and the cops are complicit with it - what better time to bring up a game where a small group of ex-cops take the fight against corruption into their own hands?

Though I played this game a lot as a kid, Streets of Rage is a beat em up game that I don't think I entirely understood the true genius of until... oh say, about last year when I replayed it as a part of Sega Megadrive and Genesis Classics on a whim. If anything, to reassure myself that I hadn't gone soft over the years. And honestly, I was surprised at how hard this game can be on the normal settings. Now some of you are probably gonna say "but BL, you just covered a beat em up, why don't you just cheese your way through the game like you did that one?". And if I had an answer to that, it'd probably be something along the lines of... why don't you ask this scary motherfucker with claws what he thinks of jump kicks.

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See, what separates this game from Growl is that the AI isn't just reading from a script - it reacts to you. This is kind of an extreme example where this boss can detect an incoming jumpkick and completely outplay it, but there's much more subtle stuff that doesn't get noticed unless you're paying close attention. Certain mooks will try to keep a fixed distance when you're facing them and become much more aggressive when your back is turned, and often they'll try to get behind you to exploit this behaviour more readily. Some of them act in formation and launch coordinated attacks from multiple angles at once if you're not quick enough to separate them. And the twins in Round 5 are especially deadly, one of them usually distracting you from the other so they can get a painful suplex on you, yet more than happy to punish you if you try to be patient and wait for an opening. It's incredibly easy to take for granted, but when you compare these behaviours to a simple "approach PC > punch" script, it really stands out.

It's hard to talk about this game without bringing up the soundtrack, too. It's practically a time capsule of 90s club style, not to mention fantastic in its own right. It's not to say the game isn't still great regardless, but it definitely wouldn't be the same without beats like these.

So where do I stand on the rest of the games? SoR1 was the only one I had as a kid - 2 and 3 I only got to experience fairly recently through the aformentioned compilation. Streets of Rage 2 is about level with the first game if you ask me, and I could play either of them interchangably - it's probably a more fleshed out game overall and patches out a lot of the remaining cheese the first game had (yes, SoR1 had infinites and chaingrabs, and I refuse to fight Big Ben fairly), but sometimes I still appreciate the first game's consistency where sometimes you just have to pray Grand Upper goes through in the second. But Streets of Rage 3 went way too fucking far if you ask me, with mooks that can literally run circles around you and bosses that I swear have no real patterns at all, and I think it represents a pretty sharp decline as a result.

Still haven't played 4, but it's on my bucket list! I hear it's a pretty damn good game, and that's coming from some of the most cynical people that I know, so that's gotta count for something.

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So remember when I said this a few games ago?

On 6/5/2020 at 11:31 AM, Blacklightning said:

I also have to give special mention to Zak's Castle at the end of the game, which is just straight up evil. We're talking borderline Sierra levels of evil here.

Well strap yourselves in kids, cos now I get to actually explain what that means.

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Roger WIlco (Space Quest 1 VGA)

Sierra was one of two companies - the other being LucasArts - at the forefront of point and click adventures throughout the 90s. I can't speak too much for the latter other than that Monkey Island has somewhat similar infamy, but I played enough of this game in my childhood to say with pretty good confidence that Space Quest is made of 100% weapons grade bastard. It's a game that practically redefines trial and error, and has the nerve to laugh gleefully at your every fatal (and sometimes even non-fatal) mistake in the form of a personalized epilogue for nearly every individual cause of death in the game. This is somewhat difficult to talk about without straight up spoiling solutions and plot points, so if for some reason you wanted to keep the experience fresh for yourself I'll just say there are spoilers from this paragraph onwards. The short, clean version of it is that you can set yourself up for failure much later in the game, and Space Quest doesn't warn you up until you die from it - and sometimes, not even then - and more often than not you'll have saved after the fact, forcing you to redo the entire playthrough.

Let's talk about the escape shuttle on the starting ship, for starters. You can die from even entering the room without a space suit, because there's no warning that the room is depressurized. You can die from accidentally walking off the bridge to the pod, even though you're incabable of walking off any other ledge in the game. You can die from crashing the pod into the docking bay doors, which have to be opened from an adjacent room. You can die from not wearing your fucking seatbelt when taking off. You can die from running out of fuel if you take too long to engage the autopilot. And just because the game wasn't taking the piss enough already, you can die from accidentally triggering the time travel button on the same row as the autopilot, which they only added as a shameless plug for its sister series, King's Quest. But this is stuff that all happens short term, at the relative beginning of the game. It only gets worse from there.

How about the time where you need a universal translator to get any further than the desert? Or where you have to save scum an actual slot machine unless you happened to have a really strong magnet on you? Both of those are on the ship you started on, which you don't have any means of returning to even if it didn't self destruct after you bailed from it. Said slot machine happens to explode after a certain point incidentally, so if you happen to say, get robbed and lose it all, you're permanently stuck there because you need to buy your own ship to get back offworld. But the big one happens RIGHT at the end of the game, where success should be all but guaranteed at that point- you need a passcode to self destruct the enemy ship, but you don't find the passcode there. Where? All the way back at the beginning of the fucking game. Because apparently, success in this game depends on happening to stumble apon a dying scientist by chance, hearing a specific phrase from his dying breath, still having the goddamn manual so you can cross referance that phrase with the standard galactic alphabet symbols that the nearby keypad uses, and remembering to plug in the cartrige you get at that point into one of the two computers you can find along the way to get the code out of it. Yes, believe it or not, games could and DID have DRM back then, just to add further insult to needing to redo the entire game from the start to figure out what the fuck it was that you did wrong.

Some might say this brand of fuckery is integral to the humour of this brand. Personally, I see it as a reason people stopped buying these kinds of games. Adventure games with mystifying logic are already bad enough without making you completely do-over a playthrough because of mistakes you had no way of anticipating, and then making fun of you because you didn't click the right bundle of eight pixels in a room that looks otherwise featureless and useless half an hour ago.

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I realize it might seem I went somewhat overboard on the last writeup, so there's something I want to stress right now - these writeups are not reviews.  The purpose of this writing is to reflect on them on the prospects of eventually designing a game of my own. And as harsh as it seems, the most obvious lessons to learn from most works of entertainment are their mistakes. Every individual game so far is one that, given the means and convenience, I would happily replay despite their flaws. Hell, some because of them. It'd be foolish to claim every game I've covered so far is on equal ground, but none of them are necessarily awful games because of my observations.

I'm bringing this spiel up only now, because I'm about to introduce my first exception.

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Mickey Mouse (Fantasia)

Fantasia is a masterwork of terrible game design that seems to almost defy explanation - it's bad in some special ways that are really difficult to achieve simply by accident. But it seems only fair to start with some of the things people might expect first and ramp the ridiculousness up gradually towards the end. For starters, it's a classic case of development hell, made in a tight schedule with a shoestring budget by a tiny group of developers that didn't really know their way around a Genesis, against promises made to Walt fucking Disney himself that Fantasia never be re-adapted. So not only was the game vilified within and without, all the remaining unsold copies were recalled and destroyed. Yes, we're off to a good start already, and I haven't even started talking about the game itself yet.

You can tell most of their attention was spent just on animating Mickey, because he's just about the only thing in the game that looks complete. And the facet of THAT which got the most attention was probably his jumping animation. Which from the outside seems to make sense - after all, it's a platforming game, so you're going to spend most of your time jumping anyway, right? However, making the animation more intricate in turn causes it to last longer, which in turn creates a very fucking distinct delay between pressing the jump button and the jump actually being performed as commanded. And yes, this causes problems, not the least of which because this game expects you to jump to, from and between moving platforms a lot, of which sometimes move at blistering speeds or immediately collapse under your feet and leave you not a whole lot of time to act in between.

Let's talk about that, actually. Obviously it's hard to say cos it's not like I've reverse engineered the game or anything, but I'm pretty sure every object in the game besides Mickey is the same actor with different sprites and properties. It's not obvious throughout the first level because they stay mostly sane and sensible at first, but it steadily becomes apparent that enemies run on tracks just like the moving platforms do. And as it turns out, so do the pickups. And then you get into platforms that are invisible until you collect a certain pickup, or platforms that are invisible until you jump on them, and eventually platforms that are just fucking invisible PERIOD. Gameplay in the later stages of the game just devolves into this indescribable miasma of moving objects with different properties that all act similarly chaotic and rocket around the place in unpredictable and nonsensical patterns and to get through it you just hold right, down and jump and hope you touch the ground as little as possible so you don't have to put up with the goddamned delayed jump again.

Oh, did I say down and jump? In any other platforming game, it's an almost universally accepted fact that if you land on an enemy from above, you bounce off their heads and deal damage to them. That behaviour still exists in Fantasia... but you have to hold down and jump when landing on top of them to use it. The default behaviour for landing on an enemy in this game is simply to fall through them and take damage. This goddamn game only barely understood even the most basic mechanics of platforming design, and then hid it behind a fucking button combination anyway. How the hell do you do that by accident? I'm wracking my brain trying to think of an explanation, but by all accounts it seems easier to just make bouncing off enemies the default interaction for landing on them.

Okay okay I know some of you are already asking about it. This is a game based on a musical, so at least the music is good, right?

Ha.

ahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

HAAAAAAAAAAAHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHAAAAAAAAAAAA

AHUAGHUAGHUAGHUAGHUAGHUAGHUAGH

...augh.

Ahem.
......................

Spoiler


AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

Spoiler

god only gave us one purpose - to keep this cacophany from reaching mortal ears

we have forsaken him

 

 

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Johnny Ford (Midnight Resistance)

What's this? Simple gameplay? Huge boss setpieces? One hit deaths? Bad english translation? Yep, it's time for a Contra clone!

Before the advent of twin sticks, Contra was often looked to as the golden standard of multi directional shooters. Just hold the dpad in a specific direction, and your character will aim in that direction. Simple, concise, effective. Why would a shooting platformer need to be anything else? Well, Midnight Resistance is a game I bring up because it exposes two significant flaws in the traditional Contra mechanics. One, you can't aim diagonally without moving, because one half of aiming diagonally in any direction is either the left or right buttons on the dpad. Two, you can't aim backwards, in the opposite direction you are moving. Midnight Resistance introduces setpieces that requires both of these things, so trying to control it strictly like a Contra game actively kneecaps you. So what's their solution?

Well, long story short, Midnight Resistance provides three. In the pregame options menu is a setting that controls how the aiming is handled. Now you'll have to forgive me if I don't get these 100% correct because it's been a while since I've played the game: I think one option is straight up Contra controls, one rotates your aim 45 degrees counterclockwise every time you hit the A button, and one I believe locks your aim into your current facing as long as you hold the A button, like something of a pseudo strafing mode. My young, dumb ass went with option number 2 for some reason, but having re-watched a playthrough of the game up to this point I feel like the third is the best of both worlds - be able to aim where you want on a whime, but also be able to focus fire on something that's chasing you without coming to a long stop and allowing them to just bowl you over.

Either way, it's a pretty simple game all the same, and something you almost have to turn your brain off for to get the most enjoyment out of it. It definitely comes from the Growl school of "gradually ramping up the ridiculousness to absolute absurdity", to point you've singlehandedly sunk an entire battleship and wiped out a whole squadron of bombers in separate boss fights, and culminates in a final boss almost as insane as the beat-em-up's to boot. As far as weapons go, MR handles it a little differently - rather than drop them as pickups, several enemies throughout the level drop keys instead, which open lockers in armouries that are placed between levels. Some might say the 3 way Spreader is the best weapon in the game, just like it is in Contra, but personally I prefer this fucking beast of a flamethrower pictured in my spritework - which not only stretches almost the length of the screen but lashes almost whip-like around it as it catches up to your aim, giving you a level of coverage second only to your borderline screen-clearing subweapons.

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As seen here, moving from directly upwards to up/left.

It's definitely not a game I would have bought for full price - it's a port of an arcade cabinet, so it's less than half an hour long if you know what you're doing. But if there's any one highlight that still stands out even today, it's probably the soundtrack. It's a Data East title, so it's almost like they're obligated to kick ass on that front if absolutely nowhere else.

 

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Spiderman (Spiderman VS The Kingpin)

Sometime known as just "Spiderman" from its boxart. As far as licensed games go Kingpin was pretty good for its day, but I find it's aged pretty badly since, and although it had some interesting ideas not considered standard for the genre, most of them are either not implemented particularly well or don't go far enough with it.

Let's start with the one it handled best, which forms the core of the game's plot - a bomb set to go off in 24 hours capable of levelling the whole city. The timer counts down in real time while you're playing (though it's closer to 24 minutes than 24 hours in game time). You'd be forgiven for thinking this makes time of the essence, but it's actually a pretty generous time limit... if you play well. See, this is what the game uses instead of a lives system - you theoretically have infinite lives, but every time you run out of health, time is shaved off the clock instead of a life because Spiderman is arrested between retries, as Kingpin is framing him for the bomb he planted. It's a genuinely interesting and creative take on the game's stakes, even if it isn't immediately made clear that being knocked out has this consequence.

Next is sort of a psuedo inventory system, which right off the bat has a glaring flaw - even though it has only four options, it requires you to pause the game for it, which seems uncessarily flow breaking. Out of these you have selecting Spiderman's web shooters (which is already bound to its own button, so selecting this is essentially pointless), a web shield (which probably gets less emphasis than it needs, because it's borderline ncessary for some encounters), an option to return to Peter Parker's apartment (which rests Spidey up, but trades health for time on the bomb's clock - which is sometimes a worthwhile tradeoff because healing items are rare, and you don't recover any health between stages) and a camera, which forms the basis of the game's last gimmick.

See, Peter Parker's still running his side gig as a Daily Bugle photographer through all of this, so he's gotta take some good pics to make money between levels. You could be forgiven for thinking this was Frank West before Frank West Frank Wested, and if only the system were that complicated - but no, rather than strategically catching crooks in the act of something devious before they have a chance to scatter or carefully timing shots for the best dramatic effect, the whole system can be best summarized as "take one picture of the level boss and a midboss if there is one, before beating the snot out of them". And the money you get from selling the pictures is immediately spent on... web fluid? Spiderman has limited web in this game? There was a point in time that he had to buy it??? Was this actually canon??????

Anyway, gimmicks aside, the game is probably a bit overly basic in ways you might not expect. It has a bad habit of adding tiny-ass, annoying little shit creatures like bats and rats as enemies with possibly equal threat to all the robbers with knives and guns, and the boss fights aren't really designed as bosses so much as big mooks with a single really overpowered attack, with the exception of The Lizard (which actually has a strategy beyond "walk right up and keep punching in hopes they fall over before you do) and Venom (who randomly shows up in levels uninvited and is just fuck you incarnate). It's an okay game overall - just don't expect it to be fair and forgiving the first few playthroughs. I never actually finished it, and I have a sneaking feeling that you won't either.

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Ax, Gillius and Tyris (Golden Axe II)

Seemingly set in an alternate history where iron weapons were invented before adequete clothing, Golden Axe often gets a lot of comparisons to Streets of Rage just by virtue of being side scrolling brawlers on the same console around roughly the same point in time. So now I guess I'm obligated to do the same - Golden Axe is the worse series. There's really no way to say it without pissing someone off, so I might as well just be blunt about it. It's not to say it's bad, just that it lacks a certain depth SoR does, and whereas SoR grew and evolved quite drastically over time I consider Golden Axe a game that remained relatively stagnant over the course of its three games. Since it's the only one I actually owned while growing up, I'll be talking about GA2 in particular.

The AI in this game is borderline braindead, better than Growl's only by virtue of enemies actually being capable of moving diagonally. They'll shift up or down on the screen in an effort to match your X axis, but don't give a singular fuck if there's a bottomless death pit along their path. It's not uncommon to skip entire fights in the middle of the game just by hugging the bottom of the screen and guiding enemies into the abyss because they're too stupid to treat it as an obstacle. Even when fighting normally, they're nothing special - with the exception of bosses, most fights are decided simply on who swings first, and although you have crowd clearing moves and throws you won't often get much use out of them. Sometimes the whole thing just devolves into dash-ramming an enemy over and over in an infinite knockdown loop because it's very rare that they'll react faster than you or adapt to it by jumping over.

The magic system is something I consider this game's - hell, this franchise's - biggest missed opportunity. The game has an entire button dedicated to casting spells, but only ever uses it as a screen clearer. Nevermind that the game almost never has more than four enemies on screen at any given time. Nevermind that almost all enemies will survive it anyway. You just never find a good reason to sprinkle it in with standard gameplay, which is a similar problem Streets of Rage had - in the first game. Whereas SoR2 and onwards swapped the police button for flashy, risky special moves and was all the better for it, Golden Axe never really built apon its own mechanics much, and this is one area it really could have stood to follow Rage's example in. Hell, keep the same balance seen here - Gillius is good across the board but can't do much outside of standard moves, Tyris can deal shitloads of risky damage and Ax stays at a happy medium between them. It's a crying shame we never actually got that - as it stands in this game, you just hoard magic until bosses and then spend it all to get an early start on them. That's it.

I dunno, maybe Golden Axe IV will finally happen after the success of SoR4 and it'll finally grow beyond what the first three games stubbornly stuck to. I'd love that. You know what I hate either way? Spriting hair. How the fuck do people do this holy shit I swear I did some of these hairstyles like four times and I'm still not convinced I did it right

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Kirby (Kirby's Dreamland)

Kirby is a franchise that's legendary throughout the industry for having almost nothing wrong with it. Even my cynical ass can only get as far as claiming it has low points (of which I consider Epic Yarn and Star Allies among the lowest), but even then it's still a guarantee that you'll have a good amount of fun if you pick up any Kirby game out there, no matter what metric you judge them by. Kirby's Dreamland in particular is legendary because it's a game almost literally anyone can pick up and play - boys and girls, babies and grannies, the witty and the impared, and frankly it wouldn't surprise me if someone has gotten their fucking dog to play it at one point.  And most of it is down to its incredibly simple gameplay hook: you inhale a thing and spit it out at another thing, and it destroys both things. Boom. Fucking magic.

Even outside of that, Kirby is incredibly forgiving without losing any of its charm. Bad at platforming? Just suck wind and hover over everything. Want to take things at your own pace? That's fine, there's no arbitary time limits and no grading system, so you're not being judged for it. Stuck somewhere? That's fine, it's a pretty short game overall, so it doesn't overstay its welcome and doesn't take long to get back where you were before. Okay, I hear you ask, but what if I'm too good for that kiddy-ass shit? What if I want to get fucked up? Well good news, Dreamland has that covered too! After beating the normal game once (or just looking it up, because let's be honest we have the internet for that now), you're given a button combination that unlocks an arranged version of the game with new enemies and stuff, and it's a pretty decent challenge in its own right once you've conquered the original game.

If I had to give it one criticism, it'd be a very small but significant nitpick - there's no real indication of how to beat the final boss, King Dedede. Every other boss in the game has a clearly defined object to inhale and spit back at them, so quite how Sakurai expected people to realize Kirby could inhale the stars from Dedede's landings and hammer strikes that look like little more than particle effects is something I really can't understand. It's the singular, ever so slight mark against an otherwise perfect game, and it genuinely makes me wonder how this was the part they tripped up on in the design process.

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BJ Blazkowicz (Wolfenstein 3D)

Okay so being a great game is one thing, but how about defining a genre?

Wolfenstein 3D might not have been the first game of its kind, but it was definitely the one that would set the standard for generations to come, and it has a pretty strong case for being the single game that propelled first person shooters to the dominance and fame they show today. Unfortunately, that makes this game kind of hard to comment on in hindsight - because it's the standard. Criticising Wolfenstein for being a relatively generic FPS is like criticising Mario for being a relatively generic platformer - it wouldn't make any sense to say so, because it's the example most games of its type draw from in the first place. So what the hell am I supposed to say, then?

I guess it's fair to say that because it's basically the proto-FPS, there's a certain amount of jank that games made after it would improve apon. There's a lives system and a save system that both start you at the beginning of a level, but dying takes away all of your weapons and loading from a save doesn't - so as long as you remember to save after every level, dying basically has no consequence anyway. Pickups can only be collected if they're rendered onscreen, even if you're directly on top of them. Doors cease to be solid the moment they start opening, even if they're still visibly scrolling open - so if there's an enemy on the other side, especially those god damn zombies in Ep2, you can be shot right through it. And with the exception of three out of the six bosses in the game, all fighting is exclusively hitscan based. It doesn't help that there's only one ammo type in the game, so if for some reason you run out you have to knife someone most of the time, which is almost never a good idea.

I think one thing Wolf3D has mostly to itself, though, is the way distance if factored into damage calculations. Some games nowadays, like say TF2, have weapons that deal reduced damage at range, but I don't know many shooters where weapons are just straight up amplified at close range. In fact, even though the damage in this game is pseudo-random, the factors that go into damage and accuracy checks make fights feel a lot more dynamic than they really have any right to be, up to and including stuff that I never would have thought of, like enemies being more accurate if they're offscreen (because according to the developers, BJ attempts to dodge shots from enemies he can see). Most other games would make shooting and being shot static damage numbers, and that certain level of... uncertainty in a fight is always great to have, even though there's still certain constants and things to watch out for. In this game, usually corners and doors.

Once you get used to the jank, Wolfenstein 3D is still pretty fun to play today. Much like what is typical for early ID games, it's even got a decent modding community behind it, so if this and Spear of Destiny have gotten old for you, maybe a fresh coat of paint will do the trick.

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So this is a hurdle I would have had to deal with eventually, so let me just outline the problem and solution real quick. Our next title is a fighting game. So far I've been making a habit of spriting all the main heroes of a given game, but a fighting game rarely has less than eight characters, and some of them can stretch out all the way into the fifties. Obviously I'm going to go fucking mad if I have to sprite 8 characters in one day, so here's the compromise when this problem crops up - I just pick two, one considered the "face" of the game, and one I consider a personal main. All good? Great. Moving on.

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Larry and D I O (Fighting Masters)

Fighting Masters is a fighting game desperately trying to hide the fact that it plays closer to a wrestling game. Characters still have all the most basic pokes and blows for a fighter, but they all deal very minor damage and an absolutely ridiculous amount of hitstun because they're only ever used as instruments for closing the gap and grappling the opponent, where nearly all the real damage is dealt. It's an incredibly strange angle to approach a competitive game, and to my knowledge the only one of its kind. It sorta fills me with wonder about how much different things could have been if anyone followed its example instead of Street Fighter's, where the neutral is based on movesets designed simply around approaching and grappling the enemy while the actual *fighting* is all in post-grapple animations. Duking and duping, mobility quirks, bouncing and warping all around the place, like two baseball pitchers trying to disguise the moment they actually throw the ball at each other, and your performance is based on your ability to outthink your enemy instead of trying to learn long, needlessly complicated chains to do any meaningful damage in the process.

...of course, I'm getting ahead of myself, because Fighting Masters doesn't actually do any of that - outside of the grapples themselves, most characters in the roster are almost functionally identical, and most attacks have the same amount of power and stun overall. There's two types of damage in this game - one that's designed to stun, and one that causes an "impact" that takes 2-3 bars of health at once. Whenever a grapple causes you to collide with a surface, it causes impact damage. So the effectiveness of characters depends on having grapples that cause three different impacts in one move - one for executing the grab, one for hurling them against the opposite wall, and one for them hitting the ground. This creates HUGE imbalances in the game's cast because all impacts do roughly the same amount of damage, aptly demonstrated with my two sprite choices above - whereas D I O has a grapple that munches the enemy before throwing them against the wall, nearly all of Larry's grapples can only impact once, unless you somehow manage the perfect distance from the wall to glitch your enemy inside of it for four hits total. Even fights between relatively evenly matched characters leave a lot to be desired, because again, this game doesn't put a lot of effort into differentiating how characters approach each other for their important grapples, coming off as incredibly basic as a result.

Honestly, if it weren't for the soundtrack, I probably would have remembered this game a LOT less fondly. That being said, it still doesn't hold a whole lot of value besides in What If scenarios, and although I don't hate it with the vitriol of a thousand suns like I did with Fantasia I still can't expect to get much enjoyment out of playing it in modern times. Which is still kind of a shame, because I genuinely can't suggest an alternative for it - among its peers in the genre it's unique, for better or for worse.

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Batman (Batman Returns)

If you played only the first city section of Batman Returns, you could be forgiven for thinking it's actually a pretty good game. Granted, its vertical scrolling is flawed enough to cause you to fall into otherwise obvious bottomless pits, but it's got pretty good spritework, amazingly punchy sound design and pretty much all the tricks and gadgets you'd expect of a typical Batman game, and even a really sweet fight against Catwoman at the end. If they could only sustain this level of quality for the rest of the game I'd have nothing but praise to sing of it - but questionable enemy and level design kicks you in the teeth almost immediately afterward when you see this:

Batman Returns (Sega Genesis) - online game | RetroGames.cz

So right away you've got an entire level on a slant that keeps you moving in one direction slower than the other, and enemies that retreat and charge at you unpredictably and machinegun in circles when you think you've finally got an opening. Normally your solution would be to batarang them, but even though you have five different weapons in this game (accessed through the pause menu - yup, same problem as Spiderman) you have very little quantities of all of them, forcing you to ration them a lot by advancing into punching distance and usually taking hits that are difficult to avoid in the process. Just when you think you've gotten the hang of it, they suddenly replace nearly all the floor with spikes, so you'd think the solution would simply be to glide the rest of the way... but then your glide runs out and you drop like a brick. Yes, you read that right. Your glide is a finite resource. That can be depleted. In a Batman game. What is it with 90s platformers and making the dumbest shit into stuff you need to collect pickups to replenish? It's bad enough that batarangs are usually hard to come by. And then to add insult to injury, there's a vent that can suck you in near the middle and end of this section, which spits you out all the way back at the start with all the enemies respawned, but your health and ammo still depleted as a final fuck you for daring to try and have fun.

It also needs to be said that this is a very loose adaptation of the film. Which does kinda make sense - a licensed game especially in that day and age had to drag the action out into a much longer setpiece, and Batman Returns in particular is mostly notable because The Penguin isn't necessarily a huge threat on his own because Shreck was manipulating and supporting him for his own gain. But you have to wonder how strapped for ideas they were when the otherwise fucking inanimate statues outside of Shreck's building were implemented as the very next midboss.

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Come to think of it, despite being the direct cause of both Catwoman and Penguin's antagonism in the film, and the single figure linking all major characters together, Shreck doesn't even make an apperance in this game, which strikes me as incredibly bizarre. After the first fight with Penguin - and arguably during it - the game seems to abandon almost any pretense of resembling the film entirely, theming it more around its carnival-themed roster of mooks than the movie's narrative, but never gets anything but worse for it - the enemy and level design gets atrocious real fucking fast, and actually getting anywhere in this game quickly becomes a chore. So honestly? Pretty typical licensed game. Next.

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Chakan, The Forever Man

Okay, right off the bat I have to say it - Chakan as a character remains memorable to me in large part because he has one of the most ridiculously badass backstories ever penned. In life, this guy was a master alchemist and swordsman, and could not be beaten by any living creature on earth, so in a moment of arrogance and hubris, he boasts that he could beat the grim reaper in a duel - and death answers, with a wager. If Chakan lives, he's granted eternal life, but if he wins, Chakan becomes a servant of the grim reaper. Now you might be thinking that by "hubris" I meant that Chakan invited himself into an unwinnable fight. Ahahaha, fuck no - this dude challenges Death himself to a duel and motherfucking wins. No, the hubris is that living forever isn't all it's cracked up to be, and it isn't long before he starts wishing he could die. And then eventually in walks Death, no doubt wearing a shit-eating grin, and more or less says "okay I'm not THAT much of a cunt, so tell you what - if you use that gift of yours to wipe out all evil in existence, I'll let you die for real, fair enough? Okay, see you in a millennia". It's only long in hindsight that I ever realized this was a comic book license, but seeing this kind of writing in a Genesis game was fucking unreal, unlike anything else I'd played up to that point. So I think it's a cardinal sin that not a single other thing in the game is able to come even close to matching that standard.

The swordplay, on a glance, looks cool as shit - like Contra, but with swords. You hold down the attack button and Chakan will point his swords in the direction you're holding, and if you press another direction while still holding the attack button he'll swing them over to the new direction, complete with a fancy swish. Very quickly the game gives you the impression you can just hold down attack and mash forward, diagonal up and diagonal in front of an enemy and carve them into sushi in ways that would make even Nanto Seiken envious... only for the overwhelming majority of enemies to die in a single hit, and all the remaining ones to have something like 3-5 whole seconds of grace invulnerability when struck, making this feature completely and utterly pointless. Why the hell would you go to that much trouble if there isn't any point to being that flashy? If streamlining the fighting was what you were after, you might as well have followed Wonder Boy's example.

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Chakan doesn't really have a whole lot left to offer after that. Immortality in this game only really means "infinite lives", so a lot of the counterbalancing for that fact in this game is making most stages too goddamn hard or tedious to complete in one sitting. Deathpits are back in full force, but another annoying trait of this game is that enemies that can withstand multiple hits *also* strategically contort their hitbox to extend into yours when hit, making a retaliatory hit almost literally unavoidable unless you happen to have a potion combination that can attack at range. Said potions are incredibly scarce, and you can't return to levels that have them after you've completed them, so if you don't route the game very, very, very carefully, it's way too easy to borderline if not literally softlock the game. I have nothing against games that require you to play it multiple times to learn it well enough to actually play from start to finish, in fact there's some part of me that genuinely misses those times after the advent of automatic saving - but Chakan does it in the most hare-brained, obnoxious manner I can fathom, to the point that most people never finish it, a fact of which the developers themselves were aware would happen when they published it.

Before I wrap this up, I want to give a special mention to the music of the game. It seems to be composed in mind of inspiring feelings of dread and the unknown, and to its credit, when it works, it works:

But more often than not the soundtrack has a habit of devolving into either "actual cacophany of completely arbitary noise":

All the way down to "almost literally nails on chalkboard":

Alright, but just like Dinoland, this was a game I never saw the ending to until long after the fact - and it's every bit as spectacular as the opening. In the interests of people who might still want to discover it for themselves I'm spoiling it, but it would feel wrong not to post about the epilogue in some capacity:

Spoiler

Chakan finds his way back to the mountaintop from the game's intro, and then impales himself on one of his own swords. That's it. Game over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just kidding. Death shows back up and is all like "HEY MOTHERFUCKER, GUESS WHAT? I AM THAT MUCH OF A CUNT! LOOK UP BITCH. SEE ALL THOSE FUCKIN STARS IN THE SKY? THOSE FUCKERS HAVE PLANETS ORBITING THEM. PLANETS WITH THINGS LIVING ON THEM. THINGS THAT ARE EVIL. AND HERE YOU ARE, STUCK ON THIS NOW BARREN FUCKIN ROCK WITH NOOOOOOOOO WAY TO GET TO THEM. YOU PUT TWO AND TWO TOGETHER YET, BITCHFACE? THAT'S RIGHT..."

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This is quite possibly the best sequel hook a game's ever ended on, too. Of course, since the game was so crap, we never actually got one. What a waste.

 

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Public Enemy No.1 (Road Rash II)

God, I miss when racing games weren't just car porn. Is that controversial? I find it impossible to get into these games anymore because the entire god damn genre has shifted to being realistic over being fun or even the slightest bit original, to the point that imagery from entirely different games is becoming incredibly hard to tell apart. So it's honestly refreshing to think all the way back to Genesis games and this one in particular, built not around brands but the idea of "what if motorcycle racing, except you can beat the shit out of the guy next to you if it takes too long to overtake them?".

So obviously, it comes off right away as the motorbiking equivalent of Burnout, and you wouldn't be too far off - it's brutal, cathartic fun, where every crash is brutally punishing but it just makes it all the more satisfying to pull it off on others. But one thing about it that gets talked about less is that being the victor isn't necessarily the focus - just to get across the finish line in one piece and outside of police custody (yes, it's illegal street racing, and the cops don't like it). See, you're playing for the cash, which you need to buy better bikes, and to pay for repairs and fines in the event that you do total it or get caught. It's not so much a tourney as it is a career, where your reward for finally acing all five regionals is to move onto another set with faster opponents. So yes, there's grinding involved, but as long as you enjoy the core mechanics of the game enough it's hard to get frustrated or bored with.

I think the only real criticism I have of Road Rash II is that the frame rate is kind of inconsistent, which almost seems to come with the territory in these early faux-3D games of the 16-bit era. But it doesn't seem like anything that should have stopped them from continuing onward into the modern day... why DON'T we have more Road Rashes, anyway?

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...oh.

Yeah, that'd do it. Goddamnit, EA.

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Allister Fiend (Crüe Ball)

Yup, that Crüe, Sometime in '92, the Mötley Crüe license was applied to a pinball game on the Genesis, with... well let's be frank, mixed results. Let's start with the good. The game is a real treat on the eyes and the ears, with some pretty future-y sound design typical of a pinball machine, with a host of mooks mostly themed after other genres of music and some VFX so flash it might honestly constitute a seizure warning at times? But I know you guys wanna hear about the music. Sadly, the game was in developement before they got the license, so most of the soundtrack is original compositions of a vaugely rock/metal variety. It stil sounds pretty good, even if the lead riffs can get a little repetitive in the time it takes to clear a level. The game DOES however have three covers of Mötley Crüe tracks, including a good cover of Doctor Feelgood and a fucking amazing version of Live Wire that if you ask me, can honestly give the original a run for its money:

Actually playing Crueball starts out okay, but quickly starts falling apart the longer you play it. If you remember my writeup on Dinoland you already know this one is coming. Say it with me, guys: you cannot make an accurate shot if the target is offscreen. Dinoland did this. Sonic Spinball did this. Crueball hasn't learnt from either of them, but at times seems to go the extra mile in taking the piss out of it. Once you clear the first level, it starts becoming apparent that every single board shares the exact same basic design with a different gimmick in the centre, which wouldn't be so bad if they didn't all have the same flaws. Number one, the middle section of the table never has lanes to catch the ball and guide it to the flippers, in fact the flippers have fucking bumpers either side of them instead which can launch you as far as the opposite wall, if not directly into each other or into the pits along the edges of the board. So unless you happen to land your ball almost directly on the flippers you don't get to stay in the middle for very long, and you absolutely do not want that to happen because 1) nearly all the objectives are in the centre board, 2) the bottom board is incredibly hard to escape thanks in part to the aformentioned offscreen shots and bumpers, and 3) the bottom board contains a bonus stage you can trigger by accident and absolutely do not fucking want to.

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All the bumpers down here feel like they're purpose built to launch you towards the targets at the top of this section, which spawn targets and eventually this jump ramp in the centre when they're all cleared, both of which physically obstruct your main path back to the centre board and the latter of which can't be removed at all until you use it to launch into the bonus game. To make a long story short, it's a dreadfully boring Pong clone where you launch your ball into advancing skeletons until either they or your ball get past your paddle and fall offscreen, whichever comes first. There's no limit to how long you can stay in there provided you can survive, so one could say it's a good way of grinding for extra balls. Here's the kicker though: THE GAME RESETS YOUR MOTHERFUCKING PROGRESS EVERY TIME YOU TAKE THIS BONUS STAGE, FORCING YOU TO REDO THE ENTIRE STAGE FROM SCRATCH ONCE YOU RETURN. HOW DID NOBODY IN TESTING CATCH THIS??? YOU CAN'T USE A BONUS STAGE TO PUNISH PEOPLE. THAT IS THE ABSOLUTE DUMBEST SHIT IMAGINABLE. YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED FOR MAKING IT SO EASY TO TRIGGER BY ACCIDENT, YOU ABSOLUTE CUNT GARGLERS.

Listen, if you want a good licensed pinball game without going to the arcade or owning the physical board, just get Balls of Steel. I don't have anything special to say about it, just that the Duke Nukem table is easily worth the price of admission by itself and I'd really rather be playing that than this.

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Johnny Dash (Monster Bash)

Monster Bash is another platformer in the Apogee lineage, and has a similarly childish premise to Commander Keen's - you're a kid who watches their pet dog get abducted by a vampire on a dark stormy night, and it turns out everyone's pets are getting stolen because... reasons? So you go out in your pajamas with just a slingshot to free them in search of your own pet. Said slingshot forms most of the game's core quirks, as unlike most other Apogee games or even just platformers of the time period in general, all of your shots fly in an arc instead of completely straight, and they can bounce off walls instead of shattering on impact. This at times can be sort of a double edged sword - because it operates on the Megaman rules of "can only have X shots active at a time", it can take a deceptively long time to refire if you miss certain shots, especially if you aim high. However, it can make for some pretty sweet trick shots, and the game expects you to get familiar with them pretty quickly - because all the pets are kept in cages which you need to shoot the padlocks off of, and many of them are kept in locations that are anything but a straight shot.

Nowadays the game's mostly known as "that game Jontron can't pass the second level of", and honestly I think that's kind of unfair. It does come off as somewhat unorthodox, but only if you look at it from the standpoint of a platforming game where your only goal is to get from point A to B - it prevents you from progressing until you've rescued every animal on the level. It could maybe do with a little less require backtracking, or maybe a way to make it less tedious, but honestly to me it's completely fine for what it is. If there's any problem I have with it, it's probably the enemy and hazard design. Like snakes that attack from pitch blackness in the background, and their only tell is two red pixels that represent their eyes. Or golems that harden into platforms when shot, but take a good 10-15 seconds to return to normal when you're not lined up just right or they end up obstructing you instead. Or the lamps later on in the game that function as platforms, but damage you unless you shatter them ahead of time and usually needs to be done for every individual platform in the sequence.

As far as Apogee games go, you could definitely do a lot worse. That being said, for full disclosure I've only played the shareware version - I tried to get into the rest as part of an Apogee compilation and, well

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Yeah, nice going guys. Proooooobably coulda handled that better.

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THIEF (Link's Awakening)

Out of all the top-down Zelda games, I feel like Link's Awakening is the only one I hold any nostalgia for. It would also be the only one I physically owned until A Link Between Worlds, so I guess that probably has something to do with it too. I'll be the first to admit that it can be hard to get into looking from the outside in, and it can be especially unforgiving by today's standards if for no other reason that puzzle solutions aren't clearly signposted, like doors being opened by a single pushblock that look identical to all the other blocks in the room or bombing open walls that aren't marked with visible cracks like the majority of other games in the series. And even outside of dungeons the game stops spoonfeeding you leads not even halfway into the game, which leads into the classic, age old problem of "okay where the fuck do I go", and although sometimes you can be fortunate enough to realize an NPC has changed dialogue to point you in the right direction or remember that your newest tool opens up another section of the map, there are points that you don't end up that lucky and wander around for perhaps a bit longer than you'd otherwise find comfortable.

But you know what? It's satisfying when the pieces do click together, and I wouldn't trade that for anything. The only real thing I'd change is around the midboss of the final dungeon, which forces you to all but redo the entire thing if you happen to miss a single easily missable toggle switch behind a bombable wall whose purpose is completely unknown up to that point. It would also be nice if you didn't need a goddamn notepad handy for some solutions in the game (or the screenshot function in the Switch's case) when a physical reminder in your inventory could have sufficed. Nothing that keeps the game from being great on its own, just little tweaks that I would have ironed out for convenience personally.

The remainder of my observations contain HEAVY spoilers, so I'm hiding most of the rest for the benefit of the readers.

Spoiler

When the Link's Awakening remake was announced for the Switch, I remember audibly scoffing and sighing at all the people who seemed disappointed if not upset with the new artstyle. It wasn't until making this sprite that I could adequetely put into words why I felt that way - because the original game shared that exact same disconnect between the real Link and the Link within the Wind Fish's dream, and that this artstyle wasn't in the slightest bit a diversion from the original game.

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening Opening - YouTube

Printable pictures from Zelda: Link's Awakening DX (Game Boy Color ...

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I feel like a lot of people have forgotten that the Wind Fish's dream is just that - a dream, bound only by the imagination of the dreamer. And once you look at it from that standpoint, every single outlier in the game makes perfect sense, from the chibi artstyle to the talking animals and monsters to the numerous, bizarre and sometimes even incredibly obscure Nintendo cameos. And honestly, I appreciate that Nintendo stuck to their guns with this one and kept all the silly shit in, from holding Marin up like an item to the anthropomorphic goat that shamelessly catfishes the Simcity mayor with a picture of Princess Peach (and reading back, I can't believe that's a sentence I just typed). They honestly could have brought everything under one artstyle and given everyone that same hand drawn, 2D anime look, and dialed back on the wacky references and stuff, but it would have PROFOUNDLY missed the point of the game's narrative in the process.

See, another thing that escaped me when I first played the game as a kid VS when I replayed it on the Switch version, is that the mere act of completing the game is a moral dillemma - because despite it all, your main objective is still to escape back to reality, and the only way to do that is to end the dream. And in doing so, destroying everyone and everything on it. And it says a lot about the player how they choose to interpret this objective, even if there are few interpretations that are truly incorrect. Do you proceed knowing you don't have a choice, and grieve for those that eventually vanish as a result? Do you rid yourself of attachement to the world and its characters, telling yourself that none of them are real? If your victory over evil causes the oblivion of the innocent, are you still a hero? The game WANTS you to question the riteousness of your actions, to test the resolve of the player on a very personal level instead of just their ability to press buttons, and contemplate whether maybe, just maybe, the villains actually have a point, and this shit would absolutely not have worked without the wild disconnect in themes and tones and the sharp mood whiplash it provokes. This isn't strictly sold with the narrative and visuals either - almost right after you're cursed with the knowledge of what defeating the Nightmares will accomplish, the soundtrack dips from goofy orchestrated pipes and at worst a romanticised definition of fear and unease, to what can only be described as an actual god damned funeral dirge.

Zelda games like to treat the Triforce of Courage like it's a birthright, but nothing before or since in the franchise has tested the courage and resolve of the player quite like Link's Awakening has. And it's a narrative focus that, if you ask me, the franchise as a whole really needs to learn more from.

To end this on a high note, I'd like to clear something up to the few of you confused as to why I named Link that in this entry. There's a shop in this game which eventually sells a bow for 980 rupees. The maximum amount you can carry is 999. However, by exploiting the shopkeeper's slow turning circle, you could pick the bow up and just walk right the fuck out of the store with his back turned... which would then punish you by permanently renaming your save file to THIEF. I didn't know a single person who owned the gameboy original and actually bought the bow legit back in the day - it's a cute quirk/easter egg that I always remembered fondly, in a game that was positively flooded with easter eggs and love letters to other games in Nintendo's catalogue, and it seemed wrong to reference this game any other way so I went with it.

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