Monday, July 30, 2007

Vinyl Face-Off - Black Sabbath Paranoid

Alright, folks, I'm now officially at that point where I'm becoming picky about my vinyl purchases. It's fine to grab some old records for a buck or two, but sooner or later, you're going to want some quality, heavy vinyl. This is where reissues come in.

Currently, for whatever reasons, I'm on another one of my intermittent Black Sabbath kicks. I'm really not a heavy metal fan - the proper response would be, "ugh" - but Sabbath became the gold standard for every underground guitar band of my generation, including hardcore punk, thrash, and Seattle grunge. That's where my experience comes from. So let's take a look at Sabbath's signature album, their second - Paranoid.

I first bought this album on CD, then upgraded to an old '70s Warner Bros record, one with the palm trees. The vinyl, was, as you would expect, a dramatic improvement over the CD, but the record itself was extremely lightweight. Very light and flappy, and standard for a lot of '70s albums. This means you can't ever play loud, which pretty much defeats the whole point of listening to Sabbath. So I decided to get one of the current reissues from the Uptown Cheapo.

The Contenders - Earmark, NEMS, Rhino

Earmark is the most easily available records around here, and I suspect it's the same wherever you live. The label is Italian, a joint venture between Get Back Records and Sanctuary. All of the '70s Sabbath albums are available, and come in a variety of weights, from standard vinyl to 180 gram. I've bought a few Earmarks, including Vol. 4, Sabotage, and Never Say Die.

NEMS is a UK label founded in 1976 and only ran until 1983. They were beset with troubled finances and collapsed, despite the advantage of having the Sabbath catalog and some other bands. I think Sanctuary eventually got the rights and the name, but I could be mistaken. For one thing, they continue to issue vinyl under the NEMS label, instead of Earmark. For another, the vinyl on both labels are very different. NEMS is still available on shelves with the gold "180 Gram" sticker.

Finally, Rhino. Rhino is one of the better record labels for music fans, especially for vinyl junkies. They reissued Paranoid, with the Warner label, which is currently their only Sabbath release. There remains some hope that the other albums will be reissued at some future point. Paranoid is also issued on 180 g vinyl.

1) Album Packaging

Earmark - In the interest in fairness, I haven't purchased the Paranoid album on the Earmark label, but I have several others, so I can vouch for the packaging. This is one of Earmark's strengths. Gatefold packaging is included, and the vinyl is clear white. The paper has that glossy waxy quality, which I really don't like too much, due to fingerprint smudging. But this sort of thing is pretty common these days. Finally, the record comes wrapped in a plastic bag, instead of the standard paper.

NEMS - This is the one area where NEMS loses out. The album cover is not a gatefold. Just a standard record cover. I'm one of those who tends to prefer the gatefold album covers, provided that the band actually earns it. It's a declaration of quality - hey, kids, this album is a notch above the rest. Simply Vinyl's Nevermind, for example, doesn't have a gatefold. That's just scandalous. If any album has earned its gatefold, it's Saint Cobain's Nevermind.

Anyway, all a matter of preference. The NEMS cover has the glossy finish, which I've mentioned earlier. A sturdy paper sleeve is included, which is nice.

Rhino - Now this is the best of the bunch. The packaging is with the Warner Bros label, the colors are bright and vibrant, and the gatefold is included. The paper is sturdy, heavy, and, most importantly, not coated in wax. It's nice and dry. Best of all is the paper insert which holds the record. It's padded. Great job.

Winner: Rhino

2) Analog or Digital

Earmark - Now this is the real make-or-break issue for audiophiles, and it should be a deal-breaker for you, no matter how new you are to collecting vinyl. Analog is the original sound of the music, the original sound that appeared on those old records. Digital is what you hear on Compact Disc or your iPod. It's not a recording of the original sound waves, but a computer sampling of those sound waves. It's a simulation of sound.

Why is this important? Digital sampling loses much of that original sound wave. That means a lot of the music is lost. You're getting less music, smaller music. Vinyl records have a much wider, deeper sound than CD's, and the analog recording and mastering is the key to vinyl's celebrated "warmth."

Now for the bad news. The Earmark albums are digital. As I understand it, all of their albums are taken from digital masters, mastered and pressed by GZ Vinyl in the Czech Republic. This plant, according to the Steve Hoffman forums, usually master from manufactured CD's, and cannot even cut records in analog.

The really bad news? Earmark has reissues of Motorhead's albums in addition to Sabbath. Boo! Do you have any idea how hard it's been to find old Motorhead records? Sorry, Earmark, you're out.

NEMS - All the NEMS records are from 1976, so obviously everything is analog. I would assume, also, that their masters are based on the original UK Vertigo masters. The Vertigo records are hailed as the gold standard by Sabbath fans, and routinely sell for high prices on eBay. Then again, the issue of Black Sabbath and record labels and who owned what is a nightmare. That was one of the things that finally destroyed them in the late '70s.

Rhino - Rhino's Paranoid reissue is based on a US tape copy, which is analog. For Sabbath fans, it's important to know that all the records and CD's are ultimately taken from two original lines - Vertigo in the UK, and Warner Bros in the US. Warners are considered to be a step below Vertigo, and Paranoid in particular has a couple problems, which we'll look into. But, for now, Rhino is analog, and gets a pass.

Loser: Earmark

3) Sound Quality

Earmark - Again, I haven't sat down with the Earmark version of Paranoid, but I do have three other albums. I've discovered there is a certain level of consistency with their releases, so the sound quality is the same level throughout. Unfortunately, as we've learned, Earmark is digital. This becomes apparent when listening, and I've found Earmark to be the weakest of any bunch.

In my experience, Earmark records sound bright and crisp, but perhaps too harsh and loud. It's like the contrast on a photo has been turned up. The various sounds don't integrate too well, and this is a calling card of digital music. Analog music will be far more subtle, and the various instruments will mesh together perfectly. Earmark's Vol. 4, for example, is far weaker than NEMS' Vol. 4.

NEMS - This is where the NEMS really wins out. It's fantastic in every way. This was the third Paranoid I purchased, after the old '70s WB and the Rhino reissue. I wasn't sure what to expect, or if it could top the Rhino version, but it does. It's close, but I think this version is slightly better. Everything is just silky smooth.

The volumes on everything are just right. You can crank the noise up and blast your eardrums and your speakers, but the sound isn't needlessly loud or sparkly. It's integrated, subtle. Paranoid is possibly the best sounding of all the Sabbath albums, since they're still a young band, and the songs have a live, jazzy feel. They haven't become drugged-out rock stars obsessed with studio perfection yet. This means you really get to hear all the instruments perfectly and appreciate the masterful musicianship.

Rhino - Ah, this is a close one. I loved the Rhino version when I took it home. It really is a step above those flimsy old '70s records. This record is LOUD. The bass and drums just kick you in the gut, and it's a terrific rush. However...(long pause), I've found the little flaws and weakness continue to grate on me as time wore on. Let me explain.

The Rhino Paranoid is based on a US tape copy, which means that certain flaws that were always present on the original WB records are present here. For Paranoid that means some odd volume drops on the first side, particularly with War Pigs and Iron Man. Just great - the two best songs on the album. The volume is strangely quiet for the first three minutes of War Pigs, and then you can hear the volume being cranked up, where it remains for most of the album. It's really strange, and it's one of those things that just grows into manias in my mind. Iron Man, I think, also has some volume flux in the beginning, for some weird reason.

This brings me to the second big issue - the vinyl itself. It's loud. It's really loud and scratchy. I'm surprised, frankly. Perhaps I've just become spoiled by The White Stripes' Icky Thump, which is probably the best-sounding vinyl record of all time. But then the NEMS vinyl shatters this myth. That record is perfectly quiet, wonderfully so, while Rhino's vinyl sounds like static. That can be a problem for an album like Paranoid, which relies upon loud and quiet segments to play against one another.

Finally, the matter of the bass and drums. The rhythm section has been boosted a bit for this record, and it's really a matter of preference. For me, it was a thrill upon first listen, but NEMS is so perfectly integrated, that I've come to prefer that version. Again, it's a personal choice for you, and not something that would make or break.

Winner: NEMS

Final Choice - Which is the Best Paranoid?


I'd say this is a close choice, but I find myself happier with it as time goes on. The only real knock against NEMS, I suppose, would be that it's not gatefold. Big freakin' deal. It's the best-sounding of them all. Heck, the NEMS version of Vol. 4 is equally masterful, so they really knew their game. I really wish I could find other Sabbath albums on their roster. This is the purchase I'd recommend. You'll end up paying $10-15, a great bargain. Maybe I should get a backup copy for when this one wears out.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Rock is Dead - Long Live Rock 'N Roll

I found a pair of interesting articles this weekend on the subject of today's music industry. It's no secret that the pop music world as we know it has been steadily collapsing, as the rise of digital downloads and iPods coincide with the death of the CD. As a lifelong music lover - and someone who plays guitar just enough to harbor rock star fantasies - this is a genuine concern for me.

First up is this cover story for the UK's Prospect magazine. It points out that while CD sales have collapsed across the board, demand for concert performances has never been higher. In the past, artists would take a loss on their tours, in hopes of making it up on album sales. Today, it's the opposite.

Prince - isn't it great to see him at the top of the game again? - literally gave away copies of his last CD at his concerts. More and more musicians are offering free downloads or streaming, if only for a short time. And I've noticed that many who are issuing vinyl releases are including free digital downloads.

And it's not just the advent of downloading and piracy. I think the internet's emergence as a cultural force, through spam portals like MySpace, YouTube, weblogs, virtual communities, have given artists a greater power than ever before. Clearly, we're at the point where you don't even need the major labels. Not that you ever did, really. They used their power greedily, and their cruelty and theft of their musicians is legendary. Now they're finally getting their karmic justice.

Why even bother going with some label that will steal your work, and all the money, and leave you holding the bill? What's the sense of going horribly into debt for the sake of some rock star fantasy, one that the suits will never allow you? Heck, we're a generation removed from the punk revolution, and it's DIY aesthetic. Ani Difranco - one of my musical heroes - is a famous example of running your own label, controlling your own career, and making a living at it.

So what's the story about the death of the CD, and recorded music's lost value in the consumers' eye? For that, I'd turn to this article in the Washington Post from Monday the 16th. It seems that while current releases continue to flounder and sputter, the market for catalog releases remains strong. The list of best-sellers from past decades reads like, well, everybody's favorite music - Beatles, Zeppelin, Floyd, Jimi, Marley. And this has extended to my generation's music, too.

Did you know that AC/DC's Back in Black sold 440,000 copies last year? Do you realize that trounces most of the junk that's passing for new music? Hah! I see vinyl copies all over the place, and all I'm thinking to myself is, "Why don't I have this one yet?"

Metallica's Black Album? 275,000 copies sold last year. That just blows my mind. That album was on the Billboard charts for five years, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. Heck, I went through four of five CDs myself. Hmm. Actually, that's another key reason why I've moved to vinyl. Those seemingly indestructible CDs were flimsier than paper.

Tragically, Guns 'N Roses' Appetite for Destruction continues to sell, hitting 113,000 last year. And Axl lost his mind and scuttled that band for....why, again? That remains one of the great rock 'n roll mysteries of my lifetime. Heck, just go out and see Velvet Revolver to make up for it. I was always more of a Slash fan, anyway.

A lot of newer music is continuing to sell, including Saint Cobain, Radiohead, Beck, The Pixies, Weezer, The Clash, yadda yadda. You know the drill. Just look at your own music playlists. Look at your own ever-growing vinyl collections.

So what does this say to me about the state of pop music in 2007? Only what I've already experienced on my own. I still love music, more than ever, actually. My appetite for new sounds and new experiences - rooted in my freshman year in the St. Scholastica dorms - hasn't waned one bit. I can't speak for the majority of my stuffy, repressed, ever-fattening peers who are rotting away in the burbs, but I'm still squarely in the Age of Discovery. And I don't intend for that to end.

But when it comes to new music, I've almost completely tuned out. I have no interest in it. The problem isn't downloading, it isn't Apple, it isn't MySpace, and it isn't my portable turntable. No, kids, the problem is very simple. Today's music is shit.

Pop Quiz - what's the best band or musician to emerge from this decade? Anyone? Anyone? If you mention "American Idol," I'm gonna hit you. If you answered "The White Stripes," you'd be correct. That's it, really. Where's the Pearl Jam, the Soundgarden, the Radiohead, of this decade? Where's Saint Cobain when we need him?!

I'll put White Stripes on that list, and I really can't think of anyone else who's, well, talented. Anyone who can play a damned instrument. Anyone who can sing. Anyone who actually knows their roots, and actually has a plan for moving forward. I think Icky Thump is the best album of the year, and it also happens to be a thousand times better on a vinyl record than on CD. Imagine that. Now there's the other music trend to deal with.

Will album sales ever recover? Can any one musician or band capture the entire nation's attention, like Elvis or The Beatles? And would vinyl records ever really break out in popularity, or is this just another one of those fads we'll lose interest in? I hope not. This whole decade has been a disaster. It's the Age of Bush and Cheney. Doesn't that just send a chill up your spine?

So I really don't have any answers for the death of popular music. Other than, of course, that we need Music That Doesn't Suck Ass. Is that too much to ask for? Turn off the damned Disney Channel and pick up an instrument. I'll lend you my Black Sabbath vinyl.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Virtual Console Releases - July 9

Virtual Console game releases for the second week in July. Yuck. Or snooze. Take your pick.

Really. That's about all there is to say, right? One game that's fairly good, provided you haven't yet burned out on shoot-em-ups, and two clunkers that have no right being here at all. Strangely, Nintendo hasn't had a really bad VC week in a long while. Well, kids, we're having one right now. Why don't you just save your money this time; better yet, send me some. Go buy one of those books I keep threatening to complete and publish. Just think - you could be spending ten or twenty bucks to read this very rant, instead of getting it online for free. What better bargain is there?

M.A.C.H. Rider - Nintendo for NES - 4/10

Well, at least my scheme is a better deal for you than this stinker. What is the deal with Nintendo? Why the bloody hell do they continue to dump, one after another, all of the earliest NES titles? Most of these games are among the worst in the console's library. What's the deal? They only have 800 or so titles to choose from, and they keep sticking it to us. What did we do? I thought we were the new fans responsible for making Nintendo cool again...


MACH Rider seems to be a pretty obscure game. There was never any mention of it during the NES era that I can recall, either from friends or the vaunted prozines. This may have given the game an air of mystery, and a faint hope that it's a lost treasure. Don't bet on it, kids.

What we have here is a fairly basic racing game loaded with obstacles and guns. It may have seemed a novel enough idea in 1985, when it was made, but we already have a classic videogame working this angle. It's called Roadblasters, and it's one of the best arcade driving games of the 1980's. MACH Rider is no Roadblasters.

Don't let the temptation of a track editor hook you in. What this game boils down to is a series of twists and turns. You turn left. You turn right. Sometimes you drive straight. That's pretty much it. Not a lot of nuance or variety. I think the shooting angle was the main focus, as the track is overly cluttered with obstacles and other drivers, most of whom have no problems with smacking you from behind without warning. That's a nice touch. I really liked that one.


The best thing you can say about this game is that it's competent. You can actually steer your bike, and your bullets are large enough to easily hit anything. But that's barely enough to be entertaining, and certainly nowhere near the sophistication and skill Roadblasters offers. Now there is a great game. There were versions released on NES and Genesis, so there's a chance it could be released on VC at a future date. I'd say take that chance and wait. Either that or find another hobby. Do anything instead of shelling out five bucks for this lump.

Yoshi - Nintendo for NES - 4/10

I don't know if this game is worse than MACH Rider, or equally mediocre and pointless. I think it may be slightly worse because of the name. This was the first game to cash in on the Yoshi character, who was introduced in Super Mario World. In fact, that should be the name of this game - "Cash-In" - because that's all it is.

Yoshi is one of the million or so tumbling pit puzzlers you've seen crawl by in the past 15 or 20 years. Using Mario (see, if they called the game, "Mario," at least it would have been honest), you swich places on two columns, moving about four rows in all. Puzzle pieces fall, two by two, and they are eliminated by stacking two of the same kind, vertically. Nope, no horizontal matches. No diagonals, either. No combos, then, I suppose. All of which pretty much defeats the fun of a game like this, reducing it to a level of simplicity that insults toddlers.

And what's with that green checkerboard background? My eyes! The goggles do nothing!

Heck, when I was five, I was playing with little colored building blocks that were more sophisticated than this. Five years old. I'm serious when I say your toddler will be bored by this game.

The hook to Yoshi are the eggs, which drop in halves. You drop a top half onto a bottom half, and it hatches a new Yoshi, who seems pretty bored, if the title screen is to be believed. The one benefit is that any pieces caught in the middle are popped out for bonus points. So that's kinda nice. Sorta.

Did I mention my old blocks had letters, numbers, and patterns on them? You could make an alphabet tower, or a number house, or just go for texture. Oh, and they opened up, too, so you could put things in 'em. I miss those blocks.

So, anyway, the Yoshi puzzle game. Doesn't really have anything to do with Yoshi, apart from his face in a couple spots. The whole thing looks like it was slapped together in one afternoon. If you pay money for this game, you are officially too stupid to have money. You must immediately send the remainder of your funds to me. Or Santa Claus will beat you up. Or somethin'.

Air Zonk - Hudson for Turbografx - 6/10

Finally, something that's decent, or at least better. Hudson releases its third Bonk game for the Turbografx, the fourth in the series overall. This is a goofy anime-styled shooter instead of an action platformer. There's really not much else to say about it. It's Bonk, except he looks like an anime punk robot. He shoots other anime cartoon characters. And a lot of stuff blows up.

This game was considered a favorite for fans of the series, but that's probably due more to the fact that this poor console never had any series at all, than any overall quality. This is just about the point where shmup fatigue kicks in. About every third game in the PC Engine/Turbo library is a shmup. At some point, you're just going to have to pick a few favorites and leave it at that. There are only so many single-file patterns of spaceships you can shoot at.

Or, in this case, single-file chicken robots.

Air Zonk is really more novelty value than anything. It's goofy fun, but not really. You understand? Probably not. Not that it matters. Even if you've become a dedicated Turbo fan thanks to Virtual Console, you already have three or four shooters in your collection. At this point, you're pretty much filled up. There's no reason to shell out more money for yet another one, unless it's exceptionally good. Air Zonk may have its charms, but it is not exceptionally good.

This is probably a game that should have been released earlier, but I still don't think that would have affected my personal feelings. I'd still be waiting for the better ones. Heck, I'm still waiting for Devil's Crush, my favorite Turbo game of all. I understand it's set for release this month. Save your cash, kids. The real prize is on the way.

Damn. This was a lousy week. That sucks. Good job, losers.

Afterword: Okay, looking at the screenshots, I will say this in Air Zonk's favor - it does look nice. At least in still shots. The art direction is very nice. Too bad I still get a sinking feeling in my gut when I think about having to play it. Kinda like that feeling you get when you've had too much coffee, and you're still drowsy. I really should be sleeping this off.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Ballblazer - Atari 800 Video

Here's a cool video of Lucasfilm Games' Ballblazer. It's the Atari computer version, complete with loading screens, which were really cool at the time. A relatively short match ensues. Enjoy.

Videogame Classics - Montezuma's Revenge

Montezuma's Revenge
Created by some 16-year-old Kid for Atari 800

Montezuma's Revenge, one of the great milestones in platforming adventure games. It's striking to me that even in a post-Mario world, this is still a great game. I remember the first time it ran on my grandfather's Atari 800 computer, when that great title screen appeared and the music played. My only exposure to videogames at that point was Atari 2600. This was a revelation; something new and grand and exciting. Imagine playing E.T. on your Atari, telling yourself it's really not that bad...and then looking at this.

This game was always a favorite among Atari computer owners. It basically took the original premise of Pitfall and ran with it. You play as Panama Joe, running through an Aztec pyramid in search of treasure and adventure. The single-screen structure was standard for the era, but the game was loaded with elements of arcade action and puzzle strategy. There are rolling skulls to tend with, as well as bats, snakes, and the occasional disappearing platform.

Montezuma's Revenge is an exquisitely animated computer game, especially for 1983. Hell, it's better than most console platformers for many years. And maybe I was just corrupted by too many Road Runner cartoons, but I loved the death animations, especially the long drops. Land on your head, and poor Panama Joe lies crushed, with a twitching leg. Fall into a fire pit - poof! Away in a puff of smoke. I'd think anyone who would undertake a retro remake would want to study their Wile E. Coyote death scenes and incorporate them into the game.

There's a bit of mystery as to the origins of this game, especially the original 1983 Atari 800 version. For one thing, it appeared to be unfinished. Once you traveled deep into the heart of the pyramid, you encounter a boss screen - one of gaming's first. The boss is old Montezuma himself, as a two-floor giant who stomps his foot around, trying to knock you into the fire.

The problem? Nothing happens here. Clearly, this was meant to be some sort of climax, but whatever was planned was never completed. This became a mystery amongst Atarians for many years.

Thank goodness for the internet. With a little sleuthing, we can determine the answer. Montezuma's Revenge was created by 17-year-old Robert Jaeger, an impressively skilled computer game designer. He and his father took out a booth at the Consumer Electronics Show to show off his latest creation. This quickly led to talks with Parker Brothers, who were interested in releasing the game. They quickly bought the rights and set quickly to release Montezuma on the Atari 5200.

The problem was that Montezuma was a 48k - yes, that's right, kids, 48 kilobytes - and it needed to be squeezed onto a 16k cart. So many things were trimmed or cut out altogether. Things like animations and the score screen that appears when you gain or lose a life. The title screen itself was scrapped, some graphics were removed, and the game was completed with a set level structure. Now, there would be a definite finish to each pyramid, which leads to a coin-filled bonus room (obviously predicting Super Mario Bros) and then the next level. Later pyramids would be larger, and incorporate more screens in complete darkness.

Oh, and they changed Panama Joe's hat. No idea why. The old hat was much better.

The 16k version of Montezuma's Revenge was released on Atari 5200 in 1984 to great acclaim, and was quickly ported to as many formats as possible. There was even a 2600 version, which always seemed a little pointless to me. I knew a couple kids who had that version of the game, and, well, I always felt a little sorry for them. They never knew what they were missing.

As to the original 48k Montezuma, it was never officially released. I suppose it was just leaked out and spread the old-fashioned way. By making illegal digital copies and sharing them with your friends.

To be completely fair, I always liked Parker Bros version. It was a little quicker, a little looser, and there was actually an ending to the damned thing. But so many of those great little touches were missing. Strangely enough, it always believed this was an unfinished demo, perhaps a sequel. In terms of its presentation, it was always a step below Jaeger's original.

Montezuma's Revenge has even been ported to the Gameboy Color and Sega Master System, but to be perfectly honest, I never thought they were any good. The gameplay and swiftness - heck, the spirit of the game itself - was never there. The SMS version, especially, tried to give the graphics an updated, grittier look, something more akin to Indiana Jones than Aztec Mario. It was a hideous decision.

It's enough to make you want to track Mr. Jaeger and have him finish his old game. I think the Atari 800 would make an excellent candidate for the Virtual Arcade, don't you agree? Both versions - Parker Bros' official release, and the Atari 800 original - are wonderfully playable action games, and could find a new generation of fans today.

The screenshots from the original 48k Montezuma's Revenge are on the top. Here below are screenshots from the 16k Parker Bros version, released on Atari 5200. Like many 5200 games, it found its way onto Atari computers; file-shared, of course.

Computer Chronicles TV Show From 1984

Here's a great little find, courtesy of YouTube and a kind soul who's been holding onto his videotapes for a generation. It's a television show about computers, Computer Chronicles. This particular show was broadcast in 1984, and focuses on the cutting edge of computer games. Well, cutting edge for 1984.

Guests for the show include Chris Crawford (Atari), showing off his new simulation, Excalibur; Steve Kitchen (Activision), showing off his Atari 2600 version of Space Shuttle; Bill Budge (EA), bragging about Pinball Construction Set; and EA founder Trip Hawkins talking about the state of computer games, while playing a quick match of Dr. J Versus Larry Bird One on One.

It's a great time capsule of the era, at a time when videogames had been in the public's eye for a number of years, and the advancement of technology allowed designers to stretch their wings creatively. This was an era of rampant copying (you couldn't throw a rock without hitting a Pac-Man ripoff), but it was also a great age of discovery. The possibilities of computer and video games were limited only by designers' imaginations.

It's interesting to observe the guests, some of the great minds of the early videogame era, speak about their craft not as programmers or carnival barkers, but as artists and storytellers. They saw computer games as a means to share the vast palette of life with people. They saw the opportunity to educate, and perhaps even raise questions. Chris Crawford has always been speaking from that particular angle, and the fact that the gaming industry did not evolve in his direction is a loss for the form.

This was a time when game creators saw themselves as artists. Who can you say about that today? Sure, there are a few visionaries, but they're a very tiny minority. The bulk of the games today are produced by worker bees, packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes. Technology has soared beyond anyone's imaginations, game budgets rival Hollywood movies, and yet the creativity just isn't there. Another First-Person Shooter. Another 3D over-the-shoulder adventure. Another anime RPG. Another movie tie-in. Another Madden.

One hopes that Nintendo's continued success will lead to a creative rebirth in games, with new and more original ideas, and game concepts that are entirely new. One also hopes that services like Wii Channel and XBox Love Arcade will lead to a renaissance in independent games, the kind of garage hits that built this massive industry in the first place. Heck, I'd still rather play Doom than the latest...well, whatever the hell it is that I'm supposed to pay five hundred bucks for a console for.

Perhaps old television shows like this should be required viewing for game publishers and software studios, if just so folks can remember just where their roots lie.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

I Do All My Own Screenshots

With a few exceptions here and there, of course. Just so you know.

And why do I always go the extra mile, spending precious hours when I could just take something from the web? 'Cause I care, that's why. Do videogame magazines and websites even take their own pictures anymore? Or is everything handed out in the official press releases?

Videogame Classics - My All-Time Top Ten

Okay, let's just be honest and say this is my personal Top 10 for the week. There are just too many good games to stack them all down into a permanent "Top 10." Besides, I've found over the years that the same titles become solidified in these lists, which kinda defeats any sense of surprise or discovery, and thus any real sense of fun.

I'd much prefer the ongoing Top 100 Games discussion on the Yak's Message Boards to the newest issue of Edge Magazine. For one thing, you're getting a much wider variety of games, with all the personal memories attached to them. And then there's the UK angle, which is where Yak's site hails from. I almost feel guilty for not loving Sensible Soccer and Elite as much as these guys.

Anyway, here's the current version of my Videogame Top 10. In no particular order, of course.

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - Nintendo - 1998

I wonder when the inevitable Zelda 64 backlash will kick in? This game has topped lists for so long that it's almost reflexive. But I have to be honest with myself - here was the best, most immersive 3D gaming experience I've ever had, and likely ever will have.

Super Mario 64 - Nintendo - 1996

The archetypal 3D polygon virtual world. I don't know how it would be accepted by a kid playing for the first time today, in 2007, but in 1996 Mario 64 really was the most mind-expanding game experience ever. It's just so imaginative, playful, free.

Super Mario World - Nintendo - 1991

My favorite game from the traditional Marios, although I do understand if you prefer Super Mario Bros 3. This one is just a bit bigger, a bit wider, and a bit weirder. Okay, a lot weirder. But it's the pinnacle of 2D platforming game design and a heckuva lot of fun.

Street Fighter 2 Champion Edition - Capcom - 1992

Didn't I just write about this, like, two days ago? Probably why this game is now on my list. We can argue over whether Alpha 3 is better than Third Strike, but the original SF2 started this whole mess, and CE pretty much perfected it. Who's up for a match?

Nights Into Dreams - Sonic Team - 1996

Still the best "3D Sonic" game ever created. Blindingly fast, a perfect blend of 3D and 2D, and loaded with so many subtle details that take forever to uncover. Of all the classic games that deserved to be copied, cloned, and ripped off...

Saturn Bomberman - Hudson - 1997

It's Saturn Bomberman, what more do you want? Play as all the Hudson characters, including a couple hidden characters (I like the bear best). 8 players in standard more, 10 in hi-res mode. And the "weather" code which opens up 36 battle arenas? Get out the shot glasses!

Tempest 2000 - Jeff "Yak" Minter - 1994

What can I say about T2K? How much praise can I lay at Yak's feet? The Atari Jaguar was a hunk of junk, and yet it's revered for this one game. It's this perfect intersection of classic arcades, intense action, retro nostalgia, and global rave culture.

Pac-Man - Namco - 1980

Usually, I would prefer Ms. Pac-Man, but lately I've found myself playing more and more of the original Pac, and it's quite a feat for a single-screen videogame to hold your interest for so many years. How many other '80s pop stars can you say that about? Hail to the king, baby.

Tetris - Alexy Pajitnov - 1985

What planet have you been living on? Oww, I'm still getting Tetris blocks in my dreams? How did that happen? And how do I make it stop?! And why, for the love of Elvis, have there been so few great puzzle games? Gimmie my Gameboy Tetris over anything else.

MULE - Ozark Softscape - 1983

Arguably the finest multiplayer video game ever made. I say that because it's the one game you can play with your grandparents. Quick reflexes aren't necessary, only quick wits. And this is a battle of the minds like no other. Or maybe it's a great love-in. Whatever works for you.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

A New PC Version of Mr. Robot?

How's this for a streak of luck?! I think God is cashing in some of my good karma chips tonight.

Just after publishing the last post, I checked on Google for more sites that mentioned the Atari 800 computer classic, Mr. Robot. I quickly discovered this indie game from Moonpod games - called Mr. Robot. The same as the Atari and Apple classic, I ask with baited breath?

Well, not quite. As far as I can tell, this isn't directly related in any way to the old game. Moonpod's Mr. Robot seems to be more inspired by Isaac Asimov's robots, and the game appears to be much more puzzle-oriented. Still, this looks terrific, like something that would have been perfectly at home on Sega Dreamcast. Have I mentioned lately that I still miss my Dreamcast? Sigh.

Anyway, Mr. Robot was released early this year and has won many accolades. It appears to strike a blow for the indie game scene, which is in a stronger position than ever.

Be sure to download the demo and give it a try, and think seriously about buying the full version. I'm looking forward to giving the new Mr. Robot a try. A great game is a great game. Didn't I already say that once before? Please don't let that become my cliched catch-phrase.

Mr. Robot page on Moonpod website

Videogame Classics - Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory (Atari 800)

Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory
Datamost for Atari 800

Wow, how did I forget about this one? Now here is a real classic, one of my favorite games for a very long time. It's a Datamost game for Atari 800 called Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory. Yes, I know, game titles were pretty lame back then. Always something with the word, "space," "robot," or "attack." What was the deal with that, anyway? You know what's a good title? "Blonde on Blonde." "Exile on Main St."

Anyway, Mr. Robot was one of the endless ripoff games that appeared in the early '80s. It's basically a Donkey Kong platformer, but with Pac-Man dots scattered throughout the stages. Okay, it's a shameless ripoff of Miner 2049'er, which was an enormous hit. Don't know why I forgot about that.

Whatever. Forget all that. Mr. Robot was way cooler than Bounty Bob. Who wants to be a grizzly old prospector instead of a robot? Seriously. The old man can't even handle his liquor - one touch of the martini kills him. Thanks for the preachy moral lesson, daddy. I'm going to the bar to drink it off.

Mr. Robot appealed to me for two main reasons. Okay, one. The vibrant and colorful graphics were always a real draw, but they were just the setup, the icing on the cake. No, the real hook for this game was the edit mode, where you could create your own game boards, 26 in all.

Imagine being a kid in the early '80s, and you suddenly find a computer game that lets you build your own Donkey Kong boards. How cool is that? Only the coolest thing ever, that's what. The game offers a solid variety of environments and gadgets, from ladders and slides to trampolines and conveyor belts. Firery enemies always got in the way, which is why you had to be wise with those power pellets lying about.

For those wanting their arcade fix, Mr. Robot was where it was at. This was one of those games you pulled out to wow those who were finally getting burned out on Atari and Intellivision, and maybe even that one lucky kid whose parents bought him a Colecovision. Lucky kid. Never got to show him this game, but no doubt he'd have been royally impressed.

And have I mentioned the level designer? How cool is that? There seemed to be a whole mountain of computer games that let you create. What ever happened to those? It was never a fixture on the cartridge consoles, for obvious reasons. The idea of designing your own videogame boards seems unthinkable today. Something very special about computer games has been lost in the intervening years.

Just try and tell me that this game wouldn't be awesome on Nintendo DS. Update the graphics, but keep that crazy color scheme, and let everyone save and upload their own boards. There really needs to be more user-generated content in games, even if only limited to the long forgotten classics. A great game is a great game. And anyone can cook!

Sorry, couldn't resist. It's a great movie, who can blame me?

PS - Can you believe it? There's a gameplay video on YouTube! What a world.

More Pinball Construction Set Goodness

Here are a couple pics I found online while researching around with Google. They're both custom-made pinball tables from the Apple II version of Pinball Construction Set. Yeah, the all-green graphics suck eggs. No, that really was the best computer monitors could do circa 1983. Not exactly the iPhone of its day.

Anyway, here are a couple examples of what you could do with the game. Pretty impressive stuff. Now just imagine all this...with colors! Ha ha ha. Poor Apple II. Commodore 64 and Atari 800XL were far better game machines.

Powershot Pinball Constructor - DS

Here's an upcoming game that has real potential to become Nintendo DS' latest sleeper hit - Powershot Pinball Constructor. The game is being developed by Oxygen Games from across the pond, and is currently scheduled for an August release.

This is one of those games that will really turn the heads of the older classic gamers. Why is that, you ask? Well, simply, because - as the title implies - you get to design your own pinball tables, and then share them online with other players. Other than that, I really have no idea how the game itself plays. The screenshots look very nice, I'll give it that. Not that any of that really matters, right? The whole point is that you can design and trade your own pinball tables.

Too young to understand any of this? Well, kids, it all comes down to an old computer game from 1983, one that was just about the coolest thing ever. A little thrill ride from Electronic Arts known as Bill Budge's Pinball Construction Set.

Pinball Construction Set delivered just that - the ability to design and create your own pinball tables, which could then be saved to disk and swapped with friends. And played, of course - that is, when you weren't too busy trying to build the ultimate pinball game. There was a tremendous amount of freedom at your disposal. With a little ingenuity, you could create almost anything. Virtually every aspect of pinball was at your fingertips. You could do anything you wanted, provided you had the skills and patience.

Remember, kids, this was 1983. Most kids still had an Atari 2600 hooked up to their televisions. Computer games like Pinball Construction Set were light years away from anything on those consoles. It was more than a generational leap. It felt more like two or three generational leaps.

Pinball Construction Set was the first of the "construction" style of games, where you essentially create your own gaming remix. It was a fairly radical idea at the time, and became a great success across a number of computer platforms. Oh, and the box was killer, too. Very much in the album cover style, in keeping with Electronic Arts early rebel phase. That's another thing that was very different back in ye olden days, kids. EA was really super cool back then. Hard to imagine, eh?

So you can imagine the nostalgic pull that kicks in when a DS title like Powershot Pinball Constructor is announced. It has a lot to live up to. Let's cross our fingers and pray that Oxygen Games gets it right. Please please please please please.

Virtual Console Releases - June 25

Moving into the Way-Back Machine, let's travel all the way back to June 25, 2007. A magical time, an exciting, heck, you know better. It sucked. This week is better, right? Whatever. I'm going to be catching up on Virtual Console reviews by moving backward week to week, until I'm done. Fortunately, this is one of the better weeks.

As an aside, I'm planning on publishing a book version of Videogames of the Damned. It's really just the blog entries in book form. I'm still mulling over whether or not I should include the VC reviews, or if that should belong in its own book. For now, though, I'd rather bound everything together in one volume, and just publish new volumes on a regular basis. Every year, for example. The floor's open for suggestions.

Anyway, let's get to the Virtual Console!

Street Fighter 2 Turbo - Capcom for Super NES - 10/10

Small surprise here. Thankfully Capcom waited six months after releasing the first Street Fighter 2 last Christmas. We all knew this was coming, anyway, so the more savvy among us could just wait it out for the better version.

I recently read that Street Fighter 2 on the Super NES was Capcom's best-selling game of all time, over six million. That would include, at the time, just about every Super NES owner, and a whole lot of new fans, eager just to play SF2. SF2 Turbo was released a year later, and brought home the latest coin-op versions, Champion Edition and Turbo Champion Edition. Likewise, this was a great success, though clearly not as big as the original.

The first three variations on SF2 are now all considered one game, since the later sequels and spin-offs made so many changes as to be unrecognizable. As for me, I hold Champion Edition as the best of the entire series. It's as balanced and nuanced as the game gets, and after that, things just get out of control. Capcom falls victim to its chronic sequel-itis, and the need to always tinker with formulas to keep the kids coming back.

Whatever. Here is the best home version you're likely to ever see on the Virtual Console. Alpha 3 and Third Strike won't be arriving, not now, not later. Again, whatever. This game is so perfectly playable that I can't imagine anyone really minding. Well, until I get that RAM cart for my Sega Saturn, that is.

If you bought the first SF2 last Christmas, you're likely wondering if you should pay again for the new cart. The answer is yes. There are quite a lot of graphics changes, especially in the character designs, which are older, sleeker, and slightly more brutish-looking. Background stages are the same, apart from some color changes (day to night).

Most importantly, there are a number of changes to your moves and attacks. Chun-Li gets a few crucial kicks, Honda and Zangief can move during their blitz attacks, and Ken has been turned from a Ryu clone to a crazed berzerker. Can you say, "Triple Dragon Punch?" Oh, and by the way, you can now play as the boss characters, which at the time was a really big deal.

I come back to a lot of older games as nostalgia, or a quick fix. Street Fighter 2 is one of the true greats, one that you can jump right back into no matter how much time as passed. And CE/Turbo perfected the formula that spawned a thousand imitators, none of which could really match that original thrill. The best fighting games of later years evolved in new, different directions. Heck, Virtua Fighter is practically a martial arts sport now, than a humble videogame.

I played SF2 Turbo on my Z-SNES emulator, just so I could grab some screenshots. I end up playing for a couple hours, running through every fighter, kicking ass, chewing bubblegum. In the end, I had to pry my hands away with a crowbar. Frankly, I'm surprised I'm here writing this, instead of playing another couple rounds. Just one more fight, that's all I ask...famous last words.

China Warrior - Hudson for Turbografx - 1/10

It's no surprise that Hudson Soft is in charge of releasing the PC Engine/Turbografx library to the Virtual Console. They were responsible for the lion's share of the console's games. And a lot of them were really very good. China Warrior is one of the worst. Actually, no, scratch that. It is the worst. This might be the worst game ever released on the Turbo.

Let's see...thinking...trying to conjure up worse games than China Warrior...

Nothing. Yep, it's official. This one's the worst.

Here's what the game is. Remember the Irem arcade hit Kung-Fu Master? Well, this is Hudson's attempt to follow that game. So, instead of featuring Jacky Chan, they'll use Bruce Lee. And instead of small character sprites, enormous characters that fill over half the screen. Then hurl lots of small targets at poor Bruce, like knives and rocks and small birds. And then, just so nobody is confused, they send wave after wave of the same monk guy! Only one guy!

And, finally, as the final straw, make the frame rate really jumpy and patchy, so it looks like you're skipping along instead of actually, well, walking. Gee, thanks.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to move away from tiny little objects when you fill up half the entire screen?! How is that supposed to be fun? How about, oh, I dunno...let me fight some real people instead of cooking ware and bats!!!

Did I mention those monk guys? They don't actually do anything. They just walk up to you so they can get hit. I dunno. Maybe they want autographs.

The only interesting moments are the boss fights, when you actually square off against another enormously large fighter. If you're too young to remember fighting games before Street Fighter 2? Well, let's just say you're going to learn just why there were never any good ones. Except for International Karate, of course. Did you know you can actually get that game on the Gameboy Advance? Really. Dropzone, too. GBA is a real Archer Maclean love-fest.

Hold it! No more changing the conversations.

So...there's this game called China Warrior. It was one of the very first PC Engine games and was later ported as one of the first Turbografx games. It's hideous. You'll probably prefer to stick your head in a toilet after an evening of booze and chips. Actually, that sounds much better than playing this game. Especially the toilet part.

F-Zero X - Nintendo for Nintendo 64 - 10/10

Finally this evening, just to show you that I'm not sadistic, here's another great game. Another fun game. Another game that you'd prefer to that toilet thing.

If I owned a Nintendo Wii - and that's assuming I could actually find one, and that's assuming Nintendo isn't really creating shortages to pump up demand - I'd get F-Zero X. That would probably be one of my first purchases, in fact. I say this as someone who has a large collection of emulators on his computer, including Project 64.

I'd much rather play this game on a large television, with three others, racing away. For one thing, the emulator's still a bit stiff and glitchy on this game. It's always been a slightly compromised experience. This is a console game, and it really deserves to be plugged into a tv set. Preferably a large widescreen.

F-Zero was one of the standouts on Super NES, and one of the best racing games of its time. The only real weakness was that it was single-player. Technology of the time never allowed for good multiplayer racing - unless you wanted to settle for Atari 2600 graphics. Nintendo's sequel changed all that. Oh, boy, did it change. Four players, split-screen, and blazing speed at 60fps.

And the track design! Good heavens, here is a model for designing insane racetracks. Racing games during the 32/64-bit era were more inventive by and large, at least the best ones were, thanks to the hardware limitations that forced designers to create better racetracks. Wipeout was a model for excellence. So was Sega Rally. F-Zero X is another.

You'll find yourself hurled in all directions, up, down, left, right, curves, loops, tubes. I've had quite a few times when I was racing and simply didn't know which direction was up. Where the heck is the ground?! Ahhhh! Oh, yeah, there it is. Boom!!

Expect that to happen to you every now and then. Nothing personal. Happens to everyone.

F-Zero x includes a large cast of characters, and you'll get to drive all the vehicles. 30, was it? Quite a lot. There's also a lot of racetracks along the various competitions, as well as a secret cup, which features randomly-generated tracks. Oh, and have I mentioned that you can ram into other vehicles, destroying them or knocking them off the track? Oh, yes, you will be spending a lot of time playing this. A lot of time.

The one sacrifice made in F-Zero was the graphics, which were toned down in favor of the high framerate. At the time, remember, 60fps was a rarity in console games, and unheard of for multiplayer. Heck, Sega Saturn's hi-res mode still amazes today. Still, I never really understood the conventional wisdom that Nintendo scaled back the graphics in their N64 racer. For me, it was a retro style, a throwback to the classic arcades. The game is packed with color and texture, anyways, so I really don't know what the fuss was ever about. I don't think this will be an issue in the 21st Century.

The only problem with a game like F-Zero X is that it shames the Wii library with its mediocrity. Where are all the killer racing games, folks? Maybe Nintendo is using the Wii shortage as an excuse to spend more time on its games. But, still. I can't think of anything in the pike that could take the racing crown from F-Zero X. Can't think of any games on any console, frankly.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Virtual Console Releases - July 2

I tell myself to sit down and actually write one of these damned things. Perhaps it would be better if I just slapped something cliched together in ten minutes, just like all the other sites and blogs do. But, oh, no - I have to actually spend time playing through every one of these games. That can be a pain if, say, you're dealing with a really long game, one that requires a good deal of time to progress through. Sometimes a good videogame only reveals itself after a period of time, not immediately.

Oh, and if the game really, really stinks? Yuck. Still gotta play through, take screenshots, yadda yadda. Ugh. Really, though, the bulk of games are neither great nor terrible, just deeply mediocre. I think that's the real turn-off for me. Life's too short to deal with mediocrity. Heck, I'm supposed to be playing outside instead of writing about videogames! Put down the controller, kids! Go play outside! Don't make me pull out the fuses from the fuse box!

Anyway, here are the VC games for the week of July 2.

Super Mario Bros. 2 - Nintendo for NES - 6/10

Bleh. Bleh? Yes, that's right. Bleh.

This is the weakest of all the Super Mario games. We can agree on this, yes? And yet, it keeps reappearing again and again. Why is this? It's no mystery to anyone that this game isn't even a proper Mario game at all, but a Famicom disk game called Doki Doki Panic, with the Mario characters cut and pasted.

This was a fun game in 1988, and ovbiously was a great success, coming as the "official" sequel to the immensely popular Super Mario Bros. I remember Andy Eddy giving it glowing marks in an early issue of Video Games & Computer Entertainment, and it's always stayed with me. We all respected Nintendo for giving us a sequel that was very, very different from the original. Yes, sequel clones were as much a problem then as now, but occasionally you'd see titles that veered off into new directions. Not very often, but it did happen.

And I should say, in all fairness, that Super Mario 2 played perfectly. The choice of four different characters, each with their own style, was a novel choice at the time. The environments were brighter, more Arabian, a good deal of clever enemies that dottered the landscape. Pulling vegetables out of the ground, instead of pounding blocks, was great fun. And the POW block made a welcome return from the original Mario Bros.

Super Mario 2 has the one quality that really does make it a classic, and it's this - the very best ending in all the Mario games. Ever. The entire game is revealed to be one long, lucid dream in Mario's head.

So why do I share so little affection for the game now? It couldn't be its uniqueness, could it? Every other Mario game follows the same formula, pretty much. It couldn't be that it wasn't a true Shigeru Miyamoto Mario game, either. That was common knowledge in the late '80s. So what's the deal? Why is this game such a crushing bore? I think I have an idea.

No secrets.

There really aren't any secrets in the game, certainly not to the insane degree of the original Super Mario. And that's really what Mario is all about, isn't he? He's the guy who wanders off and always finds a new surprise around the corner. There's always that sense of wonder, of mystery. You really don't know just what will happen next.

Super Mario 2 doesn't really have any of that. It's a solid, challenging platformer. The chemist beaker can open up secret doors to a shadow side of the screen, but there's never anything to be found, beyond a couple coins and maybe a mushroom, if you need it. Oh, and there are a couple warp points, which can get you to the end pretty quickly. But what else is there?

Perhaps I'm just being greedy. A solid, challenging platformer should be enough for most anyone to be satisfied. But...dammit, this is a Mario game. And it's sandwiched between two platforming masterpieces on the NES. I think I expect something better when that guy is on the box. It's like seeing Kurosawa or Orson Welles' name on a movie poster. You're expecting a certain level of quality for a reason.

I can see that Nintendo is being thourough, having released Super Mario 1, Super Mario World, and Super Mario 64. I would have expected them to release this game after all the others were out. We're still waiting for the inevitable Virtual Console release of Super Mario 3 and Yoshi's Island. Get me out of the hot tub when those arrive. You can keep your damned onions.

Dragon Spirit - Namco for Turbografx - 7/10

The Turbografx-16 continues to solidify its comeback with another quality VC release. Kudos to Hudson for quickly and efficiently plundering the library from this great, lamented game console. Here is another - yet another - good shoot-em-up, this time Namco's arcade title, Dragon Spirit.

The novel approach of Dragon Spirit is that, instead of the usual alien space ships, you control a three-headed dragon, flying through various environments that strike me as a weird balance between the Jurassic Age and Tolkien. This is the one shooter you play while jamming to your old Ronnie James Dio albums.

Dragon Spirit did fairly well in the arcades, and the Turbo version is very solid. It a much better conversion than the NES version, which was frankly terrible. There were about ten million shooters released on this humble console, if you haven't already guessed. By the year 2007, it's something you just have to make your peace with.

Apart from the atmosphere, what else can I say? It's standard shooter fare from the late '80s, trolling patterns of enemies, power-up icons, monsters on the ground that echo back to Xevious (I'm still waiting for the PC Engine version). The turbo switches on the joypad make this game far easier than it ever deserved to be, but, hey, it's your choice. If you want to build up those forearm muscles, you'll have to play the old-fashioned way.

Dragon Spirit was slightly dismissed by most critics at the time, but I'm giving it a 7 out of 10, just to be generous. TG16 fans will want to add this to their collection.

Ecco 2: The Tides of Time - Novotrade for Genesis - 7/10

An odd mystery for me. I was a great fan of Ecco the Dolphin back in 1992. Even managed to write a published review for Electronic Games, which was a tremendous thrill for me. Here was a treasured favorite for the Genesis. And yet the sequel completely evades me. I don't think I hardly ever spent time on this.

I've never really explained it. Most likely it's because Ecco was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things. It was thrilling, compelling, and very, very challenging. And once I'd finally reached the end, I put the controller down once and for all. It's one of those experiences you cherish, but don't hope to reenact.

Truth is, Ecco was damned hard. Finishing the game was an act of supreme stubbornness, a willful match of man and machine, to see who blinks. I wouldn't let that damned game machine get the better of me. Also, my girlfriend was somewhat impressed. She liked the dolphin, even if she couldn't get very far. Nobody could.

Sega tried to turn Ecco into a marquee star, with one official sequel, The Tides of Time, and one hideous cash-in for the kiddies called Ecco Jr. that we'll never mention again. There was also a tech demo for a promised 32X version, and then finally a Dreamcast remake many years later. None of those later efforts captured the imagination like the original.

So perhaps I'm just laying out my excuses for not actually sitting down and playing Ecco 2. I probably should at some point. To its credit, it appears that Novotrade pushed out even more colorful, detailed graphics from the Genesis. It truly does rank among the console's finest. And it clearly is meant to be a continuation of the original, a game for the fans. That means, predictably, that it's brutishly difficult, yet oddly compelling.

If there is one thing I genuinely cannot stand about Ecco 2, it's this - the 3D levels. At the very beginning, you're required to travel through a 3D stage en route to the next level, in a behind-the-dolphin view. You must swim through a long series of blue hoops, both underwater and in the air. It is terrible. Remember the bonus stage from Tempest 2000? At least The Yak didn't shut the game down if you couldn't get to the end of those stages. Novotrade actually expects you to finish theirs, and the Genesis wasn't exactly built for 3D scrolling. Now that I think of it, maybe this is the reason I stopped playing.

Just do yourself a favor and get the passwords from, and skip those damn hoop stages. I'm docking the score accordingly - and let that be a lesson to every one of you.

Interesting that this game is released the same week as Super Mario Bros 2. Both games represent opposite paths for game sequels - more of the same, versus something entirely different. You could make those choices in those days, when making a game didn't cost you and a roomful of shareholders $20 million.

So, anyway, let me tell you what you likely already know. If you enjoyed the first Ecco, you'll probably enjoy this one. If you're looking for only one, and must choose....I'd stay with the original. And if the whole action-puzzle dolphin thing never appealed to you, well. You just wasted all this time reading. Sucks to be you.