Sunday, November 11, 2007

Virtual Console Review - November 5

Oops - this week got away from me rather quickly. But, since there's likely no bloody chance in hell I'll find a Nintendo Wii in the coming weeks, I won't have to waste away my spare hours looking for one. Which means more time writing for the blogs, of course.

To help the push for Super Mario Galaxy, Nintendo has released Super Mario Bros 3 this week. That's going to be a big hit on VC any way you look at it. Fortunately, Sega also has an excellent offering this week, courtesy of the fine folks at Treasure. All my favorite Treasure games are now available for download. Well, except for McDonald's Treasureland Adventures. That was a really good game.

What? It was a good game. Seriously. The music is really goofy, and Ronald McDonald's friends all leech off of him. Hey, Ronald, can you spare five bucks? I still can't find work...

Oh, and there's some golf game that I never spent any time playing. Like you'll do better.

Power Golf - Hudson Soft for Turbografx-16 - 5/10

Trying to find a proper balance as a critic remains an ongoing process for me. Some weeks, I'll write a review that's somewhat generous. I'm not out here to hurt anyone's feelings, after all. Then my angry punk side kicks in, and I really wallop the next guilty parties. Then I feel a little sorry - hey, it's not like the people who made those early NES games were bad people. At least they're not advocating torture. So I try to be more understanding the next time.

Which brings us to Power Golf for the Turbografx. The next average game I see is really going to get hit. But, for now, we'll just head back to that old safeguard, the shrug-of-the-shoulders 6/10 rating.

The Turbo was a games console that, for whatever reasons, never came together with good sports titles. The best they ever did was the Power League series of baseball games; the first in the series appeared in the States as World Class Baseball and stunk up the place, but later versions improved dramatically. Even still, it was pretty standard, by-the-book video baseball, which was the best the Turbo could muster. All the other sports were either absent or atrocious.

So I suppose, in that context, that Power Golf really isn't that bad. It could have been worse. It could have been part of the TV Sports franchise - a rather sorry series of sports games that arose around the same time as Electronic Arts took over the racket. Videogame golf is just not one of the better sports. For whatever reasons, game designers could never really master its nuances or style. There were two main schools of video golf. One was the arcade route, which probably started with Golf on the Atari 2600 VCS, continuing through the likes of Nintendo's golf games. Today, that strain is seen through Camelot and Tecmo's series of cutesy golf. The second was the heavier, simulation route. Leaderboard Golf on the home computers became the archetype for this approach. These games are more detailed, more complex, but notably slower and really not much fun for the non-golfer. Links and Tiger Woods are good examples of this.

Hudson't Power Golf fits squarely into the first school of videogame golf. It's a relatively speedy and brisk game of arcade fun. There's catchy music, bright and confident graphics, and matches that just breeze. There certainly isn't much in the way of character or style, which won't make impressions on later generations of gamers. If you get your kicks from Hot Shots Golf - I always liked it when your player could make noises when your friend is trying to swing - then this will feel sterile.

At least the basics are covered. At least you have a playable game that isn't too straining on the eyes or brain. Which means that it's a better choice than the NES golf games. Not that any of those were any good.

I don't think I've ever spent more than a few minutes with Power Golf. I've popped the game on a few times, but it never succeeded in holding my attention or capturing my imagination. There's no hook. It's just, you know, a game of golf. A game of golf reduced to hitting a button at the right time, and hovering over the course from a blimp's perspective. Hmm. Perhaps that's why these games fail to impress me. I never feel like I'm in the game. I feel like I'm watching the satellite images from outer space.

Fortunately, golf games have improved greatly over the years. It's enough to render nearly all the older titles obsolete. There's an arcade golf game on the Neo-Geo called Neo Turf Masters which is absolutely smashing, but beyond that, I could do away with every golf game before the arrival of the Playstation and Saturn. But then I start feeling sorry, and the sympathy kicks in. So I'll walk away with another five points out of ten, and leave to you to choose for yourselves.

Alien Soldier - Treasure for Genesis - 9/10

Alien Soldier was one of the great "lost" Genesis titles, possibly the most famous, and certainly the most sought after by hardcore gamers. The game was released in Japan, but failed to make the jump westward for whatever reason. It is one of only two games Treaure created for the Genesis that never left its shores. For the devoted fans of the great Gunstar Heroes, this was almost scandalous.

Treasure hit the ground running with some of the most inventive and exciting games for Sega's consoles, first with Genesis and then later with Saturn. Gunstar Heroes kicked things off, and it was continued with the likes of Dynamite Headdy, Alien Soldier, Guardian Heroes, Silhouette Mirage, and Radiant Silvergun. Those were their golden years.

The last decade hasn't been kind to Treasure, as their fortunes waned and the studio was forced to churn out commercial tie-ins and reruns of their classic hits. The magic in a bottle had finally run dry.

If you consider yourself a hardcore gamer, Alien Soldier is the perfect game for you. It has been thought of, casually, as a cousin to Gunstar Heroes, with a typically strange lead character who runs and shoots enemies through science-fiction environments. But that's really not where the game is coming from. It's really much closer to the tournament fighters, games like Street Fighter 2 and Virtua Fighter.

This game is composed almost entirely of boss fights. Long, brutal, vicious boss fights. These are battles to the end, one endurance test after another. If you've complained about the simple pattern memorizing that entails most boss battles, well, you've got your wish. Congratulations. You may learn to regret your wish, after you've had a couple teeth knocked out.

Alien Soldier sends you out the door fully armed, with a large collection of weapons that you can choose from. This idea of eschewing power-ups is used again, to great success, in Radiant Silvergun. It was a novel idea at the time; the established cliche of most action games was to begin almost unarmed, and steadily improve your offense with power-ups, scattered about. It's a tired old cliche, a relic from the video arcades which demanded another quarter from poor, luckless kids every 60 seconds.

Treasure trimmed away all that fat, leaving us to get down to business. This is the whole reason we're here - now let's get to the fighting and see who comes out on top. I can't think of another action-shooter-fighting hybrid; it's a testament to the endlessly crazy ideas that flowed from the studio. They understood the essentials of game design, especially arcade-style games, better than almost anyone. Treasure understood things from the fan's point-of-view, because they were fans at heart, too. They were the hardcore kids who blistered their fingers on everything else and still screamed for more. Nobody else could be bothered to challenge the skills of the coin-op veterans, so they went and did it themselves.

Alien Soldier is a tough game. Brutally hard, the ultimate test for the gamers. Because of this, it's doomed forever to the status of cult hit. More casual gamers, even those who enjoy Gunstar Heroes and Dynamite Headdy, are left out in the cold. It's just too much for them. That's not a critique; it's just the way of things.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Wii Fit Screenshots

Nintendo's Wii Fit promises to continue their trent of quirky, non-videogame games and draw in more folks who you'd never expect. Just this week I was told by one spirited Gamestop manager about grandparents hunting for Wii consoles.

But will this prove to be fun for us gamers? Will it strike that perfect chord like Wii Sports, Nintendogs and Brain Age? I have to admit I'm still not sold entirely, but Nintendo has proven themselves by now. They know what they want and they know what they're doing.

NeoGAF has piped in with some new screenshots of the game (we'll just be generous and call it a game). Looks really, really good. If Wii Fit can succeed in getting the lardballs off the couch and exercising, it'll be Nintendo's next big hit. I've no doubt this will prove to be successful in Japan. This is just up their alley, considering current tastes. Americans? Eh, maybe. You need the damn exercise. So cross your fingers and hope this won't cost an arm and a leg.
Some of these events are clearly educational - look, tubby, pushups! Hah hah hah! Oh, wait, I hate 'em, too. Ahem. But some of the events are more clearly game-inspired, like the slalom picture above. I'm reminded of a similar board made for the Atari 2600, which you stood on just as in Wii Fit. You know, the one made by Amiga. Small world, isn't it?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Virtual Console Review - Legend of Kage

The Legend of Kage - Irem for NES - 2/10

I've seen recently that Irem (or whoever still owns this license) is planning to hit us with a Nintnendo DS update to The Legend of Kage. Are they kidding? Is there something wrong with them?

If reputation counts for anything, than I can calmly declare right now that the DS Legend of Kage will royally suck. It will suck eggs, and only sad sacks and escaped mental patients will be dumb enough to be suckered into buying it. The original game is that bad, folks. The stench of the dead permeates everything attached to that name.

There's a reason why Ninja Gaiden was instantly hailed as a masterpiece when it was made in 1989 - it was the first NES ninja game that wasn't a hideous train wreck. Before that, your best option was, what? Kid Nikki, Radical Ninja? Ouch. That's painful.

The Legend of Kage was a lousy arcade game, where it was then ported onto the NES and became a lousy Nintendo game. And it wasn't even a good translation. We're talking levels of cow dung, the way Dante talked about the circles of hell. This game is in a whole new realm of stinky, smelly...ahem. Pardon.

See that screenshot above? Do you think that you'll be one of those ninjas? No. You won't. You'll get to play that dead guy on the ground. You'll be seeing that pose a lot, too. Better get used to it.

Supposedly, you are expected to run along the ground, slashing at ninjas and enemies that run and fall from the sky, without ever having any hope of hitting anything. Then you're also expected to jump three stories high and hit things in the trees. How you can do this remains a mystery, since the hero's movements are so sloppy, and the jumping so bizarre. Most videogames worked out a system for basic physics; things like gravity, how high and how far a character can run and jump and fly. It's fairly consistent, for the most part. Legend of Kage doesn't follow any of that math. In fact, I don't think this game could count past two.

This game is fundamentally broken. What's the point of shovelling this dreck onto the Virtual Console? What's the use? Oh, I know: sucker the dumb and the blind into shelling out cash for an old game in order to sell a new game. I think that's a good marketing strategy, when we're talking about one of the classics like Metroid or Super Mario. But for this bucket of gravy slop? Five bucks? Potential buyers are clearly too stupid to have money. Get yourself another hobby, something safer. Like licking stamps or drinking cough syrup.

Super Mario Galaxy Essay - Next Generation

Next Generation's Tim Rogers has a lengthy and wonderfully readable five-page essay on Super Mario Galaxy, which has just been released in Japan and will be seen here next week. Normally, I don't get into the habit of linking to other reviews, but it's great to read a Mario article that offers more than heaping praise. It's actually literate. Imagine that.

As for myself, I've laid back on playing the game at the game stores. I don't want to spoil more than I already have. Fortunately, I've only really seen the first galaxy cluster, and a couple other worlds. The stingray surfing remains my clear favorite. I'm hoping and praying for more race courses. Hopefully, I'll successfully score a Wii console and Mario Galaxy sometime before the end of the world - which should commence sometime before Bush and Cheney leave office.

Once again, for those who haven't read my earlier - spoiler free! - essay on Galaxy, read up. This is a fantastic videogame. Heck, with one or two exceptions, this is the only videogame at the moment that matters. It's Super Mario Bros 3 all over again, kids.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Virtual Console Review - Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 - Sonic Team and STI - 10/10

(Originally written July 2, 2005)

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is the most successful videogame ever released for the Sega Genesis, and one of the most successful games ever made. I don't think there is another game that is as well-loved or admired in the entire system's library, and chances are if someone you know has only played one game, it's Sonic 2.

The First Four Sonics - they deserved to be titled as a group, like the Four Marx Brothers - revolutionized 16-bit console games, and represented an artistic and commercial triumph for Sega. While it's true that all platform and adventure games owe their existance to Super Mario Brothers, it's Sonic that everyone steals from.

The irreverant lead characters, the loose and jazzy level designs, the bursting speed and energy; they all point back to the hedgehog. I find that a bit odd, since it's well over a decade later and game designers should have the horse sense to come up with some new ideas. But, still, you can't argue with greatness.

I can never make up my mind whether I enjoy this one or Sonic CD more. Most of the time I give the slight edge to Sonic CD, just because it has that mammoth, trippy anime-inspired quality to it. But if I just want a quick rush, I'll go for this one.

Isn't this really the most heated of all the Sonic debates? One game becomes one of the biggest blockbusters of all time, while the other one fades into legend. Rubber Soul or Revolver? Are You Experienced or Axis: Bold As Love?

Why am I always making rock analogies with this series? Sonic the Hedgehog: the world's first videogame rock star.


Here's what I take out of my experience from Sonic 2: speed. It's an absolute rush. Even when I'm playing a quick game, darting around for ten minutes or so, the sheer kinetic energy is gripping. It's all so expressionist, like Jackson Pollack's paintings or Jimi's guitar.

Even if you just play for a moment, you're left with a spark - what a moment! The First Four Sonics just zap out of your fingers.

This game is just bursting at the seams to prove itself. Sonic seems taller, a little leaner, and a lot faster. The worlds are far better suited to his movements, and still invite curiosity; like a child at the playground, you're eager to run back to the beginning of the course for another run, this time to take one of those other paths. Should we barrel through the lower waterfalls, or try to reach those upper islands?

No more standing around, patiently waiting for something to happen. No more getting stuck in traffic like the first time. This entire game is a never-ending collection of roller coasters.
It in the second zone that Sonic vertigo really kicks in. You know these moments. When he starts spinning down a slope, and just flies up, down, back around, through a half loop, and then dropped off three screens away. It's an extended run where you're just carried along, and it's all you can do to hang on.

And when it's all done, you fall into some tube and start off again. What a crazy kick to see the television barely catch up to the action.

This is where the modern, three-dimensional Sonics really fail. The basic camera is overhead, behind the shoulder. Anytime you run through a loop, the camera pans back. It takes you out of the action, and treats you like a distant spectator. I never could explain this change. Did Sonic Team lose its nerve? They already created the perfect three-dimensional Sonic game. It's called Nights: Into Dreams.

Ah, well. Forget it. You can either worry about the present, or kick back for another turn through the Mystic Cave Zone.


Having grown up with Batman and Robin, I've always found it strange how very few games featured a sidekick. The best thing Sonic Team ever did was give Sonic that plucky little fox, Tails. He's a great character, full of spark, unique in his own little way. It's great to see him shadow Sonic everywhere he goes, mimicking every move.

I'm sure some people get annoyed when he causes them to crash and lose precious rings during the spectacular bonus rounds. I'd tell 'em to get over it. It's not every day you get to race through bobsled tubes inspired by Atari's STUN Runner with a blue hedgehog and a twin-tailed fox. If he crashes into a mine, who's fault is it. You're the one holding the controller.

I remember the first time my friends and I played the original Sonic, and discovered the rotating bonus round behind the giant ring. It was a terrific thrill because we had no idea such a thing would ever happen. It just popped up out of nowhere. The Sonic 2 bonus rounds gave me that same feeling. The halfpipe race is more fun than most full games to slither down the pike.

Have you ever noticed that none of the newer Sonic games on today's consoles or Gameboy Advance have decent bonus games like these? What's the story with that? You just want to grab the creative people responsible, and shake them down with a whiffle bat and a fly swatter. What's your deal? Bad toad! Bad toad!


There's something about the bright color tones, and all those quasi-abstract designs, in Sonic 2. It's all drawn with an eye towards early CGI. Cone-shaped pine trees, bushes composed of square blocks, enemy robots made out of spheres and oddly shaped animal heads. Those checkerboard patterns in Emerald Hill and Hill Top contrast perfectly with the smooth curves in Chemical Plant; the forest and swamp approach of Aquatic Ruin, set against the dry industrial angles of Metropols. I still somehow get lost in the middle of Oil Ocean; I'm still convinced there's another hidden cache of rings that I haven't found.

And then there's that whole final act, when Sonic and Tails fly past the turtle air force en route to the Death Egg. The pacing just changes, almost a reprieve before the final two thrilling battles against Mecha Sonic and Robotnik in his enormous Eggman machine. The development team must have been passing around some great drugs.

Coming this summer: Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests at the Sega Technical Institute. Be there or be square, baby. Dreams Come True will bring the tunes, and they do it better than anyone else on the scene.

Am I thinking too hard about a console videogame from 1992? Maybe. But it sure beats reading the paint-by-numbers drivel from any issue of Gamepro or Game Informer. You weren't expecting me to simply hand out gameplay tips?


It's interesting to note that Yuji Naka, the brilliant programmer for Sonic the Hedgehog and one of the game's primary talents, quit Sega after a pay dispute and left for America before his creation became a success. He found a friend named Mark Cerny, who created the brilliant Marble Madness at age seventeen, to work with him in California at Sega Technical Institute. The STI was a training ground for American game designers who were learning from the Japanese.

As it just so happens, the visiting developers from Japan included Hirozaku Yasuhara, Sonic's game planner. With two of the three top minds from Sonic Team in the States, STI was given the honor of creating Sonic the Hedgehog 2, with Naka in charge.

He took the opportunity and ran with it. You can see the skid marks all throughout the game.
What a long, strange trip it's been.

Virtual Console Review - Ninja Gaiden

Ninja Gaiden - Tecmo for NES - 10/10

(Originally written April 28, 2003)

In an age when Sony sells over 100 million Playstations worldwide, and the videogames industry makes more money than Hollywood (a not entirely honest claim), this has become a bona-fide part of the popular culture. But does it have lasting value? Is it a form of entertainment succeeding generations will return to, or is this just an endlessly disposable product, tossed aside when the newest wave of computer hardware hits?

Noticing the decline of Nintendo from the console scene, with its ailing GameCube, reminds me of their glory days. A little over a decade ago, Nintendo held a virtual monopoly on games with its NES. I remember the almost endless stream of great titles to make its way on that console, among them the best action-platform games ever made.

Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden is among my most absolute favorites. The franchise is currently being revived for Microsoft's X-Box, but how many kids with an X-Box have ever seen the original home classic? Considering 2D platform games have been all but abandoned by now, it's no surprise that Ninja Gaiden has hardly aged at all. It was a master of its own domain; almost doggedly so.

Ninja Gaiden was originally an arcade game; a mildly entertaining Double Dragon rip-off from 1988. Like so many other titles, this one was altered somewhat when it came home. The NES made action-adventure games like Super Mario, Mega Man, Contra, and Castlevania more popular than the straight-up arcade conversion. Tecmo also did this with Rygar, changing the linear action of the coin-op for a more expansive adventure game on the Nintendo.

So 1989 rolls around, and Ninja Gaiden reappears in our living rooms as a new beast, something far better. The game, of course, is heavily influenced by Konami's Castlevania, with its action hero running and jumping across streets, forests, hidden castles, and endless ledges with a sword and collection of bonus weapons. The great virtue of the platformer was its speed, its strategic placement of various enemies, its mix of quick reflexes and fast thinking.

Game journalist Bill Kunkel once remarked that the Nintendo era of videogames wasn't as good as the classic era, because these newer games relied on memorizing patterns, instead of the more improvisational nature of Asteroids, Donkey Kong, and Ms. Pac-Man. I understand what he meant, but disagree. A game like Ninja Gaiden is great because of its structure. There's a definite rhythm to a game like this, almost like playing a series of guitar riffs. Slash at a foe, jump the chasm, climb the ladder; run, jump, run, slash, jump, slash, run.

Watch someone's hands as they work the controls; it's all so very musical. The levels are built like complex ant farms, and the great fun comes not from barely limping along, but confidently beating every foe and doing it with grace. The hero of Ninja Gaiden floats like a butterfly and sings like a bee; it really reminds me of playing the guitar.

All platform games have their own certain rhythm. In today's music-rhythm games, players are judged by how closely they follow a set beat and rhythm. The rhythm of a game like Ninja Gaiden is no different, really.

This is a perfect opportunity to highlight something I often miss in these reviews: the music. The NES was home to some of the most memorable videogame tunes, and Ninja Gaiden's mix of fast beats and pseudo-guitar riffing fits the game like a glove. This is one of the two or three best soundtracks of the 8-bit era; even if some of the melodies were stolen (one piece is eerily similar to Holocaust's "The Small Hours").

Of course, Tecmo did more than make an excellent platformer; they also innovated with plot and storyline. Most games in the late '80s had no time for a story beyond "save the girl" or "stop the aliens." Along comes a title that focuses instead on a story with a solid arc. The game opens with a cut-scene, drawn in widescreen, of two ninja facing off in a duel. Both stand, then charge. One dies. Cut then to the son, who discovers his father's last wishes left in a mysterious note. Why did his father die? Who is this man the son must seek? How does this small statue fit in?

This is only the prologue; over the course of the story, viewers are presented with many animated sequences; some short, some long; with twists and turns, long expositions, a few dramatic moments, and at least one genuine surprise near the end that should never be spoiled. Here, in 1989, was the next evolutionary step from simple game to, well, something else. Still very much a videogame, but with story and characters that you care about. You will struggle with the game as you progress - Ninja Gaiden is almost legendary for being challenging (and by that, I mean "hard"), but you will persevere. You just have to see what happens next; and, yes, the payoffs are most definitely there.

Today, it seems every videogame has its own story to tell; perhaps developers are trying too hard to mimic Hollywood at the expense of solid gameplay, and, heck, a decent plot. The key word here is balance. Everybody's still fixated on saving the girl and saving the day.

Whatever you do, don't blame Tecmo. They only laid the groundwork, and for their efforts they found great success. I'll add in here with another heafty endorsement. You can't send in for your hardcore gamer badge until you've played and beaten this game. One of the NES' best.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Virtual Console Review - Devil's Crush

Devil's Crush - Naxat Soft for Turbografx-16 - 10/10

How's this for you? I felt generous enough to take screenshots of the entire playfield of this game. Something like this should be standard for any video pinball game, especially the ones with larger, multi-screen boards.

Devil's Crush is my favorite Turbografx game. It's also somewhere on my short list of all-time favorite videogames. I remember trying it for the first time back around 1991. I owned a Sega Genesis, and this kid at school had a Turbo. We made a temporary arrangement and swapped consoles. My friends and I enjoyed a mix of titles, including Bonk's Adventure, Military Madness, Dragon's Curse, and Alien Crush. The best of them all was Naxat's Devil's Crush.

This was Naxat's second pinball game for the Turbo, the first being Alien Crush. That game was one of the original launch titles from 1989, and was a decent show-off game. It was pretty good fun, even if extended periods of time revealed the gameplay to be shallow. Clearly, Naxat was taking extensive notes for their sequel.

Devil's Crush is the definitive video pinball game. It was light years beyond everything that ever came before, and it proved so overpowering that no one has ever really tried to top it. Really, the only pinball games to appear in the succeeding years were straightforward, more, ahem, "realistic" pinball sims. Sega wisely paid tribute with their excellent Pinball of the Dead on Gameboy Advance, hewing tightly to Naxat's standard from a decade earlier.

Many pinball games tried to incorporate videogame elements, but most of them felt tacked on. Most of them were good, but not really inspired. Something was missing; that spark was lacking. Revenge of the Gator on Gameboy; Dino Land on Genesis; Pinball Quest on NES. These are some good examples, but they were yesterday's games. Devil's Crush was the evolutionary leap, the best fusion of the two entertainment realms.

The idea of taking a large pinball board and littering it with game characters is practically standard today, but here was the first game to ever really do it. I'm amazed that they managed to get it right. Naxat must have playtested until their fingers bled. It's not unlike playing on some old, neglected pinball machine, one that's become overrun by spiders and ants and hoards of creepy, crawly things. What a brilliant notion.

Is there a more stereotypical "heavy metal" videogame than Devil's Crush? I can't think of it. Skulls, monsters, bats, hooded monks, weird frog things. Ronnie James Dio would love this game. I'm pretty sure this is what the world inside his head looks like that. In fact, you may want to find an old vinyl copy of Holy Diver to spin while you're playing. I see vinyl copies of Black Sabbath's Heaven and Hell all over the place for five bucks a pop. You should seriously consider that idea.

But then, I suppose, you'd be forced to turn the music down. So much for that idea. Here is one of the most celebrated game soundtracks of all time. The main board features only one song, a long and mean slice of heavy metal guitar rock heaven. It was the Turbografx's finest hour. Some classic gamers may insist that, nay, this is the greatest game soundtrack ever made. If that were put to me, I don't know where I'd fall down. Really don't. If the Devil's Crush theme isn't number one, it sure as hell deserves to be lurking close.

All of this underscores the basic fact - and this is one of those stupid videogame review cliches that I hate to repeat - that the gameplay trumps everything. This is a masterful game of pinball. The action is fast, the tension is deep, your reflexes are always tested. The board design takes after the more modern pinball games, with multiple goals and objectives. Ironically, this was done in an effort to defend pinball against the onslaught of the video games, which cut deeply into their territory.

In addition to the three-screen table, with its multiple secrets and tasks, there are numerous bonus boards, where you must destroy various foes. This is a continuation from what Naxat did in Alien Crush, only more intense and more challenging. Apparantly, you can actually "defeat" the board and win the game by winning all the bonus rounds, but I've never come any close. The only time I saw this was via cheat code for Technosoft's Genesis version - an excellent translation, by the way, even if I still prefer the original. I'm enough of a fan that I'd gladly pay for that version as well. But Technosoft is one of Virtual Console's greatest holdouts, and that's another story for another day.

Another dim-witted cliche, another truth: every gamer deserves to have Devil's Crush in his or her library. You wanted a novel experience? Desperate for more instant arcade thrills? Try this.

Virtual Console Review - Balloon Fight

Balloon Fight - Nintendo for NES - 5/10

For most of my reviews, I try to remain fair-minded about the scores and my overall opinions. As a general rule, I won't give a score lower than a five out of ten as long as the game demonstrates some basic competence. It may not work for me, or it may just fail to grab my interest, but if the controls work and nothing is clearly broken, then a five should be fair. Anything lower than that is a wreck. "And now people just get uglier/and I have no sense of time" - something along those lines.

From my point of view, I don't consider anything lower than a six to be worth playing. A six is just barely passing, just squeaking on by, like those stoner kids from high school who managed to graduate with nothing higher than a D+. Once you're down into that territory, the D's and F's, it's very touchy-feely, and highly dependent upon circumstances.

Now here's the reason I bring all this up. I pulled out Nintendo's early NES game Balloon Fight with the intention of tearing it to pieces. For me, it's just awful. A supreme waste of precious hours and dollars. I wouldn't be caught dead with it. But then I observed parents and their children crowd around the game stores in my area this past week. Usually this was when I was sneaking in some more Super Mario Galaxy time while waiting for the hourly bus.

I noticed that Mario was proving to be a big draw for the kids, and the poor hapless parents (How can there still be parents in this country who know nothing about video games? This mystery baffles me.) were trying to find something suitable and fun. They were trying, in other words, to avoid the brutality of torture porn like Manhunt 2 and Grand Theft Auto. This is proving a bit of a challenge, since so much of the games industry is catering to adult nerds.

This leaves me feeling a bit more generous. The Nintendo Wii is proving a great success with families of all ages, and I'm sure Mom and Dad are looking for a few games to keep the kids happy, without scarring them emotionally. The less brutality and fascism, the better.

All of which brings me to this early Nintendo game called Balloon Fight. Here's how it works, for all the uninformed parents out there. You control a man who floats around with several balloons. His job is to pop the balloons of his rivals, who all look vaguely like ducks. I can't tell if they're really ducks, or people dressed in really bad duck costumes. But you still have to pop them out of the game, regardless.

The way you do this is by floating higher and higher, by hitting the button - there's only one button in this game - and dropping on the other players. They get knocked out, and you capture the eggs left behind, before they rehatch and return to the game. Once you've knocked out all the ducks, you win the round, and move on to the next board.

It's all sort of colorful and cute, and it's easy to see what's happening. There's a bit of skill required, but nothing that's too difficult. In fact, Mom and Dad, I'll bet even you could fare pretty well. Two people can play at the same time, so perhaps it's time to show Lisa Jr. who's boss. You won't get this chance when they're teenagers, so take advantage of it.

In closing, if this describes you and your family, then I'd recommend Balloon Fight. There's no reason you have to pay $50 on a new game, when all these perfectly good games are just lying around for pennies on the dollar. They were good enough in my day, dagnabbit, and that's what made me the rugged success I am today. We also had to walk uphill to school everyday, in three feet of snow. Builds character. Be sure to use this when needed.

-------------------------(dramatic pause)

Okay, now here's the Balloon Fight review for the rest of us. The gamers, the grownups, the Gen X'ers. The Adults Who Should Know Better.

Balloon Fight sucks.

And what games suck the most? The ones that shamelessly rip off classic videogames, without even trying to be original. Hey, Nintendo! We kids from the '80s already played this game to death! It's called Joust! We played it in the arcades, on Atari 2600, 5200, and 7800, on the home computers, on the Lynx....where else have I seen that game? Oh, yes - the NES! Joust was released on the Nintendo, you jerks!

I'll take any version of Joust over Balloon Fight. Even the Atari 2600 version, which was surprisingly solid. Why should I settle for the weird, kiddie version? Did it really need to be dumbed down? Is that way the player-character wears a crash helmet? Because he might hurt his head on the balloons? Gee, why not include those arm-floaters in case he falls into the water?

Ugh. As I've often complained, most of the early NES titles were bloody awful. At least, to its credit, Balloon Fight is playable. It's competent, barely. Thank heavens Nintendo was too late to cash in on the Pac-Man craze. They'd have handed us a maze game where everybody gives out hugs.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Virtual Console Review - October 29

Short update for the blog: I've considered making a change to the VC review format. For the current week's releases, I'll still try to publish a single post. For the older reviews - say, the games from July 16 - I think I'll just post an essay on the single games. As I've often written, I actually sit down and play through the games I write about; sometimes only enough to jog my memories and see if old opinions are still valid, and sometimes because I'm playing a game for the first time. So I'll be posting on games whenever I best can manage.

Oh, and be sure to play outdoors, kids. Try and appreciate this weather before Mother Nature starts seriously smacking us around. Here, I'm wearing shorts. In November. In Minnesota.

The Virtual Console games for October 29 all fit into the Halloween theme - Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest (NES); Samurai Ghost (TG-16); and Magician Lord (Neo-Geo). There were rumors that Lucasarts' Zombies Ate My Neighbors would be released this week, but that hasn't happened. I'd expect to see it in the near future (and it's a really fun game, btw). Overall impressions? Another mixed week. One great game out of three for me. Let's look on...

Samurai Ghost - Hudson for Turbografx-16 - 4/10

Yuck. Ugh. Do you know that feeling you have when you wake up in the morning, that stale, swampy feeling in your mouth? Eww. That's the one. You can either get it by poor eating habits, drinking yourself stupid, or playing this dumb game. Choose your poison.

There's a reason why the Turbografx failed to gain any traction in the West, despite a hardware console that was comparable to Sega's Genesis. Too many of the games stunk. A few gems, yes. An undiscovered classic here and there, of course. But most of the games in the library were stinkers.

Samurai Ghost is one example of those sort of games that tried to sit on the cutting edge of graphics, only to be upended before the ink was dry. It appeared first as an arcade title, where I'm sure a few kids and teenagers were successfully conned out of their lunch money. At least in the arcades, you could play something that offered bigger, brighter, and more varied graphics than in the home. Was there much depth to most of these coin-op games? Not much. The only real purpose is to take away your quarters at a steady clip, all while offering just enough entertainment value to justify another play.

The video games in the home, naturally, were aimed at different goals. The focus there was on long-term gameplay, a more thourough experience. More depth. The Legend of Zelda, for instance, would never work in a video arcade. That's the archetype for the home consoles.

Samurai Ghost firmly fits into the first category. It's a very basic side-scrolling platformer, where you control some sort of samurai zombie, or something. I really don't know who or what he's supposed to be. Is he dead? Living? Did he time-travel from the past? Or did he just come from the poor neighborhoods? Hard to tell. In any case, this character sure don't look good.

Like a lot of the more mediocre arcade and Turbo games from this period, the game itself is embarassingly basic. You really just walk along a straight path, left to right. There might be some jumping on floating platforms here and there, but for the most part you're taking a stroll. The complex, complicated level designs from the late-era NES hits, classics like Super Mario Bros 3, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania 3, the Mega Man games, and so on, are far superior to something like this. Those games had to rely upon more challenging ideas to keep kids from drifting away, moving up the ladder to those exciting, new 16-bit machines. The old Nintendo was showing its age, but it had experience, and this was the key.

Too many early 16-bit games felt more like technology experiments than proper games. How large should character sprites be? How should levels be designed? How are background graphics handled? Should new controller or gameplay ideas be introduced? There are no schools to learn any of this. It's all touchy-feely, learned on the spot, evolving in the brush. The end result is that you get stuck with a sloppy clunker like Samurai Ghost, while all the other kids are barreling through Ninja Gaiden 2. Don't you feel like a chump.

Now here's the real issue with this game, and it's probably going to be the one thing it's remembered for. The samurai...ghost...zombie...heck, what should we call this guy? Let's call him Doug. When Doug swings that big-ass sword he carries, his arms move in this strange, disjointed fashion. It's very creepy and strange, and not in that Halloween way. And it's not very effective.

There a normal way a game character throws a sword. Then there's this method, where the limbs are completely disjointed from each other, that make you think Doug has broken all the bones in both his arms. How else to explain this? I can't imagine any kid showing this game off to his friends without feeling embarrassed. High school's tough enough as it is. He doesn't need to be piled on.

So Doug can't move a sword without looking weird. The problem, also, is that it's very slow, not very good at hitting anything. What's the point to this? What are you supposed to do against some skeleton warrior with his own sword? Take your licks, that's what. Just mash buttons and hope Doug gets his act together. Can't he just head-butt his foes instead? He's wearing that stupid pointy hat, fer crying out loud.

Magician Lord - ADK for Neo-Geo - 4/10

Ah, Magician Lord. Here's another example of the early show-me-off-to-your-friends kind of game. It was the early visual standout for the Neo-Geo, both as an arcade game and as a rediculously expensive home game. Fantastic use of colors, vibrant and bold, striking across the whole palette - this is a terrific plate of eye candy, and time hasn't taken any of that away. Yes, Magician Lord looks amazing. Too bad you'll never get to see any of it.

Everything I ever wrote about Hudson's Samurai Ghost on the Turbo can be applied here. Actually, you'll want to add in a regular series of stomach punches, as some kid bigger than you demands that you cough up your lunch money. Yeah, you might as well just count that money as a loss right now. It's gone.

Remember, again, folks, the first rule of all coin-operated games. Take your spare change every 60 seconds. That is their reason for being, and that's all. Video arcades never held any phony pretenses of artistic greatness, or communicating great thoughts, or touching the human spirit like movies or music of books. All such platitudes were complete and total bullshit. This isn't about art. It's about money. Yours.

Many of the best video arcades empowered you enough to learn, and eventually you could play Pac-Man and Asteroids and Afterburner forever on a single quarter. This made the arcade operators raving fits, of course. It's all fun on our end of the deal, but where the hell is the damn money? Every skilled gamer is stealing from the arcades that are trying to steal from the rookie gamers, you see.

So you can appreciate why a game like Magician Lord comes along. It's the perfect money maker. It looks terrific, and presents a colorful fantasy world of trees and aliens and wizards and ninjas. It suckers the kids in, even the experts who can beat anything for under a buck. Then it clonks them over the head with a mallet and runs off with the cash. Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

It's one thing to say that Magician Lord is very hard. It's quite another to say it's damned impossible. It's yet another to say the gameplay is completely, utterly broken, and there's no way in hell you'll last longer than a minute before your game is over. And it's all deliberate. These software designers know better. They've made some good games over the years (ADK is best known for the World Heroes series of fighters). So why is this game so completely impossible? Why can' t you get more than ten steps without being overwhelmed at all sides? Why do the boss battles place you in suicide scenarios, where you cannot ever win without popping in more and more credits?

It's all a scam, people. A damned money-making scam. All that's needed are some political candidates and an informercial at 3:00 a.m.

Now here's where things get really interesting for Nintendo Wii owners. While the arcade game is built around unlimited continues (as long as you lay your money down), Virtual Console only offers a limited number of continues for Neo-Geo games. This really wasn't an issue for the fighters, in my opinion. It's a deal-breaker here. What this means is that you'll be shelling out far more than you'll ever get back in return. Most of this game will forever remain a mystery to you. And there's nothing you get to do about it.

I keep telling myself that Neo-Geo is a good platform. There have been many good games made for it. I'm wondering just when we'll be seeing some of 'em.

Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest - Konami for NES - 10/10
Hooray! Everybody has a number of classic games that they wait eagerly for. They buy themselves a couple Wii Classic Controllers just for the occasion. Well, folks, here's mine.

A little backstory for everyone first. As a teenager, Castlevania was my favorite videogame series. This was sometimes contested by Super Mario and Contra and Ninja Gaiden, but it always came back to this. It was also a favorite with many of my oldest friends from Duluth, Minnesota. If you were sick of the winter weather that day - and, kids, this was back in the day when we actually had winters...back when we had polar ice caps - just turn on the Nintendo, then turn it off, then turn it on and off again, then pull out the cartridge and blow on the ends, then pop it back in, turn it on....and start playing.

Um, yeah, by the way? If you ever find the person who actually designed the NES, please punch him in the stomach for me. Anyway, let's get back...

Castlevania! It's part gothic, part monster movie, part serious, part jokey, and all hardcore gamer fun. These were the tough games, the ones you blistered your fingers trying to beat. Just how are you supposed to get through all those armored knights? Slash, slash, jump, that's how. You have to be fast, too. This becomes something of a bonding experience for everyone involved. Many grownups assumed that one person is playing, and all the friends are merely watching, but that's not the case. We're all in this together. Castlevania's the prime example in my case.

Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest was my favorite NES game. It still is. Played it to death through high school, at least until we all got to that point where were were all hopelessly stuck. This is a fiendishly tough game. Like many Nintendo games of its day, it's more of an adventure quest than an arcade game. Blaster Master, Rygar, Zelda, Guardian Legend - just a few titles off the top of my head. The NES couldn't compete on the graphics front, so developers resorted to deep, lengthy adventures instead. It was the smarter choice, I think. This is why I often lament the poor choice in Virtual Console titles for the NES. Some of its best games have never been bettered, because technology enabled software makers to take a simpler route.
I've discovered over the years that Simon's Quest has a mixed reputation because of this. Many gamers prefer the straighforward action of the original Castlevania, and they felt Konami strayed from their roots. As it turns out, everyone has it completely backward. The long-running series began, not with Castlevania (or Demon Castle Dracula, as it's known in Japan), but as Vampire Killer on the MSX computer. The game was an adventure game, using single screens instead of a scrolling environment. The settings were identical to the first Castlevania, only with different arrangements and a more adventure-minded style.

There's actually a bit of dispute about this, since Vampire Killer and the Castlevania we all know both appeared within weeks of each other. You could say that this was the stripped-down version, created due to the MSX's scrolling limitations. However, Symphony of the Night challenges all that. Now, the Castlevania series follows in the mold of MSX Vampire Killer and NES Simon's Quest.

In any case, it's far easier to appreciate Simon's Quest today, after all the post-Symphony titles in the series. I can't imagine what any fan would find wanting. There's just as much to fight and just as many enemies to kill. Only now you're fighting through the forests and villages of Transylvania, and stuggling to figure out where all those other castles are hiding.

For me, this was the greatest thing about Simon's Quest - it's atmosphere. There's such a wonderful Bavarian style to these lands, to the designs of the towns, the way everything is build with those damn stone blocks. It was the most compelling and believable game world I had seen up to that point. People walking by are always eager to offer advice or hints; I was floored when I discovered that most of what these people have to say is, frankly, bullshit. Ahem.

This is a great sendup of all those adventure and role-playing games in which every civilian has some key piece of information that's useful only to you, and only at that moment. It's all so contrived. Konami clearly felt so, and they decided to mess with our heads. This is a great game for messing with heads. You can explore most of the countryside, find such things as flames for your morning star, or secret books, or crystal balls. But you'll be damned if you can ever get beyond that first castle. Dracula's first castle is a gimmie, it's right out on the main road. The others are deftly hidden away. It took me and my peer group years to finally figure it out.

Sure, you boast that you won't get stumped. Then again, you can just go online and look at the solutions at gamefaqs. Heck, most major games have cheat books that walk you by the hand all the way through. You have an easy out. Kind of defeats the whole point of playing an adventure game, I would argue. We didn't have those options in the late '80s. The solution to discovering Dracula's second castle relied upon a gameplay maneuver that wasn't even revealed in the instruction book. You were just expected to solve it yourself. You kids today are coddled.

If you can somehow withhold the temptation to reach for those easy cheats, you'll really see how challenging and mysterious Simon's Quest truly is. Like most adventure games, and most riddles, it loses a degree of mystique once the secret is revealed, so it's far more rewarding to struggle and sweat it out by yourselves. I don't even want you reading the Simon's Quest strategy guide I wrote for the first issue of V, my old zine. No! Bad toad! Bad toad!

Like all the classic Castlevanias (meaning, frankly, all the ones before Symphony), this game is deeply challenging without ever feeling unfair. You're never placed into an impossible situation, nor left underpowered against foes. It's a brilliant example of game design from the NES era, just as it's a perfect example of Konami's skill. This series may have long since lost its lustre, but back then, the NES days? Konami were the kings back then, baby. They were the kings.

Okay, Childress Can Stay Another Week

Huh. Shows how much I know about this sport. I hurled out the previous post just after that failed field goal that was run 109 yards for a touchdown, just before halftime. I expected yet another lethargic performance by the Vikes in the second half.

Well, well, well. Minnesota pulled in a fantastic third quarter. It was everything we've been hoping and screaming for all year long. It's their best half of football this season, easily. I hold no illusions about a Vikings Super Bowl - that will be whoever wins the inevitable Patriots-Colts rematch at the AFC Championship game - but I am hoping for an honorable finish. At least 8-8 would do, and a 9-7 record would be smashing.

But, still, don't get your hopes up too quickly. We face the Packers in Green Bay next week, and Favre is having his great Renaissance. The schedule only gets tougher from there.

So, yeah, Childress can stay for another week. But this week's game had better not have been a lucky fluke. I'm putting my money on that cardboard cutout of Bud Grant. But that's just me.

Fire This Coach Now!!

That's it. I've finally walked out on a Minnesota Vikings game. I've had it. This coach stinks. Can we have him replaced as soon as possible, please?!

Seriously, Brad Childress is a lousy coach. Fire his sorry hide. Hell, I'll bet a cardboard cutout of Bud Grant would do better than this sorry pack of "coaches."