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Retro Review Showdown !!


PUYO PUYO

Released: 1991

Genre: Puzzle

Format reviewed: MSX I/II

Publisher: Compile

Developer: Compile

Popping bubbles is fun. It’s fun when you have a sheet of used bubble wrap to play with, it’s fun in the park when you’re a little bit tipsy, and it’s fun in videogame form in Puyo Puyo. This MSX game is the very first entry in the long-running series, released in 1991 as a spin-off from the Madou Monogatari series of RPGs. Though Puyo Puyo didn’t become a world-famous name at the time of its release in the early Nineties, you probably played a localised conversion like Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine or Kirby’s Avalanche.

The gameplay is simple: blobs (Puyos) of various colours float down the screen in pairs, and you stack them up. When four of the same colour are connected, they pop, allowing any above them to fall down. This allows for the key mechanic of Puyo Puyo, chaining. Carefully arranged stacks of Puyos can be set off in a chain reaction, with one set of four starting a massive wave of popping.

Single-player modes consist of the classic Endless mode, in which your Puyos fall at ever-increasing speeds, and a mission mode in which you’re given tasks such as popping ten Puyos at once or eliminating all the Puyos of a certain colour. For two players, there’s a versus mode in which chains generate garbage to send to your opponent. However, there’s no offset rule allowing you to deal with garbage before it drops, meaning a five chain is sufficient to best any opponent.

Take a look to appreciate the history, then move on to a newer version with improved rules and more features.

 

Released: 1992

Genre: Platformer

Format reviewed: Game Boy

Publisher: Nintendo

Developer: HAL Laboratory

You don’t always get things exactly right on your first attempt, and neither do videogames developers – even the very best can miss out something that will come to define the series down the line. You couldn’t perform combos in the original Street Fighter, Sonic didn’t learn the spin dash until the sequel, and Kirby couldn’t copy any abilities until Kirby’s Adventure. That last point is a bit problematic, though.

I’ve always accepted Kirby’s constant inhalation of enemies as a means of drawing some form of sustenance – after all, something is clearly happening in there when Kirby copies abilities. But when this aspect of the character is removed, suddenly there’s no advantage in simply digesting enemies, and it’s better to spit them out. Are we to believe that none of the creatures in Dream Land actually have nutritional value? This seemingly happy platform game suddenly becomes a lot less jolly when you consider that Kirby’s clearly rampant hunger might never be adequately satisfied.

I appreciate that this might sound a little far-fetched, but just look at the game’s cover art – our hero is white as a sheet, a far cry from the vibrant pink hue that we’re used to. Clearly Kirby has got some health problems that need to be addressed. Seriously, knowing that your protagonist is barely keeping the Grim Reaper at bay is extremely disconcerting, and we’re surprised Nintendo would make a game this dark.

Then again, I could just be reading too much into some early instalment weirdness…

TOBAL 2

Released: 1997

Genre: Beat-'em-up

Format reviewed: PlayStation

Publisher: Squaresoft

Developer: Dream Factory

Let’s be honest with ourselves: a lot of early 3D games don’t look great today. Thanks to their blocky textures, low-resolution images and stilted animation, games of the mid-to-late Nineties can be excruciating to view without rose-tinted goggles. One game that fared better than most in this regard is Tobal 2.

Unlike the original game Tobal No. 1, which came out worldwide, Tobal 2 was a Japan-only affair. However, in most other ways it was a lot like its predecessor. Tobal 2 features a unique grapple system that gives players the flexibility to move, throw and strike their foes. The characteristic Quest Mode that placated Squaresoft fans hoping for an RPG returned too, as did the eccentric character designs by famed Dragon Ball Z/Chrono Trigger artist Akira Toriyama.

However, the reason it looks so good today is because Dream Factory favoured performance – rather than going for fully textured characters, the developer chose gouraud shaded polygons with simple ground textures. This enabled a high resolution, 60fps image that showed off the awesome animation of the game and still looks great today. Better yet, the fighting engine at the heart of all of this is very worthwhile, as the game was directed by 3D fighting game pioneer Seiichi Ishii, director of Virtua Fighter, Tekken and Tekken 2.

So don’t fear a second look at this lesser-known gem. Not only is it one of the better B-tier fighting games on the PlayStation, it’s guaranteed not to make your eyeballs bleed through sheer age-related wear.

MASTER OF MONSTERS

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Released: 1991

Genre: Strategy

Format reviewed: Sega Genesis/Mega Drive

Publisher: Renovation

Developer: ISCO/SystemSoft

If you were to take a look over my games collection, you’d rightly peg me as a bit of an arcade nut, with a fondness for anything fast-paced and flashy. But for some reason, I’m extraordinarily susceptible to the charms of the humble turn-based strategy game. I’ve lost weeks to the likes of Advance Wars, Faselei! and the Civilization series, and Master Of Monsters is the latest game to get its hooks into me.

It’s much like any turn-based strategy that takes place on a hex grid – you build units, capture resources, fight the enemy and seek to defeat their commander in combat. However, the hook here is that your units are all magical creatures, from dragons and minotaurs to lizard-men. Each have the sort of characteristics you’d expect – serpents move well in the sea but are terrible on land, a pegasus moves fast but isn’t strong, and a dragon will make mincemeat of enemy units. Instead of getting promotions, your creatures transform into stronger forms, and instead of artillery attacks you use magic spells.

It’s not the prettiest Mega Drive game and the music gets rather repetitive, but there’s something very addictive about the flow of Master Of Monsters. You can play with multiple factions on a single map or go for a lengthy campaign mode (which excellently allows you to retain your transformed beasts between stages), which means that if it gets its hooks into you like it did me, this game will last you ages.

SUPER SMASH BROS.

Released: 1999

Genre: Beat-'em-up

Format reviewed: Nintendo 64

Publisher: Nintendo

Developer: HAL Laboratory

The core concept of Smash Bros. is pretty much as old as time itself. It’s the classic power struggle; it’s ‘my dad is bigger than yours’; it’s those playground arguments about who would win in a fight between Batman and Lion-O. But more than that, it’s a celebration – proof if proof be needed that Nintendo’s family of familiar faces is the best in the business. Today one of the most popular competitive fighting games in the world (player count across Melee and the new game at Evo 2016, the world’s leading fighting game tourney, fell only just shy of front-runner Street Fighter V), it’s amazing to return to Smash’s humble beginnings and remember just how barebones the experience used to be.

Fire up the Wii U game and you’re greeted with an daunting amount of choice. From packed menus that seem to go on forever to a character select screen that only gets even more ridiculous as you add to its vast selection of fighters through general play, you never feel like you’ve seen everything the game has to offer. That cannot be said of the original game, with its eight core fighters and limited modes, but the comparison is hardly fair – this is a pattern seen consistently throughout the history of the genre. Street Fighter’s roster of playable characters has swelled from eight in Street Fighter II to 44 in Ultra Sreet Fighter IV, X-Men Vs. Street Fighter had just 17 to Marvel Vs Capcom 2’s 56, Mortal Kombat had only seven characters on its inception… in comparison, Smash’s cast of 12 fighters (four of whom are locked until certain criteria are met) looks positively healthy.

In team battles, it’s important to look out for your buddy. Wayward items or attacks can hurt them, too!
In team battles, it’s important to look out for your buddy. Wayward items or attacks can hurt them, too!

Better yet, there’s very little fat on the roster. With the exception of Luigi (who, as you might expect, plays almost exactly like Mario), every character has their own distinct feel and playstyle. At one end of the spectrum sits Donkey Kong, a heavy and hard-hitting option for those who don’t like to mess around when it comes to dealing damage, while at the other is Fox, who relies on little-and-often damage as he darts around opponents. There are agile options who can recover well, characters who do better at range than up close and everything in between – for so small a roster, there’s a great degree of variety on offer. This extends to the settings as well, with stages based on every major series represented each boasting their own feel and array of options. From the rising hazards of the Metroid stage to the angles of Sector Z’s moving ships and Arwings, where you choose to fight is just as important as who you choose to fight with. If in doubt, just plump for the Kirby stage – it has the best music and, given that competitive staples Battlefield and Final Destination are only available in single-player here, it’s hands-down the most level playing field for any given match-up.

If you even want to play fair, that is – the real joy of Smash Bros. is found in its versatility, letting you play the way you choose. By default, items will appear or fall into the stage periodically to spice up the battle, both the nature and frequency of these eventually fully customisable. Like the stages and stars, most of these are nods to classic Nintendo games or power-ups – something taken further still by the Assist Trophies in later games, which call in cameos from even more famous characters – and you can get your hands on everything from Poké Balls that unleash random monsters to the hammer that helped Mario thwart Donkey Kong way back when he still went by Jumpman. Fans of mayhem can crank up the drop rate to ensure non-stop silliness, house rules can be established where certain items are banned and purists can get rid of them entirely, shifting the focus – nay, the genre – from entertaining party game to adept fighter.

It’s fun to charge in and bust out your best moves, but it makes more tactical sense to hold back and let others wear themselves out.
It’s fun to charge in and bust out your best moves, but it makes more tactical sense to hold back and let others wear themselves out.

Combat itself is novel in that the game doesn’t feature traditional health bars. Instead, damage accrued by each character is tracked as a percentage at the bottom of the screen, with higher values increasing the effects of additional powerful blows. This feeds directly into the goal of the game, which is to knock opponents off the stage. Any side of the screen will do the trick, with different characters and levels all prioritising different approaches – small stages like Dream Land make blasting rivals off the side the quickest way to go, while characters with strong spiking attacks often do better to stomp their foes off the bottom of the screen. Where possible, that is, as things like the rising acid on the Metroid stage deal damage and blasting those who touch it back upwards with considerable force.
The higher your percentage goes, the greater the risk of being sent flying by even the most innocuous of attacks – powerful, well-placed smash attacks can usually finish the deal from around the 50 per cent mark, with 100+ (the maximum is 999, at which point a gentle breeze is enough to finish you off) marking the point at which you need to start being extra careful. Matches are played either for time – where KOs and deaths are tallied up after a fixed period to decide a winner – or for stocks, each fighter having a set number of lives to use before they are eliminated entirely. Coming back into a great fight at 0 per cent after being knocked out is a delight, especially if you’d been panicking about the inevitable KO previously – a chance to be a little more reckless and aggressive with your attacks, and also to exact revenge on whoever it was that didn’t think you deserved to be on the screen any more.

While there’s not a great deal more to do than simply brawl, additional modes like this help teach you what each character can do.
While there’s not a great deal more to do than simply brawl, additional modes like this help teach you what each character can do.

For a game with only two attack buttons, there’s a surprising degree of depth to Smash Bros. and its high-octane combat. The B button is used for special moves, which performs one of three signature attacks when combined with directional inputs – in the N64 original, only up, down and neutral specials exist, but Melee added a fourth direction one for left/right inputs. The title ties into the game’s novel use of the analogue stick, where gentle movement of the stick and ‘smashing’ it quickly in the required direction produce different effects. Do this to move and dash, rather than walk; do it with your standard A button attacks and you’ll see them upgraded to powerful Smash attacks, generally the best way to introduce opponents to the gaping off-screen abyss. It feels a little strange at first, unresponsive even, almost like you’re not in full control. But just like in any other game that makes good use of analogue control, you come to learn your limits and work on your execution, eventually arriving in a place where everything happens exactly as you want it to, barely having to even think about it. That it isn’t only played alongside the likes of Street Fighter and Tekken at tournaments of the highest level, but pulls in comparable figures in terms of entrants and viewers is telling of the quality of Smash’s core mechanics, and watching pros compete really hammers home just how much more there is to the game than most people who play casually even realise.

With such an amazing cast at Nintendo’s disposal, why is the final boss just a giant hand?
With such an amazing cast at Nintendo’s disposal, why is the final boss just a giant hand?

While the first game may not have had a great deal going on in terms of modes and options, however, the same criticism cannot be levelled at any of its sequels. Each piled on additional content – loads more playable characters, additional items, cool new modes and in-game trophies and achievements all come together to make every Smash game since the first an incredible proposal in terms of value for money. With so much of the game’s charm and appeal coming from its expertly-handled fan service, covering more bases just serves to write beautiful new verses in this love letter to all things Nintendo. What was once a fairly basic fighter is now one packed with potential and options; what was one a fairly low-key novelty now one of the most prominent fighting games on the scene. If ever you need reminding what’s so good about Nintendo, just go play Smash – the ultimate collection of Nintendo’s greatest hits and a way more adept fighting game than many give it credit for.

 

HARDWARE HEAVEN: DREAMCAST

ip-dreamcast
If your back’s up against the wall you need to pull off something spectacular, and in hardware terms, Sega pulled that off with its successor to the Saturn. The Dreamcast was everything its failed predecessor hadn’t been – the sleek white box was aesthetically pleasing, the internal hardware was both powerful and easy to develop for, and the price was attractive. For PAL gamers, the capability to output a 60Hz signal brought an end to years of second-rate releases. Multiplayer fans were well catered for, too, with four controller ports and a built-in modem for online gaming (so long as you were willing to pay the phone bill for dial-up access). Thanks to its past woes, Sega didn’t have the financial ability to drop the console’s price when it desperately needed to. This was compounded by a lack of third-party support, the impending launch of the PlayStation 2 and the discovery of an exploit which allowed easy piracy without a mod chip. Dreamcast production ended in March 2001, and Sega left the console hardware market. Machines are relatively easy to find today, though certain faults are pretty common including random resets caused by power supply problems, and controller port malfunctions due to faulty resistors.


ss-soul-calibur-dreamcast-stabbed-in-the-guts
The sequel to Soul Blade had been an excellent arcade fighting game, but it wasn’t arcade perfect on the Dreamcast – it was better. The astonishing visuals really showed off what the console could do, and that was just the start of its charms. The game featured a wide variety of unlockable characters, stages and costumes earned through the Missions Mode, and Cervantes De Leon returned from the first game. It was one of the few Dreamcast games to sell a million copies, and quite rightly, too – if you like 3D fighting games, SoulCalibur is an essential addition to your collection.

 

LICENCE TO THRILL: ALADDIN

Released: 1993

Genre: Platformer

Format reviewed: Sega Genesis/Mega Drive

Publisher: Various

Developer: Various

If you’re a fan of the family-friendly fun of Disney’s animated films, you’ll undoubtedly remember the early Nineties with a great deal of fondness. Having recovered from the commercial disappointments of the Seventies and Eighties, as well as the blow of losing Don Bluth and a number of other animators, the company had entered a renaissance period of critically and commercially-successful films. The Little Mermaid had done well with both critics and the cinema-going public, and Beauty And The Beast had blown it out of the water in terms of box office takings. Not to be outdone, the directors of The Little Mermaid returned with an adaptation of the Arabian folk tale Aladdin and managed to take the record for the highest-grossing animated film of all time.

While Aladdin featured all the hallmarks of a great Disney film, from beautiful animation to memorable songs, the film was able to draw on star power that hadn’t been available to its predecessors. While Aladdin, his love interest Jasmine and the dastardly Jafar all had actors who weren’t well known, the genie of the lamp was played by Robin Williams – a huge deal at a time when actors would rarely cross over from live-action roles to voice acting. With over $500 million taken at the box office, it wasn’t a question of if the tie-in merchandise would arrive, but just how much of it.

Aladdin was a huge success on the Mega Drive, going on to become the system's third best-selling game.
Aladdin was a huge success on the Mega Drive, going on to become the system’s third best-selling game.

For gaming fans, that meant licensed games, and there was cause to be excited about that – the last few years had seen a number of excellent Disney licensed games on consoles, including the likes of DuckTales and Castle Of Illusion. Recognising the value of the Aladdin licence, Disney did something unusual and split the rights amongst a number of parties. Three companies ended up with the rights to publish games; Sega was granted the right to publish games on its own platforms, Capcom got the licence for the SNES, and Virgin had the option to produce versions for other computers and consoles.

First out of the blocks was Sega. The company initially assigned the project to BlueSky Software, which had previously delivered Ariel The Little Mermaid for the publisher. However, progress was slow as the small team was also working on Jurassic Park. With no easy way to prioritise either project and Disney growing displeased with the lack of progress, the plug was pulled on BlueSky’s version. Luckily for Sega, which had lost a lot of time, Disney had a preferred partner which was willing to do business in the form of Virgin Games. It helped that the company’s president, Martin Alper, had a previous relationship with Sega from his time at Mastertronic, which had distributed the company’s hardware and software in Europe until 1991. What’s more, Virgin had a team capable of delivering high-quality Mega Drive games, as it had proven itself with Cool Spot.

The resulting three-way deal saw Sega handle publishing duties, Virgin Games taking on development and Disney providing animation and licensing rights. Animation cels would be hand-drawn by Disney’s own animators, then sent to Virgin for digitizing and programming into the game. The result was striking – other games had skilful imitation of Disney animation, but Aladdin had the real thing. Enemies lost their trousers when hit and danced painfully across hot coals in the streets of Agrabah, and Aladdin himself was a restless chap, constantly scouting the area for guards. Very rarely did a game live up to the promise of cartoon-quality animation, but it was easy to see that Aladdin did as the titular character shimmied his way up ropes and engaged in swordplay.

Many of the early stages in the SIMS version are forced-scrolling obstacle courses.
Many of the early stages in the SIMS version are forced-scrolling obstacle courses.

The game wasn’t just visually stunning. As programmer and project manager, David Perry delivered his best platform game yet. Aladdin felt like Cool Spot in his movements, particularly when jumping around, but the game was a step ahead in terms of level design – in part, just because the film offered so much inspiration. Aladdin’s acrobatic escape from Agrabah’s guards, the magic carpet ride from an exploding Cave Of Wonders and even the song Never Had a Friend Like Me all provided ideas for stages. Additionally, attacking enemies was fun. You could lob apples if you liked, but there was more fun in sidling up to an enemy and swiping with a sword. Excellent renditions of the film’s music from Tommy Tallarico and Donald S. Griffin capped the whole thing off.

On the SNES side of things, Capcom took a different approach. The planner was a pre-Resident Evil Shinji Mikami, whose previous cartoon licence work included Goof Troop and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Capcom’s game was amongst the most aesthetically pleasing on the console, with excellent visuals and audio, but Disney’s lighter level of involvement showed – the sprites all looked beautiful, but the refined shading ensured that they didn’t quite look like Disney’s work.

Other changes were afoot, too. While Aladdin didn’t look as close to his film counterpart as in the Mega Drive game, he acted a lot more similarly. His athletic abilities were heavily emphasised, as he could clamber up platforms, vault over posts, swing from poles and a lot more. Everyone’s favorite street rat could still chuck apples, but swordplay was off the menu. Instead, he was able to jump on the heads of enemies in the traditional platform game style.

We’re pretty sure this bomb-headed bonehead doesn’t appear in the film.
We’re pretty sure this bomb-headed bonehead doesn’t appear in the film.

Mikami has famously said that he’d have bought the Mega Drive version if he hadn’t made the SNES version, as he liked that game’s swordplay. We’d say that downplays the quality of his own game, though. Capcom’s Aladdin is an excellent platformer in its own right, featuring a different style of gameplay and some top class level design. These days, you don’t have to pick and we’d argue that both games are well worth playing – indeed, some will prefer the agility-focused SNES game over the more combat-oriented Mega Drive one.

Of course, back in 1993 that wasn’t the case. Both games arrived in November 1993, shortly after the home video release of the film. Aladdin did well for Capcom on the SNES, but didn’t hit the million sales mark – thus falling a long way short of the Mega Drive version, which came out a couple of weeks earlier and was given Sega’s full marketing support. Between retail sales and console bundle deals, Aladdin shifted a massive 4 million copies and became the Mega Drive’s third highest-selling game ever, behind only the first two Sonic games. The Capcom version of the game only reappeared once, for the Game Boy Advance in 2003, so it was the Mega Drive version that would go on to have a greater legacy. Thanks to Virgin Games’ publishing rights for other platforms, conversions of Aladdin made their way to the PC, Amiga, NES and Game Boy in 1994. The game was also reconverted to Game Boy Color by Crawfish for Ubisoft in 2000. In 1994, Sega published Aladdin for the Master System and Game Gear. Rather than going with Virgin again it assigned the game to its subsidiary SIMS, which had previously designed Tom & Jerry: The Movie. It ended up with a whole new design, and much like the team’s previous game it was one of the best-looking games ever to appear on Sega’s 8-bit formats, but didn’t have the gameplay to match the gorgeous looks.

It's fitting that one of the most thrilling parts of the film is also great fun in the game.
It’s fitting that one of the most thrilling parts of the film is also great fun in the game.

Aladdin was a much less combative protagonist in SIMS’ game, with limited attacking opportunities meaning that he spent most of his time running from hazards instead. This in itself wouldn’t be a problem, but the game wasn’t particularly interesting or challenging – beside a poor jumping mechanic, the game offered too many bland forced-scrolling levels. Unsurprisingly, this version never received any new conversions after 1994. Still, these lesser versions did nothing to tarnish Aladdin’s name, as Virgin Games had stolen all the headlines. Disney established Disney Interactive Studios in 1994, a move that would have been inconceivable prior to Aladdin. Just as it was a watershed moment for animated films with the unprecedented involvement of a celebrity actor in a voice role, the most-played version of Aladdin marked a turning point for licensed games with the unprecedented involvement of a rights holder in doing its videogame justice.

BURNING RANGERS

Released: 1998

Genre: Adventure

Format reviewed: Sega Saturn

Publisher: Sega

Developer: Sonic Team

There aren’t many fire-fighting games out there, and very few futuristic ones – but that’s exactly what Burning Rangers is. As a member of the elite rescue force of the same name, Burning Rangers tasks you with putting out fires, rescuing civilians and occasionally blasting out-of-control robots until they stop moving. Of course, since this is the future, you’ve got a shield that protects you as long as you have a minimum of one crystal, and a jetpack which allows for ludicrous jumps and backflips. That’s pretty crazy, right?

What makes Burning Rangers all the better is that Sonic Team was clearly trying to prove a point about the power of the Saturn. Sega’s beast was complex to code for and had some flaws with its graphical capabilities, but the programmers here tried everything to squeeze the utmost power from the machine. The results were beautiful – transparent shafts of light could be spotted, the fire was definitely see-through and the vast 3D environments were unlike anything else ever seen on the system. Of course, it’s not without its flaws – apart from the occasional phantom fire, scenery break-up is frequent as the Saturn struggles to cope with all the polygons being pushed.

Of course, it’s still lovely to play, and if you’re able to ignore some graphical issues it’s one of the most compelling action-adventure games on the system – not least because of the dynamic level system that shifts stage layouts between playthroughs. Still, this is one of the few games of the era we’d’ like to see remastered, just so it’s no longer shackled to the Saturn’s ivsulaa

TRUMP CASTLE II

Released: 1991

Genre: Puzzle

Format reviewed: Amiga 500

Publisher: Capstone Software

Developer: Brian A. Rice, Inc

trumpcastle2_2

Before he was talking about mass deportations, border walls and his love for Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump used to be in charge of things like hotels and casinos. He was particularly good at this, with four bankruptcies in 1991 and 1992 alone – and conveniently this is around the time that Trump Castle II, a licensed gambling simulator based on these properties, was unleashed upon the world.

Much like the president-elect himself, it’s oddly-coloured and not particularly pleasant to look at. Six games are on offer – roulette, blackjack, craps, baccarat, poker and slots. The gambling action itself is little more than perfunctory, being neither attractive nor feature-rich, with very flat colours and simple sprites that don’t really show off the Amiga’s graphical capabilities in the best light. Better yet, there’s no end goal to your accumulation of wealth, so the gambling is rather pointless.

What you can do, though, is wander around the casino and listen to its inhabitants. Again, much like the president elect, it’s bewildering and we’d probably be better off without it. The digitised photographs don’t look great with the Amiga’s colour limitations, although some of the captions that appear when you click on people are kind of amusing.

All in all, it’s an okay gambling game for the Amiga with some odd idiosyncracies. Of course, gambling without the financial reward is somewhat empty and hollow, but hey – that’s the Trump experience for you.

MARIO’S PICROSS

Released: 1995

Genre: Puzzle

Format reviewed: Game Boy

Publisher: Nintendo

Developer: Jupiter/Nintendo

Puzzle games are rarely as intense as the likes of Tempest 2000, but they’re often pretty stressful in their own right. There’s every chance you won’t believe me, of course – you’re doubtless thinking of those lovely opening moments of Columns with the soothing music and slow game speed. Don’t think of that. Think about staring down an impenetrable wall of blocks in Kurushi, or watching helplessly as your Lemmings wander into a flamethrower. See? They lull you into a false sense of security and then deliver constant panic.

That’s why I like Mario’s Picross so much – it’s one of the few puzzle games that is as relaxing as advertised. Instead of having to deal with additional elements and moving parts, you’re given a static game board and all of the hints you need at the beginning of each puzzle. The only form of pressure applied is a generous 30 minute time limit that is reduced with each mistake you make. However, if you take the time to think through each move correctly it’s unlikely that you’ll make any mistakes at all. There’s also a real sense of satisfaction to be derived from turning raw numerical information into a little picture of some kind (and yes, this /is/ the nerdiest thing I’ve ever said).

So if I’m given a relaxing Sunday morning with nothing else to do, there’s a good chance you’ll find me in bed clutching a Game Boy and playing Mario’s Picross. Tetris is just too much hassle, man.

NINJA BASEBALL BAT MAN

Released: 1993

Genre: Beat-'em-up

Format reviewed: Arcade

Publisher: Irem

Developer: Irem

We’re often asked not to judge books by their covers, and I don’t. Who needs to see the whole cover when a name is so often sufficient? Ninja Baseball Bat Man is a perfect example. Here’s a game that revolves around a character whose combat style incorporates classical Japanese spy arts and the unsubtle blunt force assault that only sporting equipment can adequately deliver. I don’t care what else is going on, this is clearly something I want to be involved with.

Thankfully, unlike the various other games I’ve acquired because of their amusing names (Bionic Granny and Ninjabread Man being the most notable examples), Irem’s scrolling beat-’em-up is actually a good game. Your titular hero is a versatile fighter with a variety of attacks, from a standard bat combo to a special swing, jumping kicks and even a desperate slide. What’s more, it’s an enormously pretty game – it’s colourful and features some absolutely enormous enemies, particularly the towering bosses. The game’s awesome cartoonish style helps to convey the sense of humour, too. You can go from lobbing a home plate at animated catcher’s mitt to fighting a gigantic man made of balls, and then on to mowing down baddies in a car.

In fact, apart from the occasional super-damaging boss attack that seems designed to siphon the coins from your pocket, the only thing wrong with Ninja Baseball Bat Man is the lack of a home conversion. After all, with a name like that, how could it fail to sell?

IRONCLAD

Released: 1996

Genre: Shoot-'em-up

Format reviewed: Neo Geo CD

Publisher: SNK

Developer: Saurus

Being a retro shoot-em-up fan can be a roller-coaster ride when it comes to discovering true gems. For every Thunder Force or Gradius, you’ll find a dozen clones which serve only to drown out the thrill of the genre. Thankfully, unknown gems do exist, and one of the best is the Neo Geo CD release of Ironclad – or Choutetsu Brikkinger to give it its Japanese title.

I discovered this classic on the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console in 2010 and became hooked. Back then, I loved everything the game had to offer; the graphics were amazing for a mid-90’s release, the upbeat music kept driving me through the vast and varied levels, and I’d spend far too much time taking out huge bosses with my R-Type ‘Force’-like ships and power-ups. Best of all, completing the game wasn’t the end either, as the branching level structure meant you could take alternate routes through the story to see a variety of endings.

In 2016, I’m even more enamoured because, thanks to emulation, I’ve been playing the Neo Geo CD release which, as you’d expect, has an even better soundtrack!

If you’re after a reasonable shoot-em-up challenge, wrapped up in excellent presentation and superb audio, tracking down Ironclad should be your next priority. It isn’t the most original of games, but that lack of innovation doesn’t stop it from being one of the Neo Geo’s finest releases.

CLOCKWORK KNIGHT

Released: 1995

Genre: Platformer

Format reviewed: Sega Saturn

Publisher: Sega

Developer: Sega

It’s the mid-Nineties and you’re launching a new console. What type of games do you go big on? If you said “platform games” then you’re onto a winner – the world was still flooded with mascot platformers, and anything that wasn’t a furry animal was bound to stand out from the crowd. Enter Clockwork Knight, which draws its protagonist and enemies from your toybox, rather than the animal kingdom.

Clockwork Knight wasn’t particularly well received at the time, with most magazines considering it to be somewhat underwhelming. This is in some ways a fair assessment – the major innovation is 3D visuals, with objects moving from the background to the foreground. It wasn’t the most exciting use of 3D in 1995 and the market was saturated with platform games at the time, so you can see how it would have been given a bit of a kicking. Yet there’s a certain charm to the adventure and it’s certainly a solidly constructed game – and thanks to Sega sticking to a very well-explored genre, the game has aged considerably better than many early PlayStation and Saturn games. Ironically, by making something relatively unambitious and ending up underappreciated, the company ended up with a game that would last the test of time far more successfully than its peers.

It’s not a revelation or anything like that, but Clockwork Knight is a pretty solid platform game that any Saturn owner might wish to consider – even if it is a touch on the easy side.

WIZKID: THE STORY OF WIZBALL II

Released: 1992

Genre: Puzzle

Format reviewed: Amiga 500

Publisher: Ocean Software

Developer: Sensible Software

It must be said, Wizkid is a game with an odd atmosphere. It doesn’t quite set in until you hit Mount Wizimanjaro, the third stage. It takes place in an active volcano, yet you’ll be casually steering a disembodied head around the screen, dropping rocks onto butterflies to some extraordinarily relaxing background music. Sometimes, you can pick up a clown nose to juggle the rocks, or teeth which let you carry them around.

Oh, and then there’s the fact that if you grab a complete set of musical notes, you’ll be able to buy items to take into an adventure platforming section. This is, if you can believe it, even odder than the standard gameplay. For example, you can drop down a well to find some toilets. You can use the toilets, resulting in a distant volcanic eruption. How do you get back up? Flood out the well with a broken toilet, obviously.

So here’s a sequel that is nothing like its predecessor, and designed very unusually – but with Sensible Software behind it all, the game just /works/. The developer’s trademark sense of humour is evident, the game looks lovely and the act of trying to bash multiple enemies with one block is compelling. This is the kind of game that is clearly a one-off, never to be repeated, but that’s why we love it. In today’s world of big budgets and high risk, nobody would dare make a game like Wizkid – and arguably, there’s no equivalent of Sensible that could.

POWER STRIKE II

Released: 1993

Genre: Shoot-'em-up

Format reviewed: Sega Master System

Publisher: Sega

Developer: Compile

As the Master System entered its twilight years, Sega was faced with a problem – the machine was worth supporting in territories where it had gained popularity, such as Europe, but it would have to provide original software due to a dearth of third-party support. With sensible outsourcing and very limited production runs to avoid overstocking problems, it could just about manage to make money from the endeavour – and that’s why games like Buggy Run, Masters Of Combat and Power Strike II are so expensive today.

But sometimes you get what you pay for with expensive rarities, and Power Strike II is definitely one of the best games on the system. The vertically scrolling shoot-’em-up comes from Compile, one of the most experienced developers in the genre at that time, and bears many of its hallmark features, from signature weapons to the wave motion power-ups make as they descend down the screen. Your goal is to take out air and ground targets in a world where modern technology has been grafted onto Thirties aircraft.

Power Strike II isn’t a game that innovates within its genre, but is instead an incredibly polished version of it. Quite apart from the excellent level design and the power-up system which allows you to retain a portion of your accumulated power on death, the game’s graphics and sound are amongst the best on the console. In fact, you could argue that Compile maybe even pushed the machine a little too hard, as you can see sprite break-up and other telltale signs of a struggling console. Still, it’s a small price to pay for a great game.

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG TURNS 25

It’s amazing to think that Sega’s iconic blue mascot is now 25-years-old. He’s starred in some of the Mega Drive’s greatest platformers and appeared in over 80 different videogames. Never afraid to star in new games, he’s tried his hand at racing games, fighting games and much more. To celebrate this special day, Retro Gamer speaks to Sonic’s creator, Yuji Naka, about the origins of the original Mega Drive classic.

Before Sonic span onto the scene in a dazzling blur of cobalt blue, Sega’s previous attempts to create a company mascot had been unsuccessful. Their primary intent was to capture hearts in the same way that Mario had done for Nintendo, but nothing seemed to fit. Fantasy Zone’s ovoid spaceship
Opa-Opa is often referred to as the very first mascot, briefly holding on to the honour until a tracksuit-wearing, rock-smashing prince named Alex Kidd came along and took his paper crown.

But when creating Alex, it’s debatable that Sega had hit upon the key ingredients that would give them a character to match the might of Mario. Younger and more athletic than Nintendo’s tubby talisman, trained in a martial art and able to drive an assortment of vehicles, Alex exhibited many of the same characteristics that Sega would imbue into Alex’s spiny successor. For connecting with a young audience, Alex certainly had a lot going for him. Unfortunately, he had a tough time competing against Nintendo’s all-conquering NES, which at one time could be found in 1 in 4 American households.

 

Few levels are as recognisable as Green Hill Zone

Two years after the 1989 release of the Genesis in North America, Sega found itself in a fairly strong position stateside. Its arcade machines Space Harrier, OutRun and Shinobi were proving popular coin-guzzlers, and its powerful new 16-bit successor to the Master System was also selling well thanks to its impressive visuals and early library of arcade tie-ins. But conscious that Nintendo was preparing to release its 16-bit successor to the NES any day now, Sega knew it needed to find itself a Mario, and fast.

So it was that Sega of Japan famously set its best designers the task of coming up with a brand new hero to represent the company and its new console. During the initial ideas stage many designs were pitched and considered; rabbits, armadillos, even human characters, but in the end it was a teal-coloured hedgehog that was finally selected, put forward by artist Naoto Oshima, who had previously worked as a designer on the first two Phantasy Star games.

Originally dubbed Mr Needlemouse, Oshima’s creation went through a number of changes before becoming the zippy blue hedgehog we know today. Early concepts for the character, which were dropped as a result of a makeover by Sega of America, had him playing in a rock band, his mouth drawn with fangs, and in a relationship with a blonde human girl named Madonna.

Sonic-01

 Fail to reach the bubbles in time and poor old Sonic would drown.

For obvious reasons Sonic’s colour was altered to Sega blue, while Oshima has revealed that Sonic’s iconic red power sneakers were inspired by a combination of the belt-strapped boots Michael Jackson’s wore on the cover of his album Bad and the colour of Santa Claus, whom Oshima regarded at the time as the most ‘famous character in the world.’ Blending all these visual elements together, Sega hoped it had the perfect character to appeal to an American market. All Oshima needed now was a striking game to show his creation off, and it was here that Sega bosses turned to a talented programmer named Yuji Naka.

Naka had become renowned in the company for his impressive programming skills thanks to his work on Phantasy Star. He had also proven his skill for tackling the platform genre, with an impressive Mega Drive conversion of Ghouls’n Ghosts. And so Sega asked Naka and Hirokazu Yasuhara, Sonic’s game planner/level designer, to help Oshima bring Sonic to life and become the driving force in a team of AM8 developers. They were later famously renamed Sonic Team.

When work on the project began, Naka was adamant the game should be fast and exhilarating to show off the impressive processing speed of the Mega Drive. An important cornerstone for the game, Yuji Naka explains how it was Super Mario Bros. that inspired him to create the fastest platformer the world had ever seen.

sonic-02

 You won’t be a true Sonic master unless you get all the Chaos Emeralds.

“Every time I played the first stage I wondered why I couldn’t clear it faster, the better I got playing it.” Naka explains. “This feeling must have been the beginning of the idea of Sonic, as you get good at playing you can run through the stage really fast. I think Sonic itself turned out to be a totally different concept to Super Mario Bros. But I do feel it was a game that affected me very positively. There is a part in Sonic 1 where Sonic swims in the water and eats bubbles to take his breath to go on. I was very happy when Super Mario Bros. later used a similar system in one its sequels, because I felt we were inspiring each other.”

Meanwhile, Yasahura’s approach to Sonic’s level design was to create them in such a way that they would appeal to both casual and hardcore gamers. He set about achieving this by mixing fun level elements with challenging obstacles and moving parts. Of the seven zones in the game, Sonic’s opening stage Green Hill Zone became the most iconic. A vibrant place featuring blue skies, lush green grass, chequerboard tunnels and loop the loops; the perfect playground for Sonic to showcase all his abilities. It was a brilliantly attention-grabbing introduction for gamers, and for those who had never owned a console. So where did inspiration for this iconic stage come from?

“Green Hill Zone was inspired by California,” Naka answers simply. “Also we were aiming to show the latest computer graphics at that time, which were using polygon and ray tracing, through pixel art to make it look very new. With regards to the colours, I believe they were inspired by a picture drawn by Eizin Suzuki.”

 

 

REAL BOUT FATAL FURY 2: THE NEWCOMERS

Released: 1998

Genre: Beat-'em-up

Format reviewed: Neo Geo

Publisher: SNK

Developer: SNK

When Real Bout Fatal Fury 2 first hit arcades in 1998, it seemed to represent the beginning of a new start for the series. There hadn’t been any new characters since 1995’s Fatal Fury 3, so the introduction of Native American boxer Rick Strowd and belligerent big eater Li Xiangfei was a major step forward. Of course, what nobody knew at the time was that it was going to be the swansong for traditional Fatal Fury games – Garou: Mark Of The Wolves totally refreshed the cast and Fatal Fury: Wild Ambition went 3D.

Still, as far as send-offs go, this was a big one. The vast majority of Fatal Fury’s cast of characters is represented in the game’s 22-strong roster, and the newcomers fit right in perfectly. Both character sprites and backgrounds were utterly beautiful, and the combo mechanics had been tightly refined over the last few games. It’s even more accessible to newcomers than the previous games, as the second fighting plane became a “sway” lane purely for evasion and counterattacks.

In many ways, Real Bout Fatal Fury 2 actually embodied the values Neo Geo perfectly. Not only did it feature the system’s most enduring characters in the genre that the hardware came to be most closely associated with, it was only available to an exclusive audience. With no console ports at the time, you needed to own SNK hardware if you wanted to play the game. As a love letter to Fatal Fury fans, you couldn’t have asked for more.



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