Friday, November 16, 2012

Space Quest III For MS-DOS

Space Quest III is a remarkable game for a lot of reasons. The PC version was one of the first games to support a mouse and Sound Blaster card, for example. But what I find most remarkable about it is how unremarkable its story is. The other Space Quest games pit you, an everyman shlub, against impossible odds, and the fates of entire galaxies are decided by the actions you take; typical ho-hum adventure game plots. But in Space Quest III, the stakes are far lower and the adversities you face are far more mundane. In many ways, it's a game about nothing in particular, and SQ3 never lets plot get in the way of a good joke. It's Seinfeld in space.

Like the first two Space Quest games, SQ3 is an early graphical adventure game, and as such, it still sports a text parser. You guide the hero, Roger Wilco, using a mouse, joystick, or arrow keys, and you issue commands such as USE OBJECT, PRESS BUTTON or LOOK AROUND by typing them. SQ3's parser has a larger vocabulary than its predecessors, making issuing the right commands to Roger much less an exercise in frustration. As the last in the series to use a text parser and the first to use a mouse, SQ3 marks the beginning of a sea change to the simpler point-and-click style gameplay that now dominates the adventure genre.

Space Quest III picks up shortly after the events of the previous game. Roger is in cryogenic sleep inside an escape pod drifting in space. His pod is retrieved by a robotic garbage scow, which considers it just another piece of space flotsam. Roger wakes up inside the scow, and as the game proper begins, he looks for a means to escape. With a little exploration and puzzle-solving, Roger soon gains access to a new spaceship, the Aluminum Mallard. He hits the spaceways and swings by planet Phleebhut to asks for directions at an alien tourist trap. He runs afoul of an Arnoid model debt-collector robot, grabs a bite to eat at Monolith Burgers, plays a few rounds of Astro Chicken, and after revealing a call for help hidden in the game, finally stumbles into the game's plot. The Two Guys From Andromeda, a couple of game designers modeled after real-life Space Quest creators Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, have been kidnapped by space pirates and forced to make crappy videogames for shady game company, ScumSoft. For reasons never really explained, Roger takes it upon himself to liberate the Two Guys, and thwart the evil machinations of ScumSoft's prepubescent CEO, Elmo Pug.

A common complaint with SQ3 is that it's too short; that its plot really gets going just before the game ends. While that's true, the fun of SQ3 is in the ride, not its conclusion. The game has a very wry sense of humor, and pop culture references abound. The garbage scow is packed full of derelicts from classic sci-fi movies and TV shows, and LOOKing at every last one of them produces a winking reference or an offhand comment from the narrator. Astro Chicken, SQ3's game-within-a-game, is a deliberately lame sendup of cheap shovelware games. ScumSoft's evil lair is depicted as the kind of soul-crushing corporate cubicle farm Murphy and Crowe felt Sierra On-Line to be back in the 80s. There are some very devious puzzles lurking in SQ3, behind all the jokes and winks. They usually make more sense than the puzzles in the first two games, but make no mistake: this is an old-school adventure game. There's no hand-holding at all, and it's possible at several points to miss some object critical to completing the game. Save early, save often!

Of course, like all classic Sierra games, Space Quest III will kill you as frequently and creatively as it can. Wrong steps, careless commands, close encounters with nasties, or even loitering will violently launch Roger into an early grave. While a certain perverse pleasure can be derived from viewing all of the many unique ways Roger can die, the fact that it happens so easily and so frequently makes exploring the locations in SQ3 an exercise in frustration. Again, frequent saves are a must to avoid too much backtracking, especially for players unfamiliar with the various hazards in the game. This was common practice for most old adventure games, but the constant threat of death is antithetical to the spirit of exploration that good adventure games should engender. I'm glad the practice fell out of favor with the release of the decidedly non-fatal LucasArts adventure games.

For a 16-color EGA game,  Space Quest III looks remarkably good. As the first in the series to abandon support for older 8-bit computers, SQ3 supports a higher screen resolution, allowing Roger and the world he inhabits to look much less like a stack of Lego blocks. SQ3 employs a pseudo-3D look, as Roger can move behind objects in the foreground, and he scales appropriately while moving closer to or further away from the camera. Given the hardware limitations they had to work within, the artists squeezed a lot of detail into most of the game's graphics. The planets Roger visits look suitably alien and unique from each other. Cheesy slices of Americana, like fast food restaurants and roadside tourist traps are expertly transposed to the futuristic setting of Space Quest without losing their mundane, plasticy charm.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the game's incredibly catchy MIDI soundtrack. Featuring original music composed by ex-Supertramp drummer Bob Siebenberg, SQ3's soundtrack is a cohesive collection of related pieces; closer to a movie score than a typical video game's disjointed of collection background music. The classic Space Quest theme permeates the soundtrack, interpreted as a triumphant opening theme one moment, and as tinkly supermarket muzac the next. Like most games that utilize MIDI tracks, the quality of the music's reproduction varies wildly with the type of computer playing it, or in the PC's case, the sound hardware installed. Played through a lowly Sound Blaster card, SQ3 is certainly enjoyable, but gamers lucky enough to have owned a Roland MT-32 synthesizer or LAPC-I card in 1989 were treated to the most spectacular-sounding video game music available.

As a testament to its lasting appeal, the Space Quest series has remained available in one format or another for over 25 years. Today, has a bundle of the first three games available for purchase online. Even better, a collection of all six original games, as well as the VGA remakes of SQ1 & 2 was released on CD-ROM by Sierra in 2006. Though it's now out of print, copies are readily available on eBay, and all games in the collection play superbly inside DOSbox.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Missile Defense 3D For Sega Master Syster

So I've finished tearing apart Zaxxon 3D, a 25-year-old game on a system hardly anyone plays anymore. Now what? Well, I still had my SMS hooked up and one more game with '3D' in the title hanging out on the shelf. Let's dust it off and--hey, it's a lightgun game!

As my huge army of obsessive followers are no doubt aware, I am a huge fan of lightgun games. Missile Defense is a pretty unique one too, as it also uses the same 3D goggles as Zaxxon 3D. Essentially, it's a 3D first-person game of Missile Command played with the Sega Master System's Light Phaser. Each match in the game is divided into two or three stages. The stage begins at a missile launch site, where your goal is to shoot down as many as possible before they escape or collide with your laser cannon. At the end of the stage, the game tallies the total number of missiles launched and the number that escaped. Stage two pits you against the surviving missiles as they reenter the atmosphere. Stage three is your last chance to destroy the inbound missiles and protect the major metropolitan centers, East City and West City from nuclear annihilation. If a single missile impacts a city or all of your laser cannons are destroyed, the game ends and a summary screen admonishes you for the nuclear holocaust you allowed to happen. As an allegory for the futility of escalated nuclear conflict, Missile Defense 3D is about as subtle as a brick to the head.

 The 3D effect in Missile Defense 3D is much more convincing than in Zaxxon 3D. Missiles really do appear to launch from silos and fly toward the viewer, travel along deep ice crevasses in the North Pole or spiral down through a cityscape. The doubling effect I noticed in Zaxxon is much less apparent here, since the white missiles aren't as heavily contrasted against the much brighter backgrounds.

Unfortunately, the accuracy of the Master System's light gun leaves much to be desired. My shots were all over the place; they only hit their targets about 50% of the time, even when the gun was pressed against the TV screen. I don't know if the problem's limited to my gun or if they all suck equally bad, but it quickly made Missile Defense 3D unplayable as the higher levels. Speaking of which, there's not much variation in the levels. Obviously you shoot nothing but missiles in this game, but there's not much variety in either the missile types or the locations in the game. It's fun for a few minutes, but without any variety, it quickly becomes monotonous. A bonus stage or something would've gone a long way towards extending the entertainment value of Missile Defense 3D.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, we save a couple of pig-faced ingrates from the Pirates of Pestulon in Space Quest III!

Zaxxon 3D For Sega Master System

The Master System, Sega's 8-bit also-ran, had an interesting trick up its sleeve when it was released to compete with the NES. Among its handful of accessories was a pair of SegaScope 3D goggles, which plugged into the card slot on the front of the console. 3D wasn't entirely unheard of on the NES, as Rad Racer sported an anaglyph 3D mode. However, Sega's goggles created the 3D effect without screwing with the games' colors... all 32 of them. Only 8 3D games were released, one of which is Zaxxon 3D.

The original Zaxxon was an arcade space shooter released by Sega in 1982. Played from an isometric viewpoint and already sporting pseudo-3D graphics, Zaxxon was a logical choice for a full-3D makeover. Zaxxon 3D is more of a remake than a proper sequel. It keeps much of the original's gameplay intact, but moves the view behind your ship. Like the arcade original, you fight off waves of alien fighters in space, and then assault the aliens' base. At the end of each level, you fight a boss. The fuel gauge also makes an appearance in Zaxxon 3D: you die if it runs out, but it can be refilled by blowing up fuel tanks scattered around the alien base. The only real change to the game is the addition of additional weapons and power-ups. The weapon upgrades increase your rate of fire and the damage you can do per shot, but at the cost of increased fuel consumptions. Power-ups grant you bonus lives and increased maneuvering speed, but again at the cost of faster fuel consumption.

Zaxxon's biggest failing unfortunately makes its way to Zaxxon 3D. Your ship moves at a snail's pace around the screen, making dodging enemy fire and obstacles an exercise in frustration. The speed power-up is a welcome addition, but it comes up too rarely and it sucks your fuel tank empty in a hurry. The weapon upgrades don't do much to help matters, either; I barely noticed a difference between them in terms of effectiveness. The lack of detail in the alien bases is a distinct step down from the arcade original. Zaxxon sported an alien base built on an asteroid and loaded with intricate turrets, missile silos, tanks, and energy barriers. Zaxxon 3D lacks most of these details, instead flying you over an abstract, rectangular blue trench occasionally occupied by a green wall or a handful of very basic-looking enemy sprites. Maybe the extra overhead of creating a 3D environment meant Zaxxon 3D's graphics had to be scaled back, but frankly I've seen more impressive-looking Intellivision games. Finally, the 3D effect isn't very convincing. The goggles use LCD shutters to block out light to the left & right eye in sequence with the image displayed on screen. Unfortunately, the shutters can't block enough light to completely obscure the TV screen, so bright objects appear blurry and doubled. If you've ever wanted to know what playing a videogame with a concussion looks like, Zaxxon 3D's your game. Pressing the pause button at the title screen brings up a hidden options screen wherein you can disable the 3D effect.  Doing so strips the gimmick away, leaving you with a thoroughly mediocre shooter and a poor follow-up to an arcade classic.

Thanks for reading my review! Up next, another Sega-powered 3D shoot fest, Missile Defense 3D!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The 7th Guest For MS-DOS

You're alone and afraid, trapped in a dilapidated gothic mansion with no memory of who you are or how you got there. You wander its lonely, dusty halls in search of escape, all the while antagonized by the ghoulish, disembodied voice of its former owner. Suddenly a flash of movement registers in the corner of your eye. You whirl around and find yourself face to face with the most obscene horror imaginable: A game of Reversi! 

So anyway, The 7th Guest is a very early multimedia game for the PC, and the first on the platform to utilize full motion video. The game is set in a small town in upstate New York in the 1920s. A murderous drifter by the name of Henry Stauf had a vision of a beautiful doll one night. He carved his vision into a real doll, took it into town, and sold it to the local bartender. Word of Stauf's amazing dolls spread fast, and soon everyone in town wanted one. Stauf set up shop and quickly became rich off the sale of his unique dolls. Filthy with lucre and now the talk of the town, Stauf built an enormous, imposing mansion on a cliffside overlooking the small hamlet. But then, a strange disease swept through the town's children, killing all of them who owned Stauf's toys. Stauf dropped out of sight and the house fell quiet for years, until six guests received an invitation to spend the night, as well as the promise of winning their hearts' desires if they could solve the mansion's puzzle.

The game is played in a first-person perspective as you, an entity known only as Ego, travel from room to room in the mansion. Each room contains a puzzle that must be solved in order to advance the plot and unlock more rooms. As you progress, you learn the ultimate fate of each guest, told through FMV cutscenes featuring some of the hammiest, scene chewingest acting ever put to film. The acting is supremely cheesy, but in the context of the story, an old-fashioned gothic horror tale, it works well enough. The puzzles, on the other hand, just don't fit with the theme of the game at all. They're all very stylized and they look great, but despite The 7th Guest's best efforts, there is nothing inherently terrifying about solving a brain-teaser. There's no consequence for losing a puzzle, other than having to start it over, so there's really nothing at stake and no way to lose the game. The hardest puzzle, a You-vs-Stauf game of Ataxx played inside a microscope, can be completely skipped. Too many puzzles rely on tedious, boring repetition to draw out the length of the game. It's cool to see knights materialize out of the bathroom floor's tiles, but after an hour or more spent solving that puzzle, the novelty is long gone. There's not a whole lot of variety in the puzzles, either. Though a few are unique, too many are of the chess piece movement, card/coin flip and picture puzzle variety. There is a book in the library which provides hints, and ultimately solves most of the puzzles for you if you visit it enough. It's a convenient way to finish the game quickly, but it certainly kills the challenge. With long puzzles grinding the game to a halt, The 7th Guest never builds a sense of momentum, and since the rooms and cutscenes can be played out of sequence, the plot is sometimes hard to follow.

I found simply exploring the haunted Stauf mansion to be the most enjoyable aspect of the game. It's a beautifully-rendered building, and it feels at once fantastical and completely realistic. It has a classic Hollywood haunted house feel to it, where no lamp ever seems to radiate any light, and every hallway disappears into an inky blackness. It's easy to imagine a fake skeleton on a string hiding inside every closet and waiting to jump out at you at Stauf's place. Since you're presumably non-corporeal, you don't so much walk through it as glide, and smooth animations take you from one fixed location to another, like you're in a theme-park ride. You can even travel through secret passageways in the fireplace, behind the walls, or through the plumbing. Most locations have hotspots of spookiness that can be tripped by clicking on them or approaching them at the right moment. These moments, and the mixed feelings of curiosity and dread they engender, are much more entertaining than the puzzles.

Gameplay issues aside, The 7th Guest was a huge step forward in videogaming. Released to the PC nearly 20 years ago, it was one of the first games to fully exploit the nascent CD-ROM technology. It's an impressive-looking game by today's standards, and in 1993, it was jaw-dropping. There are no particularly horrifying moments in this horror game, (except for the clown in the game room--yeesh!) but the creepy jazz score, the dark hallways and the grainy, transparent videos make for a very atmospheric gaming experience. For a long time, The 7th Guest wasn't playable on a modern computer outside DOSBox, but now that Trilobyte Games is back from the dead, it's making appearances on iOS devices, in the Mac App Store and on Good Old Games.

Thanks for reading my review! Next time, it's Zaxxon 3D for Sega Master System.

Mr. Bones For Sega Saturn

Mr Bones for Sega Saturn is an unusual game to say the least. In it, you play as the skeletal remains of a blues guitarist, the titular Mr. Bones. He abruptly wakes from his eternal slumber and finds himself in a graveyard surrounded by an army of skeletons with glowing red eyes. They've all been reanimated by the evil wizard DaGoulian, who wants to conquer the world. However, Mr. Bones managed to retain his free will, so he takes it upon himself to stop DaGoulian and his freaky deadite army.

Mr. Bones is essentially a collection of 20 some-odd mini games connected by the occasional full motion video cutscene. Most levels in Mr. Bones are of the side-scrolling platforming variety, but it also throws in some rhythm games, memory games, shooters, puzzles, and the like. The amount of variety in the game is impressive; almost no two levels play the same in Mr. Bones. You may be running from a tyrannosaur skeleton in one level, and telling jokes to a crowd in the next. A few common elements tie the levels together, though. For example, Mr. Bones loses bits of himself as he takes hits, to the point where he's reduced to a skull and spine bouncing around the level. Scattered throughout the game are replacement arms, legs, hips & ribcages that Mr. Bones can use to reassemble himself. His only method of attack in levels that have enemies is a short-ranged lightning beam that sucks enemies of their vitality and adds it to his own. It doesn't sound like much, but once acquired, it makes the platforming levels exceptionally easy, as nothing can get close enough to deal damage anymore.

Given that the main character is an ex blues musician, the game's atmosphere is thick with the blues. Tasty blues guitar licks permeate the game's background music in each level. Our hero gain access to a magical guitar from a blind, blues-playing hermit, and he uses this guitar to liberate the souls of Dagoulian's deadite army with the power of music. Hell, one of the levels even sports a disembodied voice opining at great length on the nature of the Blues. It's all goofy as can be, but in a game as self-effacing and silly as Mr. Bones, it actually works. Mr. Bones himself is eternally unflappable and optimistic in the face of overwhelming undead opposition.

Unfortunately, the game lacks balance in its levels. Some levels are way too easy, while others are controller-smashing hard. The very first level in the game is frustrating enough to make players swear off Mr. Bones forever. The variety in the levels is nice, but the player is too often dropped into new, confusing, and downright punishing situations that nearly guarantee instant death. It may take three or four playthroughs to even get the gist of what's happening in a level, which is even more frustrating as you only have one life. If you run out of health and die--again--the game ends and, after an agonizingly long loading time, Mr. Bones drops you back to the title screen. You can reload any level you've unlocked from the options screen, but there's no continue option. Mashing the start button, as one is wont to do after dying umpteen times, just starts the game over from level 1. This is Mr. Bones' major failing, and in my opinion, it keeps it from achieving videogaming greatness, despite its clever level design and memorable characters. I firmly believe that, with a little more playtesting, Mr Bones would have been a household name in video gaming. However, if it ever earns a re-release, or if you still have a Saturn lying around, I recommend playing it and experiencing a rare, truly unique video game.

Thanks for reading my review! Up next is the granddaddy of all CD-ROM games, The 7th Guest.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Splatterhouse For TurboGrafx-16

If there's ever an award given for most apropos game title, The TurboGrafx-16's Splatterhouse would surely take home the gold. It takes place in a house, and man do things go splat! Adapted from a 1988 Namco arcade game, Splatterhouse may well be the very first truly gory horror game to appear on a console.

The story of Splatterhouse goes like this: Rick and his girlfriend Jennifer take refuge from a raging storm inside an spooky abandoned mansion. Unbeknownst to the two lovebirds, (or possibly beknownst; the game doesn't really say) this mansion once belonged to the mysterious parapsychologist, Dr. West, who performed grisly occult experiments. They're immediately set upon by freaky demonic monsters, and Rick is knocked unconscious. When he comes to, Jennifer is nowhere to be found and Rick's face has become fused with a freaky red mask that grants him superhuman size and strength. He hauls his ponderous bulk off the floor, picks up the nearest blunt object, and sets about the task of beating every monster that stands between him and his missing girlfriend into a bloody, quivering pulp.

Splatterhouse is a side-scrolling beat-em-up that plays a bit like Final Fight, but only on a 2D plane. Rick can move left & right, duck or jump, but he can't move up or down within the level. Rick's main methods of attack are a punch, a ducking kick and sliding kick. However, there are several weapons scattered throughout each level, like 2x4s, meat cleavers, rocks, throwing spears and shotguns. Incidentally, the shotguns in Splatterhouse act like actual shotguns and not ping-pong ball shooters, which I'm pretty sure is a gaming first. Anyway, each weapon has certain tradeoffs: The 2x4 and the cleaver give you added reach, but take time to swing, leaving you vulnerable if you don't time your attacks right. The rocks and spears can only be thrown once, and the shotgun has limited ammo.

The game's seven short levels are laid out in a pretty linear fashion. Some levels automatically scroll forward, while others let you set the pace. Though Splatterhouse never strays from the side-scroller style, it throws a few fun twists into most levels, such as a hall of mirrors, wherein you're attacked by your own reflection. Some of the levels give you different routes to take, and different types of enemies to fight, but all of the routes eventually take you to the same boss battle. Some of the boss battles are fairly clever too, like level two's knife-and-artwork-thowing poltergeist. The monsters you fight range from bloody bats to shambling zombies to ethereal ghosts to grotesque fetuses. Environmental hazards come in the form of spikes that shoot up from the floor, tortured corpses that vomit dangerous viscera at you, ghostly hands that try to drag you underground, and zombified wolves that chew on the remain of the enemies you killed. Yes, there are plenty of terrifying creations lurking the halls of this house.

Unfortunately, the biggest enemy in Splatterhouse is control. Rick's built like a brick shithouse, but he moves about as fast as one. He lumbers along too slowly to dodge enemy attacks, so when he's unarmed, he has to rely solely on his pathetically short-ranged punches and kicks for defense. It seems that his attacks only connect with enemies on the right frame of animation and on a small part of his fist or foot, often leaving him wide open to cheap hits from enemies. Splatterhouse also seems to have borrowed some of the more annoying control aspects from the Castlevania games: Rick jumps in the same floaty, hard-to-control manner that Simon Belmont does, and like Belmont, he gets knocked backward when hit. This often leads to some frustratingly cheap deaths, but mercifully, there's very few platforming moments to be dealt with in Splatterhouse. The weapons do a good job of evening the odds, but only if you can hang onto them. Rick drops whatever he's carrying every time he takes a hit, and if it scrolls off the screen, it's gone for good.  The weapons can't be carried from level to level or even from section to section within the same level, leaving you to kickpunch your way through most of the game. You can't backtrack to pick up missed weapons either, even in the levels that don't automatically scroll.

The graphics and sound are a mixed bag. The game opens with what looks like a tossed-off MS Paint rendering of a house partially obscured by trees or shrubs or just overzealous use of the spray-paint tool. Fortunately, things improve once the game begins. Rick and the baddies are finely detailed, sporting a rich but muted color palette of browns and greens and greys. The enemies have different death animations depending on how you dispatch them: Punch them to death, and they collapse in a heap on the floor. Swing at them with the 2x4 and they fly into the wall, stick momentarily, then slide down into a gooey mess. Blast them with the shotgun, and their torsos explode, leaving only a pair of legs to wander about aimlessly. This goofy, over-the-top violence is a hallmark of the Splatterhouse series, and though the shock value has long since passed, it's still very endearing. The sound effects aren't great, but they get the job done. The 2x4 makes a convincing whoosh when swung, and if it connects with a monster, that monster hits the wall with a mighty splort! On the other hand, Rick makes an annoying, synthesized "Oow!" every time he gets hit, and Jennifer's plaintive cry of "Help me!" sounds like something out of a Popeye cartoon. Likewise, the background music is at turns effective/moody and repetitive/obnoxious. The game is pretty generous with extra life hearts and continues, so it's not too difficult to beat. With a little practice, Splatterhouse could be finished in about a half-hour.

In short, Splatterhouse is an unabashedly violent gore-fest that can be uneven and frustrating to play, but it still stands out as one of the best games in the TurboGrafx-16's library. If clobbering gooey hellspawn with building materials sounds like good times to you, give Splatterhouse a try.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, I sing the blues with Mr. Bones for Sega Saturn.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Metal Slug For Neo Geo CD

The best parodies not only mimic their inspirations, they improve on them. Young Frankenstein may be the best monster movie Universal never made, while Evil Dead 2's expert mix of slapstick comedy and legitimate horror practically reinvented both genres as it parodied them. Both movies showed a true passion and admiration for their subjects of ridicule, and so does Nazca's Metal Slug. It's a spot-on parody of run & gun shooters that manages to be one of the best in the genre.

Metal Slug's game play should be pretty familiar to anyone who's played Contra or the like. It's a side-scrolling run & gun shooter that pits your lone character (or your lone character with another lone character in 2-player mode) against an army of easily dispatched enemies. You begin the game with a lowly pistol, but soon gain access to more powerful weapons, like heavy machine guns, rocket launchers, flamethrowers and shotguns. You're also armed with a number of grenades useful for taking out enemy bunkers and vehicles. However, one hit from enemy fire is fatal, causing you to respawn with only your pistol and a handful of those grenades, Periodically throughout the game, you will run across the titular Metal Slugs: personal-sized tanks sporting gatling guns and comically short-ranged cannons. These tanks pack more firepower and can soak up a lot more hits than your character can; they really help even the odds in boss fights if you can hang onto them long enough. Both on foot and in the Metal Slug, you can aim up, down, jump, duck and low-crawl, all while spraying white-hot pixel-y death from your weapon of choice.

OK, so far Metal Slug sounds like pretty a standard shooter fare; what sets it apart? The run & gun genre is an inherently absurd one, and Metal Slug fully embraces that absurdity. It packs every inch of the screen with gorgeous, colorful graphics drawn in an over-the-top cartoony style; warfare as imagined by Tex Avery. Ol' Tex would be proud of the animation too, as the amount of detail that went into each character, vehicle and landscape is astounding. Bullet casings eject from your pistol as you fire it. Tanks rock back on their treads from the recoil of their cannons. Powerups are delivered by scruffy POWs who salute before fleeing in terror. Enemies chit-chat with each other over a campfire, sunbathe, or laugh at your misfortune when you die. Background characters go about their daily business, oblivious to the carnage happening around them--until someone drops a building on them. When left to his own devices, your own character yaks on a walkie-talkie, takes swigs from a flask and drags from a cigarette. All of these subtle moment add a whole lot of character to the game, and demonstrate the amazing amount of creativity that went into it.

Of course, those little moments can be easily missed in all the frenetic action. From the moment you first parachute in, you face bullets and missiles and bombs and bottle rockets flying at you from all directions. You'll be mowing through wave after wave of hapless minions who often demonstrate less than complete devotion to their cause as they duck for cover, try to sneak past you, hold their nose & dive off sinking ships, or just flail around while engulfed in flames. The sheer amount of carnage happening all around you means you'll probably die a whole lot before finishing the game. Yet, it's all such an absurd and stimulating experience that frustration never really seems to set in, even after continuing umpteen times.

Perhaps Metal Slug's only failing is its rather short length. Its six intense levels fly by, culminating in an epic showdown with the lead bad guy and a surprisingly poignant credit sequence. Then again, as the quintessential arcade quarter-sucker, Metal Slug lasts just as long as it should. It delivers a quick, intese and immensely enjoyable arcade experience, and it leaves you begging for more. Though it's an entirely linear game, Metal Slug is worth playing through more than once just to catch all of the brilliant animations packed into the game. The Neo Geo CD version includes multiple difficulties, from easy to MVS (arcade), as well as a time attack mode to add a little replay value. One last nifty bonus, that I believe is unique to the NGCD release, is a gallery of terrific concept drawings and original artwork from the MS universe, including a few characters and vehicles that turn up in later MS games.

Thanks for reading my review! Next up, I kick off a month-long Halloween horror-fest with the TG16's Splatterhouse!

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Swordquest Competition For Atari 2600

When I was a wee glitch, I had a friend with a huge collection of Atari 2600 games. This lucky little punk had them all, from Atlantis to Worm War I, and every summer we'd dutifully march through the width and breadth of his vast library, playing cart after cart until we were chased out of the house by his mom. Most of these games were simple enough for us to just pick up and play, and no matter how abstract the graphics or bizarre the game design, they all made their own kind of sense. But one game, Swordquest: Earthworld, stubbornly defied explanation. We tried for literally tens of minutes to crack the code of this mysterious game before finally getting bored and dropping in Robot Tank. Well, as it turn out, we were missing a few crucial pieces of literature that would have revealed to us Swordquest's true nature as the most epic treasure hunt in gaming history.

The Swordquest games began life as a simple sequel to 1979's Adventure, but they quickly grew into their own, with an original storyline and a theme based on ancient mythology. There were to be four games in the series: Earthworld, Fireworld, Waterworld & Airworld. To promote the Swordquest series, Atari planned an epic contest in five parts: There would be a semifinal contest for each game in the series, leading up to a final round for each semifinalist to compete in. Each game included an instruction manual, a poster, a contest entry form, and a DC comic book. The comics told the tale of Princess Tarra and Prince Torr, twin siblings who were orphaned when their mythical kingdom was attacked and their parents dethroned. The comics also contained several words hidden in the artwork, five of which added up to a phrase that was the solution to the puzzle. Players who correctly figured out the solution earned an all-expense-paid trip to Atari's headquarters, and a chance to win actual treasure made from precious metals and gemstones! So how would a player know where to look in the comic book, and what words to use? That's where the game came in.

Earthworld, the first game in the series, has 12 rooms in a layout patterned after the 12 signs of the Zodiac. Each room had an inventory of objects that could be accessed by pressing the joystick button. Your goal was to traverse each room, collecting items and depositing them in the correct room in order to reveal the room's clue: two numbers corresponding to the page and panel of the comic book that contained a hidden word. Occasionally, you would encounter a 'trial' consisting of obstacles to be avoided or overcome in order to gain access to that room's objects, such as crossing a raging river by hopping across logs or running through gaps in rainbow-colored waterfalls. There were 10 clues in the game that pointed to hidden words in the comic, but only half of them were right. According to the game's manual, "One more clue, found in the DC booklet will be of help in determining which "word clues" are the correct ones." Casually flipping through the comic book, you might notice that the rambling, incoherent poem on page two contains the words 'prime' and 'number' printed in a slightly different color from the rest. Eureka! Crossing out all of the word clues on non-prime-numbered pages left you with the answer, Quest In Tower Talisman Found, and earned you a place in the semifinals.

Atari held the Swordquest: Earthworld contest in March of 1983. Out of 5,000 entries received, only 8 contained the correct phrase and were eligible to to attend. The contestants were presented with an all-new, custom version of Earthworld, and given 90 minutes to solve its puzzle. The grand prize winner was a 20-year-old guy from Detroit by the name of Steven Bell. He took home the "Talisman Of Penultimate Truth," a pendant made of 18-karat solid gold, studded with 12 diamonds, as well as the birthstones of the 12 Zodiac symbols. It also contained a small sword made of white gold embedded in its front. All told, this fancy little bauble was valued at $25,000 dollars--in 1983! Sadly, Bell is rumored to have Cash-For-Gold-ed the entire pendant, except for the small sword.

In February 1983, Atari released the second in the Swordquest series, Fireworld. It was slightly shorter, and it had rooms laid out according to the Kabbalah's Tree Of Life. The game played essentially the same as Earthworld, but this time, the clues spelled out the phrase Leads To Chalice Power Abounds. The contest for Fireworld, held in August of 1983, received many more correct entries, so Atari held a preliminary round, wherein each contestant would write an essay detailing how awesome Atari is and what they loved best about Swordquest. The top 50 essays earned the chance to compete for Fireworld's ultimate prize, The Chalice Of Light, made of gold & platinum and studded with diamonds, rubies, pearls, and other precious stones. It was also valued at $25,000 and won by Michael Rideout, who had the good sense to hang onto it.

The third game, Waterworld, saw only a limited, mail-order release through Atari Club, making it a rare treasure itself. It's the shortest game yet, with only seven rooms that follow the seven centers of chakra. Here at least, the trials all have something to do with water: The player must swim through shark-infested oceans, dive past killer squids and hop across icebergs to gather clues pointing to the phrase Hasten Toward Revealed Crown. The grand prize this time was the Crown Of Life, made out of solid gold, studded with rubies, diamonds and aquamarines, and again valued at $25,000.

Unfortunately, the Waterworld contest never happened. Atari, who was hemorrhaging money due to the video game crash of 1983, canceled the entire contest shortly before Waterworld's competition was scheduled to start, and killed all further development of Airworld. The last comic was never written, and the ultimate fate of twins Torr and Tarra was never revealed. Bell and Rideout, who would have returned to compete for the overall grand prize, a $50,000 gold-and silver sword called The Sword Of Ultimate Sorcery, were instead paid about $15,000 each. Swordquest was quietly and unceremoniously laid to rest at the close of 1983. By 1984, Atari had been sold to Commodore founder, Jack Tramiel, who planned to retool it as a personal computer manufacturer. Without its clout as the world's premier video game maker, (and the income to match) Atari would never again host a contest as extravagant and elaborate as Swordquest.

 So, 30 years after the contest ended, what does Swordquest have to offer the gamers of today? Frankly, not much. The video games really only exist to provide hints on where to look for clues in the comic. Eagle-eyed players probably spotted most of them without even finishing the video games, anyway. The promise of untold riches was clearly intoxicating enough to sell a whole lot of Earthworld and Fireworld carts back in '82 & '83, but now that promise is gone. What's left is essentially a very basic fetch quest, with a little bit of rudimentary twitch gaming thrown in for good measure. The trials in Earthworld play a lot like Frogger, but without the complexity or nuance. Fireworld's trials are even more abstract and confusing: One moment, you're trying to stab what I think are birds onto a spike; the next, you are a bird and you're shooting at snakes slithering all around you. Waterworld at least maintains a constant watery theme with its trials, but none of them are particularly fun or memorable enough to play through more than once. Other than the background color, nothing distinguishes one room from another in any of these games, and no hints as to what item goes in which room are ever given--it's pure trial-and-error in its most repetitive form. In short, they're all pretty mediocre games that relied on gimmickry to sell copies, rather than solid game play. It's a deadly sin that Atari committed many times over in the early 80s, and it lead directly to Atari's precipitous fall from grace.

There's one final puzzle in the Swordquest saga which may never be solved: Whatever happened to the last three treasures? The Waterworld contest never happened, and Airworld never saw the light of day, but there's photographic proof of the existence of Airworld's Philosopher's Stone, (a hunk of white jade encased in a solid gold box) Waterworld's Crown Of Life and the grand prize, The Sword Of Ultimate Truth. For years, rumors persisted that Tramiel kept them in his office, but nothing has ever been confirmed, and no more details have come to light since Tramiel retired in 1995. After 30 years, those lost treasures, and Swordquest itself have truly become the stuff of gaming legend.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, we ascend to the heights of comically-violent side-scrolling bliss with Metal Slug!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

DOOM Console Port Roundup

DOOM! No other four-letter (family-friendly) word has had such an impact on the video gaming industry. It's the game that brought first-person action, multi-player online gaming, and fan-created mods to the masses. It's the game that turned me into a die-hard PC snob for a long time, too. After all, no chumpy little toy console could possibly handle the double-barreled BFG telefragging awesomeness that is Doom, right? Well, I'm going to find out, as I play through the Doom console ports I've collected over the years.

DOOM for Atari Jaguar: Doom was quite a get for Atari's final game console. A launch title released less than a year after the PC original, Doom for Jaguar no doubt moved many consoles by itself, and for good reason: It's a very good port. Written by the great John Carmack himself, the Jaguar version looks and plays very much like the PC original. It makes some concessions to the more limited Jaguar hardware, though. There are fewer levels than in the PC version, and they are generally less complex-looking. (Fewer variety in the wall textures, missing objects like lamps, computer screens, etc.) A few enemies, like the big bad Cyberdemon are no-shows too; he's replaced a bunch of Hell Barons at the end--a major disappointment in my opinion. There's no background music at all, which is weird. Evidently the Jaguar had a problem doing math and playing cheesy midi synth-metal tunes at the same time, so music is only heard at the intermissions between levels. Oh well, Doom is best played over Slayer's Hell Awaits, anyway. The Jaguar controller's otherwise pointless numeric keypad is actually put to some good use here. You can directly select the weapon you want by pressing its number (1 for chainsaw, 2 for pistol, 3 for shotgun, etc.) instead of cycling through them one at a time. You can't save your game in the level, but the Jaguar version will remember the last level you finished, and it will let you start a new game from there, even if the console is shut off.

For the most part, things move along smoothly in the Jaguar's Doom. The action does tend to chug a bit when too many characters are onscreen at once, but never so much that it's unplayable. All in all, I'd say the Jaguar version is much like playing Doom in low detail mode on a slow 486. That's no small feat considering that, in 1994, even a slow 486 would have cost two to three times as much as the Jaguar. The sound effects are lifted intact from the PC version, and they sound just as good. There doesn't seem to be any loss of fidelity.

Finally, it's worth noting that this version actually supports two players with a second Jaguar console, a second television and a Jag-Link cable. Though I bet I could count on one hand (after chainsawing all my fingers off) how many multi-player Jaguar Doom sessions history has witnessed, it's still a neat feature to have.

DOOM for Sega 32X: The 32X add-on was Sega's last desperate attempt to breathe life into the elderly Genesis console. It shows too, as this thing is a kludgy mess! Fully decked out with the Sega CD and the 32X, the Genesis needs three separate AC adapters, a special video cable between the Genesis and the 32X, another video cable from the 32X to the TV and finally, an audio cable from the Sega CD to the television. All to play games that were mediocre at best; mind-numbingly awful at worst.

The 32X port of Doom falls pretty close to 'at worst.' It's still Doom, but so much of it had to be chopped down to squeeze into that train wreck of a game console that it's just not worth playing. At first glance, it looks a lot like the Jaguar version; the wall textures, level layouts, etc look basically the same. However, all of the action takes place in a small window in the center of the screen. If you've ever wanted to shoot zombies through a keyhole, this is your game. The frame rate is all over the place; at times, it moves faster than the Jaguar version, but when more than a couple of enemies are on screen at once, the 32X version turns into a slideshow. Even more levels are missing in 32X Doom, including the entire 3rd chapter, Inferno. This means the BFG 9000, Doom's über-gun introduced in Chapter 3, is MIA here--even though it's mentioned in the manual! It is technically in the game, but there's no way to get it legitimately; you have to enter a cheat code, and 32X Doom punishes you with a bogus ending if you do.

You may notice while playing 32X Doom that everything appears to be facing you all the time. This is because the developers included only the front sprites for each object and character, so you can never see their sides or backs. Because of this change, it's impossible to sneak up on enemies, and more important, it's impossible to cause them to fight each other. One of Doom's most endearing qualities is the monster infighting. Watching an imp turn around and napalm some poor zombie for his bad aim is sheer gaming joy. To take that away is to rip out the very blackened heart and soul of Doom.

The last bite of this particular shit sandwich is the background music. It's awful! Buzzy, bleepy, atonal & badly-mangled versions of the original Doom tunes dominate the 32X version's BGMs. Some sounded so awful, I was getting concerned there was something wrong with my television. At least, mercifully, 32X Doom lets you shut the music off without losing all of the sound.

DOOM For SNES: Compared to the 32X version, Doom for the Super Nintendo is downright elegant. Just drop in the unique, blood-red cartridge and you're playing Doom! Well, almost. Though you don't need the same byzantine mess of wires and adapters to play the SNES version, it makes even  more compromises to try to run on a platform that just can't handle it.

The levels in SNES Doom resemble the PC version more closely than the previous versions, in layout as well as general appearance. The game is once again divided into three distinct chapters, and to my knowledge all of the PC version's levels are present here. Too bad getting through them is such a slog. Like the 32X version, SNES Doom is played in a window instead of full-screen. In addition, the resolution of that little window is lowered to the point where distant objects look more like stacks of Legos. Many of the characters' animation frames are missing, such as when imps throw fireballs or pinky demons take bites out of you. The floors and ceilings have no textures at all, and are simply flat-shaded. Once again, only the front sprites are included, so no sneaking by or inciting demonic civil war. Finally, the sound effects are Edison wax cylinder lo-fi. Despite all of these compromises, it still runs infuriatingly slowly.Your character turns like an oil tanker, when he acknowledges input from the controller at all. When more than two or three bad guys are on screen, the frame rate drops so low that SNES Doom becomes nigh-unplayable. Perhaps to atone for this sin, the developers essentially eliminated to the need to aim your gun. Now you just have to point your weapon of choice in the general direction of the enemy to hit him. Unfortunately, that same advantage is also extended to the enemy, who will take amazingly accurate pot shots at you from clear across the level. This, combined with the lousy frame rates make SNES Doom painfully difficult and not at all fun to play.

Ironically, the one redeeming quality of SNES Doom is its background music. It's by far the best of the lot so far, and it sounds even better than the PC version's. I know I've mentioned this in the past, but the Super Nintendo's sound capabilities continue to amaze me with its fidelity and versatility. Too bad the rest of the console isn't nearly up to the task of playing Doom.

Final DOOM for Playstation: Final Doom started out as an expansion pack built by a fan group called TeamTNT; a group that's still going strong today. In 1995, shortly before it was to be posted online, Id Software bought Final Doom and developed it into a full-blown retail release. With 64 levels in total, Final Doom is nearly as long as Doom and Doom II combined, and is a damned sight harder than both of its predecessors. In its flimsy boilerplate of a plot, humanity's pitiful remnants have once again decided to dork around with inter-dimensional gateways on Jupiter's moon, Io. Of course, demonic shenanigans ensue so you, the universe's unluckiest space marine, are sent to deal with them and save Earth from another invasion.

The Playstation version of Final Doom keeps the story and most of the levels intact, but dials down the difficulty. It's still no walk in the park, but now it's no more challenging than the later levels of Doom and Doom II. The controls in this version are the best so far. Using the top left & right shoulder buttons in concert with the D-pad, you can circle-strafe, which is a feature sorely lacking in the previous versions. This addition alone makes Playstation's Final Doom the best of the bunch so far, in terms of overall playability.

Unfortunately, it also suffers in presentation. I expected the Playstation version, running on 3D-accelerated hardware, to be the best-looking one of the bunch, but it's really not. In fact, in many aspects, it looks worse than the Jaguar version. The textures on the walls are very low resolution, disintegrating into a jumbled mess of blocks when viewed up close. The Playstation's notorious lack of texture perspective correction is a real problem for Final Doom, since nearly every object in the game is a texture. Without it, object move around in a very jittery fashion with respect to your point of view, and they often appear to float over the backgrounds. Again, despite the graphical compromises, this game really chugs when several enemies are on screen or you're in a large open area. There are a few eye-candy tricks not present in the PC original, such as transparent enemies and colored lighting effects, but for the most part it's uglier and slower than the PC version, which was rendered without any special hardware.

The sound is another sticking point for me. Nearly all of the sound effects are different from the PC original, as well as all of the others. The new sound effects certainly don't sound any better than those in the PC version. I know it sounds nit-picky of me, but here's the problem I have: Doom's sounds are a huge part of the game's experience. Every type of hellish critter in the game makes some kind of unique alarm noise when it spots you, and a veteran Doom player can tell exactly what he's up against by listening for those characteristic grunts and growls. Juggling the sound effects around unnecessarily ruins that element of strategy, at least until you get used to them. The background has been completely changed as well. Those synth-metal tracks have been replaced by moody, atmospheric, down-tempo dirges that sound like they belong in a Silent Hill game. They're not bad; they just seem out of place in a game that relies so heavily on fast-paced action.

Oh yeah, one last thing: You save your progress with yet another too-long, incomprehensible password. Dammit, the Playstation sported memory card slots precisely to put an end the scourge of game passwords!

DOOM 64 for Nintendo 64: This last version isn't a port of Doom, it's a complete re-imagining. The characters, weapons, levels, and even the game engine received a complete overhaul in Doom 64. Unfortunately, it was released in 1997, in Quake's shadow, so it received little fanfare or love from the critics. Being the consumate Doom snob that I am, I was prepared to turn my nose up at it too, but it has really grown on me. Frankly, this is a very good game.

The plot is again paper-thin, and I don't know where it falls in the official canon--if there even is such a thing. It involves the Doom Guy heading back to Mars to wipe out some mother demon, or something. In short, you shoot monsters, you grab keys, and you run toward the exit, like in a proper game of Doom.

As I mentioned, this is a complete overhaul. All of the levels are unique to Doom 64, and they contain much more detail than even the PC version. The redesigned game engine is now truly 3D, and it supports much more complex-looking levels, light-sourcing effects, rooms that can exist on top of other rooms, etc. The textures in the walls, floor and ceiling are much higher in resolution than the PC original, and since the N64 supports a primitive form of anti-aliasing, they don't devolve into a mess of blocky pixels when viewed up close. The objects and characters are still sprites, but they've been completely redrawn, and rendered in a higher resolution. In short, this is about the best looking Doom there is.

Good news on the gameplay front, too. Despite the vastly improved graphics, Doom 64 runs smooth as silk, with nary a slowdown in sight. It seems you're almost always fighting in tight quarters with few enemies on screen at once, but I saw nothing that would suggest Doom 64 couldn't handle a wide-open, monster-packed arena. In fact, the title screen features loads of hellspawn fighting it out on a gigantic DOOM logo, and it looks very impressive.

Unfortunately, the sound effects are once again a drawback. They're straight out of the Playstation version, but they sound much more lo-fi and muffled here, perhaps due to space restrictions on the cartridge. The music is also the same ambient, dread-inducing spooky tune as the Playstation, though it seems to fit the slower pace and more claustrophobic feel of Doom 64 better. The N64 controller is ill-suited to shooter games in general, but you can remap the buttons as you see fit. Unfortunately, it doesn't save your custom button config anywhere, but it will save your progress between levels if you have a memory pak plugged into controller 1. Rather surprisingly, there's no multiplayer at all in Doom 64Goldeneye gave us four player split-screen ass-kickery the very same year it was released, so I don't believe for a second that the N64 couldn't handle it. Including multiplayer support would have probably gone a long way toward making Doom 64 a more memorable title.

So what is the best version of Doom, anyway? Well, for my money, I'd say the best version is the one the fans created for themselves, and the one that's still being made today. Doom was designed from the ground up to be easily modified through the use of massive resource files, called WADs. These WAD files, easily edited and readily shared across the fledgeling World Wide Web, led to a groundswell of fan-created content for Doom, ranging from home brewed levels, like the aforementioned TeamTNT's to novelty levels, like this recreation of the Stauf mansion from The 7th Guest. Some fans even created total conversions, which were WADs that turned Doom into an entirely different, original game. In short order, Doom had become much more than a game; it was a canvas upon which countless modders expressed their own creativity, and in doing so, it laid the groundwork for amazing fan mods, like Team Fortress and Counterstrike.

Incidentally, I dabbled in modding myself, way back in my Glitchy adolescence. I've dug up and posted my very own WAD file, wherein I've replaced the sounds in the shareware episode with whatever I found hilarious back in the early 90s. Check it out here. You can download a modern version of the Doom binaries for Mac and Windows here.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, I take a look at one of the most fascinating experiments in video game history: Atari's Swordquest competition.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Justifier and Lethal Enforcers II for Genesis

I love light guns. Love 'em! You can keep your Kinects and your Eye Toys and your Wii Motion Plussesses because video games attained interactive perfection with the NES Zapper. Though I've never shot anything more formidable than a BB gun in real life, nothing gives me greater joy than blowing holes in pixellated bad guys with a gun-shaped hunk of plastic. Unfortunately, light gun games always seem to get short shrift, as they typically make up a small fraction of any console's library. Sega didn't see fit to include a light gun with the Genesis at all, so it fell to Konami to release the Justifier, which was bundled with its Genesis port of the arcade game, Lethal Enforcers.

There are two versions of the Justifier: a blue revolver that plugs into controller port 2 on the Genesis and a pink revolver that daisy-chains into the blue revolver's butt for two-player games. It's an awkward setup that requires the second player to sit uncomfortably close to both the first player and the Genesis, as neither of the guns' cables are very long. Though not particularly heavy, the Justifier has decent weight and balance, and is comfortable to hold for extended periods. The Justifier's trigger feels mushy and imprecise and it lacks the Zapper's satisfying clang when pulled. Its accuracy is significantly better than the Zapper's, though, and it can't be tricked by aiming it at a light bulb. Of course, you must use a CRT TV set with the Justifier, as it will not work with any other kind of television.

So now that we know all about the gun, let's talk about a game that uses it. Lethal Enforcers II: Gun Fighters is an on-rails arcade shooter that plays like Hogan's Alley meets Mad Dog McCree. It's 1873, and you're a sheriff sent to fight crime in a nameless spaghetti western town by shooting nearly all of its inhabitants.Your weapon of choice is a revolver that holds six bullets at a time. (Aim the Justifier away from the screen & pull the trigger to reload.) In most levels, the bad guys move around a static background location like a bank or saloon, shooting at you from windows, kicking open doors, jumping out from behind barrels, etc. The criminals run the Old West cliché gamut from scruffy cowboys and outlaws to banditos, indians and even Derringer-packing hookers--and they're all gunning for you. Pick them off in the split-second before they get a bead on you, but watch our for hostages or innocent bystanders who wander onto the screen. You start the game five lives represented by stars at the top of the screen. If you get shot, or you shoot an innocent bystander, you lose a star. Lose all of your stars and it's game over, though you can continue up to nine times. There are several weapon upgrades to be found in each stage, such as a rifle with double the ammo capacity of your revolver, a fully-automatic gatling gun, and a cannon that looks more like a dodgeball launcher. Some weapons, like the rifle, can be reloaded while others, like the gatling gun, are dropped once they're empty. However, all of them disappear the moment you take a hit, so unless you're really quick on the draw, most of your time will be spent wielding the lowly revolver. At the end of each stage, your score is tallied and you're given a rank from Posse (worst) to US Marshal (best) based on how accurate your aim was and how many innocents survived the onslaught.

Most of the action in Lethal Enforcers II takes place in the aforementioned static environments, but it does mix in some variety. For example, Stage 2 has you defending a runaway stage coach from outlaws and indians on horseback. Bonus stage awards you big points for shooting as many bottles off a saloon's bar or thrown in the air in a short amount of time. Most levels also end with a boss who will really punish your trigger finger, as you try to land hits on him while fending off his attacks. Many of the object in the background respond to being shot, like signs & paintings that fall off walls and reveal weapon upgrades. Lanterns and bottles explode in showers of glass, chandeliers crash to the floor, and barrels spring leaks when shot, all adding tiny bits of verisimilitude to this otherwise very arcade-y game. Other clever touches include a piano that can be 'played' by shooting it, bad guys who fall down stairs or into horse troughs and the town drunk who wanders through the middle of a gun fight, like some Crazy Guggenheim routine.

Lethal Enforcers II is, for the most part, an excellent game. There are a few hairy spots that require nearly superhuman reflexes, but it's never so hard as to be unbeatable, and the difficulty can be lowered at the game's title screen. I do have two nagging problems with this game, though, and they're both related to the hardware it's running on. I hate to say it, but this is one of the ugliest Genesis games I've ever played. Most of the characters and backgrounds are digitized photos lifted from the arcade game, but the Genesis, with its low display resolution and measly 64 colors, can't effectively show one photo-realistic image, much less several at once. As a result, the backgrounds are badly-dithered and nearly monochrome. The characters, while a little more colorful, lack detail and look completely out of place on the drab backgrounds; like paper dolls pasted on top of an old daguerreotype.

 Lethal Enforcers II uses recorded samples for most of its sound effects, and they sound better than the average Genesis game. However, there are maybe ten or so spoken lines in the entire game, and they get repeated ad infinitum by the various characters. You may find yourself reaching for the mute button after hearing 'You ain't a-gonna get me, Sheriff!' repeated for the umpteenth time. Fortunately, the background music is much more enjoyable. It sounds like a synthesized, up-tempo Ennio Morricone soundtrack, right down to the Good, Bad and Ugly flute sting that plays when you earn an extra life.

Presentation issues aside, Lethal Enforcers II is a lot of fun to play and well worth owning if you enjoy fast-paced arcade shooters. The Justifier light gun and Lethal Enforcers II sold like crazy back in the day, and are still easy to track down today. I've seen the blue gun and both Lethal Enforcer games sell on eBay for less than 25 bucks. If you're as big a light gun nut as I am, pick up a Justifier, haul the ol' Radiation King out of the attic and bring a little frontier justice to the lawless 16-bit West.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, I play DOOM. Lots and lots of DOOM.