Friday, August 31, 2012

Bust-A-Move for SNES

Bubble Bobble certainly had its day in the sun, earning a direct sequel, at least one remake, and selling loads of copies. However, Bub & Bob's future lay largely in their spinoff games, the most popular being the Bust-A-Move series. Known for their whimsical, addictive gameplay, and occasionally for their nightmare-fueling cover art, these games have been going strong for almost 20 years.

Bust-A-Move, as it's known in the US and Puzzle Bobble everywhere else, is an arcade puzzle game in the style of Puyo Pop or Tetris. Your goal is to eliminate all of the bubbles on the play field by firing bubbles out of a catapult at the bottom of the screen. Matching three or more like-colored bubbles causes them to burst, and any bubbles stuck underneath to fall off the screen. The bubbles can be shot straight at their targets or bounced off the sides of the play field to pull off tricky bank shots. At regular intervals, the play field begins to shake, and then slides down, pushing the bubbles down with it. If at any point a bubble gets as low as the catapult, the game ends in humiliating, pastel defeat. Fortunately, you can continue up to seven times, and a password system lets you pick up where you left off later. To assist with levels you continually whiff, Bust-A-Move gives you a helpful guide that shows exactly where the next bubble you're aiming will land. It takes some of the challenge away from the game, but it only lasts until you finish the level that's giving you grief.

The SNES version of Bust-A-Move is super-simple to pick up and play. Left & right on the D-pad aims the catapult, while up centers it, and any of the face buttons fire the bubbles. The left & right shoulder buttons let you fine-tune your aim, making it easier to pull off those bank shots. You earn a modest number of point for simply popping bubbles, but you can earn huge point multipliers by knocking large numbers of bubbles loose at once. Therefore, it's usually in your best interest to aim for the bubbles at the top, and work your way down. It's also in your best interest to work fast because you're scored on how long it takes to complete each level. Some levels sport special wild bubbles that, when hit, explode, wipe out a whole line of bubbles, or change all nearby bubbles to a single color. A lucky shot on one of these bubbles can make very short work of the rest. My personal record is a three-second, two-shot win.

Bust-A-Move for SNES also sports a vs mode, which can be played with another person or against the computer. Here, the goal is to knock the other player out by filling his screen with bubbles. If you pop a certain number of bubbles at once or cause a cascade of bubbles to drop, a bunch of random bubbles will appear on the bottom of  your opponent's play field. In addition, lines of bubbles appear at the top of the screen at regular intervals, keeping you from ever completely clearing your own field. To win the match, you have to keep enough dangling bubbles around as ammo, but not so many that your own field fills up. It's a fast-paced nail-biting balancing act that's a lot of fun, and a big departure from the slower, more deliberate single-player mode. Winning a best-of-three match against the computer bumps you up the ladder to more difficult opponents who are faster, less indecisive and less likely to make mistakes. As with the one player game, you can continue as many times as you like, and save your progress with a password.

Bust-A-Move retains Bubble Bobble's light-hearted, whimsical aesthetics, and of course it never takes itself very seriously. The buck-toothed duo (as well as a few of the baddies from Bubble Bobble in the vs mode) work together to crank the catapult back and forth, load bubbles and fire them. They jump for joy at the end of a successful match or run around in goofy bewilderment at a failed one. The animations add nothing to the game play; they're just fun to watch, and they give Bust-A-Move a little more personality than the typical puzzle game. On the other hand, the bubbles, which are supposed to contain the trapped enemies from Bubble Bobble, look more like disturbing, pastel-colored eggs filled with developing alien fetuses--especially when they twitch! Yarg! The background music is another pleasant little ditty played on an endless loop that will remain with you, tormenting your soul until the cold embrace of death finally claims you. But hey, at least it sounds good coming from the SNES. That system really has top-notch sound.

There's very little to complain about in Bust-A-Move. It's a faithful port of a very simple arcade puzzle game. I would have preferred to see less wasted screen space, and more variety to the levels in the one player game. The catapult changes angles a bit too slowly for the more fast-paced vs mode, too. That dinosaur on crank duty really needs to get the lead out. Other than that, it's simple, fun, cheerful and addictive.

As I mentioned before, the Bust-A-Move games have been going strong since they first hit shelves and arcades in 1994. They've seen a release on nearly every console and hand-held made since the SNES, so it's easy to find a used copy  dirt-cheap. Though the SNES original has yet to appear on the Wii's Virtual Console, a very similar Wiiware version, called Bust-A-Move Plus, is available for less than a sawbuck. Well worth the money if you've never played these games before.

Thanks for reading my review! Next up: Armed with a plastic six-shooter, we're bring law and order to the Old West in Lethal Enforcers 2: Gun Fighters.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Bubble Bobble for NES

The record for arcade translations on NES is pretty spotty. Some, like Gyruss, are faithful to the arcade version, and a lot of fun to play. Others, like Xenophobe, don't hold a candle to the arcade original. Fortunately, Taito's Bubble Bobble falls squarely in the former category. It may not bring anything new to the table, but it retains the arcade version's simple, addictive gameplay and its cheerful aesthetic.

Bubble Bobble is a one- or two-player cooperative puzzle platformer. It stars Bub & Bob, two cute, buck-toothed little dinosaurs on a quest to rescue their respective girlfriends from an army of cutesy characters in a game spanning over 100 levels. Their only means of attack is a flip-top head that squirts out enemy-trapping bubbles. Once an enemy is immobilized, Bub or Bob can dispatch it by popping the bubble, turning it into a piece of fruit (or sushi or candy or a necklace or any number of objects) that can be eaten for extra points. Once the room is cleared of baddies, Bub & Bob automatically descend to the next room in the game.

Yes, let us.
 Bubble Bobble's simple gameplay may make it one of the most accessible game in the NES library, but for those who wish to plumb its depths, there's plenty to be found. As I mentioned, there are over 100 levels in the game, (each level is directly accessible with a mercifully short password) but that's just the beginning. Finishing the game unlocks Super Bubble Bobble, which contains an additional 100+ unique and more challenging levels. Power-ups in Bubble Bobble are triggered when you perform certain actions, such as popping a number of bubbles or taking out a bunch of enemies at once. There are loads of power-ups too, which can turn every enemy on screen into fruit, skip you ahead several levels, double your rate of fire, or just grant you a whole mess of points. There are even multiple endings, the "worst" of which is seen by simply finishing the game, and the others by unlocking secret items and/or finishing the game with both players.

Bubble Bobble's presentation lost very little in its translation to the NES. The arcade version, with its flat-black background, wasn't exactly a feast for the eyes, but its characters were colorful, nicely detailed, and well animated. The NES version looks nearly as good, with only minor concessions to its more limited color palette, as well as some flickering when too many objects are on-screen at once. The background music is the same single tune as the arcade version, and played on an endless loop. It's a cheery little earworm that will bore into your skull and lay eggs of whimsey in your brain.

 Bubble Bobble is a whole lot of fun, and just as much game as you want it to be, whether that's a marathon run through hundreds of levels, or just a few minutes of classic arcade action.

Thanks for reading my review! Up next is another entry in the Bubble Bobble canon: Bust-A-Move.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

HOWTO: Fix the NES Red Light Of Death

As anyone who's owned the original NES front-loader knows, it's not the most reliable game console. You drop in Bump 'N Jump expecting to enjoy a little vehicular carnage, but instead you're greeted with a black screen and a blinking red light. Sure, briskly blowing on the game cartridge might get it working just one more time, but ultimately your NES will be so far gone that a leaf blower couldn't move enough air to help. Don't worry though, the fix is incredibly simple. If you can work a screwdriver, you can fix your NES good as new.

You'll need three basic components:

1. A philips screwdriver
2. An X-acto knife or similar sharp, pointed blade.
3. A replacement NES 72-pin cartridge connector, available from eBay.

Make sure you get a new 72-pin connector, and not a refurb. They're available for about 7 to 10 bucks from a number of dealers.

First, a little background info. To prevent unlicensed games from being played, all front-loading NES consoles have a security lockout chip installed called the 10NES chip. It's designed to read a companion chip in every licensed NES game to verify its authenticity. The Blinking Red Light Of Death, as it's called is a condition whereby the 10NES chip can't authenticate the cartridge at power-on, so it resets the console and tries again every second until it can authenticate. This can happen even if the game is otherwise read properly, causing the title screen to show up briefly between resets. The most common reason why the 10NES chip doesn't receive the authentication signal is that the cartridge connecter inside the console has worn down to the point where it no longer makes a solid connection with the game. When that happens, the connector must be replaced.

Disclaimer time: Proceed at your own risk. There are no dangerous voltages inside the NES when it's unplugged, but the components inside can be damaged by static electricity once they're exposed. Be sure to ground yourself before opening the case, and don't go running around a carpeted floor holding the bare motherboard. It's also a good idea to make note of which screw came from where, when it comes time to reassemble your NES.

OK, let's begin:

Step 1: Flip the NES over and remove the six screws along the gray edge of the case. Don't worry about the two screws in the black part underneath the controller jacks.

Step 2: Flip the NES upright again and lift the top of the case off. Remove the five screws that hold the steel RF shield in place and lift it off. You can now see the black, spring-loaded cartridge holder, the cartridge connector and the NES motherboard.

NES with top cover and RF shield removed

Step 3: Remove the screws around the cartridge holder and around the RF/AV jacks near the upper-right corner of the NES. Unplug the larger blue connector and the two smaller green connectors on the right side of the motherboard by pulling them straight out. Don't wiggle them or pull on their wires.

Step 4: Lift the motherboard out of the case. Gently slide the cartridge holder away from the cartridge connector and set it aside. Now you're left with the NES motherboard and the cartridge connector.

NES main board and cartridge connector

Step 5: Pull the cartridge connector off the motherboard. If you need to, work it loose by rocking it back & forth as you pull.

Step 6: Slide the replacement cartridge slot onto the motherboard, facing the same direction as the old one.

At this point, I'd say 90% of your problems will be solved, and you can reassemble your NES. However, if you want to make damn sure that light never blinks at you again, read on.

Step 7: Flip the NES motherboard over so that the chips are facing you.

Step 8: Hold the motherboard with the cartridge connector and the RF/AV plugs facing down and locate the 10NES chip. It's a small 16-pin chip on the lower-right corner of the motherboard, immediately up & to the left of the metal RF box. The name Nintendo and the number 3193A should be printed on it.

The 10NES chip above & to the left of the RF box. Cut the circled pin to disable.

Step 9: On the bottom row of pins--the row of pins closest to the cartridge connector--count four pins in from the left or five pins in from the right. Sever that pin and only that pin with your knife to permanently disable the 10NES chip.

Step 10: Reassemble your NES and enjoy a blissful blinking light-less lifestyle. That pesky lockout chip will never bother you again, and your NES with its replacement cartridge connector, should play like it's brand new.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Castlevania: Bloodlines For Sega Genesis

Castlevania: Bloodlines is the only Castlevania game released for the Sega Genesis, and canonically, it’s a bit of an oddball. Set in 1917, it attempts to incorporate the events of Bram Stoker’s novel into the Castlevania storyline. It’s an odd direction to take the series, and not particularly effective given how different the love-struck horndog Bram Stoker Dracula is from the all-powerful-master-of-darkness Castlevania Dracula. The game stars John Morris, the son of Quincey Morris from the novel and heir to the Belmont lineage. As a young boy, he witnessed his father commit the ultimate sacrifice to stop Dracula. Now, 10 years later, he and his hetero life-partner, Eric Lecarde, seek to stop the Countess Elizabeth Bartley (herself a reference to real-life crazy person Elizabeth Báthory) from resurrecting Dracula yet again. 

The game begins in Dracula’s castle, in a nifty redux of level 1 from the original Castlevania. From there, the game heads to exotic locales, like a sinking temple in Greece, The Leaning Tower of Pisa and a munitions plant in Germany. Both John & Eric are playable characters, though not at the same time; deferring my dreams of a two-player co-op Castlevania game yet again. John uses the classic Belmont Whip, which he can aim in several directions, and use like a grappling hook to swing over gaps. Eric packs a lance that be spun around him, stabbed in several directions or used as an uber-pogo stick to vault himself high into the air. John and Eric can occasionally use these unique abilities to reach hidden areas or take alternate paths that the other can’t reach, but for the most part, they don’t affect the course of the game. Eric is a much more versatile character and more fun to play. Unlike John, he doesn’t have to be jumping to attack up, down or diagonally. His lance, though slower to attack, has a greater range than John’s whip. Eric’s pogo ability is both a potent attack and an effective way to escape danger, while John’s swing move leaves him vulnerable until he lands.

As with previous Castlevania games, whipping candles releases power-ups, like the three (yep, only three) special weapons, red & blue gems that take the place of hearts and power those weapons, upgrades to your lance/whip, and extra lives. Hidden in certain breakable walls are delicious chops of walled-up, fossilized pork that restore your health and spell books that either grant you a whole mess of gems or imbue your weapon with holy flames and turn you into a vamp-slaughtering powerhouse… until you take a hit, and the effect disappears. The levels are pretty long, each one sporting a mini-boss and a main boss, but there are only six of them. On Easy, the entire game can be played through in maybe a couple of hours, but if you don’t feel like it, Castlevania: Bloodlines lets you save your game… using the worst password system since Guardian Legend! Man, I hate passwords.

Castlevania: Bloodlines really dishes out the 16-bit spectacle. Konami used every graphical trick in the Genesis’ book to give the player such eye candy as towering, multi-jointed bosses, reflective water, and a Tower of Pisa that sways back & forth as you scale it. It’s easily one of the best-looking Genesis games, though at the cost of some pretty bad slow-down from time to time. The in-game music is equally superb. It was written by Michiru Yamane, who would go on to create the legendary musical score for Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night. It harkens back to previous Castlevania games, but without turning into a 16-bit needle drop. Unfortunately, the sound effects aren’t nearly as impressive. With few exceptions, they are some of the flattest, least-convincing and most uninspired FM-synthesized crap ever bleated out of the Genesis. The Sonic games, Lightening Force and even Konami’s own Contra: Hard Corps have terrific sound effects, so why Castlevania: Bloodlines comes up so short in this regard is beyond me.

Then again, that’s pretty trivial compared Castlevania: Bloodlines’ stiff controls. Anyone who’s played the NES games knows too well that Simon Belmont moved and jumped like he kept a crucifix up his ass. Well, that same fate has befallen John and Eric because like their forbearer, they both chug slowly across the screen, and neither character can change direction mid-jump—a serious flaw for a game so reliant on tricky jumps and quick movements. The fact that Konami had already perfected Castlevania’s control scheme with Super Castlevania three years prior to Bloodlines makes this backslide both inexcusable and totally baffling. 

If you’re a fan of the series and you prefer the simple, linear style of older Castlevania games to the Metroid-like RPGs they would become, Castlevania: Bloodlines is worth playing for both the nostalgia and the spectacle. Staying true to its oddball nature, Castlevania: Bloodlines has not seen any direct sequels or re-releases, so your best bet is to snag a copy off eBay and dust off the ol’ Genesis. 

Thanks for reading my review. Next week, Bub & Bob buffalo baddies with bevies of bubbles in Bubble Bobble and Bust-A-Move!

The Guardian Legend For NES

It’s safe to say that, in its lifetime, the NES spawned more memorable game franchises than any other system in history. Yet, the sheer volume of games in the NES’ library guaranteed that a few gems fell through the cracks and are largely forgotten today. One such game is Guardian Legend, developed by Compile and released in the US in 1989.

Guardian Legend is a unique blend of Zanac-style vertical space shooting and Blaster Master overhead dungeon crawling. This mashup of two very disparate game styles is justified by the titular Guardian being a transformer, who can change from a suspiciously VF-1 Valkyrie-looking space ship to a robotic girl wearing hooker boots. Your mission, as this space fighter cyberlady, is to infiltrate the rogue planetoid Naju and activate its self-destruct before it collides with Earth. To do this, you must locate and disable 10 safeties scattered throughout Naju’s various dungeons. The dungeons are connected by corridors which make up the shooter levels, and can be played through in almost any order. In both game modes, you collect power chips which serve as both currency and ammo for your secondary weapon. Speaking of which, there are tons of secondary weapons! Everything from lightsabers to homing missiles to spread-fire guns can be found, purchased, or looted from defeated bosses. If you get stuck in a particularly difficult level, chances are there’s a weapon tailor-made for it that’s just waiting to be found. This, along with power-ups that expand your life bar and power chip capacity give Guardian Legend the rare distinction of being a space shooter that actually gets easier as it progresses. This isn’t to say Guardian Legend is easy—far from it. Just getting through the approach to Naju in the beginning of the game is a challenge! You will get hit by enemy fire in Guardian Legend, so the key to victory is minimizing those hits, collecting enough power-ups to stay alive, and using the best weapon for the job. If you get frustrated and want to take a break, Guardian Legend lets you save your game… using the longest, most byzantine password system I’ve ever seen! Each password is a huge string of numbers and upper-case, lower-case and even diacritic letters that have to be entered one agonizingly-slow character at a time. If there’s ever been a game that begged for a battery save, it’s Guardian Legend.

It’s clear that most of Compile’s efforts went into developing the shooter levels in Guardian Legend. Where they are fast-paced, challenging and full of unique enemies, the on-foot levels are slower, repetitive, and all filled with the same five or six types of palette-swapped enemies. Though it’s fun at times to explore Naju at a slower pace, collecting power-ups and reading more of the game’s back-story, the on-foot sections ultimately feel like padding to be muddled through on your way to the next exciting space battle. It’s telling that the reward for finishing Guardian Legend is the ability to replay just the shooter levels.

Without a sequel, a remake or even a Virtual Console release, it seems Guardian Legend has been relegated to the dustbins of gaming history, and that’s unfortunate. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s unique and enjoyable enough to have earned its own franchise.

Bonus Review! Since I’m still in a space blastin’ Earth-savin’ mood, I’m moving on to The Dreadnaught Factor for Atari 5200.

The Dreadnaught Factor, developed by Activision in 1983, is another unique vertical shooter. In it, you’re a tiny fighter (presumably sans-hooker boots) sent to destroy a gigantic Star Destroyer-looking ship before it can get close enough to annihilate Earth. Much like Xevious, your fighter has both lasers and bombs which you use to shoot out the dreadnaught’s missiles & gun turrets or bomb its engines & reactor exhaust ports. To destroy a dreadnaught, you knock out all of its exhaust ports to make its reactor go critical. What sets The Dreadnaught Factor apart from a typical space shooter is how you can make multiple passes over each dreadnaught. In one pass, you might take out all of its defenses and save its exhaust ports for another pass. But beware that the dreadnaught moves closer to firing range between each pass, and it moves faster in the higher levels, giving you fewer passes to blow it up. The damage you incur on the dreadnaught actually affects how it performs. For example, if you blow up all of its engines, it approaches much more slowly. If you take out its missile silos, it won’t be able to fire on Earth by the time it reaches orbit and will just sit there, thinking very angry thoughts at you. In the game’s higher levels, the dreadnaught will repair some of the damage it has taken and become a threat once again.

The Dreadnaught Factor is a very good-looking game by 5200 standards, and is not hampered by the 5200’s otherwise gawd-awful joystick. In fact, the analog nature of the 5200’s controller gives your fighter very fast & precise movements, allowing you to deftly dodge & weave between cannon fire to pick off the dreadnaught’s key systems. The difficulty scales nicely too; level 1 is a piece of cake while level 7 is nigh-impossible! I’d say levels 4 or 5 offer the best balance and are the most fun to play. Like most 5200 games, The Dreadnaught Factor was released for Atari’s 8-bit line of computers as well, and can also be found on the Intellivision, where the action is rotated 90 degrees.

Thanks for reading my reviews! Next week, we’re going backpacking and Drac-hunting across Europe in Castlevania: Bloodlines!

Crossed Swords For Neo Geo CD

I recently acquired a Neo Geo CD console, fulfilling a dream I’ve had since I was a wee glitch in the early 90s. The eBayer I purchased it from was also kind enough to include the game Crossed Swords to get me started.

At its core, Crossed Swords is a hack & slash with some RPG and fighting game elements thrown in. As far as I can tell, (most the text is in Japanese) you’re a knight from the land of Belkana, tasked with rescuing a somewhat rubenesque anime princess from the clutches of a big gray guy with a catcher’s mitt on his head. The action is viewed from behind your wire frame knight, a la Punch Out, as you engage in single combat with knights, skeletons, dragons, giant bugs, giant crabs, goat-men, rat-men, fish-men and frog-men.

The name of the game is defense and counter-attack: Pressing up and A swings your sword, while pressing down and A thrusts it. You launch a magic attack by pressing B, while pressing A and B together launches you into a classic anime flurry of blade swings. Pressing up or down on the D-pad by itself raises your shield to block high or low attacks. If you successfully anticipate his attack and deflect his blow with your shield, your enemy will be momentarily dazed, giving you a window to swing your sword or attack with magic. When the enemy is defeated, he explodes in a hail of armor chunks and drops gold, health or magic for you to collect. At the end of each stage, your score is tallied, and if you earned enough experience points, you level-up, gaining a longer life bar and presumably a stronger attack. You’ll also periodically encounter a traveling merchant who sells bigger, badder weapons as well as chunks of meat that replenish your health. A second player can jump in at any time too, and fight side-by-side with the first player against his own baddie.

Staying true to its arcade heritage, Crossed Swords gives you unlimited continues with no consequence for death beyond having to press start within 10 seconds. This is probably for the best since, unless you have the reflexes of a mongoose, you will die a whole lot before you reach the end boss, and then you will die a whole lot more. Despite the wide variety of enemies, the limited fighting mechanics means they all attack in much the same way. Some favor upper or lower attacks, while others occasionally jump out of harm’s way and shoot projectiles at you, but eventually they all fall victim to the same routine: Deflect their blows, strike back, repeat until dead. The repetitive combat and linear level progression limits Crossed Swords replay value, and since you can’t really lose the game, you’ll see everything it has to offer in about a half-hour or so.

In typical Neo Geo fashion, Crossed Swords has big, detailed, eye-searingly colorful characters and nicely-detailed scrolling backgrounds. The character animation isn’t bad, but it lacks the amazing, film-like fluidity of later Neo Geo games. Crossed Swords packs decent background tunes and loads of unique sound effects for each character, from the knights who chuckle at your misfortune while beating the tar out of you to the frog-men who vomit up deadly projectiles with a convincing *blurp!* If nothing else, it’s a fun game to watch and listen to, even if you play through it once, and then toss it on a shelf.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, I’ll get to Guardian Legend. Really.

Amiga Games

It’s 1985 again and the home computer market is still wide-open. Commodore Business Machines, flush with lucre from the wildly successful Commodore 64, begins selling their next generation machine, the multimedia powerhouse known as the Amiga. I recently dug mine out of storage and played my way through a stack of floppies. Here are my thoughts:

Defender Of The Crown: Released in 1986 by Cinemaware , DOTC is a strategy game set in medieval England. You play as one of several Saxon kings who must defend his territory from Norman invaders. You amass armies, lay siege to castles, joust in tournament and rescue (and subsequently knock brogues with) distressed damsels. The graphics and sound are the best seen anywhere outside of an arcade in ‘86, but the game lacks depth and can be finished in one sitting—if you can get past the difficult start.

Arkanoid: A near-perfect port of the arcade game. Big plus: it’s played with the mouse, giving you much better control than the NES version. 

Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back: Another couple of arcade ports They keep the vector graphics look of the originals, but use more clear-sounding samples. Star Wars with its epic trench run sequence is the more memorable of the two.

Mindwalker: Didn’t work. Instead, I got the dreaded guru meditation. Too bad. As I recall, this game was quite fun.

It Came From The Desert: A Cinemaware adventure game, heavily influenced by 50s horror flicks; Them! in particular. You play as geologist Greg Bradley, sent to the town of Lizard Breath, Nevada to investigate the recent crash of a meteor. As meteors often do, this one has caused the local population of ants to grow to immense size and attack the local townsfolk. The game’s currency is time: Speaking with characters, investigating car crashes, fighting giant mutant ants or recovering in the hospital takes time, and you only have 15 days to mobilize the town of Lizard Breath against the insect menace. This is one of my favorite Amiga games, and I may revisit it in greater detail in the future.

Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco And The Time Rippers sends Our Hero bouncing around time in an attempt to save his unborn son, as well as his planet's future from the evil Sludge Vohaul. Sure it’s a bog-standard time travel plot, but SQ4 is still pretty epic in scope compared to the previous games. It also looks much better than the previous games; a fact that’s humorously lamp-shaded when Roger revisits Space Quest 1. VGA graphics and Sound Blaster cards in PCs had really closed the multimedia gap by the time SQ4 was released, so the DOS version is the way to go.

The Three Stooges: Yet another Cinemaware game. This one features the Stooges trying to collect enough money to save an orphanage from a standard-issue evil banker.  To earn money, the Stooges work odd jobs, which are mini-games based on memorable Stooges shorts. There’s a pie fight, a boxing match, (Larry has to retrieve a radio playing that Weasel tune before Curly gets KOed) a race through a hospital in Shriner cars, a trivia contest, and others. Like DOTC, The Three Stooges looks and sounds fantastic, but it lacks depth or replay value and it’s really only fun for Stooge fans. 

Hybris: A vertical space shooter in the style of Xevious. Fun game, but on my Amiga the graphics were badly glitched. (Tee hee--glitched.) The more I played, the worse they got, to the point where the screen was just a mess of smeared colors and random blocks. 

Better Dead Than Alien: Another vertical shooter, but this one works. It plays much like Galaxian meets Space Invaders. This game’s not much of a looker, but, played with a mouse, it’s a lot of fun as your little space ship is very responsive and maneuverable. 

Shanghai: A Mahjong game. Remember when these were big?

Shufflepuck Café:  This game finally answers the age-old question “What if Mos Eisley got an air hockey table?” You must climb the Shufflepuck ranks, defeating a motley crue of aliens (and a half-naked woman, of course) to become Champion and earn the right to use the pay phone at the bar. Seriously. It’s a fun game of air hockey with smooth mouse controls and decent animations on the opponents. Though he first few opponents are easy enough, the difficulty soon ratchets up to the point where you need preternatural Jedi reflexes to win, making it an exercise in frustration. That naked chick totally cheats, too.

Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego: Not much more to say about this edu-tainment classic. In terms of looks, it sure kicks the crap out of the Apple II version I played in school.

Another World: This is it, the big mutha of Amiga games. The one that really showed what the Amiga could do. It’s an adventure game/puzzle platformer that tells the story of a particle physicist who gets zapped to another planet as the result of a botched experiment. He’s attacked and captured by a hostile alien race, and must join with another captive to escape the alien prison, the catacombs underneath, and an alien city. Other than a few words spoken in an alien language, there’s no dialog in the game. The characters’ intentions are all conveyed through their movements and facial expressions, and the plot is advanced through several very cinematic cut-scenes. It uses flat-shaded polygons and a muted color palette of blues and grays that give it a look similar to cel-shaded games like Wind Waker. The character animation is rotoscoped from live-action test footage, giving it a very fluid and realistic look. Unfortunately, as amazing as this game is to watch, it’s even more frustrating to play. This game is hard! Certain jumps require you to be in pixel-perfect alignment, otherwise you’ll miss your mark and skewer yourself on a stalagmite. There’s no guidance or handholding here, either. No flashing hotspots or magic fairies tell you that pressing the unimportant-looking button you just ran past is critical to beating an alien six screens down the road. Yep, be prepared to follow a walkthrough or backtrack a lot! It’s adventure gaming in its cruelest, most raw form, but it’s a hell of a ride.

Thanks for reading my reviews! Next week, we defend Earth from a killer planetoid in The Guardian Legend.

Lightening Force For Sega Genesis

The Space Shooter has its roots in early arcade games like Xevious and Scramble, but the 16-bit home console era is where the genre really shined. The late 80s & early 90s saw the release of such classics as Blazing Lasers on Turbografx-16 and Super R-TYPE on SNES, as well as MUSHA and the Thunder Force games on Genesis. The last of that venerable series was Thunder Force IV, which was released in the US as Lightening Force. And yes, they did spell it “Lightening.” On the box and in the game. Whoops.

Spelling gaffes aside, Lightening Force is one of the best space shooters available for the Genesis. Released by Technosoft in 1992, Lightening Force pits you and your lone space ship against the entire forces of Supergalactic Evil. That’s all standard shmup fare, but Lightening Force adds a lot of new features into the mix. There are loads of power-ups, including weapons, shields, 1-ups and a couple of satellites that orbit your ship, effectively tripling your firepower while absorbing enemy bullets. When a new weapon is collected, it’s stored instead of simply replacing the existing one. You can cycle through these weapons with the press of a button, selecting the best one to use at the moment. Some shoot in several directions at once, some slide along surfaces and some home in on enemies. You’ll need this versatility, because bad guys will come at you from all directions, often pitching you into the seventh level of Bullet Hell. When you die, you lose whatever weapon you were using at the moment, but you retain the others. This is a huge improvement over shmups that leave you nearly defenseless until more power-ups can be collected. You can also control the speed of your space ship’s movements in four increments; handy when you want to zip across the screen one minute and ever-so-gingerly squeeze between asteroids the next.

In term of difficulty, Lightening Force is challenging but never cruel. You get three lives and limited continues, but extra lives come pretty frequently. At the beginning of the game, you can pick the order in which you play through the first four levels; handy if you get stuck on a particular level or if you want to stockpile weapons for later levels.  Speaking of which, Lightening Force packs a lot of variety into its level designs. Early in the game, you skim across the surface of an alien ocean picking smaller enemies off before descending to its depths to engage the boss. In a later lever, you must carefully maneuver through a formation of giant space ships which themselves are engaged in battle with an unseen adversary. At times, Lightening Force really makes you feel like you’re a part of a much larger conflict.  There are space levels, desert levels, ice and lava levels. All shooter staples, to be sure, but they’re well represented in Lightening Force. There’s usually a lot of action going on at once too, which can sometimes cause the game to chug--Lightening Force’s only flaw, really.

The music in Lightening Force is stellar. It’s a high-energy mix of hard rock and synth tracks that perfectly complements the frenetic action on screen. 

Lightening Force’s absence on the Virtual Console or any other modern system is nothing short of a travesty. However, it sold well when it was released and it’s not in high demand these days, so a copy from eBay might set you back a sawbuck. If you love old-school space shooters and you still have a Genesis, it’s well worth  the money.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, I dig through a stack of my old Amiga games and try to find some that still work!

Tempest 2000 For Atari Jaguar

Legend has it that some time in the early 80s, an Atari game designer by the name of Dave Theurer dreamt he was being attacked by beings that crawled at him from the center of the Earth. Instead of seeking intense psychotherapy, he did what any great game designer would do: He turned his freaky nightmare into the fast-paced, addictive arcade classic, Tempest. Years later, Atari set out to recreate the magic of the original with the Jaguar game, Tempest 2000.

Tempest 2000 retains the original’s basic game design and aesthetics: You’re a yellow claw-shaped polygon that slides across the edge of a 3D polygonal playfield, shooting enemies as they move toward you. The Fuseballs, Spikers, and Flippers all make an appearance, along with a few new enemies and more playing field variations. The biggest change in game play comes in the form of power-ups that increase your firepower, add a computer-controlled ally, allow you to jump to avoid enemies, or give you access to a bonus stage. Unfortunately, you lose those power-ups at the end of each stage.

Tempest arcade machines used an analog spinner to give players fast and precise control over their yellow space claw. Good Tempest players could dart from side to side in an instant, picking off enemies with incredible speed and precision. Tempest 2000 does a credible job of bringing back some of that frenetic action, but it’s hampered by the Jaguar’s simple, digital D-pad, which just doesn’t provide the same level of accuracy and feeling of perfect control. Perhaps to overcome the control issues, Tempest 2000’s difficulty ramps up very slowly and 1-ups come frequently. A marathon session could easily last an hour or more, which would be better news if Tempest 2000 had more variety to it. The two-player co-op mode is really the best way to play the game, as it dramatically ratchets up the difficulty, making for a hell of a challenge.

Tempest 2000 retains the basic look of the original while adding a psychedelic color scheme and a few nifty graphical flourishes. However, those flourishes sometimes stack up and obscure the view, and, as is often the case with Jaguar games, too much eye-candy on screen slows the game to a crawl. The soundtrack is an enjoyable (if repetitive) up-tempo techno beat that sounds quite good coming from the Jaguar. It’s possibly Tempest 2000’s most memorable feature, and it was good enough to earn it’s own CD release.

Tempest 2000 aimed to be more than just a fresh coat of paint on an old game, and for the most part it succeeded. Though it has its flaws, it’s definitely a must-own for any Jaguar collection. Its influence can clearly be felt in later arcade-style shooters, like Geometry Wars and Tempest Evolved. It even outlived the Jaguar, earning a later release on Saturn, Playstation and MS-DOS.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, we lighten forces with Lightening Force!

The Last Express For Windows

The year is nineteen dickity four. Archduke Franz Kafka has just been felled by an anarchist’s bullet. Kaiser Wilhelm is turning into a bat each night and stealing the breath of Serbian children as they sleep. Old alliances are crumbling under the weight of new imperialist policies, and the world stands on the brink of war! Into this tumultuous powder keg of political intrigue and mutton chops rides The Last Express!

The Last Express is a point-&-click adventure game developed by the great Jordan Mechner in 1997. It’s a Hitchcockian murder mystery set on the last run of the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul prior to the outbreak of WWI. You play as Robert Cath, an American doctor with a shady past, summoned to Paris by a mysterious telegram from your friend. You hop the train and find him gruesomely murdered in his cabin, so you huck his body out the window, put on his clothes, assume his identity and set about the business of finding his killer. The cast of suspects are nearly all archetypes of the early 20th century: There’s a German arms dealer, a Russian count traveling with his granddaughter, An Austrian concert violinist, and a young Russian aristocrat turned anarchist. There are conductors, dogs, Black Hands, eunuchs, princes, and little French twerps who all play their parts in the mystery.

The gameplay in The Last Express takes place entirely on the train, and in real time. You wander about the train gathering clues by eavesdropping, chatting with the characters, breaking into cabins, reading diaries, collecting items, etc. Since the game is played in real time, the characters act on their own timetables, chatting with each other, eating, sleeping and moving around the train. If you miss a key moment, The Last Express includes a time manipulation system that lets you roll back the clock and play a scenario again. If you die or otherwise reach a point in the story where you can’t continue, The Last Express will show a brief epilogue, in the form of a passenger’s diary entry, and then roll the clock back to a point when it’s still possible to win the game. As unique as this system is, it can be very frustrating. You’re not given much direction, so you’ll often wander aimlessly through the train hoping to pick up a tidbit about the plot at just the right moment. You might make it all the way to end of the game missing a critical item, get sent back in time a day or more and end up playing most of the game over. Without a hint guide or walkthrough, you will probably backtrack a lot during your first play-through.

The presentation in The Last Express is amazing. The characters are actors filmed in black & white and then rotoscoped and hand-animated in an Art Nouveau style. The train is rendered in great detail from period photos and a visit to an actual surviving sleeper car. Each character speaks in his or her native language, which gets translated in subtitles when you approach them. Nearly every character speaks volumes too, so if you want, you can spend hours in the smoking car immersing yourself in these people’s lives. The Last Express so expertly mixes the intrigue of a thrilling mystery with the mundanities of train travel that I’ve never felt more immersed in a game’s world. It’s a truly unique gaming experience.

The Last Express was not a commercial success, but it eventually gained a strong cult following. Original copies on CD are hard to track down, but it’s available for download on Windows now, and should be released for iOS devices later this year. Check it out at

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, It’s a super-zapper blast to the past with Tempest 2000!

Star Control 2 For MS-DOS

From the antediluvian muck of the early 1960s arose the very first computer game, Spacewar! It was a top-down view of two rocket ships trying to take each other out while avoiding falling into a star. It accurately simulated thrust, inertia, and gravity, and it only needed a computer the size of a house to run it. 30 years later, Star Control 2 took this simple concept and ran with it to make one of the most memorable video games I’ve ever played.  

In the first Star Control game, you assemble a team of space ships from the Alliance of Free Stars or the Hierarchy of Battle Thralls and engage in one-on-one Spacewar!-style ship combat. Each ship has unique characteristics: Some are slow and powerful, while others are fast & weak. Some have shields, some have homing missiles, some can launch waves of fighters, and some can self-destruct in a massive shockwave. There’s a rudimentary strategy game included, but the focus of that game is the combat.

Star Control 2 lifts the combat elements out of the first game and drops it into a huge action RPG. As it turns out, the war detailed in Star Control did not go well for Earth and its allies. A series of still images, drawn in a nifty retro-futurist style, tell the story of a space expedition that became stranded on an alien planet when Earth was defeated. They discovered an underground starship factory built by a powerful, extinct (aren’t they all?) race called the Precursors. They used the to build a new ship and return to Earth, only to discover it has been enslaved by the Hierarchy, and its leaders, the Ur-Quan. Thus begins your struggle to free Earth and defeat the Ur-Quan.

Star Control 2 is a huge game. It encompasses a whole galaxy of star systems you can visit, most of which have planets you can land on. You spent much of the game gathering resources from those planets, upgrading your Precursor ship, making allies and building a fleet to combat the Ur-Quan. The events in the game play out in real time, so it’s possible to miss critical moments and even lose the game if you waste too much time. The game is funny and engaging, with a Hitchhiker’s Guide cleverness to it that extends down to the design of the alien species and their ships. For a save-the-whole-entire-galaxy RPG, it stays refreshingly tongue-in-cheek. It explores the aftermath of Star Control’s war in surprising depth, too. In your travels, you learn that allies and enemies from the first game have switched allegiances, withdrawn or completely wiped themselves out.  Several new alien species are introduced too; some with pretty sinister motivations themselves.

Though the focus of Star Control 2 is on the single player game, it has a fun two player mode too. Players assemble teams of ships from both games and fight each other to the last ship. The game assigns a point value to each ship, which helps balance out the teams. You can load your team up with nothing but heavy-hitters if you want, or you can mix & match. Personally, I derived immense maniacal pleasure from blowing up my buddy’s Ur-Quan Juggernaut with my chumpy little Shofixti Scout and its divine wind bomb.

The original DOS version of Star Control 2 can be played through DOSBox, but it can be pretty temperamental. Fortunately, the game’s developers released its source code to the Open Source community, who developed a copyright-less version called The Ur-Quan Masters. It’s available for free on Windows, Mac, Linux, etc. Check it out at You’ll need a copy of the starmap too, which served as both a guide and the original game’s copy protection. You can get a copy here:

Thanks for reading my review. Next week… Umm, I don’t know. Anyone out there have any requests?

Dune II For MS-DOS

Today I'd like to talk about the classic DOS game, Dune II. Unfortunately, I can't seem to get past the copy protection, so most of this is going to have to come from my memory. My crappy, crappy memory.

Dune II is a very early real time strategy game. It was released in 1992 by Westwood Studios, who would later develop classics like the Command And Conquer and Red Alert games. Though it may not be the first, it established nearly all of the elements a modern RTS game follows, such as a tech tree, base construction and resource gathering. You play as one of three houses in the Dune universe, each vying for complete control of Arrakis. House Atreides, Harkonnen, and Ordos. The Atreides sport the most durable buildings and sophisticated vehicles, but their equipment costs the most. The Harkonnen troops and vehicles pack the most firepower, but their units are slow and their buildings are prone to decay even when they're not under fire. The Ordos rely on speed and subterfuge as well as their trade skills rather than raw firepower. They are the only house that can purchase units instead of building them, and they have units at their disposal that can coerce the enemy into fighting for them. 

The setup for Dune II should be familiar to anyone who's ever played an RTS: In most levels, you start with a small outpost, some spice for currency and a handful of units for defense. You harvest more spice, build up your base, construct combat units, and sick your strike force at the enemy. Once they're wiped out and you control the current region, you select another region to invade from the world map until you control all the regions of Dune. As your influence grows on Dune, you'll face the combined forces of the two other houses, and eventually the Emperor's own Sardaukar army.

Dune II is an impressively complex game that's still very playable 20 years after it was released. Since the three houses have their individual strengths and weaknesses, they each require a unique strategy. The Atreides are probably the most powerful house, while the Ordos offer the most challenge. The VGA graphics are detailed and colorful, but they're pretty low-res, making the individual units look more like piles of Lego blocks. The sound, however, is spectacular. Dune II makes extensive use of digitized voices in the same manner as a modern RTS (alerts for completed buildings, units, etc.) which is impressive for a game originally distributed on a stack of floppy disks. RTS veterans will be frustrated by the inability to give orders to more than one unit at a time, as well as the rather stupid unit AI, which will often sit idly by as enemies march right by them. Looking back from today, I'd say Dune II's biggest failing is its lack of multiplayer. In 1992, networked gameplay was rare to say the least, but these days, RTS games live and die by their multiplayer support. Without it, Dune II doesn't have the near-infinite replayability of later RTS games like Starcraft or the Red Alert games. Nevertheless, it's great fun, and an important milestone in the history of video gaming. 

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, we battle the Ur-Quan Masters for control of the galaxy in one of my all-time favorite games, Star Control 2.

ROB, The NES Robot

Late last week, I received my very own ROB, The NES Robot in the mail. Well as usual, the eBay gods giveth and they taketh away, because he looked like he spent the last 25 years at the bottom of the ocean. However, with a little elbow grease, a couple of minor solder burns and two fingers super-glued together, I got the little bugger working again.

ROB, or Robotic Operating Buddy, was an accessory included in the original NES Deluxe Set in 1985. Retailers, still reeling from the video game market crash of 1983 were reluctant to devote shelf space to another failed game console in potentia, so Nintendo hedged its bets by shopping the NES as not only a game console but a toy that could be shelved in the toy section. That's where ROB came in. Ostensibly, he was an accessory used to interact with certain NES games, but in reality, he was just a sales gimmick.

ROB can slide his torso up and down, rotate side to side, and close his arms to grasp and hold certain objects. He receives his instructions from the NES via a series of flashes on the TV screen that are picked up by a photocell in ROB's head. Along ROB's base are a series of slots used to attach the unique accessories that each game uses. Speaking of games, a whopping two ROB games were released: Gyromite, which was bundled with ROB and Stack-Up. When the NES gained popularity, ROB was dropped from the NES lineup and quickly forgotten, save for a few cameos in later games.

In  Gyromite, you play as Professor Hector who has somehow locked his dumb self in his lab with evil dinosaur-things called snicks, and a whole bunch of lit dynamite. Your goal is to avoid the snicks and collect all the dynamite. Controller one moves the professor, while controller two slides columns up and down that allow the professor to pass, reach heights and squish snicks. How does one person play with two controllers, you may ask? ROB is player two! Yep, just as soon as you attach all those damn accessories. To start, you slot the NES controller into a holder with a couple of levers used to actuate the A & B buttons. Then, you attach an electric spinner used to spin weighted tops, called gyros, up to speed. Finally, you attach a holder used to keep the gyros in place when they're not being used. The whole goal of this Rube Goldbergian assemblage is to use ROB to place a gyro on the spinner, get it up to speed, pick it up and drop it on the actuator level with the color corresponding to the color of the column you want to move--and you have to accomplish all of this before you get cornered by a snick, because Professor Hector can't jump or defend himself beyond briefly distracting the snicks with radishes. What fun!

By itself, Gyromite is an amusing, but very simple arcade-style puzzle platformer. Unfortunately, all of the game's challenge comes from manipulating ROB himself. He moves at a glacial pace, and his moves can't be canceled before they complete--frustrating as hell if you accidentally tell ROB to move in the wrong direction. The gyros he picks up will often slip out of his claws and skitter across the floor or lose momentum and fall off the actuator's button. I get the feeling Gyromite was adapted for use with ROB at the last minute, since he never makes an appearance in the game, and all of ROB's functions could have been performed by the A & B buttons on the first controller.

A copy of Stack-Up complete with all of its accessories is one of the hardest 1st-party NES titles to find, so unfortunately I don't own it and have never played it. As I understand, it plays a bit like the old Tower Of Hanoi puzzle, wherein you use ROB to move stacks of multicolored pucks, one puck at a time, from one platform to the other. You're scored on how few moves you take to complete the puzzle, but it's a complete mystery to me how or even if ROB knows when you've succeeded. Maybe it's the first video game to be played on the honor system! Much like ROB himself, that would be an interesting footnote in gaming history.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, the battle for Arrakis begins with Dune II!

Radar Mission For Game Boy

Today, in umm… honor of Battleship: the movie, I'm reviewing the Game Boy classic, Radar Mission. 

Radar Mission, released by Nintendo in 1990, is two games in one. Game A is essentially Battleship played on an 8x8, 10x10 or 12x12 grid, It sports a few new features that add a little variety to the classic Battleship formula, however: A "near miss" has been added to the game that alerts you if your shot or your opponent's landed within one square of a ship. There are two "lucky shot" stars scattered at random around the grid that give you a little extra firepower on your next turn. If you hit the black lucky shot star, the next missile you fire will destroy any ship it hits. If you hit the white lucky shot, you fire a salvo of 5 missiles (9 on the 12x12 grid) on your next turn that land in a star pattern. Finally, after enough turns have passed, your or your opponent's aircraft carrier will launch a plane that flies around it. The plane can be shot down in only one hit, but its position changes after each turn making it hard as hell to zero in on. For Battleship purists who fear change, each of these extra features can be disabled at the beginning of the game.

Game B is a bit more lively: It's a side-scrolling naval shooter played as if you're looking through a periscope. You control a submarine tasked with destroying the enemy fleet while protecting your own from the enemy sub. You use the D-pad to move left & right, submerge and use your sonar to track down your next target, then surface to fire torpedoes at it. The first to sink all of his opponent's ships wins the match, but if you cross paths with the enemy sub, you can try to sink it with torpedoes or your deck gun and win that way. You're scored both on the number of enemy ships you sink and the number of ships remaining in your fleet, So getting that high score is often a balancing act between picking off as many easy targets as possible and going after the enemy sub before it does the same.

Radar Mission isn't the most complex or action-packed Game Boy game available, but it's easy to pick up and play, and it offers a decent challenge on the harder difficulties. Both Games A & B support two players through the Game Link cable too, and that's really the best way to experience Radar Mission. The Game Boy cartridge is dirt-cheap and easy to track down, but if you don't have a Game Boy, you can download it for the 3DS' Virtual Console. Unfortunately Nintendo has left two-player support out of the VC re-release, which both totally sucks and sets a lousy precedent for future VC games.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, if the eBay gods are smiling, I will be yammering on about R.O.B. the NES Robot and Gyromite!

Blaster Master For NES

Today I'm reviewing Blaster Master, released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988. Terrific controls, detailed graphics, complex level designs and some of the best background tunes the NES has ever spat out combine to make it a must-own.

Blaster Master begins its tale in suitably bizarre Suncom fashion. A series of stills tell the story of a young boy's pet frog who becomes sick of his owner's constant tapping on his aquarium and cheeses it straight to the family's stash of radioactive material. Upon contact, the frog grows to an enormous size and escapes down a hole into a subterranean labyrinth. The boy follows his wayward mutant frog into the hole, where he encounters a sporty tank-thing named Sophia The 3rd. He hops in, cranks up the Molly Hatchet and tears ass towards the biggest adventure of his life.

You spend most of the game driving your sports tank in a side-scrolling landscape reminiscent of Metroid, though much more colorful. Your tank can jump, (of course) and aim its turret straight up to shoot enemies above you. It also packs a limited supply of ordnance such as homing missiles and lightning bolts that shoot straight down from your tank. Your character can hop out of Sophia and go it on foot, though he has much less firepower and is vulnerable to falls from too great a height. Scattered throughout the levels are small doorways that your character must pass through on foot. When he does, the game shifts to a top-down perpective as you maneuver through the rooms, collecting power-ups and occasionally fighting the level's boss. Yep that's right, you have to fight them without your tank's firepower, which adds a pretty unique twist to the game. Once you defeat the boss, you earn an upgrade for Sophia that typically gives you access to the next level--another huge nod to Metroid here. These upgrades include added firepower, the ability to drive up walls, and hover for briefs periods. They add a lot of replay value to the game too, since they give you the opportunity to explore previously unreachable sections of completed levels. 

For all its brilliance, Blaster Master does have a few drawbacks. It's not an easy game to complete. You get a health meter, three lives and a handful of continues to support you though all 8 levels. There's no battery backup or password save either, so you're playing through the whole game in one shot, or you're leaving your NES on overnight. There's no recovery time when you get hit, so you may find yourself stuck in a lava pit with your life bar quickly draining away before you can escape. Fortunately, enemies often drop health when killed, so recovery usually means finding a shady spot to pick off a few baddies. The top-down portions of the game have a pseudo-3D dynamic dynamic that adds a bit of realism, but a lot of frustration. You have to imagine the enemies are standing up out of the screen and aim for their feet, or your bullets just pass behind them. You carry a gun in your left hand and a grenade launcher in your right, and you'll frequently run across problems lining up enemies with either one. Even worse: some bosses are immune to your grenades, leaving only your chumpy little pea-shooter to fight it with. The overhead game and boss battles do tend to drag the game down, but the reward for your efforts is palpable when you hop back into your newly-upgraded tank and explore more of Blaster Master's world.

Blaster Master sold very well when it was released, and today it's super-easy to find online and around town. It spawned a number of sequels and re-imaginings on the Sega Genesis, Game Boy Color, Playstation and the Wii's Virtual Console. In fact, I'd say the Wii is the way to go, since it will allow you to save the game's state, negating the game's biggest problem.

Thanks for reading my review! I'd like to wish a happy Mother's Day to all you moms out there in Gameological, and an extra special one to Mama Glitch, who bought me this spectacular game for my birthday all those years ago.

The Vectrex Console And Cosmic Chasm

Hi everybody! Mr Glitch here with another classic game review! Today I'm going to talk about the Vectrex Arcade System and one of the first games released for it, Cosmic Chasm.

The Vectrex console

The Vectrex, released by General Computer Electronics in 1982, is quite unique among video game consoles: It's a non-portable all-in-one console which utilizes vector graphics instead of raster. If you've ever played the original arcade Asteroids, Tempest or Battlezone, you'll recognize the bright flickery outlines and angular shapes characteristic of all Vectrex games. It sports a 9" B&W CRT built into the console, and is about the size and shape as the original Macintosh computer. Since the Vectrex couldn't display color, each Vectrex game included a transparent plastic overlay that sits in front of the screen to give some illusion of color and detail. Most overlays provided some useful info, such as what each of the four controller buttons did, but for the most part they didn't add much to the game. The Vectrex was an early casualty of the Great Videogame Crash, so only 30-some-odd games were released between 1982 & 1984. However, great game consoles never die and today, home-brewers continue to crank out new games for it. The Vectrex console is fairly easy to track down on eBay, but expect to spend at least $100-$150 for one in good working order. 

Cosmic Chasm

In Cosmic Chasm, You play a pokey little space ship with a gigantic drillbit on its nose. Your goal is to blow up the evil alien's space station from the inside by planting a bomb next to the reactor at the center of the station. You begin in an outer room of the Cosmic Chasm, and you must fight your way past the guardian aliens and the Giant, Expanding Beach Ball of Death to an exit that leads in the direction you want to go. You use that drill on your nose to grind your way through the forcefield blocking the exit, and then proceed to the next room. Once you've fought your way to the reactor room shown at the center of the map, you drop your bomb, and then backtrack fast through the rooms you just cleared before that sucker blows! 

Cosmic Chasm is very reminiscent of old-school arcade titles like Reactor or Zektor and in fact, it was the first home console game to be re-released as an arcade game. Unfortunately, it suffers from sluggish controls and rather repetitive gameplay. That drill must be heavy as hell because your ship moves and turns like it's flying through wet cement. The enemies can be pretty tough to shoot in the higher level, but most of the game's challenge comes from overcoming the ship's slow-as-molasses movements and escaping before the timer runs out. All in all, Cosmic Chasm is a mildly fun and somewhat frustrating diversion worth adding to your collection after you've tracked down Clean Sweep and Scramble. It won't cost much either, even if you spring for a copy that includes the overlay.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, we show remarkable devotion to our wayward pet frog in Blaster Master!

Galaga 90 For TurboGrafx-16

Hi everybody, Mr. Glitch here with another classic game review!

Today I'm reviewing Galaga 90 for the TurboGrafx 16. Galaga 90 is an amazingly faithful port of the arcade game Galaga 88, released at a time when most arcade ports were still pretty sub-par. Like its predecessor GalagaGalaga 90 is a vertical shooter that pits you against wave after wave of space bugs that fly into a formation and then attack you a few at a time. As before, the Boss Galagas can capture your fighter in a tractor beam, and you can recover it to double your firepower. However, in Galaga 90, you can allow your double-fighter to be captured, and (assuming you have any ships left in reserve) recover it to form a badass bug-blastin' triple ship! It's no wider than the double-fighter, but it packs a lot more firepower. 

Power-ups are few and far between, with the exception of the blue canisters. Collecting one makes you briefly invincible, and collecting two will send you into a "dimensional warp" at the end of the level. Higher dimensions contain different-looking and harder enemies which are worth more points. This unique dimensions system gives you the choice of coasting through the entire game at a low difficulty, or risking the higher difficulties, earning a bigger score and gaining extra lives more frequently.

In addition to the new strategic elements, Galaga 90 also adds a bit of whimsey to Galaga's formula. Enemies will explode in a shower of fireworks sparks or pop like overinflated balloons. The bonus stages are now musical interludes that feature the space bugs dancing in time to terrific chiptune waltzes, tangos and jitterbugs. Frankly, it's a shame to shoot the little suckers--and if you don't, you'll earn the "secret bonus." There are even a couple of boss battles, wherein you fight a super-sized version of one of that dimension's regular baddies.

Galaga 90 is a terrific shooter, and a real stand-out on a game system known for its terrific space shooters. Its graphics are vibrant and colorful, its music is catchy as hell, and its gameplay is challenging without being frustrating. If you're a Galaga fan, you owe it to yourself to pick this game up. It's available on the Wii's Virtual Console, and its arcade progenitor can be had on iOS devices as part of the Galaga 30th Anniversary Collection.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, we descend to the depths of the Cosmic Chasm!

Ballblazer For Atari 7800

Hi everybody! Mr. Glitch here with another classic game review.

It's the year 3097, and I, Mr. Glitch, am deep in a null-gravity nexus mid-space in the binary star system of Kalaxon and Kalamar. I've defeated every sentient species in the galaxy with my custom rotofoil, and now I'm gearing up for the final round of the Interstellar Championship of... BallBlazer! 

BallBlazer was released in 1984 by Lucasfilm Games for a whole mess of 8-bit computers and game consoles, including the NES, Commodore 64, Apple II, Atari 5200 and the Atari 7800. The Atari 7800 is the version I'm reviewing, as it looks and sounds much better than most others. It's essentially a split-screen first-person one-on-one game of soccer played on a checkerboard arena with goalposts at either end. Two people can play at once, one person can play with Droid 1 (novice) to Droid 9 (mercilessly hard), or two Droids can play each other if you'd prefer to just sit back and watch. You guide your personal hovercraft over the arena in pursuit of a hovering ball, called a plasmorb. You don't steer your rotofoil per se; your rotofoil automatically rotates in 90 degree increments to face the general direction of the ball, and pressing left or right moves you laterally. When you get close enough, your rotofoil grabs the plasmorb in its tractor beam, holds it in your field of view, and turns to face your goalposts. Pressing the fire button shoots the plasmorb forward and knocks your rotofoil back. If you're not in possession of the plasmorb, your rotofoil moves slightly faster, giving you a chance to move alongside your opponent and shoot the ball away. 

BallBlazer uses a fairly unique scoring system. You earn between one and three points per goal, depending on how far from the goalposts you are. The goalposts slide from side to side and move closer to each other each time you score, making long-distance shots progressively harder to pull off. You win by having the most points when time runs out, or by being the first to score ten points. Since there are only ten point 'slots' in the game, (represented by ten circles on the scoreboard) it's possible to come from behind and shut out your opponent by 'overrunning' his scores. 

BallBlazer's presentation really stands out as the best among 7800 games. The first-person graphics play fast and smooth, and the controls are tight and responsive. There's a realistic simulation of inertia that the rotofoils have to overcome when stopping or changing directions, and that makes lining up the goalposts & pulling off snapshots much more challenging. The background music is a catchy electro-funk chiptune that's generated by an algorithm, so the same song never plays twice. (The 7800 cartridge actually includes a custom sound chip that supplements the rather meager one inside the console.)

BallBlazer is a great-looking and great-sounding game, and it's a lot of fun in short sessions. However, the simplistic gameplay tends to make repeated matches rather boring. I believe adding additional gameplay modes or a tournament system would have helped a lot in this regard. The game can also be very disorienting, as there are no landmarks besides the goalposts, and it's easy to lose track of them when your rotofoil suddenly snap-rotates to face a new direction. These quibbles aside, BallBlazer looks and sounds great, and is lots of fun to play. If you want to show off the raw gaming power of your mighty Atari to your chump friends with Xboxes, BallBlazer should be on the top of your list.

Thanks for reading my classic game review. Next week, we go galactic dancin' in Galaga '90!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Atlantis And Cosmic Ark For Atari 2600

Hi everybody, Mr. Glitch here with another classic game review! Before I begin, I'd like to say thanks to John Teti for mentioning me in today's Keyboard Geniuses
Today, I'm reviewing two Atari 2600 games released in 1982 by Imagic, a short-lived 3rd party developer responsible for some of the most impressive-looking and imaginative 2600 games.


Your goal is to defend Atlantis by shooting down the rainbow-colored Gorgon attack ships as they fly across the screen. You have at your disposal three gun emplacements: one in the center of the screen that shoots straight up, and two on either side that shoot up and across in an X pattern. Pressing the joystick button by itself fires the center gun, while holding left or right on the joystick and pressing the button fires the guns on the periphery. Since the bullets from those guns fly diagonally across the screen, it's harder to hit your target, but you get twice the points for each hit.

Each Rainbow-Gorgon you miss drops down a level until it gets low enough to vaporize one of your seven installations with its death ray. They target your center gun first, leaving you with only the outer guns to defend yourself. However, score enough points in each wave and you'll earn back an installation, starting with your center gun. There are no power-ups in the game, but if you manage to hit the small fast fighter ship, its explosion wipes out every other enemy on screen and nets you 1000/2000 points. When all your installations are destroyed, the Atlantean survivors escape in a saucer to join the...

Cosmic Ark

Yes that's right, it's an actual sequel to an Atari game! In Cosmic Ark, you play a giant flying saucer tasked with rescuing endangered space critters from each planet you visit.

The game has two parts: In part one, your ark, in the center of the screen, must defend itself from meteors that conveniently attack from one of the four cardinal directions. You zap the meteors by pressing the joystick in the direction from which they approach. If you take a hit, you lose some energy. 

In part two, your ark hovers above a planet and dispatches a small shuttlecraft to beam up the two beasties running around the bottom of the screen. The planet's defenses slide up & down the edges of the screen, periodically zapping any shuttles foolish enough to be caught in their line of fire. You have a short amount of time to catch the critters and return before alarms go off and your ark gets bombarded by more meteors. Your ark then returns to space, blows up yet more meteors, rinse repeat. However, if you suffer too many hits & run out of energy, your ark explodes spectacularly, and the Atlantean survivors escape in a saucer to join... Hell I don't know--the Yars.

Both games have impressive sound effects and detailed, colorful graphics. Both games are also of the play-till-you-die variety and they get very difficult very quickly. If you can manage more than fifteen minutes a game, you're a better Glitch than I. Though Cosmic Ark gives you more to do, I prefer Atlantis. Its shooting mechanic is reminiscent of the arcade Missile Command, and the scoring is just fair enough to give you a fighting chance of earning back your last precious Atlantean outpost blown up by those damn Rainbow Gorgons. Both games are easy to find, dirt-cheap and well worth picking up to round out your 2600 collection.

Thanks for reading Mr. Glitch's classic game reviews. Next week, we fire plasmorbs over the horizon in Ballblazer!

Warlords for Atari 2600

Hi everybody! Mr Glitch here with my very first classic game review. Today, I dug through my dusty old stack of Atari 2600 games and pulled out a real gem: Warlords!

Warlords is essentially a four player competitive version of Breakout, originally released in the arcades in 1981. You play as a capital L surrounded by bricks in one corner of the screen, and you must defend yourself from attack by the capital Ls in the other three corners. You use the paddle controllers to guide a shield around the outside of your brick fortress that deflects a ricocheting cannon ball. You can catch the cannon ball on your shield by holding the paddle's button down, and then release it screaming into your enemy's defenses. If you're the last L standing, you win the match. Warlords supports up to four human players at once, with the computer controlling any un-manned forts. The various difficulty levels  just change how fast the ball and the computer-controlled opponents move.

It's a great enough game solo, but four player matches are where it really shines. The ball changes speed and bounces around unpredictably, leading to some awesome moments of turnabout such as when it smashes around inside your own fort. The paddles give you precise, instantaneous control over the ball, and yet you have to rely on well-aimed & well-timed bank shots, as you're almost never given a direct shot at the other players. The graphics are basic early 2600 game fare, but the sound effects are quite nice. The ball, for example bounces off your shield with a satisfying 'plink' and your enemy Ls meet their doom with epic fiery explosion noises.

Warlords is probably the best multiplayer game available for the 2600, and as a result, is very easy to find; my copy came in an eBay lot with the 2600 itself. Just remember you'll need two sets of paddle controllers for the full four player experience (it won't work with joysticks) and working examples of those can be a little more difficult to come by.