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.