Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Dance Aerobics (NES review)

Developer: Human Entertainment
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1989

Dance Aerobics is a rhythm game that requires the NES Power Pad.


It consists of four main options, including Dance Aerobics; here, you must follow the instructor's movements by tapping the correct buttons on the Power Pad with your hands and feet. There's eight classes in total and each allows for a limited number of mistakes. The game does a great job of easing you into the action by slowly increasing the number of reps you're required to complete in each class, allowing you to build up stamina. The exercises aren't overly strenuous, but I like how the developers switched things up to target different body parts; for instance, there are some lessons that require you to hop, stretch out to the corners, as well as squatting or sitting. What's most impressive is how accurate the Pad is in terms of verifying the split-second you lift your foot off the mat, or place it down; there's zero lag and every movement registers perfectly. It can even tell if you're not putting enough effort in during the hopping tests, as it will add a mistake if you don't leap into the air for long enough! The clear speech samples are another highlight (e.g. your instructor praises you and counts along with the required steps), giving you motivation to keep progressing. Aerobic Studios is similar except you can select a 5, 10, 15 or 20 minute routine; it doesn't offer anything new, but it's good if you fancy a longer workout. Mat Melodies tasks you with playing along to a short tune by using different notes on the Pad; it's not too interesting and there's only five tunes, but at least each is short and recognisable. Ditto challenges you to place your hands and feet in the same position as the computer; it plays like a game of Twister and it's a ton of fun scrambling to get in the correct position before time runs out!

Dance Aerobics is an unlikely hidden gem in the NES library, even if you're not particularly interested in health and fitness. The developers managed to eke out the very best from the game concept and peripheral, and the Power Pad requirement makes a huge difference in immersing you into the whole experience.



Random trivia: The Japanese version of the game was released two years earlier.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Cyber Shinobi (Master System review)

Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1990

The Cyber Shinobi is an action game that's exclusive to the Sega Master System.


Playing as Joe Musashi, your job is to travel through six rounds and stop Cyber Zeed's army from stealing plutonium in an attempt to melt the planet. Your main weapon is a Sword, but long-range projectiles (e.g. Shurikens) and Ninjutsu attacks can be activated by collecting icons. The gameplay is littered with shoddy programming, as the controls are stiff and button presses can be delayed or ignored. The collision detection is off, and you can even glitch into an enemy sprite and continue to take damage until you lose a life! Similarly, the scrolling is jerky and resembles an Amstrad CPC game rather than a cutting-edge SMS title. The need to completely clear an area of enemies before the screen will scroll is arduous (and hides how small each stage is), but it wouldn't be so much of an issue if the enemies were remotely intelligent; they'll happily walk straight into your attacks, leaving you to button-mash your way through each stage. Likewise, enemy A.I. is dumb, as they'll often face the opposite direction, despite you pounding on one of their fellow soldiers behind them. The gameplay does have some good ideas though and provides you with lots of ways to defeat enemies through close quarters combat, long-range attacks and Ninjutsu. As a whole, the level design is lacking in memorable scenes, but there are some elements I like, such as the intense beginning of Stage 3 which throws you straight into the line of fire as a helicopter rains down rockets. However, Stage 5 is pathetic, as the entire level consists of you falling down a long waterfall, collecting power-ups with no enemies in sight!

Conceptually, The Cyber Shinobi is terrific, but it's execution in the gameplay department leaves a heck of a lot to be desired. It's clear that this was a rush release by Sega as it's full of technical issues that plague the entire experience, and force it to dip below the series' lofty expectations.



Random trivia: The next game in the series was Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi, which was released on the Sega Master System in 1991.

OverTop (Neo Geo CD review)

Developer: ADK
Publisher: SNK
Released: 1996 

OverTop is a racing game that was also released on the Neo Geo AES and MVS.


Your job is to race through seven stages and reach the finish line before time expires. There's eight vehicles (including bikes and sports cars) and the locations include urban areas, mountainous regions and snowy roads. Once a race begins there's an impressive sense of speed and each car handles beautifully. However, after 20 seconds you'll reach the first checkpoint and have to wait a similar amount of time for the next section to load. This occurs throughout all areas and the fact that you spend as much time watching a loading screen as you do racing is ridiculous. Also, the action is a little too zoomed-in for my liking, forcing you to rely on the tiny overhead map to see what's up ahead. Once you're familiar with each stage you can beat the game in less than ten minutes; there's literally nothing else to do at this point apart from trying to beat your best time. On a positive note, I like the course design, as each area feels unique in terms of car handling; for example, the fastest cars are great in the City, but crawl along in the Mountains. Likewise, if you're driving a slower car you'll find yourself in last place at the beginning of a race, but with a good chance of catching up in the Desert. This gives some replayability as you try to reach the finish line with different vehicle types. The shortcuts are neat too, and their absence from the map makes it a fun challenge to locate them. The graphics are highly detailed and the intense music reminds me of Out Run (1986, Arcades) on steroids!

OverTop gets so much right, but screws things up with its lack of content and loading times which break-up the action unnecessarily. My advice is to stick to Neo Drift Out (1996, Neo Geo CD) instead, as it's a bit more varied, features more intense racing and, most importantly, loads far quicker!



Random trivia: The Neo Geo AES version was only released in Japan.

Sonic Chaos (Game Gear review)

Developer: Aspect
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1993

Sonic Chaos is a platformer that was also released on the Sega Master System in 1993.


Your mission is to foil Dr. Robotnik's world domination plans, and locate the six missing Chaos Emeralds to protect South Island from sinking. There's six Zones (with three Acts each), and you can play as either Sonic (has a stationary dash) or Tails (can fly short distances). Compared to the Sega Master System version, the action feels much faster here (thankfully to the game's benefit), and the slowdown that hampered the console title is either non-existent or barely noticeable. Where things falter is in the level design, as each stage is short and most can be beaten in 30 seconds. Mecha Green Hill Zone might sound appealing to long-time fans, but instead it looks like a badly designed variation of a Sonic CD (1993, Mega CD) 'Future' level. Sleeping Egg Zone's attachable springs to reach higher platforms are a great idea but they're underutilized, making them more of a brief gimmick than an integral part of the action. Electric Egg is the only Zone that stands out, and it's generally fun choosing your route as you speed through pipes. The smaller screen doesn't cause any issues, but that's mainly due to the lack of enemies and bottomless pits, as well as the abundance of extra lives on offer. The Special Stages provide some enjoyment, and I like how each has a unique play mechanic to help you search for Chaos Emeralds. While Tails does provide some replayability, he's weirdly unable to access these Special Stages. The bosses are a real low-point and the fact that some can be beaten by repeatedly bouncing off their heads (without touching the ground) is a joke.

Sonic Chaos on the Sega Game Gear is incredibly lazy from a level design perspective, but at least it's a more polished version of the game. It certainly plays better too, and looking on the bright side, at least the all-too-brief stages fit better on a portable than they did on Sega's 8-bit home console.



Random trivia: A year later, a follow-up called Sonic the Hedgehog Triple Trouble was released exclusively on the Sega Game Gear.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Jackal (NES review)

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Released: 1988

Jackal is a top-down, run 'n' gun game that was first released in the Arcades in 1986.


Playing as a Green Beret, your mission is to rescue trapped POWs across six stages and destroy the enemy's main fortress. To do this, you control an attack jeep that features a machine gun (fires straight ahead), hand grenades (can be launched in any direction) and bazookas (can be powered-up by rescuing certain POWs). The controls work flawlessly and despite what you might expect your vehicle is incredibly nimble! A big plus is that unlike Gun.Smoke (1988, NES) you can fire in any direction, giving you complete freedom rather than having to play within the limitations imposed by the developers. The awesome level design stretches both horizontally and vertically, and there's a decent amount of variety, such as Stage 2's falling debris and grenade launching helicopters. Another highlight is Stage 5's bunkers that block your projectiles; it's a simple, but effective idea that forces you into firing diagonal shots to hit the target. However, the best part of the action is the endless satisfaction you get from trampling over enemies in your jeep! The option to rescue POWs encourages you to explore the playfield rather than rushing through, and I like how trying to survive with each one intact until they're picked up at the end of stage heliport (for points) becomes a mini-game in itself. The difficulty level throughout is spot-on and the game eases you into the action, while rewarding pattern recognition and repeated attempts in later stages. The ability for 1-2 players to battle simultaneously is great, and from a technical standpoint there's zero sprite flicker or slowdown. My only criticism is that the screen doesn't always scroll far enough, which can lead to blindside deaths when a bullet or enemy vehicle enters the playfield.

Jackal is a top-tier NES title that plays and controls smoothly, while having an ideal difficulty progression. Couple that with the exquisite level design and you're left with a hugely entertaining game that's non-stop fun whether you're playing alone or with a friend.



Random trivia: In Japan, the game was released on the Famicom Disk System, and featured different layouts and missing stages due to the smaller disk card size.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Sonic Chaos (Master System review)

Developer: Aspect
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1993

Sonic Chaos is a PAL exclusive platformer that was also released on the Sega Game Gear in 1993.


Your mission is to foil Dr. Robotnik's world domination plans, and locate the six missing Chaos Emeralds to protect South Island from sinking. There's six Zones (with three Acts each), and you can play as either Sonic (has a stationary dash) or Tails (can fly short distances). The gameplay gets off to a bad start, as the slowdown is so prevalent during Sonic's jumps that the frame-rate dips and button presses can be ignored! The level design doesn't improve matters, as each stage is short and most can be beaten in 30 seconds. They really don't take much skill either, as there's hardly any enemies or obstacles. Mecha Green Hill Zone might sound appealing to long-time fans, but instead it looks like a badly designed variation of a Sonic CD (1993, Mega CD) 'Future' level. Underwater stages have never been particularly well-loved, but Aqua Planet Zone really takes the biscuit with its painfully slow gameplay. Sleeping Egg Zone's attachable springs to reach higher platforms are a great idea but they're underutilized, making them more of a brief gimmick than an integral part of the action. Electric Egg is the only Zone that stands out, and it's generally fun choosing your route as you speed through pipes. The Special Stages also provide some enjoyment, and I like how each has a unique play mechanic to help you search for Chaos Emeralds. While Tails does provide some replayability, he's weirdly unable to access these Special Stages. The bosses are a real low-point and the fact that some can be beaten by repeatedly bouncing off their heads (without touching the ground) is a joke.

Sonic Chaos feels completely heartless, devoid of charm and personality, while lacking in finesse due to its stale level design. It's also appalling short and is perhaps the easiest Sonic platformer ever created, meaning there's barely any satisfaction once you've actually beaten the game.



Random trivia: The lack of care even extends to the credits, where Tails Prower's surname is incorrectly listed as Power!

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Vampire: Master of Darkness (Game Gear review)

Developer: SIMS
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1993

Vampire: Master of Darkness is an action game that was also released on the Sega Master System in 1993.


Playing as Dr. Social, your mission is to locate the source of London's midnight murders, and rescue your colleague Miss Arkham. It consists of five rounds (with 1-3 levels each), and your main weapons are Daggers (1 point of damage), Sabers (2 points), Stakes (3 points) and Axes (4 points). Limited-use special weapons are also available in the form of a Pistol, Bombs, Boomerang, and a Projectile that wipes out multiple enemies in its path. The gameplay is very similar to Castlevania (1987, NES), but it does feature a couple of significant improvements. Firstly, the controls are outstanding and I really like how you can adjust your jumps in mid-air, or whilst falling backwards after taking damage. Likewise, you can now leap while climbing stairs which is a massive help in avoiding damage and timing your attacks. Secondly, the level design is some of the best you'll find in any 8-bit game, due to the sheer variety that's been crammed into just five rounds. Highlights include battling along the Thames River while using boats to cross platforms, and the creepy Splatterhouse (1988, Arcades) style screens where waves of enemies must be cleared before you can progress! It's all smart, well-executed and diverse, while being a joy to play. The graphics are first-rate too (with little flourishes such as background posters blowing in the wind!) and the music manages to be both catchy and atmospheric. My only complaints are that the smaller screen size causes cheap shots from enemies that appear from out of nowhere, and you can't see the life metre of bosses (hereby taking away an element of strategy).

There's no doubting that Vampire: Master of Darkness is a Castlevania clone, but it's a great game in its own right, with lots of improvements to the standard formula, as well as tight controls and fantastic level design. Although the Master System port plays better and is slightly more refined, this version is still well-worth hunting down.



Random trivia: In Europe, the game was simply released as Master of Darkness.

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