Saturday, 8 December 2018

Darxide (Sega 32X review)

Developer: Frontier Developments
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1996

Darxide is a shoot-em-up that was only released in Europe.

It consists of ten levels (each featuring a four minute time limit) and your mission is to stop the alien attack force from destroying the Darxide star system. Buttons A and C control your throttle, B fires your laser, and Z launches a bomb (from Level 5 onwards). The first thing to note is the excellent texture mapping and shadow effects that could easily be mistaken for an early PS1 title! Gameplay wise, shooting down large boulders that break off into smaller pieces resembles Asteroids (1979, Arcades); however, some missions have a hint of Defender (1981, Arcades) where you're tasked with saving miners. It's fun multitasking and the decision to either destroy a firing alien craft, hunt down stray boulders, or save a suffocating miner is strategically enjoyable. Despite the cursor being a little too fast for my liking, the controls are solid and choosing to either zoom around the playfield or pick off targets from a prone position feels tight and responsive. There is a small amount of auto-aim which is ideal for counteracting the minor cursor issues, allowing you to easily despatch fast moving craft in an instant. The draw distance is limited though, and while it's understandable given the 32X's hardware limitations, it is annoying when a target appears for a very brief moment before disappearing. Compounding this problem further is the overly strict time limit, as even the opening level is brutal. What also doesn't help matters is the confusing map indicator which has zero differentiation from the main playfield. To top things off, the difficulty settings don't appear to do anything and extra lives are in very short supply.

Darxide shows all the makings of a second generation Sega 32X title, but even the varied missions and tight controls can't hide the severe flaws that unacceptably mar the gameplay experience. The time limit is the main offender and without real difficulty options you're left to slog through the same levels ad nauseam.

Random trivia: A reworked version of the game called Darxide EMP was released on mobile platforms in 2003.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Kaboom! (Atari 5200 review)

Developer: Activision
Publisher: Activision
Released: 1983

Kaboom! is an action game that was originally released on the Atari 2600 in 1981.

You control three water buckets and your job is to catch the bombs thrown by the Mad Bomber at the top of the screen. This takes place across short waves of increasing speed, and once you've lost all three buckets it's game over; however, a new bucket is given for every 1,000 points. The standard 5200 controller does an above-average job of affording you precision in your movements, and its analog nature works much better than a digital joystick for meticulously controlling the speed of your water buckets (e.g. rather than only having one speed). That said, when compared to the paddle controller used in the Atari 2600 original, the 5200 controller definitely comes up short due to its over-sensitivity on the horizontal axis, leading to many annoying bomb explosions. The gameplay quickly peaks in difficulty, but when you do get on a roll it's thrilling and hypnotic, and never has a videogame created a perfect combination of zen-like gameplay and complete, unabashed carnage. I also like that the game relies on you pressing the fire button before each wave, as it gives you a chance to calm your nerves before the next hectic onslaught! This port features some interesting additions, such as a pleasant jingle that plays whenever you catch a bomb, and a two player option where one person controls the Mad Bomber; the latter is a great idea for creating your own wave patterns. What's disappointing though is how little attention Activision paid to the graphics; sure, there's now a skyline background, but in reality, the game looks almost identical to the Atari 2600 original from two years prior.

Kaboom! is a brilliant title that's held back from true greatness by its somewhat imprecise inputs on the 5200. However, if you're willing to look past the controller issues there's still a fantastically addictive game here, and the inclusion of a two player competitive mode makes this worth the price of admission alone.

Random trivia: An updated version of Kaboom! was planned for release on the Super Nintendo in 1993/1994, but was ultimately cancelled.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Kangaroo (Atari 5200 review)

Developer: Atari
Publisher: Atari
Released: 1983

Kangaroo is a multi-screen platformer that was originally released in the Arcades in 1982.

You play as Mother Kangaroo and the objective is to rescue your baby from the top of all four screens. To do this, you climb ladders, jump over logs, punch monkeys and avoid falling apples. Fruit is scattered that will net you bonus points but a bell can be hit three times in each screen to release more fruit and increase your score further. This is one of the game's best features as there's multiple ways to play depending on how skilled you are; newcomers can simply head for the top to rescue the baby but veterans can take their time by maxing out the bell. The latter is dangerous as it requires backtracking through treacherous areas; the rewards are high though and I like how each loop adds further fruit into the mix to enhance the risk-reward element. Unlike the Atari 2600 port (1983), there's zero lag when attempting to jump and the usually flaky 5200 controller performs decently throughout. There's nothing special about the level design but all four screens from the Arcade original are present; I particularly enjoyed Screen 3 which cleverly gives you multiple ways to succeed depending on whether you want to knock down a row of stacked monkeys, or climb a series of platforms to reach baby kangaroo. The upbeat jingles (despite sounding distorted) perfectly compliment the gameplay arch, and the short tune that plays when climbing a ladder is a fantastic idea that allows you to precisely time when you can move horizontally at the peak of your ascent. The graphics are also a massive step up from the Atari 2600 version with more detailed sprites and graphical flourishes around each level.

Kangaroo is a faithful port of the Arcade title that looks and plays great, and has far superior controls when compared to its counterpart on the 2600. The level design might not be the most inspired aspect of its overall presentation, but it does have some unique ideas that will keep high score chasers interested in repeated attempts.

Random trivia: The game was also ported to Atari 8-bit computers in 1983.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Pinbot (NES review)

Developer: Rare
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1990

Pinbot is a pinball game that's based on the real 1986 table from Williams.

Armed with three balls, your job is to rack up the best possible score by shooting them into the Vortex, gaining multipliers, and hitting a series of targets to gain multi-balls by shooting into the Pin Bot's visor. The centre of the playfield contains a Solar System map with nine planets; starting at Pluto, you must hit various drop targets to work your way to the Sun and light Special icons for a chance at Extra Balls. Some additions from the original table have been included here, such as different ball shapes and enemies that try to attack your flippers. Rather than the entire table being on-screen, the playfield scrolls so either the higher or lower flippers are always visible; it does take some getting used to, but it's actually a clever idea that takes the guess work out of where the ball will drain as it moves down the table. The physics are fantastic and about as realistic as you could reasonably expect on the NES; I also like how the different ball shapes add some variety to the gameplay. The table is mildly entertaining for a short while, but to be honest, there's really not much to it and boredom can start to set in due to it being the only available layout. Hazards are slowly introduced, but the missiles are extremely annoying, as you already have enough to focus on without dealing with incoming projectiles that destroy your flippers! Likewise, I really detest the flies and snakes that steal the ball, as it comes across as really cheap through no fault of your own. Another bugbear is the length of time it takes from losing a ball to being back at the table; it's a lengthy delay and can take you out of your groove.

Pinbot certainly isn't a bad game, but it's so boring and uninspired that it's hard to appreciate its good points without growing tired of the same table mechanics and lack of any interesting distractions. It's the definition of a weekend rental, and (in my opinion) it even manages to be outshined by Nintendo's own version of Pinball (1985, NES).

Random trivia: In 1991, Williams released a follow-up pinball table called The Machine: Bride of Pin*Bot.

Midnight Resistance (Mega Drive / Genesis review)

Developer: Data East, ISCO, Opera House
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1991

Midnight Resistance is a run 'n' gun game that was originally released in the Arcades in 1989.

Playing as a former narcotics agent, your mission is to rescue your family from the Crimson King and topple the drug lord's empire. Your standard weapon is a pea-shooter, but collecting keys from downed opponents allows you to obtain additional firepower at the end of each level (such as a 3-Way spread and a Shot Gun). Powerful secondary weapons are also available and include Homing Missiles and circling Barriers. Comparisons to Contra (1987, Arcade) are inevitable, but this does have a number of standout features, particularly the option to rapid fire your weapon without having to hold down a button; this greatly enhances another innovative idea which is the ability to lock your direction of fire. Both give you massive amounts of freedom when tackling the onslaught of enemies, and it helps that everything is ultra responsive. The level design is also terrific with lots of horizontal and vertically scrolling areas to keep you guessing, and unique ideas such as Stage 3's staggered platforms that gradually rise as you battle flying enemies. Another fantastic idea is the weapon upgrade system which provides tons of strategy and helps with replayability as you work out the best firepower to use in each level. What also motivates you to come back is the need to collect enough keys to free all family members prior to the final boss; although you can beat the game without freeing them all you won't get to see the good ending. There are a few problems though, mainly the absent two-player mode from the Arcade version, and the fact that the high difficulty is clearly in place to disguise the game's short length.

Midnight Resistance is a thrill-ride from start to finish thanks to its non-stop action, precise controls, satisfying weapons and interesting level design. The harsh difficulty might put some people off, but those that take the time to learn enemy patterns and optimal weapon upgrades will find a lot to love here.

Random trivia: Ports were also released for numerous home computers, including the Commodore 64 (1990) and ZX Spectrum (1990).

Monday, 6 August 2018

Montezuma's Revenge (Atari 2600 review)

Developer: Parker Brothers
Publisher: Parker Brothers
Released: 1984

Montezuma's Revenge is a platform game that was also released on the Atari 5200 and Atari 8-bit computers in 1984. 

Your mission is to guide Panama Joe safely through the emperor's fortress to reach Montezuma's treasure. There's three difficulty settings and along the way you can collect valuables for points, as well as tools ranging from a sword (defeats a single enemy only), an amulet (temporary invincibility), a torch (allows for visibility deeper into the fortress) and a key (opens locked doors). Gameplay involves avoiding enemies, climbing ladders and chains, running across disappearing floors and dodging flashing laser gates. Each screen introduces something new and while the room layouts remain the same in higher levels the enemies and hazards change, providing tons of replayability. Some backtracking is required, but it's never an issue due to the condensed, yet exquisitely designed size of the fortress. While the game isn't as expansive as Pitfall II: Lost Caverns (1984, Atari 2600), there's still plenty of unique, challenging areas, and I particularly like the clever interplay between the level design and items, as it's always advisable to locate the torch before heading deeper underground! The controls offer pin-point precision (some of the best I've experienced on the console) and the collision detection is spot-on. My only real complaint is that cheap deaths can occur in later levels, especially when you enter a room and an enemy overlaps your sprite immediately; at least the game is generous with extra lives which gives you more incentive to keep progressing. The graphics and animation are superb (especially the rolling skulls) and I love the La Cucaracha jingle that plays when you collect an item!

Montezuma's Revenge is an outstanding platformer that stretches the capabilities of the humble Atari 2600 in a number of exciting ways. It manages to create a real sense of wonderment, encouraging you to explore every room in search of its goodies, while providing solid controls, terrific gameplay and masterful level design.

Random trivia: Due to memory constraints, this Atari 2600 version only has half the levels found in other ports.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Donkey Kong Junior (Atari 2600 review)

Developer: Coleco
Publisher: Coleco
Released: 1983

Donkey Kong Junior is a multi-screen platform game that was first released in the Arcades in 1982.

Playing as DK Jr. you must rescue Donkey Kong who's been kidnapped by Mario. Three of the four original levels are here (missing the Springboard Stage) and this sequel places more importance on climbing and manoeuvring on vines. These vines provide layers of strategy as trying to climb one is slow; however, grab onto two at the same time and you can advance much quicker. Likewise, the reverse mechanic is used for descending, and you'll need to avoid birds and snapjaws in the process. The first thing that strikes you in Stage 1 is the lack of graphical fidelity with poor animation, badly drawn sprites and a garish colour palette. While it's easy to forgive poor graphics and missing stages, the horrible controls and dodgy collision detection almost ruin the entire experience; DK Junior frequently sticks to platforms and in a game that requires twitch-based movements it's infuriating when he costs you multiple lives by refusing to advance. Part of what made the Arcade original fun was the ability to use falling fruit to your advantage; here, it's entirely absent which eliminates a strategic and meaningful gameplay element. While Stage 2 reduces the number of keys from six to three, its the most enjoyable level here, as there are no platforms for DK Junior to stick to! Everything just works and it's a blast avoiding enemies while trying to push the keys upwards. Stage 3 is a sharp difficulty increase that's wildly frustrating until you realise that DK Junior must be facing a bolt while on a vine in order to avoid them; this isn't exactly intuitive and worst still it doesn't always work as expected, leading to more unfair deaths!

If I didn't know better, I'd have sworn that Donkey Kong Junior was a cheap bootleg version, as its terrible controls and general lack of polish scream of a hastily made game. As a follow-up to the respectable Donkey Kong (1982, Atari 2600), the quality here is shockingly low, and there's no reason to play it apart from sheer curiosity.

Random trivia: In 1988, the game was ported to the Atari 7800 and includes all four stages.

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