Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Wacky Races (NES review)

Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Released: 1992

Wacky Races is a platformer that's based on the animated TV series of the same name.

Playing as Muttley, your mission is to rescue Dick Dastardly and navigate through three worlds (each with 3-4 stages) in an attempt to win the Wacky Races competition. Your main attack involves biting enemies, but bones can be collected that shift along a power-up item window in the bottom-left, similar to Gradius (1985, Arcades); at any point, you can activate one of these power-ups which consist of Bombs, a projectile Sonic Bark, Wings that allow you to float, or Hearts that refill your life metre. One nice feature is that you can select the order to tackle the three worlds right from the start. While the level design isn't particularly inventive, I do like that it doesn't stick with the same scenery in each stage; for example World C-2 starts off in a suburban neighbourhood before quickly transitioning to a rooftop scene. Some moments clearly take inspiration from a famous Italian plumber, such as the Piranha Plants that spit fireballs in A-1, and the pipe area filled with jumping flames in A-2 that's reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990, NES). There's also an obligatory ice stage with overly slippery controls, as well as a tiresome underwater stage where you have to continually hold Down on the d-pad to stop Muttley from rising to the surface. Everything is nicely presented, but unfortunately there are no surprises or memorable moments. The game is extremely easy too, mainly due to your extensive life-bar and the multiple opportunities you have to refill it during each stage. The bosses are a breeze due to their simple patterns, but it is initially jarring how fast they move compared to the slow pace of preceding areas!
Wacky Races lacks any degree of challenge, but if you're looking for a simple and mildly entertaining platformer give this one a go. It's the kind of game you don't have to think too much about (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), but the pedestrian level design shows that the developers didn't exactly aim to set the world on fire.
Random trivia: The game was only released in Japan and North America.

Sonic Jam (Sega Saturn review)

Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1997

Sonic Jam is a compilation of the blue hedgehog's 16-bit adventures, along with a new 3D hub world.

It includes Sonic the Hedgehog (1991), Sonic 2 (1992), Sonic 3 (1994) and Sonic & Knuckles (1994), and each features a number of options to cater towards different audiences, such as Easy which omits various levels. Normal alters the level design slightly to increase playability, such as adding a slew of air bubbles in Labyrinth Zone to cut-back on underwater deaths! It's a neat idea that enhances replayability, and it's nice that the Original mode is also available for those who want an untouched experience. The ability to Spin Dash in the first Sonic game is a smart idea too and it stops you from having to reverse to build up speed! The emulation is pretty faithful, although there are some strange SFX choices, such as the more emphatic explosions when Dr. Robotnik is defeated, and Sonic's muffled jump. There's also minor screen tearing and severe slowdown (mainly in Sonic 2 and 3) when the action gets too fast. The lock-on ability of Sonic & Knuckles is still present though to open features in the other games. In the cool Sonic World 3D hub, you wander around and take part in simple, yet entertaining missions, such as popping balloons and locating Miles against the clock. The frame-rate is rock-solid throughout and the draw distance is respectable, but interestingly the slow-paced action and open-world platforming is more akin to Super Mario 64 (1996, N64). I like this exploratory aspect, but it's intriguing to ponder whether the Saturn could have handled the speed of a fully fledged 3D Sonic game. This mode also includes some great fan service through old commercials, concept art and music.
Sonic Jam is an excellent compilation of the blue hedgehog's 16-bit outings, but it's hard to recommend it over the Mega Drive originals due to the rampant slowdown. The real draw is the 3D hub, and while it's admittedly lacking in content, it does provides a tantalising glimpse into what could have been for Sonic's cancelled 32-bit outing.
Random trivia: Sonic World eventually proved to be the testing ground for Sonic Adventure (1999, Dreamcast).

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Sonic & Knuckles (Mega Drive / Genesis review)

Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1994

Sonic & Knuckles is a platform game and the sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994, Mega Drive).

Your job is to protect Floating Island and stop Dr. Robotnik from stealing the Master Emerald. Sonic can Spin Attack in the air, while Knuckles can glide and climb walls, and power-ups are available in the form of a Water Shield (lets you breathe underwater), Lightning Shield (automatically attracts rings) and a Flame Shield (protects you against fire). What's most pleasing is how this game harkens back to the original in terms of mixing pure speed with methodical platforming; sure, there are Zones such as Mushroom Hill that feature plenty of fast-paced action, but Sky Sanctuary, Death Egg and Sandopolis force you to take a more deliberate approach, especially the latter where you push blocks to create moving platforms. The exquisite level design features sprawling locales with multiple routes, and some of the additions really help to spice up the gameplay, such as Death Egg Zone Act 2 where gravity is reversed! To keep things fresh, the Zones don't always feature similar themes throughout both acts, as Sandopolis Act 1 takes place in the desert, while Act 2 takes place inside a pyramid. As fun as the levels are, it does feel that the most unique and varied ones were used for Sonic 3, and the rest were leftovers for this game. However, if you play as Knuckles, the level design changes slightly which warrants another play-through. Plus, you can lock the cartridge onto Sonic 2, allowing you to play as Knuckles... a genius idea! The bosses pose little challenge, but they're really imaginative and it's a trip to see the original Green Hill Zone boss appear with Metal Sonic in command!
Sonic & Knuckles is a terrific platformer and while the level design isn't quite as interesting as Sonic the Hedgehog 3 it's still an absolute blast to play. Its perfect balance of speed and slow-paced action makes for some varied gameplay that never gets old, and the ability to lock-on to previous titles is an inspired addition.
Random trivia: The cartridge can also be locked-on to Sonic the Hedgehog 3 so you can experience the entire game in its original, intended form.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory (Atari 8-bit review)

Developer: Ron Rosen, Gary Gilbertson
Publisher: Datamost
Released: 1983 

Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory is a puzzle-platformer that was later ported to the Apple II and Commodore 64.

It consists of 22 stages and the objective in each is to collect all the power pills. Mr. Robot can only fall a short distance, so careful platforming is required to avoid losing one of your five lives. Aliens attempt to block your path, but energisers can be collected that form a temporary shield around Mr. Robot that allows him to kill enemies by touching them. Clearly, the developers were inspired by Pac-Man (1980, Arcades), but there's a ton of new features here to help distance the game from clone territory; for starters, there's the side-on view, but you'll also need to walk over bombs to open up pathways, bounce on trampolines to reach higher platforms, and use transporters to advance to otherwise inaccessible areas. The level design is incredibly clever and each stage is almost like a mini puzzle. Some stages can seem impossible to start with (and there's certainly a lot of trial-and-error involved in progressing), but you always feel like it's your fault; this encourages you to keep trying and when you do finally figure out the solution there's many "aha" moments! Everything about the game is playful and I love the levels which require you to leap from the top of the screen, bounce off a trampoline at the bottom and then land safely on a platform! Other highlights include a stage that's entirely constructed of bomb platforms, and another that tasks you with using magnets to safely cross large gaps. No two stages are alike, and it's a credit to the developers that they constantly threw in new ideas to keep things fresh. What propels this game into superstardom is the awesome level editor where you can save up to 26 stages! It's hours of fun and the intuitive interface makes it a pleasure to use.
Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory hooks you in with its superb controls, stage design and game mechanics, and then throws in an extensive level editor to boot. The main challenge can initially seem a bit extreme which might put off impatient gamers, but those that stick with it will experience a wonderfully crafted puzzle-platformer.
Random trivia: The game was republished in 1986 by Databyte.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Shooting Range (NES review)

Developer: TOSE
Publisher: Bandai
Released: 1989

Shooting Range is a light-gun game that requires both a standard controller and an NES Zapper.

Normal mode includes four events and the objective is to reach a specific point total by shooting pinwheel targets as they move across the screen. Missed shots decrease your energy metre, and once it fully depletes (or you run out of time) it's Game Over; additional energy and time can be obtained though by hitting icons from smashed targets. The gameplay requires you to simultaneously use the Zapper as well as a controller to scroll from left-to-right; it works okay, but using two inputs is awkward and never feels comfortable. The Western stage is up first, but the scenery is barren and targets only appear across two planes, making for some unexciting action. The required point total is also never displayed, leaving you to guess when you're close to completing the area! Ghost House is more interesting due its varying target patterns and reverse 'E' icons that introduce some strategy (accidentally hit one and you'll end up losing energy!). Space is similar to Ghost House with its tricky patterns, but when the clock reaches 100 seconds a gigantic alien boss appears which needs to be shot five times. It's a fantastic idea and it makes you wonder why previous stages didn't follow a similar structure. The Bonus Round tasks you with shooting bottles when they start to flash; this timing-based action is brilliant, playing like a much better Mad Dog McCree (1994, Philips CD-i), and it really shows how accurate the Zapper is. There's also a multiplayer Party mode where you blast as many targets as possible within 249 seconds; it's like Whack-a-Mole but the lack of substance and stimuli makes it a real snoozer.
Shooting Range is fun in short bursts, but truth-be-told it's no more advanced than Hogan's Alley (1985, NES) or Wild Gunman (1985, NES). It's definitely playable and may provide some entertainment for 10-20 minutes, but once you've completed it there's really no reason to return for multiple play-throughs.
Random trivia: The game was only released in North America.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Arkanoid (NES review)

Developer: Taito
Publisher: Taito
Released: 1987

Arkanoid is a brick-breaking game that was originally released in the Arcades in 1986.

There's 36 rounds that support either a standard controller or the Vaus spinner controller. The object is to continually bounce a ball off your spacecraft in order to break all of the coloured and silver bricks. In a nice twist, capsules occasionally fall from broken bricks, and if collected they give you super powers such as the ability to catch the ball, split it into three, or even fire a laser to smash the playfield to pieces. The latter is satisfying (helping you clear bricks much quicker) and the weapon system is a really great advancement for the genre. The stage design is a mixed bag; on one hand, Round 5's Space Invader layout is a treat, as is Round 10's L-shaped section where you wedge the ball inside and look to split it into three for utter carnage! Others are less fun, particular Round 3 with its low barrier of unbreakable bricks (in my opinion, this is too challenging for an early stage), and most of the later tedious rounds where every single brick needs to be hit multiple times. The challenge is wildly uneven throughout and the game really could have used some difficulty settings; using a Vaus controller does help due to its variable speed (the one-speed movement of a standard controller is useless) but even then, seeing past the opening rounds is tough. If you do manage to progress to the higher rounds, it's hard not to shake the feeling that you've seen it all before, and the level design starts to look very similar. The only respite is the inspired Round 36 where you manoeuvre your ship to avoid being shot by a boss; it's a wonder why the developers didn't add more of these to break up the action!
Arkanoid is a great update of the classic Breakout formula, but it's hard to enjoy the game when it repeatedly beats you over the head with its extreme difficulty. In my opinion, there are Arkanoid clones, such as Crack-Up! (1989, Atari 8-bit), that do a much better job of balancing everything in a more player-centric manner.
Random trivia: The Famicom version only has 33 rounds and features tougher stage design (e.g. Round 3 has more unbreakable bricks on the bottom row).

Monday, 22 May 2017

Duke Nukem 3D (Mega Drive / Genesis review)

Developer: Tec Toy
Publisher: Tec Toy
Released: 1998

Duke Nukem 3D is a late-release first-person shooter that was only published in Brazil.

Your job is to kill aliens and foil their plans to destroy Earth. This port contains a heavily modified version of the second episode called Lunar Apocalypse which consists of nine levels; the objective in each is to mow down enemies, collect key cards to unlock doors and then reach the exit. At your disposal is an extensive range of weapons including an RPG, Shotgun and Chain Gun. The huge levels are incredibly well designed, and the awe-inspiring graphics look better than Doom (1995, SNES) which needed an additional cartridge chip to pull off its 3D rendering. While the play field is cropped, it still takes up the majority of the screen, and I really like the amount of different texture mapping on display. For the most part, the action is speedy, but as the levels progress the frame-rate dips and slowdown occurs which can affect your aim. Speaking of which, the lack of a crosshair is a gigantic issue, as there's no visual aid to help you line-up shots. Ammo is weirdly scarce, and it's no fun having to run around like a madman for survival while awkwardly trying to kick aliens in the face! Even picking up weapons and ammo is annoying, as you need to be perfectly lined up for Duke to collect them. The main problem though is the difficulty level, as even on the Piece of Cake setting the enemy A.I. is extremely aggressive; in fact, each time you face an alien they'll shoot quicker than you can, and it's more uncommon to escape a battle unharmed than it is to take damage! It's almost as if your opponents know where you are at all times and the millisecond they spot you there's a bullet flying in your direction at high speed.
Duke Nukem 3D is a technical masterpiece due to its spectacular graphics and impressive speed, and Tec Toy did an amazing job squeezing everything in without the need for additional chips. It's a real shame then that the gameplay was a mere afterthought, as the difficulty balance is way off, and there's too many quirks that ruin the fun.
Random trivia: This Mega Drive port was re-released worldwide in 2015 by Piko Interactive.

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