Sunday, 10 February 2019

Sewer Shark (Mega CD / Sega CD review)

Developer: Digital Pictures
Publisher: Sony Imagesoft
Released: 1992

Sewer Shark is a first-person rail-shooter that was later ported to the Panasonic 3DO (1994).

Piloting an Exterminator Class Sewer Shark vehicle, your job is to wipe out vermin that are running amok below Solar City. The A button fires your Gatling gun, B allows you to turn 90° at specific points, and C shoots hydrogen flares when your gauge is in the red. Energy can be topped up by visiting Recharge Stations, and you must also listen to your navigator who will call out numbers to guide you through the sewers (e.g. "3, 6, 12" correlates to Right, Down, Up). The gameplay has more depth than a typical shooter, as succeeding relies on you remembering the required co-ordinates to take the right path; it's similar to Simon Says and this deeper approach grows on you the more you play. The action is intense and there's always a non-stop onslaught of enemies to blast away using the responsive controls. A simple, yet clever mechanic is how some are deadlier than others and once you've learnt their specifics you can quickly monitor your surroundings and make split-second decisions on which ones to target first. I also really like how the later levels ditch the usual 'call-out' navigation and instead rely on you following a bird while firing off flares when the hydrogen level is red; it's challenging to memorise and multitask here (especially with Recharge Stations to find as well), but oh-so worth it when you do. The game's main weakness is its single life approach and lack of checkpoints which could switch players off; it's appalling that there's no way to continue your game until you reach a certain section 25 minutes into a 40 minute game, and even then, this is only achieved by entering a secret code after dying!

Sewer Shark is a terrific shooter with surprising depth, and if you're looking for a game that adds a new twist to the genre you should definitely try this. As far as FMV games go, it's one of the best and it has just enough meat on its gameplay and story arch to keep you invested until the end credits.

Random trivia: Sewer Shark was a launch title for the Sega CD console in North America.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Faceball 2000 (Sega Game Gear review)

Developer: Xanith Software
Publisher: Riverhill Soft
Released: 1993

Faceball 2000 is a first-person maze shooter that was only released in Japan.

Cyberscape mode consists of 70 levels and the objective is to locate the exit against a time limit. The gameplay involves shooting enemies, finding keys, touching floor buttons to open secret doors, and collecting coins to add to your score (each $1000 earns you a life too). Unfortunately, it's very slow with a choppy frame-rate which makes turning or avoiding projectiles an exercise in frustration; it also means that lining up shots is harder than it needs to be thanks to the severe over/under-steer created by the low FPS. The action takes place inside a small window (obviously to increase the frames-per-second), but the already tiny Game Gear screen results in you having to squint to recognise whether a dot in the distance is an enemy or part of the scenery! Likewise, the poor draw distance takes away much of the strategy, as most of the time you'll have no choice but to wander recklessly until an enemy (or often a dead end) suddenly appears. One neat feature is that the difficulty you select dictates your starting level; this is a great idea for allowing players to roughly continue their progress at a later date. Another thing I like is how the game continually adds new mechanics, power-ups and enemies to keep things fresh. Truth be told though, these are the only real positives and the more you progress the more slowdown rears its ugly head. Arena is a deathmatch mode (first to ten wins) with 15 stage types and a set number of enemies; it's mildly entertaining, but it suffers from the same problems listed above. Still, there is some fun to be had if you link two Game Gear's together for a battle.

Faceball 2000 is a brave, yet ill-advised attempt to bring a first-person shooter to Sega's under-powered Game Gear, and the results are pretty much as you'd expect. The handheld simply can't handle what's being thrown at it and all you're left with is a barely playable game that really hasn't aged well.

Random trivia: This is a sequel to a 1987 Atari ST game called Midi Maze.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

SSX 3 (Gizmondo review)

Developer: Exient Games
Publisher: Gizmondo Games
Released: 2005

SSX 3 is a snowboard racing game that was first released on the Nintendo GameCube, PlayStation 2 and Xbox in 2003.

The modes are Conquer the Mountain (career mode where you earn cash to unlock tracks and upgrade stats), Single Event (play any unlocked track), Shadow Racing (race against your best times / scores) and Multiplayer (head-to-head). The career mode features several challenge types such as Race which is a dash to the finish line; launching off a ramp and gaining huge air as you glide over several mountain tops is exhilarating, and I love that there's multiple routes in which to tackle the huge tracks. Likewise, there's always a perfect mixture of grind-based obstacles and ramps to suit both play-styles, and successfully managing to link them together is a thrill. The controls are solid and the ability to upgrade stats and customise your rider is fantastic. Despite some pop-in and a limited draw distance, the graphics are outstanding and the frame-rate rarely dips, even in the most intense moments. The Slopestyle challenges task you with scoring the most points before reaching the bottom; not only are these great for variety, they dramatically alter the way you play, as they force you to use every part of the environment to methodically move up the leaderboard. In the Super Pipe events, the objective is to continually launch yourself up the pipe to score points, and the awesome inclusion of air-based multipliers makes for some exciting attempts. The main gameplay flaw is the automatic grind mechanic, as you'll often find yourself sticking to an object that appears from nowhere and then heading into a less preferable path. Also, I did sporadically experience a bug where my rider clipped through the floor while continuing to rack up underground air points!

SSX 3 is a fun racing game that provides hours of entertainment while highlighting the graphical prowess of the Gizmondo handheld. Sure, it's a little unpolished in certain areas, but if you can forgive the occasional niggle you'll experience some high-quality gameplay that has plenty of challenge and variety to boot.

Random trivia: The game was also ported to the Nintendo Game Boy Advance in 2003.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Wall Ball (Atari 2600 review)

Developer: Avalon Hill
Publisher: Avalon Hill
Released: 1983

Wall Ball is a 3D clone of Breakout (1976, Arcades) that's exclusive to the Atari 2600. 

Controlling a racket at one end of a rectangular room, your objective is to continually hit a ball to break 57 of the 72 bricks at the other end. The ball's direction of travel is dictated by where it hits the racket, but you can also hold the fire button to perform a straight shot. Each match consists of five sets (broken down again into four games) and if the ball lands behind you you'll lose one of your lives (ranging from 10-99 depending on the starting level). Upon starting a match, the most obvious problem is the lack of a floor shadow to indicate how close the ball is to your racket; this causes huge spatial distance issues and there will be many occasions where you unfairly miss the intended target. It's almost as if the developers knew this, which is likely why they provided so many spare lives. With repeated play you can become slightly more accustomed to the game's speed though (especially as the ball doesn't vary its momentum like in Breakout) allowing you to time racket hits with greater consistency. The most impressive aspect is the ball physics, as they're incredibly accurate and once you're familiar with how to direct shots to a particular part of the wall you'll start having a lot more fun. Also, the sense of depth created by the 3D effect is sensational for a 1983 game. The end of each set features an Eliminator game variation with five lives, a smaller racket, as well as jumping bricks; everything moves at a ridiculously fast rate and the reduced hit radius and lack of lives usually result in a quick and frustrating Game Over. Even if you do survive, the repetitive gameplay starts to wear out its welcome as you continue.

Wall Ball is definitely worth a play-through and it does an admirable job of updating the classic Breakout formula into a 3D world. However, there's no denying its shortcomings in the gameplay department (namely its lack of ball shadows) that hold it back from being anything other than a neat curiosity.

Random trivia: Avalon Hill released four other Atari 2600 games in 1983 called Death Trap, London Blitz, Out of Control, and Shuttle Orbiter.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Front Line (Atari 2600 review)

Developer: Individeo
Publisher: Coleco
Released: 1984

Front Line is a run 'n' gun game that was originally released in the Arcades in 1982.

It consists of four skill settings and your mission is to advance upwards to invade enemy territory and destroy the end of level fortress. You're armed with a rifle that can shoot in eight directions, but at certain points you can commandeer a heavy tank (slow movement, cannon shot) or a light tank (fast movement, machine gun fire). The gameplay has a few quirks, some of which are a nuisance and others that you can use to your advantage. For example, while attempting to traverse the environment you'll frequently find yourself getting stuck on parts of the scenery and annoyingly having to wriggle out. On the other hand, the limitation of only two enemies being visible on screen simultaneously is beneficial, especially as one opponent prefers to enter from the rear allowing you to craftily leave him trailing behind you! The shifting scenery keeps you constantly engaged, and the vehicle types are different enough to have a real impact on the gameplay. Losing your tank and having to move on foot during the treacherous rock section is equal parts terrifying and exhilarating, and it's this test of survival that creates huge satisfaction when you do manage to advance to the next area. Likewise, choosing to abandon your heavy tank in favour of the speedier light tank is an intense game of risk-reward due to the incoming foes that add to the pressure-packed atmosphere. I also love how enemy soldiers quickly scurry away in fear as soon as you enter a tank! The scrolling is smooth, the controls are great, and it's never an issue to fire diagonally before quickly darting out of the way to avoid projectiles.

Front Line is a bit rough around the edges and perhaps doesn't make the best first impression, but underneath its unpolished exterior is a very addictive game. It's also way ahead of its time and it's clear to see how its intense run 'n' gun gameplay influenced future Arcade titles such as Commando (1985) and Ikari Warriors (1986).

Random trivia: The game was ported to numerous other systems including the Colecovision and Nintendo Famicom.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Space Harrier (Sega 32X review)

Developer: Rutubo Games
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1994

Space Harrier is a third-person rail-shooter that was first released in the Arcades in 1985.

Playing as a Sentinel named Harri, your mission is to reclaim Dragonland from the demon Valda. There's 18 stages and while using a jet-pack to fly around the auto-scrolling playfield you can shoot enemies with your laser. Gameplay wise, the sprite scaling is terrific and although this port only runs at 30 frames per second (compared to 60 in the Arcades) the animation is smooth. The sense of speed is incredible and at times it's almost too fast as bullets, enemies and scenery litter most of the playfield! What's most difficult is judging spatial distance when enemies and bullets scale towards the front of the screen; pattern recognition and learning A.I. placement is key to succeeding and as long as you're a patient gamer you'll find lots to love about Space Harrier. There's a huge range of unique enemies and memorable stages (especially the ones featuring vertically narrow corridors) and I love that each level ends in a cool boss battle. The Bonus Stages where you ride a creature and bash obstacles for points is also a welcome addition to mix things up. However, while you can lower the difficulty and increase your life count from 3 to 5 in the Options menu, the action is still extremely challenging; unless you're well-versed in the game's patterns and enemy placement you will see the Game Over screen within minutes and it can be disheartening replaying the same early stages in order to advance just a few seconds past your previous best. One saving grace is the hidden Arcade Mode that can be unlocked via a button combination (see below) that affords you three continues.

If you're a fan of tough-as-nails Arcade shooters, Space Harrier is easy to recommend and this Sega 32X port is impressive thanks to its fast-paced action and awesome sprite scaling. For casual gamers, it's likely more of an acquired taste and the lack of continues in this home conversion could be a detriment to its playability.

Random trivia: The game contains both an Arcade Mode and a Diagnostic Mode by entering certain button combinations.

Friday, 28 December 2018

Mogul Maniac (Atari 2600 review)

Developer: VideoSoft
Publisher: Amiga
Released: 1983

Mogul Maniac is a first-person sports game that reproduces a downhill slalom ski run.

The objective is to ski down a mountain as quickly as possible while navigating between the open (side-by-side) and closed gates (vertically staggered poles). Missing a gate either costs you a five second penalty (Novice) or sees you immediately disqualified (Expert). A handy counter in the top-right keeps track of the remaining number of gates, and you can control your speed by pressing Up or Down on the joystick. There's nine courses in total and the right difficulty switch allows you to select whether the hills include moguls (e.g. mounds of snow that create bumps). There's not much variety between courses, but the continual increases in max speed per route make a big difference in terms of both challenge and strategy. Most of the fun comes from learning where to delicately and precisely control your speed in order to gain the best times; when you do get on a roll (especially in a two-player competitive match) it's extremely enjoyable to gracefully glide between gates and then floor it when you see the finish line! The sense of speed is good and I really like how the environment bobs up-and-down to simulate your skier's movement and the incoming moguls. Collision detection is great too and just like in professional skiing you can pretty much brush against the gates without being penalised; this is brilliant for shaving off those precious one-tenths of a second against your previous best. That's the compulsive nature that the gameplay relies on, and whether you fully enjoy it depends on whether you like delving into the minutia and obsessing over optimal speed control.

Mogul Maniac is an impressive first-person sports game that effectively simulates skiing on the Atari 2600's humble hardware. It does get a little repetitive and it's possible to see everything it has to offer very quickly, but there's still a lot of fun to be had, particularly if you have a friend to trade best times with!

Random trivia: The game is also compatible with the Joyboard which is a balance board peripheral.

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