Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Bump 'n' Jump (NES review)

Developer: Data East, Sakata SAS
Publisher: Vic Tokai
Released: 1988

Bump 'n' Jump is a driving game that was first released in the Arcades in 1982.

Your girlfriend has been kidnapped and it's up to you to hunt down the Jackals gang and rescue your partner. To do this, you'll need to survive 16 courses that are split into four districts (city, country yards, mountains and seaside). The d-pad is used to increase/decrease speed, B is the emergency break, and A allows you to jump; the latter is a key mechanic, as although you can bump opponents into the scenery, landing on top of them is more effective and results in them being instantly eliminated! The stages are the perfect length and offer short, bite-sized challenges that foster the 'just one more go' mentality. There's also a good sense of speed, and if you do happen to crash, the checkpoints are very fair. I also like how each stage offers a unique challenge by trying something new through its level design; for example, while Course 1 has wide lane roads to navigate, Course 3 features extremely narrow lanes surrounded by swimming pools. This forces you to use every trick at your disposal and it's fun making split-second decisions thanks to the responsive controls. Course 6 ups the ante by splitting the roads to the left and right once you become airborne; this results in the need to swerve quickly in order to land safely. The Course 16 finale includes a boss battle where you must continually smash him from above while avoiding being wrecked; it's a superb change of pace and makes you wonder why more bosses weren't included. Despite this being a great NES port, it does look outdated when compared to other 1988 titles and the only minor upgrade from the original is the need to collect fuel icons.

In all honesty, Bump 'n' Jump is a redundant port of a six-year-old game, but what it lacks in upgrades and content it makes up for in quality programming and addictive, twitch-based gameplay. As long as you keep your expectations in check this is an enjoyable title that's ideal for a quick 30 minute play session.

Random trivia: Ports were also released on the Amstrad CPC, Atari 2600, ColecoVision, Commodore 64 and Intellivision.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Yo Noid! (NES review)

Developer: Now Production
Publisher: Capcom
Released: 1990

Yo Noid! is an action-platformer that stars Domino's Pizza's mascot called Noid.

New York City is being wrecked and it's up to you to stop your lookalike Mr. Green from causing further damage. Noid's main attack is his yo-yo, but spells and magic powers can be obtained by collecting scrolls. The level design can best be described as functional, as no imagination went into creating each stage layout; it's almost exclusively a left-to-right affair with no deviance apart from small sections where you can take a higher or lower path. It makes the cute and inviting world seem completely bland and although you'll initially want to dive in and see what it has to offer, there's nothing of interest here from a graphical or design perspective. Your large character sprite features an inconsistent hit-box, and the spotty collision detection means you'll face many unfair deaths, illuminating and exacerbating the one-hit death rule to a greater degree. However, my biggest gripe is reserved for the real-time strategy mini-game that's also used for the final boss. Here, you have a series of numbered battle cards and the object is to score more points than your opponent (e.g. playing a 3 card vs a 1 card will result in two points for the victor). Multiplier and defensive power-ups can also be used if you've found them during the main levels. While everything works fine, it brings the action to a screeching and unnecessary halt (especially as you're repeatedly forced to participate) and at least one proper boss battle would have livened up the action. I also don't like how power up cards are usually revealed in levels by randomly firing into thin air, as it's a lazy way to encourage exploration.

Yo Noid! could have used more time on the drawing board to flesh out its under-cooked level design and to rethink the lackluster boss battles. While I do appreciate Capcom trying something different, the base concepts just don't come together as a cohesive whole, leaving behind a very mediocre action-platformer.

Random trivia: The original Japanese version (called Kamen no Ninja Hanamaru) featured a young masked ninja in place of Noid.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Mach Rider (NES review)

Developer: Nintendo R&D1, HAL Laboratory
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1985

Mach Rider is a vehicular combat-racing game that was part of the NES Black Box series.

In the year 2112, Earth has been invaded by evil forces and it's your job to rescue all survivors. The modes on offer are Fighting (split into ten sectors where you must reach the checkpoint before time expires and without running out of energy), Endurance (reach certain distances before time expires), Solo (similar to Endurance, but with no enemies) and Design (create your own courses). The A button accelerates, while B fires your machine gun that can destroy enemy vehicles and some roadside objects; however, rocks and balls are immune to bullets so they must be dodged. With driving being a key component, the poor implementation is puzzling and most of your time will be spent swerving like a madman in an attempt to avoid crashing for the millionth time. Cornering is the worst offender due to the dodgy side-camera angles that don't follow the road on bends (stopping you from seeing what's actually in front of you). This results in non-stop blind corners and tons of unavoidable collisions where rocks appear from nowhere. The obvious thing would be to slow down, but fellow riders are constantly on your heels and will destroy your bike if you move out of top gear. What follows is some aggravating and unfair gameplay that favours dumb luck over twitch-based skill. The choppy frame-rate doesn't help matters either and trying to make precise movements is nigh-on impossible. It's disappointing as the core concept is appealing and some of the ideas (e.g. the cool rear view camera) are cutting edge. The ability to create your own courses is great, but again the dire gameplay makes it a moot point.

Mach Rider is an innovative title that tries to combine several genres, but shamefully fails to master even a single one of them. The controls, racing and combat are littered with rampant programming issues and the feeling of never being in control is tough to ignore in a game that requires razor-sharp accuracy.

Random trivia: The game was later re-released on the Virtual Console for the Wii (2007), 3DS (2013) and Wii U (2014).

Super Tennis (SNES review)

Developer: TOSE
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1991

Super Tennis is a sports game that was a launch title for the SNES in Europe. 

It supports 1-2 players and the modes on offer are Singles, Doubles (can be played with a friend, or a CPU teammate if required) and Circuit. The latter mode consists of eight tournaments and your objective is to rack up points and gain the highest possible seeding by season end; however, your player can tire, so strategy is required when deciding whether to enter a tournament or get some rest. The options are plentiful, including three court types (Hard, Lawn and Clay) and 20 players (10 male, 10 female). The gameplay is very accessible with a fair difficulty level for newcomers, but a deep shot selection for pros that includes Top Spin, Lob and Slice. Controlling exactly where the ball will travel from a horizontal and vertical standpoint is a breeze, and there's even fun advanced options, such as adding spin to each serve. Co-op with a friend is the best way to experience the game, but it's still enjoyable advancing through the Circuit with a CPU team-mate, as the A.I. is smart and reliable. Opponents have varying styles (e.g. some frequently rush the net, while others rely on power serves / strokes) which forces you to adapt your strategy in each match. Likewise, rather than being simple palette swaps, the Hard, Lawn and Clay courts play very differently to each other (in terms of how the ball bounces) and changing your style to suit the setting and opponent is one of the game's best aspects. There's lots of memorable jingles and the action oozes personality, with players reacting with speech bubbles throughout depending on the outcome of a point (e.g. "Yeah!" or "Rats!").

Super Tennis is one of the finest sports titles of the 16-bit era and it's top-notch gameplay still manages to shine. Everything from the responsive controls and intricate shot selection is first-class, and it comes highly recommended, especially if you enjoy Arcade-style sports games like Virtua Tennis (2000, Sega Dreamcast).

Random trivia: The two other SNES games available for the European launch were F-Zero and Super Mario World.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Richard Burns Rally (Gizmondo review)

Developer: Warthog, Gizmondo Studios Manchester
Publisher: Gizmondo Europe Ltd
Released: 2005

Richard Burns Rally is a racing game that was originally released on the PlayStation 2, Xbox and Windows PC in 2004.

It consists of 10 stages and 8 officially licensed rally cars, and the modes on offer are Quick Rally (single races) and Arcade (4-10 stage marathon). In the latter mode, all applicable stages must be completed consecutively, as failing to reach a checkpoint before time expires will result in a Game Over. The controls are sensitive and it can take a while to adjust to how touchy they are on straights, and how to carefully balance your vehicle while cornering. It's a fine line, but once you get the hang of it the game becomes a thrilling white-knuckle ride! The environments are varied and interesting, as while Stage 2 has narrow, barrier-less pits that lead directly into the water, Stage 4 features heavy snow where keeping visibility of the actual road is a struggle! I also like how they transition throughout stages, as one minute you'll be dodging ice boulders, then climbing a winding mountain. Content is missing from the original versions (namely the Rally Season and the ability to repair your vehicle after each stage), but the streamlined approach works well and better supports the dip-in, dip-out nature of a handheld game. You're given very little time to reach each checkpoint, which some could see as a way to artificially inflate the game's short length. However, it's not too overbearing and the racing is so intense and engaging that you'll want to keep trying. The frame-rate can be sketchy at times, but the graphics are some of the finest on the Gizmondo, and your co-driver and the on-screen icons do a great job of letting you know what's ahead. The SFX shine too with terrific stereo separation based on your car's positioning to the surrounding environment.

There's no denying that Richard Burns Rally is a drastically cut-down version of the console and PC original, but the exceptional racing will keep you coming back for more. It's perfectly suited to the handheld format and is complimented by top-notch course design and all-round fantastic presentation.

Random trivia: Gizmondo Europe Ltd also published Trailblazer on the Gizmondo in 2005.

Contra (MSX2 review)

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Released: 1989

Contra is a run 'n' gun game that was originally released in the Arcades in 1987.

It supports single player only and your mission is to stop the Red Falcon Organization from taking over the world. Your trusty Pea Shooter is always available, but other weapons can be collected such as a Laser, Machine Gun or Fireball. Unlike the Arcade or NES (1988) versions, there's no one-hit deaths as you're afforded a generous health bar, making the game dramatically less challenging. Adding to this, there's no scrolling here, and the static screens allow you to walk straight through most sections before enemies even have chance to fire! The weapons are a mixed bag; on one hand, there's a cool and exclusive Rear Gun that shoots in-front and behind you. You can also select weapon types from a menu after collecting icons which is a fantastic idea to aid strategy. Bizarrely though, there's no Spread Gun (despite it being a series staple) and my only guess is that it would have resulted in too much slowdown (possibly why there's no co-op mode either). The nine original levels are heavily neutered, but they do at least retain some of their charm, and it's still fun mowing down enemies across multiple platforms. There's also ten exclusive levels, and while this initially sounds appealing, they all feature terrible design with none of the trademark innovation that the series is know for. They retread familiar ground far too often and even when the game tries something new (such as a right-to-left stage, or a bunker where you work your way downwards), it feels like game design by numbers with random object and enemy placement. Slowdown also becomes a bigger problem the more you progress.

Contra on the MSX2 plays like a bootleg version of the NES classic and the condensed level design and lack of scrolling ensure it doesn't hold a candle to its 8-bit brother. There are some unique ideas here, but the new levels do nothing to enhance the gameplay and overall it just feels like a heavily watered down port.

Random trivia: In Japan, this version was re-released on the Wii Virtual Console (2010) and the Wii U Virtual Console (2014).

Aztec Challenge (Atari 8-bit review)

Developer: Robert T. Bonifacio
Publisher: Cosmi
Released: 1983

Aztec Challenge is an endless runner and an updated version of the 1982 Atari 8-bit game.

Your mission is to complete an endurance-based obstacle course in order to escape being sacrificed by the Aztec priests during their annual ritual to the gods! There's seven phases that can be played with 1-2 players, and depending on which direction is held on the joystick, three jump types are available (High, Medium and Low); once you've lost all four lives it's Game Over. The most striking upgrade is the visuals which are markedly improved from the 1982 version; objects are now easily distinguishable from the backgrounds, and the sprites have more frames of animation. Gameplay wise, the action has been polished with responsive controls and better level design. For starters, there's now multiple paths where you can either take the lower or higher route, giving you more freedom in your approach. The Phase 4 Fire Caves level is improved too and is actually beatable due to better spacing between the platforms. Later stages do little to enhance the earlier concepts, but Phase 5 does play like a cool outtake from Circus Charlie (1984, Arcades) where you dodge flaming batons as they move upwards. There's also an instant replay feature after each completed phase and while its not particularly necessary, it is a neat technical achievement. A clever mechanic is how points are received each time you jump, as this adds a risk-reward element where you can repeatedly leap between hazards to bump up your score. Another nice feature is the ability to continue on your current phase when you run out of lives. The collision detection is slightly off though, and it's infuriating when you inch towards a platform edge and inexplicably lose a life due to the game thinking you've clipped through.

The original version of Aztec Challenge was a huge disappointment, but this revised edition is fantastic and shows how clever and addictive the core concept is. The developer managed to realise its true potential, and although there are a few annoying bugs there's nothing here that detracts from the fun, yet challenging gameplay.

Random trivia: The game was later republished on the Ariola, Top Ten Hits, and US Gold labels.

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