Monday, 15 January 2018

Hydro Thunder (N64 review)

Developer: Eurocom
Publisher: Midway Games
Released: 2000

Hydro Thunder is a boat racing game that was first released in the Arcades in 1999.

It consists of a 1 player Tournament mode, as well as Multiplayer (1-4 players). The former consists of Easy, Medium and Hard competitions that contain three courses each. The objective is to finish courses within a certain position (in order to unlock bonus courses and extra boats), and collecting Boost icons is crucial to succeeding. Gameplay wise, it's reminiscent of Excite Truck (2006, Nintendo Wii) due to its exotic course design, boost jumps and the fact that you always feel close to being out of control! Each boat is responsive, and I like how many vehicles are included to cater towards different play styles. While there isn't really a focus on enemy combat, it's endlessly satisfying to send an opponent flying by crashing into them while boosting! The water physics are great and although they're not as realistic as Wave Race 64 (1996, N64), they still provide some brilliant push and pull against your vehicle. The Easy mode is a breeze, but Medium forces you to replay each course to find all the shortcuts and eventually qualify; it can be annoying to continually restart the same track but it does encourage you to perfect every trick in the book to shave off previous seconds; when you do successfully pull off a boost start, use all of the shortcuts, boost jump to grab extra turbo and finish ahead of the necessary opponents it's an absolute rush and a very rewarding experience. The course design is top-notch too with varied scenery (e.g. the Nile Adventure track features breakaway sections that create chaos!), but I do wish there were more tracks on offer. The multiplayer mode offers a worthwhile distraction, but you can't race alongside A.I. opponents and the tracks can only be raced one at a time (e.g. no tournaments).

Hydro Thunder doesn't have enough content to satisfy you for more than a couple of days, but it's still a fantastic game that's definitely worth a look if you enjoy tough Arcade racers. The stunning track design is the main highlight here and the fact that it's complimented by excellent controls makes this a must-play.

Random trivia: The game was also a launch title for the Sega Dreamcast in 1999.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES review)

Developer: Nintendo R&D4
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1990

Super Mario Bros. 3 is a platformer that was later ported to the Game Boy Advance in 2003.

Your mission is to recover the magic wands from Bowser's seven children, and restore order to the Mushroom World. This adventure sees a return to the gameplay style of the original Super Mario Bros. (1985, NES) rather than the series' sequel, but brings lots of new abilities, such as being able to turn into a Frog (makes swimming easier) and a Raccoon (gives you flight). These provide tons of diversity and it's great how the power-ups you earn from Bonus Levels (e.g. Mushrooms) can be stored and used strategically prior to tricky levels. Whereas the original felt barren in its landscape, SMB3 feels like a living, breathing world with a huge range of enemies, locations, and gameplay challenges. What makes it so enjoyable is the sense of wonderment it creates within its level design; from throwing a turtle shell to reveal a hidden block that warps you to a coin-filled sky area, to flying above the ceiling to find warp whistles, you'll constantly want to explore, and the multiple paths and secrets help to keep you engaged. There's so much variety in each World, including the maze-like Pipe World and the imaginative Giant World where impressively scaled enemies await you. This carries through to the levels of each World, as one minute you'll be jumping on beetles in auto-scrolling pit stages, dodging environmental hazards in a Fortress, booting enemies as you slide down an icy slope, and running away from a raging sun! There's even diagonally scrolling levels which is impressive for the NES! It isn't linear either, as the awesome overworld hub allows some freedom in tackling levels. The controls respond to your every movement with ultra precision, and the catchy music perfectly encapsulates the level design.

Super Mario Bros. 3 is full of elaborate Worlds that really push the series (and the humble NES console) forward in new and exciting ways. Simply put, it's a masterpiece from start to finish and it's no coincidence that it set the standard for all future 2D Mario platformers.

Random trivia: Bowser's seven children are all based on famous musicians (e.g. Ludwig van Koopa is named after Ludwig van Beethoven).

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Blaster Master (NES review)

Developer: Tokai Engineering
Publisher: Sunsoft
Released: 1988

Blaster Master is an action-adventure game that was known as Metafight on the Nintendo Famicom.

Your mission is to rescue your frog that's fallen into a radioactive hole, and destroy the Plutonium Boss of the underworld. There's eight levels and the basic action consists of two styles; the majority of the time is spent in side-scrolling areas where you drive an armoured vehicle while shooting enemies and exploring. The Select button allows you to travel on-foot, and if you then find one of the small doorways the action changes to a top-down view where you fight mutants, hunt for power-ups and attempt to locate the end-of-level boss. While the gameplay is exploration based like Metroid (1987, NES), it's basically a much better version of Sunsoft's Fester's Quest (1989, NES), due to its similar power-up system and multi-angle stages. Your vehicle is nimble and controls great, while its numerous abilities and power-ups give it a large number of ways to tackle enemies and levels. One of the game's best features is its focus on upgrading your weapons and abilities after you beat each boss, similar to Double Dragon (1988, NES). It's a fun, engaging system that makes you want to continue seeing what lies ahead. The majority of the level design is superb, with huge areas to explore and lots of opportunities for power-ups. Stage 4's side-scrolling area is a highlight, as towards the end it forces you to travel on-foot to unlock a door from the other side in order to allow your vehicle to pass through; it's daunting due to your limited on-foot abilities, making for some intense moments! The level design does falter at times though, particularly at the end of Stage 3; here, players somehow need to know to backtrack to the beginning of the game so they can use a new Hover ability and access the next level... all with zero hints!

Blaster Master is a lengthy and addictive adventure game that wraps you up inside its enticing and well thought-out world. The level design, while mostly excellent, could have used some refinement, but it's still full of standout moments and the fact that each stage can be tackled in multiple ways gives it lots of replayability.

Random trivia: In 2017, the game was remade and released as Blaster Master Zero on the Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo Switch.

Monday, 8 January 2018

The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants (NES review)

Developer: Imagineering
Publisher: Acclaim Entertainment
Released: 1991

The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants is a platformer and the first game based on the animated TV series.

As Bart, your mission across five levels is to wipe out aliens that are invading Springfield. To do this, you must collect, spray paint or destroy certain items that the mutants need to build their Ultimate Weapon and take over the world. Helpful power-ups (such as Rockets and Cherry Bombs) are available at local stores, and X-Ray Glasses can be used to distinguish aliens from humans. The game's biggest problem is its jumping mechanic, as there's a slight delay between pressing the button and Bart performing that action; this leads to many unfair deaths, especially if you're taking a run-up, as you'll likely move a few extra pixels along before the leap occurs, and land directly in the path of an alien. What's equally annoying is that button presses are sometimes ignored completely, usually when you're trying to jump from platform to platform. To top it off, the collision detection is spotty and it's possible to fall straight through platforms. Level 1 is far too rigid and trying to spray-paint objects can be an exercise in frustration; the main reason for this is that you usually need to be in a specific spot for the game to register your intentions and turn the object from purple to red. Level 3's balloon popping gimmick is decent and the ability to play carnival games for extra lives is a neat idea. Level 5 is tedious though, as you aimlessly wander around the Nuclear Power Plant searching for power rods. Eventually, the gameplay grows tiresome and the continual objective to collect items just isn't a strong enough hook or incentive. The developers did do a good job of depicting The Simpsons' world though, such as allowing you to ring the tavern for a hearty laugh at Mo's expense, or when Nelson tries to knock you off your skateboard.

The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants certainly deserves praise for trying something new, but it fails to execute the most basic elements of a good game, namely precise controls and engaging action. While it had the potential to be an above-average NES title, it's simply too frustrating and unfair to recommend.

Random trivia: Ports were released on numerous other systems, including the Commodore Amiga and Sega Game Gear.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Blackthorne (32X review)

Developer: Paradox Development
Publisher: Interplay Productions
Released: 1995

Blackthorne is an action-platformer that was originally released on the SNES and MS-DOS in 1994.

You play as Captain Blackthorne, a former U.S. Marine officer, and your mission is to free the Androthi prisoners from the evil Warlord Sarlac. There's a total of five missions (one exclusive to this Sega 32X port) that consist of 4-5 stages each. The gameplay involves blowing up locked doors with Hover Bombs, finding keys to create bridges, and using Remote Wasps to detonate computer terminals. You have a Shotgun to fight enemies, but interestingly you can hold Up on the d-pad to hide in the shadows; this tactical / stealth element greatly enhances the action-oriented gameplay and forces you to time shots with a more deliberate pace. While shotgun ammo is unlimited, extra weapons are not, and I like how the game forces you to carefully manage your resources, and occasionally avoid combat, to pass each level. There's also some neat puzzle elements too, such as needing to find a key to disable a security field that will then allow you to blow-up the mainframe with a Remote Wasp. The level design is the game's strongest point, as it shares similarities with Super Metroid (1994, SNES) in its sprawling, yet well-signposted nature. The adventure is lengthy, but the addition of level passwords keeps you coming back. Unfortunately, jumping long distances is a constant anxiety, as you need to press C to run and then B to jump; while this sounds simple, there's a minor delay which often leads to instant death where you fall down a pit. The pre-rendered graphics, animation and colour definition are fantastic, but there's not a great deal here that takes advantage of the 32X's power.

Blackthorne is an atmospheric title that successfully morphs multiple genres into an engaging and lengthy adventure. It's a real thinking man's action-platformer, and while there are some unfortunate control issues, the outstanding level design and gameplay mechanics lessen much of the frustration.

Random trivia: A portable version was released on the Game Boy Advance in 2003.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

The Adventures of Willy Beamish (Mega CD / Sega CD review)

Developer: Dynamix
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1993

The Adventures of Willy Beamish is a point-and-click adventure game that was first released on the Amiga and MS-DOS in 1991.

Playing as the young Willy, your main objective is to win the Nintari Ultimate Champion of the World videogame tournament. Along the way you'll need to deal with various school and home life issues by talking to people, searching for clues, and making the correct decisions when required. The first thing you'll notice are the unbelievably long loading screens, and even during a conversation the action will pause for up to 10 seconds between each response. The gameplay fares no better, as you'll spend more time watching and waiting for choices to appear rather than interacting with the environment and meeting interesting characters. It can also be very unforgiving, as sometimes two choices can be incredibly similar in tone, yet selecting one of them will result in a game over; it's illogical and makes your first play-through feel more like luck rather than skill or strategy. Seeing the game over screen is a nightmare, as it takes such a long time to load your saved game and sit through the same cut-scenes (again, with more loading) before you finally reach the necessary spot to advance the plot. It's a real shame, as while the art style, animation and voice syncing are excellent, a simple option to turn off the audio in favour of subtitles would have greatly helped. On a plus note, each area is fairly compact, so back-tracking is minimal, and I like that you can save at any time. What's unforgivable though, is that unlike the original versions, this port completely forgets to wrap up the Nintari championships in the ending sequence... a glaring omission considering its Willy's main objective throughout!

The Adventures of Willy Beamish could have been a decent point-and-click game, but its technical shortcomings result in a totally miserable experience. Clearly, this is a rushed, unoptimised port for the Sega CD, and ultimately its biggest downfall is that it relies too heavily on multimedia.

Random trivia: Hilariously, the manual claims that a 'feature' of the game is looking at spinning balls while the next scene loads!

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.

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