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.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

H.E.R.O. (Atari 2600 review)

Developer: Activision
Publisher: Activision
Released: 1984

H.E.R.O. is an action game that was ported to numerous other systems in 1984, including the Atari 5200 and Atari 8-bit computers.

Playing as Roderick Hero, your mission across 20 levels is to rescue trapped miners in the mineshafts of Mount Leone. Working your way downwards, you must fly / hover with your propeller, use dynamite to blow up walls, and shoot enemies with the Microlaser Beam. Careful management of your power gauge (e.g. time) is required too, as it dimishes each time you move; once it runs out you lose a life. Four lives are initially available, although additional ones can be obtained every 20,000 points. The level playfields start off small, but eventually scroll in all directions, giving the game somewhat of an adventure feel. The staggered rollout of environmental hazards is equally as impressive, as the game slowly introduces new mechanics (e.g. deadly magma deposits, lava pits and rafts to cross rivers) to challenge more experienced players, and keep you guessing what lies ahead. Veterans will quickly map the preferred route through each level, but I like that there's multiple paths to give you a choice in how you tackle the journey towards the miner. Walls can still be demolished with your Beam (in case you run out of dynamite), but in exchange for a decrease in your power gauge due to its slow, weak impact; this is a clever mechanic that forces you into careful resource management, yet stops you from getting frustrated by insufficient weapon inventory. The controls offer a perfect level of precision, and it's an absolute joy making split-second decisions in the heat of the moment; they compliment the gameplay to a huge degree and let you focus on the enjoyable job of multitasking through tight corridors.

H.E.R.O. is a real gem in the Atari 2600 library and everything about it is so perfectly designed, developed and balanced that you'll want to keep returning in an attempt to beat your high score. It's inifinitely playable thanks to its deep, strategic gameplay and is yet another early Activision title that still manages to impress today.

Random trivia: In case you're wondering, the acronym H.E.R.O. stands for Helicopter Emergency Rescue Operation.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Spider-Man (Atari 2600 review)

Developer: Atari
Publisher: Parker Brothers
Released: 1982

Spider-Man is an action game and the first ever title to feature the famous web-slinger.

Your job is to save New York City from the Green Goblin, who's booby-trapped the city with super bombs. Each level sees you shooting your web upwards to climb skyscrapers in an attempt to reach and defuse the bomb at the very top. Capturing criminals along the way (by crossing over them during a swing) is crucial to keeping your web fluid topped up, and you must also be careful not to shoot your web onto a window or any part of the sky, otherwise Spider-Man will start to fall. The ability to control your web length is great, especially when you're in tight quarters and need to move upwards a small distance. You'll totally feel like a superhero when you do successfully swing onto a meagre piece of scenery and the risk-reward element is perfectly balanced. Even falling doesn't mean immediate death, and it's fantastic how you have an opportunity to save yourself by quickly web-swinging back onto the building. It packs a good challenge too, and the steadily increasing enemy speeds and fiendishly placed bombs force you to use all parts of the building structure, rather than relying on the same patterns. Approaching the top makes for some fun, yet tricky climbing, as the 'safe' areas on the building become much smaller and the Green Goblin starts to move side-to-side in an attempt to break your line (basically acting as a boss-like area). However, the game's biggest downfall is its repetitive nature, as there's no significant stage layout variations or additional gameplay mechanics to peak your interest; once you've completed the first few levels there's literally nothing else to see.

Spider-Man is certainly entertaining for a few play sessions, but it simply doesn't do enough to keep you invested past the 10-15 minute mark. More gameplay modes or variations would have gone a long way to boosting its long-lasting appeal, something that even Space Invaders (1980, Atari 2600) managed to do with its 112 modes!

Random trivia: This was also the first videogame based on a Marvel Comics character.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Night Trap (Sega 32X-CD review)

Developer: Digital Pictures
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1994

Night Trap is a Full Motion Video (FMV) game that was also released on the Sega CD in 1992.

Your mission takes place at a lakeshore winery house and the objective is to protect a group of teenagers from incoming perpetrators. To do this, you need to constantly switch between eight surveillance cameras, snoop on conversations to find clues, hunt for bad guys and set off traps when necessary. These traps can only be activated when the sensor metre is in the red (otherwise your control will be temporarily locked) and you must also listen out for the ever-changing access code in order to actually use them. Unfortunately, despite an upgrade in quality compared to the Sega CD version, it's possibly the worst looking Sega 32X-CD game due to the low frame-rate and grainy video. The gameplay involves lots of trial and error, as the scenes don't follow any logical pattern; it's not always clear what to do or which room to switch to next, and you're always bound to miss something important when choosing to either follow the story or capture criminals. Finding a good balance between gameplay and story is tough, as while flicking through cameras like a madman is partially effective, you'll likely miss a change to the access code, resulting in a quick Game Over. (in my opinion, a simple hint option would have been extremely beneficial to give newcomers at least some guidance). This does mean that lots of replayability is on offer, but how much enjoyment you get from the gameplay depends on how patient you are. At least the cheesy B movie style murder scenes are humorous! The HUD is also neatly condensed onto the lower part of the screen and the camera load times are brief.

There's no doubting that Night Trap is an ambitious concept, but its rigid gameplay and severe trial and error results in an aggravating experience that's unlikely to hold your attention for too long. Truth be told, there's barely any depth to its gameplay and the memorisation requirement will be a turn-off to all but a select audience.

Random trivia: In 2017, the game was remastered and published on Microsoft Windows and the PlayStation 4.

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