Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Metal Storm (NES review)

Developer: Tamtex
Publisher: Irem
Released: 1991

Metal Storm is an action-platformer that was re-released by Limited Run Games in cartridge format in 2019.

Playing as an M-308 Gunner, your mission is to enter the battle station Cyberg and unlock the self-destruct device on the powerful LaserGun that's currently pointing towards Earth. The B button fires your gun and power-ups can be collected that include a Shield Force (deflects bullets) and a Power Beam (increases the width of your shots). Gravity can also be flipped by pressing Up + A together, and if the Gravity Fireball power-up is active when travelling through the air you'll damage all enemies in your path. The gravity feature is perfectly implemented and creates some interesting gameplay in terms of you strategising on its usage, particularly as you can use it to move enemies to a more advantageous position for yourself. It does take a little while to adjust to the unconventional controls, but once you do it's so much fun pulling off more advanced techniques such as the Jump and Flip (launch off a ledge and then activate reverse gravity to reach the underside of the platform) and Distance Flip (again, using gravity to reach higher platforms); these give the action a neat puzzle-like element where you need to figure out how to manipulate gravity to reach a certain platform. The level design is expertly crafted to showcase your abilities resulting in some playful and intriguing gameplay. The bosses steal the show thanks to their clever patterns, though I do wish there was a more epic finale rather than you only needing to plough through the same foes you've already beaten. The difficulty curve is spot-on and I like how a password system is available to continue your progress.

Metal Storm employs an innovative gravity mechanic and encases it within top-tier level design that constantly shifts gears to challenge the player. Add to this the rock-solid controls, inspired boss battles and perfect difficulty and you're left with a title that can hold its own against any other action-platformer on the console.

Random trivia: Irem published numerous games on the NES, including the excellent Kickle Cubicle (1990).

Sunday, 15 November 2020

P.O.W.: Prisoners of War (NES review)

Developer: SNK
Publisher: SNK
Released: 1989

P.O.W.: Prisoners of War is a side-scrolling beat-em-up that was first released in the Arcades in 1988.

There's four levels and your mission is to infiltrate the Government of Offensive Network organisation who are attempting to establish a worldwide smuggling ring. Punches and kicks are your main attacks, but weapons (e.g. guns and knives) and power-ups (e.g. Brass Knuckles) can be obtained. The gameplay is a let-down as it suffers from similar attack-resistant bad guys seen in The Adventures of Bayou Billy (1989, NES) and the repetitious onslaught of lookalike enemies from Rush'n Attack (1987, NES). The controls are a perpetual problem too, as they're sluggishly delayed which usually leaves you in harms way as you're punched into oblivion while waiting for your inputs to register. There really isn't much to see after the first two levels either, as the game's initial ideas don't evolve as you progress, resulting in highly monotonous action. Enemy A.I. is also bizarre, as they'll often just run straight by you... never to be seen again! I also don't like how the screen doesn't scroll far enough ahead and the need to move your character towards the right-hand edge can lead to surprise attacks from incoming bikes and grenades. Despite all of this, there are some redeeming features, such as the gun that allows you to turn the tables on the flood of enemies; I also like how you can hilariously block incoming bullets by kicking them! Additionally, the section in Level 2 where you need to quickly punch scuba divers as they pop up out of the water is fun. There's also some nice graphical detail in the backgrounds, and the bosses (while dull to fight) do feature some reasonably large sprite work.

P.O.W.: Prisoners of War takes inspiration from various NES titles, but doesn't really add anything worthwhile of its own. It also quickly outstays its welcome due to some repetitive gameplay ideas and makes the fundamental flaw of implementing delayed controls that negatively affect the entire adventure.

Random trivia: Whereas the NES version is single-player only, the Arcade original allows simultaneous co-op play.

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Guerrilla War (NES review)

Developer: SNK
Publisher: SNK
Released: 1989

Guerrilla War is an overhead run 'n' gun game that was first released in the Arcades in 1987.

As the guerrilla leader, you must secretly land on shore to protect your small island from the domination of an evil dictator. There's ten stages and while your main weapon is a machine gun, power-ups such as flamethrowers and screen-clearing bombs can be collected. The game's most striking aspect is the number of bullets, grenades and enemies that can litter the screen at once; it's remarkable and the sheer carnage keeps you fully engrossed throughout every moment. This does result in some slowdown and screen flicker, but it only becomes overly noticeable in later stages. The effect this does have though is that you're usually wildly outnumbered, which makes for some incredibly difficult gameplay and you'll likely die often while trying to avoid the swarm of bullets coming your way; this is undoubtedly frustrating, but I do like how unlimited continues are available at the cost of your high score being reset, as it allows novices / moderately-skilled players to see everything the game has to offer. This enables Guerrilla War to shine, as it includes a good amount of scenic and mission variety (e.g. having to swim while fighting your way back to land, and an underground section where you need to rescue hostages), as well as sections that force you to scroll left and right instead of just straight ahead. The bosses feature large sprites and tons of diversity, and it's interesting how they almost resemble a shoot-em-up as you quickly dodge their attacks to get a shot in of your own. The controls are decent, but the lack of the Arcade's rotary stick does lead to some errant firing in the heat of the action.

Guerrilla War is a technical showpiece for the NES and it's mightily impressive how SNK managed to squeeze every ounce from the console to allow so many sprites on screen at the same time. The gameplay is also great fun with plenty of variety, but there's no doubting that some will be put off by its punishing difficulty.

Random trivia: The game ROM contains hidden messages from the programmers.

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Metal Slug: 2nd Mission (Neo Geo Pocket Color review)

Developer: SNK
Publisher: SNK
Released: 2000

Metal Slug: 2nd Mission is a run 'n' gun game that was released a year after the Neo Geo Pocket Color original.

There's 38 missions and your objective is to rescue government forces that are being held hostage by the rebel army, and stop the production of deadly weaponry. Your default attacks are a gun and knife, but temporary power-ups (e.g. a Bazooka) can be obtained, and certain scenes allow you to control a Fighter Plane, Submarine and a Tank. An excellent adjustment from the first game is that grenades are now mapped to the Option button; previously, this button simply cycled through weapons, but having it activate grenades allows for much quicker reactions during intense gameplay scenes. Additionally, the amount of missions has dramatically increased from 17 in the original game to 38 in this sequel. The best aspect is that you won't see all of the missions within a single play-through, as multiple progression routes are available depending on how you play. Also, two characters (Gimlet and Red Eye) are selectable that each have their own missions and weapons. As a whole, these ideas are amazing for replayability as they encourage you to return several times in order to see every scenario the game has to offer. The gameplay does an outstanding job of never resting on its laurels and instead the focus is clearly on offering the player as much variety as possible; this creates an epic atmosphere while simultaneously making you feel like the star of a 1980's action movie as you blow up everything in sight with your huge arsenal of weaponry! The bosses are just as fun thanks to their interesting attack patterns and diverse battles, and I love that the game lets you save your progress whenever you'd like.

Metal Slug: 2nd Mission surpasses its outstanding original by more than doubling the amount of missions, introducing new characters that have their own routes and missions, and tightening-up the secondary weapon controls. It's an almost flawless title and successfully manages to live up to the series' lofty expectations.

Random trivia: The next handheld title in the series was Metal Slug Advance, which was released on the Game Boy Advance in 2004.

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Atari Karts (Atari Jaguar review)

Developer: Miracle Designs
Publisher: Atari Corporation
Released: 1995

Atari Karts is a kart racer that's exclusive to the Jaguar console.

There's 11 characters, three Cups and ten themed worlds that feature multiple track layouts. Bonuses (such as bursts of speed) and Hazards (including reversed controls) are embedded into the tracks and come into play if you drive over the associated icon. When critiquing the game, it's hard not to compare it against its obvious source of inspiration in Super Mario Kart (1992, SNES). On this basis, Atari Karts fails in a number of areas, notably in its presentation which feels lifeless and unappealing; the characters have zero personality and even the trophy celebration lacks the pomp and pageantry of Nintendo's 16-bit classic by only featuring a boring static screen. Most of the tracks are dull with little in the way of scenic interest or cool features. The worst part are the Castle themed tracks where it's ridiculously easy to find yourself stuck on a barrier thanks to the utterly moronic idea to have parts of the wall stick out into the race area. The controls generally work fine, but a noteworthy issue is that the ability to turn your kart sharply left or right is mapped to buttons 4 & 6 on the keypad; the need to take your thumbs off the d-pad and main buttons makes for some awkward placement and is only remedied if you have the rare Pro Controller where sharp turns are mapped to the shoulder buttons. And then there's the items (e.g. called Bonuses and Hazards here) which are very uninspired and it's sometimes hard to see which one you're about to collect as you drive over it. I also really don't like that certain items are automatically activated when obtained, as this takes away a strategic element.

Atari Karts borrows all the necessary foundations from the Mario Kart series, but forgets one vital component... fun! It also does nothing to set itself apart from Nintendo's franchise, or to advance the genre, and when coupled with sub-standard track and item design you're left with a rather bland kart racer.

Random trivia: Miracle Designs did start work on a sequel, but it never made it past the planning stage.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Shinobi II: The Silent Fury (Sega Game Gear review)

Developer: Sega CS
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1992

Shinobi II: The Silent Fury is an action game and the follow-up to the 1991 original on the Sega Game Gear.

Your mission is to locate the four Elemental Crystals and stop the Techno-Warriors and Black Ninja from taking over Neo City. A total of five playable ninjas can be unlocked that each have different attacks / abilities to help you tackle each of the game's five rounds. From a level design perspective, there's nothing particularly innovative or wildly different to the original game, and to be honest some ideas (as well as music) are recycled. The maze-like levels are still highly enjoyable though and I like that enemies don't respawn as you re-enter the same areas in the hunt for the exit. The potential need to backtrack through beaten stages with different ninjas to find Crystals might seem like a chore, but the fun comes from being able to explore previously inaccessible areas that really open up the level design; this includes the Castle stage where you'll need the Green ninja to double-jump to a higher platform to collect the Crystal. What's also thoughtful here from a development point-of-view is that you're not forced to defeat the stage bosses again and instead you're warped back to the map screen. Throughout, the bosses are exceptional and feature interesting attack patterns and impressive sprites that take up large portions of the screen. The final stage is an epic, sprawling masterpiece, and while there's plenty of trial-and-error involved each individual ninja's abilities are put to great use; you'll certainly need to master every trick in the book, but it's very satisfying when you make it through to the next area! Once again, the music absolutely shines and manages to be both catchy and unnerving at the same time.

Shinobi II: The Silent Fury is an outstanding follow-up to the highly-regarded original, and while it doesn't stray too far from the existing formula, it does provide more of the same intense action and freedom in its stage progression. It's a blast from start-to-finish and the contrasting ninja abilities give the game plenty of replayability.

Random trivia: The game's music was created by Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima, who both worked on Streets of Rage 2 (1992, Sega Genesis).

Sunday, 25 October 2020

Bust-a-Move Pocket (Neo Geo Pocket Color review)

Developer: Ukiyotei
Publisher: SNK
Released: 1999

Bust-a-Move Pocket is a puzzle game that was released in Japan as Puzzle Bobble Mini.

The aim is to fire bubbles upward and group three or more of the same colour together in order to make them pop. The main mode is Puzzle where you must clear the entire playfield before the bubbles reach below the red line. A big part of what makes the gameplay so enjoyable is learning more advanced tricks; this means quickly analysing the structure of the puzzle (almost as if it were a game of Jenga) and strategising how to take out as many bubbles as possible within the fewest number of moves. This is endlessly addictive and there's nothing quite like taking out the entire puzzle with a single shot, just by creating a huge topple at the peak of the screen! Likewise, the ability to bounce a bubble by shooting it off the sides adds a unique layer to the action, as it forces you to combine mental-based agility with fast-paced precision... a great hook for enticing you to improve your skills. Furthermore, if you fail and need to retry, the game kindly provides you with a guide line for one level only (basically encouraging you to keep playing). There's plenty of levels to keep you occupied and I love how the playfield expands or decreases in size per round to keep you invested. Whereas Puzzle is a somewhat relaxing affair, VS-CPU (attempt to beat eight computer opponents) and Survivor (endless challenge until you fail) modes are the exact opposite and the tough patterns and opponents add a level of stress that's welcome due to how they contrast from the main gameplay offering. Overall, the controls work great, although (in my opinion) the pointer could have done with moving a little bit quicker across the screen.

Bust-a-Move Pocket is a terrific puzzler on a handheld that's already littered with great examples of the genre, and it certainly holds its own thanks to its wealth of content, addictive gameplay and bite-sized approach. There's something here for everyone whether you're looking for a chilled experience, or a more serious challenge against the CPU.

Random trivia: Ukiyotei also developed Metal Slug 1st Mission (1999) and Metal Slug 2nd Mission (2000) for the Neo Geo Pocket Color.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Joe Montana Football (Sega Master System review)

Developer: BlueSky Software
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1990

Joe Montana Football is a sports game that was later ported to the Sega Game Gear in 1992.

It supports single matches against the CPU or a 2-player head-to-head contest. There's 28 teams from both the AFC and NFC, although there's no official license so the nicknames aren't used. The gameplay is similar to Tecmo Bowl (1989, NES) but slower-paced and with more options for plays as you can choose between six on Defense and 17 on Offense. After hiking the ball on Offense you can cycle through receivers with Button 2 and once you spot a player that's open you hit 1 again to throw. It's intuitive, although I did notice that the interception rate is significantly higher than the handheld version. For the running game, you need to move towards the player and then press 1 again to hand off; it works fine, but rarely does it result in any significant yardage. In terms of the interface, everything is speedy and responsive and I love that you can just select Joe's Play if you're short on time or aren't too familiar with the sport. The touchdown celebrations are awesome as the camera moves to ground level and you see the player dancing and spiking the ball in the endzone! The game's current stats are shown after each score which is a fantastic idea to keep you up-to-date. Defense is also enjoyable as you can select any player before the snap and tackling and intercepting the ball is straightforward. Special Teams is the most disappointing aspect as it's almost entirely automatic meaning you have no control over kick offs, punts or field goals apart from moving a player after the ball is in the air. It's also too difficult to make big gains on a punt return as the opposing team always has a big speed advantage.

Joe Montana Football is an above-average sports title that plays well in most aspects (especially the defensive side) and the ability to select from a noteworthy amount of plays is great. It is a shame that special teams is so lacklustre, but overall the rest of the action is solid enough as to not make this such a huge downer.

Random trivia: In North America, this game was released at the same time as the Sega Master System II console.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (Sega Master System review)

Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1990

Michael Jackson's Moonwalker is an action game that was also released on the Sega Genesis in 1990.

Your mission is to destroy Mr. Big and rescue a certain number of children in each level. Some are in plain sight but others are hidden inside doors and windows that you can open by pressing Up. Enemies will try to interject as you search each floor, and while your primary attack is a kick you can also use a life depleting special move to destroy several bad guys at once. The first two levels are located in a Club and on the Street, and in the latter you need to search car trunks while avoiding bombs; it's fun searching all floors for children, but the controls are unresponsive and it often takes several attempts before Michael responds to your inputs and faces the correct enemy or jumps to avoid incoming projectiles. The hit detection is also off and although you'll clearly be making contact with an enemy, there are too many instances where nothing happens. Later levels do little to impress or advance the formula set out early on, with The Cavern being a particular low-point; it consists of small, cramped caves and hidden walls that house numerous enemy types, but it never has any flow due to you constantly having to break up the action by searching inside of them. To be fair though, it is impressive how much is included from the Sega Genesis version and most of the gameplay is fully in-tact. The only real difference is that the final boss is completely unique here; while it's nothing special (and is brutally difficult) it still provides a reason for fans of the game to play this version. Unfortunately, the rest of the bosses are painfully dull and only consist of waves of enemies that you've recently faced.

Michael Jackson's Moonwalker shows some early promise, but it quickly runs out of steam and ideas, leaving you with a rather shallow, repetitive experience. It is remarkably similar to the 16-bit version, but the inexcusable controls issues and lack of gameplay variety are too notable to ignore in the long run.

Random trivia: An alternate build of the game ROM is available that incorrectly keeps the player in demo mode.

Saturday, 17 October 2020

Golden Axe (Sega Master System review)

Developer: Sega R&D 2
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1989

Golden Axe is a side-scrolling beat-em-up that was originally released in the Arcades in 1989.

Playing as the seasoned warrior Tarik, your mission is to reclaim the Golden Axe by defeating the titan Death-Adder and his bandits. Attacks include swinging your sword, kicks, throws and shoulder barges, and powerful magic can be used if you collect enough blue bags. While only one of the original's three playable characters are available in this port, I do like that you can choose from any of their magic abilities at the start of each game; this provides some replayability, but the absence of different character attacks (and in turn, the 2-player co-op mode) likely diminishes the incentive to return for multiple play-throughs. The biggest problem though is the fluctuating frame-rate; this is no more apparent than in Stage 3 where the game engine has a complete meltdown and frequently slows to a crawl when too many enemies are on screen, resulting in severe delays in your button presses being recognised. Later in the stage, it randomly and dramatically speeds up to the point where you don't feel like you have precision control over your character, particularly when trying to sprint for an attack. These issues lead to some rather underwhelming gameplay where cheap hits / deaths are the order of the day. Compounding this is the spotty hit detection, as on many occasions you'll notice either yourself or an enemy being sword slashed despite the weapon clearly not making contact. It's not all doom-and-gloom though, as the sprite work is terrific and some of the bosses and rideable creatures are impressively large. Likewise, the artwork during the introduction and end credits is impressively detailed.

Golden Axe is a brave attempt to bring the Arcade classic to Sega's ancient 8-bit hardware, but it punches far above its weight and the whole experience is rather frustrating. Compared to the 16-bit Sega Mega Drive version (1989), it's hard to recommend this port due to its inconsistent frame-rate and multiple cut-backs.

Random trivia: An exclusive adventure / RPG game called Golden Axe Warrior was released on the Sega Master System in 1991.

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