Monday, 21 September 2020

Cool Boarders Pocket (Neo Geo Pocket Color review)

Developer: UEP Systems
Publisher: SNK Playmore
Released: 2000

Cool Boarders Pocket is a snowboarding game and the first portable entry for the franchise.

In Freestyle mode, the objective is to beat the record time in 81 stages while avoiding crashing into various hazards such as animals and trees, or falling into cliff gaps. Holding down on the joystick allows you to squat in order to gain speed, the A button forces you to drift for a hard turn and the B button makes your rider jump. The controls are a mixed bag; on one hand, turning is a breeze thanks to smooth rider movements and the awesome drift ability where you can quickly switch directions to avoid upcoming danger. However, the jump button is occasionally unresponsive and the inability to leap while your rider is facing diagonally does cause some issues. Once you become accustomed to the limitations, you can learn advanced moves such as charging up a leap and then circling the analog stick in mid-flight for some serious air; this helps you cross huge gaps and leads to plenty of shortcuts that add a great risk-reward element. Each stage is very short (usually around 90 seconds) to ease frustration and foster up feelings of: "Just one more go." What also helps is that the time limit is generous throughout, so even if you crash a few times in a stage you still have a chance to beat the record time if you take a few risks. Survival mode tasks you with riding the longest possible distance without depleting your life gauge by crashing. It's a nice change of pace, as you're forced to take a slower, more methodical approach rather than going for speed. It also has plenty of replayability thanks to the fantastic idea to implement randomly generated course layouts, and your furthest distance is auto-saved to the cartridge.

Cool Boarders Pocket doesn't have a lot of tricks up its sleeve (and can feel more like an obstacle course rather than extreme sports), but its bite-sized approach and healthy stage numbers result in some fun racing action. The Survival mode switches things up in creative ways too and overall it's a title that slowly grows on you the more you play. 

Random trivia: The game was only released in Europe and Japan.

Monday, 31 August 2020

Magical Drop Pocket (Neo Geo Pocket Color review)

Developer: Sakata SAS
Publisher: Data East, SNK
Released: 1999

Magical Drop Pocket is a puzzle game that's based on Magical Drop III (1997, Arcade).

The objective is to align three drops (a.k.a. balls) of the same colour to remove them, while making sure that the rows don't crush you as they fall. The A button catches drops, while B releases them, and the modes are Story (1-player vs. the CPU with eight characters), Self Challenge (1-player endurance) and Friend Challenge (2-player battle using the Link Cable). Creating a series of chain effects is hugely satisfying and this idea cleverly gets you thinking two steps ahead by organising colours strategically rather than focusing on singular drop links. Likewise, the Special Drops (that remove all drops of the same colour) are a terrific inclusion as they encourage you to quickly link together further chains while the rows temporarily stop falling. I also like how you can collect an unlimited amount of the same coloured drops at once to free up space and form vast explosions, and the gradual addition of new drop types (e.g. Bubble Drops that only exist to get in your way!) force you to switch up your typical attack methods. The action is frenetic and you'll need to work fast and efficiently to succeed; in this sense it's not a particularly relaxing puzzle game, but one where you're constantly on the edge of success or failure at a moment's notice. There are some issues with the controls though, as analog stick pushes can be slightly delayed (compared to the precision of a d-pad), often leaving you in harms way. Also, while the individual character plots are great for replayability, everything is nonsensical (possibly due to poor translation) and there's nothing to signify that you've beaten a certain character's story.

Magical Drop Pocket is an enjoyable puzzler with plenty of advanced moves and attack methods for those who wish to learn them. Some might be put off by the steep difficulty curve, but there's plenty to love once you get the hang of it and the multiple character plots in Story mode is a neat feature to keep you playing.

Random trivia: Another handheld port (simply titled Magical Drop) was released on the Game Boy Color in 2000.

Saturday, 29 August 2020

Crush Roller (Neo Geo Pocket Color review)

Developer: ADK
Publisher: SNK
Released: 1999

Crush Roller is a maze game that was first released in the Arcades as Make Trax (1981).

Playing as a brush, your job is to paint the entire playfield in order to complete the stage. Monsters will try to hunt you down, but rollers are available that allow you to squash them. The gameplay is clearly inspired by Pac-Man (1980, Arcades), but it has just enough tweaks to make it unique, including multi-story platforms and Irksters that leave footprints in your painted sections that must be re-painted. There's only six stages per game, but the genius part is that you'll need to play through several times in order to see all of the levels; that's because you usually have a choice between what stage to tackle next, adding some excellent replayability. The Irksters are an important part of the gameplay, as while it's irritating when they walk over previously covered paths, trying to catch them as quickly as possible is an enjoyable diversion while forcing you to multitask. This can become addictive, as the main menu offers a Collection mode where you can view all of your captured Irksters in a similar fashion to the Pokemon series. The controls work well, but compared to the precision of a d-pad, the console's analog stick does cause issues with incorrect movements; this is somewhat remedied by only pressing a direction when you need to (rather than continually holding the stick), but it does take a slight adjustment period. Another minor gripe is that it can sometimes be tricky to see the final part of the maze you haven't yet covered; while wide open spaces are obvious, curved corners only leave a tiny visible mark to indicate that you haven't yet painted it, and with the handheld's small screen it can be tough to see.

Crush Roller is short but sweet, and its bite-sized approach to completing its main campaign is perfect for a handheld title. The need to complete it several times to see all of its stages adds plenty of replayability, and despite some initial struggles with the controls it's an addictive maze game, especially when you factor in its Collection mode.

Random trivia: ADK developed various other Neo Geo Pocket Color games including Dynamite Slugger (2000) and Party Mail (1999).

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Mickey's Speedway USA (N64 review)

Developer: Rare
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 2000

Mickey's Speedway USA is a kart racer that was also released on the Game Boy Color (2001).

It contains 10 characters, 5 Grand Prix worlds (each with 4 courses), as well as multiplayer battle arenas. Weapons can be obtained that include a Paint Splotcher (causes a fellow racer to skid), a Baseball Chucker (explodes when it hits a car) and a Spritzer (temporary speed boost). In terms of presentation and gameplay, it can often feel like a well-made hack of Mario Kart 64 (1997, N64) with only the characters and weapon icon substitutes to differentiate both titles from one another; even the starting grid flyover, musical jingles and post-GP celebrations are so obviously (and heavily) inspired by Nintendo's racer and it's a shame that Rare didn't do more to set this game apart. A significant issue is how short each course is, as most can be beaten in 40-90 seconds total for a three-lap race; by the time you're starting to get into each course, it's suddenly over leaving you with a rather anticlimactic feeling. This also means that you have very little time to catch up in the event of falling behind the pack in higher difficulties. The racing is still highly enjoyable though and the courses do offer enough scenic variety to encourage you to keep unlocking the next GP. The controls are perhaps the best of any N64 kart racer as the vehicles react smoothly and precisely; in particular, powersliding and then simultaneously manoeuvring into the vicinity of an item box is a breeze, even for newcomers. Another neat feature is how the race position indicator is hidden whenever you take a shortcut; this adds some tension and encourages you to constantly assess whether a detour is actually worth it.

Mickey's Speedway USA does many things right and its pleasant course design is complimented by some remarkable, rock-solid controls. However, there's no denying that it's highly unoriginal as it does nothing to advance the genre and sticks way too closely to the blueprints set out by other N64 kart racers.

Random trivia: The game code features many unused areas and test maps.

Monday, 10 August 2020

Tunnel Runner (Atari 2600 review)

Developer: Richard K. Balaska Jr.
Publisher: CBS Electronics
Released: 1983

Tunnel Runner is a 3D maze game that adopts a first-person perspective.

The object is to escape mazes by finding a hidden key and then locating the exit to the next room. Holding down the fire button displays a map, but it must be used sparingly as Maze Zots constantly roam around trying to eat you! Care must also be taken when exiting, as doors with a down arrow pull you back one room, sideways arrows transport you somewhere else in the maze, and single or double up arrows move you 1-2 rooms ahead. For such a graphically primitive title on an under-powered system, it's remarkable how intense the gameplay can be and it surprisingly evokes feelings of perpetual stress as if it were a survival-horror game. Part of this comes from the excellent SFX which alert you when you're in the vicinity of a Maze Zot, and I like how they become louder or quieter depending on your spatial distance to them. Also, the Maze Zot sprite scaling when you're captured is astounding for a late-1970s console, with the enemy taking up a large portion of the screen. The action could seem repetitive, but what keeps things interesting are the continual additions such as new enemy types and maps that begin hiding the exit. Amazingly, while the first game option keeps the same layouts every time you play, the second variation randomly generates mazes; this is incredible for replayability and it's a feature that's way ahead of its time. The 3D engine moves along at a good pace and a neat detail is that the floors exhibit a helpful flashing texture when you're near an exit. The only issue is the controls, as while they do a respectful job it can be hard to stop on a dime, or keep your momentum while turning corners.

Tunnel Runner is a real gem in the Atari 2600 library and it's hard to put into words how impressive the 3D engine is unless you've experienced it. What's great is that the top-notch gameplay compliments it perfectly and those looking for a unique Pac-Man (1980, Arcade) style title should certainly give this one a go.

Random trivia: The game will crash if you manage to reach Level 130.

Friday, 7 August 2020

Seaquest (Atari 2600 review)

Developer: Steve Cartwright
Publisher: Activision
Released: 1983

Seaquest is an action game that was programmed by the same developer as Barnstorming (1982, Atari 2600).

Your objective in each wave is to retrieve six treasure-divers and return to the surface before your oxygen runs out; the more oxygen you have left, the more points you receive. Enemy subs and killer sharks try to impede your progress, but your sub can fire torpedoes to destroy them. The controls are rock-solid with pin-point accuracy and I appreciate the ability to keep the fire button held down for rapid projectiles rather than having to continually tap it. I also like how, despite the static screen, enemy patterns are frequently changed to keep you on your toes and include single, double and triple sharks at once. The speed increases fairly quickly too, adding to the almost 'hide and seek' nature of the gameplay as you constantly strategise as to whether you have enough time to quickly duck down to the bottom to rescue a diver before the sharks drag them away. It's full of risk-reward and the enticing bonus of gaining an extra life for every 10,000 points almost goads you into taking chances to conserve oxygen and ultimately gain a high score. Speaking of which, my initial impression of the enemy sub patrol (which stalks the top of the screen from right-to-left) was not very positive, as while you're sitting patiently waiting for your oxygen tank to refill prior to each wave, these enemies continue to move and can crash into your vehicle while you're immobile; this can be seen as cheap, but actually the more you play the more this becomes an important part of the intense gameplay towards the end of each wave as you desperately try to keep distance from the sub while rising and avoiding incoming enemies.

Seaquest is an exceptional game that excels in the gameplay and control departments, and it's yet another Activision classic on the Atari 2600. It's full of technique and strategy too, making it an ideal title for players to return to in order to maximise their point total with its deceptively deep scoring mechanics.

Random trivia: Players could receive a special patch from Activision if they scored at least 50,000 points and sent in a picture of their TV screen as proof!

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Breakout 2000 (Atari Jaguar review)

Developer: MP Games
Publisher: Telegames
Released: 1996

Breakout 2000 is an action game that's a remake of the Arcade title Breakout (1976).

It consists of two modes with the newly updated version being Breakout 2000; here, the objective is to complete ten phases (each housing five playfields) by continually bouncing a ball off your paddle to smash walls made of bricks. Power-ups are available that add extra abilities to either your ball or paddle. While paddle controllers are the best way to experience these type of games, the Jaguar controller does an admirable job and its smooth left-to-right movements allow you to ricochet the ball with consistent precision. The introduction of power-ups is terrific as they add a risk-reward element in terms of you needing to keep an eye on the ball while rushing to grab a descending item. Another great mechanic is how power-ups remain in your arsenal for each playfield within a phase; if you manage to gain the Super Ball your life becomes a lot easier considering it can plough through multiple bricks at once! It is somewhat disappointing though that the gameplay doesn't feature more innovation, as almost everything here had already been seen in Arkanoid (1986, Arcade). Breakout Classic mode replicates the 1976 original and the objective is to clear two walls; options include having the ball smash against bricks, or careen straight through them for maximum damage. This mode falls short, as even on Expert mode it's a breeze to clear the screen due to the slow moving ball that doesn't increase in speed as it hits higher rows of bricks. Couple this with the fact that your vast paddle barely shrinks when the ball touches the top of the screen and you're left with a sadly inaccurate version of the Arcade game.

Breakout 2000 is a welcome upgrade to the 1976 original and it successfully manages to update the established gameplay to include power-ups and ever-changing stage layouts. It's unfortunate then that it doesn't do much to advance the genre, as most of its new ideas are heavily inspired by similar games from a decade earlier.

Random trivia: According to the game's developer Mario Perdue, rotary support was planned before being scrapped.

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