Monday, 30 March 2020

Road Fighter (MSX review)

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Released: 1985

Road Fighter is a racing game that was also released in the Arcades (1984) and NES (1992).

It consists of six stages and the goal in each is to reach the checkpoint before your car runs out of fuel. Gas can be topped up by collecting icons scattered across the road, but care must be taken to dodge fellow drivers and hazards (such as oil slicks), as crashing causes your vehicle to explode and precious fuel is wasted until you're placed back on the track. While the scrolling is choppy when you begin accelerating, things improve promptly thanks to the incredible gameplay speed; it's fast and furious, and a great test of your reaction times as vehicles scream towards you. These vehicles have different characteristics depending on their colour to keep you on your toes, with standouts being the huge tankers that take up a ton of space, and the pink cars that zig-zag across the road; it's especially fun trying to duke the latter out by faking in one direction and then quickly swerving back the other way! The difficulty progression is perfect too, with hazards being slowly introduced to mix things up, as well as the roads gradually narrowing with heavier traffic. The collision detection is spot-on and every time you crash it's completely down to poor play. The graphical assets do repeat quite often in each stage, but I do like how the game's six locations offer completely different environments to make you feel like you're on an epic journey. Another neat feature is the map screen that shows your progress at the end of each stage; here you can see what's waiting up ahead, acting as further incentive to keep playing. To top things off, this version includes all six stages, unlike the paltry four in the NES port.

Road Fighter is undoubtedly a simplistic racing game, but everything about it is so well executed that it remains infinity playable. The action is fast-paced and the controls are responsive, while the varied locales offer plenty of visual stimulation to round up an excellent port that's convincingly faithful to the Arcade original.

Random trivia: While the NES port wasn't available until 1992, the Nintendo Famicom version was released seven years earlier in 1985!

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 (Sega Dreamcast review)

Developer: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
Released: 2000

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 is a sports game that was released in the same year as the original on the Sega Dreamcast.

This time the levels have been increased from six to ten and include locations such as New York City, Venice Beach and a Bullring in Mexico. What makes the skating so appealing is that you're encouraged to explore each one in depth as there are many hidden sections to be found; also, the objectives have been raised to ten per level with much more variety and trick-specific goals. The main control innovation is the introduction of manuals; these are performed by quickly pressing Up then Down on the d-pad and they allow you to link tricks together for much bigger scores. This seemingly minor addition opens up gameplay possibilities as it connects the levels and trick objects together in a way that felt much more isolated in the first game. Instead of automatically levelling up you gain cash for each completed objective which you can spend in the shop to increase your stats; this adds replayability, as you can challenge yourself to beat the game in both vert and street styles. The competitions return where you have one minute to get the highest possible score; these are a great place to work on tricks and it's fun scouting around in an attempt to find the best area to suit your skating approach. There's also a Park Editor which allows you to create your own arenas. Once again, the music shines and the variety of hip hop, rock and punk tracks really compliment the action. Compared to other versions, this Dreamcast port has a much better draw distance and higher resolution textures. Also, the entire set of unlockable skater and bail compilation videos are featured, unlike the N64 version (2001).

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 is an absolute gem that never gets old thanks to its supreme level design, top-notch presentation, enjoyable missions and awesome gameplay innovations. Everything comes together to create a cohesive whole that's a magical experience and one that you'll want to return to again and again.

Random trivia: At the time of writing, this Sega Dreamcast version is one of the highest rated games of all time on Metacritic, with an average review score of 97.

Friday, 6 March 2020

Puzzle Link (Neo Geo Pocket Color review)

Developer: Yumekobo
Publisher: SNK
Released: 1999

Puzzle Link is a puzzle game that was originally released in 1998 on the B&W Neo Geo Pocket handheld console.

The object is to fire connectors to link matching targets together in order to remove them from the playfield. Three modes are available which are Normal (survive long enough and then link both 'C' icons to complete the round), Clear All (remove all on-screen targets) and Battle (compete against a friend). The fast-paced action is top-notch and learning to link combos together is key; this is especially true in Stage 4-5 which only provides you with two different block types for some serious chain explosions as they continually race towards you. These explosions are extremely satisfying, particularly when you're close to death, only to be saved by a massive chain that destroys almost the entire playfield! In Normal mode, simply managing to clear the screen would be nerve-wracking enough, but the need to last until both 'C' icons appear creates an intense atmosphere that's both stressful and fun! Once both icons are visible there's always a mad dash to link them together which adds a nice layer of variety and strategy to the end of each round. The gameplay is addictive on its own, but it also breeds a 'just one more go' mentality for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there's the fact that each stage is split up into five bite-sized rounds that need to be fully completed in order to unlock the next stage. Secondly, Pokemon style character cards can be earned by beating the round timer, giving you added incentive to keep playing to collect all 91 of them. It's all very cleverly implemented and rewarding, and even when you've unlocked everything there's still the exceptional Battle mode for increased replayability.

Puzzle Link is an addictive take on the genre and its fresh, innovative approach results in some enjoyable gameplay that can last for hours at a time. There's plenty of content to sink your teeth into and the character card rewards for beating rounds is a continual nudge to keep playing.

Random trivia: A sequel called Puzzle Link 2 was released on the Neo Geo Pocket Color in 2000.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Supercross 3D (Atari Jaguar review)

Developer: Tiertex Design Studios
Publisher: Atari Corporation
Released: 1995

Supercross 3D is a motorcycle racing game that's exclusive to the Atari Jaguar.

The modes are Practice (solo session), Race (compete against seven other riders) and Tournament (circuit across all 14 tracks). Tricks can be executed with the C button and you can customise your bike by selecting the tires, shocks and gears to suit the surface of each track. The frame-rate is pretty much a slideshow and trying to control your bike is nigh-on impossible due to the oppressive over/under-steer you'll face depending on whether or not the game decides to register your inputs. This shockingly low FPS results in the action being entirely broken and you'll spend more time crashing your bike than you will riding it. The track edges don't offer any let-up either, as instead of decreasing your acceleration they'll knock you down immediately if you touch even the slightest part of them during a perilous corner manoeuvre. Simply put, the racing is extremely nerve-wracking for completely the wrong reasons! Bearing all of this in mind, it almost goes without saying that trying to land your bike at the correct angle for an ideal landing, or attempting to time perfect ramp launches is out of the question. To top things off, the trick system is pointless, and the track design is totally uninspired with each location looking and playing almost identically. You can at least save your Tournament progress, but trying to endure 14 races is a punishment that few are likely to withstand! I do like the track-side TV screen with its mirrored racing action, but that's the only compliment I can give to the graphics which are a blurry, muddy mess. The music also fails due to its short loops and awful, cliched rock riffs.

Supercross 3D is a complete and utter shambles and Atari Corporation should be embarrassed to have published a game that's clearly this unfinished. The list of problems is remarkable and when you factor in the atrocious frame-rate, godawful controls and superfluous trick system you have a real recipe for disaster.

Random trivia: The game even fails at the intro screen, as it lists the title as Supercross X!

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Club Drive (Atari Jaguar review)

Developer: Atari Corporation
Publisher: Atari Corporation
Released: 1994

Club Drive is a racing game that's exclusive to the Atari Jaguar.

It consists of four worlds and three modes. The first is Collect which supports 1-2 players and the aim is to drive into ten objects as they randomly appear. While it's a cool idea to generate objects over multiple floors to keep players guessing, the worlds themselves just aren't well designed; on top of being very small in size (meaning the game will often spawn a new object in the same area), they all lack distinguishing features. Race supports 1-2 players with the winner being the person who completes the necessary number of laps as fast as possible. The San Francisco level is fantastic with famous landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge on display, and it's clever how the finish line is the entrance to a pier! Unfortunately, it can only be played solo, as the multiplayer version takes place in a small car park. The rest of the tracks are mundane with Velocity Park being a poor imitation of Stunt Car Racer's (1989, Commodore Amiga) death-defying jumps. Tag is two-player only and the aim is to hit your opponent to 'tag' them, with the winner being the person who remains 'not it' the longest. The small arenas do this mode no justice and the fact that there's no room to hide means that you don't have many ways to strategically plan your movements. Throughout all modes, playing solo is bland due to the inability to compete against the CPU. The frame-rate is acceptable though and there are some neat touches, such as the game of Pong that appears on the big TV in the Jerome's Pad level. Also, the Rewind feature is outstanding and ahead of its time, as it allows bad decisions to be reversed immediately.

Club Drive is more playable than Checkered Flag (1994, Atari Jaguar) thanks to its passable frame-rate, but almost everything about it is extremely banal. While you may get 30 minutes of so-so enjoyment from its multiplayer offerings, those playing alone will quickly grow tired of its uninspired, shallow modes.

Random trivia: According to programmer Eric Smith, Club Drive was inspired by Indy 500 (1977, Atari 2600).

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Cybermorph (Atari Jaguar review)

Developer: Attention to Detail
Publisher: Atari Corporation
Released: 1993

Cybermorph is a third-person shoot-em-up that was a pack-in title for the Atari Jaguar.

Your mission is to recover pods so that resistance fighters have the weapons, equipment and expertise to stop the Pernitia Empire. There's five sectors (with eight worlds each) and as you collect the required number of pods you can shoot enemies down with various weapons including a Twin-Shot and Cruise Bombs. The concept is straightforward which leads to some intuitive gameplay where even newcomers can jump right into the action. Coupling this is the solid control scheme, as while there are some frame-rate dips, everything is responsive. In fact, before long you'll be zipping around and then stopping on a dime to shoot incoming enemies like a pro! These enemies come with different abilities to mix things up and I especially like the Pod Carriers that try to move unattended pods until you blast them down! The range of weapons is great too (that you can switch between on the fly) and there's some variety from just collecting pods, such as needing to deactivate force fields. Another feature I like is that all eight worlds in each sector are immediately unlocked, meaning you can tackle them in any order; this minimises frustration and adds strategy. However, the draw distance is very low which does cause frustration when the radar stops showing the location of the nearest pod. For example, without this guidance you have no choice but to fly aimlessly with a limited field of view until you stumble upon the missing pod; even then, if you need to shoot enemies down first it can then be annoying to repeatedly circle the same area in an attempt to relocate the pod until it pops back into view.

Cybermorph has received much criticism over the years, but while it is a product of its time and there are some obvious technical limitations, the core mechanics are undoubtedly fun and provide hours of entertainment. There's lots of content to sink your teeth into and plenty of ways to tackle each of the sector's worlds.

Random trivia: The original 2MB cartridge was eventually replaced by a 1MB version that omitted an animated intro and various speech samples as a cost-cutting measure.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Checkered Flag (Atari Jaguar review)

Developer: Rebellion Developments
Publisher: Atari Corporation
Released: 1994

Checkered Flag is a racing game that's exclusive to the Atari Jaguar.

It consists of three modes which are Single Race, Free Practice (time trial) and Tournament (race all ten tracks against five drones). Things get off to a great start with a comprehensive menu that allows you to select various options such as weather, tyre type, gears, CPU opponents and number of laps. There's also six camera angles to choose from which is impressive for the time. Unfortunately, that's where the positives end and the action is immediately hampered by a frame-rate that often dips into single-digit territory. Not only does this make it difficult to see upcoming turns with any level of precision, it also affects the controls as they'll frequently be ignored while the next frame is being loaded. A second later, the frame-rate will marginally improve and you'll then battle with severe over-steer while cornering, leading you straight into a wall. There's seemingly little rhyme or reason as to when this will happen, so you're completely at the mercy of the game's ability to render the action quickly enough. The only way to make the action slightly (and I do mean slightly) playable is to repeatedly tap the accelerator in order to avoid hitting top speed; this completely defeats the object of a high-octane racer, but it's almost impossible to approach it any other way. The ten tracks don't have any redeeming qualities either, as they're all incredibly simplistic and do nothing to match the charming aesthetics of Virtua Racing Deluxe (1994, Sega 32X). Finally, the pits do nothing (the manual literally states to avoid them!) and the drones have a weird tendency of stopping in the middle of the road for no apparent reason.

Checkered Flag is an unplayable mess that was clearly released in beta form with broken controls and an erratic frame-rate, making it impossible to race without wiping out every few seconds. To top it off, the tracks feel lifeless with no scenic personality and the AI has a poorly implemented, half-baked rubber banding system in place.

Random trivia: Rebellion Developments also worked on Alien vs Predator (1994, Atari Jaguar).

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