Sunday, 26 September 2021

Bike or Die! (Tapwave Zodiac review)

Developer: Toyspring Games
Publisher: Toyspring Games
Released: 2004

Bike or Die! is a biking simulator that takes inspiration from Elasto Mania (2000, Microsoft Windows).

There's 25 levels and the objective in each is to collect a set number of flags as quickly as possible. The R trigger accelerates, L brakes, the left and right face buttons rotate your bike, while Function changes direction. The controls are incredibly twitchy and when coupled with the floaty ragdoll physics you'll initially find yourself cursing at why the opening levels pose so much of a challenge. The tutorial hints that pop-up are also displayed at the worst possible time, as the action doesn't pause and you only have a split-second to read the instructions while trying to avoid upcoming hazards. And then there's the checkpoints that often place you in the opposite direction and it's aggravating to always have to press the Function button after yet another failed attempt. However, the hatred quickly switches to immense satisfaction once you do successfully beat a level and start to become more comfortable with the controls; in fact, it often feels like the game is mocking you (each crash is complimented with SFX jeers!) which weirdly brings out a competitive fire that compels you to keep trying until you're victorious. It's then that you start to think of it more as a puzzle game, as learning a particular order to obtain the required flags will benefit you with less harsh restart points for the rest of the level. The stage design is fiendishly clever with no wasted spaces, and from perilous logs, loop-the-loops and huge ramps there's always something new to challenge your improving skills. While there's only 25 levels here, a huge amount of fan-made level packs are available, and I like how you can view statistics on all your attempts, record / replay your best runs and play custom MP3 files during gameplay.

Bike or Die! is a game that will agitate and delight in equal measure, and while some players might be turned off after an onslaught of early failures it's worth sticking through the initial rough patch. In turn, you'll be rewarded with terrific level design and the vindication of finally beating a tough stage that previously tormented you!

Random trivia: An upgraded version called Bike or Die! 2 was released for iOS devices in 2008, but has since been removed from the App Store.

Saturday, 25 September 2021

GTS Racing Challenge (Tapwave Zodiac review)

Developer: Pazzazz Games
Publisher: Astraware Limited
Released: 2003

GTS Racing Challenge is an arcade-style racing game that's exclusive to Palm OS devices.

There's three cars, 12 venues and a total of 48 different tracks to race on. Game modes consist of Single Race, Championship (points-based mode with qualifying laps), Challenge Cup (where you must finish 12 races within a certain position) and Grand Tour (all tracks consecutively). The action is fast-paced with a solid engine that never shows any sign of slowdown. Screeching around corners is ridiculously entertaining and the gameplay perfectly captures the tussle between driving aggressively and teetering on the edge of control. It eases you in nicely too by allowing you to learn the driving / cornering mechanics in the Easy stages before ratcheting up the difficulty. The tracks themselves are well designed and offer plenty of corners for you to speed through, while eventually introducing tight turns that pretty much require you to learn the layout (or use the handy overhead map) in order to brake while keeping as much acceleration as possible. The surrounding locales are poorly designed though, as apart from some blurry, compressed background images there's nothing to distinguish New York City from (for example) Denver. Other downsides include a limited draw distance and pop-in where corners can appear with barely any warning, and it's irritating that your individual lap times aren't included at the end of each race (only your fastest one is displayed). There's also not much in the way of presentation (the menus are rather basic), or personality (the complete absence of music means you'll be relying solely on SFX). Still, there's heaps of content to sink your teeth into and the three cars are different enough (in terms of top speed and handling) that you'll want to challenge yourself to master them.

GTS Racing Challenge is a competent title that's deep on content and wrapped up in a fantastic gameplay engine that ensures speed and fun are the order of the day. With a little more attention to its presentation and scenic variation it could have been a top-tier game, but even-so there's still plenty of reasons to dive in.  

Random trivia: A Game Boy Advance port was planned, but was ultimately cancelled.

Friday, 24 September 2021

Z Pak: Fun (Tapwave Zodiac review)

Developer: Megasoft
Publisher: Tapwave
Released: 2003

Z Pak: Fun is a collection of three games that all require use of the touch screen. 

Kickoo's Breakout has 36 levels where you bounce a ball off your paddle to destroy bricks. The touch screen controls are generally fine and afford you precision ricochet angles, but reloading a level after losing a ball is painfully slow as every brick draws back in individually (taking you out of the flow). I also don't like how often the annoying Reverse control item appears. The stages don't offer anything you haven't already seen in Arkanoid (1986, Arcade), but overall it's a mildly entertaining diversion for a couple of stages. MegaBowling has three throwing modes and multiplayer capabilities that offer some variety in short bursts. The timing mechanics in Arcade (press and release a metre to bowl) and Swing (stop a moving overhead icon to line-up your angle) are susceptible to offering strikes in certain spots, but swerving the ball for a spare is satisfying. Stroke mode challenges you to to swipe the touch screen to bowl and it's highly accurate even when throwing diagonally from a corner. However, throughout all three modes getting a split appears to give you zero chance of achieving a spare, as there's no knock-on effect to the other stray pins. PaintBall tasks you with making three or more balls of the same colour next to a pipe opening. The controls are perfect and the decreasing paint level acts as the game's much needed tension. A cool feature is how one ball can subtly shimmer and by quickly removing it from the playfield you can earn extra points. Also, the stimulating Chroma mode cleverly works your noggin by tasking you with mixing colours to create the necessary combination. The atmosphere is lacking though and there's no fanfare for lining up 4-5 coloured balls in a row.

Z Pak: Fun is a solid, yet unremarkable collection of games, but those looking for simple time-wasters will find some enjoyment in these titles. Each controls and plays well enough and while you won't find any deep mechanics or innovation you'll likely find yourself having a game or two when you boot up the Zodiac.

Random trivia: Another compilation titled Z Pak: Adventure was released on the Tapwave Zodiac in 2004.

Sunday, 19 September 2021

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 (Tapwave Zodiac review)

Developer: Semi Logic Entertainments
Publisher: Activision
Released: 2004

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 is an extreme sports title that also saw release on the Game Boy Advance (2002).

It features seven locations, 14 pro skaters and 190 goals, and unlike previous games players are free to explore the levels with no time limit. Some of the opening goals task you with executing certain tricks, the problem being that there's no explanation (including in the menu trick list) of how to actually perform them! On the whole, the goals are uninspired, as unlike the console versions that feature playful missions you're instead tasked with a mountain of mundane fetch quests; the fact that there's multiple C-O-M-B-O goals per location is also very lazy. The locales are barely distinguishable from each other too and there's little in the way of scenic or landmark attractions to make them stand out. While the graphics sport a better resolution than the Game Boy Advance version, not enough care went into polishing the experience for the Tapwave Zodiac. For example, the options menu allows you to amend the button layout to mirror the home console original (in terms of tricks), but unfortunately Spine Transfers are automatically adapted (and can't be customised) meaning you need to hit both the left and right face buttons simultaneously! And then there's the controls which are simply awful if you're used to the accuracy of a d-pad (something the Zodiac lacks) and half the time you'll accidentally hit the middle thumbstick button when attempting a manual. Linked to this (and perhaps the biggest annoyance) is that your character moves too fast and will often pinball into objects, or overshoot a half-pipe after you've desperately tried to line up straight-on for a grab trick; everything is too sensitive and unreliable for a game that requires absolute precision.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 might look much better than the Game Boy Advance version, but the control set-up here is awkward to say the least (due to hardware and software quirks). Couple this with the lazy world design and utterly uninspired goal objectives and it's hard to recommend this port to anyone but hardcore THPS fans.

Random trivia: Activision also planned to release MTX Mototrax on the Tapwave Zodiac, but unfortunately it was cancelled.

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Adventures of Dino-Riki (NES review)

Developer: Hudson Soft
Publisher: Hudson Soft
Released: 1989

Adventures of Dino-Riki is a shoot-em-up that was first released on the Famicom in 1987 as Shin Jinrui: The New Type.

There's four worlds and while your initial weapon is a short-range rock you can upgrade to axes, boomerangs and torches by collecting power-ups. There are also sections that require you to jump across gaps, but these can be skipped by obtaining the Bird icon which affords you flight. The first ten seconds lulls you into a false sense of security, as enemies casually enter the screen and you're given ample time to shoot them down. Afterwards, an army of speedy opponents with wild movement patterns litter bullets across a huge portion of the playfield, making your life an utter misery. Once you're fully powered-up the game does become slightly easier (with the bosses becoming a complete joke) and the ability to hold down the B button for rapid fire is a welcome relief. Unfortunately, once you take damage and are powered-down things get obnoxiously frustrating, as all other weapons are pretty useless as you progress to higher stages. This leaves you in an impossible situation where you almost feel the need to reset the entire game due to your ability to progress being severely hampered by the lack of suitable weapons. And then there's the terrible platforming sections where you need to dodge enemies while jumping from object to object; the controls are atrocious here and despite the requirement for pinpoint accuracy your sprite moves an absurd amount of pixels whenever you lightly tap the d-pad. Obtaining the Bird wings is a must to skipping these land-based hazards and a cool feature is that they add a risk-reward element due to your inability to collect other items you might require while airborne.

Adventures of Dino-Riki fails at being a competent shooter and makes an incredible misstep by including unnecessary platforming sections. It's certainly innovative, but one thing it isn't is fun, and compounding the issue is the rock-hard gameplay that seems hell-bent on encouraging you to put the controller back down.

Random trivia: Even if you do reach the end of the game prepare for disappointment, as there's no credit screen and you're immediately looped back to Stage 1-1!

Saturday, 11 September 2021

Mile High Pinball (Nokia N-Gage review)

Developer: Ideaworks3D
Publisher: Nokia
Released: 2005

Mile High Pinball is a Nokia N-Gage exclusive pinball game.

It consists of 80+ tables and the objective in each one is to clear missions / puzzles and then advance to the top of the screen. There are also over 35 power-ups (that are either bought / sold at a shop, or collected around the playfield) and these can be activated at any time during gameplay. The continuous vertical progression is both addictive and anxiety-inducing in equal measure, as you'll be desperately trying not to fall down to a previous table while incredibly intrigued about what lies ahead; in turn, this creates a 'just one more go' mentality that's hard to shake as you become totally invested in the action. A very welcome addition are the secret tables which can be entered by hitting certain objects to open up a hidden exit; here you can obtain collectable medallions and one of the tables sees you battling tanks in a tribute to Pathway to Glory (2004, Nokia N-Gage). There are a handful of tables where bumper placement impedes your progress to an annoying degree, but on the whole the stage design is top-notch and well thought-out; what makes them so enjoyable is how the mission structure constantly switches things up, and while one minute you'll be attempting to open all the flower buds, the next you'll be destroying a swarm of enemies before taking on a boss. The power-ups come in super handy here (especially the damage multipliers and balloons that force the ball to float upwards) and the fact that you can store several items and use them at will makes for engaging gameplay; plus, the ability to buy / sell them from shops is a fantastic advancement of the genre that allows you to scheme based on the table objective.

Mile High Pinball is an unexpected, yet pleasant surprise and the amount of tables, weapons and secrets is hugely impressive. Once you start advancing upwards from stage-to-stage it's hard to put the game down and the enticing thought of what adventures lie ahead is a tantalising premise that's impossible to resist.

Random trivia: Ideaworks3D developed several other titles for the N-Gage including The Sims Bustin' Out (2004) and Tomb Raider (2003).

Monday, 6 September 2021

Call of Duty (Nokia N-Gage review)

Developer: OmegaSoft
Publisher: Activision
Released: 2004

Call of Duty is a first-person shooter and the first squad based World War II FPS on a handheld.

There's 11 missions and you battle the Nazi war machine from the perspectives of an American, a British and a Russian soldier. Weapons include rifles, sub-machine guns and grenades, and you can also bash enemies during close-quarters combat. The most egregious flaw is the limited draw distance, as enemies will often fire with pinpoint precision despite you not being able to see them on screen; using your gun's zoom feature does help slightly, but not enough to stop enemy soldiers from getting in a shot. Even when bad guys are in your immediate vicinity, it can be incredibly difficult to see them due to the game's dark, pixelated graphics where character sprites tend to blend into the scenery. The upshot of this is many cheap deaths and then waiting an age for the mission to reload itself into memory. Furthermore, enemies are total bullet sponges (head shots rarely have any effect), your teammates are utterly useless (preferring to stand around and let you do all the work) and the frame-rate dips significantly during heavy combat; the latter leads to severe over/under-steer while aiming, as well as many occasions where your button presses are completely ignored. Mercifully, you can save your progress at any point during a mission to alleviate some frustration (including a generous helping of four individual save slots), and in reality it's the only way to get through the game. Despite all of these flaws, what's infuriating is that the level design is actually very good (especially the claustrophobic bunker runs) with intricate, sprawling maps for you to explore and the lengthy missions do result in some good value for money.

Call of Duty has some solid level design, but it's completely and utterly hampered by its technical issues that render the gameplay borderline unplayable at an alarming frequency. It feels as if you're simultaneously fighting both the enemy and the game engine, and in the long run seeing it through to the end credits is a real slog.

Random trivia: Activision also published Spider-Man 2 (2004), Tony Hawk's Pro Skater (2003), X-Men Legends (2005) and X-Men Legends II (2005) on the N-Gage.

Friday, 3 September 2021

Sunset Riders (SNES review)

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Released: 1993

Sunset Riders is an action game that was first released in the Arcades in 1991.

There's four playable characters and your mission is to eliminate crooks to bring back peace to the valley. You can slide to avoid incoming bullets and your main weapon is a gun that can be upgraded to dual pistols or rapid fire by collecting Sheriff's badges. The horizontally-scrolling stages are an absolute treat thanks to their environmental hazards (such as being able to shoot barrels to squash enemies) and captivating set-pieces (e.g. needing to jump between bulls as they stampede toward you). The slower-paced gameplay is highly enjoyable, as you can take your time to pick off enemies from the best angle and interestingly the duck-and-cover action isn't worlds apart from Shinobi (1987, Arcade). Then there's the vertically-scrolling stages that play great and mix things up by introducing perilous falling rocks. There is a disproportionate level of challenge between the main stages and the boss fights though, as the former offer a realistic challenge while the latter are brutally difficult (at least on Normal difficulty and above). One neat feature though is the Boss Damaging Level score after you clear each one, as it shows the hit-rate in co-op mode which is perfect for some friendly competition and bragging rights! The boss voice samples are also excellent with clear speech that adds to their personality. There are some auto-scrolling stages where you ride on horseback and jump over logs, but they're a bit of a mess due to the finicky controls and the inclusion of enemy wagons that clutter the screen real estate; as a result, you often don't have time to adequately prepare for incoming foes / bullets.

Sunset Riders is a faithful port of the Arcade original and while there are a few lacklustre stages, the majority of the levels are terrific. Carefully planning your method of attack is engrossing thanks to the clever item placement and the ability to battle as four different characters greatly adds to the overall replayability.

Random trivia: In 1992, a version was released on the Sega Genesis that features a number of cut-backs and alterations.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Batman Returns (SNES review)

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Released: 1993

Batman Returns is a side-scrolling beat-em-up that's based on the 1992 movie of the same name.

Your job is to stop the Red Triangle Circus Gang from taking over Gotham City and foil the evil plots of The Penguin and Catwoman. There's seven stages and alongside punches and kicks Batman can fling opponents or use special Test Tubes to inflict major damage. The brawling is highly responsive and there's a satisfying thud (complete with screen shake) whenever you hit an enemy. Being able to fling them from the foreground to the background through glass windows is endlessly amusing, and grabbing two opponents at once and smashing their skulls together is hilarious! What makes the gameplay so special is how there's always a myriad of ways to tackle opponents and aside from the typical attacks you can also throw Batarangs to temporarily stun them, or even block using L or R; this affords you a huge amount of freedom which naturally leads to some fun combat-based experimentation. The action and locales are constantly shifting which is an interesting way to mix things up while keeping you guessing as to what's coming up next. This feeds through to the level design which constantly throws new cool scenery and environmental hazards at the player (e.g. falling fireballs and claustrophobic battles on swaying scaffolding lifts). There's even a stage where you control a Batmobile and shoot enemies in your path; the frame-rate is a little choppy here, but it's an entertaining diversion that resembles Batman Returns (1993, Sega CD). Presentation wise, the game is top-notch with great looking cut-scenes and detailed graphics, while the orchestral music does an outstanding job of keeping the tension high.

Batman Returns pushes the beat-em-up genre to new heights by taking an established formula and enhancing it with strategic combat additions, awesome stage design and gripping storytelling. Varying gameplay styles can be tricky to execute correctly, but everything here is fine-tuned to perfection and it's an absolute blast throughout.

Random trivia: A prototype ROM was found in 2003 that includes a few minor differences.

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Alien Storm (Sega Master System review)

Developer: Sanritsu / SIMS
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1991

Alien Storm is a side-scrolling beat-em-up that was first released in the Arcades in 1990 and also ported to the Sega Genesis in 1991.

There's four stages and you must save the world from an alien attack. The playable characters are Gordon (armed with a fire blazer) and Slammer (has an electric whip), and each of them can use a special attack if you've collected enough energy. Annoyingly, the hit detection is wonky and it's oddly difficult to line up your attacks when enemies appear to be occupying the same axis as your character; instead, you'll frequently have to shift a few pixels up or down in order to make contact which isn't ideal. Also, you're forced to collect stray life and energy power-ups before the screen will scroll ahead, which is counter-productive to strategic gameplay. In fairness, the game does offer you a multitude of opportunities to increase your life / energy which is welcome in later rounds when spiked floors make an appearance. The stage design is bland, but there is a ton of variety including auto-scrolling sections and first-person gallery-style shooting areas; none outstay their welcome and the latter look terrifically similar to the Sega Genesis version. The frame-rate never dips either, and the graphics are decent with a nice colour palette, shading effects and smooth animation. The bosses are a huge disappointment though, as their attack patterns are pathetically simplistic, repetitive and easy to avoid. At least there are two unique final bosses you can face depending on which path you take at the end of Round 4 which adds some replayability. However, it's notable that there were several cut-backs here, as it's single-player only, Karla is absent from the roster and two stages are missing from the Arcade version. 

Alien Storm on the Sega Master System has its cut-backs from a content perspective, but it's still admirable how it successfully mimics its 16-bit big brother in terms of its graphics and gameplay variety. The combat is a little unpolished though which can lead to some rather awkward fighting and the boss battles are very uninspired.

Random trivia: One of the game's programmers was Shinichi Kawamoto who later worked on Shenmue (1999, Sega Dreamcast).

Find a Review