Monday, 15 July 2019

Strider (Sega Mega Drive / Genesis review)

Developer: Sega R&D2
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1990

Strider is an action game that was originally released in the Arcades in 1989.


As a defender of justice named Hiryu, your mission is to battle through five stages to stop the evil Grand Master Meio from taking over the world. Your main attack is a sword, but Hiryu can also slide into enemies, or power-up with robot allies that help you in battle. The best way to describe Strider's gameplay would be stiff and its main issue regards the jumping mechanics, as once you've committed to leaping through the air there's no way to adjust your flight; this leads to many unfair hits where enemies suddenly appear from off-screen while you're in mid-air. The action also demands complete perfection and the only way to succeed is through trial-and-error rather than pure skill. There's also frequent and random pauses in the action while the next part of the level loads, as well as a ton of slowdown during boss fights. The main highlight is the level variety which includes jungle and city rooftop stages, while adding environmental factors such as lightning and shifting gravity into the mix. There's also some awesome set-pieces (e.g. jumping between helicopters while battling in the sky), as well as cut-scenes to tie the story together. Another key feature is the multiple bosses you'll face in each stage, as many times you'll think the level is over, only for it to continue onward into another epic battle! The sprites are impressively large (especially the bosses), the animation is detailed and the backgrounds have a ton of layers to give the stages added depth. The music is atmospheric, but weirdly there's only minimal SFX which makes it difficult to tell if you're actually inflicting damage during a boss fight.

Strider has the flashy visuals and intriguing level design, but things start to fall apart once you delve into the gameplay department. Forced trial-and-error can be forgiven if your character is given the right tools for the job, but despite his acrobatic move-set your control over Hiryu is extremely rigid, in turn, dampening most of the fun.



Random trivia: An 8-bit Sega Master System port was released in 1991.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Sonic Labyrinth (Sega Game Gear review)

Developer: Minato Giken
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1995

Sonic Labyrinth is an isometric puzzle-platformer that's exclusive to the Sega Game Gear.


Dr. Robotnik has replaced Sonic's running sneakers with a pair of heavy boots, and the only way to change them back is to collect six Chaos Emeralds across four Zones. The latter are split into four stages each, with the objective being to locate three keys and then find the exit before time runs out. Sonic's main mode of transportation is a Spin Dash, something you'll need to heavily rely on, as his running speed is ridiculously lethargic; this is the game's obvious flaw, as you'll have no choice but to continually put yourself in harms way to beat the timer. It's not even like the neutered running speed is a hardware limitation either, as Sonic zips around when you collect the Sneakers power up. However, my opinion did change here after replaying the game a second time through; once you adjust to the odd mechanics you realise that the Spin Dash adds to the intensity by acting as a risk-reward element; in many ways, the challenge and enjoyment comes from transitioning your mindset into playing it like a pinball game, and this form of recklessness actually gives the gameplay its edge. The level design successfully balances maze-like environments, while still feeling manageable and not overwhelming the player. It also does a good job of introducing new ideas (e.g. springs, cannons and warps) that allow you to access new areas. There's nothing distinctly 'Sonic' about the locales though and all of the generic backdrops could have easily fitted another character. Also, the bosses don't offer much in the way of innovation or excitement and they can each be beaten by simply Spin Dashing repeatedly.

Sonic Labyrinth is a bit misunderstood in my opinion, and once you start playing it the way the developers intended the slow running speed almost becomes a non-issue. To call the game a hidden gem would be stretching the truth, but the level design is tight and there's much more fun to be had here than you might initially think.



Random trivia: In 2012, the game was released on the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Panzer Dragoon Mini (Sega Game Gear review)

Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1996

Panzer Dragoon Mini is an auto-scrolling shooter that was released exclusively for the Sega Game Gear in Japan.


It consists of five stages and there's three dragon types to choose from that have different attributes. Buttons 1 or 2 fire your gun, but each can also be held down for a homing attack that locks onto groups of enemies. The need to manoeuvre both your dragon and aiming reticle simultaneously with a singular d-pad is a bit clunky, but it works reasonably well most of the time; your dragon has a decent rate of speed making it adequate for the majority of battle situations. The gameplay does have some obvious flaws though, the first being the almost complete lack of scenery to keep you invested in the action; instead, you'll usually only see a scrolling floor and puffy clouds, with no environmental hazards in sight. This does result in you becoming absent-minded at times, taking you out of the supposedly epic mission at hand due to the game visually boring you to tears. Likewise, the enemy patterns are predictable and tend to follow the same tired structure of one group scrolling in left, and then another group entering from the right; you can pretty much anticipate where your cursor should be before they even appear, leaving the element of surprise almost non-existent. On a plus note, each stage features two boss battles, and the shift in perspective from a behind-the-back angle to a side-view is impressive. The bosses all attack in a similar fashion, but I do like how enemies are scattered throughout to force you to include homing attacks rather than just rapid-fire shooting and dodging bullets. Overall though, it's hard to shake the feeling that you've seen everything the game has to offer after the first stage.

Panzer Dragoon Mini is a strange fit for the Sega Game Gear, as it basically takes a technically impressive 32-bit title and reduces it to a bare-bones clone of Space Harrier (1985, Arcades). In particular, the design elements are wholly underwhelming, and in all honesty this feels more like an early proof-of-concept than a fully fledged game.



Random trivia: The game ROM features a couple of unused songs that originally appeared in Panzer Dragoon II Zwei (1996, Sega Saturn).

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Dream World (Supervision review)

Developer: Bon Treasure
Publisher: Watara
Released: 1992

Dream World is an action-platformer that takes narrative inspiration from Super Mario Bros. (1985, NES).


The Princess of Dreams has been kidnapped and it's your job to rescue her by completing all four stages. The hero can shoot a light projectile that kills most enemies, but bosses require you to switch to the heavy weapon that has limited ammo. Gameplay wise, it commits the cardinal sin of level design 101 in that it switches up the rules of what should be a harmful hazard for your character; this occurs in Round 3 where the only progression route is to fall into a particular pool of water that otherwise kills you throughout the rest of the area. It's ambiguous and unless you know to do this you'll eventually get stuck at a dead end with no way to escape except to drown in the next water pool! There's also no continuity to the level design, as sometimes you'll exit to the left, only to be facing a blocked route in front of you on the subsequent screen with no option but to begin scrolling to the right! It does force you to move right-to-left at points (unusual in most platformers), but the caveat is that no enemies appear when scrolling in this direction. Other technical shortcomings are the inconsistent collision detection (bullets often strike enemies with no effect), choppy scrolling (the action freezes each time you shoot) and the fact that the game temporarily pulls you backwards when you descend stairs! The worst offender is Round 3's boss which can only be defeated using the heavy weapon; however, you must select it before you enter battle, as it's impossible to do so during it! The bosses feature large sprites, but the developers didn't think to include 'safe zones' or areas you can manoeuvre to avoid damage; as a result, your HP bar will be depleted and the game doesn't even have the courtesy to refill it after each round!

Dream World is certainly an interesting premise, but it's also very unpolished and rough around the edges. To somewhat enjoy the action you really need to play repeatedly to learn its technical / level design quirks and how to exploit them, but it's doubtful that many people will want to endure the drudgery that necessitates this.



Random trivia: The game doesn't feature an ending, and instead your character falls off the screen and dies!

Monday, 24 June 2019

Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (Sega Game Gear review)

Developer: Sega R&D2
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1991

Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse is a platformer that was originally released on the Sega Master System in 1991.


The evil witch Mizrabel has kidnapped Minnie and in your quest to rescue her you'll need to obtain the seven Gems of the Rainbow from the castle. There's six stages and to attack Mickey can either bounce on enemies' heads, or pick up objects to throw at them. The gameplay is similar to the 16-bit version (1990, Mega Drive), but the level design is entirely different; it's equally impressive in its own right too, with thoughtfully designed stages and plenty of variety. It's always throwing new enemy types, hazards and items into play, and there's even some auto-scrolling stages to mix things up. There's many whimsical moments, such as when you run across a piano, only for some of the musical notes to turn into bad guys! It's full of twists and turns, and never keeps you moving in the same plane for very long in each stage, making for some captivating gameplay. While the side-view isn't zoomed-in to cater for the smaller screen, there's never a moment where it affects the action. Curiously, there are a number of minor changes when compared to the Master System version, such as swapped enemies in Stage 6, slightly different gem locations, and Button 2 is now used for both jumping and butt stomping (the console version has you alternating buttons). There's also slightly less slowdown when too many sprites are on screen, and the swinging pendulum animation in Stage 5 is smoother. Mickey controls with precision and although the game isn't difficult, there is some challenge in later levels. To top things off, the music is catchy and the graphics / animation are some of the best on the system.

Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse is a top-tier platformer and if you're a fan of the acclaimed 16-bit version you owe it to yourself to experience this unique 8-bit title. It's a tiny bit more polished when compared to the Master System original, and still packs in tons of fun and variety to keep you entertained throughout.



Random trivia: The sound director was Tokuhiko Uwabo who also composed the music for Phantasy Star (1988, Sega Master System).

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (Sega Master System review)

Developer: Sega R&D2
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1991

Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse is a platformer that was also released on the Sega Game Gear in 1991.


The evil witch Mizrabel has kidnapped Minnie and in your quest to rescue her you'll need to obtain the seven Gems of the Rainbow from the castle. There's six stages and to attack Mickey can either bounce on enemies' heads, or pick up objects to throw at them. The gameplay is similar to the 16-bit version (1990, Mega Drive), but the level design is entirely different; it's equally impressive in its own right too, with thoughtfully designed stages and plenty of variety. It's always throwing new enemy types, hazards and items into play, and there's even some auto-scrolling stages to mix things up. There's many whimsical moments, such as when you run across a piano, only for some of the musical notes to turn into bad guys! Unlike many platformers that are predominantly left-to-right affairs, this game is full of twists and turns, and never keeps you moving in the same plane for very long in each stage; this adds up to some captivating gameplay and makes you feel like you're really on an epic adventure. Interestingly, the developers clearly took inspiration from various NES titles, especially Mega Man (1987, NES); this is no more apparent than the Dessert Factory's chocolate boss which detaches itself into chunks and launches them horizontally (similar to Mega Man's Yellow Devil boss). Also, the large blue weights in The Castle are similar to Thwomps in Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990, NES). Mickey controls with precision and although the game isn't difficult, there is some challenge in later levels. To top things off, the music is instantly catchy and the graphics / animation are some of the best on the system.

Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse features the perfect combination of playful and intriguing level design coupled with outstanding controls that make the game a joy from start to finish. It oozes charm around every corner and while the 16-bit version is frequently praised, this unique 8-bit game is worth just as much of your attention.



Random trivia: Sega's 8-bit console was home to two other games in the series, Land of Illusion (1993) and Legend of Illusion (1998).

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Panic! (Mega CD / Sega CD review)

Developer: Data East
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1994

Panic! is a point and click adventure game that was later released on the Sony PlayStation 2 (2002).


A computer virus is infecting devices across the planet and it's your job to find and attack the mother computer to return the world to normal. The action consists of static screen mini-games where you're given a number of buttons, with only certain ones allowing you to move onto the next puzzle. Things get off to a good start at the opening logo screen with a bizarre, yet humorous mispronunciation of the infamous: "SE-GA!" soundbite (performed as "GA-SE!"). Unfortunately, that's where most of the hilarity ends. For starters, there's nothing logical about any of the game's 'puzzles' and the need to blindly press buttons leads to apathy and severe boredom; the worst part is that there's literally no skill involved in succeeding and no gameplay deviation throughout the whole adventure to break things up. Additionally, while the failure cut-scenes should provide some enjoyment (especially as they're the main selling point here) they're usually too surreal, or have an over-reliance on toilet humour and repetitive vomiting jokes. There are a few nods to other video-games such as Pong and Tetris, but they only provide a passing interest. The loading times between failures isn't too bad, but the gameplay annoyances compound the delays and result in you preying for the correct option to be picked first time! Graphics-wise, the art style is bland with a distinct lack of sprite detail, and the characters are completely devoid of any charm or personality. The only real positive notes are that there's multiple ways to reach the end credits (adding some replayability), and you can also save your progress.

Panic! is akin to doing a long multiple-choice quiz without any of the questions, and its random nature doesn't exactly make for a satisfying gameplay experience. It's bereft of any compelling action and (to be honest) considering it's such a distinctly wacky Japanese game I'm surprised this one was even localised for the West!



Random trivia: The game is compatible with the Sega Mega Mouse controller.

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