Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Banjo-Kazooie (N64 review)

Developer: Rare
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1998

Banjo-Kazooie is a 3D platformer that was re-released as part of the Rare Replay compilation (2015, Xbox One).

The evil witch Gruntilda has kidnapped your sister Tooty and your mission is rescue her by working your way through nine worlds. These worlds house ten missions each and allow you to collect various items to unlock new hub areas, or upgrade your attacks / abilities. When compared to the Rare developed Donkey Kong 64 (1999, N64) there are many similarities in terms of collect-a-thon gameplay, move-sets and procedure of world progression. However, Banjo-Kazooie is more refined with its smaller levels that are tightly crafted; everything serves a purpose and if you're stuck you're never too far away from the answer. Even when you do have to backtrack, you'll be armed with new power-ups and attacks that open up the gameplay and levels in fresh ways. Clanker's Cavern takes a typically tedious underwater world and fills it with fun mission objectives, whereas Freezeezy Peak is a visual feast with its cool Christmas setting. The gameplay constantly rewards players too with new attacks, weapons and unlockables which encourages you to explore. It's fun doing so with challenges and puzzles at every turn, and I like how you usually have a multitude of options in terms of what to tackle next. It's not all perfect though, as Rusty Bucket Bay's harbour setting falls flat due to its confusing layout and instant death traps. The camera can also be a huge pain and the game unwisely forces you to collect almost everything to advance to the end boss. Speaking of which, the prelude to this final encounter slows things to a crawl as you're bizarrely forced to answer pointless trivia questions about the game.

Banjo-Kazooie is a great launch for the series thanks to its tightly crafted level design that's packed with wonderment and entertaining missions. It does lean too heavily on excessive collectability (which could deter some casual players from seeing it through to the end), but the platforming is such high quality that it's worth the effort.

Random trivia: Originally, the Fungi Forest world in Donkey Kong 64 was supposed to be included here, but was dropped due to time constraints.

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Ball Busters (Gizmondo review)

Developer: Netdol Ltd
Publisher: Fathammer
Released: N/A

Ball Busters is an unreleased sports title that was due to be published in 2005.

You control a racket and the goal is to repeatedly hit the ball in order to launch it past your opponent's net to win a point. Arcade mode consists of five matches and features items that allow you to swerve shots or add a brick wall to your opponent's halve. The action is fast and intense, and the core concept is almost a mixture of Pong (1972, Arcade) meets Windjammers (1994, Neo Geo). The ability to collect items adds strategy too and I like how there's a risk-reward in terms of obtaining them while keeping an eye on the incoming ball. Also, the inclusion of some cheesy, yet humorous trash talk from the competitors adds personality to each match! However, while the controls aren't necessarily bad, your racket tends to jump around when pressing the d-pad; this lack of smooth movement results in lots of over-shooting your intended target and delicate shifts around the playfield are nigh-on impossible. Also, with only five matches per game this mode is rather short and lacking in replayability. Quest mode consists of 54 challenges that include avoiding bombs while returning the ball, or hitting moving targets. The objectives are quite basic, but there's definitely some fun to be had and the short bursts of gameplay encourage you to keep trying. Unfortunately, by the time you reach the higher difficulty levels it becomes more about luck rather than skill, as the speed increase is so steep that trying to line up your twitchy racket is total guess work. Also, like Arcade, this challenge mode is light on content and with only six gameplay variants you're usually doing the same thing over and over again with faster ball physics as the only difference.

Ball Busters is a neat concept that would have made an entertaining multiplayer game if the planned mode was finished, but as it stands the premise is a little lost when you're dealing with such bare-bones single-player content. It can be mildly enjoyable in short bursts, but the inaccurate d-pad controls do hold things back.

Random trivia: Netdol Ltd also developed Pocket Ping Pong 2005 which was released on the Gizmondo in 2005.

Boulder Dash (NES review)

Developer: Data East, Sakata SAS
Publisher: JVC Music
Released: 1990

Boulder Dash is an action-puzzler that was originally released on Atari 8-bit computers in 1984.

There's six worlds (with four stages each) and your task is to collect the required number of diamonds before reaching the exit. Rocks can be pushed or dropped to either create new paths or to squash incoming enemies. Compared to the 8-bit computer versions, it's pleasing to see that your main character has a lot more sprite detail and personality, and the cutesy graphics give the worlds plenty of charm. Speaking of which, the different themed worlds are reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990, NES) in that there's water, sand and fire locales; while they're typical and (some would say) overused themes the varied locales help to keep players engrossed in the action and invested in what's coming up next. The World Map is a great idea to highlight the adventure ahead of you, and I like how you can choose any stage within an individual world to tackle at your leisure. It's a shame then that the bright, colourful setting is let-down by a couple of substantial issues. Firstly, there's a minor delay between you pressing a direction on the d-pad and your character performing that input; in a game that requires absolute precision this is a very disappointing oversight by the developers. Additionally, the scrolling and animation are jerky which can cause you to overshoot your intended target with alarming frequency. Still, the game does slowly introduce some cool gameplay mechanics to mix things up, including the need to trap growing amoeba in order to release diamonds. The stage solutions aren't always intuitive (and lots of trial-and-error is involved), but it is satisfying when you finally figure out what's required.

Boulder Dash is a unique action-puzzler that features some good stage design and the visual upgrades from the 8-bit computer versions give it increased personality. However, be warned that it is brutally difficult and the fact that it doesn't hold your hand means that this is likely a game that's only suited to more patient players.

Random trivia: A version was also released for the Nintendo Game Boy in 1990.

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Chicane: Jenson Button Street Racing (Gizmondo review)

Developer: Gizmondo Studios Helsingborg
Publisher: Gizmondo Games
Released: N/A

Chicane: Jenson Button Street Racing is an unreleased Arcade-style racer that was due for release in 2005.

It features 8 cars, 8 city routes, 2 racing circuits and 6 challenge tracks. Alongside the Single Player mode, there's also Multiplayer which allows for Bluetooth racing against a friend. The courses are enjoyable and scenically varied, and include beautiful seaside resorts and grittier industrial locations. I also like how some races are over in a flash while others can last minutes, as they test your driving skills and mental stamina. However, my main gripe lies with the controls, as power-sliding around corners is annoyingly tricky, even after lots of practice. Part of this is the twitchy and overly-sensitive drifting of vehicles during a turn, and another is the camera which doesn't give you an ideal angle when attempting to re-centre. Despite lengthy play sessions, I never felt in control during a drift and this mechanic paled in comparison to the similar mechanic found in Ridge Racer (2005, Sony PSP). Also, the spotty frame-rate can't quite keep up with the fast-paced action and the limited draw distance affects you being able to adequately see what lies ahead (at times it's a bit of a guessing game until you fully memorise the course). It's a shame, as the races can be blisteringly fast and you can definitely tell the potential for some hair-raising moments that would keep you on the edge of your seat. There's some great lighting effects on offer too, not to mention the excellent texture-mapped graphics and fast loading times that quickly get you back into the action. The music is the typical electronic style found in many driving games, but interestingly the main theme from Point of Destruction (2005, Gizmondo) is recycled here.

Chicane: Jenson Button Street Racing is a majorly frustrating game, as beneath its technical issues is a solid racer with terrific course design and some of the best graphics on the system. However, the controls are simply too finicky (especially for an Arcade style title) and mastering them takes serious patience that few will likely attempt.

Random trivia: The game was eventually ported to the iPhone in 2008 as Fastlane Street Racing.

Sunday, 11 July 2021

Hit & Myth (Gizmondo review)

Developer: Gizmondo Studios Texas
Publisher: Gizmondo Games
Released: N/A

Hit & Myth is an unreleased action game that was scheduled to be published in 2006.

There's five levels and you play as a medieval knight called Sir Timorous Cadbury IV who's attempting to stop the evil machinations of the demonic hordes. The gameplay is a twin-stick shooter (using the face buttons to fire) and you can also summon spells that offer temporary upgrades such as increased speed. The Gizmondo is a fairly comfortable system to hold, but the constant need to be circling enemies by rotating the stiff d-pad is enough to give you hand cramp within a few minutes. Also, the lengthy missions (which take 30-40 minutes each to beat) aren't suited to handheld play, and while checkpoints are available there are no mid-level save points. Additionally, despite the controls being the best they could be given the system layout, consistently hitting diagonals is tricky due to the requirement to press two face buttons at once. The gameplay can be challenging with enemies spawning out of nowhere, or firing from off-screen at high speed. However, at least there are ample opportunities to refill your health and spell power by dispatching opponents so you always have a good chance to succeed. The field-of-view is limited and the environments can be overly dark at times, but the cool lighting effects from your weaponry help to brighten the path ahead. Impressively, the action never slows down, even when the game throws a huge number of sprites on-screen. Perhaps its best feature is its wickedly sarcastic sense of humour and heavy use of voiceovers, as they give your team-mates and enemies oodles of personality. The bosses are interesting, but after a couple of levels you've seen pretty much everything the game has to offer.

Hit & Myth is an above-average title that would certainly have added more diversity to the Gizmondo library, and it's worth a play-through if only to experience its hilarious script. Unfortunately, it offers little in the way of replayability and it's a shame that the monotonous gameplay wasn't spiced up with some fun diversions.

Random trivia: The original plan was to include four selectable characters, but this was eventually limited to one due to time constraints.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time (SNES review)

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Released: 1992

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time is a beat-em-up that was first released in the Arcades in 1991.

Your objective across the game's ten levels is to locate the missing Statue of Liberty that's been stolen by a flying android. It supports 1-2 players and the four playable turtles have their own attributes in terms of attacks, speed, etc. The controls are fluid and responsive, and grabbing hold of an enemy before repeatedly slamming them into the ground never gets old (while also being great for wiping out multiple foes when you're overwhelmed). The sprite scaling when you throw a bad guy towards the screen is impressive too, as is the animation which gives you the nice option of choosing between two different styles (Anime or Comic). The level design is daring, as while it offers typical locales such as sewers and city streets, it also takes you on a journey throughout time and before you know it you'll be fighting prehistoric creatures and battling on pirate ships! There's also an auto-scrolling water section to break things up, as well as an awesome Mode-7 battle area where the camera is positioned behind your character. Each level is the perfect length to avoid outstaying its welcome and tying everything together are some neat cut-scenes to progress the story. A minor criticism is that you're stuck playing as your chosen turtle until you reach the Continue screen; this is a step-back from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project (1992, NES) where strategy was greatly afforded by being able to select a new turtle after each lost life. The catchy music is outstanding, but while the bosses are enjoyable (with some large sprites) their attack patterns are a little basic and easily exploitable. 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time is a terrific beat-em-up that shines in pretty much every department, and its unusual stage locales manage to both surprise and delight throughout. Add to this the rock-solid controls and cool attacks, and you have one of the best examples of the genre on any system.

Random trivia: In 2009, a 3D remake called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Re-Shelled was released on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

Saturday, 3 July 2021

Robocop 3 (NES review)

Developer: Probe Software
Publisher: Ocean
Released: 1992

Robocop 3 is an action game and the follow-up to 1991's NES title from Data East Corporation / Ocean Software. 

There's five stages and your task is to battle the Rehab Officers and stop them from constructing a new Delta City. Your default weapons are a single fire gun and missiles, but both can be upgraded to allow for abilities such as scattered bullets or explosive blasts. Compared to the previous game, it's pleasing that Robocop no longer walks as if he's on ice and momentum-based jumping has been axed! Unfortunately, there are many inexplicable control issues; for starters, Robocop often refuses to turn to the opposite side and you'll find yourself furiously bashing the d-pad while being shot in the back. Likewise, to switch directions while ducking you'll first have to stand up... not ideal when you're facing an onslaught of bullets from both sides! Also, you're unable to fire diagonally unless standing still; in a twitch-based game with enemies shooting at you from all angles the result of this control oddity is many cheap hits. Speaking of which, most times you'll take damage will be from bad guys that shoot off-screen, giving you zero time to react. The ability to switch weapons on the fly is a terrific idea though and patient gamers who are willing to learn layouts and enemy patterns might find some enjoyment. However, while Stage 3 introduces a jet pack ability that might seem fun, it's a gimmick that only serves to make dodging enemy bullets even more maddening. Considering there's only five stages you'd expect each one to be distinct, yet Stage 4 is an unfathomable copy of the previous one, only this time you have no jet pack and need to walk back to the beginning of the level in reverse!

Robocop 3 does so many things wrong and whether you're talking about level design, enemy placement or controls there's always something that could be considered game-breaking. It's also very short in length and has an artificially inflated difficulty that's the result of its technical deficiencies and seemingly rushed development.

Random trivia: The cover artwork was created by Greg Winters, the same artist who created the cover for Streets of Rage (1991, Sega Genesis).

Friday, 2 July 2021

Snake Rattle 'n' Roll (NES review)

Developer: Rare
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1990

Snake Rattle 'n' Roll is an action-platformer that was also released on the Sega Mega Drive (1993).

There's 11 stages and each one requires you to consume enough Nibbley Pibbley creatures until your snake is a certain length; once your tail is flashing, you can then activate a scale that opens up the exit. Various power-ups are available including a tongue extension and increased speed, but care must be taken to avoid the item that reverses the controls. The unconventional control scheme is definitely a source of initial frustration (mainly due to the isometric viewpoint) and whether you gain enjoyment from the action depends on how well you can adjust. This idea of feeling uncomfortable is intrinsically tied to the game's difficulty which is challenging at the beginning and downright brutal towards the end! Examples of the latter include devious death traps and dreaded ice stages that will no doubt test your patience. However, while the challenge is high the game isn't overly long and its expertly crafted stage design will keep you coming back for repeated play-throughs in an attempt to get just that little bit further. And that's specifically where most of the game's appeal comes from, as learning the intricately designed stages and figuring out the best strategy to beat them is incredibly addicting. A feature I really like is how you can either rush to the end of level door, or use up the entirety of the clock to collect extra creatures for huge points; in this sense, it's similar to Nights into Dreams (1996, Sega Saturn) and helpfully caters to both casual and hardcore players. There's a nice mix of enemy types and hazards too and the whimsical rock and roll music suits the game perfectly.

Snake Rattle 'n' Roll is a game that becomes more rewarding with each play-through and once the initial control quirks are overcome the gameplay really starts to shine. Sure, it is a rather brief experience and the difficulty is off-the-charts, but patient gamers are likely to have a blast conquering its impeccably designed stages.

Random trivia: This game was included as part of a 2015 Xbox One compilation called Rare Replay.

Saturday, 26 June 2021

Colors (Gizmondo review)

Developer: Indie Studios
Publisher: Gizmondo
Released: N/A

Colors is an unreleased third-person shooter that takes inspiration from the Grand Theft Auto series.

It takes place in the fictional Crimson City and includes seven districts (separated by loading screens) such as China Town, Docklands, Grand Central and Little Italy. There's 50 missions and various shops allow you to upgrade your weapons, buy health packs, or purchase drugs to sell on the street. At times the missions can feel like basic fetch quests and the inability to drive vehicles means you have to slowly investigate the local territory on-foot. Thankfully, each area feels distinct (if not a little barren in terms of pedestrians) and the missions that do deviate from the simple delivery formula are generally fun with highlights including robbing a jewellery store by blowing up a safe, or the task where you need to kill a construction worker, bury his body in cement and reach the exit without touching the wet floor. The game also has a good sense of humour, particularly in the mission which requires you to kill a Travis Bickle lookalike from the movie Taxi Driver (1976) after he begins stalking a prostitute! Sadly, the combat is weak as it's painfully slow to cycle between items meaning that if you suddenly find yourself being shot while spray painting turf tags you'll be caught between a rock and a hard place as you fumble to re-equip your gun. Also, for some reason the developers decided to implement a moving reticle that sways wildly like a darts game instead of adequately locking onto your target; this makes each fight a chore and I really don't like the fact that you're always open to fire while your reticle waits to swing back onto an opponent. The graphics are excellent though with a solid draw distance and consistent frame-rate.

Colors is an ambitious title that succeeds in its varied, detailed locales and there's plenty of content to keep you occupied for hours. However, its appealing setting isn't fully complimented with memorable missions and the clunky combat system plagues the entire adventure and forces you to continually overstock on health packs to survive.

Random trivia: In 2015, Colors was planned for re-release on Google Play and iOS, but (as of this review) has yet to surface.

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Classic Compendium 2 (Gizmondo review)

Developer: AI Factory
Publisher: Gizmondo Games
Released: 2005

Classic Compendium 2 is a collection of five board games and the follow-up to the 2005 original title on the Gizmondo.

This time, the games are Eastern-based and include Taipei, Chinese Checkers, Chinese Chess, Shogi and Gomoku. 1-2 players are supported and there's 10 practice levels and 14 computer opponents. You can also choose from a selection of boards, pieces and backdrops, and a rating system measures your progress in each game. As per the first collection, the presentation is extremely lacking with dull menus and zero design flair throughout. The games can also be intimidating to beginners (despite the box art claiming otherwise), as you're always launched straight into play with no tutorial or early-level hand-holding. Sure, there are text-heavy instructions in the sub-menu, but a visual demonstration of what's required to succeed would have been greatly appreciated to immediately engage newcomers. This is a much bigger oversight than you might expect, as many of these Eastern-based games will be unfamiliar to Western audiences, something that wasn't such a huge issue with the original Classic Compendium title. Despite this, the selection of games on offer is decent with enough variety in each play style to keep puzzle fans interested and entertained. I do like how 'next move' hints are available in games such as Taipei, as well as the ability to rewind previous steps in Chinese Checkers. Another neat feature that's ideal for a handheld platform is the option to save your progress and pick up at a later date. The calming music is also perfectly suited to the relaxed atmosphere, although curiously there's zero sound effects during play which makes everything seem rather lifeless.

Classic Compendium 2 is a no-frills experience that's incredibly dry from a presentational standpoint and it does a poor job of teaching newcomers how to actually play the games. However, those who are familiar with them (or puzzle fans looking for something different) should get some enjoyment out of this compilation.

Random trivia: As of 2021, AI Factory still creates puzzle games for various platforms including Android smartphones.

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