Walking the Streets of Rage once again…

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It’s been a while since I posted something here on Darkstalker90. There are various reasons for that but I won’t bore you with those because that’s not why you’re here, is it? You’re here for some gaming-related content so I’ve skipped over the (frankly embarassing) backlog of semi-completed drafts to talk about a game that has commanded my attention over the last week or so: the mighty Streets of Rage 4.

Go back just a few years, and SoR4 would have been just a fantasy – one of those games that cropped up on many a retro-head’s I-wish-they-would-make-this-but-they-probably-never-will list. The franchise’s future seemed to be confined to re-releases on retro Sega compilations and those iffy plug ‘n play devices. Sega themselves had tried and failed in the 90’s to develop a Streets of Rage 4, and the popularity of the side-scrolling beat ’em up had rapidly waned with the demise of arcade-style gaming.

So it was a pretty earth-shaking shock to say the least when Streets of Rage 4 was first shown in 2018. With Sega acting solely as a licensor this time, it was down to the collaboration of Dotemu, Lizardcube and Guard Crush games to do the series justice and deliver on twenty-six years of fan anticipation. No pressure, then… Continue reading “Walking the Streets of Rage once again…”

Mini Review: Overboard! (Playstation)

Mini Reviews: I played it…I just don’t have a lot to say about it.

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Prior to playing Overboard! (known as Shipwreckers! to my NTSC-U readers) on the Playstation, I had heard a lot about it. The game does, after all, crop up on many people’s “hidden gems” lists and “cult classics” countdowns. It’s also a rare thing: a game for Sony’s debut console that comes with a good rep and doesn’t cost the earth to source from the likes of ebay.

Unfortunately, I will have to burst the nostalgia bubble and say that I didn’t really get on with Overboard! but I can, nevertheless, see why the game has the following that it does.

You guide a dinky pirate ship through maze-like waterways, fending off enemies and circumventing all manner of hazards in your quest to collect treasure and capture ports. Your galleon boasts a hell of a lot of cartoon-ish charm, as do the enemies and overall visual style. It’s these appealing aesthetics and enjoyable music that form the bulk of Overboard!‘s appeal but it also controls well and does a deft job of staggering the introduction of new weapons, enemy types and mechanics.

Overboard! is a piece of simple but effective puzzle/action game design that doesn’t need discs full of CGI or an unnecessary storyline and, as much as I enjoy those things, I’m all for a more straight-forward, unbloated experience that prioritises gameplay. It reminds me of Kula World in that respect, and that should be a good thing.

So I was surprised to feel a dull apathy towards Overboard! once I’d finished appreciating the presentation and fun tone.

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First of all, it’s incredibly easy lose your ship to enemies and hazards, especially fire-based obstacles. You have the weapons to deal with enemies but I found it extremely fiddly to switch between them on the wheel-like selector, and often skipped past the one I wanted in my rush to get to it before my vessel was sent to Davy Jones’ locker. It was a problem compounded by being attacked from the sea and by bomb-dropping birds from above at the same time. I tended to try and ready the weapon I wanted before advancing into a new area and it usually turned out to be the wrong one for the situation, resulting in a lot of health lost.

Having to restart also means dealing with sluggish load times, something we were liberated from a long time ago with modern games and now struggle to accept when getting our retro fix. I could suffer this though because I expect it. What I couldn’t suffer was the way in which you can save yourself into a corner. The game allows you to save to the memory card after completing each level. Unfortunately, it also saves your lives and ammunition and doesn’t allow you to have another go at a failed stage with replenished lives/weapons. You have to re-load your save and start again with whatever you had at the point of saving, so it’s entirely possible to save with zero spare lives and be stuck with that bum deal every time you load up.

Overboard! is one of those games that I desperately wanted to like because it has a lot going for it. Sadly, I couldn’t gel with the weapon selector, being constantly killed by hazards that I wasn’t prepared for, and the save system. It’s by no means a bad game at all but I also have no desire to play it again.

 

Capcom Home Arcade Thoughts

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By now, you’ve probably seen the trailer and reviews for this thing but I’m going to talk about it anyway. I love retro/classic games and I adore Capcom’s back catalogue so a product like this should either be in my hands already, or on my Christmas wishlist. But it isn’t and here’s why.

What is Capcom Home Arcade?

Essentially, the Capcom Home Arcade is a premium version of the tried-and-tested retro-themed plug ‘n play devices. This one means business though. The device features a pair of arcade-style controls for starters, and competition-spec sticks/buttons from Sanwa. Here it is from the horse’s mouth a.k.a. the official site:

“Featuring a pair of competition class Sanwa JLF-TP-8YT sticks with 8-way GT-Y directional gates and OBSF buttons for the finest precision, response times and durability.”

So this isn’t something that’s going to fall apart and break after a few hammerings. Sanwa are, after all, a well-known and respected brand in the arcade stick field.

The device has the (pretty much now standard) HDMI-out connection and also wi-fi connectivity for uploading high scores.

As for the games, you are once again assured of quality. These are original CPS1 and CPS2 arcade ROMs running on a licensed (not without controversy…) version of the emulator, Final Burn Alpha, so you won’t be getting the kind of shady emulation associated with cheaper retro handhelds or plug ‘n plays from the likes of Blaze.

So as far as the actual quality and execution of the hardware goes, I cannot fault the Capcom Home Arcade.

What are the games?

The device comes with sixteen pre-installed arcade titles:

  • 1944: The Loop Master
  • Alien Vs Predator
  • Armored Warriors
  • Capcom Sports Club
  • Captain Commando
  • Cyberbots: Fullmetal Madness
  • Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors
  • Eco Fighters
  • Final Fight
  • Ghouls ‘N Ghosts
  • Gigawing
  • Mega Man: The Power Battle
  • Progear
  • Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting
  • Strider
  • Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo

So what’s wrong with it, then?

So…solid hardware, a decent line-up of games and sound emulation; should be a great product then, right? Well, I would never ask anybody to take my viewpoint as the gospel (because this is just my opinion after all) but, in my eyes, the Capcom Home Arcade is FAR from deserving of a “shut up and take my money!” meme.

For starters, this thing is ugly as sin. Look, I get where they were going with the design, and I’m not saying that it won’t appeal to anybody, but this just looks a bit tacky. The non-symmetrical, oddly-shaped form isn’t pleasing to my eye. It’s like the next Playstation being a giant Sony logo – who would take that seriously? I would have much preferred a traditional-shaped arcade stick decorated with some original artwork from an artist associated with Capcom such as Kinu Nishimura, Bengus or Akiman.

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But the physical shape of the Capcom Home Arcade is the least of the problems.

The roster of games is, admittedly, far from awful. These types of products are usually loaded up with the same games over and over again rather than the juicy, rarely re-released titles that fans of the company involved are constantly clamouring for. So credit must be handed to Capcom for including the likes of Alien Vs Predator, Gigawing and Armored Warriors. They also avoided two other pitfalls: wasting slots with sequels and wasting slots on a slew of Street Fighter II revisions.

That said, I have to wonder why they went for the Hyper Fighting version of SFII rather than Super Turbo, or why they chose the original Darkstalkers over the much expanded sequels. On the whole though, these are petty moans when many of these games have never been ported to home systems. In fact, almost all of these aren’t available on the likes of PSN, XBLA or Nintendo’s E-Shop at the time of writing.

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I’d honestly given up on ever seeing AvP re-released. Shame that you have to pay £200 for the privilege…

There are even two trump cards in the pack: Alien Vs Predator and Progear. The former is one of the all-time greats in the side-scrolling beat ’em up genre and has never received a home conversion (the SNES version is the same in name only), something that fans had long written off as ever happening due to licensing issues with the characters. As for Progear, this is a CAVE-developed bullet-hell shooter that has also never been released outside of obscure, mobile ports for old phones.

Did I say the line-up of games is “far from awful”? I should take that back because it’s actually bloody good once you realise that you can’t just go and (legally) download them from PSN or XBLA for a few quid.

So…what IS wrong with it?

That price.

The Capcom Home Arcade retails for £200 and that is BIG money for a plug ‘n play, no matter how good it is. You ARE getting solid build quality and an interesting collection of games to play but it’s just too much in my opinion, and that isn’t me being a tight-arse git who wants everything for nothing.

For starters, you have to be a fairly hardcore gamer to pay that much money for sixteen games, and those sorts of gamers have been playing un-converted arcade games for years on dedicated emulator-based arcade cabs. Many committed retro-heads even have the original CPS1 and CPS2 boards for these games and play them via JAMMA-compatible SuperGun devices.

Then there is MAME. Yes, it isn’t technically legal but, again, most people haven’t been waiting 20+ years for Capcom to re-license Alien Vs Predator. When a game is THAT good, you just emulate it, as you would with the other titles that have never received home conversions. Yes, we would ALL (myself included) like to play and own everything legally but it simply isn’t possible when certain games don’t get re-released. We have our virtual collection of arcade cabinets on our computers and MAME does a damn good job of emulating them by this point.

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Never forget about these beauties or their bigger home console sisters.

And if MAME is too dodgy for you, several of these games were included in the various Capcom Classics compilations for PS2/Xbox/PSP which are readily available on the second-hand market. Additionally, Final Fight, Armored Warriors and Captain Commando were not long ago included in the Capcom Beat ’em Up Bundle along with four other games. This is still available on PSN for £15.99.

And it’s highly unlikely that casual gamers, younger gamers or those new to Capcom’s back catalogue will want to drop £200 on this.

The fact is, you are so much better off by obtaining what you can via the aforementioned, existing compilations and just emulating the rest. The quality of the Capcom Home Arcade and its games cannot be disputed but why do yourself out of money? If this was a £100 or less then I would endorse a purchase immediately, even if the device IS butt-ugly.

Capcom would have been better off dumping these games on a disc or lumping them together as a digital compilation. Heck, release them individually on PSN, XBLA and the E-Shop. Start a new line of retro re-releases under some sort of fancy banner, perhaps. I have to assume that more money goes into Capcom’s pocket by doing it this way. Certainly, they are attempting to cash-in on the Christmas rush when more unsuspecting punters – partners of gamers for example – are likely to pay the £200. Nothing says “I love you” at Christmas when a long suffering partner presents you with a thoughtful and expensive gaming item, after all.

What I SHOULD be doing is celebrating and going nuts over Alien Vs Predator finally being shown the light of day again but, instead, I’m sitting here in disbelief having seen that £200 price tag and the naff aesthetics of the Capcom Home Arcade. If it bombs and stores are forced to slash prices by 50% or more to get rid of them then I will probably buy one but I have a feeling that these won’t be that mass-produced. The Capcom zealots will probably buy them anyway, no matter the price.

Review – Metal Slug Anthology [PSP/Playstation 2/Wii]

MSA-1Release Date: 2007 (Europe)   |   Developer: SNK Playmore/Terminal Reality   |   Publisher: Ignition (Europe)

If you’ve lived behind a tower of modern games or are a younger gamer then you may not be familiar with SNK’s Metal Slug series and that is truly a shame because you might be missing out on something special. For those already in the know, Metal Slug is a stone-cold arcade classic requiring no introduction but for the uninformed, here’s the deal. Released in 1996 for SNK’s Neo Geo arcade hardware, Metal Slug quickly became one of the quintessential run ‘n gun experiences that the rest of the genre suddenly found itself compared to. Nazca Corp. blended tight, challenging gameplay with their stunning 2D artistry to create one of the defining Neo Geo experiences and a killer app for the (incredibly expensive) home version of the hardware.

The game oozed charm and was overflowing with character thanks to the comical nature of the cartoon-like visuals which should have been at odds with the military theme and bright red blood. It was – as previously mentioned – challenging too but not necessarily in an outrageously cheap way; not to begin with anyway – that’s a sin for some of the sequels to atone for and we’ll hold court on that subject in due course.

By the time SNK called time on the creaking Neo Geo hardware in 2004, the system had hosted six Metal Slug games. If you weren’t rich enough to own a Neo Geo and splurge on massive cartridges sporting eye-watering price tags (so most of us then) then it was difficult to be a Metal Slug fan though. There were ports to all kinds of the consoles such as the Playstation, Saturn, PS2 and original Xbox but these tended to vary in terms of quality and accuracy. In 2007 however (2006 for the US), we were treated to Metal Slug Anthology for PSP, Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii. This compilation from the retro gods collected unaltered arcade versions of the five Neo Geo ‘Slugs plus the Atomiswave’s Metal Slug 6 which was brand-new for the West when Anthology hit the shelves.

LOADING…

I’ll start by quickly talking about the compilation in general. I won’t discuss the Wii port as I haven’t been lucky enough to own a copy but I have owned both the Playstation 2 and PSP editions of the game. Sadly, Sony’s versions suffer from unwelcome load times, even in basic areas such as the front end menu or in-game character select screens. It’s not a deal-breaker but is still pretty unforgiveable in my opinion, especially since the PS2 and PSP shouldn’t have been at all taxed to run a small collection of old Neo Geo games when the PS2 didn’t appear to break a sweat over big stuff like Gran Turismo and Black. The PSP is a more understandable situation given that the handheld’s loading capabilities were often scuppered by the UMD drive. Even so, I play all of my PSP games direct from the memory stick (thanks to the wonders of Custom Firmware) and even then, the loading isn’t completely eradicated. The Wii port is meant to be a lot better as it was allegedly coded by SNK themselves while Terminal Reality handled the PS2 and PSP versions. Don’t quote me on that though; it’s something I remember reading in period reviews.

In terms of extras, there’s an art gallery to unlock using tokens earnt by playing through the six games. It’s not much but I’m personally a big fan because outside of the official press art for SNK games, there is a wealth of bizarre artwork resembling fan art and this is often included in their games. Artwork won’t be of interest to everybody, granted, but I love the quirkiness of SNK’s galleries at times. That said, what we are really for are the games so let’s talk about them.

Original and best

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the original Metal Slug is in close contention for being the best game of the series. It’s a purer experience than the sequels and suffers with less of the bloat and often unnecessary variety that its successors injected (in a well-meaning way of course). You simply run to the right, avoiding enemy fire and blasting anything that gets in Marco Rossi’s way. You are granted three lives per credit and ten grenades per life. Continuing with a fresh credit gifts you the Heavy Machine-Gun power-up upon re-spawning as a welcome gesture. You might think then that Metal Slug is about as complicated as Paris Hilton and that’s a fair assessment as there’s nothing overly innovative about the whole thing. It’s HOW the game does what it does that makes it so endearing.

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First of all, the controls and ‘feel’ are spot-on and you should never find yourself condemning either for getting iced by an enemy. Secondly, the power-ups are just so damn fun to acquire and put to use. The Heavy Machine-Gun makes you feel like a force to be reckoned with, the shotgun’s explosive punch fills you with confidence and the Rocket Launcher is just the nuts. Special mention must go to the Arnie-like “Rocket Lowncher!” announcement from the voice-over dude when you collect the latter – always a pleasure to hear. Then there’s the Metal Slug tank itself which can take several hits before being destroyed. The tank is actually pretty cutesey thanks to its stubby profile and ability to jump but the rapid-fire machine-gun and cannon pack a serious punch.

Finally, there’s that distinctive art style which is a big part of the game’s appeal. Without it, Metal Slug would just be another solid run ‘n gun game but thanks to Nazca’s artistic sorcery, every backdrop, sprite and tiny detail deserves close attention. In fact, there is such a ludicrous level of detail in every single thing that it’s a wonder that they ever finished the game or were permitted the time to go so crazy in the first place. Special mention must go to the enormous bosses which are both intimidating and spectacular. Taking them down always feels like an achievement.

The visuals are backed up by the audio which consists of memorable voice-overs, fantastic sound effects (the explosions are awesome) and memorable music that blends military-themed composition with Nazca’s jazzy sound, the latter fitting in perfectly against all sound reason.

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I’ve already stated that the game is challenging as it really is but the original Metal Slug is perhaps the fairest of the lot. The first three missions are no cake-walk but can be completed with minimal stress. It’s only towards the end of the game that the opposition begins to overwhelm and you will have to feed in credits in order to push on. This was an arcade game designed to part punters from their cash but that said, I’ve certainly played much, much worse that would have you searching for Dick Turpin’s name in the developer credits.

Put simply, the original Metal Slug is a creative masterpiece and a very enjoyable arcade action game that deserves its lofty reputation. If you only play one game in the series then this has to be it but SNK did make some sequels so let’s address those next…

Bigger isn’t always better

Metal Slug 2 is probably the closest rival that the original game has for the honour of being the best in the series. I did say that if you only play one entry then it should be the original but ideally, you’d play the immediate follow-up as well. MS2 is more of the same but bigger and more extreme than before. New power-ups and new Slug vehicles debut as do the Mars People alien enemies. The bosses are equally impressive if not better than before with special mentions going to an Arabian palace that turns into a missile launcher and the second mission’s boss which sees you constantly climbing to avoid the chasing jaws of an enormous machine. The only issue I have with Metal Slug 2 is that the last few levels are a bit brutal with the player being expected to dodge too much crap and kill far too many aliens. That aside, it is a worthy follow-up deserving of your time.

Metal Slug X is essentially a remix of Metal Slug 2. The first stage for example now takes place at dusk, there are new enemies, remixed music and new power-ups. There’s a handy list of the updates here on Wikipedia. Whether you prefer X over ‘vanilla’ Metal Slug 2 is a personal preference but being as it is very similar, I would also class X as a game you can definitely keep coming back to.

Unfortunately, the series takes a nosedive with Metal Slug 3 that it never really fully recovered from. This was the last game produced by the original Nazca/SNK partnership before SNK went bankrupt and rose from the ashes as SNK Playmore. They went all-out and cranked the creativity up to the max with MS3 which should have been a positive thing but ends up being both good and bad. Starting with the good, they went pretty wild here and introduced a ton of new stuff and awe-inspiring bosses, all rendered in the same agonisingly attractive art style. The game also still plays perfectly soundly. The first problem however is that you aren’t only fighting military forces this time around but all manner of organic creatures and aliens. This did allow Nazca’s artists the chance to flex and animate a bunch of crazy stuff (which all looks lovely) but you will miss the characterful enemy soldiers and military hardware when you’re shooting at crabs, insects and…zombies?

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Yes, there is a zombie-themed level that mimics a slasher movie and I really hate this shit. When you get killed, a bolt of lightning will resurrect you albeit as a shambling, sluggish zombie with none of the agility that you need to avoid the onslaught of enemies. It doesn’t fit in with what Metal Slug is meant to be but even if you can overlook that, playing as a zombie slows the action to a crawl and puts a definite damper on things. Even when you are still in human form, emptying vast amounts of ammo into walking bullet sponges is no fun. The only enjoyable thing that comes from the whole zombie thing is the ability to vomit a massive arc of blood that covers most of the screen and takes out enemies with the force of a grenade. That’s fucking cool.

The other killjoy is the fact that Metal Slug 3 is just too damn hard. They really wanted your pocket change with this game, possibly to stave off impending bankruptcy. The first level is reasonably manageable but the cruelty factor soon arrives with the player being expected to dodge an unreasonable amount of on-screen shit. The final stage in particular is downright sadistic with overwhelming quotas of dangerous enemies clogging the screen and an insane amount of lethal projectiles to avoid. It also feels as though it will NEVER end. Whenever I decide to play MS3, I find myself begging the game to simply stop by this point. The bosses in this game also absorb a ridiculous amount of firepower before they go down, to the point that you may question whether your game has glitched out and granted said bosses immunity to death.

Metal Slug 3 is not a bad game per se. It has a lot going for it in the aesthetics department but the difficulty spike and general madness of battling crustaceans, Aztec gods and zombies really let it down. I simply cannot enjoy this game when I play it because it’s the first time that Metal Slug felt too cheap and remorseless to WANT to perservere with. It was the end of the original era though so how did SNK and Metal Slug fare in the Playmore era? Hmm…

A mixed bag

By this point, SNK Playmore didn’t yet exist and it was entity simply known as “Playmore”. In conjunction with Mega Enterprise, they kept SNK’s franchises’ ticking over with Metal Slug 4 being one result. I have to be honest and say that I really don’t care for this game. It’s not that it’s bad but it’s incredibly “meh”. Unsurprisingly – given the financial situation – MS4 is a recyclathon of old sprites and ideas but the classic Nazca art clashes somewhat with new stuff doing its best to imitate. The game receives points straight away for returning to military enemies but then throws it all down the toilet by re-introducing mummies and zombies. The level design is incredibly by-the-numbers and dull with very few set-pieces since the game instead favours holding the player up on the same screen for an eternity while wave after wave of enemies pour in from both sides, often in suffocating volumes that slow the game down. Bosses aren’t too interesting either and trade patterns for simply filling the screen with as many bullets, bombs and enemies as possible. Granted, I’m no master player of videogames but I don’t see how it’s possible to avoid some of the stuff that later bosses throw at the player.

Metal Slug 4 could have been a lot worse but at the same time, there’s no avoiding the fact that it had very little charm or creativity going on. It’s not a sequel that I can recommend on any grounds, really.

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Conversely, Metal Slug 5 is far superior. Aside from some tribal enemies at the outset and the final boss itself, it’s back to military enemies for a more traditional ‘Slug affair. The opposing army isn’t headed up by series antangonist Morden this time (even though the sprites are blatant re-skins) but the darker colours, black ops-style enemies and gritty rock music do suck some of the series’ trademark humour out of the game it has to be said. However, this is a reasonable trade off considering that the game is much fairer than the previous two and as a result, far closer to the formula of the first two games which were challenging but not downright malicious as per MS3 and 4. Bosses too have much better attack patterns and as such, aren’t a drain on your soul to take down. The final boss is a bit cheap though and probably the most ridiculous, out-of-place end boss in the series. Looks awesome though.

Unfortunately, Metal Slug 6 ruins the redemption of MS5. This was the first post-Neo Geo Metal Slug with Sammy’s Atomiswave platform taking over the hosting duties. Appropriately, SNK Playmore tried to inject some new blood into the series by upping the character select screen to six with the addition of Ralf and Clark from Ikari Warriors/King of Fighters. In addition, each character has special abilities such as Ralf’s Vulcan Punch attack and Eri’s ability to aim grenades in specific directions. You can now also stock up to two power-ups and switch between them. Also, MS6 introduced an easy mode which lowers the difficulty and grants the player the Heavy Machine-Gun as the standard weapon at the expense of not being able to challenge the game’s final stage.

That’s the good/interesting stuff. Sadly, the game just feels like an imitation or a fan-made tribute. Yes, the familiar sprites and visual design are correct and present but as with MS4, the new backgrounds and enemies aren’t as impressive and clash with the old, classic Nazca creations. Sound effects and enemy voices are also different (not for the better) and once again, the series returns to aliens and weird shit before long. The difficulty beyond the first few missions is also tough to swallow with all manner of bullet-sponge aliens and bizarre creatures flooding the screen and demanding a ridiculous amount of firepower to put down. The game feels cheap too with so much shit happening at once that there’s no hope of surviving. The final stage takes a (rotted) leaf from Metal Slug 3‘s book and features and seemingly endless gauntlet of everything that makes this sequel so charmless and unenjoyable to endure. By the time I reached the final boss, I was both bored and frustrated – emotions that I would never have associated with Metal Slug when playing the first two games. In short, it’s still a solid run ‘n gun but only because of all the work that Nazca put in back in the 90’s. Without their blueprint and artwork, games like Metal Slug 4 and 6 wouldn’t even be worth talking about.

Conclusions

To sum up the core Metal Slug series, I would say that the first two games + Metal Slug X are utterly essential run ‘n guns that any gamer with an interest in old-school, arcade gameplay should experience. As for the rest…Metal Slug 3 is worth a look for it’s aesthetics but is simply too cheap to enjoy, Metal Slug 4 and 6 are not worth your time while Metal Slug 5 is surprisingly decent with genuine replayability. Personally I’d rank them as MS1 > MS2 > MSX > MS3 >MS5 >MS4 > MS6. As for the Anthology specifically, it’s a shame that there are those loading niggles with the PSP and PS2 versions but whichever port you go with, the value is undeniably strong.

Atari Retro Handheld Review

Things that have aged well: The Jaguar E-Type, malt whiskeys, Anthea Turner.

Things that have NOT aged well: The UK’s post-apocalyptic road surfaces, casual racism, many, many Atari 2600 games.

Now you might be considering me a blasphemous fool if you worship the altar of Atari. You might even consider me an unqualified fool who “wasn’t there” when I drop a further bombshell and remind you that I was born in 1990 and so don’t have any first-hand experience of 2600 (or VCS) gaming to fall back on. Thing is though, despite starting my gaming journey with Sega’s Mega Drive, I’m not the sort of gamer to instantly dismiss older stuff from the 70’s/80’s based on it’s age. After all, without the flashy graphics and sophisticated technology that came later, games from this era had to rely on raw gameplay and that crack-like “just one more go” pull to get arcade goers to part with their coins and – subsequently – their folding paper money for home versions.

In short, I have big respect for the past and am always prepared to give something a go which is why I have been playing on this ‘Retro Handheld Console’ by Blaze featuring fifty Atari games. The problem is that the box craftily refers to the built-in titles as simply “Atari games” which might lead you into expecting the presence of some arcade classics. These are 2600 games though and without the benefit of rose-tinted vision, I struggled to muster up the enthusiasm to play many of these for an extended period of time. 2600 conversions were undoubtedly a big deal back in the day and the height of what a gamer could reasonably expect given the host hardware but in 2019, I have to say that most of what is on this handheld device is simply no fun to spend time with.

I will return to my gripes with the games in a moment. First though, I want to have a quick look at the device itself.

Atari1

I really like the design. The faux wood effect and grooved black plastic are a nice throwback to the 1977 original and if the Atari logo was to be removed, there would still be no doubt as to what this is. It’s such an iconic and nostalgic look. Furthermore, the red buttons are immediately reminiscent of the single red button featured on the famous 2600 joystick. Happily, the build quality on this thing does actually feel quite solid. It’s sturdy and the buttons don’t feel too cheap. The handheld takes four AAA batteries and comes with a standard headphone jack as well as an AV-Out port on the top edge.

My only criticisms of the hardware itself is the small screen (initially difficult to adjust to after years of huge, high quality smartphone and handheld console displays) and the fact that the sound isn’t that beefy through the headphones even with the volume wheel spun up to the max. I wanna hear those awesome Atari explosions damn it!

On the whole though, I was impressed with the overall finish and sturdiness of the handheld. As many retro gamers will be aware, a lot of these devices are hit-and-miss when it comes to construction quality and Blaze themselves have put their name to some poor efforts in the past. Not so here though – it’s a firm thumbs-up from me. I just wish that some kind of instructions came in the box because as it is, you are directed to an online site for the manual. The console doesn’t have built-in instructions for the games so some are pretty much impossible to fathom out without directions.

Let’s get back to those pesky games though and the first big issue: the lack of any third-party games. There’s none of Activision’s enduring classics present on the device for example and things get worse when you realise that a great many other essential games (third AND first party) don’t feature. Games such as Ms Pacman, Berzerk, Kaboom, Battlezone, Defender II and Jungle Hunt would have made this device a nice little pick-up-and-play distraction for example. Instead, the list of games is padded out with filler crap such as Fun With Numbers, 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, Video Checkers and a collection of hopelessly antiquated sports titles…the usual stuff that has been wasting space on Atari Flashback devices for years.

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Isn’t it about time that this ‘game’ stopped appearing on Atari compilations and retro gadgets?

There are a few redundant and unenjoyable ports such as Tempest and also some extremely abstract role-playing games like Adventure and the Swordquest series – games that were fun back when you had no choice but to use your imagination while moving simplistic squares about but not so much in 2019. If you were there when these games were new however then you might be able to extract some nostalgia-fuelled enjoyment from them. Additionally, there are several games on the handheld that make no sense in the single-player environment such as Air-Sea Battle (ignore the second gun and play with yourself) and Pong. Playing Pong alone against the computer is a bleak experience that could well send you down a nihilistic route in life.

So are there any games worth buying the device for? Obviously there is an element of personal taste involved (as with anything in the field of entertainment) but these are the games – based on previous experience as well as with this device – that I will definitely be giving more attention to:

  • Asteroids
  • Gravitar
  • Crystal Castles
  • Millipede
  • Missile Command
  • Off The Wall
  • Radar Lock
  • Yar’s Revenge

Eight games out of fifty isn’t what I would consider a strong strike ratio however. Granted, I have eliminated the rest based on the fact that I personally have no nostalgia for the games or because I genuinely believe that they are creaky and no fun to play. If you grew up with the 2600/VCS then I would implore you to check out the full game list because this handheld may well speak to you a little more than it did to me. For younger gamers or Atari virgins however, I can’t recommend this product.

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Missile Command is a classic that plays well for a 2600 conversion but this device needed more games of this quality to qualify as an essential purchase.

You want to be playing the arcade versions of games like Tempest and seeing what the 2600 was really capable of by digging into the Activision support, not playing Pong by your lonesome or something like Video Chess. The problem is that far stronger compilations of games have been released across various consoles over the last fifteen years or so. Emulation is also a thing as is Activision Hits Remixed for the PSP.

I wanted to like this because the device itself is pretty cool and surprisingly well put together but it could have been so much better. If you can find one dirt cheap or you receive it as a gift (like I did) then sure but otherwise, it’s just another underwhelming retro device that doesn’t stand out for any reason.

My Bespoke Playstation Classic

By now, I’m sure you (and everybody else on the planet) has heard all about Sony’s upcoming Playstation Classic device, the “mini” set to capitalise on the popularity of similar products by Nintendo. I’m not going to go into massive detail on my thoughts because let’s face it: that’s already been done to death on the internet by countless people with greater influence and popularity than me – jus’ sayin’. All I will say is that I think the Playstation Classic will sell very well. The nostalgia boundaries have shifted over the last decade and whereas before it was Atari and Nintendo stuff that people wanted to go back to and revisit from their childhood, now it’s the time of 90’s systems such as the original Playstation.

Anyway, this is going to be a list of the fifteen titles that I would PERSONALLY put on the Playstation Classic (to complete the line-up of twenty) if it were to be tailor-made to me. This isn’t a list of the best games or the most marketable options but just a reflection of what I enjoyed the most on the original Playstation.

Go!

Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer

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Honestly, this is a tough call because while most people say that Gateway to Glimmer (or Ripto’s Rage if you live in the US) is the best of the original trilogy, I have a massive love for the original game. In fact, the two are almost on par with one another but I have to give the edge to Spyro 2 simply for its greater depth and versatility. I never tire of revisiting this game either with my original PS1 copy or Vita download.

Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back

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The best of the original trilogy for numerous reasons. Challenging while not being as brutal as the original and slightly more ‘pure’ than Warped, Crash 2 is just right and like the Spyro games, the original style of graphics and the polish originally worked into them by Naughty Dog hasn’t aged badly at all.

Resident Evil 3 Nemesis

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This one may be a bit controversial because the original game has the nostalgia factor and the sequel is widely touted as the best game of the series, so much so that a much-demanded full-on remake is at last happening. Resi 3 was not as well loved due to the abundance of ammo removing that resource management factor and also the apparent lack of scares compared to its forerunners. I say “apparent” because as far as I’m concerned, there WERE plenty of crap-your-pants moments. I also much preferred exploring the decimated city itself. Hopefully Nemesis gets a remake too in the future but until then, I’d love to see it on a Playstation Classic.

Final Fantasy VIII

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FFVII lovers gon’ hate but they can suck it because FFVIII is better in my opinion. In fact, Final Fantasy VIII is my favourite game of all-time so it has to have a place on this list. Love the gameplay, love the characters, love the music – I love everything about it. Well, not the Malboro monsters and their evil “Bad Breath” attack but nobody likes those in any edition of FF.

Medievil

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I’ve spoken about Medievil here on the blog before, back when a remake was announced. Unlike the games above, this is a case of the original being nominated over sequels because while Medievil 2 carries some heavy nostalgia for me, a recent revisit proved to be frustrating and not as enjoyable as I recalled. The original however is absolute classic and while the gameplay itself is merely average, it’s the twisted gothic visuals, haunting music and the lore of Gallowmere itself that make the game so great. As with Spyro and Crash, I could happily play Medievil until doomsday and that’s why it needs to be on this list.

Driver

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The Driver series has had some serious ups-and-downs over the years. The first two were highly enjoyable games while Driv3r (worst title for a game ever) tried to capitalise on the GTA craze and include on-foot shooting sections in addition to the titular driving. Unfortunately, it was an awful, glitchy mess that could have fatally torpedoed the franchise for good. Parallel Lines persisted with the on-foot bullshit (but was at least a far more polished game that WORKED) before the most recent installment – San Francisco – made Driver great again. Anyway, the original is a true classic that many like myself will remember fondly for the crazy ‘Take a Ride’ mode with its murderous cop cars and fantastic smashes. The less said about the opening parking lot level though, the better. Could the kids of today even be bothered to get through that?

Tombi

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I absolutely adore this 2D platformer. Full of humour and luscious design, it was the kind of game that made the mainstream death of 2D platforming titles seem all the more a tragedy. After all, the PS1 and Sega Saturn often showed us what was possible with more powerful hardware than the 16bits but when these games came along, nobody bought them. Tombi was – thankfully given a digital PSN re-release because otherwise, the only way to play the game would be to shell out on expensive, original copies. To have a Playstation Classic without this would be against the law in my opinion.

Tekken 2

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Tekken 3 is set to be on the actual Playstation Classic but while I do very much enjoy the third game in the series, it’s Tekken 2 that does it for me. Today it is a blocky, simplistic fighter compared to the current Tekkens but don’t be fooled because the gameplay here is utter gold. The Playstation version of the game ran at a super-smooth 60fps and the character roster was perfectly formed with many iconic faces. More importantly, the backdrops were beautiful in their simplicity and the music is easily the best of the series with tracks that suit each character’s personality to a T.

Ghost in the Shell

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This is another hidden gem of sorts. Rather than playing as the iconic Major Motoko herself, the player pilots one of the Tachikoma spider tank things. You can walk up vertical surfaces, shooting down helicopters and taking out epic bosses. It’s just a really fun game that anybody can enjoy regardless of how much they know about Ghost in the Shell. The game is challenging enough but also immensely satisfying largely in part to the versatility of your vehicle. I’m not sure about the US version of the game but the PAL edition is relatively uncommon and commands a small premium. I own a Japanese copy that I managed to complete (thanks to English-language menus) but I’d certainly be up for playing through it again with the pleasure of having the English VA for the story cutscenes.

Ray Tracers

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Ray Tracers is the result of the following formula: Chase HQ + anime characters + 90’s arcade racing games and it’s as good as it sounds. The game is quite short but challenging during the later stages to make up for it. I really enjoyed the 90’s arcade feel to the game with the music and handling of the cars and Ray Tracers just has that general pick-up-and-play goodness going on so it would be a perfect companion to the longer time sinks on a Playstation Classic device.

Einhander

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Rarely has a developer deviated from their safe zone which such amazing results. Einhander was the result of Squaresoft taking a break from JRPG’s and randomly releasing their first and last shoot ’em up. And what a shmup it is. I’d heard all of the hype over Einhander for years and was ready for an OVERhyped experience when I got hold of a Japanese import but the game is simply amazing. The futuristic setting is very nicely rendered, the bosses are epic and being able to switch between two different stored power-ups is immensely satisfying.

Toca Touring Cars 2

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I may be a bit biased here since Toca 2 perfectly captured my favourite era of the British Touring Car Championship, now looked back on as the “Super Touring” era. The game itself is a fantastic racer though with an incredible amount of polish that really proved why Codemasters had the reputation they did. I would actually take this over Gran Turismo so it’s a shame that the real Playstation Classic’s pads don’t come with analogue sticks…

Kula World

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Kula World (also known as “Roll Away” in other territories) was a prime example of creative thinking in an era that many bemoan due to a flood of identikit games and the birth of overly-cinematic gaming. The game is minimalistic but doesn’t need fancy backgrounds or super-duper graphics. What you get is a fiendish puzzler that starts off easy before gradually morphing into a brain-taxing experience that will have you tearing your hair out. There are a 100 levels in Kula World and I only managed to get to 60-something before throwing in the towel. That said, I can’t resist another go.

Space Invaders

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Another game with multiple names. In Japan, this was called Space Invaders X. Outside of Japan, it came with the rather more generic title of “Space Invaders“. This was a remake of sorts, not produced by Taito this time due to some sort of licensing deal which saw multiple 70’s/80’s arcade classics revamped for the Playstation era by Activision. Anyway, I really enjoy this game in either single player or co-op. There are some awesome power-ups (acquired by destroying four of the same colour invader in a chain) and massive bosses to test your reflexes. The game doesn’t get a lot of love (it doesn’t seem to be liked that much by the Space Invaders faithful) but I’ve always got a real kick out of playing it.

Croc: Legend of the Gobbos

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Crash and Spyro may get the lion’s share of the plaudits when it comes to PS1 platforming but for me, Croc: Legend of the Gobbos was right up there with the big hitters from Naughty Dog and Insomniac. Like those other, more popular platformers, Croc‘s 3D visuals adopted a more cartoonish approach and have aged similarly well with outdated textures and the like not being overly distracting in 2018. The game was actually quite challenging as well, especially if you were going for 100% completion and finding all of secrets. I rate Croc highly and would love to see it get a second chance.

So those are my picks. Of the five games that Sony have already confirmed for the Classic, I have to say that I am pretty interested in Wild Arms since it was an RPG I didn’t play and an original copy sells for anywhere between £20-£40 here in the UK at the time of writing this. Ridge Racer Type 4 is a solid racer with a meaty career mode and Final Fantasy VII is also an amazing game, albeit one that has been re-released a bit too much in recent years so its inclusion on the Classic is decidedly less-than-special. Tekken 3 is one of the high points of the fighting game genre (I just prefer Tekken 2) and Jumping Flash…well, it’s a well-known Playstation game but has it aged well?

Obviously this list could have been 2-3 times longer and there would still be many popular games/series’ I didn’t get around to on the PS1 that I’m sure would make the cut on other gamers’ wishlists.

What would you have chosen? Feel free to let me know in the comments!

The Golden Age of Fighting Games: When it happened and why it ended [Part 3]

It’s well past time that I published this third and final part of my look at the fighting game’s “Golden Age” but, well…life/shit happens and I’ve been a bit lacking when it comes to those all-important creative juices. With that said, I’m back now so I apologise to anybody who has been waiting for Pt.3 but here it is – at last. So far in parts one and two, I have declared that the genre was at its peak from 1991-2000/01 and have discussed the reasons (as I see them) for its eventual, disappointing downfall. All things have to come to an end after all but worry not for Part 3 of this mini-series will focus on the happy stuff, namely what made this point in time so bloody fantastic for fans of fighting games…

A decade of innovation

It would be an outright lie to say that modern-day fighting games don’t bring new ideas to the table but it’s a stone-cold fact that the majority of genre staples and general mechanics (that are now taken for granted) were introduced throughout the 90’s and thus is was a very exciting time to be a player of fighting games. What we tend to see in modern fighting games by contrast are refinements, gimmicks (not necessarily always a bad thing) and attempts to be as flashy as possible.

Street Fighter II kicked things off in ’91 and while I have previously said that SFII cannot take any credit for being the original one-on-one fighting game (a statement I stand by), it certainly created a template that is still in use today. Best-of-three, special move inputs (now commonly used across the majority of fighting games), play styles (grappler, charge, projectile etc.) and character archtypes were all either born or made mainstream with SFII. SNK’s Art of Fighting would introduce ‘Super’ moves to the genre (before Super Street Fighter II Turbo popularised them) and Capcom’s other fighting game, Darkstalkers, debuted air-blocking. It’s actually astonishing that for all the visual and mechanical evolution of fighting games, Street Fighter II is still running in the background.

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How easy is it to forget that air blocking/guarding originated in Darkstalkers?

The next important innovation was already happening at the very same time that Street Fighter was dominating the scene however. Sega released Virtua Fighter in 1993, creating the first 3D fighting game. Comical moon-jumps aside, VF also championed more realistic fighting styles as opposed to the pyrotechnical wizardry and unlikely gymnastic feats of Street Fighter and began to carve out a niche of its own that would see major fruition with Virtua Fighter 2, a sequel widely regarded as one of the all-time greats within the genre. The likes of Tekken and Dead or Alive would follow (and overtake Virtua Fighter in terms of popularity) but Sega had got there first and created the genre’s second ‘main’ style.

So many smaller innovations were happening at the same time however. Fatal Fury experimented with plane-swapping, The King of Fighters brought team battles to the mix and Capcom’s Vs series would kick off the concept of crossovers between more than one company. Namco’s Soulblade (or Souledge in other territories) gave us weapons-based fighting while developers also experimented with taking fighting games into a more arena-based environment with the likes of Capcom’s Powerstone and Taito’s Psychic Force. Meanwhile, Super Street Fighter II X For Matching Service and Vampire Chronicle For Matching Service were quietly introducing online play to Japanese console gamers via their Dreamcast modems.

Obviously you can point out that it’s unfair to criticise modern fighting games for their lack of innovation due to the fact that there is only so much you can do with the genre and so the 1990’s would always boast the bulk of new, core mechanics. Regardless, the 90’s has to be remembered with greater fondness for this period of rapid evolution.

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Virtua Fighter 2: the sort of huge leap forward that will likely never be seen again within the genre.

Art that blew us away

Outside of  the technical stuff, this was THE most incredible period in terms of artistry for fighting games. Hand-drawn backgrounds and sprites were often beautiful to behold with the absolute zenith emerging towards the latter part of the decade. The likes of Street Fighter III, Vampire Saviour, The Last Blade 2, Marvel Vs Capcom and Arc’s Guilty Gear series boasted gorgeous 2D sprites that were a joy to behold and it was fascinating to imagine how many hours of painstaking work and skill we were witnessing on our screens. Today, the same developers behind these games are using 2.5d character models and ‘2D’ characters that are actually layered over polygons as well as cinematic super move animations with multiple camera angles. All of this is far from offensive and does actually look pretty nice but it simply cannot awe in the way that fully hand-drawn characters once did.

Backgrounds and backdrops were just as mind-blowing with the very best featuring ridiculous levels of detail and – in the case of larger crossover games – lots of hidden easter eggs and cameos to pick out. These were often more impressive than the characters themselves and even earlier 3D fighting games featured some lovely, static backdrops that were appealing in their simplicity without needing to rely on distracting background action. Below is a small selection to illustrate what I mean because art speaks for itself…

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Savage Reign [Neo-Geo]. Incredible levels of detail.
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Tekken 3 [Arcade]. King’s stage. The distant, cloud-topped mountains in the background are a simple yet beautiful backdrop.
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Tekken 2 [Arcade]. Jun’s ‘Morning Fields’ stage. So, so basic yet so beautiful. The peaceful countryside is a stark contrast to the bone-snapping combat but works so well.
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Street Fighter Alpha 2 [Arcade]. One of the most atmospheric stages in any fighting game.
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Samurai Shodown IV [Neo-Geo]. Ridiculously beautiful. Capcom were the masters of sprites but SNK were the GODS of backgrounds.

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More Samurai Shodown IV because why not when it’s THIS pretty?

And this amazing, transitional stage from The King of Fighters ’99 that never fails to blow me away…

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This is just the tip of a very large iceberg and if you (like me) have spent countless hours exploring the full spectrum of fighting games from this era of hand-drawn artistry, you will very likely have your own nominations and personal definition of the term ‘impressive’. Given the vast quantity of fighting games that were produced in the 90’s, there is so much to see and many, many hidden gems when it comes to stunning backgrounds.

Sounds good to me

Of course, tight gameplay and pretty aesthetics need suitably good audio to match and this golden age of fighting games just so happened to represent developer sound teams at the peak of their powers. Modern fighting games tend to have very orchestral ‘epic’ soundtracks, pulse-pounding techno or mixes of older themes. The former work within the game(s) and are of good quality but are usually not that memorable. The latter – to me at least – demonstrates a distinct lack of confidence on the part of the developers when it comes to composing original, catchy themes that will be remembered in years to come.

Fighting game music from the 90’s though? It stuck in your head and is the kind of stuff that gamers flock to Youtube to listen to again all these years later. Importing expensive soundtrack CD’s from Japan is WORTH it for these OST’s. This was also an era when console ports of arcade fighting games such as Virtua Fighter, King of Fighters ’96 and the Playstation Tekken trilogy featured arranged versions of the entire soundtracks that took advantage of the CD medium. Clear effort was put into re-arranging soundtracks and catchy arcade riffs suddenly gained transitions, extra layers of instrumentation and more depth in general. The best part was that BOTH the arcade and home arrangements were usually worth listening to and I can’t have been the only one who regularly switched them about in the options menus!

There are literally hundreds of amazing tracks to choose from so below are (Youtube) links to just 10 of my favourites from the era.

Those are just a fraction of my favourites and if I’m being honest, I feel that the list does a major disservice to some of the more obscure fighting games of the era as well as some of the major ones but I could genuinely sit here linking away forever to what I consider to be amazing pieces of music.

Heart and Soul

All of this – the innovation, art, music – are however, all mere ingredients that come together to form the biggest characteristic of the fighting game genre in ’91-00/01 that gives it the Golden Age status. That characteristic is SOUL. This was an era when developers were battling to outdo one another at a terrific pace, developing bigger and better arcade boards, fighting fire with fire and racing to be the first to introduce their new innovations to the market. Capcom and SNK slugged it out for the decade (before the incredible Capcom Vs SNK series paid tribute to their war), 3D fighting games evolved at a great pace and bigger and bolder sprites vied for our attention on a constant basis.

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Let’s be honest: do modern fighting games feel as colourful and creative as this?

When the dust settled though, it was us – the fans – that were the real winners. Fighting games during this period felt like more than just simple money-making products (which they obviously were intended to be). They felt alive and you could feel how the developers had put so much creativity and artistry into trying to make the best possible product, pushing the available hardware to the limits and beyond (see the necessary RAM expansion cartridges for Sega Saturn ports of several Capcom and SNK games). The graphics, sound and even conceptual character artwork just kept getting better and better as each year passed and it was a real treat to behold.

Modern fighting games are still very enjoyable but there is a lot of focus on the almost clinical tournament play (as it is streamed over the internet as en E-Sport), online play and DLC. The creativity is still there but computer modelled characters and environments simply cannot stop the heart in the same way that hand-drawn animation once did. There is also so much recycling and updating of old music and stages from the past with an over-reliance on the glory days. True, fans don’t help this matter at times when they demand to see throwbacks in order to feel comfortable with a new generation of their favourite series but even so, the current fighting game scene certainly doesn’t feel innovative or aesthetically special (rare exceptions aside of course).

Taking one final, quick look at the stages and music for example, it felt like developers created these specifically to describe the characters that they belonged to, conveying their personalities wordlessly through the tone of the music and themes of the stages. Things are a lot more generic today by contrast.

This was actually a difficult topic to tackle because rose-tinted vision is a very real threat and we – as humans – love to tell the next generation how the old days were better (before they themselves do the same to another younger generation, despite believing that they won’t!). On the subject of fighting games however, I do genuinely believe that 1991 through to around 2000/2001 was the defining Golden Age for the genre. It was when fighting games had the most soul and a capacity to thrill with their visuals and move the heart with their sound. It was the birth of countless icons and still the place for superb gameplay.

And that concludes my three-part look at why I believe this was the one, true Golden Age of fighting games. I’d love to hear what others think!

Pigs Fly as Streets of Rage 4 is announced

Us grizzled, old-school gamers have waited a very long time for this day: the day that an official Streets of Rage 4 is announced. It was one of those most-wanted sequels that seemed doomed to never happen but as the likes of Shenmue III have proven in recent years, never say never.

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Sega themselves aren’t on development duties this time around. That honour falls to a conglomerate of developers/distributers consisting of Lizardcube, Guard Crush Games and Dotemu who – between them – are responsible for the remake of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, Irem Arcade Hits and Streets of Fury to name just three projects.

The initial trailer shows SoR mainstays Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding back to doing what they do best: beating the shit out of hoods in an urban 2D environment. Not much is given away but it has to be said that the art style is utterly drop-dead gorgeous as well as completely hand-drawn which is a serious turn-on for me in an age where even 2D fighting games have polygons hidden in the background.

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There’s no sign of Max, Adam or any of the other classics as of yet but this is very early days so I see no need to start getting concerned. What I can see is that Blaze looks sexier than ever while Axel’s new facial fuzz has made him look more than a little hobo-esque. But otherwise, the art is beautiful, the animation superb and it’s amazing just to be able to have a brand-new Streets of Rage on the way at last.

The original fourth installment was to be a 3D game back in the 90’s (since going 3D by default was THE law in the 32-bit era) before it hit troubled waters due to a disagreement between developers Core Design and Sega, the game morphing into the lacklustre Fighting Force. A further demo by original SoR developers Ancient was put forward for the Dreamcast but this too came to nothing.

Ironically, it was an unofficial fan-made project that was arguably the greatest sequel to the SoR saga. Streets of Rage Remake was an incredible achievement that fused all of the levels and characters together for a huge, branching game with lots of new features. You could now play as enemies such as Mr.X, Shiva and Electra and mess with the expansive settings to pick and choose the best bits from each of the original games to create a truly enjoyable custom Streets of Rage experience. Sadly, Sega missed a trick by not picking the game up and officially releasing it, deciding instead to put the corporate boot down and ensure that Remake was pulled from the internet which is a shame because many will not have experienced this love letter to a series that Sega (at the time) had left to die in the gutter. I imagine that Remake is still available somewhere however; this IS the internet after all…

Anyway, Streets of Rage 4 certainly has a lot to live up to with both its official and unofficial predecessors raising the bar so high. What I have seen so far looks very promising however and I genuinely cannot wait to get my hands on the game.

Linky Linky to the trailer!

 

Final Fight Streetwise is NOT a bad game

Now that I have your attention with that outrageous title, I guess I will need to justify making such a statement and with good reason. Whenever the topics of worst videogame reboots and worst modern updates of classic franchises get brought up, you can bet a fat wedge of your hard-earned money that Final Fight Streetwise will make it onto that list. It’s easy to see why too: the game was released in that awkward mid-noughties period when publishers seemed to believe that what their cherished franchises needed to succeed on the PS2 and Xbox was grittiness, tits and gratuitous profanities. Many series’ fell foul of this notion (an entire topic in itself) including Capcom’s much-loved Final Fight beat ’em up series.

Eternally a sucker for the more obscure stuff that lies at the dusty side of this well-travelled road we call “Gaming”, I decided that it was high time I played the game for myself to see if Streetwise was really deserving of its poor rep.

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Even bad games increase in value due to their notoriety. The going rate for Streetwise in 2018 is £7-£10.

The shocking thing was that I found myself enjoying the game! After hearing nothing but hatred for Final Fight Streetwise over the years, this was a big surprise. It certainly goes to show that popular internet opinion isn’t always correct and that you should always try a game out for yourself before joining in the chorus of condemnation based on what you have heard/read or seen in video footage.

That’s not to say that the game is a classic or anything approaching that because there ARE many things that are wrong with it. The big elephant in the room is of course the ‘Final Fight’ name on the box and the depiction of the likes of Cody, Guy and Haggar in this game. A lot of the scorn for Streetwise stems from the fact that this game is part of the Final Fight saga and fans of the older games were (understandably) pissed that their beloved franchise and characters were radically different this time around. If Streetwise had traded the Final Fight connections for new, original characters then it probably wouldn’t have invited such a critical pasting and would have simply been another 3D beat ’em up for the PS2 generation. Unfortunately, Capcom decided it was safer (ironically) to trade on an established name, a move that sealed Streetwise‘s fate from the beginning. The irony continues however when considering that Capcom also developed an original 3D beat ’em up title for the PS2 called Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance. This game was objectively better than Final Fight Streetwise in several respects but still no classic yet a lack of connection to an established, much-loved series counted in its favour.

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Gritty urban surroundings and guns? The Final Fight resemblance was a bit thin.

To describe the gameplay, I’ve taken to billing Streetwise as a crap version of Sega’s Yakuza. That’s to say that there is a free-roaming nature to the game (albeit confined to a much more limited, less interactive game world) with 3D combat, the use of weapons and an upgradable set of moves/combos. Different areas of Metro City are gradually unlocked as the game progresses and there are a variety of side missions as well as a series of pit fights against opponents that stand out from the general street thugs and gangstas. All of this considered, it’s easy to make the comparisons between Metro City and Kamurocho but if Sega’s highly detailed crime saga can be likened to a Ferrari then Streetwise would probably be a Ssangyong or a Dacia by comparison.

And as a I mentioned earlier, the game fell into the trap of pandering to the teenage boy audience that every publisher was trying to sell games to in the mid-2000’s. Metro City is a gloomy, miserable urban environment this time around with a look of extreme decay and social rot about it. F-bombs and all manner of other swearing are casually tossed about, blood flies during brawls and hookers hang around on street corners, trying to sell the main character their wares. Fortunately, Streetwise doesn’t let you go any further with the latter and the dilapidated city’s porn theatre is conveniently never able to serve you due to the “register being down”. A soundtrack of gangsta beats from obscure artists serves as backing noise (and I really do consider it to be “noise”) and completes the transformation of the once colourful, cartoon-like beat ’em ups from the arcade and Super Nintendo.

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Darker and more ghetto than before.

You play as Kyle Travers, brother to Final Fight‘s Cody Travers and an up-and-coming fight club brawler. Many years have passed since the events of Final Fight and Cody is now older with knackered knees that can’t take the abuse of fighting anymore so he puts his time into coaching his brother instead. Cody still feels the burning desire to fight however and finds himself mixed up with shady underworld types and a dangerous new drug called “Glow” that can turn the average man into a superhuman machine at the eventual cost of the user’s mind and humanity. A dangerous gang crashes a drinking sesh at the local bar and kidnaps Cody with the gang’s leader – known as The Stiff – knocking Kyle unconscious at the conclusion of the brawl. This is where the game kicks off properly, with Kyle’s aim being to track down his brother and save him from Metro City’s underworld and the lethal Glow drug. Final Fight has certainly grown up since the old days eh?

Along the way, Kyle runs into strong man Haggar (angrier and swearier than before) and Guy who has now become a gang boss himself, heading up the Japantown district of Metro City. There aren’t really any more links to the Final Fight lineage other than these characters and a few references to their past exploits. The only classic Final Fight enemy to make a return is Andore as an optional pit opponent. Concept art for the game showed Poison and Sodom but neither made it into the final game.

Thus far, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Final Fight Streetwise is a load of nonsense, trying to be cool and hardcore while re-writing the likes of Cody and Haggar to be grittier, more ‘realistic’ characters e.g. exactly what nobody asked for. Gangsta music, a drug-related plot and the more violent nature of combat certainly suggest this so you may be wondering why I’m saying that Streetwise is not actually a bad game?

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You say bad, I say so bad it’s brilliant.

Well, the “bad” stuff is often so bad that I found it entertaining with so many crappy aspects of Streetwise lending the game a unique sort of charm. The awful NPC dialogue and quotes for example are just brilliant. Metro City appears to have a large population of flamboyant men making overly saucy remarks to Kyle in passing, (one such comment even referencing a “package”…whatever that means…) while hookers come out with such brazen lines as “Fancy a shag?” or “Wanna have a poke?”…in laughably posh British accents which obviously make the world of sense in an urban, American city.

Side missions often take the form of mini games which are a stark contrast to the game’s moody, violent vibe. One standout distraction is a card shuffling game where you must keep an eye on the winning card as it is shuffled with two others. You play this game by speaking to a suited businessman who just happens to be hanging around in a bad part of town, briefcase of playing cards at his side. Other amusing mini games include (literally) stamping out a cockroach infestation in the diner, smashing up a car that has enraged a local resident by being parked in their way (a nice throwback to the car-smashing interludes in the arcade game) and…blasting rubber ducks in an alleyway shooting gallery to win cash? Yep, that happens. The novelty of these side events does wear off once they begin to repeat over and over but there’s no denying that they are – initially – quirky and unexpected in a game where you expect to simply be fighting.

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I’ll be honest, as interesting as this was, I still didn’t bemoan a lack of G-Con2 support.

Speaking of the fighting, it’s actually not that bad. Yes, Final Fight Streetwise had contemparies that arguably did combat better (Urban Reign, Spikeout: Battle Street) but Streetwise is still more than serviceable. There are the standard light and strong attacks to create combos as well as the obligatory throw command. In addition, there is also an “Instinct” meter below the health bar. This energy can be used to enhance the power of moves (by holding down one of the shoulder buttons while attacking) or to fuel the use of stronger special moves such as the drop kick or suplex. Kyle can also counter an opponent’s attack if the player presses the block/guard button at precisely the right moment, sending the game into a brief slow-mo sequence where they can input various commands to evade damage and knock the enemy back. New moves and extensions to the health and instinct meters are purchased from the game’s various gyms, giving the player a reason to collect as much cash as possible from side events and enemy drops.

It’s nothing special but it works and there is a reasonable level of satisfaction to be gleaned from the combat, especially when consistently countering like a boss and sending enemies flying with an elbow smash, nose-breaker or hurricane kick.

Other sweet touches are a cameo fight against Street Fighter‘s Cammy (as a big fan of Cammy, I loved this) and a bonus arcade mode whereby you select Kyle, Cody, Guy or Haggar and attempt to fight your way through hoardes of enemies as in the old-school arcade games. Arcade mode takes on a strange 2.5d perspective with a fixed route and a much simplified moveset including a removal of the Instinct system (so no counters either) and many special moves. It’s an interesting sideshow but good luck beating it on your own without a second player because it’s absolutely brutal. Finally, you can unlock the original 1989 arcade game and play it from Streetwise‘s main menu but in all honesty, I can’t recommend the port as it feels sluggish with a poor resolution. Stick to the Capcom collections on the PS2 or PSP if you want to play classic Final Fight. Or the superb Final Fight One for the GBA.

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I wish this costume for Cammy had made it into one of the Street Fighter games as an alternate outfit but I imagine Capcom are keen to forget Streetwise ever happened.

Overall, I have to say that Final Fight Streetwise is not the absolute trainwreck that I was waiting to experience when I popped the disc into my PS2 after all these years of reading negative horror stories. Yes it is a flawed game and no, it isn’t an essential gem in the PS2 (or original Xbox’s) library. There are better 3D beat ’em ups available from this generation of gaming – without question – but I do feel that Streetwise receives a lot of flack for being a bad Final Fight game rather than a bad game in general. Strip away that famous name and you have a serviceable beat ’em up with some interesting quirks. It isn’t a bad game at all; it simply failed to live up to the Final Fight name but that was always going to be the case.

The one major complaint I personally have is that the save system is terrible. You can only save by quitting the game (not explained in-game or in the manual) and loading a saved game puts you back at your last checkpoint (also not explained in-game or in the manual) meaning that until you realise this, you can lose a lot of side-mission progress by believing that you have saved the game at your current point when you haven’t. Other small niggles are repetitive mini games, some fiddly bosses and the final few chapters feeling more like Resident Evil with zombie-like enemies and mutated bosses.

But Streetwise still isn’t a bad game. I couldn’t exactly recommend it but I COULD recommend that you open your mind a little, forget the Final Fight name and give the game a chance because it’s alright.

The Golden Age of Fighting Games: When it happened and why it ended [Part 2]

In the first part of this little series, I explained that the one true ‘Golden Age’ of the fighting game genre took place – in my opinion – from ’91 – ’00/01. I’ve also discussed how I believe the decline of the arcades was a major factor in this most excellent era coming to an end. Now it’s time to continue where I left off with Part 2, where I will discuss two more factors that I consider to be highly influential to this disappointing demise.

Capcom pulling out of developing new titles/sequels

Like it or not, Capcom are a major driving force in the fighting game arena and what they do can have a massive effect on the genre as a whole. Fighting games DID exist before Street Fighter II (International Karate, Yie Ar Kung Fu and even the original Street Fighter to name a few examples) but SFII became a template for fighting games to imitate, something that is still happening today. The move inputs for specials for example were near enough universally adopted by every following fighting game with the same input motions still in use today.

I also made a note in Part 1 of how Capcom eventually returning to the fray with Street Fighter IV revitalised the genre, encouraging the revival of other dormant fighting games and creating a hospitable breeding environment for brand-new challengers to emerge. This is a clear example of Capcom’s actions carrying serious clout. No, the genre didn’t fully die out while they were away from the action but the return of Capcom and Street Fighter brought much-needed attention and popularity back to the world of fighting games.

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Niche productions such as the upcoming Blade Strangers may never have existed if not for a resurgence in fighting game popularity that goes back to Street Fighter IV’s emergence.

So when Capcom backed out of developing new titles post-Capcom Vs SNK 2, it was a big blow to the genre and the community. I will be going into more depth on those barren years for fans of fighting games in a separate post but Capcom basically focused on brand-new console franchises such as Devil May Cry while keeping their fighting game heritage on the backburner with some re-releases and compilations. In fairness, these were welcome additions to any fighting game fan’s library. The likes of Street Fighter Alpha Anthology, Vampire: Darkstalkers Collection, Hyper Street Fighter II and the PS2 port of Third Strike represented immense convenience and (in the case of the collections) fantastic value for money. Nobody could knock the quality of these releases but they weren’t proper, new sequels and gamers began to ask questions. Would we ever see new Street Fighter, Darkstalkers or VS games again?

Capcom did try something new with the 3D Capcom Fighting All-Stars, a project which was eventually cancelled. They then disappointed with the underwhelming Capcom Fighting Jam, a lazy crossover game featuring a jarring collection of re-used sprites and a limited roster. The game wasn’t broken but it was surprising to see such a poor original effort from a company that had previously been the gold standard.

Street Fighter was a household name and at this point, it was slipping into the background with the more casual gamers that had been caught up in the franchise’s prior popularity no longer being that invested in fighting games as a whole. Without any new, good games in the series, SF became a relic of a bygone age, something that people who had owned the game on the SNES talked about in nostalgic tones. 3D fighting games such as Tekken and Dead or Alive carried on thanks to the polygon-based side of the genre being more resilient such was its appeal to both the hardcore fans and casual console gamers alike. 2D fighters however became a serious niche and games like Guilty Gear and The King of Fighters were still around but consigned to a more obscure status. These were games that resembled Street Fighter to the casual observer – that old fighting game thing that they remembered playing in the 90’s.

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A nice idea and a bit of a novelty but the backdrops had more characters than the game. Also: look at that ancient Demitri sprite!

This is why I consider Capcom to be so influential. If they or the Street Fighter series aren’t around, it gives the impression that there’s no confidence in the genre or money to be made by publishers weighing up whether or not to greenlight a sequel for one of their own franchises. Capcom helped define the genre as we know it, the genre faded away as they took a step back and it finally experienced a resurgence when they returned. Whether you like Capcom or are more partial to the offerings of a different developer, there’s no denying their influence.

The bankruptcy of the original SNK

Every warrior needs a sparring partner or a fierce rival to help them push their mind and body further. SNK played this role for Capcom back in the 90’s and it was almost a decade of the two giants trading blows. SNK pumped out series after series: Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, Samurai Shodown, The King of Fighters, The Last Blade and Garou: Mark of the Wolves to name the more well-known games. Not all of these games were great and the clunkiness of the older ones prevented them from being true Street Fighter II beaters but SNK were in this for the long run. Their Neo Geo MVS arcade hardware was massively powerful and long-lasting, easily capable of hosting fighting games that could beat Capcom’s for aesthetic detail and on-screen action.

If that wasn’t enough, the Neo Geo AES was essentially a consolised, home version of the MVS meaning zero reduction in quality when playing the latest King of Fighters on your TV as opposed to in the arcades. The downside was the immense price tag that the AES came with and the prohibitive cost of cartridges which quickly marked the system out as a premium product that only the richest gamers could afford to put beside their TVs. There were conversions to the Playstation, Sega Saturn and Sega Dreamcast available but these were largely confined to Japan with the Saturn needing a RAM expansion cartridge before it could handle the games.

In any case, blow-for-blow was traded in this little war. SNK introduced team-based fighting while Capcom put their iconic characters up against Marvel’s comic book heroes/villains for the innovative and very epic ‘Vs‘ series. Street Fighter III introduced the legendary parry ability to separate the men from the boys. SNK replied with the equally beautiful Garou: Mark of the Wolves which just so happened to feature its own counter system – the Just Defend mechanic. SNK had a Ryu-alike character named Ryo so Capcom had a playful dig back at their rival when they created Dan Hibiki, a parody of the Sakazaki family’s moves and win poses…garbed in a pink gi.

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The Last Blade 2: SNK at their zenith.

As the 90’s drew to a close, Capcom and SNK had actually teamed-up for the fantastic Capcom Vs SNK, an amazing event for fans of the genre which would receive a sequel and also a quirky version from SNK themselves (SVC Chaos). When the dust had finally settled, it was gamers who had won. Capcom had hit hard with Third Strike, Vampire Saviour, Marvel Vs Capcom and Rival Schools but SNK held its ground with Garou, The Last Blade 2, King of Fighters ’98 and Samurai Shodown IV. SNK had began the decade with ambitious but clunky and sometimes crude efforts such as the original Art of Fighting but they were eventually able to legitimately match Capcom for quality art, animation and fantastic gameplay.

Sadly, the original SNK went into administration before being acquired by Playmore and being subsequently rebranded as SNK Playmore. King of Fighters games continued to arrive but the quality severely dipped during the 2000’s with the constant re-use of ancient Neo Geo sprites being less and less impressive each time they were wheeled out for the latest KOF game. SNK Playmore also mirrored Capcom with a slew of ports and collections of their back catalogue to newer systems. As with the Capcom re-issues, these were solid, desirable products but not exactly new games. Still, where Capcom binned Fighting All-Stars, SNK did at least manage to release TWO 3D spin offs of the King of Fighters even if they weren’t all that great.

But if Capcom’s fighting game properties had fallen into obscurity then spare a thought for SNK. New ports to the PS2 and Xbox were published by the unreliable Ignition Entertainment and sometimes extremely difficult to track down on release such was the niche nature of their fighting games post-bankruptcy. Essentially, it was only those in the know and an ever-dwindling fanbase who sought out the likes of KOF: Neowave and Neo Geo Battle Colisseum. A giant had fallen and it is arguable that SNK would have needed Capcom’s active presence within the genre to continue thriving had they not found themselves in trouble. In any case, the end of the rivalry and the loss of the original (and still the best) incarnation of SNK was a defining moment in the genre’s history.

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KOF lived on with the likes of Neowave (pictured here) but the sprites were showing their age by this point and no longer impressing anybody.

All of these reasons for the golden age of fighting games coming to a close are closely interlinked. The decline in arcade popularity for example pushed Capcom to withdraw and focus their efforts on the profits available in the booming console industry. Street Fighter used to be their cash cow but there was greater commercial sense in developing new Resident Evil and Devil May Cry sequels for Sony’s world-conquering Playstation 2. Had SNK not run into financial issues, they too would have been affected. Given how ALL of SNK’s properties were arcade-centric, it’s a (thankful) miracle that they are still around today. It’s important to note that they also had their own issues to contend with such as piracy of the Neo Geo cartridge format.

With all of the negativity out of the way, join me for Part 3 when I take a closer look at the top reasons that make ’91-’00/01 such a special time for the fighting game genre.