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.

 

Review – Rival Schools: United by Fate (Playstation)

rival-schools-1Platform(s): Playstation (reviewed), Arcade
Year: 1998 (Playstation version), 1997 (Arcade)
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Virgin Interactive (PAL), Capcom (North America/Japan)
Genre: Fighting

Whenever there’s a discussion about which of Capcom’s forgotten fighting games (so anything other than flippin’ Street Fighter, then…) should be brought back in a blaze of current-gen glory, there’s usually only one franchise that tops the polls: Darkstalkers. As a huge fan of the Darkstalkers, I can’t suppress the fanboy in me very effectively and I tend to agree. That said, there is another fighting game with a cult following that has been pushed to the back of Capcom’s storage locker for far too long: Rival Schools.

I’ve always been aware of Rival Schools but it was one of those games that I didn’t get around to playing in period. Until recently, the closest I came to the franchise was playing as Kyosuke in Capcom Vs SNK 2 and Batsu in Tatsunoko Vs Capcom. That all changed when I was slimming down my collection and testing out game discs (many of which I’d bought years ago and never played) before listing them for sale on ebay. The Playstation port of Rival Schools: United by Fate was one such game and there was a part of me that had to wonder why I had shoved this to the back of the shelves and ignored it for so long, especially since I’m a big fan of classic Capcom.

It’s what’s inside that counts

The first hurdle that needs to be cleared, when playing Rival Schools for the first time in 2020, are the horribly outdated visuals. Look, I’m no graphics whore. I grew up playing the Playstation and I’ve also enjoyed Sega Saturn and 3DO games long after they were “current” systems, so I’m no snob when it comes to old 3D. But it’s an unavoidable fact that we’ve been spoilt by the realistic graphics of the last few hardware generations, so returning to the era that pushed crude textures and pioneering polygons into the mainstream is always going to be jarring and requires a brief adjustment.

As such, I was initially taken aback by the character models in Rival Schools when I first booted up the game. Perhaps I’d just become accustomed to the perfect curvature of Sophitia’s bosom in Soulcalibur VI, or maybe it was because I’d not played Rival Schools before so my eyes weren’t prepared. Whatever the case, some of the most enjoyable fighting games of the 90’s – Tekken 2, Street Fighter EX and Virtua Fighter 2 – all look pretty blocky these days but that shouldn’t (and doesn’t) detract from the quality of the games.

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Spoilt for choice. Some fantastic portrait art too.

So once I’d acclimatised to some of the derpy expressions and Tiffany’s cubism-inspired tits (complete with a primitive jiggle effect), I found myself enjoying the game, warts and all. In truth, the characters only look janky up close during win animations. During regular gameplay, they actually look pretty good for their age and you’d be a fool to expect much better from the original Playstation. Perhaps Tekken 3 and Soulblade are a little easier on the eyes but Rival Schools isn’t that far behind.

But it really is what’s under the skin that counts.

Rival Schools is presented as a three-dimensional fighting game fit for the late 90’s but, in truth, it’s a bit of a hybrid. While it does have a sidestep feature and dynamic camera angles to capture the crazy super moves, it still feels like a 2D fighting game. That’s because it uses the familiar Street Fighter-style inputs on the d-pad and a light/heavy attack set-up over on the buttons.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing however because I immediately knew what I was doing, allowing me to pick the game up quickly and concentrate solely on getting to grips with Rival Schools‘ unique mechanics.

First up, Rival Schools is a tag-team fighting game of sorts. I say “of sorts” because you can’t actively tag back and forth between your two characters, as in the Marvel Vs series, but you can switch in between rounds. You can also utilise your partner for powerful combination super move known as a Team Up Technique. Depending on your partner, the Team Up move can be an outrageous tag-team super move for big damage, a stat boost, or even a cheeky health boost. I really like this tag-team system because it injects strategy into a fighting game; do you choose a partner that can restore health and simply use them solely for that purpose or do you forfeit the stat/health boosts, select two characters that you are competent with, continuously switch between them and opt for the big damage Team Up Techniques?

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Tiffany’s kiss restores health. She doesn’t discriminate between boys and girls either…

Each character also has a selection of “Burning Vigour” super move attacks. These and the dual-character Team Up Techniques are all ridiculously awesome because they are incredibly over-the-top and feel stupidly OP. These crazy moves also tend to be shown off with different camera angles, taking advantage of the game’s 3D engine. I’ve played a lot of Capcom fighting games and I have to say that the Burning Vigour and Team-Up Techniques in Rival Schools are probably some of the most visually satisfying of the lot.

rival-schools-4You also get plenty of access to these attacks too because the super guage fills up faster than The Flash on Speed. Some may criticise this because it makes the game feel easy and the super moves throwaway. I get that, and agree to a small extent, but Rival Schools is more about the entertainment factor than being a serious tournament game.

But there’s still more to the core gameplay. For instance, there is the Textbook Combo (a nice school-themed pun!) which is the ability to string together a short sequence of light and heavy hits, similar to Darkstalkers‘ Chain Combo system. You can also launch enemies skyward then jump up to hit them with a Textbook Combo in mid-air and even cancel into Burning Vigour supers. If it sounds similar to the the Vs series’ air combos then that’s because it feels exactly like that, down to the launcher input being the same.

There are also Defensive Fall and Get Up Attack techniques, as well as dash attacks. Finally, there is the Dodge ability that snaps you out of the 2D plane and back into the 3D realm. You can dodge sideways in either direction and, if you time it just right, you can evade an incoming attack at the very last moment and slide all the way around to your opponent’s back to catch them off-guard with a combo or deliver a different, more powerful throw attack that can only be used at an rival’s back.

A loaded package

Away from the actual gameplay, Rival Schools is simply bursting with charm and it’s easy to see why so many people love this neglected series. The characters are bold and full of personality, the music is terribly catchy and there is a big effort put into the presentation of the game. There is an anime-style intro upon booting the game up, for example, multiple animated endings and every character has their own unique illustrated endings to their stories. It’s one of those games where even the sound effects for selecting menu items are endearing.

The characters all feel unique to play as, and there are twenty of them to choose from as standard. That said, the veteran fighting game player will spot some cheeky imitations in amongst the roster, such as Hideo who is essentially the Ryu of Rival Schools with Shoto-style special moves. Roy seems to have borrowed Ken’s Shoryu-Reppa super move and Street Fighter Alpha‘s Sakura is included in the line-up. Overall however, the roster isn’t simply a copy-paste job; the majority of the fighters have their own style and are fun to experiment with.

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Capcom really went all out with the Playstation conversion of this game too. There are two discs: an Arcade disc and the Evolution disc. The Arcade disc alone would have been acceptable enough since it features a fantastic conversion of the arcade original, a training mode and extra, bonus features. But Capcom also threw in the Evolution disc which is just so much more.

The Evolution disc contains an optimised, more balanced version of the game and more characters. As well as unlockable, alternate outfit versions of four of Rival Schools‘ female characters (complete with unique Team Up Techniques), there are 24 pre-edited special characters – mash-ups of the original characters and their moves. You also have the new Group Battle, League Battle and Tournament Battle modes, as well as the Cooperate Battle which allows four players to get in on the tag-team fighting with the assistance of the Playstation Multi-Tap. Finally, there is a “Lesson” mode and an art gallery. Phew!

It seems surreal in this post-Street Fighter V age to be playing a Capcom fighting game that had a warehouse of kitchen sinks thrown at it. To any younger readers of this blog, I would say this: go play PS1 Rival Schools and you’ll understand why us grumpy old farts moan about the bare-bones menu screens on modern fighting games, and the way that there is nothing to unlock (unless you are paying by credit card).

Conclusion

Rival Schools: United by Fate was an incredibly pleasant surprise and I think I need to be sent back to education myself for making the schoolboy error of not playing this sooner (enough with the school jokes!). After spending a good amount of time with the game, I can definitely confirm that the characters have just as much charm and appeal as Morrigan and co. from Darkstalkers. What’s more, the fighting system is excellent and strikes a perfect balance between the technical stuff and accessible, mental fun. It certainly wouldn’t need much to be brought up to scratch for a modern revival, something I’m now very much all for.

The only downside is that the Playstation port isn’t the cheapest used game to pick up these days, and it hasn’t been re-released on PSN outside of Japan (reportedly due to licensing issues) which certainly doesn’t help. That said, I think that Rival Schools is worth every penny of your money if you are a fighting game nut or a fan of classic Capcom.

Review: Koloomn (PSP)

koloomn-1Platform(s): PSP (Reviewed), Arcade (as ‘Kollon’)
Year: 2006 (Europe)
Developer: MagicPot
Publisher: 505 Gamestreet (Europe)
Genre: Puzzle

The PSP, like any other respectable handheld, has no shortage of puzzle games. It’s also no stranger to block-based puzzlers, as the mighty Lumines can testify. But, also like any respectable handheld, the PSP hosted enough puzzle games that some inevitably got forgotten. Take MagicPot’s Koloomn for example: a block-based puzzle game that is just as addictive as any other.

Originally released as an arcade game called Kollon in Japan, Koloomn found a more natural home on Sony’s debut handheld in 2005. The Western PSP translation of Kollon is, in fact, an enhanced edition of an earlier Japan-only PSP port of the arcade game. Confused? Well, to muddy the waters just a little more, North America received the game under another name: Ultimate Block Party. Being completely unbiased, I have to say that I prefer the ‘Koloomn’ name and the box art we received here in Europe. It just looks more Japanese.

Does any of this nerdy, anorak stuff matter though? Absolutely not. All that matters is that Koloomn/Ultimate Block Party/Kollon is a cracking puzzle game.

Stack ’em up(wards)

Unlike many other block-based puzzlers, the blocks in Koloomn rise up from the bottom of the screen but the aim is still the same: to prevent the advancing ranks of blocks from touching the top of the play area OR, in multi-player/versus, to brick up your opponent’s screen. Blocks are cleared by forming links of four of the same colour. So far, so simple.

You re-position the blocks with a square 2×2 cursor, rotating them about until you can place four matching ones together. You are relatively free when it comes to shuffling the blocks about, moving them all around the play area by rotating them out of rows/columns into adjacent ones. That’s the basics. You’ll need to think bigger however if you want to create large combos or put an opponent under pressure.

Y’see, a group of four matching blocks is just the minimum requirement. Any number of blocks can be chained beyond that provided that the colours match. A formation takes a few seconds to disappear and, in that time, you can rotate other matching blocks to join said formation. Get smart – and quick on the controls – and you can link up multiple clusters on the playing field to clear a fat amount of blocks all at once. This is called a ‘Pop’ and, proving that size sometimes DOES matter, the bigger the Pop, the better. You can also forcibly advance the blocks with a press of the ‘R’ button and flirt with danger by filling the screen to give you more blocks to play with.

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Additionally – as per Sir Isaac Newton’s law of gravity – the vacuum left behind by eliminated blocks causes everything above to tumble south and fill the void(s), potentially linking up for more Pops. These are called ‘Chains’. Chains are vital for earning big points and making ‘magic’ blocks appear. Arrow blocks, for example, will turn every other block in the arrow’s direction into the same colour and eliminate them. Tactical positioning of arrow blocks can really help clear the screen when the pressure is on.

Bomb blocks turn all adjacent blocks into the same colour for an easy, instant nine-block Pop at the bare minimum. Then there are the Wave blocks that eradicate all blocks of the same colour, no matter where they are on the screen. You’ll only get one of these for making a chain of four though, so you you’ll need to be very good or (more likely) incredibly lucky.

Block Party

Multi-player is – as you’d expect – a frantic exercise in managing your own ever-filling play area whilst also dishing out the pain to your opponent. There are several different attacks or temporary status effects that you can hit your opponent with and BE the victim of such as being lumbered with inverted controls (ugh…), having giant blocks dropped onto the field or having the size of the cursor increased, severely hampering precision.

One glaring problem with playing Koloomn in 2020 is that this all-important multi-player aspect is obviously dead, unless you have seriously cool friends who still play multi-player PSP games. So that’s about three people worldwide, then. Sarcasm aside, there are at least Arcade and Campaign modes (confusingly hidden in the Multi-Play menu…) where you can play against the CPU and still enjoy the competitive side of the game. These two modes are pretty much the same with the only differences being that Campaign forces you to play as the main character, Kollon, and you have some humourous cut-scenes before each round.

Single player mode is your standard solo play where you attempt to survive for as long as possible, each successive level increasing the speed that the blocks rise up from the screen’s bottom.

That’s pretty much it. The game does at least store your high scores and rankings but there’s precious little to do once you remove the multi-player side of Koloomn and that’s the game’s only real weakness.

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You can’t help but be won over by the presentation, however. Koloomn has a really bright and bouncy cartoon aesthetic that I immediately fell in love with. From the comic-book style menus to the chibi characters with their bold outlines, it’s attractive stuff. The characters are nicely animated and full of personality and a humurous, playful vibe permeates everything. Even the blocks are smiling! The music is upbeat and dangerously catchy too. This isn’t necessarily the sort of game that you would think began life in an arcade cabinet but then again, I can totally picture the lively characters, vibrant colours and jaunty music being perfectly at home in a buzzing Japanese Game Centre.

Conclusion

Yes, Koloomn is lacking in content and, yes, it might have disappointed as a full-price release back in its day for that very same reason but that’s kind of missing the point. After all, Tetris didn’t have a whole lot going on but it still managed to charm a generation without being criticised for a lack of value. No, the value in Koloomn – as with Tetris – is in its addictive nature. It’s one of those puzzle games that’s easy to understand but takes some playing with to get proficient at. Once you’ve had some practice, however, Koloomn becomes like any other good puzzle game and hooks you with that ruthlessly effective “just one more go…” drug. Once that’s happened, you will only need the few modes to have a whole lot of fun. The fact that it looks fantastic and costs next-to-nothing to pick up today are just added bonuses.

Review – Anarchy Reigns (Playstation 3)

anarchy-1Platform(s): Playstation 3 (Reviewed), Xbox 360
Year: 2013
Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Sega
Genre: Third-person beat ’em up

“Platinum” and “Games” are two words that should absolutely be put together, because when you do this, you get the name of one of the most interesting and creative studios in modern gaming. It’s not the done thing to include personal bias or opinion within critical assessments but screw the rules; this reviewer is a Platinum devout and will buy any new game from the developer regardless of any pre-release impressions.

I have a great deal of faith in Platinum. After all, this is the team that brought us Bayonetta, Vanquish and Madworld – all highly entertaining, off-the-wall thrillfests. Let us not forget that before Platinum there was Clover Studio, a group responsible for God Hand, Okami and Viewtiful Joe. Combine the works of both Platinum and Clover and you get one hell of a fucking resume.

So with that gushing intro out of the way, you may expect me to proceed into a glowing review for 2013’s Anarchy Reigns.

You’d be wrong.

I really like this game but, objectively speaking, Anarchy Reigns isn’t a must-play classic.

A familiar criticism

That’s not to say that the game is bad, because it isn’t – at all. But it’s certainly a case of style-over-substance. Platinum’s calling cards of over-the-top action, non-conformist game design and liquid nitrogen-cool styling are all present in Anarchy Reigns but none of this can disguise the fact that the game feels lacking in content. Essentially, it’s a case of Platinum’s signature flair compensating for an extremely thin experience. Whether this succeeds or not is down to personal opinion. For me it does, because I adore the game’s artistic design and no-fucks-given attitude but, if you prioritise gameplay over art, then you’d be forgiven for thinking, “is this it?”

Anarchy Reigns is a third-person beat ’em up. Playing as either Madworld‘s chainsaw-armed brute, Jack Cayman, or pretty-boy Bureau of Public Safety (BPS for short) operative, Leo Victorion, the player journeys through two interwoven stories. Jack’s is the “Black Side” while Leo’s is called the “White Side”. Once both are completed, you can access the “Red Side” and Anarchy Reigns‘ true conclusion. In principle this is a nice idea because you get to experience the same story from both lead characters’ perspectives.

Each character’s side of the game consists of four chapters. Each chapter takes place in a hub world containing three side missions and three main story missions. One of Anarchy Reigns‘ main issues arises straight away here: the repetitive and rigid structure. You must achieve a set amount of points, either through completing missions or beating up the respawning hub world enemies, in order to unlock the next side/main mission(s). If you are good at the game, then you can reach each point quota instantly by completing a mission with either a gold or a platinum ranking. If you just about scrape through the missions with a poor score however, then you might have to replay side missions or just keep battling the hub world enemies to build up points.

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Things can get a bit mental, sometimes. [Image Source]
I managed to achieve the gold or platinum medals on most missions so I didn’t encounter too much of the grind but on the few occasions where I did struggle, it was certainly irritating to have to replay side missions or wander around laying waste to weak enemies until I’d collected enough points.

The hub worlds aren’t all that interesting either. On the positive side, the terrain boasts some nice elevation changes and air vents/boost ramps that send your character flying through the air to different parts of the map. Also, every so often, it will start raining and much stronger enemies will replace the standard Killseeker thugs. Random hazards will also enter the map, such as an out-of-control Mad Max-style fuel tanker, poison gas or jets that carpet bomb the region. Unfortunately, all of these chaotic elements are pretty predictable and scripted, doing nothing to disguise the emptiness of the maps. Other than fighting respawning enemies to earn points, or triggering missions, there isn’t anything to do; no collectables or secrets to look for either. They remind me of the lobbies that you get in some online games where you are free to idly mess about until enough players have joined.

I don’t want  to keep sticking the boot into Anarchy Reigns‘ hub worlds but it also doesn’t help that there are only four of them, and that you will play through them again in the same order with the second character. I can’t help but wonder if this structure is a way to artificially pad the game out because a more straight-forward sequential stage/chapter structure similar to Bayonetta – to use one of Platinum’s own games as a reference point – would have eliminated the majority of the repetition, grinding for points and over-familiarity with environments.

Violence is the solution

Fortunately, the combat goes some way to redeeming the game by being satisfying, if nothing revolutionary. It’s fairly standard third person, over-the-shoulder arena-based brawling. You have light attacks and heavy attacks to construct simple combos with, grab moves and a 360 attack that saps a small portion of health. You also have access to devastating “Killer Weapon” attacks that utilise Jack’s chainsaw or Leo’s energy blades to deal out massive damage, though the use of these attacks is reliant on a gauge that is refilled (pretty quickly) by standard fist fighting.

You can also knock enemies into the air to set them up for aerial combos or drop down from above to damage multiple enemies with a ground-shattering blow. Dropping from huge heights amplifies the latter, transforming the standard drop attack into a “meteor” blow resulting in big damage.

The final ability in your arsenal is the “Rampage” mode. Fill this gauge up by fighting, and, once activated, your character becomes invincible and their attacks much more powerful. What’s more, hitting stronger enemies or bosses initiates a cool move where your character batters the enemy with a flurry of lightspeed punches for huge damage.

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Jack’s back, now in colour!

As you’d expect from a game like this, there is also a lock-on feature and the ability to roll out of the way of incoming attacks. As far as third-person beat ’em ups go though, Anarchy Reigns doesn’t really offer anything new or different but gets away with it thanks to the meaty feel of the combat and the more than convincing impact of the pain you dish out as either Jack or Leo. Weaker enemies explode beneath your fists and the Killer Weapon attacks tear them apart. There’s plenty of excessive blood spraying around too. It’s furious, crazy and pretty satisfying. It makes you feel powerful, as all good beat ’em ups do.

You do take damage from the strong enemies and bosses fairly quickly though (if you’ve played Bayonetta then this should sound familiar) so you have to be on the ball and fight a bit more tactically rather than charging in Dynasty Warriors-style as you are able to do with the mobs of weak enemies. The majority of missions and boss battles will give you a stock of three lives, auto-reviving you on the spot to continue the fight should you fall. Obviously, however, your score and resulting medal will suffer the more you continue.

As I’ve already said, the gameplay itself does do a lot to compensate for the uninspiring game structure but it isn’t all perfect. The bosses for example can all be approached with the exact same wash/rinse/repeat method, regardless of what moves they boast or how they come at you. You hit them with a combo or two, get clear, roll out of the way of their attacks or combos, then hit them again and restart the process. Oddly enough, the large Mutant and Berserker enemies are actually more of a challenge than the game’s bosses since they are difficult to stagger and can end you in a handful of hits.

The Rampage ability is also incredibly OP against bosses. All you have to do is spend a little time wasting enemies in the hub world(s) to charge up the Rampage gauge, so that you have it ready before beginning a mission. Then, you can usually rely on depleting at least half of your opponent’s energy through a barrage of Rampage combos, even if they guard against some of your punches before you break their defence.

Collectable power-ups can also turn you into even more of a powerhouse. You can only carry two at a time but rocket launchers and rifles are notably powerful. The temporary shields and invisibility power-ups are best saved for dealing with multiple Mutants or Berserkers. There is also an item that allows you launch into Rampage mode regardless of how full your gauge is. So, if you are packing this bad boy as well as a full gauge, you can unload on a boss with two Rampages in a row and make a fight a one-sided affair.

Platinum strikes again

Now we’ve come full-circle and I can talk about the positive side of the earlier style-over-substance observation. If you want style and creativity in your videogames, then Platinum always has yo’ back, and Anarchy Reigns certainly doesn’t buck that trend. The game has a post-apocalyptic cyber-punk theme going on, with its decayed Mad Max-style world design and mechanical prosthetics galore. There’s a lot of detail in the design of the maps and the enemy models, and you can clearly tell that the artists enjoyed creating the robots and mechanical augmentations for the bloodthirsty Killseeker enemies.

The main characters are a bit stereotypical in that the men have enormous muscles (that would put Arnie to shame) and the women are all sexy with big boobs. I’ve seen some reviewers marking Anarchy Reigns down for the sexualisation of the female cast but I personally just view all of that as being part of Platinum’s design style. I’m here to be entertained after all (not to care about politics and the #metoo brigade) and Platinum are all about entertaining.

Jack Cayman is as badass as he was in Madworld – a hulking “Chaser” (bounty hunter) with no fear who just doesn’t give a shit. Several other Madworld characters are playable in the game too including the hilarious pimp-like Blacker Baron, his assistant, Mathilda, the heavy-hitting cyborg, Big Bull, and the Crimson Dragon girls – Rin Rin, Fei Rin and Ai Rin. My favourite of the new characters is the BPS agent, Sasha Ivanoff but that’s just because I’m a sucker for the Russian accent and a shiny silver, clingy bodysuit.

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I like Sasha, unsurprisingly. [Image Source]
Though you are primarily playing as either Jack or Leo, some story battles see the protagonists team-up with other characters and you can choose which character to play as. This is a pretty sweet feature as it gives you a chance to play as some of these other cool characters that you’ve previously only seen in the cut-scenes. Mechanically, they all play the same as Jack or Leo but there are variations in speed, attack power, combo strings etc. As you progress through the game, you gradually unlock the other characters to use freely when replaying completed chapters. If you purchase the game’s DLC, you can also play as Platinum’s slinky, butt-wiggling witch, Bayonetta, which is pretty fun – especially if you’ve played the Bayonetta games as her Torture techniques feature in her combos.

The game’s soundtrack – a mix of smooth, jazzy notes, energetic hip-hop and industrial tones – is a varied mix for sure but it all works. Some of the battle music will stick in your head long after the game is switched off for example.

Conclusion

It must be noted that I didn’t discuss Anarchy Reigns‘ multi-player mode in this review and that’s because I haven’t played it. Unfortunately, the game wasn’t a huge seller and by all accounts, the online side is dead now. It’s one of those instances where I regret not giving the online modes a go back when the game was new but, ironically, it was only during this second play-through in 2019 that I really came to appreciate the game. The online was meant to have been very fun, however, and it was a large focus point for the game which goes some way to explaining the puddle-deep single-player campaign that can be put to bed easily in under ten hours.

Even so, that short lifespan can’t be ignored, especially if you are considering picking Anarchy Reigns up today.

This is one of those games that you will either love or hate. The thin, repetitive gameplay, questionable single-player structure and combat that can take a while to properly “feel” might leave you cold and asking, “is this it?” but, if you value the cool factor, then there is a seriously fun beat ’em up here with some hard-hitting brawling. Additionally, if you love the Platinum ‘way’ then you will already know exactly what to expect from the crazy gameplay, wacky characters and the game’s gloriously non-PC streak that offers a middle finger to sensibilities.

Review – Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy [Playstation 4]

DSC_0395Earlier this year, I played, completed and reviewed the rather wonderful Spyro Reignited Trilogy. The remastered collection of one of my favourite series’ of games wasn’t perfect (largely due to unwelcome glitches) but it made me smile no end and really, that’s what gaming is all about. It wasn’t the first modern remaster of a beloved Playstation platforming series though; that accolade goes to the Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy – the commercial success of which can likely be thanked for Spyro’s adventures receiving a makeover. I actually received both collections for Christmas last year but made a beeline for Spyro as those games were my favourites. Now, I’ve had the chance to unwrap, play and complete Crash’s remasters so here is my review of the N Sane Trilogy.

A sympathetic makeover

In my review of the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, I had this to say about the overall makeover of the original games:

My overall feeling is that Spyro Reignited Trilogy is a totally authentic and – more importantly – sympathetic remake. Everything from the level layouts to the word-for-word script is as I remember it. The individuality between games has also been retained i.e. the designs of the treasure chests, the shapes of the gems and the extra life systems. Immediately, there is nothing on a basic level to offend the traditionalists who demand the most minimal of changes…

The same is true here for Crash. Everything is as you remember – it just looks a hell of a lot better. The beauty of the original Crash Bandicoot and Spyro games is that, while their worlds were crafted from (then) cutting-edge polygons and 3D tech, it was done in a cartoon-like, exaggerated style. So while those games are clearly aged when viewed through a modern filter, they are still perfectly acceptable today. Pop the original discs into your Playstation or download the digital versions from the Playstation store and you won’t be offended by horrible textures or laughable “realism” because those original games were inadvertently future-proofed by not chasing realism. The visuals are still sharp, the games still move smoothly and the music remains timeless.

With that in mind, I was sceptical about what the remasters could achieve. After all, there are plenty of other Playstation games that I think would absolutely benefit from ground-up remasters because the originals are just difficult to deal with after several decades of videogame evolution and refinement. Crash on the other hand didn’t really need much in my opinion. That said, the N Sane Trilogy manages to impress regardless. We have realistic textures now, much more dynamic special effects and nice, detailed touches such as Crash actually having proper fur. All of this is achieved without taking away any of the original games’ cartoon appeal.

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It’s as you remember, just furrier and, er…plantier. Wumpa fruit looking good enough to eat though!

Audio-wise, the music has been updated too but again, it’s very subtle, a testament to how good the original soundtrack was. I think I prefer the original but only because I’ve played the Playstation originals so much that I miss some of the minute details (the more pronounced clanking sounds in the sewer levels for example). Overall though, it’s an on-point mix that I can’t grumble about.

As with Spyro, the individual games and level layouts themselves remain utterly unchanged which pleased this crusty veteran gamer. There were only a few small additions that I noticed. You can now switch between Crash and his sister Coco for example. I didn’t detect any difference between the two Bandicoots but it’s a nice surface-level update. Coco was, after all, only originally playable in specific levels in Crash Warped. You also receive useful hints on the loading screens to point you in the direction of the bonus gems and secrets. Some may call this “dumbing down” but many of the secrets in the Crash games were pretty obtuse and even I couldn’t remember how to reach some of the coloured gems.

“A smashing blast from the past!”

One thing that the N Sane Trilogy successfully reminded me of was how challenging the first game in the series was. This is where it all began and so Crash’s reportoire of abilities is restricted to just jumping and spinning, severely minimising the amount of tricks that the player can use to negotiate the levels. This is proper old-school platforming that demands pin-point accuracy, respect for hazards and practiced timing. A lot of so-called “hardcore” gamers like to scoff at the 32-bit Playstation era and proffer the elitist opinion that this was where games got too easy and while I cannot argue with the crushing brutality of the preceeding 8 and 16-bit eras, Crash’s debut is no walk in the park and Activision did nothing to soften the punches with this remaster.

The later castle-themed levels for example play out in a 2D style and feature a gauntlet of moving platforms, staircases that collapse into ramps (requiring perfect timing) and moving enemies that must be used as platforms. Then there is the natural hazard of the into-the-screen, forward-facing platforming that often makes it difficult to safely land Crash when jumping between platforms. Yes, you have Crash’s shadow as guidance but even then, it can be challenging to guage the relative height of other platforms. This is a recurring quirk of the Crash Bandicoot games that never really goes away throughout the series and is something that you simply have to get used to.

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You will learn to hate those stairs. [Source – Youtube]
Going for the 100% completion is also much harder here than in the sequels. To earn the bonus clear gem, you must destroy all crates within a level. This much is common between all three games. What makes this objective harder in the first Crash game however is that you must perform this feat without dying even once. You need that perfect run which can require multiple restarts as well as trial-and-error mastering of a level. I had expected Activision to nix this for the remasters but they didn’t, much to their credit. It provokes frustration and sweaty-handed, tense gaming on the more challenging levels but that challenge is what we all want from our games, right? My main nemesis when going for the 100% completion was the “Fumbling in the dark” level which must have taken me three-quarters of an hour of constant re-tries to nail. That feeling upon finally hitting that perfect run though? Priceless.

Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back is my favourite of the trilogy and this has always been so. The game remained challenging and laden with secrets but lost that brutal edge that the original game sported. For example, you can now collect the clear gem for smashing all crates without worrying about dying in the process. Crash also has some new moves such as the belly flop, crouch-jump and the uber-useful slide. Sliding then jumping allows Crash to fly further forwards for those trickier leaps of faith. You can also slide, jump then spin, a combo that requires lightning-fast inputs but launches Crash even further.

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Being able to play as Coco is a nice addition, even if she doesn’t bring any unique abilities to the game. [Source – Youtube]
Crash 2 is the perfect balance. The player will be challenged to achieve the 100% but it is nowhere near as demanding to do as the first game. Crash’s new moves give him enhanced mobility, the music is possibly the best of the series and the game saw the debut of memorable level designs such as the jetpack segments and riding the adorable polar bear.

For many gamers though, Crash Bandicoot Warped is their favourite. The game follows a similar hub-world structure to Crash 2 but this time, the levels center on real-world themes including medievil/fantasy, the Great Wall of China and Egyptian tombs. Underwater levels make their debut as do jet ski and aeroplane missions. The overall sense I get from Warped is that the traditional platforming challenge is traded off to a degree in favour of visually impressive set pieces. Here again, we have parallels with the evolution of the Spyro franchise which gradually reduced the difficulty in favour of side-missions and unique mini-games.

That’s not to say that Warped is a weak sequel – far fom it. It is undeniably the easiest of the trilogy to beat however. This is largely down to the fact that Crash gained even more special abilities and by the time you have them all, Crash is operating in Super Saiyan territory. If you had all of these abilities in the first two games for example, there would be no challenge at all. There is now an enhanced belly-flop that can destroy nearby crates with a shockwave. You can also keep pressing the spin button to fly a great distance through the air, dramatically reducing the threat posed by pits and ground-based hazards.

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Crash has the moves in Warped. [Source]
The number one offender however is the Fruit Bazooka. Once you have this, the game becomes a cakewalk. Crash can stand still and take aim at distant enemies with this weapon and eliminate all threats without ever having to get near them. Crates can be shot for easy collection as can TNT and nitro crates, removing those hazards from Crash’s path as well. Did I mention that the ammo is also unlimited? This weapon is just absolute overkill in my opinion and I still don’t know why Naughty Dog thought it was a good idea in the first place. Granted, the Fruit Bazooka is a welcome friend when you are chasing the 100% but it also feels like you are cheesing the game.

Warped is nonetheless a great game and was a great way for Naughty Dog to sign off from the franchise (CTR not withstanding) back in the day. The set pieces and variety in gameplay keep things interesting and at the end of the day, it is fun which is what matters.

Conclusions

Like the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, these Crash Bandicoot remasters are a warm, welcoming nostalgia trip. They will raise a smile and take your mind back to the late 90’s, a time where life was – possibly – simpler and the future was teeming with possibilities. Gaming was simpler back then too but despite the aged formula, the Crash Bandicoot series has stood the test of time. Clever platforming design, an unmistakable visual direction and loveable characters are the key. The N Sane Trilogy brings it all back for gamers old and new without stepping on Naughty Dog’s toes and altering their work. In short, this is the perfect example of an ideal remaster.

Review – Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects [Playstation 2]

mnem1Release Date: 2005   |   Developer: Nihilistic Software   |   Publisher: EA Games   |   Also On: Xbox, Gamecube, PSP, Nintendo DS

Gather ye round, little ones and listen to this old man’s tale. Once upon a time there was a fantastic wonderland known as 90’s Gaming. It was a time of great change, innovation and colourful arcade games that made everybody go deaf and blind such were the booming audio and bright visuals. Today, we live in a second gaming wonderland with access to all of the old goodies plus huge, immersive experiences that previous generations of gamers could only fantasise about. But in between these two ages there was a dark age. It was a time when everything had to be moody, brown and uber-violent to pander to the teenage boys locked in bedrooms with closed curtains and crusted, very soiled socks hidden beneath beds. Games had to be brutal and gangsta and feature women with enormous breasts and blank, “sexy” expressions. Because reasons.

And games that had no reason to get serious were affected too. If – like me – you were a massive fan of the magnificence that was Marvel Vs Capcom 2 then you could have been forgiven for feeling the hype when EA announced Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects. After all, it was a 3D Marvel fighting game backed by the might of EA. It was going to be huge! Holy shit! And it was huge…a huge fucking disappointment that has been lost to the mists of time. Nobody talks about it and very few remember it. here’s why…

Devoid of imagination

For some reason, I had always assumed that Marvel Nemesis was a 3D fighting game but no, I’m an idiot. It’s a 3D action game where you move about arenas/stages defeating enemies in a beat ‘em up fashion. The game’s story mode opens with The Thing walking along a bridge when aliens suddenly attack New York City. Your job in this first stage of the game is to defeat all the enemies on the bridge, punch through some blockades and that’s it. The next stage demands that you defeat all enemies on the streets. The third stage is back to the bridge again with the task of (guess what?) defeating all enemies. Okay, there’s a time limit this time but it isn’t anything taxing. Then it’s back to the streets again to…you get the idea. These opening stages with The Thing really show you what Marvel Nemesis is about. All of the stages in the game are essentially identical. Some have time limits or other conditions including handicapped health but the underlying requirement is always to beat all enemies or destroy a certain number of objects. The level descriptions sometimes almost attempt to disguise this mundane exercise but others can’t be bothered and simply state “Spiderman must defeat all enemies!” or “Daredevil must defeat all enemies!”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this set-up because – as you may be eager to point out – even the classics such as Final Fight have the same paper-thin game structure. The PS2 has its own collection of competent 3D beat ’em ups such as Urban Reign and Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance so the formula could still work back in the mid-00’s. It has to be interesting to play though and aesthetically appealing on some level. Marvel Nemesis could only dream of being these things.

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Spiderman vs some bloke that nobody cares about. With added brown for that gritty effect.

There’s very little challenge for example with most of these ‘missions’ finished in a matter of minutes. Honestly, I felt like I was looking at loading and saving screens more than I was playing the game. Some of the missions are just plain embarrassing too such as the one where Wolverine must “navigate the traps in the Avengers mansion and defeat all enemies”. This translates to bypassing one set of security lasers then clearing a single room of enemies. Big mansion, huh? The character bios in the manual make mention of the ‘New Avengers’ so why the hell is the Avengers mansion even here? Anybody who reads Marvel comics knows that the mansion was destroyed before the New Avengers were formed. Obviously I’m nitpicking on a dangerously nerdy level here but that’s what happens when you play Marvel Nemesis; you get so bloody bored that your brain exits stage left and goes for a wander.

The graphics do a supreme job of reflecting your mood when playing this game. Everything is dark, muddy and desperately dull in a game world that barely manages to look much better than a PS1 title. The music is similarly complementary in that beautifully forgettable ‘stock music’ fashion. The soundtrack isn’t criminal but you won’t remember it thirty seconds after shutting the game off. I’ll let you decide whether that’s a positive thing or a big fat neg.

You’d expect the controls to be rotten as well wouldn’t you? Well you’re wrong! Shockingly, the controls are actually functional here; one analogue stick controls movement while the other offers generous manipulation of a reasonably compliant camera. You have buttons for attacking, blocking, grabbing/throwing and jumping so there’s very little to get wrong. Holding R1 while attacking allows for some more powerful moves (such as Storm’s lightning or Daredevil’s club) while doing the same with L1 allows for bigger jumps or some characters i.e. Human Torch and Spiderman to fly or swing.

Complimenting the controls is like trying to apply a tiny plaster to a massive, gaping wound that is gushing blood from a main artery however.

Marvel Nemesis shouts about having fully destructible environments but this really boils down to having arenas littered with projectiles such as cars, furniture and oil drums. As suspiciously numerous and carelessly abandoned as these drums are, they swiftly become your best friend in the whole wide world because most tight spots and boss battles can be negotiated by simply spamming drums and throwing them for big explosions – a tactic that remains effective no matter how far you get into the game. Stand in the wrong place when an enemy is throwing a drum though and you can instantly lose over half of your energy in one massive blast when getting caught in a chain reaction of exploding drums and cars. Well, you gotta take the rough with the smooth. Swings and roundabouts and all that.

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Surely this cannot be visually appealing to anybody?

I said that the game is really easy but there are ways for your ass to be handed to you in no time at all, the aforementioned random explosions for example. Like all poor 3D beat ‘em ups though, you can also get caught between multiple enemies and trapped in a loop of hits that will leave your character with hardly any health. Boss fights too swing from pathetically easy to being extremely cheap. The boss battle against Storm for example saw me getting hit by a bolt of lightning before I had the chance to move then stuck in a cycle of follow-up hits, leaving me with no energy and open to a finishing move in seconds. After many copy/paste starts to the battle, I finally won by jumping around and…throwing oil drums…sigh. The only way to overcome some of these battles is to fight fire with fire and be cheap by abusing oil drums or ranged attacks. Other times I have witnessed boss battles end instantly thanks to the opponent graciously walking themselves off the edge of the stage and to a ring-out defeat.

With the gameplay confirmed as tedius, poorly designed and possessed of stupid difficulty spikes and a severe lack of fun, what about the playable characters? You need to remember that Marvel Nemesis was released in the mid-2000’s so the roster is a good reflection of the pre-MCU era of Marvel cinema and who was popular as a result. There’s Spiderman (complete with Tobey Maguire era costume), Daredevil, Elektra, Iron Man, Wolverine, Storm and Magneto to name a handful. There really isn’t much more to say but I can’t avoid discussing Elektra.

For some reason, Elektra is the only character to have been given a visual revamp by EA and her new outfit looks like a bra/thong set from a racy lingerie catalogue with the red trousers from the crappy Jennifer Garner Elektra film thrown in for good measure. Oh and a spiked gothic choker. She looks nothing like Elektra should other than being garbed in red and her model is just plain fugly. All of her attacks seem to be accompanied by sexual moans and groans and even sans super-powers Elektra can still rip parking meters out of the ground and smack enemies about with them. Who needs the Thing?

Worse still however are the ‘Imperfects’, the foes of the game. The Imperfects are humans modified with extraterrestrial technology by the game’s alien villain so that they can do battle with Marvel’s finest and capture them for their powers (it’s a really crap storyline) but EA’s villains receive no injection of originality and appear to ape the powers of existing Marvel characters. Can you guess what sort of superpowers the likes of Solara, Fault Zone and Johnny Ohm (good grief!) have at their disposal? Asking these characters to stand next to Marvel characters is like you or me going back in time to when Arnold Shwarzenegger was still on the body building circuit and being asked to compete on-stage next to him. It would be a competitive massacre and the same applies here in Marvel Nemesis. I think I can say that Stan Lee didn’t lose sleep over being beaten to creating Johnny Ohm.

Conclusions

In hindsight, this game had all the ingredients of a disaster but we were naïve and could not have known that Marvel Vs Capcom 2 would remain the definitive use of the Marvel license until Capcom came riding in to save us in 2011 with MvC3. Likewise, it’s only now that we can look back on EA’s mid-2000’s output and realise just how many shoddy movie tie-ins, licensed trollop and relentless yearly updates their logo ended up being slapped on. If I had paid £40 for Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects then I would have been absolutely devastated. Thankfully, I chose other games back in 2005. Aside from functional controls and the almost perverse desire to go back in time and experience shit games, I can’t come up with any other legitimate reasons to recommend Rise of the Imperfects. If anything, it shows just how far Marvel has come and you can’t imagine that precious money-printing license being permitted to associate with garbage like this game in the same way that films like the 2003 Hulk or Jennifer Garner Elektra would never happen in 2019.

Summary

The controls work at least

Repetitive, non-imaginative gameplay

Miserable visuals and forgettable music

Original characters are unispired and uninteresting

Random cheap deaths and chaotic gameplay

 

 

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.

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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.

Review – Spyro Reignited Trilogy [Playstation 4]

spyro-2I’ve been gaming for a hell of a long time now and so you’d be forgiven for thinking that some of my viewpoints on modern gaming are somewhat cynical and the unfortunate victim(s) of rose-tinted vision. For example, I am about as interested in remakes and remasters as I am in that scene in Terminator Genisys where Emilia Clarke gets naked but the smart troll-ish 12-rated camera work denies you a glimpse of the goodness. Either I have no enthusiasm for retreading old ground in HD-o-Vision or I get all old-man grumpy and ignorantly presume that the developer will remix everything too much.

However, that has all changed very recently and my attitude towards a remake has softened a little. The game responsible for this shift is Spyro Reignited Trilogy, a full remastering of one of my favourite videogame series’ of all-time (pre-Enter The Dragonfly of course). Younger readers or newer gamers might not understand the big deal but I had the originals on release and still regularly play through all three most years. I adore these games and no amount of mowing down hookers in GTA (after purchasing their wares of course) has succeeded in dulling my enthusiasm for whimsical fantasy worlds and cutesy characters.

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The games look amazing now, all without any alterations to level layout or loss of the original charm [image: forgetoday.com]
As you might imagine then, I was gravely worried about what Activision and Toys For Bob might do to my childhood memories when Reignited was first announced but I needn’t have been concerned because the boys ‘n girls at ‘Bob did good and managed the near-impossible task of impressing this old-school gamer with a remake of all things. It isn’t all good news but the positives definitely outweigh the crappy stuff so I’ll talk about why this is such a great remake first and foremost.

My overall feeling is that Spyro Reignited Trilogy is a totally authentic and – more importantly – sympathetic remake. Everything from the level layouts to the word-for-word script is as I remember it. The individuality between games has also been retained i.e. the designs of the treasure chests, the shapes of the gems and the extra life systems. Immediately, there is nothing on a basic level to offend the traditionalists who demand the most minimal of changes and this is nice because Toys For Bob could have easily decided to bring each game in line and go for a uniform approach. The only big alteration to the trilogy as a whole is that the sideways roll feature that was originally canned for the sequels has been carried over to Gateway to Glimmer and Year of the Dragon for the remakes. This is actually a welcome change because many fans bemoaned the way that Insomniac took the roll away back when these games were first released. Now though, you can showboat to your heart’s content while avoiding enemy attacks.

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One for the ‘Furries’ out there. Bianca looks a lot foxier this time which ironic since she’s a rabbit [image: Youtube.com]
Then there is the all-important music, originally composed by Stuart Copeland of The Police and adored by fans ever since. The soundtrack of the first game in particular is especially good since each level has a distinct sound influenced by the theme of its home (or ‘hub’) world but the same set of instruments used throughout results in a very cohesive OST. The mix in Reignited is extremely gentle and in all honesty, it didn’t need to be dramatic anyway; the original OST was fantastic as it was and in some respects was ahead of the games themselves and what the technology of the time allowed them to do visually and technically. So it sounds very similar to the original tracks but with a bit of added depth in places. There is an interesting ‘dynamic’ effect too which alters the tone of the music when underground or in tunnels/caves. Stand stationary for a few seconds and the tone will shift to a more ambient, trippy chilled-out zen-like sound that I really enjoyed. You can switch the dynamic mode off and also revert to the original soundtrack if you wish so everybody should be satisfied.

All of that important preservation work acknowledged, we come to the new stuff. Most obvious are the brand-new visuals which really are beautiful. The dragon worlds and Avalar now look utterly sumptuous with so much more detail than was possible before. Obviously we cannot say for certain but this is perhaps what Insomniac would have wanted their games to look like if the technology had been available at the time. On the Playstation, they had to make do with simple colour schemes and basic textures to simulate the real things and define a level’s identity. Not so in Reignited. Flat greens are now proper grass with long blades that sway in the breeze, water looks good enough to drink and the smudgy, minimalistic backdrops now have some detail. It really was a joy to take my time exploring the familiar while absorbing the new.

Some levels in the sequels look like they have been revamped more than others but that’s down to their original designs. After all, some (especially in Year of the Dragon) felt a little uninspired back in the day and a retread of previously-utilised themes.

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The revamp is dramatic yet respectful [image: silconera.com]
The dragons have all been given unique, detailed looks and personalities too which is a massive upgrade over the original designs. Some of these look a bit too comical and over-the-top to me but otherwise it is a nice injection of variety and individuality which wasn’t present before. As mentioned earlier, the dragons still retain their original speech so it’s a nice little compromise between old and new in my opinion. Overall on the graphics front, I felt that Reignited had an almost Pixar-esque quality to its aesthetics and all three games were just so enjoyable to play through for that reason alone, let alone any others.

Obviously the only issue with these remakes being so authentic and true to the originals was that I absolutely caned them and literally had to impose play time limits on myself in order to refrain from completing them too quickly! The original trilogy was released between 1998 and 2000 and I’ve been playing them on and off via my original PS1 discs or the digital versions from the Playstation Store ever since so I know all of the secrets and solutions. Handily, Toys For Bob did attempt to add a little extra longevity with ‘Skill Points’. Skill Points first appeared in Spyro 2 and rewarded the player with an extra life for completing bonus tasks such as flaming all of a specific object within a level or beating a boss while taking no damage.

Similar challenges await in Reignited but this time around, many of the ‘flame all of X object’ Skill Point requirements have been replaced by new targets for variety’s sake. These include burning hidden objects (some of which are genuinely difficult to find) in the first game, completing three perfect laps of the supercharge circuit in Spyro 2‘s Fracture Hills level and beating the course records for the skateboard parks in the third game. Each game features two pages worth of challenges and these are worth doing to unlock the concept artwork which I quite liked the look of. There are trophies too of course and I assume that the Reignited Trilogy will be a relatively easy platinum. I achieved around 80% trophy completion without trying for example.

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Speedways look awesome and provide a nice challenge as usual but the controls feel a little off to me [image: gamepressure.com]
So as a remake of a fan-favourite set of games, Spyro Reignited Trilogy is a resounding success that managed to make me feel rather moist in a sexy way. Perfection is an impossible destination to reach however and so I must now – regrettably – lower the tone and talk about some of the what I didn’t like as well as what nobody will like.

The first collection of criticisms will probably only be relevant to those of us who played the original games and it’s to do with controlling Spyro and some of the hit detection. To me, Spyro felt more difficult to control at charging speed with slower rotation and a less compliant turning circle as opposed to the super-sharp handling in the OG games. Flames don’t seem quite as wide-reaching as before (feels like you have to be just a touch closer to actually make contact) and – most frustratingly – the gliding felt “off”.

It’s difficult to describe properly but I noticed that many of the glides between platforms were now more strict. I wouldn’t have thought twice about these glides in the original games but now it’s almost as if they are only just possible and on the very edge of Spyro’s capability. It’s almost as if he loses altitude that much faster and it’s only really a big issue in the first game which wasn’t equipped with the hover ability that afforded Spyro a little extra reach in the sequels. I experienced many annoying deaths in this way but I will admit that a lot of this was probably down to my instinctive behaviour (learned from years of memory-mapping the originals) being challenged by the remakes. I’m not sure if newcomers or those who didn’t play their PS1 copies into oblivion over the last two decades will feel the same but I thought it was worth noting.

Flight in the ‘speedway’ levels also felt a bit weird and not as tight as before. There were many times when cornering or making a sharp turn that Spyro felt like he was drifting wide or ‘sliding’ in the air like a racecar would when drifting around a corner, causing me to miscalculate and miss a target. Again, it’s no disaster and just took a little getting used to but even so, I’m not sure that understeer and a loss of traction is possible in mid-air…

There are a few other niggles with fiddly controls in some of the third game’s many unique missions/mini-games, some of which used custom mechanics and viewpoints. Skateboarding is one of the biggest culprits with the occasional bizarre collision detection and the game failing to register some of the more complex tricks. The other example that immediately springs to mind are the hideous controls for the speedboat in Seashell Shore which seem to continuously change depending on which way the boat is facing.

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Excuse the language but fuck the controls of this boat. Seriously. [image: gamepressure.com]
The game has also fallen foul of the need to be a little more politically sensitive in order to achieve a family-friendly age rating to slap on the box cover. The enemies in Twilight Harbour no longer resemble guerrilla fighters for example and their machineguns have been exchanged for comical paint guns; their grenades for explosive barrels. Guns were also taken away from the enemies in Spyro 2‘s Scorch level and replaced with catapults. Lastly, the fairies and various female characters are a lot less busty and sexualised this time around, particularly noticeable in the third game’s Desert Ruins level where the Lara Croft-imitating character of ‘Tara’ no longer has the titantic breasts to match her inspiration.

These alterations are not really “negative” changes that should affect your feelings towards Reignited but they stood out to me personally as a staunch anti-Political Correctness kind of guy. Other little differences that I wasn’t so excited about were Hunter’s new voice actor and a tiny portion of the updated soundtrack for Year of the Dragon. A few tracks sound very different (not bad just less recognisable vs the majority of Reignited‘s mixes) and I feel that Bamboo Terrace – one of my favourites – loses something without the chilled chanting in the background.

These are trivial moans that won’t apply to everybody. The universal gripes that should unite all players are the glitches however. It’s worth mentioning that I was lucky and managed to complete all three games without any major issues but looking around online, many have complained about game-breaking problems that render levels impossible to complete amongst other horror stories. Personally, I encountered some dodgy collision detection and occasional (but dramatic) framerate drops as well as a glitch at Lost Fleet’s skateboard race where crossing the line didn’t trigger the next lap (I had to keep trying and eventually I overcame it).

The blame for all of these technical issues can be levelled squarely at Activision and their insistence that the game be on store shelves in time for Christmas, pushing Toys For Bob hard in the process. They had already intended for Reignited to be released in September 2018 before pushing the date back, don’t forget. It’s the same reason that Spyro 2 and 3 don’t even ship on the physical disc and have to be downloaded as a 20GB+ “update”. My internet is perfectly fine for regular web browsing but too slow for fat-ass downloads like this and so I had almost completed the first Spyro before the rest of it had finished downloading in the background (it took FOUR DAYS). Worse still, there are (at the time of writing) no patches or word on forthcoming fixes for the bugs in this game.

All of which is a massive shame because Spyro Reignited Trilogy did pretty much everything right for me and was the first game in a long time that I couldn’t pull myself away from. To have such a good thing slightly spoilt by bugs and a game disc that may as well be a download code on a piece of paper is like enjoying a particularly tasty sandwich only for a seagull to swoop down and snatch the last mouthful. Shame on Activision and their pushy policy but much kudos to Toys For Bob for reviving a much-loved series in such an accomplished manner.

Conan [Playstation 2]

Note: This review is part of a series I am going to call “Resurrected Reviews”, essentially stuff that I wrote for previous (now deceased) blogs and review topics on various gaming forums over the years. I have dragged them kicking-and-a-screaming into the harsh light of the present day and revamped them where necessary. Some may say “Rehash” but I say “Recycling”.

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Release: 2004 | Developer: Cauldron | Publisher: TDK Mediactive | Also On: PC, Xbox, Gamecube

“What does not destroy me, makes me stronger”

When talking about the videogame adventures of Robert E Howard’s legendary barbarian warrior, most will be more familiar with the PS3 game by THQ, a very average 3D adventure game that I personally found to be akin to a poor man’s God of War. The game that I will be talking about now (also titled simply ‘Conan’) came before on the PS2 and Gamecube and was published by TDK, developed by Cauldron. It’s completely unrelated to the THQ game but would it be better for it? Well…

Picture this: after a mere ten minutes of gameplay, I was staring dully at the TV screen with mental despair taking hold. I was thinking, why oh why are there no good Conan games? The PS3 game was an un-enjoyable slog to the finish after just a few hours of playtime and there are no others that I know of aside from the PC Age of Conan MMO which I can’t be arsed with as I simply don’t ‘do’ PC games. The only other Conan game I have glimpsed came in the form of a few screenshots for an unreleased Atari Jaguar side-scrolling beat ‘em up (the very definition of obscure!) so I was desperate for this PS2 effort to satisfy the Conan fan in me. But no, it just had to be another bitter pill of disappointment.

Why are there no decent Conan games? Why? The films were great (well, the first one was. Conan the Destroyer isn’t quite the same and the remake is just pointless) but the books were even better. I’ve read every one of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and they were brilliant. Between these and the movie adaptations, there is a world of resource and inspiration for some good Conan games so why…are…there…no…good…Conan…games? WHY? WHY? WHERE ARE THE GOOD CONAN GAMES?!?

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Whew. That’s better. Talk about your pent up frustration. In the spirit of Conan himself, I persevered and so with pad in hand I asked Crom for the strength to beat this game and if he wouldn’t listen? To hell with him.

To give Conan some credit, the game is at least faithful to the source material when it comes to locations, weapons and even the characterisation of Conan himself. This isn’t Conan as played by Arnie but the real Conan from E. Howard’s books and – as a fan of those tomes – I really appreciated what Cauldron did to keep things legit and authentically presented. The ‘epic’ music is generic but a good fit for the game (nothing else to say about it to be frank).

Gameplay revolves dispatching enemies with various button combinations. You have light attacks, heavy attacks, grabs and a block button. These are utilised to pull off preset combos and by killing enemies the player earns points to spend on unlocking new, flashier moves – standard stuff. Movement however is really clunky and despite using a few different pads, Conan sometimes simply refused to move in the desired direction when changing course. It didn’t cause too many unnecessary deaths during my play-through but it’s pretty piss-poor when a game makes you question the condition of your controllers, especially when it turns out that they are all working correctly.

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This screen is actually from the Xbox version but I’m not sure I care enough.

If you do run out of health though then Conan is transported to the realm of Crom where you must defeat enemies in an enclosed arena in order to be fully restored to the spot where Conan snuffed it. Sounds pretty sweet right? Especially when you consider that the feature has unlimited uses. It’s actually the opposite though because these arena battles are much easier than battles in the mortal realm making Conan’s resurrections assured and the threat of enemies neutered. If you can’t ever technically be killed then where is the challenge? Conan’s apparent immortality also makes a mockery of boss battles because you can be infinitely restored to the spot with the enemy’s life bar still depleted.

The only way that you don’t get a chance to fight for Conan’s restoration is by falling foul of environmental hazards such as holes or traps (apparently Conan hasn’t died as a warrior thus denying him the right to be resurrected) but this still doesn’t excuse the ability to ignore strategy completely and abuse this mechanic. Ultimately, I wondered if there was any point at all in trying to utilise the game’s full range of moves because you may as well repeat the same handful of basic sword combos while spamming this revival ability. It’s certainly possible to beat the game this way with little trouble.

You can switch between swords, axes and maces throughout the game but again, unless you need the mace for beating down armoured foes more effectively, there’s no incentive to bother. There’s also a running side quest to locate and assemble all four pieces of the Atlantean Sword but any exploration is voided by the fact that a) environments are incredibly linear and bland and b) only one of the pieces is easy to miss with the others all in plain sight or after beating a boss. The Atlantean Sword deals with enemies in one hit and shamefully, I even killed the final boss with one wild swipe! Who tested this shit?

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Braving the harsh elements and wild animals. At least the feel of the character and setting(s) is there.

The main problem with this game is the clunkiness and just general, basic dullness of everything. It really is an exercise in getting from A to B by killing everything in between, pulling a few levers and avoiding pitfalls. Lots of games have adopted this approach in the past and have turned out really well but Conan is just so uninteresting to sit through with repetitive scraps that don’t ever offer something new or stylish to at least paper over the shortcomings. It does say something that my highlight of the game was the quick cinematic of Conan punching a camel in a marketplace, a reference to a humorous scene in the original Arnie film. It made me smile at least when nothing else did.

The sole reason I persevered to the end was because the authenticity to the original books was spot on and I still wanted to see what happened in the end. I can imagine a non-Conan fan playing this game and binning it after a few levels because as much as I appreciated the videogame renditions of stuff from the books, it was always a case of sitting down and saying “right, got to get this bloody Conan game finished so I can play something else” rather than enjoying the game. I’m bored just writing about it.

Now that I’m nearing the conclusion of this review, I’m looking back over my words and thinking that I haven’t really gone into much detail but the truth is, I just don’t have anything else to say. So…is this an angry rant ending on a mellow note? Not until I’ve gone over the game’s miserable save system! I knew there was something else I hated about Conan – must have blocked it out of my mind for a moment there. Well, there’s no use in burying my head in the sand so I’ll talk about it.

Conan needs to possess a crystal to save the game. You can save anywhere (good) BUT you can only carry four of the damn things at any one time (bad) and let me tell you: there’s nothing worse than trying to make your last crystal go as far as possible only to fall down a hidden pit or be killed by a barely-visible trap because it means slogging back through the whole unsaved section all over again, slaying the same boring enemies and looking at the same uninspiring scenery (extremely, diarrhoea-grade bad). Who thinks that weird save systems like this are a good idea? Fuck these people. A game this underwhelming didn’t need to be any worse but congratulations developers, you managed it.

Overall Thoughts

It’s a shame that the gameplay is so uninspiring and bland because the source material was treated really well with this one. Conan is at least authentic in spirit but that means little when you barely want to play the actual game. Another missed oppurtunity.