Monday, November 30, 2009

Retro Game of the Day! Gradius

Retro Game of the Day! Gradius

Yesirree - today's game is the great Gradius by Konami, released originally (arcade) in 1985 and ported a year later to NES and a good slew of other platforms. And still going strong! Some of you may remember this game under the title "Nemesis."

And so, here we have the game that really popularized the whole "collect powerups to increase your arsenal" in videogaming. I am not sure if it was the very first to have any level of a powered-up shot, but it's certainly the one which did it most notably to begin with.

A standard horizontal shooter, and a fairly colorful one for its time, you would kill waves of enemies - certain foes would leave behind a "powerchip" in their wake, if you grabbed it you would increment a meter at the bottom of the screen. When you collected enough you could activate a powerup of your choosing (speed up at the low-end, options, shields, alternate weapons). On that note, the "invincible options" that shadow your ship (and showed up in many similar games) also can trace their origins here, though I would be interested to see if they showed up in some obscure game previously.

Gradius followed a long line of similarly-presented shooters, one of the more notable efforts being Konami's own Scramble (to which this game can directly trace its lineage). This title upgraded the general presentation of this sort of game, with an end boss waiting at each level's conclusion (often with their own "power bars" which must first be shot away at, to reach their core weakspots). The graphics and sound FX were also a noticeable upgrade from what many other scrolling-space shooters looked like in those days.

Gradius is a fairly lean game by today's standards, though still difficult and certainly very playable. It can easily be considered one of the most renowned games of all time, which has left a very notable impression on the entire gaming landscape. Its legacy is long and we will still see games bearing it's namesake, and play style, for years to come, even if it has been out of fashion for generations.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Retro Game of the Day! Alien Crush

Retro Game of the Day! Alien Crush

Alien Crush by Compile/Naxat, released in 1988 for TurboGrafx-16. Ah yes, video pinball, "how the tables have turned" (that would be a good title for a documentary about pins..)

And so I give you another TurboGrafx-16 launch title, as opposed to some of the other offerings this looked rather tepid at the time. You had Legendary Axe which looked.. legendary, Blazing Lazers which had a goofy name but beautiful screenshots, you had Vigilante which had a chick to save, and I don't really need to explain R-Type at this point. And so too you had this Alien Crush, which also had a goofy name (Orange Crush, with xenos? Wha?) and also some nice looking visuals - "but, it was pinball."

My not-quite-15-yr-old-self did give this game the once-over at the TG-16 Pre-Launch event that year (I think I just blew my budget for hyphens for the whole of 2010) and my attentions quickly scattered to some of the other offerings noted above. I never was much of a fan of any kind of pinball, video or otherwise (with certain exceptions) and I should expect that may from my generation felt the same. Well that is a shame, as I would discover years later, that Alien Crush is a pretty well-assembled little piece of software!

As it has been alluded to, my knowledge of the more intricate workings of pinball is not quite stellar, though I do know that this particular game has been critiqued a bit for how the physics are portrayed. Certainly no deal-breaker, as anyone who sits down to play this will have a hard time not getting sucked in anyway. The game does a fine job of melding classic pinball gameplay with options afforded it that could never be done in the physical realm (satisfying my rule of "why does it have to exist as a videogame?"). The whole affair is tastefully done, the graphics and effects are crisp and clean, and the game is quite addictive.

So what is the overall problem then? I'll hold that video pinball as an idea, on the whole, is a bastard child of sorts. It never received much love from either side (the dedicated pinball wizards, the serious videogamers). There's been more than a handful of very well-presented efforts, Alien Crush amongst the most famous of them, and these games are so timeless between their design and execution to merit classic status - but will forever be considered a mere sidestep in the annals of gaming unfortunately.

All of that being said, I implore the reader to seek out such games, they are sadly under-represented and offer a blissful experience for pure gaming, for what they are these games are quite unique. At some point I will dig through the sequels in the Crush series (Devil's Crush, Jaki Crush) but for now, get it on with some GutBusters...

And just for fun, some (vague, and odd) notes on the development that produced this game. Pink shirts!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Retro Game of the Day! Viewpoint

Retro Game of the Day! Viewpoint

Welcome to Viewpoint airlines, ladies and gentlemen. Please put you tray table in its upright position against the seat in front of you, and fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a deadly ride...

Released in 1992 for the Neo Geo, Viewpoint was quite the looker of a game in its day. But be warned, if you've never picked up the controller to try this one out, and you are planning to now - prepare to die. A LOT. Even for seasoned shooter veterans, this game will put you through your paces as you adjust to survival in isometric space.

Borrowing heavily from many other games, Viewpoint took the angled presentation of Zaxxon and smeared a healthy dose of R-Type all over it. The game is a bit of a whackjob to get your head around, but persist and you will have a good time murdering its bosses and solving its puzzles.

The presentation looks gorgeous, I really want them to rebuild this in stereoscopic 3D somehow as the whole thing looks like you could nearly reach into the screen and pluck all the individual players right from the game with your hands. And eat them like delicious candies. Why must we live in a world where there are no Viewpoint candies! It sucks so hard!

The gameplay is your standard fare, as alluded to - couple the nice polish with your usual options (a variety of special bombs, power up your pea shooter, adopt some smaller "help" ships to strengthen your cause, charge up a megablast, etc). You've seen it all before, but Viewpoint does it especially well.
The game saw some ports to other platforms, infuriating the Neo Geo purists - but those guys are always looking for things to get angry about. The PlayStation version is especially noteworthy, someone had the bright idea to obliterate the nifty pixel-art look and attach a standard 3D rendered style instead. Like it or not, still an interesting modification worth investigating.

Viewpoint is certainly not for everyone, but it absolutely belongs in your Neo Geo collection as it is quite a unique game, and any gamer with a soft spot for outer-space shooters will enjoy going a few rounds with this masterpiece.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Retro Game of the Day! Sword of Sodan

Retro Game of the Day! Sword of Sodan

Sword of Sodan by Discovery/Innerprise, published for Sega Genesis by EA in 1990.

Where to begin -this requires some backstory. I'll preface by saying that first of all, this is well-known for being a horrible game - but at the time (1st generation Genesis titles), any non-Japanese developed games for the system were immediately going to be called into question in the regard of quality; most were by EA, and generally they were unusual and sloppy (Budokan, Zany Golf, Populous) but they stood out compared to anything otherwise available at the time. Also, the Genesis release list was rather short overall, so new releases (crap or not) were met some kind of acclaim regardless.

Such was the world that Sword of Sodan was born into. Furthermore, this was a port of an Amiga game, one which had shown up as a feature some years earlier in Game player's Magazine. With it's 256-color palette, ginormous sprites, and brutal violence, the game (like many Amiga offerings of the day) looked head-and-shoulders above what any other system could produce (console, arcade, anything). We gamers drooled over titles like this - when it was announced that the game would be receiving a port to Genesis, it suddenly became one to watch for!

The game arrived - as expected for an Amiga port, it lost some of its visual luster, but still looked impressive enough (giant sprites, fairly detailed graphics, and oh yes, a little of the old ultraviolence). Unfortunately, the game just was not very fun.

You controlled a warrior, "dude or chick" - each one rather deft with a sword, though you couldn't tell by playing this game! You walked left or right, stabbing away at your enemies - stab enough and they'll fall over and die. Some fallen foes will drop potions, which grant you different powers a more powerful fire sword, health recharge, etc) but mix them improperly and you could waste potion, or even lose health.

The game was horribly assembled with clunky controls, garbage hit detection, and outright gnarly level design. But at the time, it was different, it was violent (check out that beheading!) and it was there. It's not aged well at all, though when it released Sword of Sodan was noteworthy and fun to tool around with for a couple of hours.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Retro Game of the Day! Bonk's Adventure

Retro Game of the Day! Bonk's Adventure

Bonk's Adventure by Red/Hudson/NEC/your mom for the TurboGrafx-16, released in 1990 as one of its flagship titles.

This little fella here was supposed to be the Turbo's answer to Mario. Preceding Sonic by a decent margin, he would have been the Nintendo Mascot Plumber's first official "rival" - but Bonk never even had a chance!

Not that it is any fault of the game's, anyway. Though he wasn't for everyone, Bonk certainly lived in a colorful world full of prehistoric enemies to quell - back in the day, this was the first viable "character action game" of the platformer style to really try and give Mario a run for his money. I have no idea how it performed in Japan, but the game really fell on deaf ears when released in the US. The TurboGrafx-16 console had a good deal of press coverage when it released the preceding year, but as time went by it quickly lost valuable ground to Nintendo's aging 8-Bit system and Sega's new, "more powerful" 16-Bit Genesis system.

Bonk was a caveman with a huge noggin, good for bashing into foes - what's more, the player could jump around and invert, landing head-first on enemies. You could get some pretty decent momentum (and points) racked up by doing this in succession.

Otherwise, the game was pretty standard fare (I say that a lot, don't I!) Proceed to the level's end, dispatch the boss, wash/rinse/repeat. In Bonk's defense, the bosses were particularly large and colorful, easily dwarfing their 8-Bit counterparts at the time - this game looked (and sounded) quite impressive!

In the end, Bonk lacked the marketability of a game like Sonic (or, of course, Mario) for many reasons. Not a bad game at all, just one which never received a proper chance due to releasing on "that other system" (and don't be mistaken, I love the TurboGrafx-16/PC-Engine!). A flurry of sequels followed, some direct and other indirect (futuristic Bonk the shooter was - Zonk!) and eventually he showed up on the rival consoles (NES, GB, SNES). A nice little game in its day, and one which is still worth unearthing now. In fact, I have been looking for an excuse to finally try out the SNES sequel...!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Retro Game of the Day! Super Mario Bros. 2

Retro Game of the Day! Super Mario Bros. 2

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, of course, and that reminds me of Super Mario Bros. 2 - released in very limited quantities in the US in October of 1988, we didn't get many copies out our way (Northeast) until days before the holiday. I pestered my poor mom to drive 45 minutes out of town to track down a copy the day before she was supposed to be cooking up a turkey. My poor mom! What a spoiled kid, right?

Hey, it's not entirely my fault. I needed this game, like a normal person needs oxygen. Being a member of "the Nintendo Fun Club," Nintendo was sure to send me a promo copy of their new Nintendo Power magazine - cover story was their new blockbuster-to-be Super Mario 2, follow-up to one of the most-loved games of all time. This was 100% total media manipulation of 13-year-olds!

But ah - the game looked so good. Compared to its predecessor, Mario 2 was so much more. So many colors, so many different worlds - new enemies to kill, new techniques to attack (no more jumping and killing, now you got to pick up and throw items). New characters (pick Mario, Luigi, Toad the Mushroom Retainer, or Princess Peach) and to top it off, each character had unique abilities. Well, Mario played it petty straight I suppose, but everyone else was unique.

This game was enormously charming and compelling, everything felt straight out of a cartoon even more so than the first one. To top it off, the music was so happy and bouncy (and, no lie, it still regularly bops through my head all of these years later).

Of course, a game like Mario is huge, and so a departure like this is going to have its share of detractors. The story, famously, is thus: the "true" Mario 2, in Japan, was very similar to the first (same looks, same engine) with the difficulty cranked WAY up. Fearing that the wussy Western players wouldn't accept this, Nintendo modified another game ("Doki Doki Panic," based on some Japanese TV show or something) and essentially Mario-ized it. This seemed strange, as there were quite a few differences between how the two played, but no one cared at the time. It looked good. It was fun.

Even so, there's plenty of folks who even today deride SMB2 USA (as it is often referred to) as "not a true Mario game," an" aberration," even blasphemous. Bah! I was very happy with this game, even if it was a fairly completely different game - perhaps that is why (I loved the 1st Mario, but come on, everyone played that title backwards, forwards and sideways, and something different was certainly welcome).

I will take issue with one thing - the game was a lot easier to pick up and play than its predecessor. I suppose I was a bit of a Nintendo maniac back in the day, but even I was sort of disappointed with how easily one could breeze through the game. It didn't put up much of a fight - I guess loading you down with extra-extra-EXTRA lives and a few well-placed warp zones made it easy to zoom through the entire game with minimal effort, if you knew what you were doing. Otherwise, the game was fairly long and engaging, and well-designed enough to keep you on your toes. I guess I gotta blame myself for being weak and skipping through (though I eventually did play through all the levels - well, nearly!)

Love it or hate it, whichever camp you reside in, there can be no argument that SMB2 was a landmark game for a landmark series, and despite how one feels now, it was hard not to love this when it was The New Hotness. A beautifully compelling world, a new way to play, all wrapped up in an enjoyable package. The sweet animated ending was just the icing on the cake. Some folks saw "bah, stick with the 16- or 32-bit upgraded versions," but I say the first Mario 2 is the best!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Retro Game of the Day! Donkey Kong 3

Retro Game of the Day! Donkey Kong 3

Donkey Kong 3 by Nintendo, arcade release in 1983. Witness the sad, forgotten shame of Nintendo's timeline.

Alright, that would be somewhat of an overstatement - as well, that dubious honor belongs to either the "3-D" Virtual Boy, the snafu which led to the Sony PlayStation's creation (it was originally going to be joint effort between Nintendo and Sony, as an add-on CD-Rom for the SNES), perhaps the nearly-invisible GBA original screen. I guess by way of comparison, DK3 isn't all that terrible.

Still, this was quite a departure from what made the first two games in the series so wonderful, and as a result, it is quite forgettable. Ditching the idea of Mario altogether, you know control the moves of one Stanley the Bugman - protecting your greenhouse from the titular Ape who's invaded and is causing a ruckus. He is stirring up trouble in the form of insects who want to steal your flowers - to defend, you must blats bug spray at the rankled bugs, and also at DK's heine. Shoot him enough and you'll advance a round; protect your flowers from theft, and you'll rack up bonus points.

That is about it for Donkey Kong 3. Gone is the innovative platforming, instead we have some awkward shooting wrapped up in a very bizarre theme. I mean, who writes this stuff? I am often bewildered by some of the thought processes that must have gone into the creation of these older games, specifically the Japanese ones. The older American and European game developments were fairly well-documented (well, at least for my Western Eyes to read!) but we never really hear much of what went into the construction of these older Japanese titles. Once in awhile Shigeru Miyamoto would drop some kind of note "our games must be full of heart, be fun, and scare you like I was scared by caves and dogs as a child!" Great, what?

Anyway, it is difficult to be harsh on Nintendo for a game like DK3, they gave us so much other wonderful entertainment during the era that this is a forgivable side-step (and hey, it's not like this game is unplayably bad or anything). Who knows, if they insisted on sticking more closely to what was previously successful, perhaps we could never have got as wonderful a Super Mario Bros. as we did, and then the whole world would be different, and horrible! People would not be playing video games now - they'd be outside, enjoying the sunlight! Perhaps taking in the theater, or playing sports with their kids! Oh, wait...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Retro Game of the Day! Golden Axe

Retro Game of the Day! Golden Axe

Golden Axe by Sega for Genesis (and several other platforms), first appearing in arcades in 1989 and drifting over to consoles in the next couple of years afterward.

Let's get this out of the way immediately - for convenience, you may just want to revisit the earlier review of Alien Storm and just replace all instances of "aliens" and "technology"with "barbarians" and "medieval." The two games bear more than a passing resemblance to one another. This is essentially another in a long line of beat-'em-ups popularized by earlier games such as Double Dragon.

At the outset, the game gives you the choice of three warriors to pick from, each looking like they've stepped off the canvas of a Frazetta painting - Ax Battler, the muscle-bound brute; Tyris Flare, the Amazonian Valkyrie - and Gilius Thunderhead, "the little Nordic Guy." Each play very similarly, though each has a different weapon range and potential magic ability (pick up MP along the way and unleash a "super bomb" depending on your level.)

The game is pretty basic otherwise - walk to the right, kill everything that moves (or die by their hands!) Kill a group of foes to advance to the next segment, and of course there is a boss to contend with at each level's conclusion.

The other catch here is that you can mount different creatures for increased tactical advantage, to the tune of fireball-blasting or tail-whipping. Be careful, as your enemies can mount the same creatures and make short work of you just the same!

Overall, Golden Axe is a fun romp which has not aged terribly wonderfully, though it is still fun to fire up these types of games once in awhile to let off some steam. When the game released it was praised for its graphics and control, and the world it presents is compelling if predictable. Golden Axe is one of those games which was a big hit upon release and still continues to coast on the memories that original popularity even today.