Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Vertical Shooters for the NES

The Nintendo Entertainment System needs no introduction.  While it was known mainly for platformers such as Super Mario Bros. and the like, it had a decent selection of shooters.  In this post I'll run down some quick reviews of the games that I have.  If you notice a game missing, its because I don't have it.  Keep in mind this is my opinion, and everyone has their own.

Granted, we are talking about an 8 bit system here, so lets keep our expectations in check.  The graphics are going to be limited for sure, as well as the music.  What I'm focusing on here is  gameplay.  For the record, there are a few things I look for in a game, and these may bias my opinions from the start.  I will just list these at the start of each capsule, since I feel they are important facts to know about all of the games I will mention.
  1. Is rapid fire default? (if its not, you'd better have a controller with a turbo button)
  2. Do you get set back when you die? (I hate this)
  3. Is the difficulty curve reasonable? (I don't mean if the game is easy; I mean does the game's difficulty gradually increase, or is it nuts from the start?)
I have listed these in loose order, from worst to best.

1942
1. no rapid fire
2. start back after death
3. progressive difficulty curve
Man, is this game primitive or what.  You could have told me this was an Atari game, and I might have believed you.  While the sprites are very basic, and the backgrounds may as well not be present, the horrible, horrible beeping will irritate you to no end.  The gameplay is difficult, sure, but you won't want to continue playing this past a couple of stages because you won't be able to handle the beeping.  It's like someone knows you don't understand morse code, but decides to communicate with you in that manner anyway.  And the only thing you can do about it is turn the game off.  Brutal. Score: 3/10

Xevious



1. semi-rapid fire (slow, basically useless)
2. start back after death
3. progressive difficulty curve
This game is heralded by some for being the first game to utilize two planes of attack, shooting straight ahead and dropping bombs on the ground level.  While that is great and all, the gameplay is average.  Enemy shapes are essentially squares, circles, and triangles; pretty plain all around.  The music sounds like binary code, why did they even bother?  Its hard to keep wanting to play.
Score: 3.5/10


Star Force

1. no rapid fire
2. start back after death
3. progressive difficulty curve
Is this a progenitor of the Star Soldier series?  It has the look and feel of Hudson's landmark series, just not as refined or smooth.  This game is kinda average and sucky.  Visuals are bland, power ups are virtually nonexistant.  I think that you can actually shoot and destroy the power ups before you even pick them up!  Since I was using the turbo feature on the NES Advantage, I wasn't exactly a surgeon with my shooting.  Why would someone design this feature?  
Score: 4/10


Image Fight

1. sort of?  default is a slow rapid fire (you're better off using turbo)
2. start back after death
3. hard
I like that you can acquire options that hangout beside you.  There are weapons to collect to vary your firepower.  The sprite designs are uninspired, and sometimes their colors blend in with the background.  This game has bad music.  There are enemies that send homing missiles after you in the first stage.  The first stage!  Overall, its not very enjoyable.  
Score: 4.5/10


Alpha Mission



1. no rapid fire
2. start back after death
3. not sure
This game has that two-planes of attack feature, where you bomb targets with the A button and fire your normal shot with the B button.  There are a decent variety of weapons to pick up and select from by hitting select.  It is a slow paced game, and it is not really easy, but its not very hard.  One annoying feature is that your ship slows down to default speed ever time you start a new stage.  What kind of reward is that for beating the previous stage?  The music is really primitive, and just a tad above random beeps and boops.  
Score: 5/10


Tiger-Heli

1. no rapid fire
2. start back after death
3. progressive difficulty curve
This game offers primitive graphics, so much so that it could pass for an Atari 5200 game.  You shots only travel halfway up the screen.  I can see where they were going with the power ups, but the execution is not great.  There are two nice features, though.  You can pick up mini-helicopter options to enhance your firepower, and if you are hit from the side your screen clearing-bomb (assuming you still have one) will detonate, effectively saving you a life.  Other than that, move on.
Score: 6/10


Sky Shark

1. no rapid fire
2. start back when die
3. hard
This game is a twitch shooter.  The enemy planes come fast and take hard angles at you, firing fast bullets.  There is no hanging out at the bottom of the screen for safety here, as enemies come from behind fairly often.  The power ups appear after destroying a string of red enemies.  The problem is that these enemies move so fast, that if you are not in the right position you will not hit them all, and there goes your chance at a power up.  The power ups I did manage to procure were standard, nothing interesting.  The music is ok.
Score: 5/10


Twin Cobra

1. no rapid fire
2. resume play where you died
3. progressive difficulty curve
This game is easily mistaken for any other NES helicopter vertical shooter.  It has some chopping scrolling, horrible music, and boring power ups.  Because you this is the first game on this list where you spawn on the spot where you died, it actually makes it a somewhat enjoyable game.
Score:  6/10


Starship Hector
1. no rapid fire
2. start back after death
3. progressive difficulty curve
Is it me, or does this ship seem like it was designed to be a Star Trek game?  And what is up with the title?  Anyway, there are two planes of attack in this game as well.  Your ship has a lifebar, easing the difficulty a bit.  The enemies are interesting; there is some kind of aquatic theme, with crawfish and fish enemies throughout.  Its not bad, and its not good.
Score: 6/10



Star Soldier

1. no rapid fire
2. start back after death
3. progressive difficulty curve
So here is the NES port of Hudson's seminal Turbografx series.  It's just ok here.  The gameplay is average, and doesn;t really offer much more than some of the other weaker games on this list.  The music is a short repeating loop; not good.  If you are a fan of the Star Soldier series, its worth a play, but if not...
Score 6/10



The Guardian Legend



1. no rapid fire
2. no - one life with life bar
3. progressive difficulty
This game is pretty unique.  It is a shooter mixed with adventure-like exploration.  I found the code to play just the shooter segments, for the purposes of this list.  This game has some fast scrolling backgrounds, with impressive overall visuals for the NES.  The gameplay is smooth, and there are interesting bosses to fight.  A nice game overall.  Maybe someday I'll play the entire game.
Score: 6/10



Zanac

1. no rapid fire
2. start back when you die
3. are you kidding?
I want to like this game.  It has the right pedigree, the right amount of leveled power ups, lots of action, no slow down or flicker, and other attributes that great shooters have.  Its just too hard.
Score: 7/10


Gyruss

1.  no rapid fire
2. respawn on the spot
3. progressive difficulty
This game is pretty unique.  You fly toward the center of the screen, rotating all around 360 degrees.  You fire toward the center of the screen, shooting enemies far or near as they approach.  The gameplay is smooth and enjoyable.
Score: 7/10



Summer Carnival '92 - Recca


1. rapid fire!
2. respawn on the spot
3. too hard!
A very busy and intense shooter.  This game was a tournament game, and boy is that fitting.  It will easily weed out novices and give veterans a run for their money.  I didn't know the NES was capable of so much on-screen action.  Seriously, there is so much happening that it is hard to focus on your ship.  This inevitably leads to lots of flicker.  The music is cool, and fits the mood of the game.  This is a game that every hardcore shooter fan should play; just don't expect to get too far.  I enjoyed getting my ass handed to me.
Score: 8/10



Gun Nac





1. rapid fire
2. no start back
3. mild difficulty
This gameplay is very smooth and fun.  There are a variety of power ups that can be leveled up.  Money can be collected to purchase upgrades in between stages.  The sprite designs are creative and unique.  Getting hit will power down your weapon instead of killing you.  The music is ok, but the overall sense of humor, excellent gameplay, and tongue in cheek aesthetic puts this game near the top. Score: 9.5/10


Crisis Force




1. rapid fire
2. no start back
3. progressive difficulty
Crisis Force is the pinnacle of vertical shooters on the NES.  This game plays and looks like a 16 bit generation game.  The graphical design is top notch.  There is a ton of parallax scrolling, and inventive backgrounds.  Your ship can transform into different modes, each with a unique style of fire and independently ungradable.  The difficulty is a tad on the easy side for veterans, but it still makes for a great experience.  This game was never released in the States, so you have three options:  import, emulate (or play on Everdrive), or buy a repro cart like I did.  This game is highly coveted, so unless you have money to burn, option 1 is out.  Either way, this is the best shooter on the NES, so try to play it any way you can.
Score: 10/10

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Everdrive Basics

All you need is just one cartridge?
Retro gaming is reaching new heights in popularity.  The systems of the 80's and 90's are adored by anyone who grew up in that era, and to younger folk as well.  Despite the technological achievements of modern consoles, older games have an immutable nostalgia factor, which, coupled with adulthood, professions, and incomes, is a perfect storm for a retro revival.  As fun as it is to relive your youth and re-experience the games you played as a kid, the simple laws of economics come crashing down on you.  You are reminded that the number of thirty year old cartridges that are available and still functional are in limited supply.  Former best-selling games, produced in the millions, command near retail prices and in some cases, several times that.

So what is one to do?  Starting a collection now is cost prohibitive, as the best time to collect for a console generation is generally two to three generations after its expiration, and for the 8 and 16 bit generations, that time is long gone.  The emulation scene is abundant and as accessible as ever, but to the more discerning gamer who actually remembers what it was like to hold those wired controllers and persevere through blinking screens, actual hardware is a necessary part of the experience.
Compatible with TurboGrafx-16 or PC Engine with the flip of a switch

Enter: Everdrive.  The Everdrive is a flash memory cartridge that allows you to play downloaded roms (presumably backups of games you already own) on original hardware.  Granted, the ethics and copyright laws are muddled on these ancient games, and people interpret them differently, and so what you decide to do is up to you.
Customize your folders to your needs

Some argue that playing Everdrives is emulation but that would be incorrect.  The rom is identical to those on a cart, and the actual system is doing the same work and outputting the same results as an actual cart would.  So it is not emulation, but it is utilizing the widespread accessibility of roms found online.  You are playing on an actual console with an actual controller, not at a computer.
Play imports with ease

There are a couple of varieties for each of the console systems, varying in levels of compatibility with certain games that require specialized chips.  Even the most basic Everdrive is compatible with about 99% of the console's library.  Some game that require specialized chips, like those found in Virtua Racing or Star Fox will not be compatible with the basic model.  To play games that require specialized chips, you would have to choose the next tier of Everdrives.

Everdrives are made by a Krikzz, who is based in the Ukraine, and he sells online from his store: http://krikzz.com/store/.  There are Chinese knock offs floating around online, but I would warn against them as while you may save a few bucks, there is no official support, and they can be bricked by the wrong operating system installed.

Everdrives are easy to use:

  • Insert an SD or micro SD (4 GB is more than sufficient space for 8-bit systems, SNES may require 8 GB) card into your computer
  • Download the operating system from the website onto the card
  • Load your roms in folders onto the card
  • Insert Everdrive into console and play

Custom cases are available online
I currently own versions for the NES, SNES, Genesis, and TurboGrafix.  These are all region-free, so formerly region locked games can be played with ease.  I can't stress enough how awesome this fact is, for I actually own a PC-Engine Duo (Japanese), not a Turbo Duo (domestic), so to be able to have both available on one system is magnificent.
An example of a stupidly expensive game that I can now play

I don't have a monstrous collection like some other retro collectors; I collect mainly the games that I grew up playing or have a preference for (like shoot'em ups, and fighters, and beat'em ups).  While I can fit every game on each Everdrive, I don't.  Having every single game is too cluttered, and takes too long to search out what I want to play if you load several hunderd roms on it.  Not to mention the fact that there is a lot of garbage out there.  I made folders for each genre, and I find that works nicely for me.  The vast majority or roms that I have loaded on it are games that I own, with some pricey exceptions that I will probably never own.  Sometimes I hear good things about a game, and I load that rom to check it out.  If I end up liking the game a lot, I'll seek out a physical copy, depending on cost.  

Rare classic for the PC Engine
So, take it for what it is.  They may not be for everyone, and that's fine.  It is an option available today that was every kid's dream in the 90's. If it is something that you might be interested in, look it up online, watch a YouTube video of one in action, and see for yourself.  Classic Gaming Quartley has produced some nice video reviews that are a bit more in-depth than this post, so have a look. Thanks for reading.


Sunday, April 3, 2016

Maximo Ghosts to Glory Review for the Playstation 2


Maximo is a 3D platformer adventure series loosely based on the Ghosts 'n Goblins series.  Being a PS2 release in 2001, it was a new incarnation of the beloved series.  The protagonist is not Sir Arthur, but Maximo, a young king trying to rescue his queen from the evil king Achille.  There's other bits to the story, but suffice to say you have to rescue your girl.

The decision to bring the franchise into 3D was inevitable.  Ever since the late 90's, 2D was reminiscent of inferior gaming platforms.  There was no going back to 2D gaming, so Capcom forged ahead into the modern age.  Although it was initially conceived for the N64, it ended up being a PS2 exclusive.  I think that the game benefitted from being delayed as the power of the PS2 produces some of the best visuals on the console.  The character models have a unique style to them, balanced between a cartoon and anime aesthetic.  The stage design is well thought out, and truly retains the spirit of the platformer genre.
The first stage welcomes you with a musical score that you will immediately recognize

As far as gameplay, control is tight and necessarily so.  The double jump returns and is very necessary.  Platforms, crevices, lava, poisonous water, falling ground, and other hazards are all around you, so you need to be mindful of your surroundings.  Given its roots, the path to take is still fairly linear, as the environment funnels you in the general direction of progress.  There are still areas to explore that are partially or totally obscured, and often they are worth the time to investigate.  If you appear to be stuck, there may be hidden switches to trigger, in order to open a path.
Like all 3D platformers, the behavior of the camera can make or break a game's playability; in this case the camera does its best to keep your focus ahead of you, but if it strays due to changes in direction, it can easily be restored to behind you with a tap of the R1 shoulder button.  This seems to be one of the major complaints of this game, but as long as you get in the habit of refocusing the camera before major leaps you will be fine.


The life bar is a welcome addition
Following in the lineage of its series, Maximo is known to be difficult, although not nearly as hard as its predecessors.  You have an life bar that expands with additional armor.  Each armor segment can take a few hits before it pops off, revealing your iconic boxer shorts.
If this is what you're wearing, you don't have long 





Once disrobed, you can take a few more hits before you die.  There are checkpoints throughout the stage, so you don't have to start each stage from the beginning when you die.

You can breath a sigh of relief whenever you reach one of these
This time around, instead of throwing a lance, you are equipped with a sword and shield.  Initially, you have two attacks at your disposal: a slash and overhead swing.  This seems limited, but it is to force you to learn how to use your attacks in different scencarios.  Eventually you pick up new skills as power up drops, and add them to your skill set.  Your skill set has a certain number of "locked" skills, that you will not loose when you die.  The number of locked skills that you can save increases every time you defeat a boss.  There will be lots of skills to pick up, and you can decide at any time by pressing the select button which skills you want locked.  Other skills that can be obtained are the ability to throw your shield, different sword strokes, the ability to force hidden chests to the surface, and many others.
You'll have your preferred skills after a few playthroughs
The enemies are primarily skeletons, differentiated by outfits.  They have varying attacks, weaknesses, patterns, and strength.  An attack that works on one may not work on another.  Running through the stage and hacking past everything may not work, as you'll likely take lots of damage in the process.  A better approach is isolate each enemy when possible, luring them out one by one.

Your sword strength can be powered up as well.  There are three levels to power up: the flaming sword, the glowing sword, which I presume to be lightning, and the purple havoc sword, each one more powerful than the last.
The flaming sword is a start, but it gets better
Once you pass the first stage, you enter a hub world where you can enter any of the remaining stage one worlds in any order.  It is here that you can save your progress, albeit it costs 100 coins per save.  This is one aspect of the game that I didn't care for, but coins are plentiful.  Once all the stages in the hub world are passed, the bridge to the tower in the center lowers and you can enter to battle the boss of that world.  Each one is as different as they come, and in traditional platformer fashion, trial and error is the key to success.
Pay to save? 
It is a challenging game, but a rewarding one.  It is a game that requires patience and grit to get through, but the gameplay is so good that it makes you want to try again.  It came out during a time where there were so many games realeased at once, it immediately got buried.  It is worth a second look, and can be found for just a few dollars.  If you like platformers with old-school aesthetics, give this one a chance.