Category Archives: Retro Reports

Code Name: Viper – Part 2

ViperTItleCode Name: Viper
Nintendo Entertainment System, 1990
Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Capcom

Last time, we talked about the underrated gameplay of Capcom’s Code Name: Viper. Today, we’ll be talking about its inspirations, or perhaps more accurately, its source material.

It would be diplomatic to say that Code Name: Viper was heavily inspired by Namco’s Rolling Thunder. It would be accurate to say that nearly nearly every aspect of Code Name: Viper’s design was stolen from Rolling Thunder.

Rolling Thunder Screenshot 2015-10-19 21-50-55

Originally released to arcades in late 1986, Rolling Thunder puts the player in control of Albatross, a secret agent on a quest to rescue his partner, Leila. But Rolling Thunder’s epic backstory isn’t relevant to this discussion. If you’d like to learn more about Rolling Thunder, you should read Kurt Kalata’s excellent writeup over at Hardcore Gaming 101. And after you’ve read that, head over to USGamer and listen to the fantastic episode of Retronauts Micro on the entire Rolling Thunder series. Done? Good.

rollingcoverWhat is relevant to this discussion is that in 1989, Namco decided to to port Rolling Thunder to the Famicom/NES. Tengen would publish the game in the US, in one of its infamous, black, off-brand cartridges. If the Internet is to be believed, the developer tasked with porting Rolling Thunder to Nintendo’s console (at least in part) was none other than Arc System Works. Today, Arc is well-known in gaming circles as the developer of the increasingly eccentric Guilty Gear franchise of fighting games. Back in 1989, however, Arc would have been just a plucky little upstart development house, somewhere in the middle of its first or second year of existence.

Arc’s port of Rolling Thunder isn’t bad, so much as it is drab and unrefined. The game’s color palette is remarkably restrained: everything looks like it was originally optimized to run on a CGA monitor. And in case you’re under 30 and that reference flew over your head, just take a look:

Rolling Thunder Screenshot 2015-10-19 21-50-22

Until the color green makes its appearance in the third level, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that Arc had intentionally restricted themselves to blues, whites, and blacks. Thankfully, things get a little more varied and colorful as the game progresses.

Rolling Thunder Screenshot 2015-10-19 22-10-34
Say, this verdant hideout looks familiar, yet ugly.

While Rolling Thunder for the NES borders on indisputably ugly, it plays remarkably well. Generally speaking, the action in Rolling Thunder takes place across two parallel planes – a high plane and a low plane. Albatross and the legion of masked enemies that stand in his way can freely travel between those two planes by way of a perpendicular leap. As Albatross has the smallest of life bars, the player is forced to dart between both planes, around cover, and into hidden doors in order to get the drop on enemies without taking any damage. It’s a nice little gameplay cocktail which makes for some fairly exciting action. One can’t help but think that Arc had the Rolling Thunder formula fairly close to perfected. If only they had another bite at the apple, what might they have accomplished?

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-19 22-17-38
Ahh. That’s better, yet refreshingly similar.

As luck would have it, we know the answer to that question. Code Name: Viper is Arc’s second bite. You may have noticed that the last paragraph was comprised entirely of re-purposed and slightly altered sentences from last week’s post. That’s because Code Name: Viper is comprised entirely of re-purposed and slightly altered gameplay concepts and graphics from Rolling Thunder.

You see, in 1990, despite being an extremely prolific developer in its own right, as well as the owner of some of the hottest video game franchises on the planet, Capcom inexplicably decided that it needed to publish what amounted to a port of Rolling Thunder on the NES.

Rolling Thunder Screenshot 2015-10-20 22-41-23
Blue, blue, electric blue, that’s the color of this room. Oh, hey, grenades!

Perhaps this was some sort of jab at its arcade competitor, Namco? The world may never know.

Code Name Viper - Night 2 Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-11-17
Blue, blue, electric blue… that’s the color of this room, too. Might as well be the same room, really. Oh, hey, Molotov cocktails!

Again, if the Internet is to be believed, Capcom hired the uniquely qualified Arc System Works to do the grunt work. The end result: Code Name: Viper, which is both highly derivative of Rolling Thunder, yet refined and  improved in nearly every single way.

The similarities in both of Arc’s games are readily apparent. All you have to do is compare the sprites for Mr. Smith and Albatross:

ViperThunderShoot

They both fire their machine guns from the same posture;

viperthunderleap

they both share the same awkward jumping pose;

ViperThunderDrop

they have nearly identical falling animations;

viperthunderpants

and, hell, they are both wearing the same set of disturbingly flesh-toned, high-waisted pants. Apparently, and unfortunately, Arc felt they’d accomplished all they needed to accomplish in the realm of covert operative leg-wear.

The similarities extend beyond character sprites as well. Just compare the second level of Rolling Thunder…

Rolling Thunder Screenshot 2015-10-19 20-16-47

with the second level of Code Name: Viper:

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-30-39

Even the interstitial sequences which feature the bad guys watching a computer monitor were taken from Rolling Thunder…

Rolling Thunder Screenshot 2015-10-20 21-07-04

… though they’ve got far more polish in Code Name Viper.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-14 22-51-07

This is just the tip of the iceberg, really; the enemy designs, the music, the power-ups – Code Name: Viper lifted so much from Rolling Thunder that it probably threw its back out in the process.  It is for this reason that Code Name: Viper has been dismissed as little more than a ripoff, and perhaps rightfully so.

But here’s the thing: if Code Name: Viper is simply Rolling Thunder under another name, it’s indisputably the best version of Rolling Thunder on the NES. Arc’s second crack at Rolling Thunder’s particular brand of spy-themed action improves on their first effort in nearly every single way: the graphics are more detailed, the control is tighter, and the music is catchier. It’s the Rolling Thunder that Namco should have published in the first place. Sure, you can choose to view Code Name: Viper as a ripoff, but I choose to view it as an example of a developer revisiting its freshman efforts and improving upon them in virtually every single way. Capcom copied Namco; Arc merely copied itself.

Regardless of how you come out on Arc’s peculiar brand of sub-contracted self-plagiarism, it’s hard to dispute that it resulted in quality release in Code Name: Viper. It’s the closest thing to a South American vacation you’ll find on an 8-bit console, and it’s a fair shake more pleasant to look at than its drab predecessor. Skip the originator and go right to the imitator.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-04-01

Unless you’ve got a Genesis, that is… but that is a story for another time.

Code Name: Viper – Part 1

ViperTItleCode Name: Viper
Nintendo Entertainment System, 1990
Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Capcom

As anyone who walked into an arcade between the years of 1989 and 2000 can tell you, winners don’t use drugs. This of, course, is why drug dealers make for fantastic video game adversaries. Today, franchises like Grand Theft Auto sell millions of copies on the backs of protagonists who openly deal in narcotics. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, however, gamers were far more likely to be destroying drug labs than running them. Of all the games that sailed on the wave of the “just say no” sentiment that was pumped into my brain during the Reagan/Bush era, Capcom’s Code Name: Viper is indisputably my favorite.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-14 19-58-50

Like most games of its vintage, Code Name: Viper has the simplest of plots – you couldn’t even roll a joint with the paper it would take to transcribe the whole thing. The player assumes the role of Kenny Smith, whom we can only assume is the eponymous “Viper,” as the game never refers to him as such. An agent of “Special Missions,” Mr. Smith has been tasked by his cigar-smoking superior, Commander Jones, with destroying the seven hideouts of “the huge drug syndicate in South America.” In each location, he must also recover one of his fellow agents, who has been “hurt and captured” by the syndicate. Simple stuff, right? OR SO THE U.S. GOVERNMENT WOULD HAVE YOU THINK. But we’ll get into that later.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-02-14

Mr. Smith can do 5 things:

  1. Walk
  2. Jump
  3. Jump higher
  4. Duck
  5. Shoot

It’s a pretty basic moveset for a guy code-named after a venomous snake, but it’s not Mr. Smith’s moves that make the game so enjoyable, it’s the level design. Generally speaking, the action in Code Name: Viper takes place across two parallel planes – a high plane and a low plane. Both Mr. Smith and the legion of literally faceless enemies that stand in his way can freely travel between those two planes by way of a perpendicular leap. Each plane is also populated with various objects that effectively serve as waist-high cover for Mr. Smith’s adversaries.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-04-33
Hiding inside a box for a whole level! Syndicate employee of the month, right there.

Additionally, each stage is filled with an absolutely absurd amount of “secret” revolving doors; I’m not exaggerating when I say that nearly every entryway in this game is both concealed and rotating. I’ve seen Narcos; I know secrecy is important drug cartels, but Code Name: Viper takes it to ridiculous lengths. In addition to containing power-ups and hostages to rescue, these doors also serve as a means of hiding from enemies. By holding up on the control pad, Mr. Smith can remain inside a door for as long as he likes, during which time he is impervious to harm.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-05-41

As Mr. Smith has the smallest of life bars, the player is forced to dart between both planes, around cover, and into hidden doors in order to get the drop on enemies without taking any damage. It’s a nice little gameplay cocktail which makes for some fairly exciting action. Take a look:

Each level ends in a dead-end. Mr. Smith cannot break through these barriers until he has rescued the captured commando hidden in each stage, who, inexplicably, will be carrying high-powered explosives. As I assume that any “huge drug syndicate” with the foresight to cover half of South America with hidden revolving doors would have frisked its captives, we can only assume that these commandos have swallowed these live explosives, like so many condoms full of cocaine, and retrieved them rectally. Talk about using your enemies’ methods against them.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-13 20-41-13
Let’s see the goods, homie.

At the end of each level, Mr. Smith sits down with the commando he’s rescued, who reveals what syndicate secrets he’s uncovered. Invariably, what he’s obtained is a portion of an internal drug cartel memo, lovingly scrawled on what appears to be paper torn from a child’s wide-ruled notebook.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-13 20-41-22
You pulled a grenade out of your ass for this? Time to rethink your career choices, buddy.

At each level’s conclusion, the player is also treated to an image of an unidentified person observing Mr. Smith’s progress through a state of the art CRT monitor:

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-13 20-33-00

Presumably, this person is a high-ranking member of the huge drug syndicate, as his hands take on a slightly more nervous posture as Mr. Smith closes in on the final level:

Code Name Viper - Night 2 Screenshot 2015-10-14 22-57-54This is a nice little touch which really adds a bit of spice to the game’s otherwise sparse plot.

With each commando he rescues, Mr. Smith uncovers more and more lines of the huge drug syndicate’s TPS reports. By the time the seventh stage has been completed, the entire vile, drug peddling plot has been lain bare before us.

Code Name Viper - Night 2 Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-13-20

 

Sweet Jesus. The WHOLE world? Not just through drugs, but BY DRUGS? And COMMANDER JONES is behind it? How could he do such a… uh…

Code Name Viper - Night 2 Screenshot 2015-10-14 23-14-08

That works. Thanks, Kenny!

But seriously, that memo is great. It reads like they’ve been having problems with the new hires contacting Commander Jones to refill the toner in the copy machine. It even concludes with “pay attention to this matter.” The only thing missing is a sentence about how Darla down in coca leaf processing is running a 5k to support prostate cancer survivors, and donations can be left in the jar behind the secret door in the mail room. Let’s not even touch the fact that they divulged Commander Jones’ location for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

Obviously, Commander Jones is not pleased with these developments:

Code Name Viper - Night 2 Screenshot 2015-10-14 23-23-54

HE SMACKED THE TABLE SO HARD THE MONITOR TURNED OFF. HOT DAMN! While this plot twist has very little impact, I’ve always enjoyed the way these little interstitial scenes play out over the course of the game.

Code Name Viper - Night 2 Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-20-29
“E” omitted due to technical difficulties.

Of course, this revelation leads to a surprise EIGHTH stage where the player must infiltrate Commander Jones’ chic Beverly Hills drug den and defeat him in a surprisingly brief, but challenging, boss battle. At the conclusion of the game, we’re treated to a brief text scroll of an ending:

Code Name Viper - Night 2 Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-19-01
Alas, we never got a sequel.

Yep, Kenny Smith goes full on Dirty Harry. He even gets rid of his badge:

Code Name Viper - Night 2 Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-18-06
You know, you could still use that gun, Kenny.

If you think about it, this ending could be viewed as a little bit subversive. While it’s not rare for NES games to invoke the “your employer is the villain,” trope, in Code Name: Viper your more or less working for the CIA. The game is as much a critique of the US government as it is an indictment of drug cartels. Pretty weighty stuff for something that was sold as a toy for children. SEEDS PLANTED. Well done, Capcom.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-06-51

I’ve always felt that Code Name: Viper is one of the more under-appreciated titles in the NES catalog. It has more or less vanished from most gamers’ memories, despite having stellar graphics, a refined, yet simple, control scheme, and uncommonly catchy music. But there’s a very good reason why history hasn’t been kind to Code Name: Viper – it’s a blatant rip-off of another game. But we’ll save that for Part 2. Tune in next time!

Street Fighter II’ – PC Engine

Street Fighter II’
PC Engine – 1993
Developer – NEC Avenue
Publisher – Capcom

While I haven’t surrendered my tennis questing just yet, I’d like to take a moment to talk about one of my favorite console ports of all time, Street Fighter II’ Championship Edition for the PC Engine. While it’s outshone on nearly level by SNES version Street Fighter II Turbo, which was released in the same year, it’s an impressive port in its own right, and well worth the consideration of any fighting game fan with the means to play it.Street Fighter II' Screenshot 2015-06-28 19-04-54

Street Fighter II and its countless iterations were hot commodities in the early ’90; the franchise was ported to everything from the Game Boy to the Commodore 64. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a TI-82 version of the game out there in the ether. At first glance, the PC Engine (what we knew in the States as the TurboGrafx-16) version of Street Fighter II’ appears to be little more than a slightly less impressive version of its SNES counterpart; there’s nothing on the surface of this port that would lead you to believe it’s worthy of any great praise. However, when one considers the specifications of the hardware that it is ran on, it’s somewhat of a technical marvel.Street Fighter II' Screenshot 2015-06-28 19-52-00

While whether the PC Engine/TurboGrafx qualifies as a “16-bit” system is a subject best reserved for another day, one thing is not in dispute: it had an 8-bit CPU, the same as the NES. Though the PC Engine came strapped with a dual 16-bit GPU, in terms of raw horsepower, it was still operating on an 8-bit level. If I might hazard a broad and clumsy car analogy, compared to the NES, everything has been upgraded but the engine – new coat of paint, new tires, front and rear spoilers – but it’s still not going to go that much faster. The PC Engine’s chief competitors, the Genesis and the SNES, were working with legit 16-bit CPUs. For the mathematically disinclined, that’s TWICE of processing power.

So, considering that raw power differential, take a look at this:

While astute observers will note that there are missing frames of animation, a lack of color depth, and other shortcomings, considering the hardware, the end result is almost unimpeachable: this is a full featured, smooth playing, and aesthetically pleasing adaptation of an arcade classic. While this port never saw a US release, I have to imagine that Japanese PC Engine owners were ecstatic with the quality of SFII’.

SFII’ pushed the PC Engine to its absolute limits. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the sheer size of it compared to a standard PCE/TG16 HuCard:HuCardComparison

Clocking in at a massive (for the time) 20 megabits, SFII’ could not be contained in a standard issue HuCard. It’s literally bursting at the seems with quality. It’s somewhat notable that the game was released on a HuCard at all, as the PC Engine had a well-established CD-ROM add on by the time SFII’ was released. I can only assume that it was released on HuCard so as to reach as wide of an audience as possible.Street Fighter II' Screenshot 2015-06-29 21-35-04

I’m far from an expert on the subject, but if you’d like to see some comparisons of the PC Engine version of SFII’ against its Genesis and SNES counterparts, I’d highly recommend you check out this excellent post over at Retro SanctuarySFII’ for the PC Engine is one of those select few instances where a little background information on a game makes it all the more enjoyable to an enthusiast – I’d highly recommend it to any fans of the console or the series.

Steep Slope Sliders

SteepSlopeSlidersCoverSteep Slope Sliders
Sega Saturn, 1997
Developer: Cave
Publishers: Sega/Victor

Note: This article in no way relates to the arcade version of Steep Slope Sliders for the Sega ST-V arcade system. If this in any way concerns you, consider yourself warned.

Commensurate with the mainstream acceptance of snowboarding as a legitimate sport, the “snowboarding game” really came into its own as a genre during the late ’90s. Sony’s Cool Boarders franchise saw the first of four annualized releases in the summer of 1996, and Nintendo released 1080° Snowboarding in early 1998. Numerous – otherpublishers threw their hats down the slopes as well. For my money, though, the best of the bunch was the Sega-published Steep Slope Sliders.

Steep Slope Sliders! Screenshot 2015-05-03 19-23-41

As the Saturn was well-into its protracted death throes in the Western market when SSS was released in late 1997, unless you’re a long-time Sega devotee, you’ve probably never heard of – let alone played – Steep Slope Sliders (which we will hereinafter refer to as “SSS“). But PLEASE trust me when I say that it is the best playing snowboarding game of its vintage. What SSS lacks in visual panache, it more than makes up for in pure playability. Offering fantastic controls and supreme replay value in place of graphical splendor, SSS remains a joy to play to this day.

At the heart of SSS‘ charm is its ease of access; the slopes may be steep, but the learning curve isn’t. Your boarder can perform three basic actions in SSS: jumping, flipping, and grabbing. Through the use of the Saturn’s shoulder buttons, you can spin clockwise or counter clockwise while performing any of those three basic tasks.

Steep Slope Sliders! Screenshot 2015-05-03 20-04-33
Surprisingly acrobatic for a man made of rectangles.

That’s it, and that’s all – there’s nothing else to learn. Got a hankering to try for that front flip 1080° indy nosebone you saw on last nights’ X Games? All you have to do is jump – if you get enough air, just lean on the shoulder button of your choosing, push ‘grab,’ and throw in a press of the ‘flip’ button when you’re good and ready. You’re only limited by your imagination and the game’s very permissive laws of gravity. This may not seem particularly revolutionary, but compared to the controls employed by SSS’ closest contemporaries, which relied on much more complex button inputs, it’s remarkably simple and intuitive.

Steep Slope Sliders! Clip 3 Screenshot 2015-05-05 19-41-10
Believe it or not, that sign says “Portland.” The dream of the ’90s is alive in Portland.

But let’s just get right out and say it: compared to its competition, SSS is not a pretty game. 3D graphics were never the Saturn’s strong suit, perhaps due to the fact that the system was designed to render quadrilaterals, as opposed to the triangular polygons rendered by the PlayStation and… well, every other system ever. While SSS runs very smoothly for a 3D game on the Saturn, it could be considered be some of the best empirical evidence for the age-old “Saturn couldn’t do 3D” argument. Just take a look at the beautiful cubed heads on display on the character select screen:

Steep Slope Sliders! Screenshot 2015-05-03 19-24-35
Sometimes, I like to pretend that sweater-square-head girl is in a relationship with rectangle-face-goggle dude. It adds flavor to the game.

Screenshots do not do SSS justice, though – the game looks MUCH better in motion. SSS keeps its courses varied and interesting, and maintains a consistent frame rate when it counts. Things move so quickly, you barely notice that you’re sliding through an avalanche of chunky bitmaps. Take a look:

Additionally, to add an extra bit of visual flair, SSS makes use of the Saturn’s internal clock to simulate real world time zones. Playing SSS on the East Coast of the US at 8 PM? If you select the Japan course, you’ll be sliding down the slopes at 9 AM. For the most part, this is a fantastic feature, effectively giving you four different versions of each of SSS’ seven main courses.

Unfortunately, this cuts both ways. There’s a reason people don’t snowboard on unlit mountains at 4:00 AM – it’s dark. Really dark. I defy you to tell me what you’re looking at here:

Steep Slope Sliders! Screenshot 2015-05-05 20-35-28
Hope you packed your thermal goggles. It’s so dark you can’t even read the text.

Unless you answered “a rocket buggy doing a back flip with a 720º twist,” you’re wrong. If you did answer “a rocket buggy doing a back flip with a 720º twist,” put down your Saturn controller and go apologize to your parents. SSS’ time progression feature, while innovative and fun, renders roughly one third of the game’s courses unplayable at any given time. Fortunately, if you’ve got a burning desire to run any particular course, time progression can be disabled. The warm embrace of daylight is only a few button presses away.

Careful readers of the last paragraph may have noticed that SSS lets you play as a rocket buggy. It also let’s you play as a penguin…

Steep Slope Sliders! Screenshot 2015-05-03 19-47-03

… and a dog on a snowboard…

Steep Slope Sliders! Screenshot 2015-05-05 21-00-05
Trust me, it’s a dog on a snowboard. Why would I lie?

… and an alien, an anime girl, a UFO, and all sorts of other crazy characters, some of which are remarkably full-featured. The developers really piled it on in terms of unlockable extras, including four bonus courses, some of which are set in space.

And I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Steep Slope Shooters, the unlockable “snow shooter,” which features the greatest two-sentence plot ever conceived:

Steep Slope Sliders! Screenshot 2015-05-03 20-03-13
If I wanted to avenge my brother, I would probably decided to entry the badminton game. Much less risk of injury.

So, SSS plays like a dream, and has more than enough character to make up for its visual shortcomings – but how does it SOUND you ask? Well, if remarkably well-composed electronic music is your thing, you’re in luck. SSS has nine such tracks, which provide a wonderfully appropriate “late 90s’ extreme sports” vibe to the snowboarding action. You can even listen to them through a neat visualization feature in the option menu! Personally, though, I don’t know why you’d listen to those songs, particularly where the soundtrack features two perfectly good Engirsh j-pop ballads which have absolutely no place in a snowboarding game:

The music in SSS really is fantastic – but the only things you’ll ever remember about the soundtrack, no matter how hard you try, will be “Hold Me Close” and “Kiss.” I have friends who haven’t played this game in over a decade that still can’t forget these songs. To be honest, somewhere in the back of my mind, I think they’re why I come back to SSS every once in a while – and that kind of scares me.

Steep Slope Sliders! Screenshot 2015-05-03 20-24-30
Given the circumstances, “Salvation” does not appear to be an appropriate name for this trick.

SSS really doesn’t offer much in the way of “game modes” – you just pick a course and try to rack up the fastest time and largest score you can. Since all you’re really going for are skill and speed, SSS’ remarkably robust replay editing suite is a welcome inclusion. With the replay editor, you can save your best performances and play them back ad nauseum for any of your friends that happen to be stuck hanging out in your parents’ basement with you back in 1997. No, I never did that. Why do you ask?

In any event, the replay editor isn’t exactly final cut pro, but it lets you put together some pretty impressive music videos, at least by late ’90s game console standards:

Despite its rough appearance, SSS shreds by on the strength of its gameplay alone. Throw in a host of extras, solid music, and a dash of that late ’90s Saturn innovation/weirdness, and you’ve got yourself the rare extreme sports game that stands the test of time. If you’ve got any fondness for the Saturn, or snowboarding games in general, Steep Slope Sliders is definitely worth your time. Trust me: it never gets old.


If nothing else, I am confident that Steep Slope Sliders is far more enjoyable than Heavy Shreddin’. Played on original hardware, upscaled to 720p through a Micomsoft Framemeister. All footage and screens captured through an ElGato HD60.

Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance

Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance
PlayStation 2, 2005
Developer: Cavia
Publisher: Capcom

Suppose Grand Theft Auto and Tekken had a beautiful child. With the solid brawling mechanics of a fighting game and the free-roaming edginess of a sandbox crime game, this child would have been destined for greatness; a perfect storm of depth, complexity, and replay value. But what if I were to tell you that this child hated its parents? That it eschewed its inheritance? That it hated the concept of being a video game so much that it gave up all its aspirations, dropped out of college at age 20, and became a creepy townie? That game, my friends, is Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance.

Beat Down Fists of Vengeance Screenshot 2015-03-05 19-21-29
If you ever meet a man in a flaming tracksuit named Val, run.

But hey, let’s be honest, creepy townies know how to party, and I’m not ashamed to say that I had a good time throwing back a few with Beatdown. I’m not sure if it was the good time its creators intended, but it was a good time nonetheless.

Set in the fictional city of Las Sombras, the action in Beatdown is held together by a patchwork of cliched revenge narratives. You play as one of five gangsters, who have been framed for… I don’t know. I played this game for over ten hours, and I have no idea what my motivation was. There was a plot, though. Here’s the beginning:

And, if you’re not spoiler averse, here is the end. In between? Let’s just say this sandwich doesn’t have any meat. The less you think about it, the better; in Beatdown, you’ve been wronged, and your ultimate goal is to beat up the people that have wronged you. Beatdown’s story serves only to point you towards the end of the game. The less said about it the better; it literally makes no sense.

While Beatdown has a critical path consisting of a dozen or so missions, you’ll usually find that your character is somewhat underpowered to deal with them as they arise. As such, you spend most of Beatdown wandering the streets of Las Sombras randomly assaulting its citizens to gain the money, power and experience necessary to progress. This is where Beatdown gets interesting.

Beat Down Fists of Vengeance Screenshot 2015-03-18 19-35-39
Them’s fightin’ words pal. RALPH! CROWE! Let’s get ‘im!

In Grand Theft Auto, or any of its numerous clones, you’d accomplish this feat by randomly slugging a pedestrian and taking whatever cash or items they had on hand. Beatdown doesn’t let you do that. Before you can assault anybody, you have to actually TALK to them. And you know what? The citizens of Las Sombras aren’t actually bad people. Some of them are a little antisocial, but the overwhelming majority of them seem content to give you a little bit of advice, pay you a compliment, or simply ask your opinion about something wholly irrelevant. Take, for example, this dude:

Beat Down Fists of Vengeance Second Session Screenshot 2015-04-14 20-49-25
Why, yes. Hoosiers is my favorite film.

This tracksuited fellow can always be found jogging in comically small circles at the Las Sombras basketball courts. Should you interrupt his workout, he’ll cheerfully inquire as to whether you like the sport of basketball. You can answer him however you like. Should you say “yes,” he’ll confide in you that he once hoped to make it to the pros. Should you say “no,” he’ll simply encourage you to give the sport another try. Regardless of your response, you’re then presented with the opportunity to beat the ever-loving dogshit out of him – and there’s really no compelling reason not to. Theoretically, you COULD just go on your merry way, contemplating your own hoop dreams, but to do so would be to forfeit the cash and experience that you need to press onward in your ill-defined quest for revenge. So it goes.

Beat Down Fists of Vengeance Session 8 Screenshot 2015-04-16 21-15-28
I SAID “NO SMOKING!”

But you can’t just go around chatting up citizens and indiscriminately cold-cocking them willy-nilly, oh no. You see, in Beatdown, your character is being hunted by both the police and rival mobsters. This means that you have two separate “wanted” levels to keep an eye on. The violence you inflict on citizens causes your notoriety with both groups to rise, rendering you prone to random assaults from roving gangs of thugs and police patrols. In most open-world games, simply lying low for a while would cause the heat to die down – but not in Beatdown. Once you’ve raised the ire of your enemies, they’ll stay on you until you affirmatively do something to shake them off.

That “something” is changing your appearance. The “best” way to do this is to get plastic surgery, physically altering your character’s facial features. This will decrease the attention you receive from both cops and robbers. Makes sense, right? They can’t catch you if they can’t recognize you.

Beat Down Fists of Vengeance Session 8 Screenshot 2015-04-18 09-07-31
That’s a $3,000 chin, punk.

For the overwhelming majority of the game, though, plastic surgery is far too expensive a remedy to consider. A new face costs $3,000, and your average citizen is usually carrying less than $20. This means you’ll have to resort to simply changing your clothes or getting a haircut. Each article of clothing you put on impacts BOTH of your wanted levels – some mask you from mobsters while attracting the police, and vice versa. Now, theoretically, this could be an interesting little meta-game, requiring you to carefully engineer your outfit as to garner the absolute minimum amount of attention from your pursuers. Except this whole system is broken. Completely and utterly broken. Just look at this:

Beat Down Fists of Vengeance Session 8 Screenshot 2015-04-16 20-53-35
He must work out.

There’s no delicate way to state this: dressing like a transvestite hooker always seems to reduce your notoriety to its absolute lowest. You want to walk through the raindrops in Las Sombras? Put on a gold lamé bra and a mini skirt. No one will notice you, I promise. If anyone catches you, you can always switch to a pair of daisy dukes and your favorite Hawaiian shirt.

Beat Down Fists of Vengeance Screenshot 2015-03-09 12-38-54

Keep their eyes on your toned ass, and you can get away with murder. That’s what my grandpap always said, anyway.

Suffice it to say, then, you’ll spend most of Beatdown running around dressed like a gender-confused maniac, engaging people in idle conversation, only to inflict horrific violence on them moments later. It feels like a sociopath simulator more than anything else. And you know what? It’s so absurd, it’s actually kind of fun. Don’t take it from me – take it from Canadian rock legends, Loverboy.

That took three nights to piece together, but I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

Now, if you were watching closely, you might have noticed that occasionally, you are presented with the option to “negotiate” with some of Las Sombras’ residents. “Negotiating” offers the chance to either interrogate, recruit, or rob the citizen in question. “Interrogating” occasionally results in useful information, but more often than not, it yields a useless gameplay tip. “Robbing” is similarly unappealing, simply giving you the option to extract more money from your victim than usual. Recruiting them, though – that’s where the action’s at.

“Recruit” is shorthand for “violently conscript into criminal service.” Once you’ve recruited a new gang member, they’ll follow you around the map, blindly accompanying you into whatever danger you lead them, whether it’s taking down a drug cartel or simply beating up that hobo outside the free clinic.

Beat Down Fists of Vengeance - Session 6 Screenshot 2015-04-15 20-49-55
THIS IS THE ONLY WAY I KNOW HOW TO NEGOTIATE!

It bears mentioning that Beatdown has a needlessly complex combat system. Whenever you attempt to recruit a random thug or encounter a boss character, the game takes on the trappings of a fighting game, putting you in a one on one battle against your opponent. There’s sidesteps, juggles, parries, and all sorts of other fighting-gamey things. Each playable character also has cavernously deep move list. You can even learn new moves by beating up an elderly bartender. It’s all surprisingly robust, if not completely unrefined and unnecessary. On the default difficulty, you can simply get away with mashing punch and kick most of the time.

Beat Down Fists of Vengeance Screenshot 2015-03-18 20-48-16

Beatdown also has a number of side-missions, which you can do to earn a little extra scratch to put towards a new halter top. Most of these seem to be either absurd, improperly programmed, or both. Take, for example, the following mission, wherein I was tasked with infiltrating a warehouse to steal some drugs.

Beat Down Fists of Vengeance Screenshot 2015-04-16 21-24-30

Hmm. Looks like the guard won’t let me in unless I’ve got the right ink. Time to go to the free clinic to get a tribal tattoo. Yes, the only place to get tattoos is the free clinic. Astonishingly, everything at the free clinic costs money.

Beat Down Fists of Vengeance Screenshot 2015-04-16 21-26-27

Being either drunk or stupid, I blatantly ignored the option to get a tribal tattoo, instead choosing to get a beautiful rose permanently etched into my upper thigh. That should be good enough, right? That won’t rouse any suspicion from the cartel.

Beat Down Fists of Vengeance Screenshot 2015-04-16 21-27-19

See! What did I tell you? All you have to do is pull down your jorts, show the nice man your rose tattoo, and you can take all the drugs you want. This town isn’t so bad.

Like any good deadbeat townie pal, if Beatdown is guilty of anything, it’s a failure to thrive. It’s got nothing but potential. Solid graphics, a competent fighting system, decent production values… hell, it was published by Capcom. But Beatdown just doesn’t care. What’s the point in trying? It can do crime, but it’s never going to be GTA. If it wanted to, it could be a decent fighting game… but why try. It’s never going to be Tekken. It might as well just sit on its parents couch and coast.

Beat Down Fists of Vengeance Second Session Screenshot 2015-04-14 20-52-54
I’m clearly dressed for work, so yes.

But somewhere in this beautiful disaster, there’s fun to be found. It’s just ridiculous enough to keep you playing. Like your townie pal, you’ll probably forget Beatdown in a few years, but you’ll be happy to have it around before you move on to better things.


I can safely say I got my money’s worth out of Beatdown. It only cost me two bucksPlayed on original hardware, upscaled to 1080p through a Micomsoft Framemeister. All footage and screens captured through an ElGato HD60.

The Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love?

MacrossCoverChō Jikū Yōsai Macross: Ai Oboete Imasu ka
Sega Saturn, 1997
Developers: Sega/Bandai Visual
Publisher: Bandai

Note: The videos in this article contain spoilers for 30-year-old anime and 18-year-old space shooter. If that’s the type of thing your sensitive about, consider yourself warned.

Macross: Do You Remember Love is one of the first animes I can recall watching. Released in 1984, Do You Remember Love (hereinafter, “DYRL“) is a cinematic adaptation of the popular Japanese television series, The Super Dimension Fortress MacrossDespite its Japanese origins, it’s not uncommon for American children of the 80’s (such as myself) to have a tangential memories of the Macross franchise: the original television series was heavily adapted for US audiences in the form of the first 36 episodes of the popular cartoon, Robotech.

The Super Dimension Fortress Macross Do You Remember Love Screenshot 2015-02-25 22-50-34

It had to be about 1991 when I first set eyes on DYRL. Back then, my older brother was an avid collector of anime (back when we still called in Japanimation, junior), and it was not uncommon for him to come home with blurry VHS fansubs of all manner of Japanese cartoons. DYRL was a bit more complex than your typical American cartoon: characters fell in love, died, got involved in love triangles, dealt with the horrors of war… it was some heavy stuff. But what do I remember the most about DYRL, and every other entry in the Macross franchise? The missiles – check it out (all 20 minutes not required viewing): 

SOOOOO many missiles. 9-year-old Steve was in heaven. Giant transforming robots and missiles.

This isn’t an anime website, though, so let’s get down to business. In 1997, to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Macross franchise, Sega and Bandai teamed together to develop a space shooter based on DYRL, which is commonly referred to by English speakers as “Saturn Macross.”[1] Containing over 30 minutes of footage from the film, licensed music, and additional dialogue recorded by the original castSaturn Macross is a fitting tribute to DYRL. And did they nail the missiles?

The Super Dimension Fortress Macross Do You Remember Love Screenshot 2015-02-25 22-33-53

You’d better believe it.

The Super Dimension Fortress Macross Do You Remember Love Screenshot 2015-02-25 22-37-28In Saturn Macross, the player takes control of the VF-1 Valkyrie unit of the film’s protagonist, Hikaru Ichijo. The VF-1 Valkyrie is more or less what we’d call a transformer: a jet fighter that can also morph into a battroid (giant robot) and a GERWALK (a sort of bipedal flying tank). For much of the game, the player can freely switch between all three forms through the use of the Saturn’s trigger buttons, but the plot often mandates that your Valkyrie is restricted from doing so.

There are three main forms of attack in Saturn Macross: the Valkyrie’s gunpod (in practice, a standard “vulcan gun”), lock on missiles, and bombs. Each weapon has two forms – a weaker form with a larger area of effect, and a stronger form that targets a more concentrated space of screen real estate.

The Super Dimension Fortress Macross Do You Remember Love Screenshot 2015-03-01 13-31-49

Each form of the Valkyrie utilizes the gunpod differently, with the GERWALK and the battroid sacrificing the mobility of the fighter for the ability to aim your shots with greater precision.

The action in Saturn Macross takes place across three planes, a foreground, middle ground, and background. The player is restricted to the middle plane, but enemies can freely travel between all three. Only lock on missiles and one form of the gunpod can target enemies in the foreground and background, requiring you to utilize the full extent of your arsenal.

The Super Dimension Fortress Macross Do You Remember Love Screenshot 2015-02-25 22-39-00

For the most part, this is a nice effect which makes excellent use of the Saturn’s 2D capabilities.  At times, though, it is difficult to discern exactly which planes your enemies are on, resulting in more than a few bogies flying right by you or scoring the occasional cheap hit.

“Why would I care if an enemy flew right by me,” you ask? Because many of the game’s levels revolve around defending the Super Dimension Fortress Macross, the titular flagship of the series, which is constantly under assault. The SDF Macross has its own life bar, which slowly decreases each time you fail to shoot down one of your targets. This adds a nice bit of tension to the gameplay, and encourages you to perform to the peak of your ability. If you watch the video below, you’ll see this mechanic in action each time I fail to shoot down an enemy craft.

What Saturn Macross does best, though, is capture the spirit and feel of some of the more memorable moments of DYRL. While it’s only a 2D shooter, Saturn Macross makes liberal use of voice acting and integrated clips from the film to give each level a unique feeling.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the game’s last level, which beautifully recreates the climactic battle from DYRL as the movie’s theme plays in the background.

Saturn Macross is not without its faults, though. Often times, the sprites seem a little too large for the screen. There’s not a lot of room to maneuver your Valkyrie when things get hectic. For that reason, I rarely found myself utilizing the battroid or GERWALK forms; it was always easier to play as the far more mobile fighter plane. There are also control issues: the game requires the player to double tap buttons to activate certain attacks, which is a strange design choice, as the game leaves two buttons on the Saturn controller unused. Additionally, the game also runs on the easy side, and anyone remotely skilled at space shooters should have no problem clearing it in under 5 hours.

The Super Dimension Fortress Macross Do You Remember Love Screenshot 2015-02-25 22-26-11

That being said, Saturn Macross is a highly enjoyable game that really captures the spirit and feeling of DYRL. I’ve replayed it three times, and I’ll probably have a few more go-rounds before I’m done with it. If you’re a fan of Macross, or shooters in general, it’s more than worth your time, if for no other reason than the missiles!

Played on original hardware, upscaled to 720p through a Micomsoft Framemeister. All footage and screens captured through an ElGato HD60.


[1] Despite this moniker, the game was also ported to the Playstation in 1999. I have not played that version of the game – all opinions in this post are based solely on my experiences with the Saturn version.

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem

EternalDarknessCoverEternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Nintendo Gamecube, 2002
Developer: Silicon Knights
Publisher: Nintendo

Eternal Darkness is the rare game with both a stellar critical reputation and a rabid cult following. Ask anyone who played the game at the time of its release, and they’ll more likely than not proclaim it to be one the Gamecube’s best titles. It’s considered one of the crown jewels of Silicon Knights’ catalog, and widely thought of as one of the best horror games of its console generation, if not of all time.

EternalDarknessTitleI didn’t get the opportunity to play Eternal Darkness in 2002, so when I saw it for sale at a flea market a few weeks back, I pounced. As someone with more than a passing interest in both the horror genre  (and old video games in general), I was eager to finally dig my claws into this consensus classic.

The verdict? It’s just okay. No matter how much slack I try to cut Eternal Darkness, no matter how hard I try to view the game through the lens of historical context, I simply can’t escape the conclusion that it is, at best, just an average game. Eternal Darkness is certainly ambitious, but it ultimately fails to properly execute on any of the novel concepts it presents.

EternalDarknessAlexThe plot of Eternal Darkness spans nearly 2,000 years, and incorporates 12 distinct playable characters. At the onset of the game, the player takes control of Alex Roivas, a college student who has traveled to her family’s ancestral home in Rhode Island to investigate the grisly murder of her grandfather. As Alex explores her grandfather’s mansion, she stumbles upon the Tome of Eternal Darkness, a Necronomicon knock-off that serves a framing device for the game’s story beats. As Alex unearths the tome’s apocryphal contents, she slowly reveals an ancient demonic plan for world domination. Each section of the tome Alex reads is presented as a new gameplay scenario, told through the eyes of one of the book’s prior owners. It’s an entertaining narrative trick which allows the game to span hundreds of years and incorporate a wide-variety of playable characters. While the game’s script is nothing to write home about, it has held up quite well, thanks to top-notch voice acting and excellent cut-scene direction:

EternalDarknessEllia

Eternal Darkness is also quite visually striking. The environments are beautifully rendered, and stylish lighting is employed to great effect. Bright flames and phosphorescent magic spells contrast beautifully against the game’s dark and and oppressive set-pieces, creating a mysterious and dreadful atmosphere. The character models are beginning to show their age, but as a complete package, Eternal Darkness still looks fantastic. That it holds up as well as it does in 2015 is a testament to Silicon Knights’ wonderful art direction.

EternalDarknessLindsey

So, yes, Eternal Darkness has a well-constructed story and beautiful graphics. Unfortunately, this intriguing facade quickly crumbles into the rickety foundation of Eternal Darkness’ questionable gameplay. Eternal Darkness is fundamentally imbalanced to such a level that it fails to serve as either a compelling horror or action experience.

With a few exceptions, each playable character in Eternal Darkness has three status meters: stamina (red, signifying health), magick (blue, signifying arcane power and stylistic misspellings) and sanity (green, signifying ambitious but poorly conceived game design). The stamina and magick meters are self-explanatory, but the sanity meter? That’s the wildcard that’s supposed to serve as the linchpin of the Eternal Darkness experience.

EternalDarknessPodiums

As you your character witnesses traumatizing events and encounters any of the game’s numerous eldritch horrors, his or her sanity meter will slowly deplete. As the sanity meter depletes, you’ll begin to experience “sanity effects.” These effects range from subtle (skewed camera angles), to silly (shrinking your character to a minuscule size) to outright bonkers (pretending to delete your save files). My personal favorite sanity effect features your character’s head falling off and delivering a soliloquy from Hamlet:

Ask any fan what they liked the most about Eternal Darkness, and undoubtedly, the sanity effects will be near the top of that list. The sanity effects were one of Eternal Darkness’ most highly touted features; indeed, they are identified as a key feature on the game’s packaging. To be frank, they’re one of the chief reasons I wanted to play Eternal Darkness to begin with. Unfortunately, if you play the game in a halfway competent manner, you’ll almost never see them.

There are two ways to replenish your sanity in Eternal Darkness. The first is to deliver a fatal blow to an incapacitated enemy. Encountering an enemy usually reduces your sanity meter by a moderate amount. By incapacitating your foes (Eternal Darkness has contains a simple limb targeting system that allows you to reduce most of your foes to headless amputees with relative ease), you earn the opportunity to  perform a finishing maneuver.  Each successful finishing maneuver will allow you to earn back most, if not all, if the sanity that enemy drained from your character.EternalDarknessPious

For the most part, combat is a relatively simple affair, so regaining your sanity in this manner is not terribly difficult.

The second method of recovery, though, is what breaks the sanity mechanic entirely. Very early in the game, you’ll learn a recovery spell which allows your character to recover their lost sanity at the cost of a portion of their magick meter. While this sounds like a fairly routine trade off, it’s really not, as all the player has to do to replenish their magick meter is move. Not even far. Simply spinning the control stick in a circle will do, actually. As long a you’re somewhere safe, you can simply whirl your character around like the Tasmanian Devil until you’ve fully recovered your sanity. Safe havens are not in short supply, either – as long as you can backtrack a room or two, you’ll make it through Eternal Darkness with a firmly sound mind.

EternalDarknessAlexSpellAs such, you’ll only really see the sanity effects if you’re actively looking for them. If you’re the type of person that enjoys wandering around a game looking for things to unnecessarily impede your progress, great – you’ll have a blast. But if you enjoy playing games in even a remotely competent/functionalist fashion, you’ll rarely, if at all, encounter any of the interesting sanity effects. Sanity effects barely rise to the level of window dressing, and never impact the game in a truly meaningful fashion.

Combat is similarly hamstrung by the aforementioned recovery spell, which can also be used to replenish your health meter. It’s rare to encounter an enemy that you can’t flee from in Eternal Darkness, and as long as you can retreat to a safe place, there’s no reason why you simply can’t replenish your health ad infinitum. Additionally, as you acquire additional offensive and defensive spells, your damage output exponentially increases and your character becomes nigh-invulnerable. As these painfully apparent gameplay holes manifest themselves over time, the game loses all sense of challenge, particularly when one considers that you can save your progress at virtually any point. The below footage, taken from the game’s penultimate chapter, demonstrates just how easy it all becomes:

This poorly conceived combat loop removes any sense of danger or tension from the game, preventing it from delivering any truly potent scares. If you’re not spoiler averse, I’ve included footage from the game’s final battle, which serves as the perfect microcosm of the Eternal Darkness experience: an effortless war of attrition interspersed with a few decent story sequences.

EternalDarknessCircleofPower

Eternal Darkness isn’t a bad game; it’s just an extremely disappointing one. While Eternal Darkness’ complex narrative is engaging enough to keep you playing, its ambitious sanity system is completely crippled by deeply flawed gameplay mechanics which render the game impotent as a horror or action title.

Gamecube fans often hold out Eternal Darkness as one of the system’s finest titles; they seem baffled as to why this game suffered from lackluster sales. I can honestly say that I am baffled as to why they are baffled.

Played through a d-terminal connection on a Nintendo Wii, upscaled to 1080p through a Micomsoft Framemeister.


 

Super Dodge Ball

superdodgeballcoverNekketsu Kōkō Dodgeball Bu: PC Bangai Hen
PC Engine, 1990
Developer: KID
Publisher: Naxat Soft

Like many gamers who grew up in the heyday of the NES, I have fond memories of playing Super Dodge Ball.  Tecnhos’ 1988 classic was an early highlight in what I lovingly refer to as the “fake sports” genre; a game that, without licensing any official league, athletes, or actual sport, provided you with all of the thrills of a “legitimate” athletic simulation, with a little extra panache to boot. The NES Super Dodge Ball replicated the excitement, drama, and intrigue of fourth period gym without the need for you to actually get beaned in the head by a rubber ball.

That is, when it wasn’t stuttering, blinking, and running at a snail’s pace every time the action picked up. Super Dodge Ball was a great concept, but actually playing it could be extremely frustrating at times. The game’s ambitions far outstripped what its designers were capable of getting out of the NES in 1988. It wasn’t uncommon for sprites to simply vanish from the screen, and the framerate dipped to borderline unplayable levels. It was a lot like playing a UbiSoft game in 2014 (zing!).

So when I learned that Super Dodge Ball had received a facelift for the PC Engine,[1] and that some guy on eBay was selling it for less than $30.00, I knew I had to have it. If the game was halfway decent on the NES, it had to be at least twice as good on PCE, right?

The answer to that seemingly rhetorical question is an emphatic “YES.” The extra power of the PC Engine allows Super Dodge Ball [2] to fully deliver on the promise of its predecessor.

SuperDodgeBallVs
Finally, the grudge match the world has been waiting for.

The rules of the game are simple enough. The court is divided into two halves, and each team consists of four infielders and three outfielders. The object of the game is to defeat the opposing team’s infielders. Outfielders are confined to the sidelines on the opposing team’s half of the court – their primary function is to toss the ball back to the infielders, but they are capable of mounting a modest degree of offense as well. Confused? Well, just watch the video at the end of the article and it will all make sense.

SuperDodgeBallNewspaper
I can only assume this is a rules pamphlet.

So the rules of the game are simple, but… WHY? Why do I want to play dodge ball? I need some motivation!

Well, that’s a good enough reason, I guess. This is the introduction to the game’s Tournament Mode, in which we take team Japan on a globe-trotting quest to prove that the land of the rising sun will not suffer beanballs lightly.

SuperDodgeBallPlaneAnd by “globe-trotting quest,” I mean “charmingly racist dodge ball safari.” You’ll travel to many exotic locales and throw dodge balls at any number of classic ethnic archetypes, including….

SuperDodgeBallEngland

Jolly old London town, where you’ll play on the banks of the Thames against a team of angry, pasty, cod eaters!

SuperDodgeBallIceland

Iceland! While penguins look on, you’ll battle it out with some vaguely Eskimo looking dudes as you slip and slide over some glaciers!

SuperDodgeBallChina

China! Play against a team of jaundiced obese children in front of  a picture of Chairman Mao! Bonus points if you kill some sparrows with your dodge ball.

SuperDodgeBallKenya

Kenya, where you’ll play against a team of extremely fast athletes on the sun-scorched Serengeti!

SuperDodgeballAmerica

And of course, the worst nation of them all, AMERICA. You’ll compete against a team of roided-out supermen on the top of some fictitious skyscraper frighteningly close to the statue of liberty!

And what is your prize, for defeating this murderers’ row of dodge ball assassins?

SuperDodgeBallSuperman

Superman descends from the sky to present you with a trophy, of course, presumably renouncing his American citizenship in the process. Nippon ichi!


You can play through tournament mode on loop for hours, but that’s for chumps. The real action is in the PC Engine exclusive QUEST MODE. Why would a dodge ball game have a quest mode, you ask?

Aliens? To quote Will Smith, “AW, HELL NO.” Quest Mode tracks team Japan on its quest to hunt down the intergalactic asshats that wasted some untold amount of fuel to fly to Earth and bean us in the head. How does this play out you ask? Well, surprisingly similar to Tournament Mode, at first. You’re immediately dropped into a match with a rival Japanese team which plays out exactly like any other bout in the game. However, when things finish up, we are presented with… Dialog options?

SuperDodgeBallConvo

While I don’t speak a word of Japanese, based purely on gameplay experience, I’m willing to bet the post match conversation between you and the opposing team’s captain breaks down like this:

Him: Yo dawg, good match. You beat us good. Mind if I leave these simps behind and go on the road with you?

You: Hell yeah, brah. We lookin’ for these aliens. They done beaned us in the head.

Him: You serious, man, aliens? Let’s do this.

You: Fo’ sho. Hey, you seen a UFO?

Him: Naw man, try checking any other country with a national dodge ball team.

And that’s exactly how quest mode progresses. You travel from country to country looking for your alien rivals, recruiting each team’s best infielder along the way.  Each recruitable player has has two unique “super throws” he can utilize against the enemy, which range from conceivable (100 mph beanball) to absolutely ridiculous (dodge balls dropping from orbit). The catch is that you only have four infielder slots on your team – you have to kick someone off to make room for someone new. You have to pay attention to your adversaries’ skills in order to determine whether they are worth recruiting.

SuperDodgeBallYay
Weirdly, they never seem too upset when you ask them to leave.

As quest mode progresses, you will slowly discover that alien invaders have been impersonating members of each nation’s dodge ball team.

SuperDodgeBallAlien

And as you discover each alien invader, its corresponding nation is wiped off the game’s map, meaning you can no longer recruit from that country.

SuperDodgeBallQuestProgress

When you’ve finally uncovered the last of the body-snatching fiends….

SuperDodgeBallRocket

Let’s just say it’s a pretty epic conclusion.


All goofiness aside, there’s not much to find fault with in Super Dodge Ball for the PC Engine. It’s a wonderful game with tight controls, colorful graphics, and a refreshing sense of goofiness that is rarely found in the sports games of today, fake or otherwise. Buy it, emulate it, steal it, do what you need to do…. but I heartily recommend that you play this game.

And on that note, I leave you with this – The greatest comeback in fake sports history, as Kenya Bill overcomes insurmountable odds against team Moonman:


 

[1] The Japanese name for the console known as the Turbo Grafx in the US.

[2] The actual name of the game, as indicated at the beginning of this post, is Nekketsu Kōkō Dodgeball Bu: PC Bangai Hen – Literally, “Hot-Blooded High School Dodgeball Club: PC Extra Edition. For ease of reference, we sill simply refer to the game as Super Dodge Ball.

X-Kaliber 2097

SNES, 1994
Developer: Fupac/Winds
Publisher: Activision

I remember reading about X-Kaliber 2097 in Nintendo Power when I was in middle school. I remember learning that it would be one of the first games to feature a soundtrack by an ACTUAL recording artist. I remember slotting it into the third tier of my birthday wishlist, just in case my mom couldn’t find the games I actually wanted that year. So when I saw a refurbished and cleaned copy at a flea market nearly 20 years later for only FIVE DOLLARS, I thought, “hey, why not? I remember thinking this would be cool.”

I thought wrong.

[Please be advised that this article contains heavy spoilers for X-Kaliber 2097. If you are the type of person that cares about spoilers for a C-tier action game from 1994, however, you should probably seek professional help]

Criticizing the plot of a side-scrolling action game from early 1994 is a little unfair, but X-Kaliber feels like it was written by a Compuserve chatroom full of home-schooled anime fans.

The intro really sets the pace – Let’s take a trip to the greatest of all generic sci-fi locations, Neo N.Y. What happened to Old N.Y.? I dunno, but it must have been bad, as LIFE HAS GROUND TO A STANDSTILL AND THERE ARE NO MORE JOBS TO GO TO (Seriously, watch the intro). People are just going around doing what they are told or nothing at all. It sounds a lot like present day Detroit.

X-Kaliber RaptorANYWAY, Neo N.Y. is ruled by a guy in a purple suit named Raptor, who apparently works for a “global mob.” In order to “enforce order,” he has unleashed his private army of “Morphs” on the city. One wonders why you need to enforce order when people are doing “what they are told or nothing at all.” Sounds like things are pretty orderly already.

There are only two people that stand in Raptor’s way: A man named Slash (the player character), and his partner Alix. Raptor and Alix are repeatedly referred to as “agents,” so presumably they work for some kind of “agency.” Despite this, there are only two people that stand in Raptor’s way. Maybe that’s like how me and my friend Rob formed a gang that had no other members.

Despite this numbers disadvantage, all is not lost! Raptor has the X-Kailber, a magic sword that can rip through steel like rancid butter, yet can’t kill an enemy in less than two hits. Slash and his sword scare Raptor so much, that he and his subordinate, Kane, formulate a plan to draw Raptor out by kidnapping Alix. Once Slash shows up, they figure that they’ll defeat him, grab X-Kailber, and get back to imposing order.

There's always one fat boss.
His name is KANE. Get it? GET IT?

As you’d expect from a guy with such a rad name, Slash is having none of this. The player leads him on a rescue mission through Neo N.Y., using the titular X-Kaliber to systematically chop down Raptor’s subordinates (who have awesome names like “Chainsaw,” and “Dr. Blast”) one by one.

X-Kaliber 2097 BrotherSo, Slash, uh, slashes his ways through the requisite 16-bit skyscrapers, sewers, nightclubs, and laboratories, all the way to Raptor, only to find all along, that his arch-nemesis, whom he has apparently never met before, is his older brother! This shocking revelation really doesn’t seem to phase Slash all that much, but just as he is about to cut his estranged sibling to ribbons, Raptor lets him in on the shocking truth: Raptor’s entire operation is nothing but a puppet regime, propped up by gangster from another dimension named Krux. Of course, Krux has also kidnapped Alix.

X-Kaliber DogSlash, again, is having none of this. He walks right across the dimensional border, hell bent on rescuing his partner and destroying the looming threat of inter-dimensional organized crime. One would think that you’d aim a little higher than being a “gangster” if you could freely travel across different planes of existence; but I digress. After fighting through the beautiful countryside of Krux’s dimension, which, quite frankly, looks like a sea of floating turds, Slash encounters a gangster named Spuke, who drops another shocking plot revelation on us:

X-Kaliber 2097 Spuke2

My God! Slash somehow acquired X-Kaliber from the inter-dimensional gangsters? How did he manage to do this without learning about the fact that they were propping up the oppressive global mob that’s been depriving people of jobs and imposing order? Did the gangsters maybe just drop it somewhere, leaving Slash to absent-mindedly pick it up off the streets of Neo Hell’s Kitchen? We’ll never know. I’ll post a link to my X-Kaliber 2097 Fanfic Kickstarter a little later down the road, and with any luck, we’ll be able to resolve this as a community.

Spuke is no match for Slash’s magic sword, and Slash moves on to face Krux, who looks suspiciously looks a lot like Satan, or at bare minimum, a Venom album cover:

X-Kaliber 2097 Beast

After several continues, Slash quickly realizes that Krux’s weakness is jumping sword thrusts to the head, and he defeats the great inter-dimensional crime lord once and for all. Slash rescues Alix, and order is uh… renewed? I’m not exactly sure what happens, but a brief post-battle cut-scene advises us that the people of Neo N.Y. are inspired by the example set by Alix and Slash, and begin to live a life that is filled with parks to visit and jobs to go to. And thus, the world is saved.


In 1994, action games weren’t typically known as narrative powerhouses, nor did they typically attempt to be. X-Kaliber 2097, however, aspires to more, and fails miserably. Double Dragon, one of the forefathers of the genre, had the simplest of plots: Some guy punched your girlfriend and walked off with her; go get her back. At its core, X-Kaliber has the same plot: Your partner/girlfriend has been captured, and now you must rescue her. X-Kaliber, however, pads out its narrative with more ridiculous cliches and plot twists than its small frame can handle. When you’re going to be telling a story in less than 500 words of dialogue, less is more, and X-Kaliber 2097 is about 20 gallons of plot in a 5 gallon jug. A story that should have been nothing more than window dressing becomes a notable flaw.

In Japan, this game was released as Sword Maniac. Sword Maniac apparently had an entirely different plot, but with a title that awesome, they could have dispensed with a plot entirely. It practically writes itself: Maniac with sword runs through post-apocalyptic New York and fights Satan. That’s a story I can get behind.


X-Kaliber 2097 TattooPlot aside, X-Kaliber is about what you would expect from a mid-tier action game released in 1994. Graphics are competent, though mostly unspectacular. There are nice little graphical flourishes here and there – spotlights that follow the player during a boss fight, multiple scrolling layers in backgrounds, beautiful 16-bit cityscapes – but nothing X-Kaliber attempts is going to blow your mind, but it’s not unpleasant to look at.

At the time of the game’s release, much was made of the fact that it featured the music of techno/industrial group Psykosonik. Gamers of the era may remember Psykosonik for their contributions to the soundtrack for the first Mortal Kombat film. Internet research reveals that X-Kaliber’s soundtrack features chiptune versions of several songs from Pykosonik’s first album. As a result, the game’s soundtrack is above-average, if not spectacular. Despite this, you can’t help but feel like the sound designers may have been pushing the SNES a little too hard – as good as that sound chip was, it wasn’t going to emulate the sounds of a professionally produced contemporary techno outfit.

X-Kaliber 2097 DrBlastThe gameplay is simple and straightfoward. Slash has four basic attacks: a standard slash, an overhead swipe, a stab, and ranged fireball, which travels the length of the scree but leaves the player vulnerable for an extended period of time. Most, if not all, enemy attacks can be blocked by holding down the X button to assume a defensive stance, but in my playthrough, I found little reason to bother with defense: most enemies stick to fairly avoidable patterns. Bosses are an exercise in exploitation: defeating them is not a matter of mastering any of Slash’s techniques or memorizing attack patterns, but figuring out the one single tactic they haven’t been programmed to deal with (tip: it usually involves jumping and slashing or repeatedly holding out your sword and hoping they walk into it). All in all, the experience is wholly unremarkable.


X-Kaliber feels like it could have benefited from stronger direction. While it has flashes of graphical brilliance, and its soundtrack is well-composed, if not well-executed, the game never rises above the level of “competent.” The occasional song or anime style cut-scene will raise an eyebrow, but the whole package never comes together, and ultimately, the only truly memorable thing about the game is its painfully overwrought plot.

X-Kaliber couldn’t live up to its hype as a new release in 1994, and it failed to intrigue me as a historical curiosity in in 2014. Was it worth five clams? Probably. Could I recommend that you spend any of your precious time playing it? Probably not.

X-Kaliber 2097 Spuke

Dragon Force

Released to western audiences in November of 1996, Dragon Force is one of the Sega Saturn’s true classics.  While it would not be incorrect to call Dragon Force a real time strategy game, its unique brand of gameplay truly defies traditional genre classification.  It’s a one of a kind experience[1] that exemplifies the unconventional, “outside of the box” qualities that endeared Saturn owners to Sega’s console even as it was eclipsed by its generational rivals.

Dragon Force Junon SpecialDragon Force tells a *relatively* simple fantasy story of a divided continent on the precipice of a demonic invasion.  300 years ago,[2] the continent of Legendra was besieged by the dark god Madruk.  Legendra was saved only by the appearance of the Star Dragon, Harsgalt, who emerged to challenge Madruk.  While Harsgalt was victorious, he was unable to slay Madruk, merely seal him away.  300 years later, Madruk is poised to break that seal, and it falls on the eight members of the Dragon Force, who have inherited Harsgalt’s power, to unify the continent and brace for Madruk’s awakening.  The player assumes the role of one of the eight playable members of the Dragon Force – more often than not, the only one who is aware that he or she actually is a member of the Dragon Force.  The player must lead an army to conquer Legendra in an effort to locate the other seven members of the Dragon Force and bring stability to the land before Madruk reawakens.

Dragon Force Map
The player’s armies move along in real time along pre-defined “roads” on the map.

Each “week” of gameplay time is divided into two phases: a “strategic phase” where the player moves their armies and fights opposing forces, and an “administrative phase” where the player manages his generals and fortifications.  The strategic phase is where the meat of the game takes place, as the player moves his armies across the world map[3] in an effort to conquer enemy fortifications and defend his kingdom from invading forces.  Armies in Dragon Force are comprised of groups of generals, each of whom can command up to 100 troops when fully leveled.  When two Dragon Force Maparmies collide, Dragon Force switches to a side-view of the battlefield, and sprite based carnage ensues.  The player selects the starting formation of his troops, and as the battle progresses, he can command those troops to move around the battlefield as he sees fit.  With upwards of 200 sprites moving around the battlefield at any one moment, Dragon Force really showcases the Saturn’s 2D capabilities.

Adding a little more sizzle to the proverbial steak, Dragon Force offers 10 distinct troop types, ranging from rank and file infantry to mythical beasts, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and terrain effects, creating a staggering amount of matchups.  Further, throughout the course of the game, the player can acquire well-over 100 generals, each of whom has three separate special attacks which can impact a battle in a number of different ways.  Pairing the right general with the right troop type can completely subvert otherwise insurmountable odds.

Dragon Force - Session 5 Screenshot 2014-10-15 19-37-33

Each victory earns the player an “award” which can be bestowed upon one of his generals during the administrative phase.  Each award allows its recipient to command ten additional troops.  While awards can be bestowed upon any general in your force, if you fail to promote a general after they win a battle, they may become disgruntled, and defect from your army.  While this rarely has any meaningful impact on gameplay, it does add a nice little wrinkle to the game’s character progression system.

Dragon Force Faust
“‘Oh.’ Oh. That’s all I could say was ‘oh.'”

While it would be generous to call Dragon Force’s plot anything other than “serviceable,” it’s bolstered by a colorful translation from publisher Working Designs.   While most generals only have a handful of lines, the famed translation house managed to fill them with as much personality as possible.[4]  Key story elements are also accompanied by beautiful, hand drawn still frames which go a long way towards giving the story a sense of gravitas.

Dragon Force Reinhart

Dragon Force Superfly
Victor Ireland at work.

It’s difficult to find much fault with Dragon Force’s classic 2D visuals.  On the battlefield, troops and generals are represented by large, expressive sprites.  While the frames of animation for each individual character are somewhat limited, this deficiency is offset by the sheer spectacle of seeing upwards of 200 troops duke it out in real time simultaneously.  Backgrounds are colorful and varied, and massive spell effects leap off the screen with colorful ferocity.

Dragon Force Wyvern

Sound and music are more than competent, if not a little repetitive.  Each monarch has their own personalized overworld theme, and the music which accompanies story sequences and battles is atmospheric and appropriate.  The game’s main theme is an exuberant standout, but a little more variation would have been welcome, particularly given the fact that your average Dragon Force playthrough can last over 20 hours – if you want to try out more than one of the monarchs, you might want to download some podcasts before you begin.

Dragon Force Zanon
Hope you like this character design. You’ll be seeing it a lot.

If Dragon Force has any one significant flaw, it’s that that its average turn length can run a little long.  Gameplay can only be saved during the administrative phase, and with over one hundred generals who can fight multiple battles in a single strategic phase, sometimes you’ll be waiting for hours at a time between save points.  This is slightly mitigated by the fact that you can “suspend” gameplay mid turn if you have a functioning Saturn memory cart – a luxury that is increasingly short supply in this day and age.

Dragon Force is a true Saturn classic; a game that really showcases the console’s strengths as a 2D workhorse.  It feels like it simply could not have been done on the PSX or N64.  At the time, it was all you could have asked for in a platform exclusive, and its gameplay is still compelling  today.  If you’ve got the means to play it, I strongly suggest that you do.


[1] Not exactly.  There is a sequel that has yet to receive an English translation, official or otherwise.

[2] Amazingly, most of the people of Legendra seem to have forgotten all of this relatively recent history by the time the game begins.

[3] The map of Legendra is not unlike a board game, and the player’s armies are the pieces.  While the pieces move in real time, they can only move along pre-defined routes on the map.

[4] One should note that this might be considered a negative, depending on your general feelings regarding Victor Ireland’s sense of humor.