Solaris Japan

Friday, 16 March 2018

Mega Drive Review - Super Thunder Blade (Game 157)

'Super Thunder Blade' has been described as 'OutRun' in a helicopter. But while there's an awful lot of love for the racing game why does no one care for this shooter?

Developed by Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1989

Growing up Yuji Naka was fascinated by electronic music and then later by the emergence of arcade games. He not only played every game he could, he analysed them, trying to figure out how they worked. Naka eventually learned how to program by replicating and debugging video game code printed in magazines, studying assembler language and code writing.

Given Japan's cultural emphasis on a good education, this technical genius defied conventions by turning down guaranteed university placement. Naka felt four years at university would be a waste when the games industry was unfolding about him. Instead he moved to Tokyo and applied for employment with Namco who at the time the world's leading arcade game company. His lack of a degree hampered any chance he had though and Namco did not offer him a job. Undaunted, he continued to shop his talents around and in 1984 found himself working as an entry-level coder at Sega. However, the job title was not a reflection of what he was really doing. "Not just programming," Naka would comment many years later, "everything...the graphics, the pictures, everything." Over the next seven years, Naka's programming excellence demonstrated itself in a number of impressive arcade conversions for Sega's SG100 and the Mark III / Master System. “There weren't many employees at Sega at the time - most teams consist of just five members" Nara recalls. "We were all working on new things. It was a very rewarding and enjoyable job". His credits during this period include such legendary titles as 'OutRun' and 'Space Harrier' which he managed to faithfully bring to Sega's earlier consoles; something considered technically impossible without huge compromises on the gameplay. This alongside Naka's work of the first ‘Phantasy Star' game caught the attention of former Sega president Hayao Nakayama who called Yuki Naka "Sega's Miyamoto".

In 1988 Naka and his team were tasked with developing software for the upcoming Mega Drive console. Naka was now a producer and 'Super Thunder Blade', a port of an arcade game, would become one of the system's two launch titles. Unfortunately and embarrassingly for this programming prodigy, 'Super Thunder Blade' was greatly inferior to 'Space Harrier II'. New Mega Dive owners buying both day-one games would have felt disappointed with the one baring Yuji Naka's pseudonym.  'Super Thunder Blade' was certainly not a good advert for the capabilities of Sega's new hardware, nor was it much of an endorsement of Naka's ability as a producer.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Mega Drive Review - ToeJam and Earl in Panic on Funkotron (Game 156)

'ToeJam and Earl in Panic on Funkotron' is a sequel that shouldn't have been, delivering the type of gameplay that no-one expected and that existing fans didn't want.  But is a betrayal of preconceived ideas enough of a reason to ignore this odd humorous platformer?

Developed by Johnson Voorsanger Productions
Published by Sega
Released in 1993

There's an unwritten rule when it comes to Sequels: Honour the success of the predecessor. The most beloved follow ups take everything that was great in the previous game, improve upon these foundations and cast aside the bits that didn't work. In theory at least, a great deal of pre-production is already done. A tone or style has been established and usually beloved characters will return. If there's not been a hardware change some of the game engine or artefacts can also be reused, allowing developer’s time to perfect, hone and polish what worked before.

In the games industry it seems that sales are the deciding factor that determines if a sequel is green-lit. Money men often will ignore critical successes, but will throw money at a franchise that has sold sufficient volume, even if the series is of dubious quality.

This is why it's somewhat surprising that a sequel to 'ToeJam & Earl' exists at all. According to video game historian Bill Paris the first game achieved "almost unanimous critical acclaim"; however, Sega deemed it a commercial failure due to low initial sales. "'ToeJam & Earl' was a very slow burn title,” developer Greg Johnson confirms. “Sega considered it a flop. Its numbers really came much later as it grew slowly by word of mouth and eventually became something of a cult title.” While fans had fallen in love with gaming’s most surreal double act, it was actually magazines who really clamoured for another game featuring the funky space aliens. "ToeJam & Earl have the kind of charisma that makes them a natural for a sequel" wrote GamePro.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Mega Drive Review - Sonic the Hedgehog (Game 155)

'Sonic the Hedgehog' is a game known by all but not necessarily loved by them. While it may be Sega's most famous title, despite popular perception, it isn't as critically adored as many would expect. 

Developed by Sonic Team
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

Growing up a Nintendo fan I thought Mario could do no wrong. I was under the impression that any game featuring him would be superb and if they weren't I would always forgive him based on a history of excellence. But it wasn't just fan boys like me who thought this; magazines also gave Nintendo's plumber an easy ride. "Anything Mario touches turns to Gold" once wrote CVG. "Forget the golden symbol Nintendo emblazon each box with. Mario is the real Nintendo seal of quality" noted Edge magazine. Until recently I was under the impression that Sega fans and magazines felt the same about Sonic the Hedgehog (at least before his embarrassing fall from grace).
However listening to former Sega Power journalists on the excellent Maximum Power Up Podcast changed my mind. "I really don't like 'Sonic' games I think they're appalling" declares Dean Mortlock. "There's nothing to them, there's no playability they're just rubbish". But this wasn't a lone voice. An Ace magazine reviewer claimed they preferred 'Quackshot'. “I’d rather play this instead of the hugely over-rated 'Sonic' any day of the week. So this Xmas, forget Hype the Hedgehog and plug the Duck in your slot." 

'Sonic the Hedgehog' was certainly a game changer for the Mega Drive. Prior to the release of the game in 1991, Sega promoted the machine as being a console that offered the Arcade experience at home. 'Sonic the Hedgehog' however was presented as an experience you could only enjoy on Sega's 16bit machine. It offered visuals that far exceeded the best offered on Nintendo's ageing NES console and the Super Nintendo was in its infancy at this point. The game was a demonstration of just how powerful the Mega Drive could be and it stunned gamers and game developers. "When I saw 'Sonic the Hedgehog' running, I was REALLY impressed by the machine. It was a kick in the pants by Yuji Naka to all programmers at that time" claimed celebrated designer David Perry. 

Friday, 2 February 2018

Mega Drive Review - The Lion King (Game 154)

'The Lion King' is often considered an inferior spiritual-successor to 'Aladdin'. However despite both being Virgin published Disney platformers, the two games have less in common than you may believe.

Developed by Westwood Studios
Published by Virgin
Released in 1994

The writers of the Polygon website are clearly fans of 16 bit Disney platform games, especially those that were released on the Mega Drive.   "Developed during the golden age of platformers, 'Aladdin', 'The Lion King' and 'The Jungle Book' established themselves as hallmarks of the genre, earning the praise of fans and critics alike for over two decade." All three of these titles were released between 1993 and 1995 and all were made possible by the involvement of Virgin Interactive. The company developed 'Aladdin' and 'The Jungle Book' however they only published The 'Lion King'.  Instead this game was developed by the now defunct Westwood Studios who are probably best known for the real-time strategy series 'Command & Conquer'.  The game was overseen by Louis Castle (the co-founder of Westwood Studios) and development started in January of 1994. Amazingly a  finished game shipped just 7 months later in July. More impressive than the quick turnaround is the fact that it was only made by a core team of 13 people, which Castle admits is a "pretty small team actually even back then". 

Friday, 19 January 2018

Snes Review - Mickey no Tokyo Disneyland Daibōken (Game 153)

'Mickey no Tokyo Disneyland Daibōken' is probably the Mickey Mouse game you've never heard of. But is there a reason why this platform game never left Japan?

Developed by GRC
Published by Tomy
Released in 1994

As a Disney fan who has a fascination with Asian culture, Tokyo Disneyland represents a fusion of two great loves. Opening in 1983 it was the first Disney Park to be built outside the United States costing 1.4 billion dollars. In 2013, Tokyo Disneyland attracted 17.2 million visitors, making it the world's second most popular theme park behind Magic Kingdom in the Walt Disney World Resort Florida.

Although based on Disneyland in California and built by Walt Disney Imagineering it is not owned by The Walt Disney Company. Tokyo Disneyland is actually operated by The Oriental Land Company, which licenses the brand. Disney also have final approval on the design and development of the theme park. As a result while the American parks are used as a starting point, Tokyo Disneyland differs quite considerably. Indeed when the park first opened in 1983 the princesses you would meet were all embodied by Asian performers, a practice that was quickly stopped when the operators were accused of racism. "Imports" are now hired to play any "face character" within the park. Despite this hiccup, Card Walker (who was at the time senior executive at Walt Disney) called the park an "enduring symbol of the spirit of cooperation and friendship between the great nations of Japan and the United States of America."

Anyone used to a Western Disney park will notice the differences as soon as they walk through the gates into the World Bazaar; Tokyo's version of Main Street USA. Unlike Disneyland Paris which is almost a carbon copy of the American parks, Tokyo Disneyland feels familiar yet wonderfully different. Frontier Land is now Western Land and the park opened with unique rides including an attraction called "Meet the World", which taught Japanese visitors how best to interact with other cultures. Food served in the park (including 10 different flavours of popcorn) leans towards Japanese taste, hardly surprising given that 95% of visitors are from the country. In fact Masatomo Takahashi, the former president of The Oriental Land Company, believes while embracing American ideas a Japanese identity must be maintained. "We must not just repeat what we receive from Disney. I am convinced that we must contribute to the cultural exchange between Japan and U.S.A".

Friday, 5 January 2018

Mega Drive Review - Quackshot (Game 152)

'Quackshot Starring Donald Duck' is an action based platformer that's known in Japan as 'I Love Donald Duck: Georgia ou no hihou'. But while the appreciation for the character is understandable does the game deserve such a flattering title? 

Developed by Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

Disney, quite rightly, is very protective of their intellectual property. The corporation is intrinsically linked with wholesome family fun and if Disney doesn't like what you're doing with their characters or brands, they will not hesitate to pull the plug. It was something seen with BlueSky's original version of 'Aladdin'. Of all the characters associated with Disney, none is more protected than Mickey Mouse. You only need look at how much 'Epic Mickey' changed between concept and final release for proof of this. Warren Spector's dark re-imagining of Mickey was rejected and the game was released with a classic version instead. According to ‘Kingdom Hearts’ director Tetsuya Nomura, Square Enix could only include Mickey in one scene in this game. It is because of his inclusion that the main characters in ‘Kingdom Hearts’ carry swords stylised as keys. Disney is far more lenient when it comes to other recognisable characters though. While you’ll rarely see Mickey being that aggressive the same rules don't seem to apply to Donald who frequently acts for his own benefit, not caring too much for those standing in his way. The success of 'Castle ofIllusion' shows that Mickey Mouse can entice customers, but it's Donald that's far better suited to actions and behaviour typically seen in video games.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Mega Drive Review - Home Alone (Game 151)

'Home Alone' might be a licensed game based on a film that hasn't aged well, but perhaps it's still a game worth unwrapping.

Developed by Sega of America
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

I love Christmas. I listen to festive music on repeat, lapping up the Christmas movies and TV specials. To be honest I never understand why all people don't cherish the holiday period. Even if you don't celebrate the specific day or have had a past event that has tarnished December 25th, I find it surprising that people resist getting swept up in the warmth of "the most wonderful time of the year". Some people seem to go out of their way to say how much they hate Christmas, claiming it's become over commercialised or excessively self indulgent. They hate something without even trying to embrace it, they don't even look to see if there's something in it that might appeal to them. I can't be too critical though. I do a similar thing when I turn my nose up at film tie in games. Even before I've tried them I'm convinced they'll be rubbish, after all more often than not this presumption is true. However there are numerous examples when a film tie-in can be superb, as proven by my recent experiences with 'Aladdin'. I had very low expectations when I got 'Home Alone' and in truth, I bought it solely because it was festive and I had played 'RoboCod' to excess. Given that it's set at Christmas I thought it would be the ideal game to play at this time of year, but I didn't expect much. Amanda Dyson of Mega magazine said the game was a wasted film license; a "grotesquely over-priced and pathetically under-developed mockery of a game". Flux magazine called it the 14th worst video game of all time. But while I wouldn't say 'Home Alone' is an incredible game, I would argue that such criticism is undeserved.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Mega Drive Review - Toy Story (Game 150)

According to Kendall Lockhart (VP of creative development at Disney Interactive) people flock to tie-in games to interact with characters and worlds they have already fallen in love with.  But who exactly is this rock hard part-platformer part-driving game aimed at?

Developed by Traveller’s Tales
Published by Disney Interactive
Released in 1995

There's a scene that every parent sees when they take a child to a Saturday Morning screening of the latest animated blockbuster. However it isn't a scene they will see on the screen it's the chaos in the foyer before the film has even started. Crowds of over exited children queue for popcorn and beside them are grinning parents, trying to disguise how eager they are to see the film. Hollywood big wigs didn't get where they are without being aware that the ultimate film is one that audiences of every age can fall in love with. If a grown up thinks there is something in it for them, they'll buy into the inevitable wave of tie-in merchandise. Maybe they will be the ones suggesting a return trip when the sequel is released. But it's not just parents who now love "children's" animated films, it's adults in general. According to a study carried out by The Guardian newspaper, in the opening weekend for the US release of 'Finding Dory' the highest number of sold out screenings were for performances after a child's 7pm bedtime.

Knowing the shift in audience, "children's" animated films have become filled with the kind of jokes that adults know are aimed at them. This is certainly the case with the 'Toy Story' movies. Each film is awash with parodies of other films and wink-wink nudge-nudge innuendo. 'Toy Story 2' offers a scene where Rex the dinosaur chases a toy car in a way that echoes 'Jurassic Park'. Meanwhile the first 'Toy Story' film followed Buzz Lightyear's existential crisis when he discovers he is "just" a toy. It is a profoundly adult story line.

For 'Toy Story' director John Lasseter the inclusion of aspects that exclusively appeal to an adult is easily explained. "We make the kind of movies we [as adults] like to watch. I love to laugh. I love to be amazed by how beautiful it is. But I also love to be moved to tears. There's lots of heart in our films." While children's animated films may now court an adult audience, the games based on them have increasingly become more child friendly. Modern Licensed games are generally poorly received by reviewers; they tend to be criticised for being too simple or too easy. Even big child friendly franchises like (the no longer supported) 'Disney Infinity' default to easy modes to allow even the less adapt child to progress. For modern games based on animated "children's" films there's challenge if you wish to find it, but typically that requires manually raising the difficulty or setting your own goals. Rewind twenty years and things were slightly different. While there were some spectacularly easy tie-in games, there were just as many licensed games that were unashamedly difficult. There are games that can only really be enjoyed by a seasoned older player.

Given the success of the film it's not shocking that 'Toy Story' games appeared. What was surprising was just how incredible the Mega Drive game is and how challenging the game play was. "Being that this is a non-violent game targeted for kids, I don't understand why Disney chose to make 'Toy Story' so difficult. It's hard" noted Game Fan magazine. "I thought for sure that this was going to strictly be an easy children's game" agreed Electronic Gaming Monthly. "But [...] I've realized that players of all ages can join in!"

Friday, 8 December 2017

Mega Drive Review - Legend of Galahad (Game149)

'Legend of Galahad' may look Japanese but in reality it's a port of an Amiga game created by two Brits. Can a game with such humble beginning stand out on the Mega Drive?

Developed by Traveler's Tales

Published by Electronic Arts

Released in 1992

When you start collecting old games it's easy to justify purchases. First you obviously have to re-buy everything you had as a child; after all, that's the only way you'll enjoy waves of nostalgic joy. Next you'll pick up all the games you wanted but couldn't afford back in the day. then you buy all the games you've been told are "must plays". However, As the years of collecting pass, the justification to purchase a game become more and more tenuous. 

While researching an article I was reminded of an Amiga game called 'Leander'. It wasn't a game I owned, nor could I recall reading reviews about it. I did remember the striking main character sprite though and that was enough for me to seek out a copy. Staring at this character it's easy to see why it ticks so many boxes. I've always loved nicely drawn pixel art and this individual is clearly inspired by anime; another love of mine. Previewing the game, Amiga Action magazine was equally enchanted, though they seemed to think anime imagery was a novelty for western developers. "['Leander'] looks superb, really something to drool over [...] with strong oriental undertones. This one looks quite different from the others but nevertheless it looks really good". Amiga Format called it "a mythical tale of oriental misdeeds" also falling for the "fluid character animation, stunning sprites" and "a gallery full of class graphics".

Sadly though I discovered the game the beautiful character is linked to is a rather run-of-the-mill sounding game. "Welcome to our 'oh no more Japanese-style Platform games' slot" Amiga Power said looking at the game for the first time. "an arcade platformer free from any original features what so ever" Mark Ramshaw claimed in the magazine's review. "To be honest I could describe what happens in the game in one sentence. Walk, jump, slice, collect, go to the exit, go to the next level". "It sort of reminds me of 'Shadow of the Beast'" noted critic Richard Leadbetter. "But the gameplay has been radically improved, with a greater choice of directions and more interesting puzzles."

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Hardware Review : BittBoy Handheld

There are few things worse than a missed opportunity.

I must admit I didn’t expect much when the developer offered me a BittBoy to review for You see a lot of these sorts of consoles; often cheaply made in the Far East, obvious when you look in the poor build quality and terrible English on the box. Admittedly the BittBoy does come in a box with questionable English but the console within this box is probably better than you expect - only with one rather critical draw back.

According to their website the BittBoy allows you to “play your favorite old games in a brand new way, on an easy to carry handheld with a beautiful display.”

Modelled after the GameBoy this miniature console is a Nintendo NES emulator, exclusively playing the ROM files encoded onto the console. And that’s the problem, the 300 games included are a hit and miss affair and many of your promised “favourite old games” are simply absent. While there are a handful of big name titles including ‘Super Mario Bros’ and ‘Super Mario Bros 3’ there are just as many games missing that you’d think should be on there. Far out numbering the good is the bad (terrible home-brew games that are filled with glitches) and the ugly (awful ROM hacks that actually sully the original game and the game from which the replacement sprites were stolen). Two player ROMs are present despite the console offering no way to play with two people and many of the games are filled with Japanese text.

In many ways making this worse is the fact that the BittBoy really offers so much squandered potential. The console itself is remarkably good. The screen in particular is astonishing with rich colour depth, strong contrast, and a wide viewing angle. It’s not 360 degrees as the box claims (since you can see through the back of the console) but I couldn’t find an angle of play where the screen wasn’t crystal clear. The buttons are pleasantly responsive although the turbo buttons serve little point. But coupled with these incredible features are equally baffling ones, where the main use of a hand held just hasn't been considered. There’s no headphone jack which surely must be a huge faux pas on a portable machine. There’s no save state options so short bursts of play aren’t possible (unless you love replaying the first levels of games over and over). Similarly there are no battery backup, low battery or sleep modes. 

But the biggest thing wrong with the BittBoy is the tease that is the Micro SD slot, although hole would be a more apt description.On the top of the unit is a slot where clearly a memory card was intended to go, but due to cost or time this port has not been included in the current retail model. There’s literally a hole that leads to nowhere. Obviously were this included it would be very easy to recommend the BittBoy. You could erase the awful included ROM files, put on your own legally acquired games and play them on a conveniently small compact system. I get excited by the thought of it even becoming a portable GBA emulator, especially as it has the required four face buttons and the DPad already on the console.

Perhaps I’m not the target audience for the BittBoy as my seven year old daughter seems to love it. She doesn’t care that ‘The Legend of Zelda’, ‘MegaMan’ and ‘Metroid’ are missing. She’s happy to chop and change between the games and the handy reset button makes this easy for her. The two hour battery life reflects her attention span and the console seems resilient enough to stand up to a few knocks and bumps. However, at $40 the BittBoy is perhaps too expensive to be a seven year old’s toy. 
While it may be frustrating that the console isn’t offering all it could, it is something that is worth keeping an eye on. If they can simply rework the software and make the content customisable with a MicroSD port, it really would be a cheap tiny hand held worthy of your attention.
If you wish to pick one up head on over to But before you do I really suggest you read my much more comprehensive and detailed review here.

I was provided the BittBoy for review at no cost.

However, the developers have not seen this review prior to it going live nor have they had any say on its content.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Mega Drive Review - The Jungle Book (Game 148)

Virgin released four very similar Disney based platform games but only 'Aladdin' gets celebrated. What is so bad about 'the Jungle Book'?

Developed by Virgin
Published by Sega
Released in 1994

For a Gaming Historian the story behind the creation of the 16bit 'Aladdin' games has as many twists as the film on which they were based. The Mega Drive version was started by Blue Sky before Sega lost faith in them and transferred development to Virgin Interactive. At the time Virgin were working on an adaptation of 'The Jungle Book', which they halted to quickly knock together an 'Aladdin' prototype. Sega's hope was that this could be presented at the 1993 Consumer Electronics show, gaining some press attention. But in the end it had a bigger impact. Virgin's early work intimidated Capcom who were midway through development of a competing 'Aladdin' game for the Super Nintendo. As a result Capcom went back to drawing board, placing even more pressure on Virgin to develop the superior game. The race was on. Both games have to be on the shelves when the film 'Aladdin' was released on video. To achieve this lead developer Dave Perry and his team at Virgin interactive had to plunder any resource available. This included the game they were originally working on. "Aladdin was suddenly dropped into our lap by Sega as an emergency project" recalls Dave Perry.  "I was working on 'Jungle Book', then kind of raided it to get 'Aladdin' done in time."

It's impossible to describe Virgin's take on 'Disney's Aladdin' as anything other than a success. It was the third best selling game on the Mega Drive shifting over 4 million copies. While Capcom's Super Nintendo adaptation found critical approval it enjoyed fewer sales.

Buoyed by the victory Virgin were keen to move onto a similar project immediately.  According to  former Vice President Dr. Clarke-Willson obtaining the rights to make a game based on the 'Jungle Book' had proved expensive for Virgin and the studio had no intention of letting it lapse. "[Virgin Part-owner] Robert Devereux, God bless him, cut a big cheque to Disney for the 'Jungle Book' license, which got us in the door there". If Virgin wanted to quickly capitalise on the success their 'Aladdin' Game was enjoying the choice for a follow up was obvious.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Mega Drive Review - NHL '95 (Game 147)

NHL 95 is a fast paced sports title based on a fast paced sport. But for someone who knows nothing about Ice Hockey is it even worth a glance?

Developed by High Score Productions
Published by EA Sports
Released in 1995

I've had an epiphany. Maybe the reason I didn't like sports at school was because I wasn't presented the opportunity to do one I'd enjoy. Cricket confused me. Rugby scared me. Football made me feel alienated. However at Christmas each year I enjoy a quick circle around a skating rink. Admittedly I spend most of the time clinging onto the barrier at the side but it's enjoyable despite this. I identify a lot with the comic book character Scott Pilgrim and he was a huge ice hockey fan. I used to ski once a week so maybe if I had access to ice hockey I might have been sporty after all. 

There's something appealing about it, and not just because the protective padding make the players look like robots. It's fast, there are lots of goals and there's even comical organ music. Yes, maybe if I give Ice Hockey a go I'll really enjoy it. Naturally I don't mean physically. It's much easier to just sit in front of the TV and play a digital game of Ice Hockey and when it comes to 16bit versions of the sport there's evidently only one franchise you should consider; Electronic Arts' 'NHL' games.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Mega Drive Revew - Ariel the Little Mermaid (Game 146)

'Ariel the little mermaid' is an underwater adventure based of the popular Disney film. But, anyone expecting the quality of 'Aladdin' should just keep swimming. 

Developed by Blue Sky Software
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

There are certain things in retro games that ring alarm bells. Water levels are generally considered to be awful so seeing one on a games box will make me want to put it back on the shelf. Licensed games are also off putting. For every 'Golden Eye' there are a dozen terrible games with recognisable characters. 'Ariel the Little Mermaid' should have been a game I ignored; it's a game based on a film that's (initially at least) set underwater. However I gave it the benefit of the doubt as there are a surprising number of good Disney 16 bit games. 'Aladdin' is often called one of the best games on the Mega Drive and Capcom were frequently making strong Disney games for the Super Nintendo. Typically licensed games are bad because they are rushed, made at speed to be on the shelves when a film is still in the cinema or coming out on physical media. However 'Ariel the Little Mermaid' came out three years after the film on which it was based. Surely in that time the developers could create something good. Even a causal glance at the box shows that developer Blue Sky Software had clearly been influenced by 'James Pond: Underwater Agent' and 'Ecco the Dolphin'. Although flawed both these games showed that setting a game underwater doesn't make it immediately bad. If 'Ariel the Little Mermaid' included the best bits of these two games and wrapped them in charming Disney imagery how could the game not be worth my time?

Friday, 13 October 2017

Mega Drive Review - ToeJam & Earl (Game 145)

‘ToeJam & Earl’ has to be the most Nineties ‘Rogue’-like game ever made, but is there much left when you strip away the nostalgia?

Developed by JohnsonVoorsanger
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

Working late one evening I passed a club that was clearly having a 90's theme night. I could tell this from the queue as it seemed club goers today believe that everyone in the 1990s dressed like a Spice Girl or wore torn jeans. Given that I'm in my mid-thirties I'm too old to worry about clubbing, 'Club 18-30s' makes this very clear. However, unlike the crowd of Geri wannabes and Noel Gallagher lookalikes I was alive in the nineties and remember it very differently. For me the decade didn't start in 1996, there were half a dozen years before that; where bright colours and an "awesome" "radical" attitude prevailed over Brit Pop and Girl Power. A time when the Fresh Prince was rapping, when Rocko enjoyed a modern life and when Nickelodeon and MTV were still culturally relevant. A period when eighties excess hadn't completely been replaced by millennial indifferences, a decade encapsulated by 'ToeJam & Earl'.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Mega Drive Review - Super Hang On (Game 144)

The appeal of 'Super Hang On' in the arcades was the novel control system. But without it is this racer worth your time?

Developed by Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1993

To promote the Mega Drive, particularly in America, Sega promised to "bring the arcade experience home". From a technical standpoint this seemed to be a realistic goal. Games like 'Golden Axe' or 'Alien Storm' proves that arcade-like experiences are possible on a 16bit home console and Reviewers would frequently say how "arcade perfect" the conversions were. However for me, as a child, a trip to the arcades was more than the games played. The ambiance featured heavily in the experience. The sound of hundreds of machines vying for your attention. The sticky floors and the worryingly sticky joysticks. My local arcade sat on the seafront so the smell of fish and chips still reminds me of 'Street Fighter II', 'Final Fight' and 'Bubble Bobble'. Yes I could play these games at home, but I couldn't return to them at the end of the day and feel proud that a high score hadn't been beaten. 

Arcades continued to get bigger and more popular between the late seventies and the early nineties. Suddenly it didn't seem to be enough to have a traditional arcade cabinet. Two player machines turned into four player machines. Guns and drums started to adorn upright machines. Before long, players were handing over a fair amount of money to sit down in a life sized car, or to spin in a gyroscope while trying to gain a high score. Arcade machines changed. No longer something you stood at, they became something you got in or climbed on. m

Friday, 15 September 2017

Mega Drive Review - PowerMonger (Game 143)

When Peter Molyneux, the "God of God games" turns one of his finest works into a Real Time Strategy title the results should be wonderful. So what went wrong with ‘PowerMonger’?

Developed by Bullfrog Games

Published by Electronic Arts

Released in 1992

I'm not afraid to commit hours to a game; I couldn't love RPGs if I did.  Cumulatively I have spent over 350 hours playing games with 'Persona' in the title and my yearly romp through 'ChronoTrigger' typically will require a 30 hour investment. Alarm bells even ring if a Role Playing Game lasts less than 20 hours; these games demand a commitment. Over this lengthy play time a game should introduce new ideas slowly and not bombard you with too many play mechanics too soon. The best games start welcoming but end complicated when all the demanded actions are instinctive and second nature. I am not a fan of long introductory tutorials, I find them off putting. I don't want to have to spend ages reading a manual to know what to do when I press start. Worst of all I dislike games by designers too arrogant to think you might be alienated by their impenetrable game. This is why I am weary of 'PowerMonger'. Every 'Let's Play' I've seen on YouTube starts with bafflement; the player totally confused by what they should be doing. Archived reviews also strike fear into my heart. “It takes time to get used to the way this world works" suggested Amiga Format noting first experiences with the game are defined with "headaches and frustration". "Initially the game is rather confusing" Atari ST User Declared “‘PowerMonger’ doesn't have the same instant appeal of [similar games]". ST Action called it "complicated"; EGM called it a "very long daunting game". 

Game Pro even said you should "only look to ‘PowerMonger’ if you're in the mood for a long, slow pillage". This hardly seemed glowing endorsement for a game. Even ‘PowerMonger’s own creator the famous / infamous Peter Molyneux has said things that kill my enthusiasm. "[I have] an idea of the ideal game we want to write.’Populous' was the first step to writing this game, and ‘PowerMonger’ is further along that road. But our ideal game is yet to be written." Considering he went on to create 'Godus' which is presumably the intended destination on this development road, it's hard to muster enthusiasm to play an earlier stage in the creation process. While he has created sensational games like 'Syndicate', and 'Theme Park', Molyneux has also become known as a man who promises much but delivers little. He was even called a pathological liar by the cruellest of critics, in an interview that nearly prompted his retirement.  In keeping with this reputation he didn't hold back when promoting ‘PowerMonger’ back in 1990. "‘PowerMonger’ is essentially a war game. But unlike the traditional board or computer games of that genre, we've created something that exists in real time, where you can do almost anything you want."  

Friday, 1 September 2017

Mega Drive Review - NBA Jam (Game 142)

Despite there being a new NBA game every year, fans of basketball still flock to the nineties game 'NBA Jam'. In fact 2017 saw the release of a fan patch to change the teams to the current roster. But what is it about this specific game that continues to draw in players who don't even like basketball?

Developed by Midway / Iguana entertainment
Published by Acclaim
Released in 1993

As regular readers will have noticed, when playing a retro title I like to look at the reaction the game got from reviewers at the time. They naturally lack the hindsight that modern critics have, so often the first title in a franchise is greeted with excitement. Twenty years ago reviewers obviously didn't know what was to come, so very rarely will you see someone suggesting a sequel. They’re instead lost in the excitement of a new franchise, enjoying the first title for its own merits without the ability to compare it to the better follow ups. The world was a different place twenty years ago, so at times you notice reviewers making cultural references that are no longer relevant. But interestingly, now I'm the same age that many of the reviewers were, I've begun to appreciate their perspective more. When I first read the reviews I was a child reading the opinions of an adult. However, now twenty extra years of life experience has put me in the same mindset that they were in when they originally put critical pen to paper. This is probably why I laughed so much when I read Chris Buxton's 'NBA Jam' review in issue 27 of Total! magazine.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Mega Drive Review - Taz in Escape from Mars (Game 141)

When a bad game sells well, expect a sequel. But should developers ignore the criticism of the first game when they come to craft the follow up?

Developed by HeadGames Inc.
Published by Sega
Released in 1994

You'd think it would be an unwritten rule that if you're creating a game based on existing property you'll include the things that make the license recognisable. HeadGames Inc clearly hadn't read this particular rule book when they created a follow up to the 'Taz Mania' game. 'Taz in Escape from Mars' includes only the main character and everyone else from the 'Taz Mania' TV series have been left behind; indeed the titular location of "Tazmania" is hardly featured. Instead the game (initially at least) moves the action to Mars and designers have created their own story to somehow justify this. 

The game starts by showing Marvin the Martian capturing Taz for his intergalactic space zoo. But bars will not contain a Tazmanian Devil and Taz escapes; determined to get revenge on his captor. Naturally the story is very different to the first game which simply had Taz hunting for a large egg. While Critics all saw the bizarre narrative shift between the two games, they couldn't seem to agree as to why it had happened. EGM felt it was a conscious effort to distance the sequel from its predecessor as "The first Tazmanian Devil game wasn't all that hot". GamePro instead implied that the inclusion of Taz was to add gloss to a mediocre game that otherwise wouldn't sell."If it weren't for Taz, this game would just be another jump-n-bump adventure" they noted in a review. The problem is that 'Taz in Escape from Mars' is a "one step forward, two steps back" sequel. The original pretty ropey prequel still echoes through it despite the location change. As such hardly any of the first game's shortcomings are addressed. Instead even more problems are added since HeadGames Inc seem to have had a desire to shoehorn in as many game mechanics and level locations as possible.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Mega Drive Review - Taz Mania (Game 140)

'Taz Mania' is yet another 16bit platformer. Is it fair that the game and the protagonist have been forgotten about today?

Developed by recreational Brainware 
Published by Sega / Warner Bros Inc.
Released in 1991

6 year olds have no idea who the Tasmanian Devil is; this was the conclusion I came to following a massively limited poll. I asked my daughter and her friend to give names to the cartoon characters I showed them. While Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy where familiar they had clearly never seen the Loony tunes characters before. Bugs Bunny was thought to be Judy Hopps from 'Zootopia', Daffy Duck was named Donald's brother and Taz caused one to cower because he was "too scary". This may all have been influenced by the fact we play 'Disney Infinity' so my informal polling had to go further. Neither my wife nor work colleagues mentioned Taz when asked to name cartoon characters they watched when they were younger. It may not have been scientific testing but the Looney Tunes characters and specifically The Tazmanian Devil seem to have been forgotten. 

Friday, 4 August 2017

Mega Drive Review - Streets of Rage (Game 139)

‘Streets of Rage’ is recognised as one of the finest franchises on the Mega Drive and a system seller for many. But why should Sega thank Nintendo for its success?

Developed by Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

On October 29th 1988, the Mega Drive first went on sale but all was not well for Sega.  "The Japanese launch of the Mega Drive was low-key and poorly timed, coming just a week after the release of the NES title 'SuperMario Bros 3', one of the most defining games for a decade" Keith Stuart notes in 'Mega Drive / Genesis : The Collected Works'. After a year of mediocre sales the President of Sega Enterprises at the time was disappointed. "The Mega Drive was far inferior to the NES in terms of diffusion rates and sales in the Japanese market" admits Hayao Nakayama. 

According to gaming historian Stuart, things only got worse for Sega. Panic set it when Nintendo announced that a successor to the popular Famicom Console was due to launch within a year of the US Launch of the Mega Drive (known there as the Genesis). "The Super Famicom lurked on the horizon [and] there was little room for manoeuvre". there was also the collective belief that Nintendo was stepping on Sega's toes. "Sega's key strength was the quality of its arcade games. This was a golden era for the in-house amusement machines division" observes Keith Stuart. One of the most popular games in the arcades at the time was Capcom's 'Final Fight' and Nintendo declared that this game would appear on the Super Famicom within a month of the systems launch. Sega were by all accounts livid. After enjoying a lucrative relationship with Nintendo during the NES era, Capcom initially decide against creating games for Sega's Mega Drive. So if  Sega wanted a 'Final Fight' style game they had no choice but to create a rival game from scratch and they had to do it quickly if it were to be released before 'Final Fight' appeared on the Super Famicom.