Solaris Japan

Friday, 17 February 2017

Mega Drive Review - Gods (Game 127)

When they think of games by The Bitmap Brothers, very few Retro Gamers name 'Gods'. Is there a reason why the attractive action platformer is largely forgotten today?

Developed by The Bitmap Brothers
Published by Renegade / Accolade
Released in 1992


I often find myself trying to justify the fact that as a father, husband and fully grown adult I still like playing video games. I tell people that it's a huge billion pound industry that's enjoyed by as many adults as children. I remind them that there are thought provoking mature games that are rated for adult consumption and not just because they have nudity and violence in them. I preach that games are art, games are emotional, games can make question your values or morales; they don't always listen. However while these revelations seem new to some, the games industry has always had games that were better played by adults than children. Not just games like 'Leisure Suit Larry' or 'Mortal Kombat' which were clearly inappropriate for children to play, there were also games that required patience planning and restraint. 

Although 'Gods' might look like little more than a very attractive "jump and run" platformer, such simple assessment would be unfair. "It's not just a shoot 'em up - there are lots of intriguing puzzles to solve and objects to discover" Noted CU Amiga magazine. " Even if you complete the game, there will always be something you've missed".
'Gods' is a game were precision and timed jumping are required to succeed. It's a adventure that you must cautiously move through, mentally mapping switches and memorising when and how frequently enemies will attack. 'Gods' is a game of planning, not just a game of knee-jerk reflexes. As a result it's a game I hated as a child simply because my gung-ho approach so frequently led to failure. I was not the only one who experienced this though. "Truth be told, older, more experienced players than me probably had a better time with 'Gods', as I could never finish it " Mike Diver noted on the Vice website. "The game couldn't be rushed – doing so would cost you health, always – and yet it had the look of a speed-run friendly arcade platformer. In practice, caution was always advised."

Friday, 3 February 2017

Mega Drive Review - Red Zone (Game 126)

When the visuals that originally stunned critics have aged, is there much reason to play this brutally hard over head shooter?



Developed by Zyrinx

Published by Scavenger Inc / Sega

Released in 1994



We take for granted how easy it is to share our creative endeavours nowadays. Video creators are well served by YouTube. Those with a passion for writing can distribute their thoughts through the world using a plethora of blogging sites. If you've sufficient talent to make a game you can even get it into the hands of gamers using a range of digital platforms. The expansion of online technology age has meant it's never been easier to get your creativity out into the world, but twenty years ago things were very different. 


Friday, 20 January 2017

Mega Drive Review - Aladdin (Game 125)

'Aladdin' is the best selling non-Sonic title on the Mega Drive and it's frequently called one of the best games on the system. But how does it compare to the Snes version? 

Developed by Virgin Interactive
Published by Virgin / Sega / Disney
Release in 1993  

Travel back in time to a nineties playground and you will hear the sound of geeks arguing. 

"My Snes is so much better, it's got Mode 7. Yours has only got Blast Processing and that's not even a real thing". 

"Yeah but 'Mario' is so slow and boring. It's like a baby's game. 'Sonic' is way faster and cooler."

Of course such comparisons were retrospectively ridiculous. Each machine had their own strengths, and despite both being 2D platformers, Mario and Sonic inhabited very different styles of games. However when each console received their own ‘Aladdin’ game, playground arguments quickly shifted to an obvious point of comparison. 

Interestingly it wasn't just fan boys who judged one game against each other though. According to Internet rumour Capcom felt the need to entirely rework their Snes 'Aladdin' game after seeing the visually superior Mega Drive take on the Disney Film. The Super Nintendo game was frantically reworked to better mirror the Virgin published Sega game. Quite a challenge given that both games had fixed release dates of November 1993; essential if the games were to sit on the shelves alongside the 'Aladdin' film's video release.  "It was all about having a game for theatrical, or for the most part, video release" designer David Bishop told Games TM magazine.  "It was a massive thing back in those days".

However, despite the confident Chicago CES demonstration that had so worried Capcom, development of the Sega game was stressful for the production team. "We had to have the game done for when the video launched " Bishop notes.”[This] meant we had to put together a team and build the game in five months. It was almost an impossible task". Completion of the game leaving enough time for "the various Sega testing shenanigans" was only possible thanks to the involvement of an Industry legend, one who was already making a name for himself following the creation of 'Cool Spot' and 'Global Gladiators'. “David Perry was sort of at the epicentre of this thing, driving the whole thing forward" Bishop readily admitted to Games TM magazine.  

Friday, 6 January 2017

Mega Drive Review - Ecco the Dolphin (Game 124)


I always find notoriously divisive games the most interesting and when it comes to Mega Drive games that split opinions it's hard to top 'Ecco the Dolphin'. In a five page review, Mean Machines Sega magazine could stop praising the game; to them it was "a Mega Drive classic without a doubt, a strong contender for best game ever".  Destructiod couldn't have had a more opposing opinion. They believed "'Ecco the Dolphin' is rightly recognised as one of the worst games the Genesis ever boasted."

How did a "dolphin simulator" divide opinion so completely?

Released in 1992
Developed by Novotrade
Published by Sega.

Now is a great time to be a fan of surreal and unusual videos games. With everyone able to publish their own games via Steam and Mobile platforms it's hard to imagine there isn't a place for even the most unusual of ideas. It reminds us of the glorious PD scene that existed alongside full priced Amiga games and bedroom coders writing spectrum titles. Sony has even jumped on the indie scene and is happy to throw their weight behind titles that catch their eye. But as a console manufacturer and publisher this is somewhat unusual. Traditionally publishers only want to back the generic and the traditional. This makes the existence of 'Ecco the Dolphin' even stranger, especially when you look back at how much Sega eventually promoted it. The publisher was not initially on board however. The games creator Ed Annunziata evidently spent over a year trying to convince Sega of America to hand over  $10,000 that he needed to make a prototype of his "dream game; 'Ecco the Dolphin'". "For a year, I’m explaining it to them and I’m showing beautiful images" Annunziata once told the website Sega Nerds. "I’m not really sure if I could convey it, but I’m sure any publisher, SEGA included, if they could jump into my mind for five seconds, run through and jump back out that they’d say, “Let’s sign a contract,” or “Let’s get this funded.”" Perhaps, Sega were weary given the controversial research that inspired the game's concept.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Mega Drive Review - World of Illusion (Game 123)

While 'Castle of Illusion' is widely considered to be the best in the 'Illusion' series, its sequel is perhaps the better game - especially with a friend. But when there's a plethora of 16bit platformers, is a Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck magical romp worth your time?

Developed by Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1992

Have you ever noticed that the tracks on a contemporary Christmas music CD alternate between excessively happy and soul crushingly miserable? Slade may scream that "it's Christmas” pointing out that "everybody is having fun", but the band Mud don't seem to share the opinion. According to this band "it's gonna be lonely this Christmas, lonely and cold". Wizard "wish it could be Christmas everyday" but Elvis is going to have "a blue, blue blue blue, blue Christmas". 

I'm fortunate to have never experienced a Christmas alone but if festive music has taught me anything it's an awful experience. The closest point of reference I have is comparing it to the experience of solo playing a game that's clearly meant for two. Yes the title may include a single player option, but as you progress you can't help but notice that all the puzzles are designed for co-operative play. You have the choice between two playable characters for a reason; there's meant to be a human controlling the other one. 

'World of Illusion' is one such game. It should be obvious from the subtitle it's an adventure 'Staring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck'. Of course both of these characters have been in Sega Mega Drive games before; Mickey in 'Castle of Illusion' and Donald in 'Quack Shot', but this is the first time they have shared the adventure. 

Mean Machines magazine argued that while it's a functional single player experience, the game is at its best with a friend. "'World of Illusion' really comes into its own in two-player mode, as each player relies on the cooperation of the other to get past the obstacles and puzzles."
Mega magazine even went as far as to say that "if you're playing the game by yourself, you should knock about 30% straight off [the 82% review score]". Certainly levels aren't even accessible when you're playing alone; including one with a Christmas aesthetic. In this stage the titular mouse and duck duo have to scale Christmas trees and traverse garlands while listening to wonderful festive chiptunes. Perfect for this time of year of course!


As the name would suggest, 'World of Illusion' is a sequel of sorts to 'Castle of Illusion'. However, while there are similarities, the inclusion of a two player option isn't the only difference. 


Friday, 9 December 2016

Mega Drive Review - Strider (Game 122)

'Strider' on the Mega Drive is frequently called one of the system's greatest games. But this conversion of an arcade platform game was intended to be a starting point for greatness rather than a title that's often thought of as standalone. 


Developed by Capcom / Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1991



Today we hardly notice that a game is released with an accompanying animated or live action series. We barely acknowledge spin-offs or simplified versions of AAA titles released on mobiles or playable online.  If a new game has a toy range, a novelisation, a clothing range or even fast food tie-in gamers aren't surprised; it's expected with big games franchises today.  

In the early nineties though the collaboration between Capcom and Moto Kikaku (a group of famous Japanese manga artists) was big news. While this wasn't the first time that a game was developed for release on multiple formats at once, it was one of the first times when a company deliberately made a franchise with a view to it expanding from the time of conception. The goal wasn't to create one game that could be released on many formats; the mission was to create a brand, an intellectual property that would reach a huge audience immediately. The idea of a simultaneous cross media release was the brainchild of new head of development Akio Sakai. This was a man who clearly new the merits of cross-media properties given that he later went on to produce the 'Final Fantasy' cinematic ventures for Square. "Sakai had the idea of making a project that combined an arcade game, a home computer game and a manga series" lead designer Kouichi Yotsui revealed to Edge magazine.  Masahiko Kurokawa oversaw the creation of an 8bit Famicom game; Tatsumi Wada and Hiroshi Motomiya were chosen to lead a manga series.  Yotsui had the greatest responsibility though; he became head planner on the flagship arcade game. At the time Capcom were known as an arcade manufacture first and foremost. "In those days arcades were Capcom’s main business" Yotsui once told Edge. He was a perfect lead designer having already proven his mastery of the complicated CPS-1 arcade hardware with 'Ghouls ‘N Ghosts'. 'Strider' was to be the third game made using the hardware and Yotsui was adamant that the game needed to push the hardware further than previous games had. "Naturally, I wanted to make sure the arcade game better than the home version and the Manga". 

Friday, 2 December 2016

Maximum Power Up Podcast - Amiga Memories

As I've cast a critical nostalgic eye over games like 'Cannon Fodder', 'RoboCod', 'SensibleSoccer', 'The Chaos Engine', 'Lemmings', 'Pinball Fantasies', 'James Pond', 'Zool' and 'SpeedBall 2' I've frequently mentioned Amiga computers. While I've always identified myself as a console Retro Gamer, that's really only half the truth. Growing up I played many a game on a home computer as we owned an Amiga 500. I'm always surprised that these machines are often overlooked when people talk about favourite gaming memories. While they may not have been that popular in America, in the UK at least, everyone seemed to own one. (Or more specifically everyone who didn't own an Atari ST had one!) It was a range of home computers that were versatile, well severed by creative minds and blighted by piracy. For while all my friends and I had huge Amiga game collections, a fraction of these were bought legitimately. While this was clearly awful for game developers and the longevity of the computer, for me it meant a chance to play a huge array of games. It's hard to imagine a genre of video games that didn't have some sort of representation on the Amiga. While it's true that a lot of these were pale imitations of the most famous console releases, the Amiga also served as a proving ground. A great many games that later found success internationally on consoles started life as an experimental project on the Amiga. With a thriving PD scene and home programmers competing to push the boundaries of what the A500 could do there's clearly a lot to talk about. And this is exactly what I have done.



I've always listened to gaming podcasts on commutes to work. I love hearing passionate, like minded people witter away about the games of yesteryear. Frequently the presenters are of a similar age to me, so their happy memories are also mine. I jump at the chance to appear on Podcasts especially when it's a topic I love dearly. This is why I was so delighted to join the Maximum Power Up podcast to talk about RPGs a few months back. Evidently I did a good job as they have since invited me back to talk again about the Amiga. For close to two hours I was gifted the chance to chat to my friend Paul, covering happy memories of the games we user to play on this fantastic range of computers. It's naturally a huge topic but (owing to the fact I speak Very quickly) we got through a lot. From magazines and cover discs to 'D Paint' and 'Amos' programming, there wasn't much we didn't at least mention. 



Early feedback has been very encouraging which is obviously flattering. English listeners in particular are thrilled that the machine that allowed for much of their childhood gaming has finally been discussed on the show. 



Hopefully it'll be the start of many more appearances on The Maximum Power Up podcast in the future.





Friday, 25 November 2016

Snes Review - Lufia II (Game 121)

'Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals' is a RPG overlooked by many but adored by few. But is it worth playing a 30 hour game just because the ending is so memorable?
Developed by Neverland
Published by Nintendo /Natsume
Released in 1996

Like Link hearing Zelda's voice as he wakes or Chrono's premonitions, every few months I hear the call to adventure. While I like to enjoy a wide variety of genres, RPGs are the games that I naturally gravitate towards. It seems I can't go a few months without feeling the need to play one, which is bad news for my wallet as the best 16bit RPGs seem to hold their value and are getting increasingly expensive over time. When you look at lists of the most expensive Snes titles, most of the premium prices titles are Role Playing games. Tellingly these same games also regular appear in "best of the Snes" lists too, so quality it seems comes at a price. 

RPGs are popular because try offer escapism, a chance to be a hero in a new World. My best gaming experiences tend to be when I get lost in a story absorbed in atmosphere and embraced by engaging characters. To do this best, I think, you need a RPG.  So while I may have many unfinished platforming and action games on my shelf, it was 'Lufia II' that has recently hogged dozens of hours of my available gaming time . It was a RPG I hadn't heard of prior to getting it last Christmas from a friend. To be frank, that's something I should be ashamed to admit.  While it isn't ever going to top 'Chrono Trigger', 'SeikenDensetsu 3' or 'Final Fantasy VI' it is a game that anyone with even a passing interest in Role Playing Games should look into.  It's gameplay will be instantly familiar and it's graphics are best described as "inoffensively functional" but the ending of 'Lufia II' is incredibly moving and worth the price of admission by itself.


It's often argued that it's not the final destination by the journey which is the reward; that really isn't the case in 'Lufia II'. Apart from some incredibly intelligent and challenging puzzles there is very little here that isn't done in other games and often better. However, when the credits roll you'll have to have a heart of stone to not be weeping. As you wipe away those tears hopefully, like me, you'll realise the effort to get there was worth it.

There is a short cut to seeing the dramatic conclusion of 'Lufia II'; play its prequel 'Lufia'. Perhaps uniquely, the game released first actually ruins the end of its own sequel: the second in the series is actually a prequel. Needless to say, without the 30 hour investment in characters though, when you see the events of 'Lufia II' at the start of 'Lufia' there is little emotional resonance. So, while I appreciate that it's quite an ask for someone to play a long game just because it has an emotive end, (especially when the narrative only gains momentum a third of the way through) any RPG fan would be missing out not to see this game to its conclusion. 


I have actually written thousands of words on the history and mechanics of 'Lufia II' which can be read, on real paper, in the popular 'Hyper Play RPG' fanzine. So, if you are intrigued by the game it may be worth picking the review up

To whet your appetite here's a little snippet. 




‘Lufia II’ is in essence a "best of" compilation; it plays well because its game mechanics are, for the most part, borrowed from other games and subtly improved. You don't have to spend ages grinding to learn magic spells you can simply buy them in shops, similar to early 'Final Fantasy' games. Churches are used to remove afflictions similar to the 'Dragon Quest' series. Like 'Breath of Fire', you can heal in Inns, but the most obvious Influence has been 'The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past'. While 'Lufia II' is, of course, a turn based game there is still a great deal of exploring. Each new dungeon is littered with puzzles which start simple but by the game’s close become real head scratchers.  Some of the more fiendish puzzles fortunately aren't required to be solved to complete the game but a solution offers more powerful weapons and armour though. Often I would finish a dungeon, only to spend an hour or so going back through competed rooms looking for secret passages and ways to reach the one treasure chest I'd not opened.  Critic Jason Schreier was clearly a fan of the puzzle distraction. "The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced 'Lufia II' has the best puzzles in JRPG history" he wrote for Kotaku . "Instead of just throwing mazes and monsters at you, dungeons in 'Lufia IIchallenge you to think about what you're doing, where you're going, and even how many steps you're taking. Some of the puzzles are obvious—put this jar on a button—but as you progress through the game, they get increasingly difficult. I wonder why more RPGs haven't given their dungeons the type of elegance and intelligence that 'Lufia II' had."