Top 5 Games of 2020

This year has been rather poor when it comes to games to put on this list. Partially because I’ve been concentrating on other stuff outside games overall, partially because not many titles have ultimately caught my eye that I’d like to get, and then that one last sin I seem to repeat every single damn year; I forget to list the games I played the first time this year. We should have a full list anyway, but before that let’s revise the rules. Firstly, a game produced in any year qualifies. Secondly, it has to be a physical release, so no digital-only stuff on this list, unless the game has some merit to warrant this, e.g. it’s a mobile phone game. There is a precedent for this. However, if it’s just a game released on Steam or DLsite, it doesn’t qualify. Thirdly, there is no order or a top slot. It should probably be mentioned that it doesn’t in what language the game is. Unlike the industry awards, I don’t discriminate against games for their language.

 

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin 2020, Switch, PlayStation 4, Steam

Sakuna is a hard game to recommend without caveats, but it’s a game that makes you want to play one more in-game day. A combination of 2D action and rice farming sim, there’s quite nothing like it on the market. It’s not Harvest Moon when it comes to farming, but at the same time, it’s a level more hardcore with pretty much everything that affects real rice farming affects in the game as well, from water’s height and temperature to everything you use in the compost. About a week later the Japanese release, I read some news around that the Japanese agricultural ministry had seen multiple spikes in the number of users as Japanese players went to check pointers on growing rice. The farming is intentionally made somewhat longwinded at first without any skills, as there are no real shortcuts. From picking up the stones from the field to manually hack the ground with a hove is all done manually. You could leave it for someone else, but that affects the rice’s quality and level. Similarly, there is no quick way to cut the rise. Get in there and start scything. Little things get piled up with each passing in-game year, which really creates a weird fixation on making the best rice you can all the while appreciating the stuff even more.

The action part comes in when you gotta get rid of demons inhabiting the island where Sakuna and company are exiled, as well as when collecting materials for your new tools, weapons, and clothing… and compost. The battle system is less refined than the farming part, which really shows which part got more attention. The action suffers from the usual 2D-action using 3D models, where you’re not exactly sure where the hitboxes are, and the ground being all roundish in most places sometimes causes you to misjudge a jump. Despite the game’s action being rather fast-paced, the controls themselves don’t really support this. The best example of this is what I discussed in the previous post about the jank in doujinshi games. Here it’s the inability to turn around if you’re using the attack button and in the middle of an animation. Rather than automatically changing the side you’re facing to with the next attack’s animation, the game will keep you faced to that direction as long as you keep tapping the Attack button regardless of the direction pressed. It is an overtly strict system that forces the player to be aware of the animation priorities and the way the game handles them rather than allowing the player to swish in an effective manner. This alone makes the action janky, as well as Heavy attacks being mostly useless. Well, if there are any enemies on the screen, it’s just better to play bowling with them, as you can rack up better damage by throwing small-fry enemies across the screen with the godly raiments Sakuna has, which also work as a Umihara Kawase-lite kind of tool when navigating stages.

Despite being butt-puckeringly frustrated in the action mechanics and how jank they are, Sakuna has an incredible amount of charm in every aspect. From worldbuilding to philosophical discussion among the characters to the best soundtrack of the year, in every point Sakuna fails it succeeds in two. It’s also one of those games that you play only a few rounds, but then say One more day, I gotta finish the rice before it gets cold and you find the clock hitting four in the morning. I truly hope that Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin will gain a sequel in the long run. Not perhaps with the same characters or the same theme, but still a combination of farming and action. Much like how Senran Kagura went from utter shit to one of the enjoyable fast-action games out there, Sakuna‘s sequel wouldn’t need to do much but to expand on farming and polish the action to silky smooth combat. As it is, Sakuna is a rough diamond that’s been cut but in a masterful way. Still, even a diamond with a failed brilliant-cut can yield surprisingly satisfactory results.

Also, play it with the Japanese voice acting. Nothing against the English cast, but holy shit Naomi Ōzora as Sakuna makes this game 15/10 will buy another copy.

 

Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid 2019, Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam, Stadia

Outright the best fighting game that’s come in a while. The early builds were rather lackluster in pretty much every term, but the play was solid. It was called shit by most people who only looked at the skin and saw low-budget graphics and simple looking play. Even some long-term fans disparaged the game without giving it a chance. Now with more development time and many, many patches and updates later the roster has been expanded alongside everything else. While its controls seem limited and simple, all that is there just to accommodate the ability to do almost whatever the player wants to do with their characters thanks to the freedom of action and movement, something that’s seriously lacking in most modern fighting games. In all seriousness, Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid has become of the top tier fighting games because its system is stupidly fun and challenging in all its beginner friendliness.

If you’ve ever played Capcom’s VS series of fighting games, especially the Marvel games with tag-teams, you should know what to expect as that exact same blood is in here. While the buttons are simpler, similar to what the Smash Bros. series uses, the complexity comes from the proper usage of the different tiers of attacks and their timings. Team synergy is also stupidly important and experimenting with what you can do with your teammates is about as important as learning to use your main fighter. While I was initially afraid of the auto-combo system in the game, as that has been the death knell of so many fighting games in the past, the system isn’t what I expected. It’s more akin to having standard weak, medium, and strong combos in one button. While you can move from one tier to another, it must be done well before you’re in a certain spot of that tier’s autocombo. Which isn’t even an autocombo. It’s a new kind of system that doesn’t have any other fitting description. It forced my Guilty Gear ridden, Darkstalksers taught chaincombo brain to stop tapping forwards for hit per each button and become far more considerate of timings and positions in strange ways, something that was a must when learning to play Lord Zedd.

Cross-play allowed me to play people who had the game on Steam and other platforms, so that was a nice plus. It shows that this game is wanted to be a success, and with each update, the game has become more and more robust. In terms of visuals and content the game was hampered severely by its budget game status, and in few ways still is, but the core play is absolutely solid. Hopefully, this won’t be a one-off time as we haven’t had a properly well-made Power Rangers game in a long ass time.

 

 

Aleste Collection 2020, Switch, PlayStation 4

While it may be a bit underhanded to put a collection to this spot, Aleste Collection gets on the list for two reasons; bringing a semi-affordable way to play otherwise expensive as hell shooting games for all, and making the GG Aleste a trilogy by introducing a completely new Aleste for the game Game Gear, which you can only play via the collection on modern consoles, or if you got the version with Game Gear Micro, on the tiniest screen gaming has seen. GG Aleste 3 is very much worth the admission with the caveat that you’re a fan of shooting games. It’s not the most difficult game out there, but in every respect, the game is polished and shows how well M2, the game’s developer, understands the genre and the series itself. As the game runs on M2 developed Game Gear emulator, it’s nothing short of accurate with optional slowdown and waits to fully emulate GG experience, which shows in quite the many paces how much a shooting game can demand from a console.

As a GG Aleste game, this third entry shows how something than peak even thirty years after the last game was out. It also puts a lot of expectations on Aleste Branch, which probably will make the devs sweat a bit. They put a high bar for themselves to beat with this single entry alone. As for the rest of the games in the collection, the original Aleste hasn’t aged all that well, all things considered. There’s just something about it as a series started that doesn’t play well, while Compile’s previous game, Zanac, outclasses it in few aspects. The same can’t be said for the other games. Power Strike II is a rare and well-regarded shooting game for good reasons. Its stage designs, enemy placements, and play balance it top-notch, offering good tunes to boot. The GG Aleste games may be the easier one of the collection, and overall when it comes to shooting games, though that can be seen as them being started friendly. Nothing prevents the player to drop the Life count and kick up the Difficulty, something that does have a significant effect on how you can approach the stages and encourages to properly learn the weapon usages. This is a blessing in disguise in some games, where stages consist of multiple static mini-bosses, which turn these momentary sections into a slight slog in the long run. Nevertheless, all these games are the kinds you’d find yourself coming back to challenge that one more round until you finally frustrate in the lack of skills.

 

 

Umihara Kawase Shun PlayStation, 1997, 2000

By my own technicality, I can drop this here. Haven’t I played this game before? Many times on Umihara Kawase Shun Second Edition Kanzenban and digitally, but for the first time I got my paws on the actual first edition disc. The game is still the best in the series and shows how far it has dropped in quality since the first two games. The series has had a wild run over the last two decades since it became a cult classic in the West via emulation. It has never gotten popular per se, but with the release of Sayonara Umihara Kawase and all the ports it saw, Umihara Kawase finally got the recognition it deserved. With that came all the negative side effects that changed completely how the series would be structured and how the game’s play would advance. Long gone are the days of straight-up level-design to tackle, replaced by non-linear action with a heavy emphasis on story. All that still doesn’t stain what is a crowning achievement in rubber band physics coding and level design of Shun.

It’s not just the physics though, despite the game being all about them. The music is just the right kind of soothing you need when you’re sweating over a jump you’re trying to desperately make to happen and Umihara is swinging wildly, almost out of control. Graphics are spot on with nothing excess or minimalistic about them. They serve the need of the game perfectly and their visual style is still bizarre. It’s one of those things that never needed expanding upon, we never truly needed to know why or how. The world of Umihara Kawase was a strange mystery where tadpoles give birth to frogs and fish have legs to walk on.

I’d like to say that Umihara Kawase Shun is a rare perfect game, but they already did that with the first game, so this is the second hit in a row with the series. It’s a game of pure skill and play, with a skill ceiling not even the fastest speedrunners have managed to reach. Just don’t play the PSP port, it’s a buggy mess.

 

 

theHunter: Call of the Wild 2017, Steam, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Another one by a technicality, I owned and played a physical copy for a few days before gifting this one away. I didn’t expect to like this game one bit. I expected to play to for few hours with friends who got me into it and drop it as one of the misfortunate purchases everybody makes. Maybe because the game promises a lot would let me down, wouldn’t fulfill any of my low expectations and I’d mull over the twenty euro I spend on it until I forget it exists until I get a message of new patches. Well, I ended up spending far more time than it was healthy. The Hunter: Call of the Wild is my new The Legend of Zelda; you’re dropped in the middle of nowhere with the very basic equipment and the whole world to explore and get around. It’s an adventure of the best kind and everything it does is game. While sure there are story missions in each map, the real meat is when you gather your equipment and simply explore the map and find an animal you want to take down. Tracking an animal based on its prints and marks left on the vegetation is something I expected to see in Monster Hunter World, and the same goes for the map sizes. They’re humongous and full of varied detail as well as hidden collectibles.

Of course, when you want to hunt, you want the right weapon for it. There’s a rather wide variety of rifles to choose from, less so in bows and handguns. Lures, scopes, and so on need to be purchased and most equipments require some leveling up in order to be unlocked. This applies to skills that help you, for example, keeping your arms leveled so that the scope won’t wander off all the damn time. That is honestly the game’s biggest fault; it starts slow and hard. It is most enjoyable when you get the kind of build you want and then go after the prey. Each prey is ranked by their size, and using the wrong rank weapon gets you penalties. Shooting a rabbit with a 7mm Regent would yield minced meat rather fast while using buckshot against a bear prolly would get your ass whooped.

This sort of simple idea, yet hard to realize, makes Call of the Wild a game that keeps pulling me back. I might get mauled by a bear and ragequit, yet after a day or so I come back with better equipment and take cover in a hunting hut, calling it in for some time. Then see it walking towards a lake just beyond the vegetation so you barely see it, and then make pin-point accurate shot straight through its neck. The game is full of these moments that you make through each and every decision, and they end up being hunting stories with other players. This is storytelling through play at its finest, where the framework allows player to realize their own stories within the game.

Something about this game is breathtaking. The graphics may not be top-notch, but often I end up simply wandering through the unknown forests and see vegetation I’ve never seen before, listen to one of the best sound design I’ve heard in a game, and just suck the atmosphere in. There’s little music, which only serves the notion of being there in the wild. You may hear crunches in the snow in the distance, and the hunt begins anew.

 

Honourable Mentions for those who didn’t make the cut

 

Metal Wolf Chaos XD 2004, Xbox, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam

A game everyone wanted localised, and then everybody seemingly forgot about. Metal Wolf Chaos XD is a fun short romp full of memorable one-liners and moments to take from, but ultimately the game suffers from being an Xbox game ported to modern machines. It’s not bad by any means, but something about its controls makes the game unsatisfying to play despite everything else being pretty damn spot on. It’s a recommended game for sure, but hype and joking can carry it only so far.

Shubibinman 2 1991, PC Engine

PC Engine games are full of jank. You can see what they want to with many of the games and somehow fail with them. Subibinman may not be a Mega Man clone, but if it was, it would be for the better. The game is charming, but it also exhibits what was the mediocre play design of the time. However, the game feels almost unfinished, something that could use a few rounds of polish to tweak jumping arcs, weapons, hitboxes, physics, and pretty much everything outside graphics and charm. It’s a game I really want to love and like, but ultimately ends up being a middle-of-the-road game that tried really hard to be a nice 2D action game, but just can’t hold the candle against the big boys in the genre.

The Wing of Madoola 1986, Famicom

Before Sunsoft hit gold with their games, they had numerous games that just fell short. The Wing of Madoola might be a cult classic, but it’s janky controls and combat makes it a curiosity at best. A significant curiosity though, as its place in the popular culture scheme of the time fits like a glove. Magical girls with bikini armours were all the rage at the time, after all. While its stages are linear, it also plays with non-linearity with some of the stages, though often this ends up with the player having to make a separate detour to a dungeon for items. It’s one of those games where you should never stop either, as enemies spawn constantly and swarm to your current location. This is severely hampered by Madoola being significantly underpowered early in the game, but at least you can defeat enemies fast with a Turbo Controller. While the Famicom had started to see quality games by 1986, The Wing of Madoola sadly can’t cut it no matter how much I’d like it to throw it up there.

Panel de Pon 1995, Super Nintendo, Satellaview, Game Boy

No, I don’t have a copy of Tetris Attack. I have the Japanese original with cute girls innit. Panel de Pon has been remade and remastered few times over, with Pokémon Puzzle League on the N64 being one of the more famous examples of its reskins. The format of the competitive puzzles was already perfected in this entry. It’s the best puzzle game I’ve played this year in a physical form, but it doesn’t ask me to return to it at any point. I don’t feel a need to throw it in at any point and give that five-minute whirl or so. While it is a fun game, it is kind of meh. Works better on the DS though.

Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo 1993, PC Engine, PSP

Also known as Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, the game was one of the additions to PC Engine that was a must. A very generic decision I know, but also one that was done very deliberately. While it’s often played out as the best of Castlevania next to Symphony of the Night, that’s overstating it. Both of them don’t hold the candle of the top spot, but that’s neither here nor there. Rondo of Blood is still a top list game because of its branching paths and stages, stellar music, and spot-on controls. The voice acting, anime scenes, and story are garbage, but that matters none. However, it got dropped to this latter list simply because it’s not Castlevania III and ultimately it’s not as enjoyable as Super Castlevania IV. It stays in a spot where it wants to be that best classical Castlevania but at the same time falls short for small reasons. Things like small irritations in the stage designs, how the enemies work or simply how there’s sheer lack of evolution in how a Castlevania plays out. It’s still an enjoyable game to play, but I’d rather pop in some other game in the series, like Lords of Shadow.

 

Happy new year to you all, see you on the other side.

Review: Streets of Rage 4

A very Sega cover

The original Streets of Rage games are a prime example of how Sega of Japan mishandled the Mega Drive in the Western markets. The three original games were never really popular in Japan or in Asian markets in general, but they were hits in American and in Europe. The whole thing about Streets of Rage series being cool at the time, hitting the rights spots with the popular culture phenomena in especially in the America with influences taken from the then-current music scenes across the pond made these games stand out, though the third game’s music splits opinions harshly due to its experimental nature. Sega was extremely good with this for a short period of time in the late 1980s and early 1990s as numerous of their projects managed to capitalise what was way cool. Sonic the Hedgehog is without a doubt their shining example of this, blending polygonal visuals that were popular in advertisement at the time with a great soundtrack, with emphasize on environmental themes that were around to a point and mixing them all in a blender to produce the most attitude ladden mascot to that point. Streets of Rage harkens a bit further back to the 1980s than Sonic, with the movie Streets of Fire being a heavy influence thematically. Other contemporary games, like Final Fight, were a massive influnce, with Street Fighter II being played at the developer Ancient Corp.’s offices and having a great impact on Streets of Rage 2. If the second game was evolution of what made the first game a success, introducing more moves and wider variety of enemies, the third game took that and gave more emphasize to the stages themselves. Branching paths became a more common thing, further moves were introduced, and for better or worse, the game’s story got more emphasize with cutscenes and dialogue. Unlockable playable characters made their first entry in the series.

 

However, the fourth game didn’t materialise for some two decades. 1994 was the deathknell of the Mega Drive, advent of Sega Saturn, Darkstalkers saw a release in the arcades among other things. Streets of Rage 3 didn’t even scratch the top ten most sold games for that year. Despite the third game attempting to push everything the second game layed down, in most terms it was a commercial failure. The beat-em-up as a genre was moving out from its golden days with Konami and Capcom still making some of the best entries, leaving Streets of Rage behind both in terms of game play, design and visuals. The fourth game in the series was attempted few times around, one of which ended up as the PlayStation/N64 game Fighting Force, or Metal Fist in Japan. One of Sega’s attempts turned into Dynamite Deka series, which was used as the basis for the Die Hard license. Ancient had been working on a Streets of Rage 4 for the Dreamcast as well, but supposedly, execs at Sega of America closed it down very early in development. Nevertheless, the DNA of Streets of Rage was carried over various directions. Ultimately, these kind of 3D action games would end up as being similar to Devil May Cry, which are a far cry from the first Final Fight and Streets of Rage.

 

The reason I wanted to include this whole bit is to show that despite all fans and fanfare the two original games got, the third game was a miss despite it taking the series further. The genre moved onwards with other games and Streets of Rage was mostly used a launchpoint. Fans have been making their own games based on the IP, and all things considered, Streets of Rage had become a dead franchise. That was until 2018, when DotEmu announced they’re working on a new entry with Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games.

The initial trailer split opinions, some liking the new style while other hating it. It showed nothing too much on the play outside few seconds, but the later DotEmu would release more footage as the game’s release was closing in. However, from the very first on, it was rather apparent that the game wouldn’t push forwards what the franchise had been back in 1994. That’s probably the whole review in a nutshell.

A revival like this can be don in two ways. First is to stick to the guns and not change much, or anything, about the formula and roll with that. You won’t disappoint anyone and you know you’re catering to the core fans who just wanted a new entry no matter what. This is effectively what Capcom did with Mega Man 9 and 10, and Nintendo with the New Super Mario Bros. line. This kind of catering to nostalgia first and foremost works few times around, but it can’t be milked. The other option would be to take core essence and see how far you can push it. With two decades and then between the SoR3 and 4, it would be rather easy to see what sort of design innovations the beat-em-up, or action games in general, have made during that period and how they could be implemented. Both are very different routes, and DotEmu and co. ultimately decided to stick with the core guns of the franchise and not deviate.

Good amount of research into the characters was apparently done

When it comes to SoR4‘s play, it’s as pure action as you can get. It’s methodical and orthodox and even fights against players who want to blitz. Timing is everything in these games, alongside positioning. The wide variety of enemies use different tactics to get away from the player, with some having moves that allow the to traverse across the screen or move in the air the way the player can’t. If you’ve ever plaued, or even watched footage of a beat-em-up, you already know what to expect from the play. However, the player is ultimately limited in their actions, even if the new control scheme does dedicate a button for picking up items and such. There is no running or dashing, nor there is a dedicated button or combination for sure certain grab and throw. You can only punch and jump, and grab when you’re close up. In terms of play and controls, there’s nothing pushing the Streets of Rage forwards. At the same time, once the slow pace clicks to you few stages in, the game becomes a bit more open. You can’t really device your own ways of approaching and playing it, however, as the design doesn’t provide the tools for that.

This approach has cost the game’s design some points. While many of the normal enemies are fine tuned, some of them exhibit unnaturally large amount of invincibility frames in their moves, something the player is lacking. Benefits are given to the enemies to the point of game feeling annoying rather than hard or challenging. There’s no point trying to counter moves, when you can almost break the game by grabbing and throwing things around. This is further examplified with the bosses, as they gain similar Star moves the player has access to, but with the difference they can use them in a pattern willy nilly without thinking about their life being drained or such. Some of the bosses are just lacklustre, like the helmetted DJ that feels like an unnecessary thoraway just to have a boss in there, while others give a satisfyingly levelled challenge with their own twist, like with Shiva.

Outside Shiva’s bullshit-bunshin, the fight’s really on the even grounds

The game is also rather long, longer than it really needed to be for a beat-em-up. This is further emphazised but that slower paced game design mentioned earlier. Cutting one or two stages out and make it an even ten, or even just nine stages with multiple paths would’ve made the game more interesting on revisits, but in one sit-through Streets of Rage 4 begins to slog and overstays its welcome rather hard. However, the game has embraced modern sensibilities in that you are able to continue with the stage you left off with a save file, with 1 Coin challenge being offered in form of Arcade Mode.

In tersm of visual design, the game is top notch. It looks great with all the lighting effects and colours being used in proper manners. It looks like a French cartoon with heavy Japanese influences thrown here and there. In this the game is rather contemporary, slightly revolting against how the original games tried to level with realistic look. The way the visuals have been realised and executed is probaby the best part of the game, testifying how 2D is still the best way to realise the age-old dream of games looking like cartoons on telly. Animation work is terrific and nothing to be scoffed at, characters are easy to tell apart and while stage designs and environments can be lacklustre, they still come through strongly simply because how well they’re visually made. Despite all this, the edge in the visusal style is rather rounded and maybe even dull. The Y Twin, the end bosses, don’t really jump out in their design, and the fact that they utilise a giant robot during the end battle is uninspired at best.

On the music side, you have what we could call classic SoR tunes. It fits and doesn’t intrude on the player’s nerves. Some tunes stand out more than others, so overall a well done soundtrack that’s not too uncommon nowadays.

The story doesn’t matter. While I fully expected some scenes to be voiced, I found myself more annoyed by the cutscenes more than anything. The difference in visual style becomes drastically evident during these, which also emphasize how it ultimately doesn’t fit. Within the series narrative, it’s almost like the the early 1990s never moved onward, yet we see contemporary factors dropped here and there. Perhaps fully embracing that early 2000s aesthetic would’ve been a better option rather than create this sort of fetishised hybrid of 1980s/early 1990s nostalgia through rose coloured goggles.

This game sounds, looks and plays like a standard Streets of Rage 4 fare. We’ve played this three times before. If this game has been released in the 1990s, it would’ve scored low. Now, far removed from its setting, it stands out as a classical example of well made and polished game, but a game that offers nothing special on its own. Expecting this game to deliver anything else than that will be met with gross disappointment. It’s a game that does get the franchise, it fully embraces what it is, but at the same time, it makes itself rather hard to recommend if you’re already familiar with the series, or the genre overall. If SoR5 will be a thing down the line, it can’t surf on nostalgia and has to find its way to create its own indentity and expand on already-explored play of the franchise, or go bust. I can’t fault what the game was designed to be, as that’s extremely well realised. It’s just that design was already out of date twenty years ago.

Review: Hori Pad Mini for Nintendo Switch

Another name for this controller, as used by e.g. Play-Asia, would be Hori Mini Controller, but let’s go what Hori themselves wrote on the box. Out of all third party controller manufacturers, Hori has been around the block at least since the Famicom days and have been making their Mini like of controllers for each generation of consoles. One of earliest examples I’ve managed to scrounge up was their Mini Commander controller. Hori has maintained their above-average quality compared to their competition rather well, with few points contention here and there, like how sometimes their D-Pads don’t stack up. That’s a slight spoiler.

Also, despite this being advertisd as a Switch controller, it uses a standard USB-A jack and does function in Windows as X-Input device without any troubles. It should be noted that this controller has no wireless option.

The Mini Pad for Switch comes in variety of flavours, but I ended up picking up red as I have enough blue in my life as is. The rest of the bunch have Nintendo licensed characters on them, and I’m guessing some people would find them more appealing. Design-wise, the Super Mario is extremely lacklustre. The licensed controllers do have slightly higher price point.

The first thing with this controller is how it feels, as it stands apart from from other third party controllers on the market. The surface is not glossy plastic on the front, but has this slight, almost soft texturing. It’s a very slight satin-like feel that makes the controller almost soft to touch. A very nice feeling that does give the controller a nice first impression, though in time that will polish off. The layout is nothing special, though the yellow chosen for the face buttons does make the button legend hard to see. The issue does not matter with the other colour options, though. Hori opted to use the same kind of stick Sony’s Dual Shock 4 uses, and thus have more travel. Going from frequently using Joycons to the Mini Controller, there is some learning before you get used to how high the left stick can go. There’s very little to say about any of the face buttons, outside their height. They’re extremely accurate and satisfying to press down. They are more raised than either Joycon or Dual Shock 4 buttons, which some may prefer. The menu buttons in the middle are your usual rubber, but sadly the legend on them is barely visible. The Turbo function, however, has its own label and a LED, and it works as well as you’d expect it to. A similar labelling could’ve been used for the rest of the buttons.

In terms of general size, the controller is smaller than Switch’s screen

 

The weakest part on the controller is the D-Pad. It’s the standard Nintendo style Cross-shaped D-Pad and functions about as well as you’d expect from it. Sure, hits the directions just fine, but there’s a slight need to pay more attention on the direction pressed. Diagonals are as easy to hit as with any standard Cross D-Pad. It is superior to modern Nintendo D-Pads, harkening closer back to the NES D-Pad in feel and size. It’s far from a deal breaker, but thus far the weakest point in the controller. I can’t fault it for not being a Saturn-style D-Pad, but that’s why we have Retrobit’s Saturn controller. The intention of this controller is to be a modern generic controller rather than specifically designed for retro gaming.

One thing I really dislike with this controller, visually speaking, is that the printing doesn’t extend to the top of the front shell. It looks cheap

The shoulder buttons are as mushy as any modern controller. You don’t get any satisfaction out of them, there is not click or the like. Their travel is rather significant and plunge amount 5mm to the bottom, but the overall feel is apt. The choice of not using any kind of trigger shape serves the controller’s overall depth, as it tries to keep itself as flat as it can. Their shape and size do feel nice and you can lay most of your finger on them just fine. This is one of the few controller yours truly doesn’t have any issue having first and middle fingers on all four shoulder buttons due to their size and close proximity. Due to the dimension, they end up feeling outright pleasant. Somehow holding and handling them makes we want to eat a KitKat, there’s a similar kind of positive energy to them. Despite them being mushy, they end up working almost better than most other shoulder buttons because of their overall design.

Bumpy

Despite being rather flat controller, Mini Pad does have the usual bumps to fit your palm. They’re nicely round and sit in your hands nicely. At first the geometry does feel a bit strange, but finding a relaxed position where you just let the controller rest in your hands rather than trying to grasp it makes it feel natural. The sculpt here is satisfying and fitting. Now let’s crack this baby open.

I have to mention that everything in this controller fits perfectly together.

Hori used a similar two-layer design in their Famicom Mini Commander. The PCB that’s on top on the photo is only for the sticks. Everything else is on the PCB at the bottom. This layout is very clean looking, but there also few bits that pop out straight away. You can also see that the shoulder buttons are just slotted. Because they don’t use springs, the mushy feeling comes from the contact rubber, hence the mushy feel. Also take note of all those labelled contact points across the PCB.

Also not that dangly bit above the chip? That keeps the rubbers in place on the other side.

Everything on this controller is handled by this one chip. What’s more interesting are those PROG CON points, which probably someone could find some use fore. More importantly, this controller seems to be an excellent candidate as a project controller, as the PCB lists contact points for all the buttons as well providing a nice round base to solder to. Even changing that USB cable seems to be easier job than expected, and throwing something like a high-quality braided cable might be a worthwhile idea.

The top PCB also carries clear labelling and contact points. This should allow a customiser to replace any of the sticks with direction buttons without worrying about incompatibilities. The two halves are also connected with a sturdy flat cable, something Hori also used in their Famicom Commander Mini. The front of the bottom PCB has nothing special to it, but Hori has maintained easy access to the contacts as well as has printed their labels there. The same also applies to the shoulder buttons, making this controller oh so sweet if anyone wants to just go town and make a custom one.

 

While there is no issues with the injection moulding of the controller, everything fits just perfectly with nothing popping in or out in a weird manner, I must mention how the action buttons do have small sprues still stuck on them from the moulding process. They don’t interact with anything, so they have no effect on the buttons’ functionality. With some other third party controllers there has been a need to shave off the excess, as the tolerances have been too tight. You wouldn’t know they left those snubs in if the controller hadn’t been opened. That applies to a lot of thing. If you even open your car’s doors, you’ll find that a lot of the stuff inside has peculiar ways of being attached and probably glue blobs left and right. What you don’t see, you don’t mind.

This controller is one of the better controllers in the Mini-line. It does suffer from the D-Pad being a secondary input option, and the flat Cross shape doesn’t benefit from this. The D-Pad is not a deal breaker. For whatever reason, all modern D-Pads are in the Just fine category, with notable exceptions here and there. The second hurdle is that the controller does take few minute to get used to because of its size. People with larger hands probably will find this controller somewhat uncomfortable and somewhat fiddly, but people with normal and smaller hands should find this controller just fine. This being a Mini controller, this is as intended.

I  find myself recommending Hori’s Mini Pad for Switch on the basis of it stacking up nicely even against the first party devices. It might not be as portable as the Joycons themselves, and necessitates some kind of dock or USB-A to USB-C converter, but even then its small size makes it very portable. It doesn’t feel cheap shit, even if it might look the part due to the overall visual design. Sturdy build, nicely responsive buttons and that ever so slight soft touch on the surface hit home just nicely. One of the better options out there, not necessarily the option to take depending on your own preferences.

Also thank you WordPress and your block editor for fucking up and deleting the contents of the initially published version of this post, I hate you too.

Short Series Introduction: Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman

While NCS and Masaya are more well known for their strategy titles, mostly Langrisser, their library consists of multiple genres across the board. However, they are very different in quality, some topping at some of the best games in a genre, while others are outright trash. Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman, or Chbibinman if you want to use their own official romanisation, falls somewhere in between. All the three titles, and a spin-off of sorts, all fall into the same kind of 2D action as the genre’s golden standard, Mega Man, but due to numerous small issues the franchise never really hits the same stride. Not that it intends to, as one of the most peculiar, and perhaps series defining element, is that every game plays significantly differently.

For a 1989 PC-Engine title, Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman the game somehow looks pretty damn nice and has frustrating graphics at the same time. Some sprites hold up better than some, mostly the player and enemy sprites, but the game underachieves with inanimate projectiles, bland character portraits and some of the worst lava of the era. Colours tend to be muted and nothing really pops up despite being clear, but this means all the sprites are easily tracked. Can’t say the same about some of the stage obstacles though, some platforms are exactly the same grey and the background. All the sprites are showcased directly from their side without much dynamic posing or the like, making the game look cheaper than it really is. This doesn’t really help the sprites’ designs, as most of the stage bosses are effectively the same recoloured sprite with an additional dragon head. There are also only three stage archetypes that get used until the final boss stage, which overstay their welcome. Nevertheless, in comparison to most other 1989 PC-E titles, Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman does have tad higher calibre graphics, with flavour that fits more a Mega Drive game.

Music falls into the same category, with only handful of songs on the card, but outside of one particular stage theme, none of them are offensive to the ear. They all fit their designated stages, with with one or two of them being almost worth getting stuck in your head. Having relatively clear voice samples in a HuCard game is a minor achievement, and they’re sprinkled around the game in proper spots.

While the game looks more or less run-of-the-mill, it’s gameplay has some great elements that make it stand out. The game is split between a map screen and an action stage à la Super Mario Bros. 3, with shop and all. You can take a couple of different routes to the final boss stage. Each stage is effectively a type of a mission, flavour wise, with interactions with the city’s denizens popping up at proper times. The cash gained from enemies is spent on upgrades, which are your usual flare, ranging frontrols are what you’d expect, about as tight as the second games with few oddities herm more Life to a charged projectile attack. These upgrades are necessary in the long run, as the game likes to throw fast moving enemies at you all the while stage hazards move at the speed of sound. The player has to move carefully and with patience all the while he needs to push forward as fast as he can. The faster you can remove threats from the screen while dodging whirling spikes of death and jumping monkeys you can, the higher are chances to survive. It takes a bit of time to get used to how the game flows, as it is equal amount of split-second reaction and knowing what’s coming. The game’s design tries to emulate Mega Man to some extent in stage design, but it is significantly less on-point with its challenge-per-screen design. Oh, and the game has a time limit how much you can dilly dally in stages collecting gold for the upgrades. If you don’t beat the game in an allotted time, it’s an automatic Game Over.

The controls don’t exactly help any with the game, as player characters need to accelerate to their full speed every time you start moving, plus jumping is awkward at best. The jump arc feels rather unnatural and lacking, requiring somewhat precise platforming. With some stages having overtly bullshit hazard designs, enemies having jerky patterns and nothing really delivering satisfying feeling from being hit, the game feels and plays loose. However, it must be given props to the developer for allowing the screen to scroll forwards when the player is 2/5 from the screen’s left side, rather than other way around like in Valis series. This gives the player ample time to see and react to whatever the game is dishing at him.

Despite all this, Shubibinman went on to have three sequels. While the above seems to be all negative, as a whole the game comes together as a unique little title. It’s not exactly the lengthiest title, and allowing simultaneous two-player mode changes how the players have to approach the stages and bosses. While the two share the same Life bar, and the only difference between the two is their design and voices, the charged attacks become even more powerful when used in unison. All the things the game lacks in quality is met charm and personality. The game did come out during time when Japanese pop-culture media was going through certain kind parody phase towards 70’s and early 80’s media, especially old tokusatsu shows. Shubibinman, much like Battle Golder YUI, plays the whole android/cyborg angle that was the cornerstone of so many henshin hero shows and goes to have fun with it.

The game’s setting is, after all, about two cyborgs: Tasuke and Kyapiko. Tasuke was a fisherman before Doctor Goutokuji operated on him, much like how Kyapiko was a normal highschool girl. The two got mad over the doctor operating on their bodies, and promised to return both of them back to their old selves. Apparently the doctor is rather paranoid and predicted the incoming Akumadan invasion. With their modified superhuman bodies, Tasuke and Kyapiko venture forth to save the city, block by block. That’s pretty much all there is, but as I said, the charm-factor is strong. After every stage your chosen hero makes a pose and conveys its personality, and the same thing happens when being hit by a hazard and the like. Little things like that made the game go some extended ways, but you can easily tell that this game was NCS/Masaya’s first try at an outright action game, though development was done by Winds. The formula was interesting on its own already, and probably with some tweaking would yield a high-class action game, but seems like the staff didn’t manage to escape Mega Man‘s influence.

Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman 2: Aratanaru Teki (tl; A New Enemy) ditches the map parts from the first game and goes straight up level-by-level fare. Significantly more important is the complete loss of the sword and all close combat weapons, as the game goes for shooting action. Few stages do shake things up and are played like a standard vertical shooting game, though don’t expect them to play like Gradius or R-Type in terms of quality. The charge shot is still in there from the first game, with the player character yelling Shubibeam! every time its launched. It can get grating after a while. Pretty much everything from the first game has been upgraded, with graphics have more colour and variety in them, sprites having much better designs and animations all around. All the characters now showcase their persona much better, with some enemies being on point with the whole parodying things. Big eyed robots with silly faces are great, and they’d fit just fine with other games that parody tropes and genres, like Battle Mania.

Much like sprites, all the stages look pretty great with more variety in them. The shooting stages look significantly different from the action ones, though that can be said most of the stages and some of their respective areas. You go from cityscape to techno-mines and everything in-between. Some stages also scroll upwards, much like how Super Mario Bros. 2 did compared to the first Mario game. The layout design is not directly action, not all the time. The first game’s stages were almost all about the hazards and this has been carried over to some extent into the second game. They don’t pose the same head cracking challenge without any context though, outside few specific bits here and there. Many of the stages have dramatic moments built into their sections during play, but every stage also has a specifically designed spot to have story bits happening.

Music’s great, with more songs and some very memorable ones to boot. There’s not much to say about it, outside that the main theme of the game seems to be considered sort of unofficial theme for the whole series as it has seen the most remixes, with one of the famous one being in Dangerous Mezashi Cat’s 14th release, Newtype Destroyer.

In a straight up side by side comparison, Shubibinman 2 is the better game, but the play between the two is different enough to mention something about apples and oranges. Perhaps the improvements over the first game were enough to convince its release in the US a year later under the name Shockman. To modern players, and fans of the series, it’s less an issue whether or not one game plays better over the other, but which kind of play they like. The same could be said for the tone and the story of the game too.

While Shubibinman 2 still parodies, it does take itself tad more seriously. The whole silly side can be found in character’s expressions and enemy designs, as well in other silly matters, but the interactions are more serious in nature. This actually does follow up well with how the parodying was evolving in the early 90’s, peaking with comedic franchises like Slayers that don’t explicitly parody anything, but under the hood those in the know are having a good damn time. The story in itself is a cliché (intentionally though), with a new enemy and evil versions of Tasuke and Kyapiko, just because. Taking place some time after the first game, Tasuke is still working as a fisherman while Kyapiko is dealing with her classes. Despite his promises to put the two under the knife and return their bodies back to normal, Doctor Goutokuji has been putting that back due to him expecting a new invasion. After many wild goose chases, Emperor Ryo and his two Shubibinman Shades, Jeeta and Myu begin begin their attack. While Jeeta is played out like any generic black repaint rival that wants to destroy the original, Myu is that meek and somewhat forced in her role, wanting peace rather than war. Spoilers, but Emperor Ryo kills her bit over halfway into the game. Of course Jeeta thinks the player offed her, and after beating him and after some convincing, one of the game’s best moments hits when Jeeta joins the player for a stage, like you were playing with another player.

It’s hard to say whether or not the departure from the first game was met with split fandom, but whatever the case, the third game would mix things up again, this time with the power of compact disc.

By 1992, PC-Engine had saw the success in its CD ad-ons and so many games on the system took advantage of the larger space with CD-quality audio and animated cutscenes, and Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman 3: Ikai no Princess (tl: Princess of Another World) was there to fulfil the trope. It also changes how the game plays, though this time it’s a hybrid between the two first games. Fighting with a sword makes as return, and alongside the slightly numb feeling when you’re hitting an opponent. Shubibinbeam is still in as a charged attack, though this time it functions more like a magical projectile you have limited controls over, like how it moves up and down, left and right. However, keeping your character intact and moving the sphere around does require some skill. Controls are what you’d expect, about as tight as the second game, though some of the hitboxes can be wonky at times. The screen also scrolls only when you’ve passed the middle mark, making this one of those games where you can’t see where you’re going. The game also likes to employ the Japanese action game design of Throw everything at the player, where enemies spawn almost constantly and keep attacking until they’re defeated or the player scrolls far enough. This in turn makes the best strategy to keep hacking and moving forwards as fast as you can. If this sounds familiar, a lot of Japanese 2D actions games did this at the time. Luckily the sword swing hits both above and slightly back of the player character, so crowd control isn’t impossible.

Sadly, all of the bosses are one-trick ponies and none of them really pose any threat. They just take time to beat. Combined with the numb game play and lacking level design, the game is rather boring in the play department. Hell, there’s exactly one spot in the whole game you need to walljump, but you wouldn’t know that unless the game told you to do that. Whether or not the game was rushed is an open question, but the game lacks specific stage hazards that had defined the first two games. It’s also probably the easiest game in the series.

Visually, the game is more or less standard PC-Engine CD quality, though it does look significantly better than its two predecessors. Most characters are now built from multiple sprites that give them some extra movement and looks rather damn nice. Sprites are bigger to boot, which does give them more detail and appear more lively. The animated FMV sequences are nothing to write home about, but at least they’re fully voiced. Just like the game, the FMVs are middle of the road. Stages use colours to a large extent and the overall is very pleasant and crisp. Sadly, the stage’s designs themselves aren’t all that interesting, as most of them have been stripped of any platforming. Few of them feel like run-through fares. Still, the background and enemy designs do stand out, even if its a fantasy fare in a SF series. Some of the enemy designs are absolutely gorgeous though, and for a 1991 title, the game does look rather impressive.

As for the sound, the levels are a bit off, effects seem like they’re taken from stock archives and music’s surprisingly muted. Despite this, the soundrack is very much what you can expect from a PC-Engine game, full of synth rock and chips in the side. You’ll probably find something to like if  you have a preference for Falcom’s PC-Engine games’ soundtrack and the like.

It appears Hitoshi Ariga worked at Winds at the time. Ariga is better known for his comics, especially of his Mega Man Megamix series. Note the translation done,

As you’d expect from the title, the story is a generic another-world tale. Shubibinman are summoned to another world during their beach vacation (androids do find appreciation in vacations, apparently.) Shubibinman end up fighting the titular princess’ forces after being summoned due to misunderstanding (hilarity ensued), until they’re thrown into the underworld to fight Demon Lord Kargan and his troops. Right after Kargan is defeated, they’re thrown back to the beach, and the princess and her goons want that technology to gain more power. Even for a series that doesn’t put much emphasize on story outside comedy, this is rather out of place. The Shubibinman Shade, rescued at the end of the second game, only appear as an omake during the credit sequence.

Whatever transpired between the third and the fourth game has never been revealed, but Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman Zero was finalised in 1994, but was released in 1997 for Super Famicom’s Satellaview service, where users could download games and other material off a special online service. The game is, in all essence, a reboot with only Doc returning from the previous games. Tasuke and Kyapiko have been replaced with Raita and Azuki, and their designs look painfully mid-90’s anime. Columbus Circle’s recent re-release makes them look much better. Tomomi Seki’s designs usually are on the spot, but for whatever reason this time they’re a miss with the in-game graphics.

The game’s play of course is nothing like the previous titles’. Instead of characters only being visually different, now the two characters play differently. Raita smashes through generic mooks with his diamond tipped boxing gloves, while Azuki plays closer to classic Shubibinman heroes with a sword. Both still have Shubibeam as their charged projectile, but that’s pretty much the only thing that was carried over. In terms of play, the game plays like a one-lane 2D brawler, a beat-em-up, with a focus on platforming at places. The controls are tight, the best in the series, and the same goes for the level design. Most of the enemies are, quite literally, grey mobs you just hack through, with some interesting level specific enemies here and there. Bosses are much better than in the previous game, but they’re a joke if you’re doing a two-player run, as the Super Shubibeam is overpoweringly strong, taking care of some bosses in one shot. You also gain experience from defeated enemies, which upgrades your health meter

Sadly, this being a Satellaview game, as well as a Super Famicom game, the sprites have been toned back. There is a nice use of colours, but both characters and stages lack in detail, and this is due to size of the sprites themselves. Shubibinman 2 and 3 made great headway how the sprites look, but Zero had to take a step back and make them look like upgraded NES sprites. Some stages use a nice green, but there’s also an overuse of brown in couple of them. That said, some of the sprite designs to convey the characters’ personalities through just fine, though not to the same extent previous two games.

The soundtrack suffered as well, with some memorable tunes here and there, but Super Famicom always sounds like it’s played through a tunnel. Some samples are very Capcom-y in places and can even get you in the mood, but the overall soundtrack doesn’t really stand out too much from the rest of Super Famicom library.

The story doesn’t go out of its way to impress, concentrating on BB Gang’s criminal activities stealing stuff left and right while blowing stuff up, and Shubibinman are there to stop them. BB Gang has their own trump card in Kagemaru, a response of sorts to the Shubibinman, while Galko, the gang’s leader, is your classic high-class lady in hi-heels ready to whip and command every and all mooks.

While there is a minor resurrection with Masaya’s IPs, with Langrisser I and II remade, Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman probably won’t resurface. Columbus Circle re-releasing Shubibinman Zero made the game properly available for the first time, and you can still pick up a copy off your favourite import stores. The rest of the games have been easily available everywhere, as PC-Engine games have been ported via emulation, like on PSN. They’re always cheaper there than their original releases, as despite the overall mediocre quality of the franchise, Shubibinman did gain a strong following and is remembered as one of the better PC-Engine games overall. It might be an example of mediocre Japanese games, the kind of Japanese consoles are full of, but its charm and overall competence does make rise to the surface a bit more. It’s not an obscure or forgotten franchise, despite what Youtube might tell you. It’s just that many other games just did it better and it’s a perfect example of products of its time.

Top 5 games of 2019

I have to admit that I’ve slowed down when it comes to games. I’ve begun to prefer more and more games that don’t waste my time and allow quickly to start the game and quit even faster. Things like like making sure if I want to save after confirming Save. For example, every time I want to quit Earth Defence Force 4.1, the game has to make certain that if I want to quit, and then opens a new message telling me that game is about to quit itself. This is a topic unto itself and I’ll have to get back to it later, as holy shit modern games are huge time wasters in this manner. It’s like with that one Senran Kagura on PSVita few years back, where half of the game was sitting in loading screens and menus. Except, y’know, this is the game telling me to confirm things I’ve already told it to do. Sometimes twice.

Furthermore, this year was rather dry in terms of games of interest. Not many titles peaked my interest even on the retro front, so the list below is rather predictable. This has made me to decide ditching following most new game release news outside limited release titles, and concentrate on picking up some more expensive old games I’ve always wanted to play, but for whatever reason never did. Emulation, of course, is not really an option if you want to have the real thing in your hands.

The usual rules apply; any game from any year is applicable as long I’ve played it for the first time this year in physical form. This means if a game only has a digital release, it automatically gets disqualified. There is no top slot either, because that’s stupid. There is no One Best Game.

Mobile Suit Gundam Seed DESTINY GameBoy Advance, 2004

I feel that this CM has been stretched out of its proportions, it looks like it should be in 4:3 because how fat the Gundams are

The GameBoy Advance doesn’t have many good fighting games. Some Street Fighters, one Tekken, a downgraded port of Guilty Gear XX and few others. Derivatives and sequels of sorts. Mobile Suit Gundam Seed was a new entry to the console, despite being part of the whole long-running Gundam fighting game attempts dating at least to the 1993 Mobile Suit Gundam and 1994 Mobile Fighter G Gundam, both of which are largely trash. New Mobile Report Gundam Wing: Endless Duel from 1996 on the SNES really hit the mark, marrying Gundam with entertaining fighting game. Seed and Seed DESTINY on the GBA follow the example set by Endless Duel while adapting some of its elements for the smaller screen. This shouldn’t be surprise, as Natsume worked as the developer on these three titles. The first Seed game got localised in the US with the subtitle Battle Assault tagged to it in order to tie it to the previous Gundam Battle Assault titles despite having nothing to do with them. The sequel, which is the topic today, stayed in Japan. As a side trivia, Endless Duel uses a modified game engine from a previous Natsume fighting game; Power Rangers: The Fighting Edition,

The game everything you’d want from a fighting game; tight controls, easy-to-learn but hard-to-master mechanics, mechanics that are simple and only handful, yet they do great service to the game. It’s one of the best handheld fighting game experiences you can have because of this, not being bogged down by unnecessary mechanics just to add complexity for the sake of complexity and is simply joy to play.

The game’s a joy to see and listen to. GBA’s sound hardware wasn’t the best, but that shouldn’t really matter when tunes are somewhat catchy and properly hypes the player for needed matches. The game uses pre-rendered sprites, which works pretty damn fine on the system. All the 3D models had simple geometry and lots of smooth surfaces, and anything more would be a waste; it’d make the sprites far too clumsily detailed and be wasted. There are usual sprite trickery here and there you see on the GBA, but the overall package is just so satisfying and well made. Lots of unlockable units, few different modes thrown in and Link Cable VS mode really makes this a must-have title for the system. An absolute joy, and the last good Gundam fighting game we ever got. After this, it would be mediocre 3D action title after another and strategy games.

The game is criminally underrated, and worth checking out if you have a passing interest in Gundam and fighting games.

There are three good things that came out of Gundam Seed Destiny; its soundtrack, this game and Lunamaria Hawke. The show itself is garbage

Phantom Breaker: Battlegrounds Overdrive PlayStation 4, 2015, Switch, 2017

There has been loads of sidescrolling beat-em-ups, or belt-scrolling action games recently. Fight’n Rage is perfect example of modern take on this classic genre, which also hits just the right spots in both nostalgia and evolution of the genre with ton of playable characters and movelists. However, Fight’n Rage doesn’t have a physical release, so it can’t get on the list. Phantom Breaker Battlegrounds Overdrive however fills that slot just as well, with high production values.

For a belt-scroller, Phantom Breaker Battlegrounds Overdrive is surprisingly lengthy. Seven stages doesn’t sound a lot, yet these stages are long and split into multiple parts. There is also lots of story bits for people who want that, which is very much tongue on cheek. The game is also longer for completionists, as there is a  decent amount of characters, who also require to be played relatively extensively to unlock all of their Skill tree, not to mention unlockable characters. This goes down much faster after you’ve grabbed few friends and some extra controllers and have gay old time in multiplayer.

What else really needs to be said? It’s a great modern action game, though the pixelart style was already overused at the time of the game’s original release. Would’ve been nice to see smooth, high resolution SD sprites over what the game got, as used in the promotional materials and such, but can’t win always. It’s still a game nice to look at, with high amount of animation frames and stages having scenic changes often enough. Due to the SD-style, some of the attacks and moves feel rather limited in range at times, and there really isn’t much exaggeration to go around. Still, big colourful sprites makes most things clear, the different hit sparks and other effects sometimes obscure the action a bit too much. This has been a thing in multiple games I’ve played in these few years, where for whatever reason you can’t see the action and hits clearly and just have to trust that the enemy and player animations tell the tale that hit has been made. It would have been nice of all of the game was done in sprites, but some of the background elements use low-poly 3D assets that just don’t look too good.

Music’s nothing special per se, but fits the game just as well. Bit music as a throwback to the NES days, with more channels and such, the usual par for the course. Some of the tunes stand out far better than others, but that’s not said much. Optionally, you could get the FM sound pack, which harkens back to PC88 and X68k sound fonts. The two sound versions are like a night and day, and I can see some people outright disliking FM versions.

Advanced Busterhawk Gley Lancer Mega Drive, 1992, 2019, Nintendo Virtual Console, 2008

The fight for a spot to get a shooting game unto this list was harsh; it was either Darius Cozmic Collection or this. I didn’t manage to find time to play Battle Garegga.

Ultimately, despite being deeply flawed, Advanced Busterhawk Gley Lancer is just joy to play. Hard as balls, unforgiving at times, requires some very tight reflexes at times and learning some stage layouts, Gley Lancer is classic shooting gaming at its best. One of Masaya’s more neglected properties on their library of IPs, the re-release Columbus Circle put out this year should still be in circulation if you want to pick it up.

Console shooting games rarely emphasised scoring, though nowadays it feels like that’s all shooting games are for. Gley Lancer balanced things out much better, standing somewhere between R-Type‘s survivalist approach to Gradius‘ laxed pacing. If you’ve ever played Gradius V and are familiar how to lock support satellites in place, this is the game Konami picked it up. The satellites, or Options if you want to call them that, can shoot to different directions from your ship’s movements. With multiple weapon  options, including the usual Auto-Targeting option, it adds slightly different layer to the play, which then requires changing the approach just enough.

Music’s rather solid, if you’re fan of FM music and Mega Drive sound overall. The first stage’s theme is a damn classic by its own rights, and few of the later stages are still awaiting remixes to find them. Graphics overall are nice, especially on the story sequences. Big, clear sprites like this were Masaya’s forte and go-to gimmick. Nine stages makes the game about medium in length, but due to some of the stages being rather empty Gley Lancer ends up draggin itself a bit. Not a whole lot, but just enough you to notice.

In the end, the PV shows what you get; that’s what you get; a solid shooting game. Sure, there are better ones out there, both on PC-Engine and Mega Drive, yet something about Gley Lancer hits the spot in a way most other shooting games don’t. There’s that kind of atmosphere, that kind of sound to the music and an era-specific look to the colourscape and design. Something just clicks the right way in Gley Lancer, and that makes it stand out from the rest of the bunch in a way e.g. later Gradius games just can’t make themselves stand out anymore. Maybe it’s because franchise fatigue or something else, but Gley Lancer has character to it.

Sadly, the player’s ship sprite looks very little anything like the ship on the cover.

The Ninja Warriors Once Again Switch, PlayStation 4, 2019

The thing about these Natsume’s retro remakes is that they’re not exactly needed, but the way they’re done is example how to do them. Sure, the base game is the same as it was on the Super Nintendo, but that’s the starting point. Revamped sprites, wide-screen support, local two-player mode, new game play elements, more playable characters and an extra mode all are welcome additions. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel again, just make it better, faster, stronger. The Ninja Warriors Once Again sets the bar for remakes like this rather high as all the areas the game aims to improve is spot on.

Controls are strict as usual, but there’s some every so slight to make them tight. The only reason you get hit is because you didn’t make a move at a proper time, the game’s design and controls are that accurate. No bullshit hitboxes like in Fromsoftware’s games.

The two new characters are the main attraction to the series veterans. Raiden being a hulking beast is very much to an extreme end from the rest of the cast, especially when the second addition, Yaksha, is small but requires very peculiar approach to her play. It’s a small miracle how different the whole cast of playable characters ends up feeling, with none of them replicating strengths or weaknesses. Despite the core game play staying the same, each of the characters skill sets impact how you approach to pretty much everything in the game, from base mooks to bosses. Well, except the final boss, which has always been a letdown.

This game, despite being a remake, is a standout solid title that does everything it promises on the box. It’s one of those games I’ve been coming back again and again since its release simply to enjoy how a game with limited but purposeful controls like this also allows stupid amount of technical execution.

Funny that, the Asian English release I bought had to be renamed as The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors, probably because Ninjas can’t be warriors in China or Korea. I don’t know, but it’s stupid and renaming the game now implies machines made to assassinate and then nuke themselves are somehow saviours, when the game’s plot clearly implies the new regime that takes over the nation afterward are no better. I guess it’s a cycle, where you always get new robot assassins to kill the new totalitarian regime after another.

 

Alien Crush PC-Engine, 1988, Nintendo Virtual Console, 2006, PSN, 2010

While Peach Ball Senran Kagura is a very entertaining and fun pinball game, the lack of fields really brings it down. There’s not much to do in the game as it is, but that’s mostly because there has been genre defining pinball games in the Crush series. Alien Crush is the first in the series, succeeded and surpassed by Devil’s Crush, but still stands very well in direct comparison to modern video pinball as its field design and music is top notch. Despite technically having only one man field, the setup and moving back and forth its low and upper parts. It takes a while to get the groove on, but the moment the game’s pace clicks, you can easily rack up points in no time to finish the game. The ball physics are not perfect, but for 1989, Alien Crush nailed it the best. While there’s just one main table to play on, there are numerous one-screen sized secret tables that pose specific challenges. All of them are a welcome break from the main table and shake up the play a bit. While the later games would have more secrets to access, Alien Crush arguably has better balance, not elongating the main table beyond two screens and allows more focused scoring.

The Gieger-esque design is bit on the nose, and the game overall wouldn’t be too far off from easily being made into an Alien licensed pinball game. The little details make it live, pulsating and looking organic. Alien Crush takes advantage of it being a video game and doesn’t lock itself into what shouldn’t be possible on a real table. While music is sparse, both main tracks sound for the part. Though you can’t change tracks mid-game, they do get a bit grating after a while.

That said, it is a niche title, well forgotten at this point, but still available via some online services like PSN and used to be Nintendo’s Virtual Console. Goddamn the Virtual Console was a great thing, and Ninty just killed it. The Crush series pinball games are still top notch, and a very high bar to beat in terms of sheer distilled video pinball quality.

 

Honourable Mentions for those who didn’t make the cut

 

Darius Cozmic Collection Nintendo Switch, 2019

The definitive way to get into Darius as a franchise, though it lacks G Darius. The collection didn’t get into the Top 5 because A) there’s a retarded amount of different variations of this collection for no real reason outside sheer stupidity and B) the games themselves aren’t in the end up there. Some standard editions have less games, some other editions have more games, it’s all stupid. That said, the games run pretty much perfectly, but Darius is a franchise that rode on multiple screens gimmick and didn’t actually get all the competent until Darius Gaiden. All the previous games, while nice and all, don’t have the same impact on the small screen as they did in the arcades, and without a similar multi-screen setup where you could replicate that experience, playing these games on a console or PC is a waste. It’s nice to have stupidly rare games like Darius Alpha on the collection, but that doesn’t add much to the game itself. The collection and packaging itself, in the end, are more impressive than majority of the games on the collection. The aforementioned lack of G Darius makes this collection very much incomplete in terms of classic Darius, before the Burst era begun. Maybe they’ve lost the source code or can’t make a proper PlayStation emulator, who knows.

Peach Ball Senran Kagura Switch, 2018, Steam, 2019

There’s exactly one reason why Peach Ball Senran Kagura didn’t take Alien Crush’s spot; lack of fields. I can understand and get why a pinball game from 1988 only have one main stage, but the lack of multiple stages in Peach Ball is a hard drop. Instead, you get three different daytime variations on two stages, which is really just an insult. Rather than basing the fields on something that would be familiar to the series’ fans, the two stages are a generic circus-carnival type of thing and Japanese themed field. While this makes both fields pretty solid, in their own terms, there’s surprisingly little to do, and despite the ball physics being pretty damn fine tuned, there’s just something little bit off that makes it all feel just tiny bit lacklustre. The emphasize of course is on unlockable clothes and balls, which all really amount to nothing. It would have been fun to see different balls having different physics, like a rubber ball being more bouncy compared to a metal ball. They don’t even make a different sound, it’s just a visual difference. I can appreciate the naughty bits just fine, with the whole flipping life and hometown up and down being a thing, but the lack of recognisable fields and cramming the two full of visual clutter ultimately made this a disappointment. I wish the game would’ve included a mode, where you could’ve turned the Switch on its side, but the stages are not even designed for that. There’s potential, so much of it, but it just can’t get there. The game lives and dies through short sessions, which in it serves perfectly.

Capcom Belt Action Collection Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam, 2018

What should I say about this collection? It’s good, it has great titles, it has Armored Warriors and Battle Circuit, two games that two games that were never ported home before, but Capcom should’ve thrown just a bit more cash at this collection in order to include Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, The Punisher and the eponymous Alien VS Predator. Where’s titles like Mighty Final Fight or the SNES sequels to the original Final Fight? No Tenchi wo Kurau/Dynasty Wars or any of the Capcom Dungeons and Dragons games either. What’s on the disc is great, but Capcom’s beat-em-up history is so much more. This collection comes out as halfassed and janky, not even having any of the home console games they released in the past. Apparently, it sold decently well, but I hope Capcom will put far more effort and resources in future compilations.

Why the Japanese title? Because that’s the label on my copy.

Wonder Momo Arcade, 1987, PC-Engine 1989

Wonder Momo is a class example of pure core design of a game and never deviating from it. Almost every other official attempt to revive the franchise has failed, mostly because they were lacklustre and didn’t get that simplicity doesn’t mean simple in play and design. Wonder Momo straddles on the line of being just simple enough and being too simple with its stage setting and enemies, strict and limited controls. It’s very much like playing old Castelvania or that new The Ninja Warriors, where the game is fair but hard. It’s a damn classic, and it’s sad that official revivals never understood it enough to expand on it.  However, this is where Toushiryoku Kenkyujo’s Wonder Pink doujinshi games come in. Sumomo Theater is effectively an upgraded version of Wonder Momo in every way and manner, with the two other expanding the system to multi-level side scrollers. Sumomo Theatre is a perfect example how integral it is to understand and acknowledge the core of the game you’re remaking.

Rumble Roses PlayStation 2, 2004

For numerous years now I’ve been trying to look for a wrestling game that would not suck. The few pro wrestling games that I’ve played have been absolute trash, while some others are more like fighting games in a ring, like Capcom’s Ring of Destruction: Slam Masters 2. Nothing wrong in that, I’d be down for a new Slam Masters game if Capcom were ever to make one, but somehow almost all 3D wrestling games end up playing janky and feel as smooth as trying force spaghetti through a motor. I really wanted to love this game, I really did. Joshiprowres is something I’ve always loved on the side, but it’s never been my main interest. Blizzard Yuki’s a personal favourite, dunno why. Maybe it’s the comic. Playing Rumble Roses ultimately ended up feeling like so many other wrestling games; unfulfilling. The way these 3D wrestling games are designed and realised needs a total paradigm shift, something would move towards making the games play like silk rather than feeling like you’re scraping against the asphalt. Still, there’s a lot to like about the game, from somewhat nonsensical storylines to alternative versions of each character to nice designs overall. I’ll just have to keep looking for that one wrestling game that might sate this craving.

Review: Retrobit Sega Saturn style bluetooth controller

Nowadays it’s become somewhat hard to find new controllers for your old hardware. You mostly have options from third party producers, who may or may not have the best quality to offer. For example, you can find NES controllers that look just like the original, but then the buttons have a terrible feeling under the thumb, Start and Select are hard plastic instead of soft rubber and the contact rubbers underneath are mostly trash. It’s surprising how much a controller’s responsiveness and tactile feeling comes from how good the contact rubbers are, how well they spring up, what’s their depth and how much pressure they require to be pressed down. You can get proper molds from existing controllers just fine, or if a company still has the originals, they can use those. Nowadays it is easy to model the controller in a CAD program and mill it out, though even that costs some money. Still, faster than creating a whole new product design, and with something relatively simple like the NES controller, the costs probably are not all that high.

It’s a tall order to ask a modern replication of an older controller feel and function the same. Some materials may have been changed, some components may not even be in production anymore, things like that. However, that should be the minimum level a replication controller should be like, then have some additional bells and whistles like wireless functionality, RGB lights and the like. The Retrobit Saturn controller gets the Saturn experience almost right. It runs just short in few areas, and these areas are probably something they can’t help too much.

As a side note, the photos in this review will be updated at a later date for better ones. Embarrassingly I’ve misplaced my Nikon’s battery charger, and you’ll have to wait until I’ve found it, or my travel charger has arrived.

If you’re wondering why my copy is transparent blue, it was the cheapest option out there. At first it comes as a bit gaudy with the hard plastic casing and such, which just wants to be scratched and cracked. It’s still a neat case, easy way to keep track on your two dongles, one basic USB and for Saturn. It’d be a surprise if a controller like this would make the sync process somehow obtuse, but nothing special to mention here, except the small sync buttons on the dongles feel extremely cheap and something that could break.

Overall, the controller is seemingly the same size as the original Saturn S controller, the one that really matters. The first Saturn controller is a slight monstrosity with really uncomfortable looking D-Pad, but I’d like to get my hands on one still for reviewing purposes. Of course, the 3D Pad was a thing, but mostly good only for Nights. It feels like a Saturn controller, which always felt like built from cheap plastic, hollow and clattered when shaken. Retrobit has managed to replicate all these, thought the battery adds ever so slightly more weight. It’s weird to call this controller feeling like cheap shit, because that’s part of Sega’s original design and engineering. It just works as intended. Even the face buttons moving about and making that rattly noise is part of the design. It doesn’t feel expensive or deluxe grade, it feels like something that’s made to fulfill its task.

Even the info labels are at the same spot.

I have to confess something though; you haven’t been looking at pure Retrobit Saturn Controller here. Instead, you’ve been looking at a slight hybrid.

Now the first one who tells me I should’ve put the rubber on its right spot above the face buttons rather than leave it off-center and crooked doesn’t get any cookies. Retrobit uses some kind of coloured rubbers, in my case blue, because blue case.

Whilst on the surface Retrobit’s controller looks like Sega’s original, the function is not there. The up diagonals are slightly too touchy and easy to push. C-Button, the most rightmost button on the lower row on the controller, got constantly stuck. There are three possibilities why this happens; the button itself is intended height, the contact rubber underneath allows the button to plunge too low, or the shells have just enough height difference that the button plunges too low. It may be a combination of these three. After quick measurements, the buttons themselves seem to be more or less accurate replications, so the problem must be on the rubbers, as tightening the screws at the back didn’t work.

This gave me an idea to try out; change D-Pad and rubbers from an old Saturn controller to this Retrobit one, as the shells are effectively the same with two extra slots. This, to my surprise, didn’t just fix the D-Pad problem I was having with the up-diagonals, but also tightened the button feeling, responsiveness and no buttons were getting stuck. It’s probable that some tolerances with the new parts are just slightly off, which is probably explained by them being manufactured nowadays. Something is a bit off, and throwing in older parts somehow fixes this. This isn’t an issue with using old parts per se, as I compared to a brand new Saturn S controller, which I really should’ve used in these photos and not the one I used as my daily driver with Saturn itself.

One of the reasons Saturn controller is well praised is because of its six-button setup and the D-Pad. The D-Pad in itself is the best one any of the major companies have produced to this day. This is a combination of three elements; Disc shaped top layer, the white cross-shape underneath and the cavities both parts sit in. With a good underlying rubber, this setup is simply accurate and easy to use. It has the benefits of a round D-Pad in that it is easy to roll your thumb around and its softer corners are godsend in longer gaming sessions, but at the same time the clear cross-shape beneath makes all the eight cardinal input directions stand out as individuals. The main difference between Sega’s and Retrobit’s design is that while Sega’s design holds itself together with sheer force of friction, which isn’t a whole lot but enough, Retrobit’s parts are lose enough to necessitate a screw. Well, this lead me to change the D-Pad as well. This leads me to wonder if the main reason the controller has some issues are tolerances, things are just that sub-millimeter amount too loose.

Saturn original underneath, the Retrobit above

The most major difference in the controller, outside it being wireless, is the shoulder buttons. They simply are different. Sega’s controller has a button that has a very short throw distance, it feels like it clicks down less than millimeter down. You can brush the button and it clicks instantly. It’s pretty damn great how it feels. It’s precise. Retrobit didn’t use the same part for whatever reason, be it that the part doesn’t exist anymore or they used a button that was more readily available. The difference isn’t just in the width of the button, but also that it requires more pressure to press down, its click is far mushier and has notably farther plunge. In comparison, Retrobit controller’s shoulder buttons feel less responsive. In action, like in Street Fighter Alpha 2, I did notice how some timings were off simply because my muscles memory. While this seems like a minor problem, it is a problem in a spot that lives and dies in millimeters. That sharp click is also much more pleasant to the ear.

I can’t help but to recommend the Retrobit Saturn controller. Overall, it is an almost exact replica of Sega’s famous Saturn S controller. The diagonals and C-Button sticking might be issues just with my copy, and I haven’t read anyone else having these issues. I find it stupid that changing the the D-Pad and the rubbers from an older controller makes Retrobit’s controller is almost a perfect replica outside those issues, with the shoulder buttons being the only true gripe. Even that is more an issue of getting used to, though that can be modded with desoldered buttons from the Sega controllers. Sure, it lacks the second stick, but that’s now what this controller was designed to have. It’s best for games that don’t need a stick and should be one of your top considerations for emulation and 2D gaming.

Review; Columbus Circle’s Gley Lancer re-release

Few years back I decided to pick up and review Battle Mania‘s Chinese knock-off/reproduction cart from eBay for cheap. Time hasn’t been all that kind to my views on the reproduction, and in hindsight it is just atrociously bad. Fast forward to 2019 and I’m sitting here with another new Mega Drive game cart in my hand. This time, a licensed re-realease of Advanced Busterhawk Gley Lancer. extreme has their hands on all of Masaya’s IPs, and apparently Columbus Circle saw it fit to license Gley Lancer and give it a quality rerun. This is review of the package and quality of the production, not a review of the game. The game’s 9/10 shooting game, go buy it. I would recommend reading the previously linked Battle Mania review for some comparison.

Completely new boxart

First impressions are important, and the packaging doesn’t falter. The box has the same feel as the original Mega Drive game boxes, that sort of somewhat cheap feel of plastic that could break anytime, but can still take a beating. The surface texture on the transparent plastic wrap is there and it gives the perfect kind of feel under your fingers. It looks and feels the part; a genuine Mega Drive game. The cover sleeve is thin matte paper, again just like the original MD games. The print quality is perfect without losing any details. Furthermore, if you don’t want to see two girls on a box of this game, you can always reverse the sleeve for the original boxart image.

 

This adds value, and collectors can have the original cover just fine. However, Columbus Circle did make certain that people would not be tricked, as they slapped their logo on the spine and contact information on the back. I should also point out the additional text at the bottom of the cover mentioning that this isn’t Sega Games endorsed product. This is sort of unofficialy official Mega Drive game, produced with the proper license from the IP holder, but without Sega’s involvement.

These first impressions on the outside of a product like this take a long way. Collectors who showcase their games want the appearance to be right. However, the insides need to be satisfying as well for those who will keep playing the game as normal, like yours truly.

Everything is, of course, new. While pretty much every and all MD carts out there are black, Columbus Circle used a semi-transparent smoke coloured one for Gley Lancer. While a personal preference says it looks like, it might’ve been better to go with the same solid black as standard MD cartridge. However, the texture around the label gives a nice grip. Again, this sort of tactile feedback takes a product a long way forward. Some Japanese cartridges did feel a bit cheap back in the day for whatever reason, Western carts just had better build overall. This one is somewhere in-between, having better plastic than the Japanese releases, but not as good as European or American. The mould used however has been excellent, as the shell halves fit together rather perfectly. The label print is top notch, nothing to bitch about here. It just has been applied too close to the bottom, meaning there’s a lot of empty space at the back, and that the on the lower left corner is taken some very minor damage. Not that this was all that rare back in the day, but whoever put these on probably didn’t really care.

At the back you see the main reason why this review won’t have PCB pictures; the screws are covered by a label. You can see the spot on the left where I’ve pressed the label is somewhat to expose the rims of the screw holes. Columbus Circle branded these carts with their own logo, which again makes it stand apart from original cartridges. Your mileage may vary whether or not you like this, but it nevertheless does give the whole deal a different feel. You won’t forget that this was produced in 2019. By that extension, you might not feel that this is “real” despite having licensed and all under its belt. Notice that the label is slightly peeled on the right there. This either means that the label is robust enough to start coming off by itself, or the applier just screwed this up as well. Heating the adhesive a bit and reapplying should remedy this well enough. In addition to this, there are some problems with the cartridge.

While original cartridges had the injection tabs in the same place, the quality assurance never left large, broken surfaces. This isn’t the case with this particular copy, and I don’t really think the manufacturer cared too much about the rest either. Rather than taking the time and effort to file or sand down the tabs completely, they’re largely left in their original state. The tabs rise some two millimeters off the inside surface, and while they don’t interfere with the game’s insertion into the console, they do look rather tacky. Taking a knife and cutting them even or otherwise leveling them isn’t a problem or a major task, but something that just degrades from the overall quality of the product. This probably is the largest gripe, which says a lot otherwise about the quality.

While I won’t be opening the cart for now, we can use the transparent plastic to our advantage. Here you can see how clean everything is, though just ignore the dust bit at the top. The PCB seems to be standard MD size, and there doesn’t seem to be anything extra, unlike 8Bit Music Power. Columbus Circle did improve their PCB design right after all the negative feedback after this. I’m betting they’re using flash memory to store the ROM, but unlike with the Chinese Battle Mania knock-off, this seems to utilise a full-sized PCB, similar to 8Bit Music Power FINAL. Columbus Circle has released a music title on the Mega Drive previously, one which I’ll probably pick up at a later date for comparison how this release compares to it. That smoke colour really comes to through nicely against light though.

The manual, however, does let you down a bit. Not much, but enough.

The manual’s printed on a good matte paper. This is seems to be clear cut difference between people who haven’t done project like this and those who have; experienced people use matte paper most of the time. If glossy paper is present, its used for an effect and even then the nature of the paper is selected carefully. Saying glossy and matte don’t really tell anything on themselves, but opening the can between paper qualities would take a whole blog in itself. That matter aside, the manual uses the new boxart slightly cropped, which is a good choice. You can reverse the cover sleeve to the original boxart while still keeping the new style look at hand. The rest though?

This one page really should tell it all. On one hand, the print quality is pretty good, nothing short of original Mega Drive runs. However, the characters on the left seem too dark. It is very likely that Columbus Circle had to resort to scanning the original manual rather than gain access to the original materials. This either means the original manual was this dark as well, the printing colours were off, or that something happened between scanning and printing. This seeming darker-than-intended issue of course is on every page, colours saturated and all. However, because most lines and text are sharp, I can’t help but this is was the original result. You can also see that the grid is not exactly straight, but if we’re completely honest, the grid like this is never completely straight. Neverthless, the manual feels off to drop a point off from the whole package.

Nevertheless, compared to the original Mega Drive games and packaging, this run of Gley Lancer is up to relative standards. There are some spots that should be improved, especially when an official license is in play, but this is far above any Chinese knock-off. Chinese can produce good stuff, as long as you put the money and skill in the production. Practically all repros and releases like this are made in China anyway, its just a question of picking the proper subcontractor to work with and all that. I would still recommend this release of Gley Lancer if you want to play games on your Mega Drive, as it is a complete, official package.

However, I would raise a question whether or not this should supersede the original release, if you had the possibility to choose one or the either. Perhaps it is because there is no license from Sega, or just to differentiate this release from the original, it is 2019 run of Gley Lancer and this will rub some people the wrong way.

Differences include the MD logo, genre classification icons, different Mega Drive text at the top, different cartridge materials and label. We can understand the lack of any Sega related logos and materials, but why change the cartridge label? Perhaps to unify the look of the packaging, to make the overall package look the same across the board. It an be argued that Columbus Circle should’ve stuck replicating the original release as much as possible, but at the same time this could’ve lead some people trying to sell the re-release as original release. An issue these releases always will have is the compatibility with original hardware. While I am a proponent of using modern PCBs and methods to deliver older games in more efficient manner, we’ve seen how haphazard it come become, like it did with 8bit Music Power. However, as said, these issues have been seemingly fixed, and the current method of making reproduction cartridges seems to be solid and without any real hitches. The game also lacks any reference to Sega when it boots up and has the updated Masaya logo alongside Columbus Circle’s own right after. Of course, because Nippon Computer System wasn’t involved in this release, extreme has replaced them in the credits. However, the game code and how it plays is still the same. Here’s a full playthrough of the game with a Mega Drive with sound modified for your enjoyment.

The image quality is much sharper than Columbus Circle’s own trailer, as Framemeister is still the best option to run old systems on modern televisions

Because of all the changes to the packaging and changes in credits, some will consider this as a good knock-off or a repro. Some will consider this release weaker for the same reason and the lower level of quality control. However, when put into context, a small independent circle re-releasing a cult-classic under official license from extreme and Masaya. While it is regrettable that few issues keep this from being an absolutely stellar release, the fact that this wasn’t their first MD release, and Columbus Circle is intending to publish more, they need to tighten up on quality control once more to achieve the same level of quality as original game releases. Neverthless, if you’d like to own a copy of Gley Lancer and can’t spot an original copy or don’t want to spend the money, I would recommend this re-release warmly despite its shortcomings.

 

Review; Darius Cozmic Collection Special Edition box

There has been some interesting development in regards of certain video game packaging as of late, if you’re someone who has a thing for package designs. Mainly that there has been a large movement to unify them under a generic design, especially if they’re from Limited Run Games or by a Japanese company. Two could be a coincidence or style chosen by a certain corporation. Three’s a company, but five starts to say there’s a standard going on. Game Paradise Cruisin’ Mix Special, Dariusburst Chronicles Saviours both JP and Limited Run Games release, Senko no Ronde 2, and now Darius Cozmic Collection all use the same kind semi-slim box design that can be used to house multiple types of objects by changing the inlays. With this basic design, the thickness of the box is easy to adjust as well to offer more room. People who like uniform shelves will like this direction quite a lot, as the boxes now are of same height and width, with some changes in thickness. Still, an evolution from the widely and stupidly different kind of collector’s editions boxes that just don’t really fit anywhere. I can’t help but feel that this homogenisation of boxes takes something special from these special editions.

If you read the review on Dariusburst Chronicles Saviours box few years back, you should mostly know already what to expect.

 

As you’d expect from the front, Darius Cozmic Collection Special Edition looks rather spiffy. Sure, the logo’s taking a lot of room from the cover, but all the six main images try to come through in a good balance. The only bit that ruins the Switch logo on the top left, with it being the largest logo on the box. Taito’s and CERO logos at the bottom are perfectly sized in order not to mess with the layout, but the Switch logo just hits your face. It’s a box front, and the back’s as you’d expect it to be. The layout’s nice, uses some of the game graphics and rather than trying to sell the game with overtly just vomiting text, the graphics are there to sell the package. They do that nicely. The usual required legalese at the bottom doesn’t interfere with the rest, as it functions like a some sort  pedestal for the rest of the back.

When you first open the package, you’re greeted with the miniature marquee plaques. This is an absolutely beautiful set, even if its just bunch of transparent plastic with layered printing on the back. The printing is sharp and of high quality. Nothing less would really suffice, if we’re honest here. Most often Japanese companies don’t sacrifice quality when it comes to limited editions, and know that the perceived value gained from putting the effort into stuff like this is enormous benefit. It works, and you could attach these to anything you’d wish. There’s a not much weight to them either, so just throwing some bluetac behind them would keep ’em in place, though they’d truly shine if you had something to light them from behind.

After lifting the plaques and two spacer sheets around out, the main book of the package reveals itself. Darius Odysseys have always been great source material books with some slight change in emphasize, with the previous Dariusburst collections emphasizing on listing enemies. This time we have emphasize on production, both the actual cabinets, prototype artwork to layout the screen scenes, packaging scans, preliminary sketches and all the that good stuff yours truly loves to see. Hell, even the scans for the game packaging are of great quality and highly appreciated in the wholesome box form they’re presented. It’s a nice and thick book with great production value to it. The only thing that could’ve made it better would have been hard covers. This is the kind of material we rarely see, and it’s a marvel to see production material like this.

Lifting the space the book is recessed in reveals the last bit at the bottom of the; the bog standard Switch game case and the soundtrack slot. Funnily enough, this game with two soundtracks, and only one fit inside the box. The other was just laying inside the box, but seeing that was more or less a seller’s special, it should impact on the value of the core box. It would’ve been better to use a different cover for the Limited Edition and standard edition cases, but I guess this sort of unifying look to the whole package has its benefits too.

A package like this really lives through prestige. Most of it is sturdy, can take a hit or two just fine, just like the rest of the boxes like it. Nothing’s flimsy here, not even with the spacers. It’s a bit weird that one of the two CDs, even if it was just a seller exclusive item, had not slot designed inside the box. Now it’s just floating around somewhere on my couch among all the other stuff. Still, a package design like this might be somewhat dull, but it’s extremely well thought out for multiple intended uses. If this has become the standard for limited editions in Japan, guess this is the golden standard we should compare the rest of the gaming packaging we come across in the future.

 

Review: Myst 25th Anniversary Kickstarter packaging is shit

The very first thing your customer notices about a product, be it on the store shelves, online pictures or when receiving the item in mail, is the packaging. Ignore the quality of the packaging and you lose the customer. It’s extremely easy to make a terrible packaging by making few low-effort choices, like choosing weak cardboard because its cheaper, unfitting box size because that allows items to rattle and be damaged during transit (be it from the store or via mail) or have no support for the item within the box.

Package illustration and text are a whole another dimension that add to the mix. Cheap printing will automatically spell how much the producer cares about the producer cares about the product overall. Some fanzines have better printing that some mainline comics nowadays. The logos, the catchphrases, the descriptions, everything that reads of the package has to be both up to legal standards and to attract and convince the customer that this is the product worthy of their money.

A worthy packaging takes money, time and skill. A package designer is well worth the money he gets paid and is a field of design that nobody really thinks about. It’s a thankless job that you only remember exists when you face a terrible packaging.

Of course you could ignore most of that and just throw some discs in a sleeve and call it a day.

Oh for fuck’s sake Cyan

The reason why Cyan Inc (and Incorporated they are) did this is because the higher tier backers on Kickstarter get a custom build book that houses the games. This is all fine and dandy, until you realise that these poor bastards will get their games in the same cheap bargain bin sleeves. Let’s get to the root why this packaging is shit to the core and nobody should do this, unless they’re releasing cheap shit to the market at the lowest possible price.

First of all, there is no protective support. Sure, the sleeves themselves support from some of the damage that dust or such could do, but that goes out of the window the moment you realise that everything will get in from the open side. There’s no mechanism to keep any of that out.

While these sleeves are an age-old way to house a disc, it’s also one of the worst ways. Compact discs like these have a tendency to moving and spinning inside their sleeves, unlike LPs and LDs that have some weight in them to keep them in place during transit. This causes chafing that will cause smudges, and sometimes with low quality rough cardboard, leave a permanent mark on the disc’s surfaces.

Then you have the fact that the sleeves can’t take any physical damage. These were delivered as you see now, in a stack with no protective box around them in a vacuum sealed bag. You can see the first sleeve has already given in and creased itself against the disc inside. The sleeve is already damaged by sheer act of being shipped. If it’s put on the shelf, the pressure from whatever is around it will continue to press the sleeve against the disc, further creasing it. It’s unusable as a long-term storing device, necessitating the customer to come up something on their own, like buying jewel cases for the discs. You don’t see it on the photo, but all the sleeves are also scuffed up already from chafing against each other, especially on the back.

This photo is intentionally bad with that lamp light on the left, because it shows how scuffed and creased the the backs are already just from shipping and sitting on my desk untouched for a day. Every back is the same, with the nice 25th Anniversary logo. Well, it would be, but repeating 25 like that is stupid and useless. Ends ups looking terrible the more you look at it and think about it. There are scratches that are directly from the production, handling and packaging.

Actually, some of the sleeves are already damaged from the production. Whatever company made these didn’t make sure that when the prints are separated, the cut would be clean. Instead you have those rip nubs, also slightly visible on the left of on the sleeve.

Let’s check the disc design and leave the sleeves for the time being.

The disc design in itself is nice, but far from what looks like what Myst should have. It’s effectively giant C and some low-effort text thrown in there. Apparently advertising Cyan Inc. was more important than creating a fitting look for each of the disc, or re-using the existing designs. Ubisoft’s Myst Collection beats 25th Anniversary collection in design and sleeves 1 to zero. Plastic sleeves at least protect the discs properly. Notice also that the print is ever so hazy on the disc, meaning this is once more one of those points where money was pinched out. The Big C is sharp, the text not so much. It’s far from the worst, but with minimalist design like this you don’t have any room to screw up a single element. Also how the platform text, Windows in my case, has a terrible positioning. It would have looked far better midway down the black Myst text and the legal text down there. That C is just too governing and taking too much room.

To be fair, the sleeves have a nice artwork on them, which each one of them having its own frame texture with a window. It’s not much, but at least it goes with the theme.

Cyan Inc. never stated how or in what sort of packaging their physical goods would be delivered in. This is something that any backer should make a note of in the future Kickstarters they may back and demand that the packaging must be up to standards. This isn’t. This is far from being what is expected from almost three million dollar Kickstarter. I might’ve given the Muv-Luv Kickstarter packaging some shit, but that’s a winner with platinum medal level of quality compared to to what Cyan has delivered with these.

This is the lowest and cheapest way to produce and pack their game collection, and if anyone wants any longevity from these, they are required to go out and purchase some kind of jewel case or one of those multi-disc packages, and then print their own sleeve to go with it.

Frankly, it’s shit.

Top 5 games of 2018

This year’s Top 5 list will a bit different, mostly because it doesn’t consist of many older games overall. Why? Because when you’re a full-time working man, there’s not much time for games. That, and I forgot to start listing the games I bought this year into this post. Whoops.

The usual rules apply; any game from any year is applicable as long I’ve played it for the first time this year in physical form. Means if a game only has a digital release, it automatically gets disqualified. There is no top slot either, because that’s stupid.

 

A Certain Magical Virtual-On PlayStation4, PlayStation Vita, 2018

If you haven’t read my Cyber Troopers Virtual-On retrospective series, you can either start with the original entry or click Robot related materials on the top bar. The last entry covers this game and has a review on it, so I’m not going to repeat it. However, what I have to question whether or not this game stands now, almost a year later.

The game stands at a respectable three and a half stars on Amazon Japan, it got a serialised comic and the overall reception throughout the year has mixed. I mentioned how fans of the game series didn’t exactly like A Certain Magical Index being mixed in there, while Index fans took the opposite stance. This game turned me into and Index fan though, and seeing this cross over was overall fun and works within the setting. Sure, it’s a standalone spin-off that has nothing to do with either franchises in the end, but that doesn’t keep us from enjoying what we have now.

Sega pushed this game rather hard initially, and had few Voosters Cups, tournaments for the game. Some hardcore fans are still playing it non-stop, but the lack of local two-player was the death knell of the game for someone who doesn’t have PSN+ account. VO as a series certainly could work in the modern eSports environment, but it would require further presence and more events to be held. A popular IP tagged to it won’t do much alone.

Despite the lack of local multiplayer, and the Vita version being crippled thanks to being on Vita, I do come back to this game whenever I want to play Virtual-On. It’s still Virtual-On, and there really isn’t anything like it. Well, maybe Last Legion UX on the N64, but I’ll review that next year.

 

Rockman World V Game Boy, 1994, 3DS Virtual Console, 2014

That’s a terrible PV, but couldn’t find the original CM for now.

The big question was; would Mega Man 11 get a spot this year? The answer is No because I also bought the a boxed copy of Rockman World V.

This game everything an evolution of Mega Man should be. From the changing Mega Buster into a rocket punch and taking advantages such weapon allows, changing the bosses from Robot Masters to Stardroids for an entry and making a bait n’ Switch with the final boss, this game has it all. You can’t do something like this in a series ending game, but as a spin-off title on the Game Boy it had more freedom to do whatever it wanted.

Minakuchi Engineering did all but one GB Mega Man game, and with the fourth and this fifth entries they managed to make the series better than its NES originals. Everything from visual design to music and controls are spot on. What makes the GB’s Mega Man series stand out in most cases is that despite the smaller screen, everything plays well. This is mostly due to camera not centering on the player character, something so many games get wrong nowadays, even the Zero-series got this wrong, and the sheer design of the stages and enemy placement has to spot on.

I’ve seen some call it a nice little game, but it’s a grand Game Boy game that should not be missed. Cheaply available on your 3DS’ Virtual Console too.

 

Sonic Mania Plus PS4, Switch, Xbox One, Steam, 2018

When original Sonic Mania was released, it was great. Sonic Mania Plus is pretty much the same, just with some tweaked stuff in there and two more characters that we haven’t seen in ages. For someone who loved to play the first Sonic the Hedgehog as a itty bitty kiddy, Sonic Mania hits that nostalgia spot right on. That alone isn’t enough for a game to get on the list, and any version of Sonic mania is worth playing for the absolute brilliancy it shows in sheer realisation of the game. From sound and music to controls and stage design the game gets all of these spot on. It sounds like a Mega Drive Sonic, it plays like a Mega Drive Sonic and looks just a slightly bit better thanks to increased frames of animations here and there. While the Special Stages where you collect the Chaos Emeralds are infuriating. The original game’s dream-like mazes are still the most unique way the series has implemented these, but it would also seem that these stages aren’t exactly popular.

2D Sonic games are much like 2D Super Mario Bros. games. They both represent the best the series has to offer and are the most popular among fans and overall audiences. Despite few revivals here and there, the companies behind these two mascot giants have never really been able to re-create what made these 2D titles so great. They’ve lost the sight what makes their 2D juggernauts tick, but I’m glad to see some fans got their chance to showcase this to Sega. Hopefully any upcoming revival Sega does, especially with Streets of Rage 4, follows this one up. Whatever comes after Sonic Mania Plus in regards of the franchise also has to take things forwards away from the 16-bit graphics, unless they want to replicate the belly splat Mega Man 10 did. These retro-revivals are always dancing on a fine edge.

 

The Game Paradise Crusin’ Mix Special PlayStation 4, 2018

Or Game Tengoku if you so will.

Whenever there is a new shooting game coming out, it has a lot sub-systems and scoring mechanics stacked upon it. That, and the shooting game genre has effectively become mostly bullet hells. Finding a shooting game that doesn’t just throw truckloads of bullets at you nowadays means we need to look back at some of the older titles.

This slot could’ve gone to the Psikyo Collection Vol 1 and 2, but the reason why The Game Paradise gets to this spot is two-fold; shooting game pureness and humour.

The whole set up for the game is that a mad scientist Yamada, who wants to take control over arcades and thus all of Japan. To prevent this,  an arcade worker Yuki Ito employs (forces) some of Jaleco’s classic characters to go in and fight Yamada’s plans in a different set of arcade machines. Well, the first level takes place in an arcade, before whiskering the player into a Wonder Hunting UFO catcher. The playable characters are a celebration of Jaleco’s past games like Exerion and Momko 120%. This new version of the game also adds few new characters into the mix, like Clarice from City Connection (who makes it very clear that the blonde Clarice from Gunbare! The Game Paradise  2 is a damn dirty fake.) With DLC you’re able to throw Honou from Pro Yakyuu series into the mix (playing a shooting game with a baseball player is surprisingly fun) and as a surprise collaboration Yuki can hop into the spaceship from Tatsujin., making her a playable character for the time.

The game’s core play is fantastic 90’s shooting, as mentioned. The core scoring system consists of collecting items, which ramp up in value in short burst as a score meter rises temporarily. All the items you collected from your last death are recounted at the end to the stage. Dying also drops your weapon level by one notch, but unlike some games, losing a weapon level doesn’t turn the game impossible. There is a good balance. Of course there are Options to pick up, which are the other characters and their weapons added to your own arsenal. Enemy patterns are usually relatively straightforward and the bullet patterns are thankfully far away from screen filling bullshit. The enemy variety is of course rather nice, considering each stage has its set of unique enemies and none of the are recycled from other stages.

This version of the game has an updated version of the original arcade game with options to choose an updated soundtrack and the like, but also the Saturn port of the original game, as it has a full story mode, to which I admit laughing far more than warranted. In addition, there is a history mode that explain history and characters from past Jaleco games that are in The Game Paradise Cruisin’ Mix Special, covering such things as the games’ launch dates, game play and their overall success by using flyers and posters. Of course there is fun to be had, as with Momoko 120% reminds the other characters (and the player) that the home release of the game had an anime license attached to it. Best part of this license mess is that the arcade game still uses Lum’s Love song as its BGM.

 

Note that despite this being Japanese version, all the text is in English, meaning everything’s baked in from get go

It’s such a joy to see a game like this being remastered after so long, and definitely gets a slot on the list.

 

Glove on Fight PC, 2002

Developed by Watanabe Seisakujo, a doujin circle that’s been doing games since the 90’s and got renamed as Soft Circle French-Bread when they went more or less professional, Glove on Fight is a shining example of core pureness in a game without any bells and whistles. Much like The Game Paradise above, this is a straight up otaku game with full of references. Well, it is a doujinshi game, they wouldn’t be able to use Kanon or Fate characters otherwise. Music’s diverse, ranging from rap, eurobeat and fusion jazz, and all of it is damn good.

The game is, however, extremely small and focused. You have five characters to choose from, and you’re able to unlock three more. While this does lack variety, it makes every character unique in their approach and play style, especially considering how every move has been fine tuned to perfection. In this game, there is no wasted space, with sprite and backgrounds representing the characters in this super deformed look nicely. The looks all intentional, as you couldn’t have this sort of boxing game based on timing without having clear motions or limbs. Even Capcom realised that the characters in Street Fighter II need to have slightly exaggerated hands and feet in order to show where punches and kicks are.

Controls follow the same focus, consisting of a Weak Attack, Strong Attack and Dodge. You can dash and weave with double tapping to a direction, and it is essential to time your movements not just to avoid hits, but to get some in. There are numerous special and Super moves, but they need to be land first. There is no jumping either, that’s a special move. Because things are this simple, the game’s extremely easy to get into, but once you realise how much skill it takes to time everything you do, the game’s balance becomes like an open book. It’ll take some time to get good at this game, but due to lack of content and characters, the game doesn’t have much staying power. Well, this is a small homebrew release after all, but still a game worth coming back again and again. There’s also the sequel, but we’re gonna get to that next year.

An absolute marvel of a game, which I hope French-Bread will come back to at some point in the future. Also, Power of Love is one of the best boxing game stage songs out there.

 

Honourable Mentions for those who didn’t make the cut

 

Monster Hunter World PS4, Xbox One, Steam, 2018

Despite dropping a hundred hours or so into the game, the Monster Hunter World feels a step backwards with each step is has taken forwards. Each time I play the game, I wish some elements from older games were present. These range from the progression being all over the place that doesn’t build up challenge, in which the game is lacking, to items that aren’t present for whatever reason. While some still bitch that there isn’t G-Rank, they seem to forget that no Monster Hunter has G-Rank in their initial release, it’s only reserved for the upgraded titles.

Then you have the maps. While it’s nice to see the maps as one whole, the only map that makes itself feel natural and like a living environment is the fist one, Ancient Forest. The rest feel like they should be split into ready parts, just like the previous titles. It’s sad to see that as the game progresses, the areas become more and more simple and are not taken advantage of. Little things also pop in here to drop the overall challenge, as previously desert areas required to have Chill Drink in order to keep the characters gaining damage from overheating, and in night setting the maps required the use of Hot Drink to fight cold. Despite wanting to make a more realistic and living worlds, all the small things like this that existed previously that the player had to account and prepare for are completely missing.

Whatever Iceborne expansion brings in, it should also change some of the core elements of the game simply to give the player more responsibility of themselves rather than pamper. Harder monsters and more content isn’t a fix to the game’s core issues, but these issues won’t be fixed as they’re designed as they now are. Still, far from being the worst entry in the series, and going back from the World to older games will feel cumbersome.

Bayonetta 2 Wii U 2014, Switch 2018

I loved the original Bayonetta. One of the best action games around, with Platinum showcasing that games should be at their best on the hardest difficulty setting. However, Bayonetta 2 is more of the same and while that’s all good, the game feels like it’s not reaching to the excellence as the first one. Then again, no sequel could have the effect and marvel the first game’s gameplay and stages could offer, despite everything been tuned further here. A game worth getting anyway, one of the best games on either Wii U or Switch.

Mega Man 11 Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam, 2018

I’d recommend reading the review of the game instead having me to repeat everything here. If I had not got Rockman World 5 this year, it would have taken is spot. However, that Game Boy game is just so damn good, that MM11 doesn’t really hold candle to it. Let’s hope number twelve will be World 5 of the mainline classic series.

Senran Kagura BURST Re:Newal Playstation 4, 2018

Y’know, I really loved the series’ no-nonsense gameplay. You could get in fast, strike hard, and have a stage over in half a minute if you were good and knew what you were doing. Burst Re:Newal however screws with the core gameplay by introducing a counter system that makes the gameplay slower. Well, almost stops the action in order to simply counter.  It’s an easy system, but implementation is weak at best. You’re show an attack range the enemy is doing, and depending on the colour and animation on it, you’re able to parry and counter attack. The thin is, it’s only on ground. If your camera is anywhere else, you have to resort looking at the enemy movements, but unlike in most other action games, the enemies themselves don’t have proper signals. That isn’t really a problem in itself, but when you have to stop playing the game just to wait to parry, shit’s just stupid. The system also changed how you stagger enemies in order to encourage parrying, so whatever fun the system previously had is broken. Marvelous didn’t make it smoother, they didn’t fine tune the game play to any extent, they just slapped an unnecessary element in a very haphazard way that’s intrusive at best. The Western PlayStation 4 version is also censored, so get it on Steam or the Japanese PS4 box if you’re a fan. Removing a whole game mode is absolutely retarded.

Omega Boost PlayStation, 1999

A PlayStation classic for sure, Omega Boost is one of those games that managed to have stable 60fps with fast action when 30fps was bog standard with pretty much everything on the system. It’s a short game, filled with bursts of high-speed action with good music, but perhaps it suffers from being far too focused at times, but other times the better tactic is just to float and do homing attacks. For a mecha game aimed for action, that’s disappointing at best. A rail shooter like had a lot of contest back then, and if I had to pick up from my library to play on a whim, I’d pick either Panzer Dragoon Zwei or Orta over Omega Boost simply because they’re better titles within the genre.