The usual rules apply; the game must have been on a physical media to count (unless there’s significant merit for it), 2021 must have been the year I’ve first time have had a copy of the said game, and the year of production doesn’t matter. As usual, these are not in any sorted order; the first listed game doesn’t mean it is better than the four after it. With all that laid out, I’ve noticed that I haven’t really played many new games this year, and have concentrated on older titles instead. theHunter: Call of the Wild ends up being my to-go stress reliever still from the last year, while certain other titles serve other roles on the side.
I admit that once again, I’ve found my resources being invested in other matters. A new home has taken a significant toll on me in many ways as has human relations. A broken PC Engine has limited my choice of games for it quite a lot. I’ve also found a certain lack of time to play games due to work and other necessities. It’s less than I’ve suddenly had more responsibilities and more that I’ve decided to not fuck around with things that will have longer-lasting consequences. Adversely, this has also affected my want to write more, but have lacked time for it. Ah well, there’s always the next year. Unto the list of games;
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together 2011, PlayStation Portable
There’s not much to be said about Tactics Ogre or Ogre Battle that hasn’t been said already. It’s one of the best tactical role-playing game series that has been produced to date, which also spun off the best Final Fantasy title to date in Tactics. I decided to jump into the series this year after wanting to play something tactical and enjoyable for some time, and the Ogre series turned out to be a pretty good target. Now collecting those games into my shelf is another thing, so starting where the bar was lowest with the PSP remake of Let Us Cling Together was an easy choice. While a lot can be and has been said about the game’s historical inspiration in its narrative, with the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the end of enforced peace between Croatians, Bosnians and Serbians, the play really is its driving force in the end.
Building your own team and fine-tuning the synergy between your units and their skills is extremely enjoyable, albeit also very time-consuming. This is due to the need to grind as usual, but the end result often gives a strong, well-balanced team. Sure, the game can be somewhat easily broken even without the use World Tarot system, after which the Japanese subtitle Wheel of Destiny was given. In this, after beating the game you are able to skip back to story points in the game with your current units and make different path decisions.
Additional tweaks make the PSP remake somewhat easier game than the Super NES original, like being able to rewind back to max 50-turns, class rebalances that make their end-forms more breaking while being more crippled at the start, experience points are given as classes rather than individually, permanent death on the field has a 3-turn count with 3-lives backup and such. However, players can choose to handicap themselves and ignore most of the tweaks from the original if they so choose to. One of the best additions to the game is an overhead map, which hardcore fans like to equate to chess. Sadly, all this reminds us that the game got tweaked quite a lot, but visually it’s still the same title. Higher-resolution character artwork looks nice, but some sprite assets don’t really look all that good in comparison to the new higher resolutions portraits and even text boxes. It creates a mish-mashed look. Remaking the game from the grounds up with modern low-polygonal 3D assets for the playfields and perhaps even replacing the character sprites with proper 3D models would’ve made things less jarring. The overhead map becomes essential, as with the current sprite maps, you can’t rotate them, something that would’ve made the game that much more.
Nevertheless, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is a damn fine game independent of whatever version you are playing it in. The PSP version is still rather easy to find and not terribly expensive, while the English PlayStation version can break a wallet. Of course, Japanese versions are readily more available, but you’ll be faced with a language barrier.
Last Gladiators 1995, Sega Saturn
I can’t say no to a video pinball title when I see one. If we’re honest, making a good video pinball title is hard, and you’ve essentially got two choices to go with; either make it a simulation or embrace the video game format and go nuts what it could be. While the NAXAT Crush series of pinball games are more of the nature of video games, Last Gladiators embrace the simulation aspect. Surprisingly, where video pinball will always lack in terms of kinetic controls and that simple feel of real buttons on the sides of the pinball cabinet, the atmosphere and design have been nailed like no other.
Just by looking at the game’s footage, you can tell a few things it got so damn right. The field design is limited to one screen, but everything has been laid out as if it was a real table. No scrolling back and forth, no gimmicks that wouldn’t be possible on a real table, text and colours are appropriate for an actual table’s screen. The sound is spot on, with one of the best rock soundtracks from the era and the constant barrage of pinball sounds you can expect. Even when text is flashing on the screen above the playfield, it is short enough not to mess with your concentration. Different guides are positioned to the sides with arrows in a manner that’s not to obscure the field itself.
The game offers four fields, all of which have their own theming and concentrated gimmick. This might make an individual table somewhat short in gimmicks, but they’re rather concentrating on doing those few things right. Some modern pinball games like to throw tons of different kinds of gimmicks on one table without much balance, so going back to something that offers multiple tables with their own strong designs with less content per table is a nice breeze of fresh air. Designing a pinball table is stupidly hard and becomes geometrically harder with each introduced goal and gimmick. However, there is a slight over-reliance on ramps, so on a longer session that might become a dulling effect when jumping between the tables.
The most important bit in any video pinball game is in ball physics, and much like how I’ve sung NAXAT Crush series praises, Last Gladiator nails it. The visuals add an impressive heft to the ball, the sounds add to it even more and controlling the ball feels heavy and accurate. All this of course adds to the need for instant action and reaction, something that modern flat-screen televisions and screens still have an issue with. Playing with a good ol’ CRT is your best option, with a nice surround system to go with. Trying to run the game on an emulator didn’t really help. The latency of modern hardware just didn’t cut it.
The game is nothing short of a burst of pure energy. The way it is distilled fun and game in a package that we don’t get nowadays all that much throws it at the top of my list. I wish we had real pinball tables still around here.
Cotton Reboot 2021, Steam, Switch, PlayStation 4
The Cotton series of games is again one of those 1990’s Japanese exclusives that saw very little attention in the West. Mind you, even in Japan the series was more a cult classic than anything else after its arcade-original game. Yet it was kept afloat by fans and people who remember all these old games, and just like we’ve seen resurgence with Umihara Kawase (for the better or worse) Cotton and her lust for candy has graced us with one of the better remakes in some time. It’s one of the best kinds of remakes, don’t do too much for it, make it more what it already was, and give it a banging soundtrack. Cotton Reboot has without a doubt a year-defining soundtrack, with the first stage’s theme ringing in my head from time to time spontaneously.
Cotton Reboot is a rather standard horizontal shooting game, though its stage designs and Bomb mechanics are rather unique. Some stage layouts take advantage of Cotton’s magical broom having an afterburner-like flame and able to damage enemies right behind her all the while having loads of verticality. While the first stage is a sort of forward-push kind of deal, the rest of the stages mix and match the scrolling direction. Enemy patterns across the board shine, with some clever use of ground-only mooks with chasing Deaths. You get stronger and stronger Bombs, or rather Magical Spells as you level them up with experience points. An initial Fire Dragon may be anaemic, but level it up for multiple Fire Dragons or one massive, screen-filling monstrosity. Alternatively, just drop tons of rocks across the whole screen.
There’s so much you can say about a remake that nails the original’s tone and style, something that can turn people off. The game has that 1990s Japanese whack-humour, similar to Slayers or Battle Mania at their zaniest. Visually, the designs, shading and everything that’s presented to you is top-notch in production quality. The usage of modern tools to reproduce older styles has come a long way in the last decade or so and all of it looks glorious.
While the game is easier than its original versions and offers infinite continues, it does come with its X68000 version with no bells or whistles added. While not necessary, these sorts of things always add something special to the mix and preserve old games for new generations. Too bad we can’t reproduce the dancing keyboard the X68k version had. While some bad blood was born between BEEP and importers when they removed English support after Western localisation was confirmed, the game stands out as damn fine and worth the purchase.
Mega Man: The Wily Wars 1994, 2021, Sega Mega Drive
Retro-Bit re-published the somewhat rare compilation game Mega Man: The Wily Wars this year. After sitting down with it and mulling over whether or not it gets a spot here, or with the close-call-five, it gets a top-five spot just barely. The game was at one point much maligned as inferior to the NES original games (the first three Mega Man titles) but this has seemingly been due to most people playing the PAL ROM file, which runs at 50Hz. This does make the game run significantly slower and the music becomes droning. These aren’t really issues in themselves, but rather than the issues with development are visible across the board. Some of the sprites, while upgrades from the 8-bit originals, are of weird design at places. Proto Man’s sprite wasn’t redrawn either in Mega Man 3, which just looks weird with him being smaller and all. Numerous small sound effects are missing, but at places this is a blessing, as the first Mega Man has tons of ear-ripping sounds. Some mechanics are slightly different, like how there’s a slight delay in movement, Mega Man’s centre gravity centre is smaller than NES counterpart’s and glitches have been fixed. No more Player-2 pad debug features for Mega Man 3.
The game has some glitches due to the difficult nature of development that never got ironed out. These include the ability to re-spawn the final boss of Mega Man 3 by walking out of the room, which causes the ending to screw up too, using Ice Slasher in the first Mega Man to prevent spawning of certain flying enemies, DokuRobot’s Atomic Fire doing no damage under certain situations and stuff like that. However, outside very few glitches, a player most likely won’t be faced with these under normal playthrough. Speedrunners have used these for some benefit.
Nevertheless, this is your familiar Mega Man, Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3. While I’ll still argue how MM1 is a rather bad game, the whole package really is still a great way to play these games. There’s a fair bit of challenge, as the games use a Save system over Passwords, and if you’re intending to get to the whole-new Wily Tower segments, beating the three games first isn’t the fastest thing in the world. Mega Man 2 is still a series-making game and once you get used to slightly different controls, 2 and 3 become somewhat a breeze for experienced players. Wily Tower might be the only new content, but it’s a nice challenge overall for series veterans, and something to look for during your first playthrough.
Even when contrasted against other games we’ve seen this year, The Wily Wars stacks well against them. While it is an unrefined gem, an uncut diamond of sorts, it still pulled me back to the early days of Mega Man when we didn’t have tons upon tons of cutscenes messing with the play and slew of bolted-on gimmicks that didn’t do the series service. Do note that the game was also included in the Mega Drive mini, and that’s the thing I would recommend you to pick up if you have interest to play this outside your usual emulation needs.
Undercover Cops 1995, 2021, Super Nintendo
While old arcade-to-console ports always lack something, they often retain that certain charm and pull that the arcade original had. Mind you, there are plenty of examples of failed home ports, but Undercover Cops isn’t one despite the lack of two-player mode. Sure, the home port doesn’t match the arcade original in sound or graphical fidelity, it sure as hell retains the charm and fun play. While it is your run-of-the-mill beat-em-up on the surface, the addition of hidden special moves alongside your usual desperation attack, clever use of the environment here and there (e.g. you can beat the first stage’s boss quickly by using a giant press rather than just beat it up) and superb controls make this a gem. I just wish they had managed to squeeze that two-player mode in.
Honestly, that’s all I should need to say, but the charm is strong with this one. Despite being one of the less colourful games out there, with loads of greys and browns with subdued colours in everything else, the character designs, animations and how they feel and act is just so damn nice. Backgrounds also pop-up like no other, but what would you expect from the same people that were in charge of Metal Slug? The converted spritework is superb and the large sprites sell themselves just fine. The designs are very much core 1990s, but in a manner that makes them nearly ageless; there are tons of cues taken from the sixties onwards in a blend that makes it hard to pinpoint any given era for the game’s world. The game does tumble with this by stating the year is 2043, which will sadly not look as rad as this. It was great to have the re-released, as the American localisation never happened despite advertisement being pushed out. Retro-Bit made sure there were both US and PAL compatible releases to boot.
It’s short, sweet and fun to come back from time to time, but perhaps not up there with the absolute best in the genre. At a time, it was an underrated title, but with the Internet making everything available for everyone, even somewhat obscure games gain a strong following. Personally, I’d probably pop this in over Final Fight or Streets of Rage 4 any day, but then again, I do love swinging a concrete pylon every other Sunday.
Do note that I would still recommend gunning for the arcade version, but not the World version mind you. Go for the Japanese or Alpha Renewal version, as they retain all the background details and moves. We really need something like an Irem Arcade Collection one of these days, which would collect as much of their original titles into one package as possible.
Honourable Mentions for those who didn’t make the cut
R-Type Final 2 2021, Switch, Steam, PlaySation 4 , Xbox One
It’s an unfinished product, by all means. R-Type Final on the PS2 was the last curtain call for the series as a shooting staple. Final 2 was supposed to be a glorious return, but instead, it is more retreading the same waters. It was delivered in a lacking stage, with only a third of those 101 ships found in Final. Extra Stages ended up being purchasable DLC rather than on-disc, which more or less means the game isn’t the advertised ultimate shooting game experience, but again ends up being a DLC hell cashing-in for nostalgia.
There’s very little that adds to the experience since R-Type Delta, and in the end the game feels a letdown in every respect. The new stages for the game don’t provide as much a challenge as previous games, no interesting mechanics have been introduced to make the game stand out in the marketplace and even the music has no real pull. The series stagnated right after Delta, and nothing has really managed to pull the series out from the rut. The Tactics games were interesting, but the overt masturbation on how difficult they supposedly are and how much a slow slog both titles ended up being, it would’ve been better to forget the series and forge for something new.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 2020, Steam, PlayStation 4. Xbox One, 2021, PlayStation 5, Switch
If you haven’t played the original games, or don’t have access to them any longer, do yourself a favour and pick this collection up. 1+2 updates both titles to the series’ latest mechanics and standards, and that’s also the fault here. The stages and challenges weren’t exactly designed to work under post-THPS3 mechanics and you notice that rather quick. However, you can rever the controls back to their original settings, and that’s who you should play the game; no reverts, spine transfers or wall plants. Nevertheless, it’s a faithful recreation of those two games, with some very minor changes to physics and mechanics. Most people won’t notice how it feels slightly different from the originals, but just like the Crash remakes from earlier, seasoned veterans will notice and will have to take some time to adjust themselves.
However, that’s all there is. It doesn’t exactly expand anything further, but it doesn’t really need to. It plays in the same ballpark as the 2001’s THPS2x, which was an enhanced re-released of the same games for the Xbox. It’s more of the same, but not really adding anything to the mix. It’s a damn good title nevertheless that I’d recommend, but not a Top 5 candidate.
Super Robot Wars 30 2021 Steam, PlayStation 4, Switch
The first mainline Super Robot Wars to be released in the Western frontiers, and plays like a sequel to a game we never got. DLC characters have nothing to do with the main game and are there to take up space in a game with plenty of units to choose from already. Because the game introduced a non-linear progression system inspired by the Compact series scenario system, which was also seen in Impact, stages have less a flowing feel and more something you’d play episodically. Honestly, the game wastes the Ultraman debut in SRW as DLC-only and based on the Netflix CGI show, and that rubs the wrong way. Loads of the sprites have a plastic sheen to them, which makes them more at home on your mobile phone than on a console or PC. Ever since SRW games have been getting closer to getting rid of the Super-Deformed designs, the further away we’ve been getting from well-animated sprites. SRW Alpha 3 has tons of SD sprites that have terrific animations, exaggerated and full of life, and in contrast, we’ve been getting animations that are stiffer by the year with more reliance on cut-ins. At this point, SRW might as well abandon scaled SD sprites altogether and present everything in so-called 1:1 design and have people wondering why the hell is Mazinger Z so big compared to a battleship. The series is going in the wrong direction.
Cotton Guardian Force Saturn Tribute 2021, Switch, PlayStation 4
This could’ve been a good collection, but after Cotton Reboot, this is just a lacklustre attempt to cash in. While the best way to get your hands on Cotton 2, Cotton Boomerang and Guardian Force, it falls in the same category as many other collections that they do nothing else or special with them. In addition, the initial version of the game has notable input lag, which has been rectified to some degree via patch, but really, Beep’s just riding on Cotton Reboot‘s success with this.
Blaster Master Zero 2017, Nintendo 3DS, Switch, 2019 Steam, 2020, PlayStation 4, 2021, Xbox One
I don’t know who wanted or asked for this game. Take a popular NES game, don’t give a modern face-lift but instead remake the game in overly used retro-sprites style and try to incorporate tons of story elements. Sadly, the graphics aren’t all that special and have issues with collision detection at places and plot’s forced down your throat while being poorly written. Serving both as a remake and a reboot of the original Blaster Master, you probably would end up having a better time with the original NES game due to how much the game holds your hand and halts the game with plot sequences. You’d think nailing a NES game revival’s controls would be easy, but yet they made them lacking. The revised designs are also pretty terrible, playing the most tired anime-esque tropes you can find out there. It’s IntiCreates went overboard where they could to compensate for the otherwise lacking design and detail in the game. In the end, the game ends up being a chore to play, but I admit, it at least is colourful.