Retro Replay — Vampire Darkstalkers Collection — 3Q2020 issue

A bit­ing good collection

Col­lec­tions come a dime a dozen these days. Every­one wants to have a pack­age of their best fight­ing games and then upsell them for the next cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions since the cur­rent con­sole might not have back­ward com­pat­i­bil­ity. Cap­com is no stranger to this, hav­ing released sev­eral Street Fighter col­lec­tions over the years. The final game series to get this treat­ment was Dark­stalk­ers aka Vam­pire in Japan with the Vam­pire Col­lec­tion.
For those who are unini­ti­ated, Cap­com does make fight­ing games beyond Street Fighter: Vam­pire doesn’t get as much due and press as Street Fighter but is just as good. But let’s get into the meat and pota­toes of why you’re here: Is the col­lec­tion any good? I can resound­ingly answer yes. It’s every­thing you’d want of the Vam­pire series, includ­ing games that never made it to the U.S.

Mak­ing up the col­lec­tion are Vampire/Darkstalkers, Vam­pire Hunter/Darkstalkers 2, Vam­pire Savior/Darkstalkers 3, Vam­pire Hunter 2, Vam­pire Sav­ior 2 and what Cap­com calls a hyper ver­sion of Sav­ior 2, which pits all ver­sions of the char­ac­ters against each other. In those five games is a deep fight­ing game engine with great mechan­ics and an inter­est­ing sto­ry­line that invokes mon­sters of mythology.

The game­play style didn’t change too much between games but it’s unique and has char­ac­ter enough to encour­age even the most hard­ened street fighter to come back and learn more. There are advanced tech­niques such as Dark Force and chains to learn as well as movesets that require some con­troller gym­nas­tics to mas­ter.
The char­ac­ter design in each of the collection’s games is a bit wonky from the age of Capcom’s over­styl­ized car­toon­ish era of hand-drawn sprites but it doesn’t look terrible.

The best thing about the series — other than the game­play — is the sound­track. Hunter 2 and Sav­ior 2 never made it to the U.S., and Dark­stalk­ers in gen­eral didn’t do as well as Cap­com would have liked. And that’s why this col­lec­tion is a must-buy item. You won’t see this in Amer­ica, and it should be. The games are pre­sented in their orig­i­nal form with all ver­sions avail­able. This pack­age is worth find­ing and importing.

In the Groove — 2Q2019 issue

Groovy com­pe­ti­tion in rhythm game market

Just when Kon­ami thought it had the mar­ket cor­nered on rhythm games along came In the Groove. The series took the for­mula of timed arrows, music and dance charts and finessed it into bet­ter charts and sen­si­ble rat­ings; or, you know, things Kon­ami lacked after eight games. In the Groove didn’t nec­es­sar­ily per­fect the mar­ket prod­uct but it intro­duced com­pe­ti­tion in a nice pack­age that still holds up today.

ITG has the same for­mula as Dance Dance Rev­o­lu­tion: Arrows are timed to a song to rise (or drop, depend­ing on the song mod­i­fi­ca­tion used) to meet hold­ers. You’re judged on the tim­ing of your steps and either pass the song or fail based on the cumu­la­tive score and effect of your tim­ing. Let’s not get it twisted, though: DDR and ITG are the same thing. Given that ITG cribs a lot of its ele­ments from the orig­i­na­tor of the rhythm dance game genre, you aren’t likely to see any­thing new or mind-blowing when it comes to ITG.

Where ITG shines par­tic­u­larly, how­ever, is the inter­face and the song choices. There’s a lot to like in those dif­fer­ences. The song wheel inter­face — which presents songs for play — is crisp as are the song titles. The graph­ics appear to mimic the best parts of the DDR inter­face, which is help­ful since DDR made an ill-advised change to its look shortly after. It’s also the intri­cate details such as being able to see a song’s BPM while choos­ing song mods.

In the Groove’s musi­cal selec­tion is no slouch, either. Many songs sound like some­thing in DDR’s cat­a­log; for exam­ple, there’s a series of remixes that imme­di­ately calls to mind the Para­noia sig­na­ture series of DDR. There’s a lot to like with a vari­ety of gen­res represented.

ITG shines also in its acces­si­bil­ity: If you can play DDR, you’ll be able to pick up ITG. It’s not hard to under­stand since it’s using the same engine as DDR. How­ever, the main playa­bil­ity draw comes in its song charts. ITG’s song charts make sense and are intu­itive and aren’t hap­haz­ardly done or pun­ish­ing. The dif­fi­culty sys­tem also makes sense — intro­duc­ing charts with a higher dif­fi­culty than the stan­dard 10 level sys­tem that DDR used at the time — which is a must have in a danc­ing game.

While ITG is a wel­come change of pace from DDR, there are some nit­picks that bother me about the series in gen­eral. First, some of the song mods avail­able aren’t the most help­ful. I’m not keen on silly mods like mines being a default in songs. Thank­fully, there’s an option to turn off the mod, but it shouldn’t be a default part of songs at any dif­fi­culty. And, like­wise, the use of three and four arrows simul­ta­ne­ously — which requires a hand to hit at all arrows at once — is obnox­ious. If a song requires it, I usu­ally steer clear of it. That’s not good for the song list and replay value if I’m skip­ping tracks, and it’s damp­ens my enthu­si­asm for an oth­er­wise great soundtrack.

ITG gets its point across with inter­est­ing game­play addi­tions, a good sound­track and crisp inter­face. With a few more iter­a­tions of the series after its intro­duc­tion, ITG is great as an alter­na­tive on the rhythm game dance floor.

Wrath of the Black Manta — 2Q2019 issue

Ninja copy fails Black Manta

Peo­ple were appar­ently wild about nin­jas in the ’80s. Really wild. I’m guess­ing this because it seems to be a mil­lion and one games about nin­jas that were made in the 1980s. These were all made with var­i­ous degrees of suc­cess in get­ting the point across about the ninja expe­ri­ence. Out of the coterie there were two that stood out: Ninja Gaiden, a time­less clas­sic in the way of the ninja arts; and, Wrath of the Black Manta. Note that we did not use any sort of kind trib­ute for the lat­ter. There is myr­iad rea­sons for this distinction.

Wrath of the Black Manta is your stan­dard adven­ture game cen­tered on find­ing miss­ing chil­dren in New York City, the appar­ent bas­tion of all evil and where the most heinous crimes take place in the video game world. A drug fiend named El Toro is hell­bent on turn­ing these chil­dren into addicts and it’s up to you and your ninja skills to make Toro get down or lay down with the War on Drugs.™

The premise is run of the mill, the con­trols con­fus­ing and clunky and the action extremely repet­i­tive. The back­grounds do change from level to level and there is a lot of ground to cover. But, all you’re going to do is walk around search­ing ware­houses for chil­dren and gang­ing up on infor­mants from the car­tel to get infor­ma­tion. What should be an absolute clean sweep is a clus­ter because get­ting that infor­ma­tion with­out being killed from ridicu­lous hits is a nightmare.

The fact that most of the action is ripped off from the infi­nitely bet­ter and more inter­est­ing Ninja Gaiden doesn’t help here because you’re going to die a lot from ter­ri­ble jump­ing and those afore­men­tioned hits from ene­mies. The sound­track also does Manta no favors as it’s just barely ser­vice­able. Even the art is ripped off from some­where else: Word on those mean streets of NYC is that some of the art was taken straight from the book “How to Draw Comics the Mar­vel Way” when the Japan­ese ver­sion was ported to the U.S. I’m guess­ing they thought no one would notice, but it goes over with the sub­tlety of a ton of bricks. Speak­ing of a lack of sub­tlety, the obvi­ous “stay away from drugs, kids, if you want to live” mes­sage and the hit-you-over-the-head irony of char­ac­ters named Tiny (a in no way sur­pris­ingly large boss char­ac­ter who tries to stomp you to death in the first level) means you’re in for a long ride with this whether you want to or not.

The key to this bat­tle is, if you want to play a ninja adven­ture just play the released at the same time Ninja Gaiden. Gaiden is far supe­rior in every way and has more appeal in terms of story. Wrath of the Black Manta is the poor man’s Ninja Gaiden and is in no way stealthy enough in its sub­tlety to earn any sort of title of ninja anything.

Cool Spot — 2Q2019 issue

A refresh­ing platformer

Every so often there will be a licensed game that’s actu­ally worth some­thing. It will have a great sound­track and decent con­trols and not be so obnox­iously unplayable that legions of older gamers remem­ber it with a cer­tain hatred that burns deep within their soul to be passed down through gen­er­a­tions to come. Cool Spot, licensed from Pepsi part­ner 7UP, is the excep­tion to the norm. If you’re expect­ing a half-baked idea of plat­form­ing solely because it’s a mas­cot, think again. This romp to release sen­tient lit­tle red dots is actu­ally not half bad and has genre-redeeming qualities.

Cool Spot starts off innocu­ous enough. Spot must res­cue its friends, who are trapped through­out 11 lev­els in cages. Why its friends are trapped, we’ll never know but it’s up to Spot to res­cue them and lec­ture you about not drink­ing dark sodas. Spot’s tra­ver­sal through these 11 lev­els is noth­ing short of amaz­ing despite the ram­pant prod­uct place­ment. It’s sur­pris­ingly good, with solid con­trols that don’t make con­trol­ling Spot a chore, and com­pe­tent sim­ple mechan­ics that don’t get in the way: It’s mostly jump­ing and shoot­ing mag­i­cal sparks at ene­mies and barred gates. The life sys­tem — hilar­i­ously denoted by an ever-peeling and dete­ri­o­rat­ing pic­ture of Spot — is more than gen­er­ous and there are helper power ups galore to get through lev­els. The lev­els them­selves have a lot of depth and are timed just right with enough time to explore or get the bare min­i­mum expe­ri­ence in the search for Spot’s miss­ing friend.

While Spot might be on a prod­uct placement-filled jour­ney, it’s a lushly drawn trip. Cool Spot is no slouch when it comes to the audio-visual depart­ment. The back­grounds are drawn with Spot mov­ing through an obvi­ously human world at about 25 per­cent of the size of every­thing else. It isn’t big at all but the world sur­round­ing it is and it shows in the sheer scale, though my only gripe with the game comes here: The back­grounds, while beau­ti­ful, are recy­cled except for a few stages. At least the first three stages are repeated and reused, just with new stage names and some recol­or­ing in spots.

While you’re soak­ing up the beauty of it all, how­ever, the sound­track is rock­ing in the back­ground. Cool Spot is one of the best sound­tracks for the Super Nin­tendo and should be in every gamer’s library. Mag­nif­i­cent pro­duc­tion val­ues, crisp audio and nice, deep bass lines make for some inter­est­ing tracks that don’t sound like stan­dard 16-bit audio. Tommy Tal­larico, pre-Video Games Live fame, put obvi­ous love and care into the audio and it shows. It’s one of the best sound­tracks for its time.

Cool Spot has a lot to offer in the way of good ’90s plat­form­ing. If you can work around the prod­uct place­ment and shilling for the 7Up brand, you’ll find an uncom­pli­cated hop-and-bop with depth and a bang­ing sound­track that’s sur­pris­ingly refreshing.

Animal Crossing Pocket Camp — 2Q2019 issue

Camp­ing with friends

My love affair with Ani­mal Cross­ing began in 2003, a year after the Game­Cube ver­sion was released in the U.S. It wasn’t enough to merely start a life with a char­ac­ter — known as Rubes(kitty) — in my pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated town known as Tokyo; I had to col­lect every­thing in my cat­a­logue, build my house into a man­sion and catch every insect and fish just for com­ple­tion sake. In the ensu­ing 16 years, I have played every iter­a­tion of Ani­mal Cross­ing avail­able. So, you can imag­ine my pal­pa­ble joy when a mobile ver­sion of Ani­mal Cross­ing was announced in 2016. Cue Ani­mal Cross­ing: Pocket Camp in 2017, and I’m still going strong in my quest to build the per­fect camp.

Pocket Camp is a spin­off of the main Ani­mal Cross­ing series but retains ele­ments of the series. Famil­iar tasks such as pay­ing off your debt for your liv­ing quar­ters, com­plet­ing requests for ani­mals that visit or improv­ing your finances through item sales are abun­dant in the Pocket Camp land­scape. New to the series is the timed rota­tion of the ani­mals that are in one of four loca­tions scat­tered around the land­scape. Four ani­mals will be in these loca­tions with options to talk to you and request items; whether you choose to give them the spe­cific items they request or just chat it up for expe­ri­ence points is up to you. Also new are the afore­men­tioned expe­ri­ence points. Each ani­mal has a meter that gauges their friend­ship level with you. The higher the level, the more rewards they give in exchange for items they request. The rewards are also new, usu­ally in the form of Leaf Tick­ets and raw mate­ri­als that are used in craft­ing fur­ni­ture and clothes that can be used to dec­o­rate your camp site and RV.

Pocket Camp, in its most sim­plis­tic form, is a dumbed down portable Ani­mal Cross­ing main game that requires inven­tory man­age­ment and micro trans­ac­tions. And it’s a sat­is­fy­ing way to get that quick Ani­mal Cross­ing fix. Much like the main series, it’s relax­ing and fun to pop in and check with the camp site to see what’s hap­pen­ing, pick up some gifts or get involved in fes­ti­vals and events at my own leisure. Time is still mea­sured real­is­ti­cally, and insects and fish are still viable at cer­tain times, though the sea­son require­ment is not in use. Money is still prac­ti­cally around every cor­ner, and it’s eas­ier than ever to pay off the debt of upgrad­ing your hum­ble abode when rare bugs and fish are more plen­ti­ful this time around. It’s also quite nice to be able to buy items from other play­ers world­wide in an item mar­ket­place with the Mar­ket Boxes option. The econ­omy that has devel­oped still has some work to do, but the abil­ity to find rare insects, fruit, shells and fish for sale from other friends and strangers is a great start.

For a long­time Ani­mal Cross­ing player, the fun in Pocket Camp is imme­di­ately there but not with­out some caveats. After a cer­tain point, the in-game cur­rency of Bells ceases to be a prob­lem. While scarce in the early going, Bells aren’t an issue once the final upgrade for the RV is obtained and paid off. I now reg­u­larly have about 1.8 mil­lion Bells on hand daily and can’t spend it fast enough on things other than craft­ing and a rare item inven­tory econ­omy that has con­ve­niently sprung up in my friends list. This is like the issue of Bells in the main series so while it’s not sur­pris­ing, it’s still an issue that needs to be reme­died with more things to do. And, the price of Leaf Tick­ets is a bit much. Their addi­tion is help­ful, but their pric­ing should be adjusted. Also, in-game cur­rency should be allowed to be used to buy Leaf Tick­ets. That would give another rea­son to hoard money later in the game.

While it might not be a main­line game, Ani­mal Cross­ing: Pocket Camp is still a neat and wel­come addi­tion to the Ani­mal Cross­ing fran­chise. With its con­tin­ued updates and addi­tions, the Ani­mal Cross­ing pop­u­la­tion is still growing.

Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition — 3Q2018 issue

Father of fight­ing games gets super upgrade

Gone are the days of roam­ing a local arcade to play the throng of would-be chal­lengers and pre­tenders to the throne of the best local fight­ing game cham­pion. In its place are home con­soles designed to push the power of the arcade. Fight­ing game fran­chises have had to keep up or suf­fer irrel­e­vancy or, worse yet, extinc­tion. The ear­li­est king of the genre, Street Fighter, has had a chal­lenge of sorts: con­tinue for­ward or go the way of its ride-a-longs of the ‘90s. Super Street Fighter IV attempts to con­tinue the tra­di­tion with mostly success.

Super SFIV, at its core, is a fight­ing fan’s dream. A robust engine with plenty of options for either the novice or the advanced, SSFIV makes play­ing a fight­ing game easy. Even if you haven’t played since the hey­day of SFII, there’s a lot of com­pelling con­tent here to draw you in and get you started in the world of com­pet­i­tive dig­i­tal fight­ing. Var­i­ous modes are here, ready for a deep dive, and there are more than enough new char­ac­ters and old stal­warts to make fight­ing inter­est­ing. The gen­eral rule of thumb is, if the char­ac­ter was in SFII and its deriv­a­tives, SFIII or SF Alpha, there’s a good chance they are avail­able for play in SSFIV.

Fight locales asso­ci­ated with many of the char­ac­ters are avail­able with a great sound­track accom­pa­ny­ing them. SSFIV does an excep­tional job of remind­ing more expe­ri­enced fight­ing enthu­si­asts of the Street Fighter ori­gins and piquing the curios­ity of newer fight fans. The con­trols also hear­ken to the old days, so much so that it’s easy to pick up and play and learn about the dif­fer­ent sys­tems afforded to each char­ac­ter. Most new char­ac­ters will play like an older char­ac­ter on the ros­ter so it’s easy to learn the nuance of fight­ing with a new­comer if you’re expe­ri­enced with pre­vi­ous SF games. If you aren’t expe­ri­enced, there’s a great tuto­r­ial mode that runs through combo and movesets of each char­ac­ter to teach the basics. That var­ied level of depth goes a long way toward replay value.

My one gripe out of all the love­li­ness that is the mixed nos­tal­gia fest of SSFIV is that it’s Cap­com being Cap­com as usual. For the unini­ti­ated, Cap­com gained a rep­u­ta­tion in the ’90s for hav­ing a solid fran­chise in Street Fighter II but not being able to count to three. The con­stant upgrad­ing and reis­su­ing of SFII got old quickly. And, quite frankly, Cap­com hasn’t learned its les­son because Street Fighter IV should not have mul­ti­ple retail ver­sions of its upgrades. Arcade Edi­tion should have been an update that could be bought dig­i­tally and down­loaded to patch the game up to what­ever ver­sion Cap­com wanted con­sumers to have. Even when the orig­i­nal ver­sion was released, the capa­bil­ity was there. This just screams of cash grab and Cap­com being igno­rant of tire­some tac­tics wear­ing on the fan base. The fact that Ultra Street Fighter IV — one more ver­sion beyond this one — exists is proof pos­i­tive of this.

Other than the fiasco of mul­ti­ple ver­sions, Cap­com has a solid win­ner on its hands with the fourth entry in the long-running series even as it fades into the back­ground in favor of SFV. If SFV is not your cup of tea, but you want to stay cur­rent with the world of Street Fighter, SFIV is a good bal­ance and at the right price now to delve into the world of Ryu, Ken and Chun-Li.

BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend — 3Q2018 issue

Guilty Gear suc­ces­sor cleans up nicely in fight­ing game arena

Fight­ing game con­nois­seurs have a robust buf­fet to choose from these days. There’s Mar­vel, Street Fighter, Tekken and Mor­tal Kom­bat for tour­na­ment purists, a new Soul Cal­ibur has been announced, and a new Smash is on the hori­zon and the older games in the series are still played in some cir­cles. Guilty Gear, which has always been qui­etly in the back of the lunch­room, was a mix of tour­na­ment and casual, so it stands to rea­son that its spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor — BlazBlue — would mimic that notion.

BlazBlue arrived in the fight­ing game scene as a new entry in the port­fo­lio of Guilty Gear devel­oper Arc­Sys­tem. Tak­ing what they learned from that series, Arc­Sys­tem improved upon the for­mula they’d cre­ated with gor­geous visu­als, a rock­ing sound­track and impres­sive game­play options that ensure you’ll have plenty to do.

BlazBlue CSE starts off rather intim­i­dat­ingly. From the begin­ning, there are quite a few modes to choose from. If you’re not informed, you might be a lit­tle lost try­ing to under­stand just where you should start. With a var­ied plate to choose from, at the very least the modes are inter­est­ingly designed and add value to an already-packed game.
The stand­out fea­tures, how­ever, are the graph­ics and story. As with Guilty Gear, you’re get­ting a treat visu­ally. The level of detail in each char­ac­ter and the back­grounds make the game worth sit­ting down and study­ing. If you’re into anime, the aes­thet­ics were designed with you in mind.

The story is also wor­thy of com­par­i­son to most mod­ern anime. It’s con­vo­luted and com­plex and has twists and turns involv­ing a multi-layered cast. There’s a lot about the search­ing for a sav­ior and magic — which isn’t out of place for an Arc­Sys­tem game. It feels famil­iar but it doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s lay­ered and deep.

Learn­ing the mechan­ics for most fight­ing games is a mixed bag. Some games expect you to be able to jump in and mas­ter the basics as if you’ve done noth­ing but play fight­ing games all of your gam­ing life. Oth­ers like to give you a tuto­r­ial so that you’re not lost and quickly putting the game down, never to return. BlazBlue CSE is in the lat­ter cat­e­gory: So con­cerned is the game about you learn­ing to play and mas­ter all that it has to offer that it throws a sur­pris­ingly deep tuto­r­ial mode at you. It slowly increases the level of com­plex­ity and the mechan­ics are spot on and easy to grasp. All fight­ing games need the type of learn­ing tool that’s offered here.

If you love Guilty Gear or if you just want a deeper sto­ry­line than what’s cur­rently offered by the larger more well-known titles on the mar­ket in fight­ing games, BlazBlue promises to deliver a rich expe­ri­ence. It deliv­ers on that promise with a com­mit­ment to extend­ing beyond just the reg­u­lar fight­ing game expectations.

Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival — 1Q2017 issue

Rolling the dice with Ani­mal Crossing

Judg­ing from the stand­point of an avid Ani­mal Cross­ing player and enthu­si­ast, the con­cept of new games com­ing into my beloved fran­chise is not always wel­come. There have been par­tic­u­larly good games (i.e. Wild World, the orig­i­nal game) and mediocre offer­ings (Happy Home Designer and City Folk). Ami­ibo Fes­ti­val is a lit­tle bit of both: It’s a fun take on the Ani­mal Cross­ing uni­verse, but it needs a lit­tle bit of pol­ish and more things to do to keep the con­cept of a board game based on the fran­chise interesting.

I’ve always referred to Ani­mal Cross­ing as the series about doing noth­ing. Ami­ibo Fes­ti­val takes that con­cept and turns it on its head. With Fes­ti­val, you’re tasked with mov­ing around a typ­i­cal Ani­mal Cross­ing town in the form of a large board game. The town is trans­formed by spaces that can be events, Stalk Mar­ket sale stops and vis­its from the usual assort­ment of guests that visit a nor­mal town in the franchise.

What makes the game fun is the usage of all things Ani­mal Cross­ing. Game time is deter­mined by a cal­en­dar that uti­lizes events com­monly found through­out the series, and vil­lagers that you would encounter in town show up to help out player char­ac­ters. The player char­ac­ters them­selves are Ami­ibo fig­urines that you pur­chase and input into the game. For exam­ple, GI has about 25 Ami­ibo, eight of which are Ani­mal Cross­ing related (Digby, Celeste, Isabelle, Vil­lager, Tom Nook, Mable, Rover and K.K. Slider) that can be used to play through a ses­sion. These char­ac­ters can col­lect points to unlock new out­fits and modes in the plaza based on game per­for­mance. The tie-in to the series ben­e­fits the otherwise-tired Mario Party for­mula and enhances the charm of what would prob­a­bly be a tire­some exer­cise in board game management.

Using some of that inher­ent charm of Ani­mal Cross­ing, Ami­ibo Fes­ti­val plays well and looks great. There is a notable pas­tel sheen over every­thing in-game, but it still looks just like you’d expect Ani­mal Cross­ing to look: Bright, col­or­ful and smooth. Because we’re long past the janky block graph­ics of the orig­i­nal game, Ami­ibo Fes­ti­val is closer in style to the lat­est game in the series, New Leaf, and it works in its favor. The sound­track is also in line with the New Leaf era and it’s ser­vi­ca­ble. It’s not the main fea­ture of the game, so I’m not expect­ing it to reach the realm of New Leaf’s great tracks, but it’s not unpleas­ant so it works just fine for what it’s asked to do.

My main com­plaint about Ami­ibo Fes­ti­val, how­ever, has more to do with the pol­ish of the final prod­uct and some of the addi­tions. It feels as though there isn’t enough to do in-game, quite hon­estly. While the board game is fun, it’s not enough to keep me inter­ested long-term. The addi­tions in the plaza — mini-games that use Ani­mal Cross­ing ideas — are cute but get old quickly, and some are out­right frus­trat­ing, even for a long­time player like myself.

The trivia sec­tion, for exam­ple, tests your knowl­edge of the series. Set­ting aside the fact that there shouldn’t be a time limit to answer ques­tions that test your prowess of a series that has at least seven games, the ques­tions are incred­i­bly obscure most of the time and require that you have ency­clo­pe­dic mem­ory and under­stand­ing of how the series works. Most peo­ple just look­ing for a fun board game aren’t going to know the answers, let alone know them quickly. I have been play­ing Ani­mal Cross­ing since the “Pop­u­la­tion grow­ing!” days of 2003, and I had trou­ble with quite a few of the ques­tions asked. There should be more to do, more inter­ac­tion with the town that you play in and more of an attempt to dig deep into that well of seven games.

Ami­ibo Fes­ti­val is a unique take on a series that has man­aged to endure and improve over the past 15 years with new con­cepts and inno­va­tion. If there is some con­so­la­tion prize for stay­ing on this board, it’s know­ing that while it could use some pol­ish and flesh­ing out, Ami­ibo Fes­ti­val is a good roll of the dice and gam­ble that paid off for the Ani­mal Cross­ing franchise.

Balloon Fight — 1Q2017 issue

Fruit­less bal­loon showdowns

The best thing I can pos­si­bly say about Bal­loon Fight is that it’s inno­v­a­tive for its con­cepts at the time. Other than that, this isn’t a game I’d rec­om­mend to any­one beyond the age of 10 and even that’s push­ing it.

The premise is sim­ple: You play as the “Bal­loon Fighter,” who is tasked with stay­ing alive and defeat­ing ene­mies in increas­ingly dif­fi­cult stages. Two bal­loons are attached to the Fighter and to the ene­mies, and the Fighter must pop their bal­loons while avoid­ing his own being popped and other obsta­cles such as a large piranha, water and light­ning strikes. The Bal­loon Fighter is fairly stout and sturdy, see­ing as though he can take a lot of bump­ing and push­ing, but if he loses his bal­loons, it’s a lost life. There are bonus games and a dif­fer­ent mode, Bal­loon Trip, that takes the Fighter through an obsta­cle course to improve your rank and score.

This is all fine and well, but the con­trols turn what should be a fun and sim­ple game into a night­mare and a chore to actu­ally con­trol. The Fighter flaps his arms to stay afloat and even with both bal­loons still present, this is extra hard to do and main­tain. More often than not, I don’t lose bal­loons because an enemy popped them; it’s because I landed in the water, was eaten by the large fish or steered myself unwit­tingly into the light­ning I was des­per­ately try­ing to avoid. Pre­ci­sion fly­ing this is not. To get a sense of what it’s like to con­trol the Fighter, imag­ine if the hor­ri­ble Ice Climbers were fly­ing instead of jump­ing ter­ri­bly up a mountain.

And while the game is barely playable, the sound­track also man­ages to squeak by in pre­sen­ta­tion. It is a sad day when I declare that a sound­track from Metroid sound direc­tor Hip Tanaka is irre­deemable. There is noth­ing that makes me want to lis­ten to this, and nearly every­thing that Tanaka has cre­ated gets high marks from me. The songs aren’t mem­o­rable, there are few songs there any­way, and the lack of var­ied sound effects is dis­con­cert­ing. Add the sound­track woes to an under­whelm­ing graph­i­cal palette and the game over­all is a mess.

Despite the pedi­gree of folks who worked on the game (i.e. Shigeru Miyamoto as pro­ducer, Metroid designer/director Yoshio Sakamoto and Tanaka), Bal­loon Fight couldn’t be fur­ther away from the qual­ity of Nin­tendo clas­sics I want to play. Bal­loon Fight is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an older era of games that required a Her­culean amount of patience, which I am not pre­pared to give in this day and age where bet­ter games are available.

Bust-A-Move — 1Q2017 issue

Puz­zle Bobble’s break­out hit

Bub­ble Bob­ble isn’t super famous last I checked, but I learned who Bub and Bob were by the time I fin­ished their first puz­zle effort for the Super NES, the mid-90s appro­pri­ately named Bust-A-Move.

There’s much fun and mirth to be had in the bubble-popping title. There’s not much story other than Bub and Bob are pop­ping bub­bles to save a friend, who is trapped at the end (level 100). Once their friend is saved, that’s it. But, that’s assum­ing you can make it that far.

Bust-A-Move is incred­i­bly sim­ple to play but hard to mas­ter. The con­cept is easy to under­stand: aim a launcher and match three like-colored bub­bles. The bub­bles will fall off the play­ing field, clear­ing space and rows so that you can work toward clear­ing fur­ther bub­bles. After a cer­tain num­ber are cleared, the ceil­ing of the well low­ers, inch­ing closer to a vis­i­ble line. Once the line is crossed with a bub­ble, the game is over. Basi­cally, it’s reverse Tetris with bub­bles instead of lines. The trick­i­ness in mas­ter­ing the game comes in pop­ping the bub­bles. There are dif­fer­ent tech­niques to achiev­ing the results that you want, but it really comes down to know­ing how to aim and learn­ing the fabled bankshot off the side of the well.

With its sim­plic­ity in learn­ing, Bust-A-Move quickly dis­tin­guishes itself as fun to play. I requested the game for my 14th birth­day, and I’ve had a blast play­ing the orig­i­nal since. There are other games in the series, but this one is the best out of all of the sequels and spin­offs of the series. The con­trols aren’t too stiff, though some­times I have com­plaints about the par­tic­u­lar way a bub­ble bounces or sticks a lit­tle too eas­ily to the first bub­ble it comes close to. Yet, the con­trols aren’t horrible.

The sim­ple theme also shows in the graph­ics. Bust-A-Move is one of the bright­est and cutest games I’ve ever played. The col­ors pop and while you’re using col­ored bub­bles, they don’t nec­es­sar­ily inter­fere with the back­ground graph­ics, which could make for a con­fus­ing play field.

Bust-A-Move also gets a nod for its atten­tion paid to other modes such as Chal­lenge and the two-player bub­ble pop­ping. Chal­lenge is fun and a good test of skills: You’re tasked with pop­ping as many bub­bles as you can before it’s game over. It’s hard to pop a lot if you’re new to the game, but as your skills progress, you can and will see a dif­fer­ence in how long you man­age to last. The two-player mode is fun also, because you can either play against the com­puter or against another human player. Any game that gives me the option to play two-player against the com­puter auto­mat­i­cally gets a nod because that injects longevity into a title immediately.

There’s a decent amount of depth to Bust-A-Move and it cer­tainly makes for an inter­est­ing puz­zle dis­trac­tion on the SNES. It’s worth explor­ing the bubble-popping world with the orig­i­nal bub­ble eliminator.