Batman Returns — 4Q2020 issue

Dark Knight’s sec­ond out­ing a rous­ing adventure

As a Bat­man fan, I hold a spe­cial place in my heart for most of the big-screen adap­ta­tions of the Caped Crusader’s fight to clean up Gotham. Bat­man Returns, despite its prob­lems, is at the top of the list in terms of favorite aes­thet­ics in a Bat­man film. That said, I wasn’t sure if I felt the same affec­tion for the game version.

The story is the same as the film: You, as the Dark Knight, bat­tle the nefar­i­ous Pen­guin and his equally fool­ish part­ner Cat­woman as they join forces to take over Gotham and wreak havoc. Because you are tech­ni­cally supe­rior (and richer) than your foes, you have an arse­nal at your dis­posal that helps you take out the crim­i­nal ele­ment that is doing the bid­ding of the med­dle­some bird man and trou­ble­some minx. Really, if you’ve watched the superb film, you shouldn’t be at a loss here as to what you need to do. It fol­lows the plot exactly, includ­ing the encoun­ters that Bat­man has with lesser hench­men. Being a game based on a movie prop­erty some­times has its perks.

Con­trol­ling the Dark Knight is much like you would expect from watch­ing the movie. Bat­man is easy to guide around, though there are a few spots where the direc­tions and what to do could be a lit­tle more clearly pointed out. How­ever, Bat­man is fluid and moves quickly enough that get­ting around Gotham to take on the Pen­guin and Cat­woman isn’t much of a problem.

Returns, fore­most, is stun­ning visu­ally. Much like the film, the game’s graph­ics are top-notch and evoke that well-known Tim Bur­ton feel. The graph­ics are so well done that it almost appears that they were taken directly from the movie and inserted into the game. The col­ors are rich and pop when nec­es­sary in the game’s color palette, though it doesn’t stray far from the movie’s muted col­or­ing too much.

Much like the graph­ics, the sound is also spot on and close to the movie’s back­ing tracks. Of course, there are a few appro­pri­a­tions because you’re not get­ting a full orches­tra with com­poser Danny Elf­man on the SNES chip, but the music is suf­fi­cient and gets the job done.

Bat­man Returns is a decent adven­ture set to the tune of the pop­u­lar sequel on the sil­ver screen. It’s a paint-by-the-numbers sequel with gor­geous, rich visu­als that some­how man­age to do the movie ver­sion jus­tice in the 16-bit era. It’s com­fort­able and easy going, so you’re not miss­ing any­thing if you’re look­ing for the best fol­low up that fea­tures Bat­man. The Bat, the Cat and the Pen­guin have a good adap­ta­tion on their hands with this 16-bit recre­ation of Gotham.

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse — 4Q2020 issue

Drac­ula slays in thirds

Castl­e­va­nia. The name alone is well renowned to vet­eran gamers world­wide as one of Konami’s mas­ter­piece fran­chises, hav­ing expanded from the NES to var­i­ous gam­ing con­soles and a glo­ri­ous revival in anime form thanks to Net­flix. As a video game vet­eran myself, I know of the many bat­tles between the GOAT vam­pire hunt­ing Bel­mont fam­ily and the infa­mous prince of hor­ror mon­sters, Count Drac­ula. Ever since I was exposed to the first Castl­e­va­nia game, I fell under its spell, want­ing my chance to place a stake into Dracula’s chest. I finally got my chance to do so when I got my first game, Castl­e­va­nia III: Dracula’s Curse for the NES.

In Dracula’s Curse, you take on the role of Trevor C. Bel­mont, fore­fa­ther of series hero Simon Bel­mont, who is called upon to save his vil­lage of Warakiya from Drac­ula and his res­ur­rected army of dark­ness. Trevor has one small but pow­er­ful advan­tage with him: the abil­ity to trans­form into three part­ner spir­its: Alu­card, Dracula’s for­got­ten son; Grant Denasty, pirate ter­ror of the seas; and, Sypha Bel­nades, vam­pire hunter/mystic war­lord. Along with this shaper-shifter abil­ity and equipped with the mys­tic whip and Pol­ter­geist ax bequeathed by the Pol­ter­geist King, Trevor sets off into the night ready to do bat­tle against Dracula.

Game­play is basic like most action-platforming games with sim­ple moves such as mov­ing left and right with the con­trol pad, jump­ing with a but­ton, and attack­ing with basic weapons by using com­bi­na­tions for spe­cial weapons. These con­trols have spe­cial des­ig­na­tions for Grant, con­trol­ling how high he can jump and climb walls, and for Alu­card, who can trans­form into a bat. To give this team of vam­pire hunters an extra advan­tage, Trevor can upgrade his mys­tic whip to a long-ranged chain whip and can use var­i­ous Warakiya items such as the ban­shee boomerang, bat­tle ax and a pocket watch that tem­porar­ily freezes ene­mies. Sypha has her magic staff as her main weapon in addi­tion to using ele­men­tal orbs that can pro­duce fire, ice and thun­der attacks. Grant has use of the dag­ger, but he can only use the mys­tic ax as his sec­ondary weapon. Alu­card has use of a destruc­tive ball that can be upgraded to shoot three directions.

While I appre­ci­ate these effec­tive tech­niques to dis­patch the undead, there were flaws such as learn­ing to time each attack or risk falling off a stage. Also, whichever part­ner spirit Trevor teams up with, the part­ner takes dam­age, cre­at­ing a strug­gle to sur­vive in cer­tain stages. I also learned that you col­lect stone hearts to power weapons and if Alu­card is your part­ner, he would turn into a bat. That’s fine but that skill eats up your hearts and if you run out, he could turn back into human form putting him and Trevor in a MAJOR bind.

Adding to the frus­tra­tion, there is a time limit to com­plete each stage, adding either chal­lenge to game­play or mak­ing you curse and smash your con­troller to pieces.

A word to the wise: Dracula’s Curse is chal­leng­ing but LOOK hard for spe­cial items such as leg of were­wolf, which refills your life meter; and, the invis­i­bil­ity potion that also gives tem­po­rary pro­tec­tion to give you the upper hand. Also, if you must go up a row of stairs, ALWAYS press up on the con­trol pad to walk oth­er­wise you will fall and lose a life.

The game’s music is excel­lent, stay­ing true to the series’ theme of clas­si­cal hor­ror. If you heard a Castl­e­va­nia theme before, you won’t hear any­thing new here. This isn’t Castl­e­va­nia IV just yet, after all. The replay value is there although it will require you to have patience to and excel­lent strate­gic skills when choos­ing paths to take and part­ner spir­its to work with.

Castl­e­va­nia III: Dracula’s Curse is an exam­ple of how Kon­ami built a respected fran­chise in its early days with­out dis­re­spect­ing their devel­op­ment staff and let­ting them do what they do best. Dracula’s Curse is good but not with­out its quirks and flaws. If you love old-school plat­form­ing in the Castl­e­va­nia con­trol vein, jump in and part­ner up to take on Drac­ula once more.

Dance Dance Revolution Extreme 2 — 4Q2020 issue

DDR Extreme bet­ter sec­ond time around

I’m a DanceDanceRev­o­lu­tion fan from way back when, in that time and space before the U.S. really dis­cov­ered the series and when we dealt with hastily put-together mixes that didn’t really cap­ture the feel of DDR. Ah, those were the heady days of 2002. Alas, DDR finally blew up in the U.S., and we finally started receiv­ing mixes much like Japan. The prob­lem was, we were get­ting them years after the fact, and when we did get them, they were mostly lack­ing — bro­ken, incom­plete messes that you were bet­ter off pre­tend­ing didn’t exist. That, my friends, is where we join our story already in progress with Dance Dance Rev­o­lu­tion Extreme 2.

Never mind that there is no DDR Extreme 2 in Japan. We’re going to set that aside for a minute to focus on the fact of why it exists in the U.S. DDR Extreme 2 is borne of the fail­ure of Kon­ami to do right by its fans out­side of Japan. We received DDR Extreme in 2004, a full two years after the orig­i­nal was released in arcades and for PlaySta­tion 2 in Japan. That game is absolute garbage: It’s noth­ing like what Japan received, which is a game that’s much closer to the arcade ver­sion of Extreme. We received a bro­ken and changed-for-the-worse song inter­face, miss­ing and weird songlist and grad­ing mechan­ics that were excised as of DDR 5th Mix. Now that you’re all caught up, you should see the rea­son why we needed a do-over game of sorts. That’s where Extreme 2 comes in.

Extreme 2 is a decent addi­tion to the U.S. con­sole DDR library of games. It fea­tures the song wheel inter­face and restores the 5th Mix grad­ing mechan­ics. The song list is great, too, finally fea­tur­ing at least some of the songs found in the Japan­ese ver­sion such as Car­toon Heroes (Speedy Mix), Irre­sistible­ment, Speed Over Beethoven and Para­noia Survivor/Survivor Max, which were all new to Japan­ese Extreme when it was released. It closely mir­rors the home release of Japan­ese Extreme, which meant Kon­ami was finally tak­ing the U.S. mar­ket seriously.

Because it’s so close to the Japan­ese ver­sion of Extreme (editor’s note: We reviewed this title in the 2Q2013 issue), we’re going to skip the focus on how it plays other than to tell you that the tim­ing win­dows remain loose as they always are in the U.S. ver­sions, if you care about that sort of thing. From expe­ri­ence, it’s much eas­ier for me to get an A grade on Para­noia Sur­vivor in the Amer­i­can ver­sion than in the Japan­ese ver­sion. The Amer­i­can ver­sions always have had more loose tim­ing win­dows, and it makes play­ing a lot eas­ier. The options are pretty much the same, though you will have to spend time unlock­ing songs because, as with pre­vi­ous U.S. releases, it’s miss­ing the Sys­tem Data Sup­port fea­ture found in the Japan­ese ver­sions. That fea­ture unlocks a pre­vi­ous game’s data using the cur­rent game. While this would have been help­ful in Extreme 2, it’s not so bad to have to play through the Event mode or Dance Mas­ter mode, though you will be tired of cer­tain songs after the fifth time through.

And Dance Mas­ter mode is where you may spend a decent amount of time try­ing to unlock cer­tain things. Dance Mas­ter is not a ter­ri­ble mode but some of the con­di­tions are not easy and require an inti­mate knowl­edge of DDR. If you’ve bought this ver­sion, chances are you are expe­ri­enced enough with DDR for this not to be a prob­lem, but for the unex­pe­ri­enced this might be a tedious exer­cise in, well, exercise.

And, because many of the servers are now down, we can’t really com­ment on the online modes. While active they were inter­est­ing and fun to play against oth­ers using the early pre­cur­sor to PlaySta­tion Net­work, but alas, 15 years later there are no servers for Extreme 2, so that’s a loss. You aren’t really miss­ing any­thing there because there is always the lat­est ver­sion of DDR and Step­ma­nia, which are imme­di­ately supe­rior to a 15-year-old game.

DDR Extreme 2, an anom­aly itself, is an OK addi­tion to the U.S. library. Though I fault Kon­ami and its U.S. branch heav­ily for screw­ing up DDR Extreme enough to have to do a sec­ond go-round, the well-rounded redone songlist kind of makes up for the extremely bor­ing mess that pre­ceded Extreme 2.

Track & Field II3Q2015 issue

Spirit of an Olympic champion

Hear­ing the name Track & Field II eas­ily cre­ates pow­er­ful nos­tal­gia in me. I was a young girl learn­ing the ins and outs of an NES in 1989 when my older brother, Tony, brought home the Olympic con­test title. It was the last year that we lived in the same house and had time to sit down and play video games together. That was the year that I learned what it meant to duel an older sib­ling who had far bet­ter hand-and-eye coor­di­na­tion and reflexes and why teenagers seem to do much bet­ter at games than lit­tle kids.
I’m no Olympic ath­lete so I’d rather try my hand at the dig­i­tal ver­sions. Track & Field II offers a vir­tual bounty of events from which to choose, and all of them are pretty faith­fully recre­ated from their orig­i­nal coun­ter­parts. There are 12 events to choose from, with three that can be cho­sen in dif­fer­ent modes or as spe­cial events.
The events, rang­ing from hur­dles to gym­nas­tics and swim­ming, are fun to try but frus­trat­ing to learn the nuances. It took con­sul­ta­tion with Tony, an NES Max con­troller and many years to get the hang of cer­tain events. This is mostly because there wasn’t a lot of info out there in the days before the Inter­net and because, again, I had ter­ri­ble untrained coor­di­na­tion and reflexes. Even today, with a wealth of tips out there, it’s still hard to get a bull’s-eye in the archery, and it’s been nearly 30 years. Graph­i­cally, there’s a few things to look at, espe­cially for an NES title. It’s not going to set the world on fire but the graph­ics are fine for the time period and don’t detract from the over­all expe­ri­ence.
The music, while not espe­cially mem­o­rable, is still ser­vice­able. It’s not some­thing you’re going to be hum­ming well after you’ve put down that turbo con­troller, but it’s not bad, either. A lot of the tracks are well done and fit the gen­eral mood of the event you’re par­tic­i­pat­ing in. There are a lot of sound effects in the game and they are gen­er­ally what make the game what it is.
The nos­tal­gic fac­tor is what keeps me com­ing back to what is a gen­er­ally frus­trat­ing game. That nos­tal­gia is what turns a poten­tially controller-throwing hur­dles event into a first-place tri­umph over a noto­ri­ously hard A.I. that likes to pun­ish at every chance.
It’s my chance to feel like the Olympic cham­pion that I will never be.

DDR Max Dance Dance Revolution 6th Mix — 2Q2015 issue

A new era of DDR

Let’s have a quick his­tory review, shall we? Kon­ami cre­ated the Dance Dance Rev­o­lu­tion series in 1998 and by 2002, there were at least six entries in the main series. I’d gather that this meant DDR was pretty pop­u­lar, but you would never hear Kon­ami say that too loud. At some point, how­ever, some­one real­ized the magic that was DDR needed to come into the mod­ern era. So, every­thing that was related to the first five entries in the series — with the excep­tion of the song wheel and dif­fi­culty cat­e­gories — was thrown out in favor of a com­plete over­haul. DDR Max was the result and with it comes a mixed bag of mod­ern and old DDR.

Graph­i­cally, Max rep­re­sents the begin­ning of a new era. Sure, it resem­bles cur­rent DDR games because they use the song wheel, but the col­ors became a lit­tle brighter and the lit­tle touches used to illus­trate the dif­fer­ent dif­fi­cul­ties and cat­e­gories are empha­sized more. The inter­face is much eas­ier to read, though the addi­tion of the Groove Radar still has some ways to go here. It’s not exactly help­ful in pro­vid­ing digestible infor­ma­tion that helps make quick informed deci­sions. That’s a com­plaint that still stands today, so much so that I tend to ignore the meter alto­gether. Also, the foot rat­ing is miss­ing and song dif­fi­culty rat­ing num­bers have yet to come (that’s not until Max 2). But the song wheel has been fresh­ened up so it looks a lot bet­ter and is a lit­tle more palatable.

Musi­cally, the selec­tion is among the best in the series. The one thing about Max that’s notable about the music is the lack of a Para­noia mix. For a series trade­mark song, its absence is imme­di­ately notice­able, and quite frankly, drags the mix down a few notches. There’s a few throw away songs like Share My Love and Dive, but over­all it’s quite a few excel­lent choices thrown together to make a good song list. The vari­ety is nice and it feels like a good fresh start for a series that had a lot of repeats in the first five games.

I don’t go back and play 6th Mix often, mostly because I can’t deal with a lack of Para­noia in my life at this point. As a DDR old head and one who owns the Amer­i­can ver­sion as well as the Japan­ese ver­sion, I applaud the change up that Kon­ami pur­sued. It was a bold move that paid off in the long run: DDR still looks like a lot like this form, even with at least eight more games under its belt as a series. Some­times, a change in pace is needed to keep the dance groove going.

DanceDance Rev­o­lu­tion trivia

* DDR Max is the first game to fea­ture a 10-foot dif­fi­culty song. Max 300 was offi­cially the first 10-footer in the his­tory of the series, though it wouldn’t receive its offi­cial rat­ing until Max 2 was released.

* Max 300, the boss song of the mix, fea­tures 573 steps in its Heavy dif­fi­culty chart. 573 is known as the Kon­ami num­ber, a num­ber that relates to the roman­ized pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the company’s name.

* Max is the first DDR game to fea­ture the Light/Standard/Heavy dif­fi­culty scheme, dance point sys­tem, speed mods, Extra Stage/One More Extra Stage and freeze arrows. The dif­fi­culty scheme would stay in place until the release of DDR Super­NOVA in 2006.

* Two songs intro­duced in the mix, Flash in the Night and Fol­low Me, are the only two songs in the series that do not have an offi­cial foot rat­ing. These two songs were intro­duced in 6th Mix, which is the only mix that does not use the foot rat­ing sys­tem. They have never appeared in later mixes, which gave offi­cial Kon­ami num­bered rat­ings to all songs.

DDR Max 2 — 2Q2014 issue

Choos­ing a sev­enth dance card

There comes a time in every long-running gam­ing fran­chise when said fran­chise has to grow up. That tran­si­tion may come in the form of a new coat of paint or through a purg­ing of char­ac­ters, a reboot, if you will. But every fran­chise goes through it, and Bemani and Dance Dance Rev­o­lu­tion, in par­tic­u­lar, are no strangers to this. By the point of Max 2, the sev­enth main mix in the series, DDR had to do some­thing at the risk of grow­ing stale. So, con­tin­u­ing the trends started in Max it was.

Max 2 presents itself as an inter­est­ing beast, even if you’re inti­mately famil­iar with the series. There’s a new mode to play, Oni — which intro­duces the con­cept of a “three strikes and you’re out pol­icy” with courses to play — and the over­all look and feel has been upgraded from the days of yore. Max 2 rep­re­sented the mid­dle of a new era for DDR, begun with the whole­sale do-over of Max. There’s not much new in the way of con­cepts for Max 2, and that’s all fine and well. Since Max’s changes were regarded as a fail­ure and an unnec­es­sary slash-and–burn of the fran­chise, Max 2 works toward undo­ing the mess made previously.

The game does well with updated aes­thet­ics. The song wheel (intro­duced in 5th Mix), the foot rat­ing (dropped in Max), Groove Radar (intro­duced in Max in favor of the foot rat­ing) and Freeze arrows return. The re-introduction of the foot rat­ing sys­tem is the best idea that could have come from clean­ing up Max’s mess. The Groove Radar and foot rat­ing sys­tem give you all of the per­ti­nent song dif­fi­culty infor­ma­tion that you will ever need. The song wheel looks bet­ter than ever since it’s now in its third iter­a­tion and Freeze arrows don’t seem to be such an aber­ra­tion as they once were in Max.

The song list is inter­est­ing mix of updates to old favorites as well as new entries aimed at adding some­thing new to DDR. Not that Max didn’t do that very well, but Max 2 is about a greater vari­ety of songs and it shows in the fact that there’s not a new Para­noia in sight — at least in the arcade ver­sion. The home ver­sion attempts to inject a new iter­a­tion of the famil­iar song, but it’s not nearly as suc­cess­ful as it thinks it is. Yes, Para­noia Sur­vivor, one of the boss songs of the sequel Extreme, is present and avail­able for play in the Japan­ese con­sole ver­sion, but its inclu­sion as a pre­view song isn’t really nec­es­sary. And it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why destroy the myth of Sur­vivor — the first 10-footer Para­noia — by show­ing its hand early? My prob­lem with Max 2 is illus­trated by this point: The game some­times feels like a re-tread of pre­vi­ous entries, and it shouldn’t. I was under the impres­sion that the rea­son for the deba­cle cre­ated by blow­ing up DDR with Max was to avoid just the sort of prob­lems that you’re going to run into with Max 2. Though, in its favor, Max 2 has Maxx Unlim­ited, which is my favorite Maxx song out of the entire bunch.

I have to com­mend Kon­ami for at least try­ing to right the wrongs com­mit­ted with Max’s well– mean­ing phi­los­o­phy of start­ing over. It just feels a tri­fle like Max 2 is slack­ing into old habits. Max 2 may not feel like it’s cheat­ing on its diet started by Max’s slim­down but by hav­ing a few extra songs, Max 2 isn’t nec­es­sar­ily push­ing the plate back like it should and it shows.

DDR 5th Mix — 2Q2014 issue

The last of an era for DDR

The end of an era had to come for Dance Dance Rev­o­lu­tion at some point, and that final­ity hit like a ton of bricks with 5th Mix. There really wasn’t much of a going-away party or cel­e­bra­tion of all that was DDR before the storm­ing of the gates that was Max, but 5th Mix rep­re­sented the cul­mi­na­tion of the phi­los­o­phy that was danc­ing with arrows before speed mods and Freeze arrows came along and changed everything.

5th Mix isn’t bad, if you’re used to play­ing DDR. At this point, every­thing is in place and you should know how things work: You step on four dif­fer­ent arrows in time with songs in three dif­fi­cul­ties: Basic, Trick and Maniac. You miss enough times, it’s game over. If you should pass the song, you’re graded on how well you did. 5th Mix doesn’t intro­duce any­thing new mechanics-wise, and that’s fine con­sid­er­ing it’s con­tent with let­ting you play DDR exactly the way you’ve played before. Instead, it makes changes in the aes­thet­ics, and that’s where change is needed the most.

5th Mix changed the way the DDR struc­ture looked with the great intro­duc­tion of the song wheel. Gone was the old look of CDs in a juke­box and in came a cir­cu­lar sec­tioned wheel — sim­i­lar to the one found on the “Price is Right” — that fea­tures all of the songs avail­able for play. This over­haul brings with it a bet­ter look and a bet­ter feel over­all to the game, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s the first in the series to run at 60 frames per sec­ond. Also, 5th Mix was the first in the series to intro­duce a unique color scheme that “rep­re­sented” the mix. This brings a fresh look to the table and works won­ders with mak­ing a seem­ingly tired con­cept look new.

The music is another help in the revival. A few older favorites returned, but there’s quite a few new tunes and they stand out. One of my favorites, Heal­ing Vision ~Angelic Mix~, steals the show and makes its pres­ence known as a boss song as does Can’t Stop Fallin’ in Love Speed Mix and Afronova Primeval. The rest of the songlist is kind of take it or leave it, but there’s a good mix, which is essen­tial to any DDR mix’s long-term replay value.

Where I find a few prob­lems with 5th Mix is also within the song list. Thank­fully, 5th Mix is the only ver­sion that fea­tures the ridicu­lous long ver­sions of a few songs. Prob­a­bly the most egre­gious of these unnec­es­sary uses of space is the overly long ver­sion of Dyna­mite Rave. Besides not need­ing yet another ver­sion of the elderly song, the long ver­sion is LONG, much too long and it bor­ders on obnox­ious. There is absolutely no need for a three-minute ver­sion of any already corny song that appears much too fre­quently in DDR songlists in the early days. And much like Dyna­mite Rave, the other long ver­sions don’t really add much to the setlist. If I want to hear a ver­sion of Brit­ney Spears’ Oops I Did it Again, I’d just lis­ten to the orig­i­nal. And B4U ~Glo­ri­ous style~ is a com­plete waste of space that could have been occu­pied with other wor­thy songs that didn’t make the cut, like Rhythm and Police.

5th Mix was a good last call to an era of DDR that most play­ers didn’t know was com­ing to an end. A pass­able song list, great upgrade over pre­vi­ous ver­sions and a stream­lined approach to the cur­rent DDR struc­ture meant a decent ver­sion to dance to with few prob­lems. It’s not the great­est DDR mix, but we can prob­a­bly safely say at least it wasn’t Max. 5th Mix found its home right in the mid­dle of the series, where it was sup­posed to be all along.