Super Street Fighter II4Q2020 issue

Super fight­ing fun again

Though I play a lot of fight­ing game series, I keep com­ing back to Street Fighter. I don’t know if it’s out of habit or because I’m com­fort­able with the series’ sys­tems, but I find myself inti­mately famil­iar with the Cap­com cre­ation. It started with Street Fighter II for SNES, not the arcade. As the series moved along incre­men­tally, so did I and I dis­cov­ered the upgrade. The home port of Super Street Fighter II for SNES was one of the best and that acco­lade still stands after nearly 30 years.

Though Cap­com still hadn’t learned to count to three and Super Street Fighter II reeks of milk­ing the fran­chise for all it was worth, it’s tech­ni­cally a good port. This is the best ver­sion of the arcade expe­ri­ence before Super Turbo, and the SNES, despite its prob­lems with cen­sor­ship, is the best ver­sion you’re going to get. Super is where you’re intro­duced to the four new chal­lengers, who add some inter­est­ing ele­ments. Each of their fight­ing styles are already rep­re­sented in the game with other stal­warts, but they’re fun to play, nevertheless.

The music has hit its peak here, too. It’s the same as the orig­i­nal Street Fighter II and Hyper Fight­ing, but it’s Street Fighter at peak Street Fighter. That also applies to the con­trols. It’s the Street Fighter that you know and love but cleaned up just a tad.

My main gripe with the game is the fact that it’s not Street Fighter III, which it would have been if not for the insis­tence of Cap­com not count­ing ahead. Cap­com knew it had a win­ner on its hands but repeat­edly milked the fran­chise until there was noth­ing else to wring from it. Super would absolutely have been great if not for the fact that Super Turbo came a year later and there had already been two other incre­men­tal iter­a­tions of the game pre­vi­ously. That cheap­ens Super to a degree all around. How­ever, given that Super Turbo did not come home from the arcades for the SNES, Super gets a boost in nos­tal­gic factor.

What you need to take away from SSFII is the refine­ment of the Street Fighter II expe­ri­ence, and this is where it shines. Every­thing about Street Fighter II was at peak con­di­tion and refined to a tee with this iter­a­tion. Yes, this is pre-Turbo super moves and spe­cials but in a way that makes it the last true unspoiled Street Fighter II expe­ri­ence. It was so good that later Street Fighter games attempt to repli­cate this ver­sion with modes that play like Super with no super moves and most, if not all, of its mechan­ics. That’s how you know it’s a defin­ing moment in a series’ lifes­pan. It’s a super fight­ing game for a super sys­tem that still holds up.

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.

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.

Mario Kart Tour — 4Q2020 issue

Mobile Mario Kart still stuck at start­ing line

Grow­ing up as a gamer, there was always a series I could count on to pro­vide a lot of enjoy­ment: Mario Kart. High qual­ity, fun rac­ing ensued as did a famil­iar­ity with the sys­tem that made up rac­ing in the Mush­room King­dom. But as time has marched on, there are dark clouds over the king­dom and it’s not nec­es­sar­ily Bowser’s fault for the fool­ish­ness for once; it’s Nintendo’s greed.

Mario Kart in mobile form has always been a safe bet for the Nin­tendo rac­ing fan. Being able to race with your favorite Mario char­ac­ters and take it on the go? Where do I sign up? But Mario Kart Tour, the lat­est mobile prop­erty for the gam­ing giant, is not a fun tour … er, trip. It’s Mario Kart for the SNES dumbed and watered down with gatcha ele­ments tacked on for good measure.

Mario Kart Tour takes the usual Mario Kart for­mula and adds things like gatcha pulls to unlock spe­cial char­ac­ters, karts and glid­ers, usu­ally in the high-end cat­e­gory, as well as level up your estab­lished ros­ter. The gatcha pulls are obnox­ious because it’s depen­dent on luck of the draw using real money to fund the pulls. The real money — that you’re pulling out of your wal­let — is spent in the form of rubies, which allow you to pull from pipes pos­si­bly con­tain­ing the high-end items in batches of one pull for five rubies or 10 pulls for 45 rubies. Though the rubies are mod­er­ately priced, it’s the fact that you must buy the rubies or com­plete some­times ridicu­lous chal­lenges to get rubies that makes it beyond the pale.

And, just as infu­ri­at­ingly, there’s the character/kart/glider sys­tem that’s tied to the stages cho­sen for each tour. Each level has three or four spe­cific char­ac­ters that are favored on this track. Usu­ally, the char­ac­ters that are favored are the fla­vor of the tour; that is, a char­ac­ter or vari­a­tion cre­ated espe­cially for the spe­cific tour. As always, they are high-end and exceed­ingly hard to acquire. Because this is tied into the pipe pulls, it’s also a cash grab designed to pull in the most ded­i­cated who have the most money and time to spend fid­dling around with a mobile game. These “whales,” as they are called in online cir­cles, keep this cash grab going and endorse this con­tin­ued behav­ior from Nin­tendo, which, in all hon­esty, is atrocious.

In addi­tion to the tool-like single-player mode, there is the mul­ti­player mode from hell. I wish I could some­how con­vey the trash-like qual­i­ties of mul­ti­player in words, but I’m at a loss with­out get­ting an FCC fine for pro­fan­ity. The mul­ti­player plays like garbage and ignores any sort of mechan­ics that Tour attempts to cre­ate in the single-player cam­paign. It is utter chaos in every match and those lucky enough to do well have to be doing that with sheer luck. It can’t be from actual skill and good mechan­ics, because Tour is miss­ing the mark in both areas.

The mechan­ics, lack­ing in skill and refine­ment, are a seri­ous prob­lem. Now, I’m cog­nizant of the fact that this is a mobile game, so we’re not talk­ing pre­ci­sion like a main entry would have. How­ever, this is rough even for a mobile game. Often, drift­ing is dif­fi­cult and ultra mini-turbos are next to impos­si­ble. Given that I’ve mas­tered the drift­ing fea­ture in Mario Kart with every entry start­ing from the Nin­tendo 64 days, I shouldn’t have this much trou­ble main­tain­ing a drift. The combo sys­tem, while inter­est­ing and a great fea­ture, is not refined as well as it should be. There should be a meter that shows me the length of time between combo actions and how much time I have left if you’re going to tell me that I have a time limit on those actions. Some­times, com­bos drop inex­plic­a­bly, ruin­ing a run at a chal­lenge that requires a cer­tain number.

Equally prob­lem­atic are the weapons sys­tem and the AI level. I tend to race com­fort­ably on 100cc, but I will race on 150cc and 200cc (with a pur­chased Gold Pass) if I’m work­ing on improv­ing scores in the bi-weekly ranked cups. In the months since I’ve begun play­ing, I’ve noticed the aggres­sion of the computer-controlled karts steadily creep­ing up, which is a prob­lem. It’s mostly notice­able on the weekly favored track, which quickly gets infu­ri­at­ing when you’re try­ing to main­tain a rank­ing and the com­puter is hell bent on keep­ing you from achiev­ing this goal. The weapons sys­tem plays a large part in this because it’s nearly impos­si­ble some­times to receive your character’s spe­cific weapon or a frenzy or even a use­ful frenzy despite your char­ac­ter more than likely being a high level.

Also low­er­ing Tour’s fun fac­tor is the char­ac­ter sys­tem. As in other games in the series, there are a vari­ety of char­ac­ters from the Mush­room King­dom and Nin­tendo in gen­eral that can be and have been added to the ros­ter. The sheer vari­ety is great but the need to unlock and pay for these vari­eties is the prob­lem. It’s greedy as hell that you have to buy rubies to pos­si­bly unlock a char­ac­ter to do well in the fea­tured tour track or mag­i­cally come up with the ways to earn them, which are far and few in between. Basi­cally, Nin­tendo wants you to spend money and they’re not afraid to pimp out Mario Kart to achieve this goal, so they’ll nickel and dime you constantly.

And I hope you love a lot of the tracks already pulled into Tour because track vari­ety is lack­ing. There are a lot of not-fun tracks that seem to be repeated quite often. That decreases the enjoy­ment of rac­ing because you know you aren’t going to want to mess around with a cup that has an obnox­ious track (I’m glar­ing at you, 3DS Rain­bow Road).

Visu­ally, Tour is fine. It looks like Mario Kart and has all the ele­ments of the rac­ing god we’ve come to know and love. As a mat­ter of fact, the game looks like a bet­ter ver­sion of the Wii U’s Mario Kart 8, just below Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Switch. Those oft-repeated tracks are gor­geous recre­ations of old faith­ful favorites from the SNES, Nin­tendo 64 and Game Boy Advance titles with a few new cities of the world tracks thrown in the mix. In the begin­ning there were a lot of dif­fer­ent city tracks, but because of the pan­demic, work on the tour has been kept to already estab­lished tracks from the series that can quickly be con­verted for use in Tour.

Musi­cally, Mario Kart is known as hav­ing a banger sound­track for every game. Tour doesn’t slouch in that depart­ment with the new tracks, but it does mess up with some of the older tracks. I’m not quite sure how a game can get one part of the sound­track right but mess up the other parts, but Tour some­how man­ages to do it. Any of the new tracks that were cre­ated for Tour are excel­lent. The menu themes are excel­lent, as well, with new tunes mixed in with remixed favorites from pre­vi­ous games. But then you get to an older track, let’s say Koopa Troopa Beach from the SNES. It does not sound the same as the orig­i­nal ver­sion at all. The pitch sounds off by a few notes, as if some­one recre­ated it for Tour and kind of, sort of remem­bered the way the orig­i­nal sounded. Rain­bow Road from the SNES has the same prob­lem. It sort of resem­bles the orig­i­nal tunes but also … not really. I’m not quite sure what I’m going to get from tour to tour, so I don’t nec­es­sar­ily get my hopes up in terms of music qual­ity when I see an older track announced.

All my prob­lems with Mario Kart Tour are fix­able, but that’s up to Nin­tendo to work on and decide if it’s worth it this far in. With increas­ing fre­quency, how­ever, I find myself say­ing this might be the part of the Tour that’s my last stop.

Naruto Clash of Ninja 2 — 3Q2020 issue

Retro Naruto revis­its Chunin Exams arc

When it comes to the Naruto video game fran­chise, com­pli­cated con­cepts have never been part of the equa­tion. There’s noth­ing remotely hard about any of the games under the ban­ner and almost all are known for their pick up and play abil­ity. So, it stands to rea­son that the Naruto: Clash of Ninja series is easy to start and get into it, and that rea­son­ing is cor­rect. Clash of Ninja 2 con­tin­ues the acces­si­bil­ity that the series is known for.

Naruto is a great long-running starter series if you’re just get­ting into anime. The basic premise of the anime is the basis of Clash of Ninja as well: A strong-willed boy from a world of nin­jas strives to be the best he can be and one day become the leader of his vil­lage. Because of a dev­as­tat­ing attack on his vil­lage the night he was born, Naruto is orphaned and ostra­cized by his fel­low vil­lagers while host­ing a crea­ture known as the Nine-tailed Fox. He grad­u­ates from his village’s acad­emy and is placed on a team fea­tur­ing his crush Sakura and his rival Sasuke while learn­ing team­work and the ways of nin­jutsu. Clash of Ninja 2 fol­lows the first half of the series, with Naruto work­ing with his team­mates through the Chunin (first level) exams that the ninja acad­emy grad­u­ates face.

Clash of Ninja 2 does an admirable telling the begin­ning part of the story of Naruto, story-wise. Because the begin­ning of Naruto is sim­ple to under­stand and fol­low, the punch of char­ac­ters and addi­tions aren’t over­whelm­ing, and it’s easy to keep up with the action and char­ac­ter moti­va­tion. Every­one is rec­og­niz­able from the anime and it’s easy enough to actu­ally fol­low the story and learn more about the anime with­out the filler that the series is known for.

Graph­i­cally, Clash of Ninja looks just like the anime, which is a bonus in its favor. The game is gor­geous and bright, and it accom­plishes the goal of mak­ing you feel like you’re play­ing the anime instead of a game. Like­wise, the music and voice act­ing are great and feel and sound like they were pulled directly from the anime’s soundtrack.

Mov­ing around within Clash of Ninja 2 is a solid expe­ri­ence. It’s easy to pull off moves and com­bos, and coun­ters are easy to under­stand and get the hang of with a lit­tle prac­tice. My only prob­lem is that every­one seems to play the same way, so there’s not much vari­ety in the movesets. The char­ac­ter you choose is merely cos­metic with the movesets and mechan­ics not chang­ing from char­ac­ter to char­ac­ter. Other than that, the abil­ity to jump right in and get to work is a wel­come and refresh­ing change of pace in a cat­e­gory of gam­ing known for its sometimes-challenging mechanics.

Even though there have been more games released in the Clash of Ninja series and other Naruto fight­ing games added to its lengthy reper­toire, Clash of Ninja 2 is just where you need to start if you’re want­ing to get into fight­ing games and have a love for anime or Naruto. With a wealth of modes, great visu­als and facil­i­tated abil­ity to ease into game­play, this is one well-regarded ninja.

Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax — 3Q2020 issue

Anime fighter cre­ates clash of titans

If you’re a fight­ing game enthu­si­ast like myself, you’re happy to see the com­mu­nity enjoy­ing main­stream suc­cess now in the esports land­scape. For many years, it was rel­e­gated to a fringe activ­ity, some­thing only nerds with noth­ing else bet­ter to do and a lack of hygiene were known for enter­tain­ing. Now, it’s all over the place and there’s money to be earned. But this is now a professional-grade enter­prise and anime games are tak­ing cen­ter stage. One of the best? Dengeki Bunko: Fight­ing Climax.

The game series that I lov­ingly refer to as that “all-star anime fight­ing game” is a blast to play. You choose from 19 playable and 30 assist char­ac­ters from var­i­ous anime series who team up in duos to fight each other. Even if you’re mildly into anime, there are some well-known stars of the medium and some obscure names that will make you do a lit­tle research. For instance, your favorite edi­tor is an anime junkie and has seen or heard of most of the series with some stand­out selec­tions that she’s per­son­ally watched: Oreimo, Boo­giepop Phan­tom, The Devil is a Part-Timer and Toradora. There are oth­ers like Sword Art Online that are main­stream enough to draw in even the newest anime watcher.

So, how does it play? Much like you’d expect an anime game to play: Super floaty physics and off-the-wall attacks that feel like they do a ton of dam­age but prob­a­bly don’t in terms of fight­ing games. The game feels good once you start play­ing, and like most games of the genre, there are lev­els to the play sys­tem. You can come in on the ground floor of fight­ing game knowl­edge and be able to play and then there’s com­pet­i­tive fight­ing game-level of play that requires inti­mate knowl­edge of the game’s sys­tems. That range serves the game well as a draw for mul­ti­ple groups and it’s a tes­ta­ment to Sega’s devel­op­ment prowess.

The voice act­ing, a major part of a project like this, must be top notch and it is. Because Sega gar­nered most of the ani­ma­tions’ voice actors, there’s a high level of con­sis­tency and gloss over the game’s audio. The back­grounds are also faith­ful to the dif­fer­ent anime series, so expect to be wowed with the pro­duc­tion values.

Over­all, if you’re into anime enough to go to con­ven­tions reg­u­larly or just hav­ing a pass­ing inter­est, Dengeki Bunko: Fight­ing Cli­max is a good buy. Yes, it’s got that “super anime” feel to it, but there’s a solid engine and mechan­ics wrapped up in an extremely gor­geous pack­age that deserves to be played here. This fancy fan-service fighter is enough to make an otaku like myself sit up and take notice.

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.

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.