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.

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.

Magical Tetris Challenge — 1Q2017 issue

When Tetris and Dis­ney col­lide

Mess­ing with an old and uni­ver­sally loved favorite such as Tetris is a risky propo­si­tion. You can get it right or mess it up hor­ri­bly, where it is for­ever known as the “messed up ver­sion of Tetris.” Luck­ily, Mag­i­cal Tetris Chal­lenge by Cap­com man­ages to dodge that label and add a few ele­ments to the main game to refresh an older title.

Mag­i­cal Tetris is, at its core, a fun game with lots of charm to spread around. There are mul­ti­ple modes to choose from and the vari­ety helps the replay fac­tor long after the nov­elty of com­bo­ing wears off. The story mode is the other mode most played at GI, and is based off the new Mag­i­cal Tetris mode. While I’m not fond of the cliffhanger by dif­fi­culty level method, the story is ser­vice­able and moves the action for­ward with a nice added Dis­ney touch. Main­stays such as Mickey, Min­nie, Don­ald and Goofy fill out the cast, though you can only play as these four.

Mag­i­cal Tetris earns its bread and but­ter in the way it builds on the Tetris for­mula. With Tetris in the name and designed to appeal to a mass audi­ence using that, Mag­i­cal Tetris starts out with the basics: Cre­ate and clear lines using seven letter-shaped pieces. Clear four lines and you get a Tetris.

Ah, but herein lies the addi­tions to Mag­i­cal Tetris and where the basics end and advanced play begins: For every line cleared, a small amount of energy is added to a magic meter. Fill up the magic meter and you get what we’ve termed at GI as a break­down: All pieces restruc­ture to cre­ate a neat space and a large por­tion of the well where your pieces fall is wiped clean. Also, clear­ing lines cre­ates com­bos, which can be coun­tered until a piece is shaped 10 by 10. Com­bos and coun­ters cre­ates a back and forth, dur­ing which oddly shaped pieces are cre­ated and fall into the play field. By set­ting up the pieces in a decent shape in your well, you can achieve what is called a pen­tris, or five lines cleared
simul­ta­ne­ously.

Com­bo­ing and coun­ter­ing makes the game­play fun and adds an increas­ing level of com­pet­i­tive­ness and urgency to every match. Even if you’re not the most Tetris-competent gamer, Mag­i­cal Tetris does an excel­lent job invit­ing all skill lev­els in to learn and get bet­ter. The basics are quickly explained and the advanced tech­niques are made plain as you go along. That helps in the fran­tic atmos­phere of a spir­ited two-player human match, where any­thing and usu­ally every­thing can happen.

The game shines in its visu­als, which ben­e­fit from that Dis­ney touch. The game is bright and col­or­ful and designed in the way of Dis­ney games and ani­ma­tion, mean­ing it’s top-notch through and through. The graph­ics are still good for an N64-era game and haven’t aged badly. The sound­track has aged well, too, and is still one of the best of the era. Each character’s stage is mem­o­rably themed and stands out enough for you to remem­ber it well after your game is over.
Hav­ing played the major­ity of the Tetris spin­offs and cre­ations out on the mar­ket for the past 30 years, I need to have some­thing that pushes me to play. Mag­i­cal Tetris suc­ceeds in adding to the Tetris for­mula just enough to buy its way in to my library and stick around through charm and abil­ity. This is an excel­lent Tetris spin job.