Wrath of the Black Manta — 2Q2019 issue

Ninja copy fails Black Manta

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

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

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

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

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

1942 — 2Q2019 issue

Pacific bat­tles fly in 8-bit form

Capcom’s warfight­ing 1940 series reminds me of the good times when arcade gam­ing ruled my week­ends and I was for­tu­nate to find some rare gems that later became gam­ing clas­sics. Dur­ing that time, I played 1942 in the arcade and on the NES and walked away from this expe­ri­ence with some valu­able infor­ma­tion: 1. The first game in a series may or may not guar­an­tee future suc­cess; and, 2. The cre­ators of some of our favorite games had to cut their teeth on low-tier games before they received the big breaks that made them what they are today. One of those games is 1942.

1942 is a vertical-scrolling shooter that takes place on the Pacific front of World War II. You take con­trol of a P-38 Light­ning plane assigned to go to Tokyo and destroy the Impe­r­ial Air Force fleet.

Game­play of 1942 is sim­ple: You can move either ver­ti­cally or hor­i­zon­tally. Con­sist­ing of 32 stages, the P-38 will be chal­lenged by Ki-61s, A6M Zeros, and Ki-48s with a long-range bomber known as G8N as level bosses. To give the P-38 Light­ning a fight­ing chance against these planes, it can do air rolls or ver­ti­cal loops. If you time your attacks right, some planes will drop upgraded fire­power or an escort team of two smaller fighter planes to com­bat the relent­less assault from planes that WILL attempt to knock you out of the skies, espe­cially if you’re just tak­ing off from your air­craft carrier.

While I liked 1942, there are some issues that annoyed me. Tim­ing of move­ments, includ­ing the ver­ti­cal drops and air rolls, must be pre­cise because of the high chance of being shot down by enemy planes. Also, you must watch for attack­ing planes in front and behind as the Ki-48s are mas­ter­ful at get­ting the unsus­pected into close-area shootouts, which will reduce the num­ber of lives quickly.

The music qual­ity of 1942 is an acquired taste as the repeated use of a snare drum made me think that Cap­com phoned in a lack­lus­ter drum beat, which made me turn the vol­ume down to con­tinue play­ing. The chal­lenge is decent since you will be on your toes to avoid enemy fire non­stop. It has strong replay value and would be a great time-killer as a nos­tal­gia trip for arcade vet­er­ans. Also, it’s a great exam­ple for those who want to know how side-scrolling games played a major impact in the gam­ing world.

1942 serves not only as an icon in gaming’s hall of fame but also dou­bles as one of Capcom’s entries into the gam­ing world. It helps that 1942 was the start of look­ing at Cap­com as an up-and-coming game com­pany want­ing to expand beyond its home of Osaka, Japan.

Fun facts:

    • The P-38, Ki-61, A6M and Ki-48 were actual war planes used heav­ily in the Pacific Con­flict between the U.S. and Japan. The com­pa­nies who built them — Lock­heed Mar­tin, Kawasaki, and Mit­subishi — are well-established in the defense indus­try and con­tinue to play vital roles in var­i­ous areas of aero­space tech­nol­ogy.
    • 1942 was Yoshiki Okamoto’s debut game for Cap­com. He was also the orig­i­nal game designer of Konami’s Gyruss. Because of inter­nal dis­putes involv­ing pay, he was fired from Kon­ami. After 1942’s suc­cess, Okamoto remained at Cap­com where he played an impor­tant role in pro­duc­ing Final Fight, Street Fighter II and Biohazard/Resident Evil. He retired from game devel­op­ment for con­soles in 2012 and is cur­rently devel­op­ing games for var­i­ous mobile devices.

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.

Super Mario Bros. 2 (JP) — 1Q2016 issue

Super Mario Bros. 2 an uneven, heavy-handed sequel

If there were ever a time when Mario was con­sid­ered not to be fun, this would be it. I have always had a major fas­ci­na­tion with Mario and the Mush­room King­dom, but the true sequel to one of the great­est games of all time made me wish I didn’t go down the rab­bit hole.
At first glance, SMB 2 is your typ­i­cal sequel: Improved graph­ics and new con­cepts, such as the addi­tion of the Poi­so­nous Mush­room. But there’s imme­di­ately some­thing off putting about the game. It’s famil­iar yet for­eign. A lot of the same ene­mies are used and the game has a lot of the same story-specific ele­ments as its pre­de­ces­sor. The objec­tive remains the same: Save Princess Peach from the invad­ing Koopa army. But this is where things take sin­is­ter and not-so-pleasant turn.
I’m not going to beat around the bush: The dif­fi­culty level is not friendly. If you didn’t start with Super Mario Bros., stop right now and go back and study up that game. The sequel is designed to be set up and buoyed by the orig­i­nal. If you start here, you’re set­ting your­self up for fail­ure.
The new lev­els were designed to take “super” play­ers to task and show them that Mario isn’t the cake­walk they thought him to be. So, born from that are Sisyphean efforts such as warps that return you to an ear­lier part of the level; or my favorite: The fact that using level warps at all pre­vents advance­ment to the real end­ing of the game. This is Ghouls and Ghosts before Ghouls and Ghosts.
This frus­trat­ing tac­tic of pun­ish­ing the player for being too good is exactly why the fol­low up to Super Mario Bros. would have never flown in Amer­ica and why we didn’t see the game until a full five years after its release in Japan. Peo­ple tra­di­tion­ally play Mario to relax, not be thrown back­ward in a never-ending loop of anger and frus­tra­tion. This doesn’t appeal to the mass play­ers and it’s cheap and per­verse that Mario is used in this way.
While it’s not the same Mario in a lot of respects, the same old charm is present. The whim­si­cal jaunt through the Mush­room King­dom is now fraught with all types of dan­ger, but it’s still pretty to behold. And the music is still the main act of beauty and source of joy in what is a dark skip through the for­est of Mario. Some­how, through all of the anger, Koji Kondo’s mas­ter­pieces never seem to get old.
For the sake of your con­trollers, I sug­gest invest­ing in cheat codes to get through SMB 2. It’s one of the few games I would ever give this advice about to beat.
We Amer­i­cans might be lazy and unchal­lenged (editor’s note: Nin­tendo con­firmed that this is the real rea­son why we received the much-easier-but-still-hard SMB 2 USA/Doki Doki Panic ripoff), but at least our con­trollers remain intact and whole, no thanks in small part to get­ting a far eas­ier ver­sion of Mario 2. Super Frus­tra­tion Bros. would have been a more apro­pos title for the sequel to the great­est game of all time.

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.

Donkey Kong Jr. — 3Q2015 issue

Like father, like son

I don’t believe there is any­one who reads GI who doesn’t know that I don’t care for Don­key Kong. By now, it should be painfully obvi­ous that I don’t care for the simian’s retro exploits or his more recent out­ings, either. It’s not that I don’t respect what the great ape has done for gam­ing; it’s more that I feel he gets credit for mediocre-to-horrible games. Don­key Kong Jr. falls on the lower end of the spec­trum.
Much the same tripe as the orig­i­nal, you’re tasked with sav­ing some­one by mov­ing across hell and high water. But wait, this time it’s dif­fer­ent! No, you aren’t sav­ing Pauline this time around; no, you’re Don­key Kong Jr., the scion of Kong­dom sav­ing your incor­ri­gi­ble father from the clutches of evil human Mario. The fact that another ape has to save his parental fig­ure from Mario in a com­plete role rever­sal begs sev­eral ques­tions: Where was Junior when his father was kid­nap­ping inno­cent maid­ens and run­ning ram­pant? Why would Mario even bother to kid­nap the great ape in the first place? Sure, there’s the motive of revenge, but you’re never going to get your ques­tion answered, try as you might. You just have to accept that DK needs sav­ing and it’s up to you, his reli­able off­spring, to do the job.
Hop­ing that your adven­ture in sav­ing your father is worth it, the game tasks you in uti­liz­ing a jump­ing and climb­ing mechanic that may or may not work, depend­ing on where you are height wise. Any fall more than a few pix­els high will kill you, which makes about as much sense as the kid­nap­ping caper you seem to be embroiled in. Who­ever had the bright idea to make jump­ing a chore and maneu­ver­ing your ape around impos­si­ble obvi­ously didn’t get that this was a bad design deci­sion imme­di­ately. See­ing as though they are the only skills your ape has, it would have been a lit­tle bit wiser to make those work well.
Instead, you’ll watch Junior repeat­edly get eaten alive by croc­o­diles (we’re not sure why a plumber would employ these dan­ger­ous live crea­tures to kill an ape), nailed by ran­dom falling objects and fall to his obvi­ous and hor­rific death, all because he’s under­de­vel­oped at jump­ing and climb­ing.
And while you’re wit­ness­ing this obvi­ous act of poach­ing, it’d be wise to use some head­phones. The music, much like the orig­i­nal game, isn’t the great­est and it will get monot­o­nous imme­di­ately. Don­key Kong Coun­try this isn’t.
Your best bet is to try the game just for the nos­tal­gic fac­tor in see­ing a pretty rare char­ac­ter; Junior was last seen, by my count, in Super Mario Kart for the SNES. He isn’t putting in too many other appear­ances and maybe, just maybe, it was this trip out of the jun­gle that con­vinced him to let his father do all of the adven­tur­ing in the fam­ily. This bar­rel isn’t full of laughs or a blast.

Ultimate NES Remix — 3Q2015 issue

The ulti­mate retro package

It’s one thing to trade off of nos­tal­gia. And we all know Nin­tendo does that often and well. What we don’t often get to see is Nin­tendo using its his­tory to change the way its games are played. Until now. That’s where Ulti­mate NES Remix comes in. The ques­tion is, do you want to play these remixed games again and at what price?
Remix takes a few of your favorites NES titles and adds dif­fer­ent con­di­tions to them in an attempt to spice things up a bit. In Super Mario Bros., for instance, you have to reach the goal in a cer­tain amount of time or defeat a cer­tain num­ber of ene­mies within a time limit. That’s the mun­dane stuff in the begin­ning. Later edicts get harder the fur­ther down a game’s list you go so as to pro­vide more of a chal­lenge. Whether or not you enjoy these chal­lenges depends sharply on whether or not you enjoy play­ing games you prob­a­bly already have played and want to see some­thing dif­fer­ent within them.
While the chal­lenges may be dif­fer­ent, there isn’t much else dif­fer­ent about the games. The music and graph­ics from the 8-bit era remain intact and about the only thing that’s changed is the slick mod­ern pack­ag­ing of the Ulti­mate Remix itself and the addi­tion of leader­boards and cham­pi­onship mode. So, don’t come into this expect­ing depth or some mag­i­cal upgrade to mod­ern day stan­dards of graph­ics.
If you enjoy the days of yes­ter­year and can and will pay $30 for a com­pi­la­tion chal­lenge pack­age, by all means shell out for Ulti­mate NES Remix. The chal­lenges are amus­ing for the most part, and there are a few extras that make play­ing through the mul­ti­tude of games offered (16 in all) a real treat. But take it with a large grain of salt and look at it for what it is: A chance to drag the orig­i­nal NES games out that you loved as a kid, more than likely, to get a piece of your now-adult wal­let. Ulti­mately, this could have been a lot more.

Excitebike — 3Q2014 issue

Pho­tos cour­tesy of Gamefaqs.com

Noth­ing to get excited over

Nearly every­thing game indus­try leg­end Shigeru Miyamoto touches turns to gold. The key­word there is nearly. While it might be con­sid­ered blas­phe­mous in some cir­cles to ques­tion the god­like ten­den­cies of Miyamoto-kamisama, there are some­times valid rea­sons strewn about his resume. Excite­bike is one of those excuses to point to when some­one says that Miyamoto is capa­ble of com­mit­ting no wrong in game design.

Excite­bike isn’t a ter­ri­ble game. In fact, it’s one of the bet­ter games to come out of the NES lineup. But that isn’t say­ing much in the long run. Excite­bike takes a sim­ple con­cept and makes a moun­tain out of a mole hill. So much so that if you have no idea how the game works, you’re not going to imme­di­ately fig­ure it out just by rum­bling through a cou­ple of tracks. My per­sonal learn­ing curve stretched from age 8 to age 28, and it was only because I asked some­one about the nuances that I became a bet­ter player.

That’s the thing about Excite­bike, though: I get that it’s a really sim­ple game. You, the dirt bike rider, are gifted and able to chal­lenge a mul­ti­tude of tracks. You aim for the high­est score, stay off the rough patches, use your boost to speed up and attempt to keep your bike level with the course once you make big leaps. That’s the extent of the game. There’s a track edi­tor thrown in for good mea­sure and a sec­ond type of race that’s basi­cally time tri­als. Sim­ple, right? Yes.

And frus­trat­ing. No one knows what I would have given to know that press­ing A rapidly when you fall off your bike helps with recov­ery. I would have traded my tiny king­dom in lit­tle old Colum­bia, S.C., to know that. It would have also helped to know that dri­ving over the arrows on the ground reduces bike tem­per­a­ture. Know­ing these two impor­tant pieces of infor­ma­tion might have made a dis­tinct dif­fer­ence in my con­tin­ued career of dirt bike rac­ing. But, alas, that dream went right out of the win­dow with my incli­na­tion to con­tinue rent­ing the cart back in the day.

If you want nos­tal­gia and you can appre­ci­ate being forced to learn the ins and outs of dirt bike rac­ing, by all means pop a wheelie in Excite­bike. But don’t be sur­prised with the unimag­i­na­tive locales, race lay­out and pen­chant for keep­ing you the player in the dark. Sim­ple con­cept? Check. Sim­ple con­trols? Check. Mario cameo? Triple check. But Shigeru Miyamoto’s genius touch to make the game a bet­ter expe­ri­ence for the unini­ti­ated? Nope. That’s still sit­ting in the garage with my drive to play the game as a frus­trated 8-year-old and now as a more dis­crim­i­nat­ing 32-year-old.