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.

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.

Retro Replay — Vampire Darkstalkers Collection — 3Q2020 issue

A bit­ing good collection

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

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

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

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

In the Groove — 2Q2019 issue

Groovy com­pe­ti­tion in rhythm game market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrath of the Black Manta — 2Q2019 issue

Nin­ja copy fails Black Manta

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

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

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

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

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

Mega Man X Collection — 2Q2019 issue

A mega col­lec­tion of Blue Bomber greatness

I’m a huge Mega Man fan. If allowed to, I would dec­o­rate GI head­quar­ters in every room with gear resem­bling Capcom’s infa­mous Blue Bomber. After Mega Man’s last adven­ture on the NES, I found that dur­ing the tran­si­tion from 8‑bit to 16-bit gam­ing a new char­ac­ter known as Mega Man X would appear, giv­ing the Mega Man series a new chap­ter set years after the orig­i­nal. While I played a few MMX games when it was on SNES and PSOne, I real­ized that I liked the X series but won­dered if Cap­com would do a col­lec­tion for the PlaySta­tion 2. My wish was grant­ed in Mega Man X Collection.

MMX Col­lec­tion is sim­ply as adver­tised: A col­lec­tion of the first Mega Man X games released. It con­sists of MMX and MMX2 from their SNES debut; MMX3 — anoth­er SNES game that was port­ed to PSOne; and MMX 4, 5 and 6, which were released for PSOne. There is also an unlock­able game, “Mega Man Bat­tle and Chase,” an exclu­sive nev­er released out­side of Japan.

In each MMX game, you take con­trol of “X,” a new ver­sion of the Blue Bomber cre­at­ed by Dr. Light years after the orig­i­nal Mega Man. X is a more pow­er­ful ver­sion of our blue titan but with free will. 100 years lat­er, after Dr. Light’s death, X was found by Dr. Cain, a robot­ics expert who devel­oped robots based on X’s design known as “reploids.” How­ev­er, this began a rise of rebel­lious reploids, known as mav­er­icks, which led to the for­ma­tion of a group known as mav­er­ick hunters to stop them. Alas, the mav­er­ick hunter’s leader Sig­ma became a mav­er­ick (and the series’ main vil­lain), forc­ing X to team up with anoth­er mav­er­ick hunter named Zero to stop Sigma’s plan for glob­al domination.

Con­trol of X is sim­ple as any reg­u­lar side-scrolling game, espe­cial­ly with the option of switch­ing between the ana­log sticks or direc­tion­al but­tons. X’s main weapon, the X‑Buster, and oth­er weapons he acquires from a lev­el boss can be pow­ered up in addi­tion to find­ing upgrad­ed boots, hel­met and armor via secret areas in each lev­el. Using a sub screen, I appre­ci­at­ed that it was under­stand­able and sim­ple in orga­niz­ing items and weapons since, in oth­er side scrolling games, look­ing for need­ed items is time con­sum­ing and morale-drain­ing. Zero is also playable in MMX 4, 5 and 6 where con­trol­ling him is a guar­an­teed good time as he is not only equipped with his own Buster weapon, but also his sig­na­ture Z‑Saber cuts ene­mies down to size.

The graph­ics have been refreshed, ensur­ing that a thought­ful bal­ance of action-adven­ture and ani­me-styles ele­ments are intact. Capcom’s music depart­ment did an awe­some job remix­ing each game’s sound­tracks. With the amount of detail put into this game, the replay val­ue is high, espe­cial­ly if you’re want­i­ng to get deep­er into the Mega Man lore.

The Mega Man X Col­lec­tion is the per­fect answer for a devot­ed fan­base of the Blue Bomber. While the MMX series may be in ques­tion, I hope Cap­com hears Mega Man’s fans’ calls to con­tin­ue his leg­endary return to gam­ing as the MMX col­lec­tion is a great way to con­tin­ue Mega Man X’s hunt.

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.

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.