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Category Archives: The Player – Video Games

Sega’s Posterity Crap: Sega Games Gamers Hate and are Sick of

Sega’s Posterity Crap: Sega Games Gamers Hate and are Sick of

Maybe it’s starting to look like I’m beating on a dead horse, but I’m just really fucking pissed off with Sega. I’ve been a staunch champion for them going on nearly three solid decades. When the Sega Genesis Flashback was announced, I was excited. Maybe it’s just the young 16-bit Era gamer inside me, but I wanted a good Genesis classic console which would give me a chance to own and play many of the hard-to-find games that I was never able to get my scuzzy little paws on during the Golden Era proper. You know, the very thing NINTENDO IS OFFERING ON ITS MINI-CONSOLES! And what did Sega come up with? The same damned routine Genesis collection available on every other Genesis compilation ever, along with about 30 shitty shovelware games that anyone with a social life could play on their phones during a bus ride! Way to fucking go, Sega. I’m outright cheering for the Sega Genesis Flashback to bomb.

No one is even trying with Genesis collections anymore. They’re all poorly-emulated rehashes. Once in every seven blue moons or so, we get a new port of a great Genesis title, but Sega keeps giving us the same old, same old. I’ll grant that the same old for Sega can still build a hell of a classics collection, but for a mini-Genesis to reach the demand of one of Nintendo’s little brother collections, Sega needs to start eliminating its filler. And holy shit, does Sega LOVE its filler! That’s part of the problem: It loves its filler more than it loves its good games! Next mini-Genesis, it could stand to eliminate the following titles.

Altered Beast

Yes, I get that Altered Beast was so insanely popular as an arcade game that Sega had to throw it into the original Genesis box as the pack-in. But as the people old enough to remember playing Altered Beast in the arcade got older, they started to realize something: Altered Beast just isn’t a good game. It’s a game revolving entirely around a singular gimmick – and one which isn’t inventive. The reason we all loved it was because we were all mesmerized by getting to play as the weredragon in the second level. But the game as a whole hasn’t just aged badly; it was never a good game to begin with. The character design was good, but the action was slow and clunky and marred by the fact that the game used forced scrolling to push players ahead. Also, you had limited chances to collect the power-up balls, which put you in a sticky situation because if you got to the boss without being the were-animal of the level, the boss was literally impossible to beat.

Alien Storm

Anyone who’s gotten around to playing this on one of Sega’s earlier nostalgia packs has noticed a more-than-passing resemblance to a Sega classic which people actually loved: Golden Axe. This game is basically the exact same premise, in fact, only the fantasy setting everyone loved about Golden Axe is thrown out in favor of a modern day alien invasion motif. Although Alien Storm does add the innovation of a bunch of short sections which can be roughly described as first-person shooting scenes, you have no control of anything during them save a moving target cross. The vast majority of the game, though, is the same kind of beat-’em-up action, but without the attack variety, without a jump button, and without a few other little gimmicks the beat-’em-up genre is known for. And speaking of Golden Axe…

Golden Axe

Golden Axe was one of Sega’s original killer apps. It’s remembered fondly as one of the early arcade conversions that helped push the Genesis. The appeal of the game was that it took hold of the traditional beat-’em-up and plopped it into a fantasy land teeming with creative attacks and weapons, excellent character design, and creative and colorful level design. It was the rebel alternative to the popular Double Dragon, and it had much smoother controls. Unfortunately, all of that was by the standards of the time. Age came and walloped Golden Axe, especially once the beat-’em-up formula was revolutionized and streamlined by the likes of Final Fight and Streets of Rage. Both of those series still play beautifully today. Now Golden Axe feels more like a popcorn game that was shoved out by a developer looking for a quick couple of million; it’s comparatively short and clunky and doesn’t even hold up well when compared to later 16-bit brawlers.

Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle

Yes, I know Alex Kidd was the closest thing Sega had to its own version of Mario during the Master System years. But there’s a reason Sega let him go, and it’s more than just the appearance of Sonic the Hedgehog: Alex Kidd is just not a good character, his games are HARD, and a lot of that difficulty is due to fundamental gameplay issues. His only outing on the Genesis was plagued by aquaplane-like sliding, atrocious hit detection, a control interface which could never seem to decide when Alex was or wasn’t in the middle of a midair kick, and graphics which never bothered to differentiate between the foreground and background. Not everyone could relate to Alex’s sickly cutesiness, either.

Revenge of Shinobi

Another one of the early Genesis pushers, Revenge of Shinobi continues to eke out a life as the defining title of its series. But the trouble with this one is that it doesn’t even feel as modern as the other games in its own series. Shinobi has long been a series where the developers have torn down their work and rebuilt everything from scratch with every new sequel, and so Revenge of Shinobi comes off as slow and stilted compared to the two games that came afterward. Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi and Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master both offer better level design and more gameplay depth. They also both offer better gameplay mechanics, which don’t necessitate resource sacrifice against your better interests in order to see anything beyond the first two levels.

Columns

This was supposed to be Sega’s response to the timeless Tetris, but from the smaller playing field to the sudden speed and difficulty surge that hits once you’ve been playing long enough, it comes off as nothing more than a pale wannabe. More to the point is that Tetris is now the most-downloaded and most-played video game of all time, so Columns is out of selling points with the real thing so readily available.

Sonic Spinball

Sonic the Hedgehog going into a pinball-style fortress to act as the pinball. It’s not quite as good in practice as it is in theory, which is saying something because it doesn’t sound like a great idea in theory. Sonic Spinball took everything we loved about the Blue Blur and yanked it out of the game. So here we are, left with a Sonic game in which Sonic can’t get a good run going, set in a closed environment which leaves no room for any exploration, and that’s without even bringing up the worst pinball physics on Earth, floaty gameplay, and clunky controls. Sonic has endured one of the hardest falls from grace ever seen in video games. We like to keep saying his transition to 3D is the culprit, but it can be traced all the way back to this game, which just preceded Sonic the Hedgehog 3.

Sonic 3D Blast

This was the game that technically made Sonic into a 3D hero. It was made under a different developer than Sonic Team, and you have to give them credit where it’s due: Sonic 3D Blast is REALLY well-made. It also recognized the fact that a lot of Sonic’s appeal was in exploring the expansive levels in the core series. But it was also a combination of a fetch quest and an escort mission, which is sin enough as it is, and the isometric presentation made all of Sonic’s signature abilities nearly useless. Even the loops Sonic runs through were forced into the game.

Super Thunder Blade

This sucker goes WAY back – it was one of the Genesis’s launch titles, but that’s about the only thing that warrants its continued posterity. It was there to show off the console’s wonder technology and that’s it. There are only four levels in Super Thunder Blade, presented in a third-person behind-the-chopper view. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the Genesis never did mode-7 scaling as well as the Super NES, so this game’s fast pace is betrayed by its clunkiness. It’s too hard to move, too hard to get a straight shot at anything, too hard to avoid crashing into the scenery, and battered by its age to boot. It can’t even be written off as a relic of its era, because Space Harrier II was also out there.

Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine

Well, okay, Sonic’s spinoff puzzle game is more original than Dr. Mario. It’s also deeply frustrating and unfair if you’re trying to go through the story mode.

Virtua Fighter 2

Yes, I get that this was where the 3D fighter really caught on, and I aso get that it was Sega’s baby. The Super NES got a scaled-down version of Killer Instinct, and it was a lot of fun. This was meant to be a response to that. But where Killer Instinct and Virtua Fighter differed was in the fact that Killer Instinct’s primary strength was in its over-the-top dark humor, its accessible gameplay interface, and its easy Street Fighter II-like control scheme. Killer Instinct was still a 2D fighter no matter how much power it was packing, so the Super NES scaleback didn’t deprive the little version of its big personality. Virtua Fighter 2 Genesis took the godfather of 3D fighters and axed one of the defining features of the game, as well as the two new characters introduced in the game, Shun and Lion. So what the Genesis version of Virtua Fighter 2 was left with was an uninteresting block fighter with zero identifying markers are ways to stand out from the crowd – or ways to stand apart from the original Virtua Fighter. Why did Sega place this on its nostalgia packs instead of Eternal Champions?

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Genesis Classic: A Game Collection People Would Actually Want

Genesis Classic: A Game Collection People Would Actually Want

Well, I’ve decided I’m not yet finished laying waste to Sega. If you didn’t hear, they recently gave a developer called AtGames permission to launch one of those mini classic consoles that were recently made all the rage by Nintendo. The result was the Sega Genesis Flashback, which will go down in gaming history as a ripoff, a gouging attempt, a typically bad Sega release strategy, and the work of a bullshit artist. I can’t say the Flashback sucks, because I haven’t yet played it. But I do know what the game list looks like, and that’s all I need to not only know I’m not interested, but to tell you everything Sega and AtGames fucked up about the thing.

Now, I want the mini Super NES Classic so badly that I consider the 80 percent markup price I’ve seen private collectors selling them for perfectly reasonable. I don’t want anything to do with the Flashback. Maybe things would be different if I didn’t already own a couple of different versions of the Flashback; the main problem with the Flashback is that almost every game on it was released multiple times in the past on Genesis compilation collections. And most of those collections have more impressive games than the Flashback. I own Genesis collections for the Playstation 2 and Xbox 360, and between the two of them, the Flashback is totally useless. The reason the NES minis caught on was because they included libraries of hard-to-find classics that get sold in used game stores for three figures. They also contain a wide variety of different games which includes work from second and third party developers. And since Nintendo is still in the hardware market, they haven’t released 700 different compilations of their old games. What has Sega done? Release compilation after compilation of the same games until you hate your Genesis favorites. They don’t bother with their third party classics or their rarities. Plus, they loaded up the Flashback with app games you play in the dentist’s waiting room. You want to know what games Sega SHOULD be putting onto a mini Genesis to make it as desirable as the Super NES Classic? Here is a sizable list of what Sega keeps missing – games that SHOULD be going onto a mini Genesis. (Here’s a quick note: For this list, I’m sticking with only the Genesis, not the Sega CD or the 32X, basically going by Sega’s unwritten rule and also to show how badly gamers are getting screwed.)

Toejam and Earl

Weird, wild, fun as hell, and coming with an option for a random world in which no two games would ever be the same, Toejam and Earl was like nothing else ever released. The story of two funky aliens looking to repair their spaceship, this game gave us two characters who could have been among the 16-bit Era’s strongest. Toejam and Earl as more or less an early sandbox game – it gave gamers complete control to go in any direction as far as the literal edge of the world. It had characters like Cupid, a talking carrot, giant hamster wheels, and wizards. It had weird power-ups and an incredible in-90’s vibe. The lad characters had franchise potential written all over them. What’s more, this game is hard to find now, and Sega hasn’t seen it fit to release on a classic collection.

Earthworm Jim

While an outstanding and memorable game on both the Genesis and Super NES, the Genesis version is the quintessential version because it contains a whole extra level. As for the game itself, much of what I just said about Toejam and Earl applies to Earthworm Jim: Weird, wild, fun as hell, strong lead character. We can also expand that list to include: White-knuckle, manic, intense, and hard as fucking rocks. Earthworm Jim’s challenge is infamous. By the second level, you’re in the depths of hell. The third level runs you through one of the most painful underwater levels of all time. Later in the game, you get to be the escort of a happy-go-lucky pooch that turns into a hulked-out beast if it falls into a pit, slug it out with a piece of snot in a bungie contest, and the game climaxes in a brutal spike-laden level called Buttville.

Contra: Hard Corps

Castlevania Bloodlines

By the time the Genesis came out, Contra and Castlevania were already popular commodities on the NES and Super NES. These two games were the Genesis entrants in both series, released to both audience and critical acclaim. It was the point where Genesis fans could tell their Super NES peers, “Yeah, how nice. We got one of those too!”

NHL ‘94

The Genesis was THE go-to console for sports games during its time, and NHL ‘94 holds a particularly high perch among the bunch. Gamers nowadays can afford to take their sports games for granted, but among gamers of my own generation, there are two sports games held almost sacred: One is Tecmo Bowl for the NES. The other is NHL ‘94 for the Genesis. The exalted status is held less for the accuracy than the sheer amount of unlimited fun we had exposing the game-breaking glitches and overpowered players. Tecmo Bowl had invincible Bo Jackson. NHL ‘94 had unstoppable Jeremy Roenick. NHL ‘94 also had goalies who could nearly kill players just by standing around, rowdy audience animations, the ability to score a goal by shooting while just skating by the goalie almost every time… Well, few sports games have reached this level of arcadey accessibility since. Hell, the entire sports genre doesn’t get there these days. The only post-16-bit game that approaches this level is ESPN NFL 2K5.

Gunstar Heroes

Here’s a hardcore action run and gun title that most people who played it would gladly dump Contra for.

Landstalker

Let’s be honest: The Legend of Zelda will always be THE LEGEND OF ZELDA. Always replicated, never duplicated. That didn’t keep anyone associated with Sega from trying, though, and reaping the fruits of their labors brought adventure RPG’s as deep and rewarding as any of Link’s games. The Genesis managed to produce a few gems in that area, most notably Landstalker and Beyond Oasis. Both of those games are amazing, but Landstalker is getting the nod here because Sega DID manage to find a brain for a minute and place Beyond Oasis on a compilation. While the triangular plane can take some growing used to, Landstalker was every bit as capable of bending minds as A Link to the Past.

Herzog Zwei

This is considered one of the forefathers of the real-time strategy genre. Are you into Starcraft? Fire Emblem? Advance Wars? Of course you are. And this is where the genre found its legs. (Well, this and Military Madness, if you owned a TurboGrafx-16.)

Disney’s Aladdin

Yes, it’s the funniest thing a game like Aladdin could be included on a list like this, especially if you know the reputation of movies turned into video games during the 16-bit Era. But Aladdin not only bucked the odds, but managed to turn into one of the Genesis’s iconic titles and one of the era’s great action platformers. With animation worthy of the movie itself (this game was animated by the same people who animated the movie), all your favorite tunes from the film, a level that took place inside Genie’s lamp, a sense of humor, and some of the tightest controls a gamer could ask for, and there’s a game which is not only fun, but far better-made than a game based on a movie has any right to be.

Eternal Champions

Sega’s attempt to go into fighting games isn’t going to make anyone forget about Street Fighter. Truth be told, I didn’t think Eternal Champions was great – the combo-free interface will probably put off a few purists. But a lot of people seem to love this game, and there are a lot of good reasons to love it. There’s a measure of internal strength which adds an element of strategy that makes up for the lack of combos, and you can’t press two buttons at the same time without running into a special move. The characters have some of the best designs in fighting games, ever; they all look like comic book heroes. But the thing that really pushed Eternal Champions above and beyond in the minds of most gamers is the training room and the option to create a level, complete with obstacles, all of your own.

Shadowrun

A dark horse title which people seemed to love or hate, Shadowrun offered a lot of open-world exploration along with a dark cyberpunk atmosphere.

Super Street Fighter II

We need to include the fighting game to end all fighting games in this collection. I know Special Champion Edition has its fans (myself included), but I’m going to go with the uber edition of this classic, which included four new characters.

Road Rash III

Today, driving games are all the rage because the technology makes it easy for designers maximize a console’s engine and provide plenty of tracks and cars for dedicated gamers to collect and drive. Back in the 16-bit years, though, driving games were a lot more hit or miss… Okay, well, let’s be honest: They were misses. Road Rash was one of the few series which managed to create a fun formula which got the most out of the Genesis, and it did so by adding a simple twist: It made a motorcycle race into a street brawl. A good way to let off steam, a good number of iconic driving titles these days owe a debt to Road Rash.

NBA Jam: Tournament Edition

This game was a title for those who wanted to enjoy sports games without the pesky trouble of the actual sports. NBA Jam took basketball and stripped it down to the bare essentials. Giving us a two-on-two game, it took all the fast action of a basketball game and gave it concepts like hot spots, power-ups, exaggerated dunks, secret celebrity players, and being On Fire. The controls used an arcade setup which included a turbo button and quick release shooting to maximize accessibility, and the Tournament Edition included better music than its predecessor and an option to include four players.

Thunder Force III

MUSHA

Air Buster

Although the Genesis is probably more celebrated for its contributions to sports gaming, it holds a dear spot in the hearts of shooter fans as well. The pantheon of available shooting games for the Genesis is second only to that of the shooter library on the TurboGrafx-16, so we need to include a set of shooting games made to show it off. Although the Super NES had better technological specs overall, Nintendo’s dirty little secret is that it had a slower processor than the Genesis, so shooting games on the Super NES would get marred with slowdown while the Genesis counterparts in the genre were smooth and uninhibited for a faster, more intense experience. There are three acclaimed titles which give a taste of what the Genesis can do with such a genre.

College Football USA ‘96

Yes, yes, everyone is keen on the Madden series, for reasons I will never begin to understand. And the Joe Montana Sports Talk series was a breakthrough in play by play. But if it’s football you want, you don’t necessarily have to settle for the NFL. You can go back to college and pretty much have your way with available teams and playbooks. This game was one of the first to really show the grand spectacle that is college football, with an offering of 108 teams, and if we’re trying to give away a sample of what the Genesis could do with sports titles, this one is more indispensable than anything a developer could do with an NFL license.

Rocket Knight Adventures

Sparkster: Rocket Knight Adventures 2

A pair of beloved and acclaimed platformers starring a possum named Sparkster who wore a knight’s armor and flew with a jetpack, these games have plenty of fans.

World Series Baseball

Before Sega went third party and started making the greatest NBA games on the planet, it had baseball locked up with this series. The dramatic view from the catcher’s eyes was a big deal at the time, and it still looks great today.

Zombies Ate My Neighbors

An outstanding variation of a shooting game, this one is another open-world setting where you get to wander wherever the world lets you go, shooting up everything in sight while keeping your neighbors safe from an unending zombie horde. Zombies Ate My Neighbors has the sensibilities of any B-movie, and it takes itself about as seriously.

Notably, I haven’t played all of these, but they’ve all reached cult status in the hearts of 16-bit gamers. But here we have it: A good collection of breakthrough games and scarce games that Sega has seen it fit to ignore in the hopes that it can cash in on Sonic the Hedgehog re-releases for fucking ever. If Sega wants in on the mini-console gravy train, it would do well to take a page from Nintendo’s book and ask itself what its fans might have the most difficulty finding, and what games are really worth preserving for posterity.

Sega’s Complaint

Sega’s Complaint

The newest rage in the world of video games seems to be miniaturized classic consoles with a grand selection of their greatest games downloaded into them. After the success of the NES Classic and the subsequent follow-up with the Super NES Classic, you had to know Sega would hop on the mini train at some point. Unfortunately, Sega’s way of getting in on this trend was to hand a blessing to AtGames, which gave the world the Sega Genesis Flashback. And at first glance, the Flashback looks like a delivery from the silicon heavens; it has a whopping 85 games packed into it! That’s four times as good as that lame Super NES Classic and the mere 21 games programmed into it, right?

(Sucking air through teeth…) Well… Yeah, you know how Sega managed to keep shooting itself in the foot and doesn’t produce consoles anymore because of its famously stupid release strategies? Some bad habits are just that hard to snap. That list of “85 Classic Games” is an insult to Sega, the Genesis, and anyone who knows anything about the classic games of the 16-bit Golden Era. The game list includes a list of 28 unofficial, unlicensed games like Air Hockey, Chess, Hangman, Snake, and Wall-Breaking. That means 28 games on the Sega Genesis Flashback are smartphone games you play in the waiting room at the dentist’s office. What’s more forgivable is the inclusion of a handful of difficult-to-find games from the Master System and Game Gear; the Master System selection includes three Alex Kidd games (Alex Kidd held Sega’s official mascot spot until Yuji Naka churned out Sonic the Hedgehog) and the first Phantasy Star game, while the Game Gear selection includes Sonic Chaos and Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble. But when you get to the crux of the Flashback – AKA the Genesis classics, AKA The Entire Damn Reason You’re Buying the Thing – the collection is sorely lacking. Yes, it has a few offbeat choices like Sword of Vermilion, The Ooze, and Chakan: The Forever Man. Yes, it has the Mortal Kombat games. But the whole collection of games that are classics on the Genesis doesn’t give you anything that hasn’t already been made available on any other large-scale collection of classic Genesis games. Hell, you can go out and buy Sonic’s Ultimate Sega Genesis Collection for the Playstation or Xbox for a selection of games that’s better than this. What’s really notable are some of the games that aren’t here: Where the hell is Ecco the Dolphin? What about the notable action RPGs: Landstalker, Light Crusader, and especially Beyond Oasis? In the early, pre-Sonic days of the Genesis, Sega built its 16-bit brand on the strength of its sports game lineup. So where are all of them? Where are the third party exclusives?

Yes, we all give Sega their proper disrespects for nuking their own hardware division. But we overlook all the little mistakes Sega kept making which caused interested gamers to support Nintendo over Sega. We can complain about Nintendo’s family-friendly reputation or the way they keep leaning on their established franchises, but come on! In Nintendo’s case, those are nothing complaints. Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid are at the forefront of Nintendo’s game collections because they’re incredible franchises which have earned premier spots in the hearts of gamers everywhere. It kills gamers that Sega was close to being the juggernaut that Nintendo is. Sega had everything Nintendo did, they stole Nintendo’s market share for a little while, and industry dominance was within their grasp. When you fall from grace as hard as Sega has, though, bad hardware releases are only part of a much bigger problem. Here are some of my own educated ideas about why Sega, with the entire video game world almost theirs, blew it all to hell.

The Genesis Controller

Okay, the Genesis controller looked like Sega was preparing for a leap in game design back when the console was released; it had three action buttons and a concave d-pad, which proved to be forward thinking when games started getting more complex. But Nintendo eventually followed that by including a controller with six action buttons with the Super NES. Now, I hate the Super NES controller with a flaming vengeance, but that’s only because the action button placements – which introduced shoulder buttons – made the thing so uncomfortable for me to hold with my deformed hand. (Sony rescued my ability to play games one console generation later when it introduced the pistol grip.) Nintendo may have been late to the game, but the influence of the Super NES controller can’t be denied. Shoulder buttons are everywhere because Nintendo had an early vision of gaming with six buttons, and the Super NES caught fire just when fighting games started coming into vogue. Most fighting games require more than three buttons – the reigning king of the genre, Street Fighter, needs six, and its close peer Mortal Kombat started out needing five. So mainstream gamers who liked fighting games latched on to Nintendo. While Sega quickly got to work producing a six-button version of its primary controller, they never got around to packing it in with the Genesis. That means if you liked fighting games, you either fought with the clunky three-button layout or plonked down an extra $30 for a single six-button controller. The Genesis versions of Street Fighter II and the original Mortal Kombat may have been superior, but that meant little when they were barely playable with the pack-in controller.

Potential Franchise Abandonment

Real old school Genesis fans might remember Toejam and Earl. The two funky dudes from Funkotron starred in one of the key Genesis exclusives from the early days of the console – it came out just a few months after the first Sonic game. The game was quirky, fun as hell, and came with some of the console generation’s best character design. It was also very unique, and we haven’t seen anything quite like it since. And the characters themselves had designs and attitudes all of their own – they were strong characters. Even making exemption for Sonic’s recent appearance, there was no reason for Sega to avoid pressing ToeJam and Earl as representative characters to their brand; the duo even got a sequel in 1993. And then that was it! Although the two of them were a true 90’s duo – they sported sunglasses and backwards baseball hats – Sega avoided making anything new until launching them on the Xbox in 2002, and there’s been a fourth game in the rumor mill ever since. Much of the same story happened with Vectorman. Vectorman got two action games which are considered among the era’s best. Sega even timed the games to match up with Nintendo’s revival and subsequent reboot of Donkey Kong as a good guy. Like Nintendo, Sega used Vectorman to introduce a new graphic technique. But Donkey Kong got a ton of exposure on his way to becoming an indispensible part of Nintendo’s canon while Sega kept both its awesome new character and beautifully fluid new graphic technique under wraps, and Vectorman was never heard from again unless you count a cancelled Playstation 2 reboot which destroyed everything gamers loved about the originals. RiStar was a star-shaped, long-limbed character developed by Sonic Team who got one of the best platformers of the era before disappearing until showing up in the nostalgia packs. If ANY character was screaming for a mascot role, it was him. Even some of Sega’s tried-and-true characters got shafted. Anyone want to tell me why Shinobi didn’t show up on the Dreamcast after a popular arcade game and three brilliant and beloved Genesis carts? Holy shit, Sega.

Where the Cool Third Parties at?

One of Nintendo’s most infamous and public fuckups with the Nintendo 64 could have been avoided had they only paid more attention to Sega: The failure to secure any good third party exclusives early on. I’m not saying the Genesis didn’t have any amazing third party exclusives, but the ones that could have come in and created a buzz for Sega – like Castlevania Bloodlines and Contra: Hard Corps – didn’t come in until later in the console’s lifespan. By then, it was getting to the point where everyone who had to go with one console or the other had made up their minds, and the ones partial to both owned both. And Sega wasn’t exactly partial to highlighting the third party games that would have helped their cause. Gunstar Heroes may be a beloved classic now, but almost everyone missed it because no one knew it was there. And you have to look at some of these exclusives: F-22 Interceptor? That was a flight sim where you flew a VERY preliminary version of the jet fighter that eventually became the F-22 Raptor. Toughman Contest was a first-person boxing game in the mold of Punch-Out. Some of these third party games were truly excellent, of course; they helped make the Sega Genesis into the SEGA GENESIS. But they didn’t stand by anything that would have created any franchise recognition.

I Want My RPG

Okay, so when Sega started creating RPGs, they had the deck stacked against them already – Nintendo had Enix and Squaresoft signed as second party developers, and they had delivered Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy on the NES. The Super NES gave fans two more Final Fantasy games and Chrono Trigger, widely considered the greatest RPG ever made. But Sega didn’t exactly start off the RPG standoff from a great deficit; after all, they created Phantasy Star, and for three games, Phantasy Star was able to fight blow for blow with Final Fantasy for 16-bit RPG supremacy. (With hindsight, this looks pretty silly because Phantasy Star – while it acquits itself rather nicely in the bigger picture – hasn’t aged nearly as well as Final Fantasy.) Sega also created the Shining series, a very good series of strategic RPGs which became beloved by its fans. Then Sega took things to the next level… By creating the Sega CD and shoving almost every piece of RPG-related software onto it! I guess Sega figured they were going to get some extra Sega CD sales by placing a genre with hardcore cult fans onto it, but hardcore doesn’t mean stupid. If anyone was stupid, it was Sega for thinking anyone was going to pay the $300 for the Sega CD – more than the Genesis itself – to play a single genre of games. So the Genesis didn’t attract any RPG players, even though Lunar: Eternal Blue, Popful Mail, Vay, and other games were on it because Sega went out of their way to price gamers out. Speaking of the Sega CD…

That Damn CD Player

It cost $300. Was it worth it? Well, RPG players didn’t exactly take to it, even though their favorite genre’s output from Sega was almost exclusively there. The selection of other games on the Sega CD were FMV games which were barely interactive and a list of games ported from having been on the Genesis already, in some cases for months or even years in advance. Yes, the Sega CD had Sonic CD, which is frequently considered Sonic the Hedgehog’s best game (and that’s NOT an opinion I concur with). It had better ports of games that were already classics on the Genesis, like Eternal Champions, Ecco the Dolphin, and Earthworm Jim. But Sonic CD wasn’t worth a $300 add-on and anyone who wanted those classics was already happy playing them on the Genesis. So no, it wasn’t fucking worth it. Not even close.

Taking the Sonic Out of Sonic Team

It’s pointless to prattle on about how Sonic the Hedgehog’s transition to three dimensions ruined him – every other game writer of my generation has covered that at length. I’m going to point out that Sonic’s fall started right out on the Genesis, and that it should have been obvious right from the start. Sonic’s final outing on the Genesis was Sonic 3D Blast, which was primarily done by Traveller’s Tales. Now, we have to note a couple of things about Sonic 3D Blast: First, the game is a technical marvel, and Traveller’s Tales made an obvious herculean effort to get it right. Second, they understood the true appeal of Sonic’s core games: Exploration. Speed was a big part of it, but the real fun was in launching Sonic in a random direction and seeing where he would end up. The trouble happened because exploring was an option in the core games, and if you hated a level, you could always run Sonic out of it as fast as possible. Sonic 3D Blast didn’t have that option. It not only required exploration – a bad enough sin as it was – but it also turned the best part of Sonic into a combination fetch quest/escort mission. Can you think of a worse combination of genres to put together? And to top it off, they threw it all into an isometric view which rendered a lot of Sonic’s signature abilities useless. There’s a safe argument to be made that every sin committed by the 3D titles was some sort of effort to right the wrongs started in Sonic 3D Blast. There’s another safe argument to be made that everything Sonic did wrong since started here.

The Selections on those Classics Collections

You would think that, somewhere along the line, Sega would have learned a few useful lessons. Well, you have to give them credit for a couple of things, anyway: They DID learn lessons. But they didn’t seem to learn the RIGHT lessons. Even now, having made the switch to third party development, they don’t seem to understand much of their own appeal. Look at the numerous collections of Genesis classics they’ve been offering since the Dreamcast days: Toejam and Earl and Sub-Terrania haven’t shown up on any of them! Yet Sega is intent on shoving Golden Axe and Altered Beast down our throats at every turn. Golden Axe is fairly forgivable because of the mix of beat-’em-up gameplay and a strict fantasy setting. But Altered Beast? Look, I know it was a hit and people liked it at the time, but if any popular video game was like pop music, Altered Beast is it. It’s a guilty pleasure that people hate themselves for once loving. It’s more of a gimmick than a game, and not a particularly unique one these days. No one cares about it. On their newest collections, instead of rectifying this situation, Sega threw Alien Storm at us. NOBODY GIVES A FUCK ABOUT ALIEN STORM! We barely give a shit about Golden Axe, and Alien Storm is just a slightly deeper version of Golden Axe with a sci-fi slant! Meanwhile, Beyond Oasis has shown up once, Dynamite Headdy has shown up once, Toejam and Earl and Landstalker and Light Crusader have all been absent, Shining in the Darkness has shown up once, RiStar has shown up twice, and where the fuck is MUSHA?! Iconic third party games are gone. Furthermore, every game they release was available for the Genesis. A few games from the Sega CD would be nice inclusions. Sonic CD, as mentioned, is still widely considered the best Sonic game ever made. The FMV games – especially Night Trap, which was mentioned in congressional hearings – should be included for posterity’s sake. And, again, they’re not placing any third party games on these things, so iconic titles like Aladdin and Castlevania Bloodlines still aren’t available to 16-bit fans who never owned them. Yeah, Sega seems hell-bent on applying its shitty console release strategies to its classic collections.

Where are the 32-Bit Classics?

I guess Sega’s 32-bit failures have given them the impression that no one cares about their offerings from that doomed era, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Chaotix, Clockwork Knight, the Virtua Fighter games, Daytona USA, Panzer Dragoon, Nights, Shinobi Legions, and a grab bag of other games are not only remembered, but loved. So where have they been hiding?

The Coolest Part of Sonic and Knuckles

Sega had a dream when it released the first Sonic the Hedgehog game: Being able to hook it up to a cartridge of a future game in the series. And by the time Sonic the Hedgehog 2 rolled around, it wasn’t a dream anymore; Sega was well aware of the fact that they could do it. And they designed a few areas of Sonic 2 with that whole concept in mind. Sonic 3 came in and went, and Sega did the same thing. Then came the fourth game in the series, Sonic and Knuckles, and the concept came to fruition. You could physically hook Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 up to Sonic and Knuckles to play through both of those games as Knuckles and open up new areas. The concept was taken to a new length in Sonic 3, where Knuckles had access to places which felt like an entirely different game, and which also offered the option of playing through Sonic and Knuckles as Tails. Then the nostalgia packs came out with every Sonic game on them, and this whole concept was entirely absent. That’s leaving chunks of all three of those games closed off to exploratory players. (And it also begs the question: Why did Sega use that technology only that one time?)

 

The Worst Video Game Controller Buttons Ever

The Worst Video Game Controller Buttons Ever

If you’ve ever spent a lot of time playing video games, you’ve certainly noted the fact that not every controller is created equal. I can go on to amend that by saying that not every button on a controller is created equal, either. You would think that as game controllers and games themselves got to be more complex, designers would figure out how to make use of auxiliary buttons better. And, well, they did, but that doesn’t mean every button on a controller is going to be used well. And even with games allowing gamers the freedom to change up the control schemes in ways that are best suited to their tastes, some designers just still have trouble assigning decent uses to perfectly good controller buttons.

You know what? You can just blame the popular gaming blog Kotaku for this one. It was one of their famous unspecified lists. I read it, liked the idea, and decided to create my own, but with explanations! So here’s my list of the worst controller buttons ever, with undefined and haphazard qualifications!

10 – D-pad, All Directions

Nintendo 64 Controller

I’m one of the very few people who gave a wholehearted, enthusiastic endorsement to the much-hated Nintendo 64 controller. That, however, was based more on the comfort I enjoyed while I held it, the analog joystick, and the cool Z button. But let’s be honest: The detractors have some solid arguments, and they start with its deadweight of a d-pad. The question about this thing is, WHY?! Why is it there? Why did Nintendo even bother? There wasn’t much of a point, because nearly all the d-pad’s functionality was outsourced to the analog stick – even menu screens used it. And despite gamers widely complaining about getting stuck using the analog stick – you have to remember that this was the very early days of 3D games, and gamers back then had never used analog sticks before – Nintendo forced it onto everyone. Few, if any, games came with an option to use the d-pad, and so it just sat there being useless.

9 – Select Button

NES Controller

The original NES controller is the defining video game controller of all time. Every controller today is based on its interface: D-pad on the left, action buttons on the right, selection buttons in the middle. That being said, one wonders why so few people can still manage to find a valid function for the Select button. Yes, designers have been getting better about it, but the original Select button was damn near useless. It sits there, taking up space, being forgotten. The Konami code didn’t require it. When Sega designed the Genesis controller, it didn’t even see fit to include some form of it, opting instead for a single menu button – a Start button – and three action buttons. When NEC cranked out the TurboGrafx-16 and almost carbon-copied the NES controller, it tried to be a bit more inventive – the way to reset most Turbo games is to press its Select and Run (the Turbo’s Start) buttons at the same time, but it still didn’t give poor Select a real function. In just about every form, Select sits, inconspicuous in its form, limited in its function, and you get the feeling that in 99 parallel dimensions, it doesn’t exist at all. As opposed to this dimension, where it just might as well not exist.

8 – D-pad, Left

Various Controllers in the 8- and 16-Bit Eras

We can argue about the real origins of the side-scrolling adventure game until the cows come home. But what will never, ever change is that fact that Super Mario Bros. is the inarguable point where games started to model themselves on it. What did the game do? Scroll. Where did Mario start? On the left. Where did he go? To the right. Thus, a permanent template was created, and video game characters forevermore started on the left and moved to the right. This mindset enveloped games so much that, if you’ve ever gotten ahold of one of the very rare games that does it the other way around – or, hell, if you’ve even played a game that so much as offered a single level that does it – it feels completely unnatural. So where does that leave the poor left button on the d-pad? Well, there’s no denying that it has a lot of importance. After all, a gamer needs to have room to dodge, set up defense and counterattack, and weave. But there is a whole genre of game where the characters can’t even turn left! There are a lot of other games where gamers aren’t allowed to backtrack, including the original Super Mario Bros. itself. So how’s left as a useful controller button? Of course, this has been dying out since games started going 3D, but gamers around my age remember when there was one direction to move in, and it was the right.

7 – Z Button

Gamecube Controller

The thing about influential inventors and innovators is that we tend to only look at their successes. We ignore their failures completely. And everyone who ever invented anything has failed a lot more than they’ve succeeded. Nintendo, for all their influence, has made a lot of controller shit. You would be amazed how many people think their greatest work is the Gamecube controller. While a comfortable controller, it contains a LOT of obvious blights. None are worse than that Z button. Almost certainly crammed onto the Gamecube controller purely as an afterthought, the Z button sits tucked near the R button as nothing more than an auxiliary menu button. It feels like a weird outcropping on the controller rather than a real button, and to press it feels like making it click.

6 – Left Analog Stick, All Directions

All Xbox Controllers

It’s a universally accepted fact that the original Xbox controller was just a really bad idea, but even with the compact model that quickly became Microsoft’s norm, people tend to ignore the unnatural thumb alignments. The now-standard Xbox controller is basically a knockoff of the Playstation’s Dual Shock, which would be just fine if not for the unusual placement of the left analog: It sits above the d-pad rather than below it, while the right analog is distal to the d-pad. This setup takes a little bit of practice before your thumbs manage to adjust to it, and even when they do, it never seems to develop into anything natural. Now, this isn’t so bad in a lot of games because the double analog setup usually doesn’t mean very much – the sticks are used to perform two different functions. But if you’re into fighters or first-person shooters, THEN it gets to be an annoyance. The problem is more muted in fighting games because you only need a single d-pad to play them, and the proper d-pad is often an option, but nothing feels right about quarter-circle or double-tap motions with the analog so far away from the grip. In first-person shooters, it gets pervasive because you need both sticks for basic controls, and nothing about the movement/viewpoint setup feels right.

5 – Buttons L and R

Saturn Controller

Sega had led a wave of innovation with the Genesis and the Dreamcast, but it seems like they were playing catch-up during every phase in between. After gaming evolution wrecked the original Genesis controller (as well as the ability to play fighting games on the Genesis), Sega knew it couldn’t go on with anything less than six buttons… Which it included on the Saturn controller as buttons A, B, C, X, Y, and Z. You might notice that this means the Saturn controller HAD six buttons WITHOUT adding L and R! So in its attempt to keep up with the Joneses – the Joneses in this case being Sony and Nintendo, both of whom adopted shoulder buttons – it added a couple of plastic shells to the Saturn controller which it placed on top and referred to as “buttons.” They were there as replacements for the Mode button on the Mega Drive, which is video-game-ese for, “they didn’t do jack shit.” Basically, Sega put a pair of keep-up buttons on a controller strictly for decoration.

4 – D-pad, All Directions

Gamecube Controller

It would be pretty easy for me to make this argument by just copying and pasting my entry for the Nintendo 64 controller up there. But, to reiterate, the damn thing is useless. And the Gamecube controller comes with the added bonus of being far too small for it to be comfortable to use. The thing is about the size of the Game Boy Advance d-pad; not something that one would expect a real, adult-sized hand to fight with on a big boy video game controller.

3 – Buttons L3 and R3

Playstation and Xbox Controllers

No one thinks of these buttons, and there’s a good reason why: They tend to be obscured by being hidden inside the analog sticks. You press them by pressing down on the sticks; I don’t mean hitting the directional stick in the down direction, I mean it in the sense of applying pressure to the stick. Imagine trying to crush it between your thumb and your hand. This is one of those “break glass in case of emergency buttons,” to be used in case there’s no other place to put a weird, offhand function. Useful functions placed inside the sticks feel like they’re being forced there, so designers compensate by trying to hide optional, offhand junk functions into them. The sirens in the Grand Theft Auto games were put into the L3 and R3 buttons. There’s a reason why these buttons do such weird things: They’re impractical and they don’t press easily. Even the engineers at Sony and Microsoft think they’re jokes; there are gamers who have owned those consoles for years without ever figuring out these buttons even exist.

2 – C-stick, All Directions

Gamecube Controller

This was another result of a Nintendo attempt to drag gaming evolution in a direction it clearly wasn’t going to go in. This had its origin in the Nintendo 64 controller, which had four singular buttons pointing in four directions referred to C Up, C Down, C Left, and C Right. Those were intended to be camera buttons, but they ultimately functioned as the action buttons they were destined to be. The C-Stick is sort of just… There. It just sits, innocuously, not doing anything one way or the other because it’s another instance of designers – including Nintendo itself – not knowing what to do with it half the time. Now, the idea wasn’t a bad one – it placed an increasingly common function into a controller device set aside strictly for it. But it would have been a huge help had anyone been able to figure that out. There were a lot of games in which the C-Stick just wasn’t functional. (Are you sensing a theme yet?) Many other games just outsourced them to the shoulder buttons, which was the common thing to do at the time. What the C-Stick DID do was give FPS buffs a way to finally play their shooters the way they were meant to be played, with one stick to move and the other to look, so I guess it did serve as a camera stick in that capacity, at the least.

1 – L Button

Nintendo 64 Controller

Wow, what a blunder this sucker was. Now, when Nintendo made the Nintendo 64 controller, it did so with the idea of offering control options to gamers. As we’ve already seen, though, those options never, ever came into fruition. The L Button from the Nintendo 64 controller was supposed to be used in conjunction with the action buttons, the R Button, and the Z Trigger (which, by the way, looks like it will make my list of greatest video game buttons). But forget a controller that intimidates people who have all ten fingers – the Nintendo 64 Controller required three hands, or at least it would if the entire left side wasn’t so flaccid. The L Button’s work on the Nintendo 64 Controller was outsourced to the Z Trigger. When the Nintendo 64 was introduced, the Z Trigger was already a lively button – the hand-form pistol grip made it easy to reach and keep your index finger on at all times, and that made it useful for a handful of its own functions. It changed the way we look at first-person shooters. But all of the usual L Button functions were also automatically handed over to the Z Trigger too. Few games offered options, and even in the very few games in which the d-pad was at least usable in SOME way – such as a menu screen – the L button just sat there, outcast to the point where it should have come equipped with its own little anarchy sign.

Easy Setting Gamer

Easy Setting Gamer

A few weeks ago, I bought the Playstation 3 classic Bioshock Infinite. After a few marathon gaming sessions, I managed to bound through the game, and as I write this, my position is on the final airship, locked in an epic battle against other airships which procure soldiers and robots onto mine. The object is to make sure the power source on my airship stays up and running while blowing up the other airships. That would be easier if the enemy airships weren’t slamming me with some of the most dangerous and difficult enemies the game can throw at me.

The irony is that I’m playing Bioshock Infinite on the easy setting. Does anything about the scenario I just described sound easy? For a point of comparison, I also bought the original Bioshock, which I’m playing on the normal setting. Now, I should point out in fairness that even though these two games bear the same series name and several common elements, they are two totally different games. Bioshock is done in the first person, but it otherwise has the feel of a common survival horror game – the challenge is in the many ways the game deprives players of the equipment they need to stay alive. The atmosphere is one of suspense and dread, and the player has to learn to maximize every available resource or they’ll be dangerously underequipped at points when it counts. Bioshock Infinite is a true shooting game; enemies are everywhere, ammunition is expendable, and the primary challenge is in not getting hit with bullets. But even so, I’ve only just entered the second area in the original Bioshock. It’s nearly as awesome as Bioshock Infinite, but with the difficulty up a little, I’m more like slowly hacking through it. I keep getting stymied in the same place.

I’m an easy setting gamer. I find nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, a lot of gamers seem to disagree. And that line of disagreeing gamers runs right up to and includes the people developing the games. Easy-shaming is a video game trope that’s been around for quite a long time. Easy-shaming is a way game developers mock gamers who play through a game on the easy setting in some way. Some games are more blatant about this than others; in Art of Fighting for the Super NES, the reward for beating the game on the easy setting is the word “CONGRATULATIONS!” displayed on the screen as it echoes on the soundtrack. That’s depriving gamers of the real ending. Back in the 16-bit Era, it would take on much nastier forms. Streets of Rage 3 only let easy setting gamers play through the fifth level. If a gamer got that far, it gave an ending which mocked them. Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi simply cut back to the intro screen after a victory and told gamers to try the next difficulty level. Shadow Dancer is an extreme case because you didn’t get the real ending until beating the game on its hardest setting.

Some games don’t even wait that long to make fun of gamers. They’ll have an easy setting named “wimp mode” or “wuss” or something equally as degrading.

I tend to prefer to believe that this way of psyching gamers out is a way for developers to make up for their own shortcomings with making the game. Veteran gamers all know that an increase in challenge levels means the developers have to come up with a way to jack up the challenge, and that they sometimes suck at this. Sometimes enemy attack patterns change, sometimes the game speeds up, sometimes the levels get flooded with more baddies, and sometimes enemies have more health and do more damage. Increasing the challenge is more than just flipping some code switch. That means that developers tend to run low on creative ideas for how to do it themselves. The Madden series is famous for its catch-up speed. One of my favorite role-playing strategy games, Shining Force II, didn’t do anything except make the enemies far more aggressive on higher settings. Fighting games are probably the worst about driving the challenge high. They get cheaper, and the computer is faster and suddenly equipped with an array of techniques the game’s physics don’t ordinarily allow. Mortal Kombat II, for example, let the computer throw the player when the player tries to hit it with an uppercut. That’s a move which just isn’t allowed with two players.

I’ve never gotten along with easy-shaming. The core idea which surrounds it seems to be that gamers play games strictly for a challenge and should do everything in their power to make the games as hard as possible. That’s a philosophy that I disagree with. One reason is that back in the 16-bit Era – which, should you need reminding, is the one I grew up with – the idea that games should be as hard as possible was little more than an excuse for developers to pad games. It meant being lax on real creativity in favor of jacking the challenge up to a bruising level, so even good gamers wouldn’t stand a chance. Essentially, it was a way to make a cheapo.

A good challenge is a nice thing to have in a video game, but it’s not something I consider a requirement. In fact, if the game gets too difficult, I frequently get frustrated with it. This isn’t the 70’s anymore, and no one plays video games to run up a score counter. Since the onset of the NES Era and Super Mario Bros. changing everything about the way we view games, they’ve been good for transportation. Escape. Imagination’s fertilization. And the onset of 3D games has only emphasized that. When we play 3D games, we want the freedom to run off and explore vast, complex worlds to our heart’s content. When developers try to limit how far a gamer can get or what they can do just because they don’t agree with the difficulty the gamer is playing on, it makes them look like a bad football coach complaining about the refs. It’s outright infuriating if one particularly difficult object or enemy is blocking you from a section of the game.

Furthermore, part of that escapism is trying to cope with real-life frustrations. Easy-shaming is a mindset for kids, but all the people who were kids when easy-shaming started grew up long ago. They’re adults themselves now, and they have everyday stressors which get the better of them more often than they would like to admit. As anyone with any rudimentary psychological knowledge will tell you, stress is about control, and adults worry a lot about control over little things in their lives. We feel stress whenever things start to fall out of our control, and we react in different ways. Video games are a good way to deal with stress in a safe and fun fashion. If the player is forced to ramp up the difficulty in a padded game in order to open something up, they’ll turn into one of those walking cliches about people who keep getting stonewalled. They’ll start to feel a loss of control in their video game as well, at which point their stress-coping mechanisms will switch over to beating up the controller… Or something else that happens to be in the vicinity.

Games have also been accepted as an art form now. The only people left who oppose that idea are talking Helen Lovejoy heads. (“THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!”) The last real, notable critic of video games being art was Roger Ebert, who died some four years ago. And Ebert, one of the classiest people and smartest interpretive thinkers to put pen to paper, backed off a couple of years before his death. He never accepted video games as art, but a time did come when he admitted that he was in over his head and no longer knew the subject the way a critic should. In any case, forcing gamers to play at higher difficulty levels detracts and distracts from a game’s artistic value because it mutes the feelings being telegraphed by the artists. Where the real emotion when a game is too busy conveying frustration, confusion, and anger because of an asshole developer? There’s little to be appreciated in art if the artist is clouding the emotions they’re trying to convey in more conflicted emotions. If the gamer quits, there’s no point. If they push through anyway, what they’ll feel more than anything else is a sense of relief.

In short, I play video games to see different realities. I want to see the magic of a good story unfolding. I like a well-made piece of art. I don’t think I deserve to be condescended to just because my desire for those things overrides my desire to get angry with a form of entertainment.

 

If There was a Classic TurboGrafx-16 Mini…

If There was a Classic TurboGrafx-16 Mini…

It was a year or two ago that Nintendo introduced a(nother) really cool idea: They released a miniature version of the old classic NES, the console that turned the middling toymaker into a worldwide phenomenon and household name. The game selection was programmed right into the console. You wouldn’t be able to buy new games for it, and the game selection was good, not great, but it was a great idea and fans wanted more. So in September, Nintendo is giving us more! They’re doing the same thing with their shining beacon to video games, the Super NES, and they’re doing it with a far more impressive game selection than the NES had. The NES edition had a strong selection; there were expected titles like Mario and Zelda, Metroid, Kirby’s Adventure, Ninja Gaiden, and Castlevania, and occasional odd choices like StarTropics, but there were a few clunkers as well: Mainly old arcade dime classics like Donkey Kong, Excitebike, and Ice Climber with a few love-or-hate games like Zelda II and Mario II and a couple of things there just to mess with gamers’ heads. The Super NES selection is far stronger. Provided the never-released-in-the-United States Star Fox II is as good as its reputation, the weakest game in the bunch will be Donkey Kong Country. Donkey Kong Country was a solid platformer which is overrated today due to the crime of not really being innovative enough.

This piece isn’t about that, though. My first video game console was NEC’s short-lived entry into the console market, the TurboGrafx-16. I loved the thing, and today it’s a rare console and a sought-after collector’s item. So being a former Turbo owner, I wonder that if NEC were to ever try this, what games should they include on the Turbo? Well, here’s my list of suggestions. I haven’t played all of these games – the Turbo was a difficult console to get games for even when it had something resembling a commercial peak, and today it’s just damn near impossible. But I know my video game history well, and will be making these suggestions based on a combination of personal experience and knowledge earned through my years as a game reviewer.

Bonk’s Adventure

The obvious first pick. Bonk’s Adventure was the game that gave the Turbo a name and face, especially in Japan, where the PC Engine (the Japanese version) outsold the Famicom (the Japanese NES). This is probably the most unheralded platformer ever made. The story of a caveman whose primary weapon is his oversized noggin, Bonk stretched the Turbo to its limits with a variety of ways to literally use Bonk’ head. The deep and diverse array of unique levels: One level takes Bonk through a dinosaur’s GAT track. Another places him in a cave with multiple layers. Others have him riding walking trees across desert quicksand, climbing a really tall tree, bouncing through the clouds, and entering a castle. The grand mother of Bonk’s level design, though, takes you on an incredible near-psychological trip up a waterfall and on a circulatory path where you’re made to watch Bonk’s friends get brainwashed before taking a trip to the moon. The little graphic quirks and touches of humor – a large dinosaur wears a baseball hat, Bonk climbs with his teeth – make this a fun and quite memorable play for those fortunate enough to have played it.

Bonk’s Revenge

The sequel to Bonk’s Adventure is a little disappointing. While Bonk’ Adventure took extra pains to stand out amidst other platformers, Bonk’s Revenge tears down the formula and rebuilds it with something much closer to a Mario game. Revenge more or less leads you down the primrose path, encouraging and rewarding players who stop and smell the roses, in the same fashion we’ve come to expect from any Shigeru Miyamoto game. Even the chikkun army – Bonk’s most prevalent foes from the first game – can be seen lazily lounging around in a lot of different places. So no, Bonk’s Revenge isn’t exactly blowing you through with white-knuckle intensity. What the new approach does, though, is open up each world to new exploration and allow gamers to create their own paths to the finish line. Bonk’s Revenge even introduces that great mechanic of exploratory games, flying, which allows gamers to do that… And it pulls it off. In most games where flying is an option, it’s a novelty which is there strictly to make getting through a level easier. Bonk’s Revenge, however, has the most fully realized usage of flight since Mario, which means there are alternate platforms, paths, and rewards waiting for gamers who take to the skies.

Neutopia

There are two rules of game design engraved in stone with lighting bolts from Mount Olympus:

1 – Never, ever, EVER try to be a blatant ripoff of another game.

2 – If you’re going to ignore rule number one, know what the fuck people loved about the game you’re ripping off.

The way Bonk’s Revenge played made it an affectionate shout-out to the Mario series. Where it was ultimately content to stand with its own persona, though, is where Neutopia goes a lot further with another cherished NES classic: The Legend of Zelda. Neutopia ignores that first rule up there, but it OWNS the second. Neutopia one-ups The Legend of Zelda in one way – it has four ginormous overworlds to explore as opposed to Zelda’s one – and the rest of the gameplay mechanics make it a smoother game overall. Am I saying it’s up to the level set by The Legend of Zelda? No. I’m just saying that its imitators don’t come any more solid than this.

Bloody Wolf

The requisite muscle commandos that had to appear everywhere back in the 1980’s were the stars of this game. Most reviewers seem to like comparing Bloody Wolf to Contra, but the closer comparison is Heavy Barrel. Bloody Wolf manages to do it all one better, though, because it has a little bit of weapon depth and comes with a fully fleshed-out story. There’s even a big unexpected twist right in the middle of the game! This is another game where the levels have more depth than games in similar molds are usually allowed; one level doesn’t end until you rescue all the hostages, another takes you on a wild raft ride,and yet another makes you stage a daring escape from enemy grounds with only a knife. The action is white-knuckle, intense, and never-ending. Rambo would be proud.

Cadash

Maybe you love RPG’s but just don’t have the time to sit down and enjoy a full-time epic adventure? Cadash is the game for you! Just take an ordinary side-scrolling action game and add a few common elements in RPG’s, and you’ll have a full-fledged RPG that can be played in its entirety in under three hours! Yes, there’s a story here, and there’s magic spells and a distinct fantasy world. But the thing is, even with some of the common RPG elements pulled out, you still have a tight and developed story in Cadash. That’s not to say Cadash goes all out with its RPG characterization, though – the combat is straight action and requires reflexes.

Ninja Spirit

Have you ever wondered what you would get if you threw Shinobi or Ninja Gaiden into a blender with a common shooting game? Ninja Spirit feels a lot like the result. Ninja Spirit’s level design isn’t going to challenge your perception of a good video game, but what that lacks, it makes up for in its ability to overwhelm you with bad guys every step. Although Ninja Spirit’s main character, Moonlight (yes, that’s his name), comes equipped with the standard ninja sword, he comes equipped with three other weapons too: The shurikens, plus a powerful and unlimited long range bomb and a sickle and chain. Only the sword there is short range. Plus he can pick up a pair of alter egos which are spirit clones that walk alongside him and can damage enemies just as easily. Fast and intense, Ninja Spirit is a sort of spiritual successor to the old-style arcade games where the object was less to win than to survive. The only difference is that Ninja Spirit has a level structure.

Parasol Stars: The Story of Bubble Bobble III

Yeah, I know: This game is unapologetically cutesy. Parasol Stars looks and plays like a colorful smorgasboard, but it comes off as a wild action/puzzler combination. Although this game is fun enough with a multi-layered combat system, thousands of hidden items to uncover, great bosses, and multitude of challenging levels and strange enemies, it really comes to life in its two-player mode. The second player can add a new element of both offense and danger because the extra help comes in handy, but players can stun one another. Parasol Stars may look like it’s for little kids, but don’t let the cutesiness fool you; it can be chaotic and reckless when you start to really get into it.

Air Zonk

Unfortunately, my Turbo library wasn’t a large one. My exposure to Air Zonk was limited to playing demo booth samples for extended lengths of time, but they did let me get a respectable length into the game. Air Zonk was Bonk reimagined as a futuristic shooter, and it was a great one. It had Bonk’s trademark quirkiness and humor to go with an unpredictable weapons system which included the ability to fly with friends who lanched missiles, and to combine with those friends.

Here are some games I haven’t been able to play, but which are often listed on underrated and underplayed classic game lists:

TV Sports Football

The Turbo wasn’t a good sports console; every sports game released on it lacked a license. This one seems to have been some sort of gaming breakthrough when it came to video game football, though. It featured up to five players and announcers calling every move.

The Legendary Axe Series

The first was the Adventure Game of the Year when it came out. People don’t seem to have taken quite as well to the second, but it has its fans.

The Crush Series

Alien Crush and Devil’s Crush are considered THE two greatest pinball video games ever made.

Military Madness

This was the awesome Advance Wars series before Advance Wars was a thought in its creators’ minds.

Blazing Lazers

Often seen first on lists of the Turbo’s best games, this is reputedly damn near the perfect shooter.

Gate of Thunder

Ditto, but on the TurboGrafx CD.

Splatterhouse

An action game, but it was the earliest forbearer of what is now the popular survival horror genre. Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and the others all owe a debt to the original Splatterhouse. This one received a couple of Genesis sequels before being rebooted decades later on the Playstation 3.

Y’s Book I and II

Another game in the mold of Zelda, but this one includes more traditional RPG elements and abilities, plus the Zelda shout-outs are a lot less obvious.  I HAVE played this, but only the Nintendo DS remake.

 

Video Game Level Progression According to the Bad Guys

Video Game Level Progression According to the Bad Guys

So this is a random, weird thought, but if you’ve been following this blog, you should be accustomed to such by now. I’ve lately been giving a lot of thought to what’s in the head of a video game super villain as they lay out their obstacle course of doom for the hapless hero tasked with navigating wind, rain, and big dudes with powerful fucking weapons to save generic Cool Planet.

Start with the first level. There’s not a whole lot there. To the gamer and the designer, this makes perfect sense because you don’t want to throw your entire weight in the gamer’s direction right in the first level. It’s the training ground, there strictly to give the gamer a feel for the game. Obstacles don’t ask for very much beyond jumping short gaps to wide targets and enemies are all taken out in one shot. But think about this from the villain’s point of view: It probably makes good sense to them, too. It’s the beginning of the game, and the villains aren’t out to conquer more territory because they’ve gotten ahold of everything in sight. Right? Why else would every area a gamer visits be overrun with enemies? Now, if you’re the good guy, you’re probably not privy to announcing your presence with the deck stacked high against you. That makes the good guy some sort of rebel, or secret agent, or some sort of non-threat – if not a nonentity altogether – who is trying to go about the business of killing everyone in sight and slaughtering the bad guy real quiet-like.

From the game’s point of view, that’s why the first level is so easy. No one knows the good guy is there yet. If they’re on the main villain’s radar at all, they’re a blip that can be disposed up easily. Not everyone in the game’s world liked having the enemies take over, so its conceivable that many people in there tried to rise up at some point. Hell, the bad guys may have even taken out whole groups of better-armed good guys. What’s one more person going on a jaunt with a gun? The bad guys stationed on guard at the first level are probably feeling pretty confident because they’ve probably knocked off a few rebels already, and even if they didn’t, they’re trained, armed, possibly have better equipment and vehicular support, and the backing of the entire enemy organization. So if you were the main villain, what would be the point of throwing your entire arsenal at this one person? It’s barely worth making the effort to vocalize the orders.

Well, this new good guy comes in and defies the odds. They leave a bloody and hubrisful trail behind in that first level and have found every safe spot and weakness on the way through it. But… There’s barely any concern. Sometimes people get lucky. The good guys go into the second level, which is more often than not everything they faced in the first level, just expanded. And again, there’s not a whole lot to worry about. They’re a little closer to your evil lair, but your minions are still capable of stopping them. Right?

Apparently not. The good guy blazes through the second level, and word of their little one-person rebellion by this point is starting to get around. You’re not thinking of it as a significant thereat yet, but after cleaning your guards and sentries out of two different places and taking back what you stole from them, it’s starting to turn into a movement. It’s time to take some sort of action, but you’re too busy ruling and keeping the territories you still have to give the good guy any more than a cursory resistance. The third level is the wake-up call, and things start to get a little more serious and challenging. Enemies are better-equipped and can take more punishment before going down. From the grunt point of view, the time for guard duty is over, and it’s now time to begin a real fight against the insolent up-risers. They start counterattacking instead of just defending.

By the next level, word is starting to get out about the unexpected rebel running roughshod over the minions and taking over the outskirts of your stolen land. The ground officers are now seeing it fit to get involved and are running from one strategic location to the next, making sure there are traps and barriers being rigged up strictly for this rebel. The sentries who were around for the first couple of levels are still there, but they’re also scared to death because they all know they’re going to be fodder, so they’re being used more sparingly. And it isn’t helping that whatever mass resistance movement is starting to form behind the good guy is now occupying their retaken territory and capturing whatever’s left of their rank.

Good guy manages to get through that, and now that they’ve gotten this far, you’re starting to realize something: If – and you now know that the “if AND when” of getting rid of them has turned into a legitimate “if OR when” – you manage to successfully kill this rebel, there’s going to be some fallout. No one made it this far before, a large chunk of your forces have been wiped out or captured, and you’re starting to give in-person suggestions to your officers for dealing with them. This is becoming a full-blown war, and that head rebel who you thought was a gnat is going to become a martyr if they get killed. Fortunately, the good thing about depleted territory is that you can condense the remains of your military and launch a real offense at the good guy. And you’re not deluding yourself by now. This one is now a special case and will need to be dealt with through more direct means. (Red Faction for the Playstation 2 illustrates this gradual buildup better than most – it starts with a scuffle between a miner and a guard, and you start to see wanted posters for your character halfway through the game.)

The head rebel is also starting to anticipate the many types of troops, vehicles, strategies, and artillery you’re able to throw at them. It’s starting to give them a sort of mental edge against your own loyal people, so it’s time to start bringing out the stuff you didn’t expect to have to use. Omega Attack Formation using the flying gunships? Isn’t that overkill? The more they run around, the less it looks like it.

But by now they’re past the halfway point and have retaken over half what you took when you moved in. The people are rallying to the cause, the retaken territory is mopped up, and it’s starting to look like your victory – should it happen – will be a pyhrric victory at best. At this point, it’s time to break out the heavy-duty units. Special forces are in, and you’re probably hiring private mercenaries and bounty hunters too just in case. Something is going to have to work, and it has to be soon; most of your lower-end officers are now captured or killed. A couple of your high-end officers are groveling before you, begging for a second chance, and even though these are guys who have come through for you in tough situations in the past, you’re still reluctant to give them another chance because you’re not sure they can pull it off. You reluctantly give those guys their last chance, and give them your strongest equipment and troops to get the job done, but you’re now scared to death because they just failed again.

Face it, Dear Leader: You’ve lost. You now have your hired mercenaries and strongest minions holding on to your base, and any hope you now have of beating the good guys is strictly in the interest of your escape. What’s to do? Retreat, get out, build a new army, and try again. But just when the last vehicle out is ready to take you away, the good guy bursts in. If you were smarter, you would offer them your recently-vacated spot as your right hand, but it’s not like you have anything left to rule. So out you go to answer for your crimes against humanity.

And THAT is why video game levels progress in difficulty the way they do. Make sense?