Wolf Fang (Saturn) Review

•January 16, 2009 • 5 Comments

I have to admit that Wolf Fang sat on my shelf for a number of years before I actually bothered to try it.  It’s a pretty low-profile title, and rarely gets mentioned in discussions of great games.  I guess that’s due to the nature of it being a so-called “borderliner;” it’s not quite a “proper” shoot-em-up, and any time the Saturn is discussed, all anyone wants to talk about are the terrific shmups available for the system (understandably so).  But for those willing to go slightly – just slightly – beyond the strict definitions of that genre, Wolf Fang will be a very pleasant surprise.

The game plays pretty similarly to Atomic Runner, which is no surprise since they were both made by Data East.  It’s sort of a “shmup with gravity;” half Contra, half Gradius.  You start the game by building your robot, but Armored Core this ain’t; all you do is pick a subweapon, melee attack, and a set of legs.  If you feel burdened by this choice, a couple presets are also available.  Once the game begins, you’re treated to a wonderful voice clip, as the announcer sings (yes, sings) “commence your attack!”  It’s awesome, in a “rocket launcher” sort of way, and just one of many charming little vocal flourishes throughout the game.

Once you’re done laughing, it’s time to commence your attack for real.  Wolf Fang is basically about cruising around in a big mech, shooting the shit out of a variety of artillery, usually of the robot persuasion.  Your suit makes for a pretty large target, but luckily you can endure a number of hits before it blows up.  In a very cool touch, even after your mech bites the dust, you can make your last stand as the tiny little pilot.  You’re pretty vulnerable out in the elements like that, as a single enemy attack can end your game, but you do have the advantage of being a much smaller target.

Also helping you even the odds are other little robotless men, who, if your mech is in tact, will hitch a ride on it and shoot independently of you; often handily picking off enemies behind you.  When you take damage, they go flying off in a very Yoshi’s Islandesque way, which is often the only way you’ll know you took a hit; the game isn’t great about letting you know when you’ve taken damage, and you’ll sometimes make an “OOMF” noise for no apparent reason.  If you don’t have your robot, the little men will just follow you around like lost souls.

I had to toy with the button mapping in the options menu to get a comfortable layout (turn “voice” off while you’re there; trust me), but as far as responsiveness goes, the controls are absolutely perfect.  They do take a moment to get used to though, since you continue shooting in one direction as long as you hold the fire button, but it’s really an optimal set-up for this type of game. You can double jump, and changing directions in mid air is as fast as you can move your thumb.

Those gamers who insist on beating games in a single credit will have their work cut out for them here.  Things start out blazing, but tantalizingly doable.  Most of the enemy fire can be avoided, and with practice I was able to get through the first several levels without continuing.  But by the end of the campaign, Wolf Fang started showing it’s arcade roots, politely demanding regular sacrifices of extra credits in that sly way arcade games do; by subtly promising that this boss is sooooo close to dying.  That’s not to say that the difficulty is cheap, but it was certainly a bit much for my paltry skills.  Still, with some practice, I was able to see the “easy” ending in as few as three credits.  The hardest route, however, shook me upside down until all my virtual change had emptied from my pockets.  I guess I hadn’t yet mentioned that there are multiple paths you can take through the game, but yeah, there are.

Back to the game’s difficulty: I’d be willing to swear under oath that things actually gets harder if you have the audacity to change the difficulty to Easy.  It feels like the game is picking on you, but I guess you sort of deserve it.  With a game this brutal, turning down the difficulty is like begging a bully to stop picking on you; you’re just asking for more.  But the same way you secretly wanted to get picked on because your father never disciplined you, you’ll enjoy the hell out of Wolf Fang’s depraved cruelty.

Sega Marine Fishing (DC) Review

•January 14, 2009 • 4 Comments

Games based on fishing have always been at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of respectability, somewhere below Pong clones and FMV games, and only slightly above Tamagotchis. It would be hard to say this is an unjust state of affairs, because the very concept of fishing as a video game is fundamentally dumb.

For anyone who’s never had the experience of engaging in real life fishing, it goes pretty much like this; you painstakingly carry a pole, tacklebox, ice chest, and baitbox to a designated location, usually a grimy dock or litter-strewn riverbank. Mexicans and elderly men are always present, women are never present, and the sun is always hotter and brighter than during any other activity. Then you clumsily set your hook with whatever bait you’ve chosen, cussing and saying blasphemies as you do so. Finally, you throw your line out, and proceed to doze off and get sunburned in complete silence for the next several hours. You’ll drink about ten beers an hour on average, but somehow never get drunk. Under no circumstances should you reel in your line, because you’ll get snagged on every possible rock, and discover that your bait has been replaced by seaweed. You will neither catch nor see a fish, or any other aquatic beast. It sounds like complete misery, but it’s actually quite therapeutic, in the most ritualistic and absurd way possible.

Most fishing video games emulate this experience fairly accurately (sans sunburn), and ten times out of ten, the “sport” becomes something horrible in translation. Dull, frustrating and boring. Just awful.

But for rich people who own sea-faring yachts and human slaves, the experience of fishing has absolutely nothing in common with what I’ve just described. For the wealthy, fishing involves catching fish – massive ones – and lots of em. If a rich person somehow ends up catching less than a quarter ton of flapping tuna, marlin, tarpon, barracuda, or whatever else, it’s not a sign of a slow season, but rather a disappointing five minutes. For these prodigal sons of the sea, there’s almost never a moment when they’re not reeling in a trophy-sized fish, and Sega Marine Fishing portrays this experience with great accuracy.

The game is simply filled to the bursting point with charm. Most prominent is the unique Dreamcast fishing controller, which is absolutely essential, and should be in every gamer’s collection, if for no other reason than having one of the most ridiculous devices ever invented (and a pre Wii motion controller, which, perhaps insanely, can be used to play Virtua Tennis). Gameplay is simple, but can get fairly intense. Most of the challenge comes from fighting with the fish, as you struggle to maintain the proper level of tension, while your aquatic adversaries try to do the exact opposite. Too much tension and the line will break, too little and your hook can slip out. This pretty much boils down to knowing when to reel fast and when to let up, all the while taking care to point the fishing rod in the opposite direction to where the fish is trying to go. It’s usually pretty laid back stuff, but battles with a 350 pound hammerhead can be sweat-inducing affairs, as you play this delicate game of tug o’ war.

This is all well and good, but there’s another feature which elevates Sega Marine Fishing to near Tetris levels of addictiveness. As you catch fish which meet certain parameters, you gain items for your massive three million gallon aquarium. These items not only include fish, but also a huge assortment of environmental objects, from common rocks and buoys to ancient ruins and sunken vessels. Unfortunately you can’t swim freely through this tank, but a variety of preset cameras will float you past all the sights. In addition to items for your aquarium, you also gain better and more specialized baits, which can then be used to catch even more monstrous fish. Far from being a simulator though, you don’t need to know squat about fishing to do well. It’s pure arcade goodness, with a mere sprinkle of depth to give it longer legs. Those looking for a more comprehensive fishing experience would be well-advised to check out Sega Bass Fishing 2, also for the Dreamcast.

The thing that really makes the game so irresistible is it’s relentless sense of optimism and fun. Even the small fish you catch feel like triumphs, and every time the game compliments you on your reeling action, you can actually physically feel your eye twinkle. I suppose that’s what it’s like to be wealthy, and Sega Marine Fishing is as close as most of us are ever gonna get to experiencing that lifestyle for any extended period of time. It’s a hard game to turn off, and when you do there’s a noticeable “come down.” It feels like going back to the docks.

Mr Bones (Saturn) Review

•January 12, 2009 • 3 Comments

I remember during the OJ Simpson trial (I guess I have to specify now; the one he got off on) there was a discussion about whether or not you can determine a person’s race based on the sound of their voice. I’m not really sure what the consensus was on that, but as far as I can tell, Mr Bones, despite being white and having blue eyes, is (or was) clearly a black man, and should be added to the short list of Afro American game characters which aren’t extremely racist. I guess skin color is sort of irrelevant in discussing a walking skeleton, but there it is anyway.

Before Judge Ito holds me in contempt, I suppose I should talk about the game itself. Mr Bones is sort of hard to describe, because there are about a dozen distinctly different gameplay styles used throughout the game’s twenty+ levels. Standard 2D platforming is the most prevalent, but there’s a bunch of other stuff packed in, from saving midgets from spiders to freewheeling on the guitar. The music stages are where the game really shines, as there’s some seriously cool blues riffage courtesy of guitar guru Ronnie Montrose.

Between these stages are some really great FMV sequences. Usually, game cutscenes are a good time to make sure that your start button still works, but these ones are definitely worth watching. There’s an interesting mix of live acting and CGI, and the voice acting, music, and video quality are all top notch. So elaborate are these flicks, that the game consists of two discs; a rarity for anything other than an RPG.

While every fiber in my body wants to give Mr Bones my unconditional praise and highest recommendation, I have to admit that it’s far from a perfect game. Many of the levels simply aren’t very fun to play, and the game features one of the absolute WORST, most frustrating ice levels ever. Taken as a whole, it’s definitely worth playing, as it’s an ambitious and creative piece of software that isn’t afraid to blaze it’s own trail into some uncharted gaming territory. The problem is that it’s often too ambitious, and as a result, many of the levels have a disappointingly unpolished feel. So while Mr Bone’s high points are truly triumphant and memorable, the low points go a long way toward canceling them out.

At the end of the day, Mr Bones is a game which is more cool than it is fun; more admirable than affable. It’s great for a single playthrough, since there are numerous “must see” moments, but only a couple of the stages are worth replaying, and many of them downright suck. As a character though, Bones is five star material, and if he were ever to rise from his grave (again), it would be a great day for gaming.

Frogger II: Threeedeep! (Colecovision) Review

•January 10, 2009 • 4 Comments

In the past, my critics (may Allah kill them) have accused me of only reviewing games I enjoy, rather than a more balanced mix of good, bad and average. This is largely true, since it seems counterproductive to me, in this Age of Information, to tell you what games to avoid. If you’ve managed to avoid buying the Last Ninja for the past twenty years, you’re pretty much on a roll, and it seems pointless to warn you about it. If anything, I might jinx your winning streak. On the other hand, alerting you to the existence of games you’ve possibly overlooked is, if I might be so bold, a helpful public service.

But much to my dismay, my bosses at Bertelsmann AG have decreed that I review a game I’m not so fond of, and the first one that came to mind was Frogger II: Threeedeep!. As the awkward double numeric title is ineffectively trying to imply, Frogger’s second outing is three times bigger, three times more complex, and, unfortunately, a third as much fun. This time the amphibian is faced with the monumental task of navigating three distinctly different screens. Starting underwater (which, in a nod to the scientific community, is no longer lethal to frogs), you’ll proceed to the surface of the water for some familiar lilypad hopping. Finally, by hitching a ride on a highly aggressive duck, you’ll make your way up to the clouds, which is a highly existential thing for a frog to do.

Each of these different screens has it’s own set of rules. In the underwater sections, which plays pretty much like the road part of the original, a persistent current pulls you to the right. The surface of the water is more like the log jumping, but falling into the water will merely send you back to the under water screen. The cloud scene is more unique, with action taking place from a side perspective rather than top-down, thus forcing you to contend with the forces of gravity. Each of these screens has one or more goal nooks Frogger needs to reach, and you can tackle them in any order.

This all sounds good as I’m typing it, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not a terrible game, but this frog shows his warts pretty quickly. The main problem is pretty basic; the game moves extremely slowly, and while it does pick up some speed as you progress, it’s tedious as hell to get to that point, and you’re likely to die from the carelessness of impatience long before that. And unlike 95% of the other Colecovision games I’ve played, there are no difficulty settings available to speed things up. You could argue that since the original Frogger is part of that minority 5%, and since Threeedeep! is a console specific title, the slow pace is appropriate, but you’d be wise not to make that argument during one of the game’s fifteen second periods of passively waiting for the next platform to slowly scroll in front of you.

If Frogger 2 serves no other purpose, it’s that it really makes you appreciate what an excellent game the original Frogger is. It’s not the brilliant concept or tight gameplay mechanics that make it a classic, since it’s sequel isn’t lacking in those departments. Rather, it’s the work and care that went into balancing and perfecting this simple yet elegant formula. With Threeedeep!, Parker Bros tried to add too much, and the all-important polish fell by the wayside. They probably should have focused on perfecting two screens, but it was still a noble effort.

Beauty and the Beast (Intellivision) Review

•January 8, 2009 • 1 Comment

Disney is well-known for bastardizing the fairy tales they make into animated features. Tales like Snow White and Alice in Wonderland were originally very dark, frightening stories, filled with death and nightmarish imagery, but Disney dramatically toned down and changed these classical works to make them more palatable to their young audiences. By far the most dramatic of these so-called “Disneyizations” was their take on Beauty and the Beast. Disney’s version was a lot of hullabaloo about a woman falling in love with a prince who’s been cursed to live as a hideous beast. This couldn’t possibly be further from the original fable, which was about a large bearded man stealing a woman and being chased up a skyscraper by her lover. Luckily for those of us who prefer our fairy tales undiluted, this Intellivision catridge has reproduced the events of the original tale in painstaking detail.

Okay, that intro; not so good. I know it, you know it, so let’s just move on. Beauty and the Beast is basically developer Imagic’s take on Donkey Kong, though they sort of avoid rip-off status by going above the Donkey’s head, instead ripping of King Kong directly. This was a pretty artful move, since you aren’t as likely to cry plagiarism when you’re forced to remember that DK himself is ripping off the Kong that came before him. And since the Intellivision version of DK was such a Christmas-destroying disaster, this game filled the niche quite nicely.

As you might have gleaned from my misguided introduction, Beauty and the Beast’s gameplay revolves around the ascension of a tall building, which looks suspiciously like the Empire State Building. At the top of the screen is the Beast, whom you reach by climbing the building level by level, using open windows for footholds (and naturally these windows open and close at random). Once you reach him you move on to the next higher section of the building, and the process repeats several times until the climactic finale at the top of the tower, after which the Beast goes tumbling off the edge, hitting the pavement below with a thundering crash. How exactly this occurs is unclear, since the beast (whom the manual refers to as “Horrible Hank”) is roughly four times the size as the player (“Bashful Buford”). Maybe the maiden (“Tiny Mabel”) pushes him off, but regardless of how it happens, it happens, and afterward you begin the whole process again, but with slightly increased difficulty.

Beauty and the Beast might not have a damn thing in common with the fairy tale it’s named after, but it’s still one of the best exclusive Intellivision games around. The controls are tight, with nice simple mechanics (meaning you don’t need to pay extra to get the controller overlays), and the pace of the game is fast and smooth. Imagic is my favorite developer for the InTV, and one of my favorite 80s developers in general. Beauty and the Beast is a perfect example of why that’s the case; it’s action-packed, beautiful, and practically flawless.

Obama to Curtail Violence in Video Games

•January 5, 2009 • 8 Comments

Washington, D.C.-In a press conference today, President-elect Barack Obama was questioned about the policies and legislation his administration would pass during the all-important “First Hundred Days” of his presidency. Curiously, amongst the usual talk of health care and the economy was the previously unaddressed topic of video games. The President-elect surprised the press by announcing plans to confront the issue of violence in interactive media, an issue which had seemingly fallen off the political radar several years ago.

“I look at the games that are force fed to our children today, and what I see is unacceptable,” Obama thundered in his now-familiar baritone. “I see our young Americans, our hope for the future, casually engaging in virtual murder, digital rape, and electronic genocide. This is an unacceptable state of affairs, and we, as Americans, have the right, the obligation, and the duty to prevent it from continuing.”

Though no concrete plans were announced, the violence Obama seemed to be objecting to was primarily human-human violence. “It’s one thing to have squirrels throwing walnuts at grizzly bears, but to have one man doing senseless harm to another man – that teaches the next generation that it’s okay to commit atrocities for the sake of entertainment. It’s simply a crime against the future – against hope – to allow this corrupt [videogame] industry to continue making these ‘games’ with graphic depictions of gun-violence, sword-violence, shoryuken-violence and dark elf shadow magic-violence.”

When asked by a Krooze Nest press correspondent if a wide-reaching ban was in the works, the President-elect sidestepped the question by simultaneously freestyle rapping and performing a card trick. The magic trick was undeniably impressive, but the rap left something to be desired, since the word “change” was repeatedly rhymed with itself, even when “derange,” “estrange” and even “melange” would all have been preferable alternatives. Nevertheless, the crowd was impressed and the topic was changed without protest.

Only time will tell what Mr. Obama has in store for the video game industry, but when contacted, both EA and Activision claimed they were shifting business strategies, and planned to focus exclusively on creating games featuring squirrels throwing walnuts at grizzly bears. The Krooze Nest will work indolently to keep you up to date on this sudden turn of events.

Source: Dissociated Press

Pressure Cooker (2600) Review

•January 3, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I’ve always imagined that working in a restaurant would be a stressful job. Even in fast food joints, when you venture to peek into the kitchen area, it’s easy to see that the employees are working hard, despite the fact that everything is pretty well automated. Pressure Cooker lets you glimpse into these peoples’ sad, underpaid lives, to live out your darkest fantasies of employment in the food industry. It’s not easy, and afterward, you’ll likely have a newfound respect for the retarded rapist who blows snot-rockets in your Double Bacon Cheeseburger.

This is probably a good game to buy with the instructions included. It’s a bit on the complex side, as far as 2600 games go, and it took me quite a bit of time to figure everything out. Hamburger paddies roll down the screen on a conveyor belt on the left, and condiment dispensers hurl various fixin’s at you from the right. You have to consult the little graph at the bottom of the screen to see what the customers are ordering, and assemble the burgers as specified. The part that really threw me for a loop was figuring out that you can hurl back the condiments if they aren’t needed, by holding down the button and moving the joystick to the right. And of course, it’s always a challenge to catch the food properly; no one likes getting hit in the face by a tomato.

Once you know what you’re doing, Pressure Cooker becomes pretty addictive. It isn’t exactly a difficult game, but mistakes tend to build upon each other, and things can get nerve-wracking when the conveyor belt starts to get too full. Initially it’s best to concentrate on one burger at a time, but as you get into higher levels the game increasingly requires you to multitask on multiple burgers at once. It’s pretty tough keeping track of which orders still need which ingredients, but with practice you’ll learn to recognize the visual clues and start getting into the zone.

This is a perfect example of a game that shouldn’t be fun. I don’t have any first hand experience, but I imagine it’s pretty similar to working in a fast food kitchen; read the order -> assemble the orders -> put the finished product where it needs to go. I imagine anyone who does have this unglamorous job would absolutely abhor the game. But for reasons I can neither explain nor understand myself, it still manages to be extremely fun. Easily one of my favorite 2600 games.