I’d been a big fan of Spanish arcade pioneer Gaelco for a very long time without really knowing it. I guess I knew the name, but actually I don’t think it was until the first Gaelco collection for Evercade came along a while back that I really started to connect the dots, in particular between a couple of old favourites, Snow Board Championship and World Rally. I’ve had fun with the rest on there (Alligator Hunt, Biomechanical Toy, Glass and Thunder Hoop) but honestly those two mid-nineties, almost on-rails isometric racers are all I got Gaelco Arcade 1 for, and are now the only ones I regularly plug the cartridge back in for too.
I’ve had more than my money’s worth out of that collection regardless though, so how is the brand new Gaelco Arcade 2 cartridge going to fair? Released at the end of July 2022 alongside Jaleco Arcade 1 (which also has its own review here), this collection features another batch of six Gaelco arcade games, including hacker and slasher Big Karnak, sci-fi platformer TH Strikes Back’s, isometric racing sequel World Rally 2, puzzler Maniac Square, squash game Squash and beach volleyballer Touch and Go. As I always disclose when I’ve been given a review copy of a game, I’m going to disclose that I bought both of these new cartridges with my own money, and I’ll also disclose that I bought this one for Big Karnak and World Rally 2, but I’m really hopeful about finding some new favourites in the rest here too!
We’re going to take a quick look at each game in turn, with a bit of background followed by a bit of how it plays. I’m playing on Evercade VS attached to my TV rather than handheld, and as such I’ll apologise in advance for any dodgy photos of the telly taken with one hand while I’m playing with the other! The games are presented on-screen in typical Evercade fashion, but I’m going to nitpick here a bit – because there’s only six games, you’ve got a row of artwork for five of them along the top, then the top two-thirds of the sixth game (however you’ve chosen to sort them) on its own on a row underneath, with the actual game name hidden off-screen. Also, but only because I’ve also got the Jaleco cartridge inserted in the second slot which prompted me to notice it, the game artwork here is a mix of flyer for four titles and some kind of other promotional artwork for the other two; Jaleco is all flyers, and I like that consistency in comparison! Aside from me maybe being a twat with those, what I do appreciate as always is a click of a game image leading you to a single page of larger artwork, partial screenshot, description, history, game tips, explanation of controls, and load last save or play new game buttons. Everything you need, and that at least is always consistent with Evercade! There’s the usual mass of display settings for everything too, covering aspect ratio, scan lines, shaders and bezels, as well as quick saves and regular load and save. And it’s all excellent as always, as is the also much appreciated actual manual in the box (even if this one does have a misplaced photo) and some bonus art cards!
Right, let’s hit the games, and we’ll do it in default alphabetical order starting with Big Karnak. This is a horizontally scrolling action platform game from 1991, and is an Ancient Egyptian affair with you cast as a “brave pharaoh warrior” out to defeat the Egyptian gods Horus, Nut, Isis and Osiris to rescue your favourite wife from some kind of doom. As regular listeners will know, I’m a sucker for Ancient Egypt, and I’m also partial to some Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and some Rastan, so smash them all together and that’s why I’m such a fan of Big Karnak!
Okay, it’s nowhere near as sophisticated as either Rastan or Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (although the opening cutscene has a very decent stab at it) but, for me at least, the setting more than makes up for it, and it’s got plenty to offer in its own right on top… Simultaneous two player for starters! Then there’s the drop-dead gorgeous pixel art, initially coloured with the deepest of reds to get you suitably hot under the collar from the outset, but later on there’s the never-ending traditional wall art of the temples, the refreshing hues of the Nile and the golden luxury of the royal tomb, with more sand than the Sahara along the way! There’s some great bosses, monkeys chucking coconuts that you can bat back at them, multiple ways to approach each area and some really clever set pieces. All sorts of animated surprises too! Okay, the platforming is no Mario, and it gets pretty hard pretty fast, but once I start I still struggle to leave this alone. What a great start!
Maniac Square is a 1996 match-three puzzle game for one player against the clock or two players against each other, where pieces made of two blocks fall to the bottom of the screen and you need to create horizontal, vertical or diagonal lines of three or more by rotating and moving them into position. You may have seen such things before! There was actually a prototype of this as far back as 1992, which was obviously shelved until it returned as something much more focussed on competitive play (in other words, likely to earn more money), either by filling a quota of lines within a time limit or in a race against player two. Now if only that we’re available as one of Evercade’s famous secret games…
There’s not a great deal of originality to the actual game mechanics here, but when you’re nicking equal parts Tetris and Columns you’re unlikely to go far wrong, and the addition of the recurring time limit (or, indeed, a second player) does elevate urgency over strategy, which I guess is a fresh take. What I was most impressed with, though, is the simple addition of shapes to the front of the falling coloured blocks, which any fellow colourblind players are going to be really, really grateful for that because that’s been the ruin of many of the genre classics for me! Otherwise, it’s not a lot to look at, has irritating music and the time limit does get frustratingly prohibitive sooner than it probably should, but it’s still fine and I can see me coming back for a game or two whenever the cartridge is in and I notice it on the menu screen.
Squash is a 1992 adaptation of the middle-aged executive’s favourite racquet sport for one or two players. You serve the ball against the wall, then alternate with your opponent to hit it back, with separate buttons for hard and soft shots, until someone misses. There’s a little indicator to show where it’s landing, you’ve got eight international players to choose from then it’s first to nine points to proceed through the tournament or to win against someone else in two player.
I played squash once as a kid, but didn’t realise you’re supposed to warm the ball up to make it bounce; we just thought it was broken so aimed at the fan at the top of the court instead and whoever shredded it first won! Given that kind of pedigree, you can imagine I really wasn’t fussed about the inclusion of Squash here, but how wrong I was – this is fantastic! The presentation is top-notch, with big sprites, some lovely animation and some of the best in-game spectator effects I’ve seen to this day! Some nice sound effects too. The game itself is easy to get into and the learning curve as you progress is excellent, as are the different courts; who’d have thought you could get so creative with a squash court? Or, indeed, have so much fun playing a video game version!
Next up we’ve for a run and gun side-scrolling platformer from 1994, TH Strikes Back: Thunder Hoop 2. I’m only familiar with the first Thunder Hoop from the first Gaelco Evercade cartridge, but it seems that ten years have passed and the returning villain, Dr Genbreak, is after your man Thunder Hoop’s DNA this time, originally created in a laboratory to combat Genbreak’s original monster army. None of its really explained though, and it really doesn’t matter – you just need to fight your way through this heavy metal mix of Metal Slug and Strider!
As you can tell, this is another one that’s more or less new to me, and it’s also another fantastic discovery! As I’ve said many times before, retro gaming is all about discovery for me, and coming across something like this is exactly why! Your character is like martial arts Rambo in space, with an eight-way weapon and a load of mobility as you take out mutant things from the sides, above and below, all exploding into a spectacular mess of colourful goo, which reminded me of the wonderful 1990 Aliens arcade game by Konami! There’s not a massive amount of variety to anything, and the boss battles could have been lifted from Big Karnak, but there’s nothing here that isn’t big dumb fun, including the chug of the biker metal soundtrack!
If I’ve got to play a beach volleyball game that isn’t being sold on its jiggling physics alone, then I’m going to head right back to the simpler time of 1995 and find something designed for accessible fun over simulation, and amazingly that’s exactly what Touch and Go is all about! You can either play one player with a computer partner, or cooperatively against the computer with a second player, or with a computer partner against them. Either way, your choice of eight international teams needs to get to fifteen points with a two-point lead to win and progress towards the championship. And apart from movement, all of that is achieved with a single button for serve, shoot, block, pass and jump.
There’s a beach volleyball game on one of the Atari Lynx collections for Evercade, and try as I might I’ve just never been able to get to grips with it. I’m useless! This one is way more accessible though, but with way more depth to that single action button than you might initially give it credit for. If I was to ask you to imagine Pit-Fighter on a beach, this is what that would look probably like, with what looks like they started as digitised sprites for the players as well as the spectators looking on from around the tropical courts. Movement is way better than Pit-Fighter though, and special mention to some great-looking sand too! And the sound as well, with loads of speech and incidental music. This is really good, and yet another nice surprise.
No surprises with our final game though. World Rally 2 is a 1995 isometric racing game, single player only, that ramps up the visuals as well as the track complexity from its fantastic predecessor, but the format is the same, with just sixty seconds to clear each stage of four rallies, taking you across Portugal, Kenya, France and the United Kingdom, and while they increase in difficulty in that order, you can take them on in any order you like. You’ve got three cars to choose from (after they gave up on creating a licensed game focussed on one well-known driver), which seems to be aesthetic only, then it’s left, right and a button to accelerate as you react to the on screen directions. Simple!
I mentioned before about these things feeling a bit on-rails, and while it’s maybe not strictly speaking true, it’s definitely like you’re throwing a car around a Scalextric track, and that’s definitely brilliant fun! It takes a while to get the hang of, but before long you’re learning the tracks and where to ease off and how much to push the steering, which gets more and more desperate as the clock ticks down. All the same, it’s not an easy game at all, and progressing beyond the easier courses is going to take some effort. The presentation is outstanding, full of sampled sounds, speech and music, and there’s a load of digitised static and animated cutscenes too, but the race itself is the real star of the show. It’s a stunner! The speed and the smoothness as everything is spun around in all directions is incredible, with cool lighting and special effects, while the cars and the courses manage to look almost photo-realistic at times. In a very PS1 kind of way! I love this game, and what a climax to the collection!
If we’re excluding Maniac Square, which, while fun enough is definitely the weakest link here, there’s now two things I’m picking up about Gaelco that I hadn’t really thought about before… First, they love an animated flourish. Everywhere! And second, it’s all about accessibility through simple controls… Which, in its defence, also applies to Maniac Square! Compared to some of the other cartridges in my collection, only having six games for our £17.99 here might seem like slim pickings, but like Gremlin Collection 1 when we looked at that, there’s way more to value than quantity alone. Okay, in my case I’m owning two all-time favourites legitimately for the very first time, but I’ve also discovered three absolute corkers that I’ll be spending crazy time with in the future, and even poor old Maniac Square is sure to get a look-in now and again while I’m doing that! I’m very pleased with this one overall, but don’t forget to check out our other review to see if the same applies to the new Jaleco collection too!