Time for our regular quick-fire reviews and impressions of what’s been under the spotlight at Retro Arcadia this week, old and new and a bit of both…
I’m still enjoying the odd dabble with Pac-Man Museum + on Xbox Game Pass, and this week I’ve spent a bit of time with Super Pac-Man, which was Namco’s attempt at a sequel in 1982 and was completely new to me when this collection arrived a couple of months ago. It’s still the ghost-filled, top-down maze we know and love, but the dots have been replaced by keys that open up locked areas containing the stuff you need to collect to proceed to the next level. Power pills now make you supersized, faster and invulnerable, as well as allowing you to eat your way through locked doors. And apart from new sounds that’s about all there is to it. It’s a decent game but it’s no Pac-Man really – most of the tension is gone and it’s just a bit boring fairly quickly where its predecessor (and the alternate sequel) will forever be timeless in all respects. I don’t think it feels especially good on an Xbox controller either. Glad I’ve finally played it though!
I was also glad to get back to the Sega Astro City Mini after a fairly intense period of reviewing both the new Taito Egret II Mini and its Paddle & Trackball Expansion Set (and a total of fifty games)! And whenever I go back to that, the first port of call is usually Thunder Force AC, the 1990 arcade reworking of the Sega Mega Drive or Genesis horizontally-scrolling shoot ‘em up Thunder Force III. This sits right behind Deathsmiles as my favourite in the genre, and it’s never felt better than with the superb quality arcade stick on this little cabinet. Its constantly switchable collectible weapons provides a great mix of combat strategies as you gradually learn to meet the challenge of increasingly difficult but always exhilarating stages, with their beautifully detailed and multilayered backgrounds and huge, colourful, imaginative enemies. If only it had Thunder Force IV’s soundtrack, but it doesn’t do too badly on that front either! Always a pleasure…
The stuff I write about every week in this feature is usually the stuff I’m playing for pleasure rather than for some deep-dive or other (not that they’re not also a pleasure) because we’ll get more than our fill of those sooner or later anyway. As I write, I’ve just finished something on discovering Star Wars inspired, plasma sword (not lightsaber) PS1 fighter Star Gladiator. Even so, I’m definitely not done with it yet so you might hear about it here again after all, but what I will mention now is its Sega Dreamcast sequel from the year 2000, Plasma Sword: Nightmare of Bilstein. It’s still an accessible and intuitive four-button move-set behind eight stages of character-specific sci-fi nonsense, with ten of the outrageous original cast returning and fourteen new ones. It’s not the best looking Dreamcast game I’ve ever seen, but it’s a step up on the original even if the environments aren’t quite as creative, and I’ve had a really good time finding favourite characters and getting to know some of the depth behind both their various Jedi-infused combat styles and their madcap storylines!
A couple of weeks ago, my friend and top retro-gaming YouTuber Nick Jenkin had a look at Darkman by Ocean on the Commodore Amiga in 1991. Being a big fan of the Sam Raimi movie from the previous year, which I was just old enough to see at the cinema, as well as its two sequels, I’m not sure why I’d never played any version of this license, but I liked what I saw in Nick’s video so finally had a good old go this week! It’s mostly a side-scrolling platform beat ‘em up, but with a first person camera section between levels where our disfigured superhero can create a temporary mask of the next level’s villain’s face if he can get enough decent shots, which gives you both their appearance and their abilities to help deal out the next bit of justice. I tried really hard to like this more than I did but honestly it’s all a bit generic and average, whether we’re talking looks, sounds or gameplay, and is definitely elevated by the license then brought back down by some frustrating platforming. The classic seven out of ten!
We looked at BurgerTime here a while back, the 1982 Data East arcade game where you’re a chef, Peter Pepper, who has to walk over various layers of hamburger ingredients positioned above each other on different levels of a single-screen maze of platforms to make them drop and form a complete burger at the bottom, all while avoiding various enemy foods, such as Mr Hot Dog and Mr Pickle! I did have a decent session on that arcade game again this week, as well as both the NES and the very impressive Atari 2600 ports, but what I want to mention here is the 2000 Game Boy Colour spin-off, The Flintstones: BurgerTime in Bedrock. Could it be that ever-elusive good Flintstones game? Well, yes it could, but unfortunately just not on a Game Boy Colour! The problem is that everything’s been crammed onto a single screen rather than the regular partial scrolling compromise you’d often get for such games on there. And at the same time, everything’s got to be Flintstones themed, and your character needs to look like Fred Flintstone, and that means everything is bigger than it should be, which means the platform mazes are smaller with fewer enemies. As such, while it pulls off the Flintstones theming it does so at the expense of a lot of the fun behind BurgerTime, with its varied, expansive and fiendish level designs full of enemies. It’s fun for what it is I suppose, just wish there was more of what it is!
As promised here a few weeks ago, when I absolutely fell for horizontal shooter Saint Dragon on the Jaleco Arcade 1 collection for Evercade, I’ve now done a tour of all the home ports… The Atari ST version is a bit like someone’s ported it from memory – looks, sounds and feels like Saint Dragon but it’s not quite there, and it is let down by some juddering parallax scrolling that makes seeing what’s coming at you unnecessarily difficult. Still not bad though! No such problems with the Amiga (pictured here), and the only thing wrong with it is it’s much less intense – and easier as a result – than the original; bosses are also much simpler and quicker. Hell of a conversion otherwise! The PC-Engine port (pictured at the top of the page) solves any scrolling problems by dropping the fancy parallax, and dropping the graphics down a notch in general; plays okay though, apart from some enemies outstaying their welcome, and the music is beautiful!
Over on the 8-bit home computers, we’ve got to start with the Commodore 64 (pictured) because this thing is a marvel! I’m usually the first to mock the system’s lack of decent arcade conversions, but here’s another one to add to the list – while it’s obviously not on a par graphically with anything we’ve looked at so far, it’s Saint Dragon, and it feels very faithful to the original and the music is exactly what you want out of that SID chip! All it’s missing are some of the bigger sprite enemies, like the mechanised tigers on the first level, but even so, it’s hard to fault this! We’ll fault my dear old ZX Spectrum instead – monochrome is fine but it’s all way too sparse, and everything is so slow. Just no fun and I can’t recommend this one, unfortunately, and as the MSX one seems to be ported from the Spectrum, same there. And the same again with bells on for the Amstrad CPC, which is the worst of all worlds, with a tiny play area, blocky (but very colourful) graphics, and where it starts as slow as the Spectrum, it then suffers from huge slowdown on top as soon as the first wave of enemies appear. Even sounds worse than the Spectrum to cap it all, so after a decent start and middle we’re now finishing on a stinker!
I’ve also been on the usuals like Qix on Game Boy, and arcade 19xx: The War Against Destiny, Saturday Night Slam Masters and various Darkstalkers variants, but we’ll leave it there for today. In case you missed it earlier this week, do check out our very first Amiga deep-dive, when we discovered its stunning, exclusive vertical shooter Banshee. And look out for another on both arcade and ZX Spectrum military-themed waggler and masher and roller Combat School, which will be next Wednesday. See you then!