Time for our regular roundup of quick-fire reviews and impressions of everything under the spotlight at Retro Arcadia this week, old and new and a bit of both…

I did what I understand is a very decent 20 second run of the first level of Sonic the Hedgehog on Sega Master System the other day! I also finished the rest of the game on there, as well as on the Mega Drive! I’ve become quite the Sonic obsessive over the past few weeks – even watched the movies! I finally finished Sonic CD on the Mega Drive Mini 2 too, which is where this Sonic madness all began a couple of months ago! It’s wonderful but there are so many time travelling tangents, making it more stop-start, which perfectly reflects the way I ended up playing it, where the first two games are far more straightforward and I think relentlessly addictive as a result! I’ve also started another run of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the original Mega Drive Mini too. Not two! For all the reasons stated here last week I think that’s going to take some beating as the best of these old 2D things in my estimation, although I have got both the third one and Sonic Advance lined up next so we’ll see about that!

Things I don’t like in the new Need for Speed Unbound, which I’m playing via Xbox Game Pass’ EA Play ten hour trial thingy, include the part cel-shaded art style, the obnoxious characters, the “edgy” storylines, the race structure, the car handling and the overall Fast and the Furious for teens vibe. Oh yeah, no proper cockpit view either. And the police chases are really annoying. Apart from that I’m having a whale of a time with it, though I’m not sure it will still be installed anywhere close to the full ten hours! Clearly not for me.

Business has really picked up in Cyberpunk 2077 on Xbox Series X! I’m sure it will now be forever janky no matter how much more it gets patched, but doors seem to be a particular problem, whether NPCs walking through them before they’re open or missions not progressing because you went through one before your partner! Not the end of the world though, and about ten hours in the story is really compelling and often real edge of the seat stuff. I have dialled down the difficulty so I can enjoy if a bit more, but even so, there’s still a few of the gunfights you inevitably wind up in that are still taking multiple attempts. Overall, though, it’s still doing alright considering I don’t usually like open world games… Maybe it’s those Maids of Satan posters I keep seeing everywhere – I’d watch that like a shot!

Vampire Survivors is truly outstanding! I actually finished the first four stages of this super-simple single-handed bullet-hell, rogue-lite thing this week, which involves surviving for half an hour in each. Get to about 25 minutes and you’re almost unstoppable though, with everything evolved and powered up to the max so you’re just being rewarded with health or bags of gold for levelling up, which happens every few seconds thanks to the mass of destruction you’re now unleashing on the mass of enemies that are literally blanketing the entire screen. You’re barely even playing anymore at this point, but it’s the most exhilarating thing I’ve experienced in a game for a while. And best of all is that I’m still only starting to scratch the surface!

It’s been a few months since I last played Cave’s 2001 steampunk bullet-hell shoot ‘em up Progear, and I’d like to say it’s like riding a bike but it’s way too brutal for that prosaic nonsense! The first three stages come back fairly quickly, and sweeping and picking your way around those insane bullet curtains becomes the same joy it’s always been pretty quickly, but stages four and five are virtually impenetrable! One credit to get there, seven more to make it through those, and I don’t think I’ll be seeing that true boss for a one-credit second loop any time soon! Happy to see the regular ending again in a respectable number of credits though, and it remains a masterpiece!

Also saw the end of Growl, or Runark in Japan and on my Taito Egret II Mini, in a respectable number of credits too. What this 1990 Taito anti-animal cruelty beat ‘em up lacks in sophistication, it more than makes up for by being totally bonkers… And those explosions! You’re the Steven Seagal of park rangers, out to stop an evil gang of safari poachers led by a Voodoo priest who also turns out to be a giant caterpillar. Some very sexy goons to whip the hell out of too! This game is just so much fun, and while the difficulty is ideally scaled for four players, I’ve been playing it loads for an upcoming deep-dive here, and learned that a bit of patience often goes as far as a continue!

I’ve definitely finished it before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been back to the original Castlevania from 1986 on NES since then until this week – kind of superseded by the third game on there which did almost the same again but more in all respects. Totally worth the revisit for a change though, especially for a series fan, who’ll find everything they know and love and hate all present and correct but often in a very raw form, from regular enemies to boss designs to hidden pickups. What really struck me was how easily death comes in the most mundane situations though, like all lives lost from rogue Medusa-heads repeatedly knocking you backwards off a simple series of small platforms! It’s certainly a cruel beast but I’m glad it got wheeled out again!

Time for a dear old favourite called River Raid, although while I did have a decent session on my actual favourite version on Atari 2600, I decided to spread my wings and give the Atari 5200 version a proper go too. It’s the same pioneering vertically scrolling shoot ‘em up in the the lowest altitude plane ever but the graphics are a bit better defined and more colourful. Playing for score is the way on both versions too, with precious fuel worth way more than enemies if you shoot it, but can you really chance it? This one is addictive as hell and totally timeless even if you can only fly at ground level… Stupid bridges!

Finally this week, I’ve played a lot of rip-offs before but never much of the original 1982 Sega arcade game Pengo, where you’re a penguin in a maze of blocks of ice that you have to push into nasty Sno-Bees before they either get you or all the blocks are gone and you’re screwed either way. It’s brutal too, to the point of frustration, and I struggled to get off the first couple of screens, so as we’re talking old Atari stuff, I moved to a couple of conversions instead… The Atari 2600 version is fantastic, and a lot like the Q*Bert conversion on there, which is also forced to do it’s own thing because of the hardware limitations but you really couldn’t ask for more. And likewise, the Atari 5200 version is just a great port, capturing the essence of the original perfectly but is more forgiving at the outset, meaning you’re making decent progress before the challenge ramps up, and then you’re coming back for more rather than turning off. Very impressed!

Speaking of impressed, in case you missed it last Wednesday, it was part two of our epic Wonderful Sights in Gaming feature, with part one over here too! Loads and loads of my favourite sights from what turned out to be the past forty-plus years so I hope you find a few to enjoy there, and I’d love to hear about yours too! And next Wednesday we’ve got the last of our deep-dives for this year before we start with a bunch of Christmas specials, but it should get you in the mood all the same when we take a look at Maria’s Christmas Box on the ZX Spectrum as well as a few other ports of call! And yes, it is festive strip poker starring a Page Three girl from the eighties but don’t worry, I’ll make sure it’s all in the best possible taste. In fact, it’s downright hilarious! See you there!