In Loving Memory of Resident Evil 4’s Mystery in a Green Jacket

In Loving Memory of Resident Evil 4’s Mystery in a Green Jacket

When I eventually came to Resident Evil 4 on GameCube over the Christmas of 2020 – and particularly when I was fighting its dodgy controls in those opening couple of hours – I didn’t quite appreciate the profound impact it (and its ultimately perfect controls!) was going to have on me! Despite my history with its predecessors and its successors, albeit more with the idea of them more than actually playing them in most cases, initially at least, with this one I’d just ignored it for fifteen years. Wasn’t a proper Resident Evil, didn’t have proper zombies, it looked all brown, I was fed up with having it shoved down my throat, and money was a bit tighter in 2005, so buying stuff day one then not playing it like I had with all of its predecessors (and I mean all, sometimes on more than one machine!) wasn’t happening this time.

Then, as we approached the end of the next decade, the whole lot clicked until that was the only one in the mainline series, up to Resident Evil 7, that I hadn’t finished – originals, variants, remakes and all – so in we went and about 25 hours and a couple more days later, I realised it was one of my favourite games of all time. Top three. And I wrote loads about it elsewhere here, so that will do on my history with it up to that point! Now, eighteen months and more on, and I can be quite the born-again bore on Resi 4, though I’ll do my best not to be for the next few minutes. I’m not some kind of gaming CrossFit-vegan! Since I last wrote about it though, there’s a few new morsels to cover before we get to the main course here…

Not long before my Plaga epiphany, I had a similar revelation with Silent Hill 2 on PlayStation 2, and between the pair of them, I’ve had one or the other or both on the go ever since. Bizarrely, they’ve joined stuff like Road Rash II on Mega Drive and Dragon Spirit on PC-Engine as my idea of gaming comfort food; places I go to unwind! Actually, I’ve already virtually retired to the foggy embrace of Silent Hill, I play it so much… And while I’m there, I’ll sometimes fire up my special Silent Hill 3 save point for my part-time job at my beloved rollercoaster control hut in its nightmare amusement park! Even though I’ve got my average game time down by about ten hours, Resident Evil 4 is still a bit more of an undertaking though, so nowadays I like to spread the love between the GameCube, Wii and PlayStation 4 versions. And that Switch version keeps staring down my soul every time there’s a sale on the Nintendo eShop!

There’s an interesting shift in dynamics the more you play Resident Evil 4. In your first and even second play-throughs, you are clearly the prey, but the more you get to know the lie of the land, particularly in the initial village areas, the more you start to recognise choke points. These could be as simple as the top of a ladder where you can pick of a massive group of enemies one at a time as they mindlessly parade up it and into your combat knife blade. But you can also funnel them into tight spots or behind gates, for example, initially focussing on the leader and then using a kick to take them all down; even better if the one at the front has something on fire or explosive in his hand when he or she goes down!

As the initial paranoia about using ammo reduces to a realistic level through extended play, coupled with the patience that comes with its overall reduced tension, you’ll also be more confident about your scoped-rifle, using gaps in fences and the like to clear out entire areas before you even open the door to it. There’s other situations where you’re now clearly leading the dance too, confidently directing whole groups towards explosive trip wires from different directions. And even in boss fights, for example with Jack Krauser, you’ll soon work out that you can use the now-familiar terrain to your advantage, although in his case, using his weakness to knives is going to save a load of time on top! Even more so, what about a certain other boss and his weakness to a single rocket launcher shot… There’s a reason you find it when you do! Anyway, the more you play, the less you’re the prey and the more you are the predator, and together with the adaptive difficulty, you’ll end up playing a whole new game, and it’s all the better for it!

One thing that doesn’t seem to change with repeated play-throughs is forgetting the snakes in boxes! Busting open every box willy-nilly with your knife is fine for the first few stages, but as soon as you reach that comfort zone, the game starts putting coiled-up snakes around the place, waiting to drop its venom on you. And they get me every time! And from that time, you’re anxiously tip-toeing around every one… You might have learnt the lie of the land, but there’s no way you’re learning the lie of every box!

Speaking of jump-scares, zombie dogs through the window in the first Resident Evil rightly gets its plaudits, but the guy on fire jumping out of the oven in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre kitchen in this game is way underrated (including in my previous War and Peace on the subject)! Oven Man appears well into the game, at the start of Chapter 5, as you’re walking through this kitchen full of rot, and your focus in on sifting your way through that rot to find shotgun shells hidden in sinks and so on. Suddenly, as you approach this huge oven, a burning guy jumps out, screaming and charging at you from out of nowhere, and unless you get a very quick shot away, you’re in for some double-damage when he latches onto you. There’s absolutely no rhyme or reason for him being in there, and, in fact, if you examine the oven when he’s dead, Leon will ask why he was in the oven in the first place. It’s potentially a nod to the zombie in the fridge in Resident Evil 0, but regardless, it’s a fantastic moment because up until then, it’s not really been a jump scare kind of horror show.

Back in May 2021, I did return to my day one Resident Evil buying habit one more time for Resident Evil Village. I’d been super-hyped up about this one since the first gameplay trailers dropped at the start of the year, particularly that breathtakingly decadent next-gen gothic castle! And given its well-documented nods to Resident Evil 4, both before and since release, I did wonder if I’d found myself another new top three game of all time! Without doubt, it’s still my game of the year at the time of writing, and I can’t see that changing unless Windjammers 2 does something really special or Hollow Knight: Silksong makes a miracle appearance! But for everything its done right in my four play-throughs so far, and for what is without doubt my favourite sight in any game ever in the shimmering golden opulence of that chandeliered staircase, despite its best efforts it’s still no Resident Evil 4! Unhelpfully, I still haven’t quite put my finger on why though – lots of small things I guess, from a bit less tension to less inspired boss fights to less cinematic cinematic set-pieces. It’s great, but not as great, by a long shot; then again, in my eyes, only Kick Off on Atari ST and Feud on ZX Spectrum can compete in greatness on these terms!

Right, I promised not to be boring, and I’m not convinced I’ve succeeded yet, so now we’re up to date, here’s a quick bonus cool thing I also found out about Resident Evil 4 since I first played it… Ashley, the slightly less annoying than you expected President’s daughter who you’ve rescued, is voiced by an actress called Carolyn Lawrence, who is also the voice of the deep-diving squirrel, Sandy Cheeks, in SpongeBob SquarePants! Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Absorbent and tell and porous is he! And with that, let’s move on to our Resident Evil 4 mystery person main course…

I love a gaming mystery. Some time ago now, we delved deep into the secrets of the heavily advertised but ultimately unreleased Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery for the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad, which might have disappeared in 1985, but I still refuse to accept won’t emerge again one day because it still looks incredible! Then when we covered Silent Hill 3, there was the mystery of the completely missable voice in a confessional backstage in the final church area – it was female but wasn’t instantly familiar, so who did it belong to? I’ve got some theories, but as much as I’m fascinated in finding out more about that one, I need at least one more play-through to try and get my head around the bonkers plot and where it might fit, so instead we’re going to quench our mystery thirst now with this strange, very, very distant hidden onlooker in Resident Evil 4. And after all this preamble, I really hope we get somewhere with it, because as I write this, all I’ve done is track them down; I still have no idea who he or she is or why they are there, but we’ll try and find out together!

Okay, to set the scene, we’re now at the back end of the story, with Ashley off being kidnapped somewhere as usual, and Leon finding himself on the shore of the mysterious island that you might have caught a glimpse of earlier in Salazar’s castle. This was once home to cave-dwellers that were eventually driven out by Salazar, but now there’s only ruins left as evidence of his conquest, amongst which latest big bad bioweapon guy Saddler has built his lair, comprising of research facilities (with kitchens with jumpy things in ovens), medical facilities, radio towers, foundries and furnace rooms, kennels (of course!), power plants and a big military compound.

This is Chapter 5-4, and the military compound is where you’re going to go all Rambo, with a little help from your mate Mike, who’s arrived in his helicopter gunship and is going to provide a bit of high-explosive air support as you take out all and sundry through this huge complex. Eventually you’ll make it through the mass of trenches, tunnels and various buildings swarming with enemies to emerge on a plateau, only to be surrounded by a load more of them. Fortunately, Mike appears again to sort you out, but not before one of them manages to launch a rocket and take him out, leaving you looking down a cliff face at the wreckage and saying your goodbyes. No time for too much sadness though, because there’s a couple of nice jewels glinting around the place that The Merchant will have off you shortly, then it’s through the next gate and we’re in mystery business!

You’re now back in some kind of ruined fortress, and as you wander in you’ll see a big lump taken out of the wall on your right.

Get a bit closer and you can just about make out some structures in the far distance through the gap in the wall.

Pull out your rifle with whatever scope you’ve got equipped, and you’ll see it’s that radio tower and a load of Saddler’s nefarious facilities in the distance.

Now we’re going to start zooming in down that scope, as far as we can go, slowly scanning around the area with what appears to be a collapsed roof beneath the left hand side of the radio tower.

Now imagine you’re looking out for Slimer from Ghostbusters! You’re not, but with a regular scope and its rapid movements at full zoom – not to mention the swirling fog – it’s going to be easy to miss and this will help!

Bit of a squint later, and there’s almost-Slimer peering out of the right side of a vertical column, crisscrossed by what seems to be two diagonal cables or struts going upwards to the tower on the right side, then there’s one going downwards on the left, attached to a horizonal block.

Adjust your eyes a bit more, and Slimer becomes a green puffer jacket or maybe a sweater. And here’s our mystery person, accessorised with a dark scarf and what might be denim jeans and white trainers. Hard to tell from this distance (though more so due to the massive pixellation) if it’s male or female, but having been travelling backwards and forwards to Tokyo a lot while working for a Japanese company for over twenty years, I’m feeling Japanese male with a slightly non-conformist hairstyle. They are also holding up their hands, which might be a pointing a gun at them kind of gesture, but again, from experience of being in many photos over there, it’s possibly the peace sign gesture that Japanese people often use when posing for one.

At this point I hope I’ve made it obvious that this is something I found out about after falling head over heels in love with the game and engrossing myself in its lore, rather than trying to claim I’ve come up with anything new here myself… Credit for that needs to go to YouTube user SR212787, who seems to be the first to have documented it in a video entitled “Resident Evil 4 – Girl in Green Jacket? Easter Egg” published on 5th January 2017. What a mystery though, and one I simply couldn’t resist delving into as well, while also giving this person a bit of credit because there’s not a lot out there on this that actually does!

Also keep in mind that this is all about twelve years after it was released, which isn’t bad for a hidden object in a game! My favourite’s always been the Arkham Asylum hidden room behind an unmarked breakable wall with the map giving a clue to the sequel that took almost a year for anyone to find – it was a bit like the hidden room we found in our new 400-year old house just over five years ago at the time of writing that was marked as a void in the roof and turned out to be a lot more! Anyway, the sequel, Arkham City, went one better with clues for its own sequel, and the Calendar Man secret message that hinted at Arkham Knight; this involved setting your console date to developer Rocksteady’s formation day, and I’m still amazed it only took three years for someone to find! WaveRace on the GameCube from 2001 then had a hidden miserable commentator that took eight years and a modified Konami code for anyone to find. My dear, dear love Silent Hill 2 lasted about fifteen years before giving up its save-on-demand and mini-map features by getting the secret dog ending then messing about with controller settings. There’s loads more, of course, but the longest time for a secret to be hidden that I’ve come across was the revelation from then Nintendo president Iwata in 2009 that in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, you can take out Bald Bull with a single body blow by looking out for someone in the audience to take a photo, and punching when you see the flash. That’s a full 22 years after release!

Back to our mystery, there’s actually not much more to say. No one seems to know who this 2D figure in the distance is. Capcom and the game’s developers have kept their mouths shut on the subject until now, so until whoever did it comes clean, we’ll never know their identity or why they are there. My best guess is in line with the consensus of other fellow Resident Evil 4 nerds, and that’s that it was probably snuck in by an artist working on the game, and is either a secret but everlasting monument to their own ego, or perhaps to a family member or friend.

What we do know, however, is that just a few short minutes later, Leon will have dispatched mutant Saddler, jumped on a jet ski with Ashley and be racing against the clock, a tidal wave and a ton of falling boulders to get out of the island’s watery tunnel network before the whole thing is blown to oblivion. And therefore we also know the dark fate that befell our mystery person. May they rest in peace!

Discovering Ghostbusters II on Atari ST

Discovering Ghostbusters II on Atari ST

Was Ghostbusters my first horror movie? As a collector and obsessive of the genre, that’s an important point, but whether it’s horror or comedy or horror-comedy is debatable. It’s filmed like a horror movie and it’s certainly scarier than diet trash like Paranormal Activity, but the Ghostbusters themselves are all played for laughs. Let’s conclude it’s horror and comedy, and as such counts as my first horror movie! And most importantly, when I went to see it at the cinema around Christmas 1984, it became a grand entranceway to a lifelong interest, built on top of the foundations already set by Scooby Doo and my auntie’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies book, that would eventually turn into the hellish six feet one skyscraper I’ve become today! In other words, from the second that the librarian’s ghost went through the most terrifying transformation since An American Werewolf in London (which might have been my second horror movie!), I absolutely adored this film, as I still do on every watch – usually several times per year – to this very day.

And shortly after that there was my friend’s Commodore 64 (and later, for me, slightly inferior ZX Spectrum) Ghostbusters game. As I went into in the second of my Favourite Gaming Anthems series (here), I’m not sure that any game’s title screen made my jaw drop as much as this one did when I first saw it, and it was a double whammy! First what might have been the first sampled speech I’d ever heard shouting “Ghostbusters” (and if you’ve ever heard it too I can guarantee you’re hearing it again now!) and then some actual real life music that you’ve heard in the movie or seen on Top of the Pops is actually being played by your computer! To this day, the game remains pretty much unique, and is absolutely faithful to the movie, with you buying your ghostbusting equipment then patrolling the streets of New York from a map view, and when you spot a ghost infestation you’re top down in Ecto-1, sucking up rogue ghosts on the way (if you bought the right gear) until you arrive at the haunted building. Now your setting your trap, positioning your two guys and teasing the ghost above it without crossing the streams, then when it’s near enough you unleash the trap and get your reward. As the city’s paranormal activity rises (together with your bank balance) you’ll eventually meet the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and head for the big Zuul climax. As you can tell, I could talk about this game all day – it remains one of the best movie licenses ever made, and I still play through it on both C64 and Spectrum regularly. And I still absolutely love it and really should cover it properly here sometime!

Which brings us to Ghostbusters II. By the time it appeared in 1989, it was a bit lost in the noise of a load of other sequels – Lethal Weapon 2, Karate Kid 3, the third Indiana Jones and Star Trek V – and then everything was lost in the noise of Tim Burton’s Batman. Good film though, and it did very well at the box office, and even though it didn’t quite have the spark of the original – which might be down to a painting being the bad guy – it’s a really effective companion to it, with some great ghosts, some great special effects, and several compelling plot lines moving it along. Again, if it’s ever on the telly, I’ll gladly watch it!

The game of the film we’re about to dive into is a confusing mess of different versions by different developers on different platforms being released or not released in different regions. This is then made all the more confusing by a separate game called Ghostbusters II from Activision in 1990 on NES, and HAL Laboratory’s 1990 Japan or 1992 Europe Ghostbusters II game, New Ghostbusters II, which never saw a US release thanks to Activision; also note that this shouldn’t be confused with the Game Boy game of the same name, which is its own thing again!

Right, now we’re properly befuddled, let’s try and unravel the Atari ST version I’ve been playing… This was published by Activision in 1989, having been developed for Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad, Amiga and ST by UK developer Foursfield. It was then ported to MSX by New Frontier, and Dynamix created a new version for MS-DOS. This was a kind of next-gen extended cut of the first game, but obviously based on the plot of the sequel, where you had to raise enough money by busting the film’s ghosts to tempt the Statue of Liberty into action to get you to the final showdown. It had a cool musical puzzle too where you had to calm down slime with an in-game CD player! No one was playing MS-DOS stuff in 1989 though, so we’ll head back to the non-pervert version…

The game is made up of three levels, spanning a whopping four disks (and we’ll be coming back to this!), and these cover three key set pieces from the movie, which we’ll paraphrase the manual to quickly recap… Ghostbusters stopped busting after they were sued for taking out the top three floors of the up-town New York high rise while they were taking out Marshmallow Man. During the intervening years, the locals began to believe the whole thing had been a colossal hoax, and the gang resorted to making a living running occult bookshops, appearing on occult TV shows and entertaining obnoxious kids at parties. Meanwhile, Dana Barrett is back in town with baby son Oscar, whose buggy decides to go on a supernaturally-charged chase around New York’s busy streets, and she quickly realises there’s something strange in the neighbourhood, and knows exactly who she’s gonna call!

The manual then gives you a bizarre hint that you should watch the film to help you with unravelling some of the puzzles; I’m not sure you’d be playing it if you hadn’t, and despite the primitive digitised stills from the film and accompanying synopsis before and after each level, you’d probably struggle to keep up with the three main sequences of the film we’re playing through if you hadn’t, but all the same, I’m not sure I’ve ever read any game instructions before that start with telling you to watch a movie!

Once you’re back from the video rental store (assuming no one else has already nabbed their only copy of Ghostbusters II), what you’re getting is an admirably diverse set of three levels. The first is Van Horne, which sees you guiding your Ghostbuster to the bottom of an air-shaft beneath the street to collect a sample of slime that we’ll now know from the film is charging all the city’s emerging paranormal problems. You’re swinging left and right and up and down (then generally doing it all over again because you’ve overshot the tiny contact window) and you progress lower and lower down the shaft, making your feet touch things to collect them! To keep things exciting, the shaft is full of all kinds of ghosts, and if one of them touches you you’ll lose courage, which is indicated by a status mugshot of his face getting more and more terrified. This can be restored by touching the occasional bottles of elixir conveniently positioned down the shaft with you feet, but if you decide this is way more hassle than its worth and end up scared out of your mind, you’ll fall to your doom and start again.

You’ve got three weapons to help you down though, and a press of the space bar will cycle through them… The proton beam is your regular spook repellant from your backpack, and as long as you’re collecting extra charges that you’ll also find on the way down, you can pretty much do it with just this one. Next is the PKR bomb, which delivers a powerful burst of anti-spook, but is just so awkward to use that you’ll probably avoid it if you’ve got some proton beam left. It involves holding down fire, then pushing either up or down to deliver its devastation above or below you, then releasing fire, but it’s just so ham-fisted to do in practice! Finally, you’ve got the PKR shield, and that will protect you enough to make some quick progress or navigate a particularly tricky swing, and like the proton beam, you can pick up more of these and the bombs at various points as you travel downwards.

In general, progressing downwards is far more challenging than any of the monsters you’ll come across, and you’ll often find yourself trying to rebuild some left and right swinging momentum so you can start to make your way down again having either been grabbed by a ghost, or, more likely, just got stuck on some scary graphics! That said, there’s one monster you want to avoid as much as possible, which is a sawing hand that will hack away at your winch cable until is snaps; and like the terror-meter, you’ve got one for the cable condition too. When these appear, you need to get rid fast, either with a PKR bomb if you can get lucky with the controls, or a regular proton beam will do if not. One final problem here is that you didn’t bring a retractable slime scoop of your own, so you’ll also need to look out for the three parts of that on the way down. And once you’re there at the bottom, being battered by waves of ghosts flying up and down slime river, you’ve got one more awkward piece of positioning to negotiate to get that slime scoop lowered into the goo to trigger the next cut scene and series of disk swaps before the next level.

Now we’re on Broadway, and we need to get to the Museum of Art before the birth of the New Year. The Ghostbusters are all inside the crown of the Statue of Liberty as it makes its way through the city, and your job is to control its fireball to protect the Statue and the population at large as it gets bombarded by wave after wave after wave after wave of evil ghosts intent on your destruction. I’ll say it now, this goes on way too long, and reminded me of the similarly horizontally-scrolling shooter-type level in Agent X II if you’ve played that; and if not, they both outstay their welcome several times over!

Anyway, we’ve now worked out that the Statue of Liberty can also be powered by our slime from the first level, and this is represented by a glass jar of slime at the bottom of the screen, which depletes every time a ghost avoids your fireballs of freedom and bashes into you. You’ve only got a limited number of shots with each fireball, which you can move anywhere around the screen and shoot from there, but as soon as it needs to recharge it will reset back to your torch. And that recharge is also going to cost you slime, so you can’t go buck-wild with it because no slime means no Liberty.

You can replenish your slime as you go though, with ghosts dropping droplets onto the ground when you shoot them, and they’ll stay there until the next wave of ghosts appears. To help you with this, you’ve got the population of New York following you (though in reality it’s about ten people at any given time), and a press of the space bar will send them forwards or backwards. As soon as one of them touches a droplet, it will be automatically transferred back to your slime jar to keep you going, but it’s all a balancing act, between both your attention on this versus the waves of ghosts in the air, and also those ready to take out your population on the ground if you let them stray too far forwards.

As well as the slime-o-meter, you’ve got a depressing progress bar that indicates the distance travelled by the Statue, and at certain points along that progression you’ll be hit by three types of mini-boss enemy, though in reality you just need to react quickly rather than batter them incessantly or with any degree of skill. The last one will see you trigger the final level, but I really wonder how many people that haven’t decided to write about it ever got that far? It’s just so long, so repetitive and so hard, and whilst on the one hand the game is to be praised for its multiple risk-reward (and quite unique) mechanics on the go at once here, on the other you could just say it’s all just there to add longevity to a game with only three levels that could probably be done in under twenty minutes as the crow flies! After the awkwardness of the first level too, this feels like such a slog, which is a shame because its so ambitious in so many ways!

The final level is The Museum, and we’re now using the space bar to alternate control between all four Ghostbusters (hopefully…) as we try to rescue Oscar the baby – who we now know will be a vessel for the reborn big evil, Vigo the Carpathian, who we then need to destroy as he emerges from his 16th century painting to rule New York and probably other well-known places too.

The level starts with all four Ghostbusters at the top of abseil ropes in roof, and your first job is to control each of their hands, with a push up on the joystick to close them, or down to open them, thus controlling their speed. And it’s all a bit sensitive, so it might be okay to go all-out at the start to get down in time, but these guys demand a very, very soft landing otherwise they’re getting stunned out of action for a while if you’re lucky, or dead if not, and in reality, if you’re not getting them all down in one piece you might as well start the disk swapping and Statue walking all over again before this level even properly starts!

This stage is a kind of isometric action-adventure affair, and as the most baffling of all three levels, the instructions (and even the movie!) are a bit sparse on detail apart from rescue the baby and destroy Vigo, where they go nuts on the two simpler preceding levels. Again, I assume, this is all to extend the life of the game, but I really don’t want to do that Statue level over and over again to try and work this one out! What you are getting, though, is a diagram to explain the mass of character status meters at play here! You’ve got the weapon energy and strength level of your selected character; you’ve got Vigo’s strength and also that of Janosz, his human minion; and then you’ve got another meter for the “percentage of transfer to baby” which is effectively the timer you’re up against.

After a bit of trial and error, you’re going to work out that the baby is hidden away in an upper corner of the museum, and pressing fire is going to pick it up. Now you’re going to find some boxes and literally dump it down on the floor so its safe during the big fight… Now we switch to Peter then Egon (or vice versa) who have some proton beam things that will draw Vigo out of the painting if you get them both shooting at it. Meanwhile, we also need to switch to Winston or Ray to take out Janosz with a slime gun, and once he’s done that, Vigo will appear out of the painting and you’ll have to turn your attention to shooting him. And while all of this is happening, the baby is going to start levitating towards the altar in front of the vacated painting, and you’ll want to keep removing it back to safety, but after a bit of shooting Ray will get possessed, so you’re now shooting him too until you trigger a final happy cutscene. It’s relatively fun working all of this out, but it’s just such a shame you have to go through everything else to do that!

And all that disk swapping! Now, it’s not unusual to have ST games on multiple disks, and it’s not unusual to have to change disks now and again, but this one is insane! To just start the game, you’re loading up Disk A to get to your sampled Ghostbusters theme screen, then Disk B to get to level one. Finish that, and it’s Disk A followed by Disk C to get to level two. Then it’s Disk A followed by Disk D for level three. And every combination in between every time you lose all your lives and have to start again – thanks goodness it is only three levels!

As down on pretty much everything as I’ve been so far, I have developed a bit of a soft spot for this game! For all its faults, it does a wonderful job of drawing you into Ghostbusters II. The three levels are well curated, and the simple, mostly text-based cut scenes pull everything together into a decent replication of the movie’s plot. And it looks great! For what it lacks in playability, the production values are sky high, and the almost oversized sprites that inhabit all three levels (but especially the Statue one) are bold, full of detail and move beautifully. The backgrounds are rich and equally full of detail – again, the second level in particular pays some lovely fan service to the movies.

As does the soundtrack, with various sampled renditions of the Ray Parker Jr. theme popping up and sounding even better than it did on the Commodore 64! Sound effects do veer towards variations of white noise at times, though there’s some great exceptions, for example the deep throb of the proton beam in the first level. Generally they fill the space where there’s no background music though, and that in turn gives that theme tune some real impact when it kicks in for the between-level scenes! My only gripe in the sound department is the continuous, looping, grating simple chip-tune rendition of Auld Lang Syne throughout the final level that puts me in mind of old Spectrum platformers!

It’s not the best game ever, and it’s not the best Ghostbusters game ever, but behind the relentless disk swapping, slight clunkiness and too much level two, this is the opposite of so many lazy film tie-ins of the time, with creativity and variety, backed by great attention to detail and what appears to be a real passion for Ghostbusters. And this just tips the balance into it being not only fun, but addictive while you’re playing and thought-provoking while you’re not, and enough to make you go back through all that pain just to try one more thing on that last level you’d previously decided you’d never see the end of! As a final bonus, the big, classically oversized Atari ST game box is also doing a great job of covering a crack in the wall behind my desk, as well as hiding some leads and generally looking good while I’m working, so as a total package I can’t really complain!

Discovering Hydra on ZX Spectrum

Discovering Hydra on ZX Spectrum

I’m struggling to remember how this went exactly, but there were a couple of bars at the University of Hertfordshire when I was there from 1990 – the big raucous Student Union bar, The Font, with the barmaid that looked like Summer from Baywatch, and a more civilised affair in a separate building called the EleHouse. This was so named because that building was based on the designs of the Elephant House at London Zoo. By day it was somewhere that anyone who could afford it could get some fast food while watching MTV – hopefully the saucy Maria McKee’s Show Me Heaven theme from Days of Thunder was on – and there was a shop, possibly a bank (although that might have be somewhere else), and a couple of times a month you’d get a record fair for all your bootleg cassette needs, and, of course, a poster sale for student essentials like a replica of Munch’s The Scream or an oversized image of Bob Marley doing drugs! And by night, you had the imaginatively named Mandela Bar, which if you were lucky you wouldn’t have to share with the role playing nerds’ weekly club night or similar.

Now, all of that is a bit hazy – I can’t even remember it being called EleHouse, but by process of recent elimination, I reckon I must be in the right place! Maybe Elephant House is ringing a bell though… No matter because things get hazier; now that we’ve solved one of gaming’s great mysteries – whatever happened to Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery on ZX Spectrum (see here) – it’s time to move on to two more that I don’t think are going to be quite so straightforward to research. And I think these two are closely related… Mystery number one: where was the Pit-Fighter machine I used to play that always had a crowd of people around it? By another process of elimination based on time and a vague recollection of a couple of arcade machines there, I also reckon it was somewhere in the vicinity of that Mandela Bar. Mystery number two: what was the name of the other arcade machine we played to death that either stood next to it, or might have been there before or after it?

Wondering where I played Pit-Fighter has never really kept me up at night, but not being able to remember what that other game I remember playing with my student friends, probably in that same bar, drove me mad for years, because, being an enthusiast, I just wanted to know what it was so I could play it again! Some kind of boat racing game was all I could remember, and over the years, every time I went back and saw something like The Living Daylights on Spectrum with speed boats in it, I’d be racking my brains all over again trying to remember what this thing was! I did think I’d nailed it when I picked up old arcade racer collection Midway Arcade Treasures 3 on PlayStation 2, albeit way after the fact. Hydro Thunder, an inshore powerboat racing game, was what caught my eye, and as much fun as it is, I’m afraid we’re several years too early for that. But now it was ringing bells, and how close it turned out that we were! Shortly after that, around the middle of 2019, and my Game Boy Advance screen backlight died, and I decided to try out a PocketGo handheld to host a curated list of my Game Boy and Game Boy Advance collection in ROM form. Very nice it was too – so nice, in fact, that I decided it should also host my brother’s old Sega Game Gear collection, and then his Atari Lynx collection, but those weren’t very big, so I may have supplemented them with a few others! I have genuinely tried to keep that wonderful little machine well curated though, rather than just dumping romsets onto its SD card, in an effort to actually play everything. And during that curation process, I started looking into the best of the Atari Lynx because outside of After Burner rip-off Blue Lighting and the absolute system stealer California Games, I didn’t really know much about what it had to offer. And there it was – not quite Hydro Force, but Hydra!

Even by my standards, we took some time getting there, especially when you consider that within minutes I’d decided I was massively underwhelmed with that Lynx game and was playing Klax again as usual! I don’t give up so easily though, and as I recently discovered with the coincidentally similar Bimini Run on Sega Genesis (not Mega Drive because it was a US-only release), there’s sometimes far more fun to be had when you read the instructions! Doing so then transformed it into the game I was trying to remember, though I’m still not very keen on the controls on there, and that tiny screen… Apart from having no money, I’m not entirely sure how the Atari ST version passed me by – I wasn’t exactly an arcade game connoiseur at this point, so I’d have thought that I’d have jumped at what appears to have been a decent conversion. We’ll put it down to money, but I’ve also spent the last six months or so waiting for it to appear on eBay and it just doesn’t, so it’s also quite possible it just didn’t really appear in the wild much here. As an aside, it’s worth stating that like MAME, I’m completely baffled by emulating Atari ST and Amiga, so we’re leaving those versions there and turning to 8-bit!

The Commodore 64 version of Hydra is a bit of an oddity. I’ve never been able to get it to work, and there’s very little trace of it outside of the full C64 romset that I will admit to keeping! Almost like it was never actually released though. There’s a bit more around on the Amiga version, but again, bit of a hidden gem like the ST version. And that leaves us with the ZX Spectrum, which isn’t so bad because that’s where I’ve been playing Hydra the most!

Now that we’ve established the name of the game and the platforms it’s vaguely playable on, let’s have a quick look at what it actually is! It’s Atari, it’s 1990, and we’re in the future where terrorists rule ths skies and the seas. You work for the only courier company that the world’s governments can trust to transport things like doomsday devices, mutant viruses and crown jewels about the place, and that courier company isn’t Hermes or even Hydro Force, but Hydra! You’re faced with nine delivery missions to complete by driving your Hydracraft (hovercraft) with its supercharged speed and firepower, taking out enemy forces such as boats, jet skis, mines, helicopters, zeppelins and more who all want a bit of your package. This translates to mostly driving, but sometimes hovering, dodging and shooting your way through some very pretty digitised landscapes as you travel the world protecting your parcels and making sure you stay fuelled. At the end of each level there’s a bonus stage where you can stock up on more fuel, power-ups and other goodies, then there’s a shop to spend any money earned on better weapons. In reality, Roadblasters on water isn’t a million miles away!

I think there was a sit-down version of the arcade game, but we had a cool mini-upright cabinet with a flight controller and speakers that made the top section look like a boombox, and that would make an appearance, together with some nice arcade screenshots, on the back of the Spectrum cassette box when it was released by Domark in 1991! I’m still convinced there’s more to this than the laziness that might meet the eye… The lazy eye? Anyway, the full-page advert that appeared in Computer & Video Games magazine around June 1991 did the same, but unusually there wasn’t a mention of any of the formats it was being released on, but a preview in that mag did confirm all the usual 8- and 16-bit suspects. The following month it got less than average reviews in there on Atari ST and Amiga, and a news flash somewhere else confirmed a Spectrum version was coming soon, although the Spectrum magazines like Crash and Your Sinclair seem to have got their hands on it around the same time. Apart from Sinclair User’s 79%, the rest of the reviews came in pretty average on Spectrum too, but we all know that your own opinion is the only one that counts, so let’s dive in!

If you don’t look too closely, the Spectrum’s loading screen is a pretty good approximation of the arcade game’s title screen, with your wet-look tough guy and his black sunglasses in his hover thing, burning up a tropical river and burning up an unseen enemy with a preview of my favourite weapon upgrade, the flamethrower, shooting out of the front. I really like the trees in the background here – they just demand a Predator lurking about in them somewhere! Things stay very colourful as you get to the first mission briefing too, informing you you’re off to Baja, Calfornia with a fairly pointless map, what might be you or someone else in sunglasses, and your package getting ready for despatch. There’s a simple but quite jaunty piece of almost new romantic electronica playing in the background too, which is going to accompany you through the game – not at the expense of a few sound effects at least either, even if they are all a little on the lightweight side and I’d have really liked the feedback of some engine noise.

Things do revert to more familiar ground as you start the mission proper, with a behind the boat view as your parcel is loaded onto it from the side of a shed (albeit a very nice looking shed)! It’s a similar look to the likes of Enduro Racer or Out Run on the Spectrum, with a changing dominant colour for most of the background marking each stage; for example the opening one, Colorado, is yellow, then Baja will be a pale green-blue, and so on. The background scenery itself is generally black on the sky’s colour, but some of these are really well detailed and quite imaginitive, ranging from mountains to cityscapes to ocean sunsets, although the latter is a little disappointing, with the big sun just being a circle the same colour as the sky! They repeat across stages a fair bit too, regardless of the location name changing and some of the obstacles being location specific, like the famous floating trees in Germany, but you’ve got to get pretty good for repetition to be a big problem! You also get repeating tunnels of varying lengths, usually at the end of a stage, though some are stages in themselves, and these are a bit jarring, switching everything to white on black until you come out of the other side! The end of level bonus stages do mix things up a bit, with some wild background colours in what looks like a giant circus tent full of water, ramps and power-ups! The sprites are reasonably detailed when you’re up close, but from a distance everything does all look a bit messy and indistinct, especially as you get further into the game and there’s more stuff demanding the attention of your guns or needing dodging. There’s not that many different enemies either – occasionally you’ll get a speedboat or something exciting dropping mines in your way, but more often than not you’re just blasting loads of Dalek-looking things. Given this came out in 1991, it should probably have tried harder (especially at the very expensive £10.99 they were charging for it)!

Apart from the fairly intrusive, but admittedly necessary multi-load, repetition is probably the biggest criticism I’d level at the game. I think the arcade game got away with it a bit, with big, bold sounds and fast, explosive graphics driving things along, but once you’ve seen all the colours and all the backgrounds, you are wondering do I keep trying to get better in the hope that things might change up, or will I get bored before that’s possible, or even have I seen it all now already? In terms of gameplay, you have experienced most of it by the time you get to the first bonus stage, The Hydradome, and Ziggy’s Weapon Shoppe whenever you come a cropper in there (or get to the end, though I don’t think I ever have), and then it’s a case of shooting more enemies and dodging more floating mischief. But maybe I’m being harsh, because doing all of that is quite a lot of fun!

Similar to the Atari Lynx version once you’ve read the instructions, there’s some depth to the controls here that you’re going to have to get your head around to make it fun though. Regular water driving (is driving what you do on water?) involves pushing up to accelerate, fire to fire your normal weapon, enter to select your special weapon, then down to fire it. Hitting space is going to give you a boost, and when you boost you can fly, which switches to a regular inverted down for flying up and up to go back down again, and once you’re back on the water it switches back. It’s reasonably intuitive after a few goes, but I’ve never been a fan of switching between joystick and keyboard, especially on an arcade racer!

As well as the flamethrower from the loading screen, Ziggy’s psychedelic weaponry emporium offers you homing missiles, anti-gravity flight without using up your boost, shields, uzis, bombs and a nuke to obliterate everything on the screen; possibly overkill, especially at the crazy prices of even the most basic of these upgrades, which mean you won’t be experiencing many of them until you’ve been around enough times for second and third visits! It seemed like you were getting the bonus stage and the shop every third level, each representing a different geographic location, of which there are 31 across the nine missions.

Smash the controls, get a couple of upgrades and work out some of the enemy patterns (and occasionally dodgy collision detection) and it all feels pretty good to play. It’s certainly not an all-time classic, and it really is a bit of a Roadblasters knock-off when all of its original arcade finery is replaced by different shades of monochrome – you can look at a screenshot and if you didn’t know you’d think it was a Spectrum homebrew of F-Zero… Now there’s something to look into! All the same, another gaming mystery solved, an enjoyable time solving it, and now I can go back to pondering the delights of Pit Fighter, which hopefully isn’t going to involve playing that Spectrum stinker!

My Life With… Mini Munchman – Handheld

My Life With… Mini Munchman – Handheld

For all of my history with Pac-Man, I don’t actually have a great deal of history with Pac-Man the arcade game. I mean, I’ve played it and its sequels and its spin-offs loads over the years, and I’m not bad at it, but for me Pac-Man has always been about Pac-Man rather than Pac-Man! Make sense? Of course not…

Like everyone else, I was certainly aware of Pac-Man when The Animated Series came along in 1982, but that’s where I became a fan. Thanks Roland Rat Superstar! I went into huge detail on that when I went into huge detail on its video game spin-off, Pac-Land, here, which is not only my favourite Pac-Man game (yes, I know, the heresy, but there’s even more to come…), but also one of my top five favourite arcade games ever, and probably the single game I’ve spent the most time playing across the most systems, from Spectrum to Atari Lynx and Atari ST to PC Engine. I love it!

The “proper” Pac-Man game I’ve played the most would be Pac-Man 256 on iOS. This came out in 2016, and is an endless runner inspired by the level 256 glitch on the original Pac-Man, where you’re moving Pac-Man up a vertically scrolling maze that plays a lot like original Pac-Man, with a lot of strategic depth from the different ghost’s AI, and risk-reward from the lure of chaining together continuous dot pick-ups, power-ups and power pill collection with the glitch on your tail. It was addictive as hell, I ended up way higher on the online leaderboards than is usual for me, and then it came crashing down with a load of free-to-play mechanics. Hell of a lot of fun while it lasted though!

Speaking of free-to-play, it can be done right, as 2021’s battle royale take, Pac-Man 99, demonstrates almost perfectly. We had a bit of a rough start, and I really didn’t appreciate having to buy a skin when it turned out I kept getting into the top ten then dying because of a red enemy Pac-Man on the black background that I couldn’t see because no settings compensated for my very common red-black colourblindness… But the skin was a Xevious one, and it was cheap, and the game was free, and it’s a really, really good competitive multiplayer take on the classic core mechanics (with a bit of Championship Edition thrown in). And it’s really, really addictive, so I’m going to begrudgingly forgive it and say that at the time of writing, it’s about number eight in my top ten games of the year so far.

What about favourite proper, proper Pac-Man ever though? The one with mazes and dots and ghosts… It’s not Pac-Man, or Ms. Pac-Man, Super Pac-Man, Pac & Pal or even Pac-Mania (although the Atari ST version of that comes pretty close). In fact, my favourite doesn’t have ghosts in it, or even Pac-Man! Just aliens, or to be more specific, Alien. On Atari 2600. You’re having a wander around your ship, Nostromo, investigating weird sounds that turn out to be alien eggs being laid around its maze-like hull. And apart from a flamethrower and a Frogger-style bonus stage, it’s a really pure version of Pac-Man, in a very Atari 2600 way, and is far better than the original on there! I wrote a load about that too here, and yeah, I know, but it’s my favourite Pac-Man and you can’t stop me!!!

When Pac-Man: The Animated Series came along, I don’t even remember seeing the original arcade game anywhere, let alone playing it, but I definitely remember the first Pac-Man I did play. Kind of! Apart from Donkey Kong, in the early eighties Wild West of video games, I reckon Pac-Man got cloned more than anything else. As well as the aforementioned Alien on Atari 2600, it had Bank Heist, Lock ‘n Chase and Mouse Trap. The early home computers were at it too! There was Gobbler and Dung Beetles on Apple II, as well as Taxman, which ended up becoming one of the first officially licensed versions after a bit of legal argy-bargy with Atari. The Atari 8-bit had Jawbreaker and Ghost Hunter; there was KC Munchkin, Scarfman, Snake Attack and Munch Man on those weird Texas Instruments computers that no one ever wanted. The ZX81 had pac rabbit, and on the VIC-20 I’d have Jelly Monsters a couple of years later, although Hungry Horace on the Spectrum is probably my favourite old clone! There were loads more as the Spectrum and Commodore 64 began to dominate, but remember that before them we’re still in that period when home computers were still science fiction for most of us, and the best we could get was an electronic handheld or tabletop version, so we’ve got a ton of clones to look at over there too!

Most of the ones I know were gazed at longingly every time a new Argos catalogue came out… The starting point was actually a licensed tabletop Pac-Man (or Puck-Man in America) by Tomy in 1981, but this led to what might be the first clone, when Grandstand licensed the technology from them that very same year, but they didn’t license the Pac-Man name itself, so here in the UK we got Munchman… Complete with Pac-Man art on the box, but as I said, Wild West, and you could still mostly get away with it. And as you might have guessed, we’re going to come back to Munchman (not to be confused with Munch Man) very soon.

Also in 1981, there was PacMan2 from Entex, who were no strangers to the courts after their handheld versions of Space Invaders and Galaxian, although they did briefly end up with a license. Anyway, this one had a cool (if not entirely practical) two-player mode with individual controllers on opposing sides of the game. A year later they released another similar one, Turtles, which had you rescuing six turtles around the maze, and you both had actual little joysticks this time that were just crying out to get snapped off! Likewise, Tandy’s Ogre Eater had a prominent joystick that was almost lost on the huge case it came in! One of the best tabletop versions also arrived in 1982 from Gakken with Puck Monster, and as well as being a great version, it has a great-looking multicoloured LED screen too. There was even a watch and game (as opposed to Game & Watch) that year, with Tomy Watchman: Monster Hero; a simple Pac-Man game that wasn’t branded as Pac-Man when it initially released even though they owned the rights, but that did change when it eventually arrived in America.

And now we conclude our tour by going back to 1981, and Epoch’s Epoch Man (also known as Pak Pak Man) handheld, where you’re guiding your little not-Pac-Man around a little maze with two charming, rustic bridges, collecting fruit and avoiding ghosts. Like lots of Epoch games, it was licensed to German handheld company Schuco where it was given a wider screen and rebadged as Pocket Pac Man – sometimes referred to as Pocket C-Man, because instead of the world “Pac” they used a picture of a Pac-Man that also looks a bit like the letter C, and I guess either avoided or solved any legal complications. And then in the UK it was picked up by Grandstand, who seem to have just taken the design wholesale, made it yellow and rebadged it Mini Munchman. And here we are!

I reckon my brother Phil got his Mini Munchman either for Christmas 1982, when I think I got my Snoopy Tennis Game & Watch, or as a birthday present the following June; it was quite possibly the latter because he also had Bandai’s Missile Invader, and that might have been the Snoopy Tennis equivalent when we were both getting presents… Absolutely awesome Space Invaders clone that I’d completely forgotten about until just now, and seems like you can pick up for a not outrageous price, although with all of its little recesses you’ll be lucky not to be doing some cleaning of decades old sweat and crumbs! And now that thought is in my head I know that we might come back to this at some point soon! Needless to say, all three of those games were a hit with both of us. It really is hard to imagine now that we’d never seen anything like this before, let alone owned anything like it – the nearest you’d come was mechanical stuff like Tomy’s Pocketeers or my beloved Demon Driver. From about 1982 to 1984 though, these were the kings of playground status symbols, and everyone used to love the last day of term at school when you could bring in toys, and we’d all be queueing up for a go on Cavemans and Scrambles, Turtle Bridges and Donkey Kongs! Then after 1984 it was all Walkmans and Kappa tracksuits!

There was always something both exotic and fragile about these LCD games, in no small part down to the warnings that used to come with them, coupled with the mysterious liquid crystal itself and the subsequent tales of friends of friends with burnt skin after touching it! This comes from the yellow warning paper in my Snoopy Tennis box: “The liquid crystal uses glass parts. It should not be dropped, hit or placed under pressure. Any of these can cause damage to the liquid crystal. The liquid crystal is designed as well as possible to prevent shattering of glass and leaking of liquid if the crystal is broken. If, however, liquid does contact the skin, wash immediately with soap and water.” I seem to remember the screen on our original Mini Munchman just died though, like when the battery is low and it starts fading away. And that was the end of that for quite a long time!

Unlike Missile Invader, Mini Munchman isn’t an easy game to come by now. Unless you’re prepared to pay silly money, especially for a boxed version. That box is worth it though! As much as I love the gold and silver Nintendo Game & Watch box designs, this one was proper silver, like a mirror! And like its non-Mini big brother, it’s got proper Pac-Man artwork all over its shiny surface! The other thing that was a big deal back then was that it wasn’t only an “LCD pocket arcade game” but also came with a myriad of other features, all getting almost equal billing on the box with the game itself – watch, stopwatch, lap timer, day / date and alarm. Digital clocks were still a novelty then – if you were lucky your parents might had a radio alarm clock in their bedroom with those numbers that flipped over – and this was a selling point to certain people, like the educational value of a Commodore VIC-20 would be to me a couple of years later!

Once I’d put my mind to getting a working version of this again towards the end of 2020, and after months of not wanting to spend really silly money, I did pick up an unboxed but fully working game from eBay at the top end of what I was prepared to pay. You do get what you pay for with these things though, and there is a small blemish on the liquid crystal, though it’s partially covered by the maze overlay, and once you’re playing and there’s loads of other stuff on the screen it’s pretty unobtrusive. Apart from this, theres a few tiny scuff marks where silver is poking through the matt black surface areas, but the buttons all work fine, the battery unit is in perfect condition, and the display is still very clear all over. And that brilliant, bold yellow plastic case is as brilliant and bold as it was when it was new!

Mini Munchman is a proper handheld! It’s about 7cm wide, 10cm high and a slimline just under 1cm thick. And for someone with girl’s hands like me, it’s a great fit, and was even better when I was 10 or 11 years old! And far more so than that Invader From Space beast, which, as insanely good as it was and still is, I remember laying on the floor, elbows down, with it plugged in to one of those multi-power adaptors on the floor, scared to move because if you did that dodgy power socket was switching it off mid-game for you!

The instructions for these things are always a treat! It tells you to select the game mode, which you’ll recognise because “monsters and foods are displayed in the gameboard.” After a display of your previous high score and simple intro tune, you’re starting off at the bottom-right corner of the maze, with Munchman looking out at you with a mischievous grin on his face. There’s not a great deal to talk about graphically here, but he’s always looking at you, with alternating facial expressions once you get going – open-mouthed then a kind of wiggly Halloween pumpkin smile. That’s about as far as any animation goes, with the two ghosts just moving around, one blink at a time, and the “?” bonus symbol appearing now and again. There’s a nice variety of fruit to collect though, with very recognisable and detailed pineapples, black cherries, seemingly white cherries, a bunch of grapes, bananas, strawberries and what could be apples or could be oranges, but we’ll cut it some slack there because it’s monochrome and about 2mm high!

It’s a simple concept, with four directional buttons controlling your movement around the maze. There’s about twenty fruit to collect before you move on to the next level, two of which are hidden under the bridges. Get caught by one of the ghosts and it will eat you, using up one of your four lives, though getting to 500 and 1500 points will bag you an additional Munchman. As well as the fruit, there’s two pieces of power food on the maze, and once you’ve nabbed one you’ll have five seconds to eat the ghosts, which are now blinking more deliberately than in their regular animation! Get one and it will reappear at one of the warp tunnels; there’s four of those, one in each corner, but only two are ever open at the same time, so you need to keep an eye on those opening and closing, especially when you’re a few levels in and everything’s moving a bit quicker! Anyway, eating monsters quickly is the key to a big score – the first one is 10 points, but keep eating them and they’ll be worth 30 points, 50 points, 70 points and so on. In theory, because you’re never doing that! You get a nice double-beep for catching a ghost too, but otherwise the sound is just a beep for going over fruit. All perfectly simple and perfectly pleasant…

And that’s a perfect summary of the game as a whole! It’s a very pure version of Pac-Man, and that core mechanic works as well on a small-scale maze like this as it does on a bigger one, whether the original game, Pacmania or Championship Edition DX+. It may sound ridiculous, but those two bridge overlays really give this version something unique, resulting in some great up, down, over and under interplay with the ghosts when you’re out of power pellets. And like the best Pac-Men, once you’re in the zone with a fix on how the ghosts are moving, this is as addictive as hell, and when you’re a few levels in and things start moving at crazy speeds, your brain is moving at the same speed, and it’s a real rush! Then it’s all over and it’s going to tease you with that high score as that intro music starts again, and those sweaty fingerprint ridges are starting to appear on those cool protruding silver direction buttons and you’re in the Munchman Pac-Man zone, which, actually, is probably worth every penny of that silly eBay money!

System Review: Astro City Mini… And All 37 Games!

System Review: Astro City Mini… And All 37 Games!

As iconic and popular as Sega’s Astro City arcade cabinet was when it launched in 1993, I’d honestly never heard of it until this Mini was announced for Japanese release a few months ago at the time of writing! That said, it turned out that while it’s name wasn’t familiar to me, its very functional design was, having been travelling backwards and forwards to Japan for the last twenty years – it’s what Japanese arcades still look like! Its purpose was very functional too – it was designed to take whatever game boards the arcade wanted to throw into it. The Astro City was a refinement of the Aero City multi-purpose cabinet, which was no frills, customisable and very white, which some have suggested was to negate the perception of dark and dingy Japanese arcades back in 1988 when it arrived. This time the original’s 26-inch screen was bumped up to 29-inches, the power consumption was reduced and the whole thing weighed less, but otherwise it was more of the same. The Astro City 2 would refine things again in 1993, launching as a dedicated Virtua Fighter cabinet, but also offering better compatibility with Sega’s 3D polygon-shifting Model 1 board, and also more power supply, audio, visual and controller improvements. A year later, in 1994, they launched the New Astro City for the Sega Model 2 board, which supported texture-mapped polygons and would be known for years to come for the likes of Daytona USA, Sega Rally Championship, Dead or Alive and The House of the Dead.

Fast forward to the summer of 2021, and Sega have given the Astro City Mini a Western release, maintaining that familiar aesthetic in 1/6 scale form, and played arcade operator themselves with the inclusion of 37 games, from the even more familiar to a few that have never seen the light of day outside of the arcades before. The Astro City was the first arcade cabinet to be made from resin, and likewise, the first thing that strikes you with the Mini is the high-gloss, high-quality heavyweight resin build, just like its full-size predecessor. Before you even think of switching it on though, that joystick is demanding you cop a feel, and provides you with instant microswitch-clicking gratification (especially on the diagonals with their double-click), and the six buttons are feeling very nice too, each with their own meaty click and deep downwards motion. Rounding out what’s in the box, you’ve got a USB cable for power, a HDMI cable for output to a TV rather than the built-in screen and an instruction manual that probably says stop talking and start playing… Just one quick note to say you can also buy a bundle with two controllers, and I guess you can buy them separately, and these are smaller D-pad versions that I guess would make playing on a TV more comfortable, though in my set-up, when I’m not using the screen, the TV is right behind my desk and I’m quite happy using the arcade stick and buttons while the console sits in front of me. And, of course, no two-player shenanigans here, with only a 14-year old that wouldn’t be seen dead touching this around the house! There is a Japan-only “Style Kit” available too, which adds an authentic base to the console (with the coin slot acting as money bank), what looks like a customisable marquee panel and a mini stool. Not sure I’d want it raised any more though – the stick is really comfortable where it is!

Right, the plan here was to focus on first experiences of playing all of the games rather than reviewing hardware, so we’ll just do a whistlestop tour of the spec… It weighs in at 13 x 17.5 x 17cm, with a 3.9-inch 480×800 LCD screen, offering 16.7M colour depth, or 720 / 480P via HDMI. The screen is a little curious, running at widescreen 16:9 where most of the games are 4:3, so you’ve got borders (albeit customisable ones) down the sides, except in the widescreen menus! I’m really happy playing on the screen though, or on the TV, which does give a clearer image that some games benefit from more than others; Cotton, for example, looks a bit pixellated on the TV compared to the very crisp-looking screen version. One real positive is that I don’t need my glasses when its hooked up to a TV though! I’ll also quickly confirm that with the unit switched on, the arcade stick and buttons still feel great! Actually, they feel really great, with wonderful fidelity and a real arcade feel. Last port of call is the one that headphones plug in to for some improved sound, though again, I’m perfectly happy with the built-in speaker. Audio and visual philistine!

Once you’re connected to USB Power, switching on presents you with a lit green band across the top of the machine, while on the display there’s a Sega logo and Astro City boot screen, and then the games menu appears, totalling about 11-12 seconds. The games are presented as a vertical, numbered carousel that curiously lands on number 33, Virtua Fighter when you turn on, rather than number 1, the far superior Flicky! I get Virtua Fighter first rather than Flicky, but why not make that number 1 instead? We’re in danger of going all Spinal Tap here! On the right hand side of the screen you’re getting some basic information about the game – release year, PCB and genre, as well as some screenshots that you can scroll through with left and right on the stick, which is a nice touch. Pressing start on each title brings up a bit more about the game, as well as instructions and any save states that you want to start from; these are created in-game by pressing the credit and start buttons simultaneously, which will also allow you to load them up, reset the game, go back to the main menu and get a really clear button map for the controls. Back on the main menu, pressing the credit button will bring you the options menu for setting volume, brightness, things like scanlines, wallpapers and so on. And it’s all very intuitive! Right, now the games. All 37 of them, but unlike the menu, I’ll start with number 1 and see what happens from there, if that’s okay!

Flicky. What an absolute surprise this was! And despite being number 1 on the menus, because I’d never heard of it, was actually the last of the 37 games I tried, though once I’d fallen in love with it, a bit more digging revealed I actually owned the Mega Drive versions on both the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Switch Mega Drive Classics compilations, and to my shame had never even loaded it up on either of those! Anyway, this is the debut of Flicky, apparently also in the Sonic series, from 1984, and your job is to “avoid Nyannyan bring the Piyopiyo’s home!” This equates to the happiest, brightest and breeziest game since New Zealand Story or Bubble Bobble, and I choose those comparisons because it’s not a million miles away from either, with your little bird leaping around platforms to gather up chicks and lead them to the exit – the more at once the better – while avoiding and possibly throwing objects at the bad guys trying to stop you. Simple art style, joyful tune, and it controls like an absolute dream, providing the most addictive almost single-screen arcade platforming experience you can imagine! Not quite my number one game on the console, but it’s top three without question.

Sega Ninja. This is like Commando in fairyland, and actually came out the same year as that, in 1985, with you playing Princess Kurumi, using your shuriken and ninja skills to take out the Puma ninjas blocking your path to the castle. A really nice touch with this is that it offers an 8-way shuriken on one button, or a forward (up) only shuriken on another, making the cat and mouse combat with some of the tougher characters far more approachable than being able to throw them any way you want. It has the look of an early JRPG, with loads of pretty pixel trees and rocks and flowers, but make no mistake, it’s a run and gun shooter and a very good one behind that cutesy-looking (and sounding) facade! One thing to note here is the something that’s going to become a bit more problematic later – you’ll notice Japanese text appearing, and while it doesn’t make much difference in Sega Ninja (except I think it says Ninja Princess, its original name), the lack of English ROMs for the Western release does greatly limit enjoyment elsewhere! Interestingly, this was ported to Master System as The Ninja, and can you imagine the uproar if you replaced the original female protagonist with a male ninja out to rescue her today?!?!

My Hero. “Oh no! Takeshi’s girlfriend Mari has been kidnapped. Save her!” I’m starting to love these instructions on the menu screen! This is a like a 2D Double Dragon from 1985, or, indeed, Kung Fu Master dumped into its predecessor Renegade’s world, with urban side-scrolling beat ’em up stylings, complete with almost familiar street gangs. There’s three levels to punch and kick your way through, and then they keep looping until you’re dead. This was a bit of a slow-burn for me, but give it a chance and you’ve got a very fun brawler, with enemies that take some puzzling out and an absolutely gorgeous sunset to behold… I love my gaming sunsets! There’s a couple of nice touches too, like being able to punch projectiles being thrown down on you from above and redirect them at other enemies, or being able to rescue another captive who will then help you fight. Until he’s killed anyway! Possibly not my go-to game on the system, but remember load it up once in a while and you’ll be guaranteed a fun time!

Space Harrier. Now we’re talking! I’ll never forget that mind-blowing sight of the stage one fire-breathing dragon boss the first time I saw it back around 1985. And what a spectacle this game still is! Like everything you’re getting here, it’s worth mentioning that this is the arcade version and not some Mega Drive or something port, but most importantly here, you’ve got the option to change from the inverted default control method! Also worth mentioning another common system feature, the alternate rapid fire version of regular fire mapped to another button, which is a welcome addition to games like this where you’re banging fire non-stop, though for some reason I like banging fire non-stop instead of taking advantage of that! True to form, I can get to the end of stage four here then I die, but I have to say that this is my new favourite place to do so! One more thing, this is the first time I’ve preferred headphones over speakers, just because that iconic soundtrack can get lost to the sound effects otherwise.

Fantasy Zone. Another absolute favourite of mine from 1986, with you side-scrolling in both directions and shooting stuff to collect coins to get power-ups to get further. If Sega Ninja was happy-Commando, this is happy-Defender, with its whimsical colours and enemies and soundtrack disguising tough-as-nails gameplay. Again, the control stick is probably making this my favourite way to play, and there’s a very good chance it might consign Mega Drive Super Fantasy Zone to not being one of my go-to half-time in football on TV games! I could talk about this all day (and pretty much did so here) so as we’ve still got 32 games to go, I’ll move on by saying if you get one of these, just make this one of your first stops!

Wonder Boy. Apart from dabbling with a magazine cover copy of the jerky (to the point of being unplayable) Spectrum version, I’d never properly played 1986 side-scrolling platformer Wonder Boy, which in retrospect is a little curious, given my absolute love for Pac-Land since before then and right up to this day. But give it a proper go I eventually did here, and then I got pretty good, and then I worked out how to ignore all of that being good so I could get the highest scores, and outside of Flicky this is probably the biggest surprise the Astro City Mini has thrown at me so far. I really wasn’t expecting to fall in love with it as much as I did, even after I’d got to that “pretty good” stage! It’s not quite up there with Pac-Land for me yet, but its equally simple and addictive, and it looks and moves great, with loads of colour and loads of character in everything. The control stick here really lends itself to score-chasing too, putting you in-tune with every piece of momentum, especially when you’re powered-up with a skateboard and having to negotiate tricky platforms without slowing down. It might have taken me a while to get to, but I’m in this for the long-haul now!

Quartet 2. This is a 1986 two-person version of Quartet, a side-scrolling run and gun platformer featuring four space warriors called Lee, Joe, Mary and Edgar. “Destroy the boss. Only a key opens the door.” That’s what you’re told at the start of the game, and actually, apart from picking up a jet-pack and various other boosts and bonuses on the way, that’s exactly what you need to do, and doing it is a lot of fun, even when you’ve only got one player! Really wasn’t a game I was familiar with, and it’s doesn’t have a lot going for it in the looks department to draw you in (though the soundtrack is purest eighties!), but you quickly realise that this is Metal Slug meets Rodland, and that’s a wonderfully addictive brew!

Alex Kidd: The Lost Stars. As a 1986 platformer, I can see the attraction here. It plays great, and like Wonder Boy and Flicky, the Astro City Mini arcade stick is just perfect for getting the best out of it. But I just hate the art style – level one’s horrible nursery school pastel aesthetic in particular – and I just can’t get past that. I’ve got to level two, so I know it changes up a bit, but there’s nothing here that I can’t get out of Pac-Land and my new friend, Wonder Boy, so controversial opinion but I’m not really likely to come back to this one. Those miracle balls are just going to go uncollected, I’m afraid!

Alien Syndrome. Bit more like it! It’s now 1987, and you have an emergency order! “Rescue your team mate trapped by aliens within the time limit! A scary message from another world!” I reckon if Alex Kidd had more scary messages from another world I’d have liked it a bit more. Anyway, this is a classic top-down run and gunner, a bit like a thinking-man’s Gauntlet on a spaceship, where you’ve got to rescue all your comrades, blow up loads of aliens, then get the hell out. Definitely one that’s better with two players, but much like Gauntlet, don’t let that put you off it you’re flying solo! It’s tough, tense, frantic, looks like an Alien movie and has some really special sound effects! Look out for guest appearances from our new friend Flicky and Opa-Opa from Fantasy Zone too, hidden away in the level 3 boss fight! At this point, I can’t stop playing this, so while you might not notice it, I’ll be back later!

Wonder Boy in Monster Land. Here’s where that Japanese ROM problem properly rears its head, because that wonderful action platforming has now become role-playing action-platforming in this 1987 Wonder Boy sequel, and that means opening loads of doors you’ll come across to read text so you can spend the gold you’ve collected by stabbing snakes to upgrade your stuff. Okay, it’s not rocket science, and the levels seem pretty linear (though the difficulty definitely ramps up after a few), and it’s all good enough to put the effort in, but I get the feeling a European Master System ROM might be a better way to go if you want an easy option for the full experience. Annoying, but not the most annoying here, I think we’ll find…

Shinobi. The big hitters keep coming out now, or big slasher in this case… “Those who stand on your way up will be slashed!” You become Joe Musashi in this side-scrolling shooter and beater, rescuing hostages and fighting the most evil name you could ever think up, ZEED – always all capital letters – in this ninja favourite! Stage one is a cinch, but things get rough fast in stage two, and only get worse with all those one-hit kills and back to the start with you! Tough game but a lot of fun, albeit a little basic-looking even by very late 1987 standards, but you’re a ninja, and ninja was all that mattered back then!

Sonic Boom. No, not that Sonic (thankfully!), in this 1987 vertically-scrolling shooter, that’s the vertically-scrolling shooter equivalent of one of those straight-to-rental eighties action videos called something like Cobra Assassin! It’s another that doesn’t offer a huge amount to look at, and is a bit average to play, but I like this as part of the Astro City Mini line-up, in no small part thanks to the sinister synth in-game music that would sound great in Cobra Assassin, as well as the sampled speech from your wingman who probably also moonlights as a Virtua Racing commentator! Another case of fantastic instructions too… “Scramble! Regain world freedom! Enemy plane attack! Make that super shot!” Suck on that Cobra Assassin!

Altered Beast. Rise from your grave and get back in the fantasy zone again with this 1988 classic. Apart from on a full-size cabinet, I don’t think punching cows has ever been so much fun as with this version! This Ancient Greek beat ’em up might not have the greatest gameplay or graphics (though it does have the greatest sampled speech!), but grabbing those power-ups and transforming into werewolves, not to mention were-tigers, were-bears and were-dragons never gets old, much like that Ancient Greek setting, but let’s not go into that spoilerific can of worms here!

Scramble Spirits. I’ve never been massively keen on 1988’s Scramble Spirits. It’s another vertically-scrolling shooter, and I like the idea of being transported to a future fight in your World War II plane, but I’d rather be playing 1942 for World War II planes, or Xenon 2 for time travel, or probably a dozen others (including the aforementioned Sonic Boom) than this one. There’s some nice touches, like the comrade fighters you can pick up then direct to go kamikaze, or the close-up violence that signals an approaching level boss, but all the same, it’s a bit simplistic and a bit average as these things go. Good for the odd game when you haven’t for a while, but not one I’ll be firing up regularly.

Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair. Not to be confused with Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap (and that’s another can of worms I’m not opening!), this is the third Wonder Boy in the series, arriving in 1988 minus all that RPG stuff from its predecessor. This plays like a beefed-up Wonder Boy, and I don’t just mean all the weapon power-ups, but everything you’re seeing and hearing too. The arcade-platforming feels great, and I’m glad not to be wondering what I’m supposed to do with all these golden coins because all the text is in Japanese! Fantastic fun, and when I’ve properly rinsed the first game at least, I can definitely see myself spending a lot more time here.

Gain Ground. “An epic war that straddles time” isn’t the first thing I’d call it, but the idea is that you are one of twenty commandos dumped in the Dark Ages, and you’re fighting your way to an exit in each stage to move further ahead in time, totalling 40 stages in different time periods to fight your way through to get back to the future. All the commandos are playable individually, with different abilities and weapons, and you’ll mostly encounter the next one when you die, though you can pick them up as captives in some levels and switch around, and the same with any previously killed dudes. But who cares what that really means! This plays like a rubbish version of Commando, minus the scrolling, any discernable character because everything is so tiny, the great soundtrack or any fun whatsoever… The worst of it is the speed you’re getting spears chucked at you in the early levels though; a snail would come at you faster! This one stinks I’m afraid!

Crack Down. Top-down too, like a run and gun Gauntlet, released in 1989 though I do remember it on Mega Drive a bit later too. Anyway, you’re an agent shooting cyborgs and planting bombs at various points around each level as a timer counts down, on the hunt for a mad scientist up to no good as usual. Very clean-looking game with some nice animation giving everything plenty of character despite it all being on the small side. Loads of fun too, with some cool tactical possibilities and fun weapon pickups. Top-down done right and we’re back on form again!

Golden Axe. The legendary side-scrolling fantasy brawler from 1989 that might have been released on a hundred systems since, but I reckon it’s never felt better to play it at home than it feels here. It’s just great, and I’d even go as far as saying it’s a system seller for Astro City Mini. And yes, the dwarf does actually have a golden axe in this version, though, as always, the titular Golden Axe that belongs to the evil Death Adder is actually brown!

Cyber Police ESWAT. It all starts out as a fairly bland and relatively straightforward 1989 side-scrolling shooter and sometimes brawler and sometimes platformer, like a cop show version of Shinobi, Things really pick up around level three though, when you become Robocop and the enemies start to pick up steam too, with stuff like flamethrowers, grenades, tigers(!) and TNT that causes buildings to collapse as you’re scrambling up each floor. The environments pick up a bit here too, moving from generic urban decay to, well, more interesting urban decay! Has never blown me away, but it’s fun in short bursts.

Shadow Dancer. More Shinobi in this 1989 arcade sequel that I think was as far as Shinobi ever got in the arcades. This time he’s out to take down a terrorist organisation and save the day again, but now he’s got a ninja dog to help him out. It feels like the original, and you’ll still be being sent back to the start of the stage over and over again with its frequent, harsh one-hit kills. Sending out your dog to wrestle an upcoming baddie will buy you some throwing star time to counter this a bit, but leave it wrestling too long and it will get overpowered and go back to being a useless puppy! Otherwise, there’s a bit more to the backgrounds, but mostly a lot more Shinobi.

Alien Storm. Blimey, where to begin with this? We’re now entering the nineties, with a mostly Double Dragon kind of brawler, but you’re clearing the streets of aliens with a too short range ray-gun. It looks better than it plays at this point, and it’s certainly not a high point of the genre. Get far enough though, and you’ll either jump into an auto-running shooter that’s great fun but all too brief, or you’ll get an Operation Wolf-style hostage rescue in various shops, which is even more fun! And it’s all voiced by a wannabe Duke Nukem. I like it’s ambition a lot more than playing it unfortunately.

Columns. First game in the series (which we’ll be back to later), also from 1990, where you’re in jewel-based combat to place three or more horizontally, vertically or diagonally. I’ve not mentioned the Japanese text problem for a while because where it has appeared, it hasn’t mattered, but this one is a curious case of English and Japanese, even within the same screen! Anyway, it’s the classic falling block match-three, with a neat mechanic that allows you to change the order of the three jewels in your block as it falls. And as always, it’s really good, feels great to play here, and that chip tune church organ soundtrack never gets old!

Bonanza Bros. Another mix of English and Japanese, with the latter causing problems now because were missing out on everything important, from instructions to character conversations. Fortunately, it’s not rocket science, and a bit of trial error will have you getting almost the most out of this 1990 side-scrolling 2D cartoon arcade stealth shooter. You’re a burglar working your way through some light platforming to reach the treasure, avoiding or taking out guards. I’m not a fan of stealth, but I like how they use it here to make gameplay more about planning the next few seconds than fast reflexes. Definitely worth your time getting to know despite the language-based laziness.

Columns II. More of the same, also from 1990, but a bit more polished and we’ve now got two game modes to choose from. Flash Columns sets you challenges on a pre-populated set of jewels where you have to match-three your way to flashing objects and eliminate them to progress. Then there’s Vs Columns, where you’re building combos to make an opponent’s life more difficult by raising their playing field. No complaints about more Columns here from me when it’s this good. Yet…

Thunder Force AC. Not just one of my favourite horizontal shooters ever (maybe tied with P-47), but one of my favourite games full stop. I play it all the time when I’ve got a few minutes to spare, and now I’ve not only got somewhere else to play it, but I’ve got possibly the ultimate way to control it too! I love most of the Mega Drive Thunder Forces, and this one is a 1990 arcade rebuild of III on there, with elements of II and some ideas of it’s own, and the only thing that could possibly make it better is IV’s soundtrack! Absolutely thrilled to have this on here!

Rad Mobile. This is a really cool inclusion in the Astro City lineup! It’s a fairly obscure arcade racer from 1991 that only ever got a dodgy Saturn port. It plays like Out Run meets Power Drift (both of which would have been jaw-dropping inclusions here!), with a touch of Test Drive II’s hassle from the law thrown in. As much as it innovates on Out Run and Power Drift with things like weather effects, night and day, and the resulting windscreen wiper and headlight buttons, it’s not as much fun as either. The collision detection is even more dodgy than its Saturn port, which often works in your favour, but unless you’re pumping in credits the stage time limits demand a bit too much perfection given the tools at your disposal. All that said, I’m always thrilled to get my hands on a new nineties arcade racer and there’s a lot more playtime left in this one yet. You’ll also see the debut of a certain hedgehog too, dangling from your rear view mirror!

Cotton. Of all the games included here, this 1991 witchy cute ‘em up was probably the biggest draw of the lot when I placed my Astro City Mini preorder! It was the very first game I fired up and is certainly the one I’ve played more than any other since it arrived, mostly because I’ve wanted to get my hands on this since I first saw a screenshot back in 1991, and now, thirty years on, here we are! By coincidence, as I write this, I’ve also just beaten (but only scratched the high-scoring surface) the brand new Cotton Reboot (big review here), but I love all versions equally! Anyway, you’re a witch on the hunt for candy, and by taking down the supernatural anime masses standing between you and it, you’ll also be returning light to the Halloween world. Great aesthetic, and challenging but very addictive (and mostly accessible for an arcade shooter). And my system highlight!

Arabian Fight. I was a little dismissive of this the first time I played it – felt more style than substance. It’s a scrolling brawler from 1991 that seems to be based on the old Sinbad movies, but uses this really impressive sprite scaling technique to give perspective in and out of the screen. Also unique is the action seamlessly zooming in up close at the front of the screen for big enemy entrances or some special moves. The brawling itself doesn’t feel as good as something like Streets of Rage, but give it a few goes to click and you’ll be treated to some lovely “Arabian” settings (explained by more Japanese text) and really cool supernatural enemies. A real highlight for me, being an Ancient Egypt nerd, was moving from outside some pyramids into a tomb, and seeing the flat 2D warriors in the wall paintings coming to life to fight, but still as flat 2D sprites against this clever sprite-scaled 3D environment. Not the best brawler ever, but definitely worth a play to experience the journey.

Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder. This 1992 sequel has no problems delivering both style and substance, with familiar hack and slash gameplay getting a bit more depth, and the fantasy settings getting a whole lot more colourful and detailed. Not only that, but there’s so much life everywhere you look too, with subtle animation carrying on regardless of the brutal chaos happening everywhere. It’s all been given extra clout, there’s new depth to enemies, new mounts and weapons, multiple pathways, and the magic effects never get old. I’d never played this before, but I’ll be all over it now. Brilliant sequel to a legendary game.

Puyo Puyo. If it wasn’t for my colourblindness, Puyo Puyo would probably be competing with Game Boy Tetris as my all time favourite falling tile (or Puyo in this case) matching puzzler. This one has two Puyos at a time falling from the top, and you’re spinning them around to build groups of four at the bottom, which will then disappear and eventually cause blockers to fall on your computer or human opponent’s side of the screen, effectively making them start again a way up the screen until they can clear them. If they reach the top you lose. Wonderful game even if I don’t like the colour choices which can make it hard to distinguish Puyos when it gets frantic, and everything is now in Japanese, but all the same, a great inclusion here.

Dark Edge. By 1993, 3D had become really, really 3D, as showcased by the super-deep 3D environments in this post-apocalyptic fighter. This means your super-scaled fighter sprites don’t just get bigger and smaller and you move in and out, but the fighting is coming from eight directions too. I’m guessing this was a fairly early, not to mention pioneering example of the genre, though the gameplay was familiar by now – work your way up the martial arts tournament ladder to its bosses in a series of best-of-three matches. As far as I know, this is the first time it’s made a home appearance here, so it’s very welcome and it’s not bad either.

Tant-R. This is a Bonanza Bros. spin-off from 1993, offering a load of timed mini-games featuring Detective Bumpy and other characters from the original game. You’ve got puzzle games like sliding tiles to reveal pictures; there’s counting games, concentration games, hidden objects and more. And while it’s well presented and seems to offer lots of variety, the whole thing is in Japanese, making its appearance here mostly pointless! You can work out most of the games yourself, but why you’re playing them will still be a mystery, so I’ve played this once and given it one more chance, but I doubt I’ll be back a third time.

Virtua Fighter. It’s another groundbreaker from 1993, with its big 3D environments and even bigger 3D polygon fighters. My brother had this (or the sequel – I forget) on his Mega Drive, so I got to know the ins and outs of the admittedly relatively simple control scheme pretty well. Not that it’s doing me any good here as I’ve not been particularly great at any fighter since IK+ on Atari ST! Anyway, this is still a great fighter and loads of fun to play even if it’s been a bit superseded since. That world’s first 3D will still bring a smile to your face too! Love that this was included on the console!

Stack Columns. I’m not a huge fan of this for several reasons… more Japanese text and more Columns being two of the main ones. There’s a bit of a Las Vegas gambling theme too, and that does nothing at all for me either. Now, I know this never got a home port and it’s never been easy to access, but I’m not sure we needed another Columns arcade game in 1994, and we certainly don’t need another one here! I know we’ve mentioned a couple of Sega racers not present, but how about a Thunder Blade or an Afterburner instead of a third Columns game, for example? Anyway, the game itself plays fine, there’s some new mechanics and its very slick if more Columns is your bag!

Ichidant-R. Oh no, it’s more Tant-R from 1994! We should have stuck at Virtua Fighter. This time the Bonanza Bros. seem to be medieval knights, working their way through a load more puzzles and mini-games. It’s all bigger in scope and scale this time, which I’m sure is great if you speak Japanese, but that means working out what the hell is being asked of you if you don’t is even harder this time around, which I have no patience for, so I’m out!

Puyo Puyo 2. Another case of absolutely no need for this 1994 sequel to be here. There’s some graphical enhancements, though some of them involve lots of ornate black on red backgrounds, compounding the colourblindness problems I have with the original even further, but mainly there’s some tweaks to chucking garbage over the wall to block your opponent’s progress, and a new offset counter move. Unfortunately that doesn’t offset the missed opportunity for another game instead, but on the plus side, at least it’s more of a good thing.

Dottori Kun. In case you’re afraid we’re going out on a damp squib, don’t be! Our final game, number 37, Dottori Kun (or Dot Race) is a proper curio from 1990, but as a fan of the very early pre-Pac-Man dot collecting maze game Head On (and more so its VIC-20 offshoot Bullet by Mastertronic and many years later Dodge ‘Em on Atari 2600), I’m all in on this! Its original purpose is a little unclear , but it seems to have been provided as either an Astro City system test board or a way of getting around a Japanese law requiring arcade boards to be supplied with games. Either way, it’s very primitive, with your arrow moving around the maze collecting dots and avoiding X which will kill you. No sound, no colour, no scores and almost no gameplay, but it will make you want to party like it’s 1979!

You still here? I started this because there’s always a risk with these machines that you play a few favourites, dabble with a few others and then consign it to gather dust. That said, I hadn’t quite thought through the epic undertaking of reviewing all 37 games, but I’m glad I did, though being the retro nerd I am, there was no risk of letting this gather dust! It’s small, perfectly formed and just feels fantastic. Yes, there’s a few superfluous sequels, and I am annoyed about the laziness of not providing English ROMs, especially where needing to read text is a bit of a given, but there’s a hell of a lot to discover and enjoy besides!

This lives on the desk in my study, and whenever I need a break from work I’ll switch it on for ten minutes. I’ve spent a good few whole evenings on stuff like Cotton, Thunder Force and Golden Axe too! Fantastic machine, fantastic journey of discovery so far, and I can’t recommend it enough!

Game Review: Space Invaders Invincible Collection on Nintendo Switch

Game Review: Space Invaders Invincible Collection on Nintendo Switch

Where to begin when unearthing such hallowed ground? Well, like many others, I imagine, my story with Space Invaders begins not with the original 1978 arcade game, but with one of the many pretenders to its throne as the Space Invaders mania machine moved from the arcades and into the home in the early eighties. There were, of course, official home console and computer versions, but as far as I know, until the NES arrived a few years later, these were restricted to the Atari machines, with a 2600 version appearing in 1980 – the first ever officially licensed video game – accompanied shortly after by versions for the Atari 400 and 800. A couple of years later there was a 5200 port, as well as what I think was a licensed handheld version by Tiger Electronics, sold under the CGL banner in the UK, though it’s not easy to confirm this! What I do know, though, is that this one had a manufacturing flaw that led to nearly all of the screens breaking sooner or later, so unless you had an Atari, the best way of getting your hands on Space Invaders was probably one of the many, many handheld clones…

I never actually saw the Tiger version in the wild, and certainly didn’t see the fabled tabletop version that was just about released in 1983, but like for those non-Atari early home computers, from 1980 onwards there was plenty of choice that wasn’t officially licensed. My own journey begins with Grandstand’s Invader From Space, with its big blue fluorescent display and multicoloured “Cosmic Zones” that made no secret it was “the popular arcade game, now sized to fit in your hands!” My auntie had it first, but I’d soon get my own (while my brother had another variant, Bandai’s Missile Invader), though I’d later inherit hers when the joystick snapped on mine, and the power adapter socket was beyond being sellotaped into place to make it work anymore. That one still works, and is still really good fun too! We’ve now gone on a massive tangent, so let me just mention some of the other unofficial early eighties handheld gateways into Space Invaders that I can recall from memory… Space Invader by Entex; Cosmic Invader, also known as Galactic Invaders; Galaxy Invader, though its follow-up, Galaxy Invader 1000 and its iconic yellow case was probably better known; Tandy had its own version of Galaxy Invader’s next follow-up, the 10000, called Fire Away; and Ramtex had Alien Invaders, then went even more blatant with plain old Space Invaders! There were more, but now we have some period flavour, let me cross the decades and dive into the Space Invaders Invincible Collection, launched in Europe on 17th August 2021, and just for the purposes of transparency, a review code was kindly provided to me.

The collection first appeared, however, in early 2020 as a slightly different Japan-only release, with more or less games depending on the deluxe-ness of the version you bought. Then, just in time for my Christmas stocking last year, we in the West got a cut-down collection of the three most modern releases, including the 40th anniversary four player Space Invaders Gigamax 4 SE, the 30th anniversary remix Space Invaders Extreme, and Arkanoid vs Space Invaders, which we’ll come back to, but annoyed me a bit got making me play exclusively on the Switch’s touchscreen. Anyway, we’re now getting the full works, celebrating this icon of gaming and what must be the very first proper shoot ‘em up, with no less than eleven Taito games spanning all the way from 1978 to 2018:

  • Space Invaders (1978, Arcade) – black & white
  • Space Invaders (1978, Arcade) – colour
  • Space Invaders Part II (1979, Arcade)
  • Lunar Rescue (1979, Arcade)
  • Space Cyclone (1980, Arcade)
  • Majestic Twelve: The Space Invaders Part IV (1990, Arcade)
  • Super Space Invaders ’91 (1990, Arcade)
  • Space Invaders DX (1994, Arcade)
  • Arkanoid vs Space Invaders (2016) – included as an additional download
  • Space Invaders Extreme (2018)
  • Space Invaders Gigamax 4 SE (2018)

Yes, it’s not totally exhaustive if you look at the series and its offshoots in their entirety, with stuff like Space Invaders Extreme 2, Space Invaders ‘95 and my old mobile favourite Space Invaders Infinity Gene missing, but what you’re getting is a fantastic representation of the series from its beginnings to its modern respins, with a few bonus curios in between. And yes, it’s a $60 or £54.99 title, so looking at that list you’ve already got an inkling if that’s good value to you or not, but we’ll dig into that a bit more later!

Before we dive into each game, where I plan to give only a brief overview and summary of how it is to play today, I’ll quickly take you through the package as a whole on the Nintendo Switch… Firing up the game is going to lead you to an up-down list of all the games in chronological order, so it’s easy to jump into a bit of what you fancy, but it’s also worth noting that it’s mostly easy to jump out again too – as much as I loved Taito’s PlayStation 2 collections, it took forever moving from one game back to the menu! Each game here has a nice animated preview, some historical notes and your leaderboard rankings and best scores. For most of the games, you’re also getting a very comprehensive gameplay manual – for a game so famed for being instantly playable by anyone, I’ve never seen so many instructions for the original Space Invaders! That said, there’s nothing at all for Space Invaders Extreme or Gigamax, which is a bit odd when everything else has something to guide you, needed or not. And there’s online leaderboard support, except again for Gigamax, which is focussed on local four-player. Most games also offer an additional challenge mode, which usually involves scoring high against the clock, and we’ll cover a couple of the more interesting ones of these later.

Regardless of whether you’re playing docked on a TV or in handheld, by default the game screen is presented in its original format, meaning that for the older games, the gameplay area is a box sitting in the middle of the Switch’s widescreen expanse, although it is surrounded by some really cool borders. You can adjust it to fit the screen, which maximises the vertical height without stretching the rest, or going a bit wider with dot-by-dot mode. On a TV it’s not a big deal, but handheld it’s all a bit small and lonely-looking whichever way you choose, but you do have the option to rotate the screen here, and it looks fantastic that way, albeit at the cost of having to either dock the Joy-Cons and balance it sideways, or get one of those Flip-Grip things. I’m not a big one for CRT filters and scan lines, but as well as screen orientation options, you’re also getting what I’d consider to be pretty good options for those too.

There’s not really a great deal in terms of extras, like developer histories, museum pieces, artwork or all that other stuff that’s often included in such collections, but I’ve a feeling that if you’re desperate for more, you’re expected to stump up for one of the three premium editions, care of Strictly Limited Games… The Limited Edition comes individually numbered and includes a pin; the Collector’s Edition gives you an Arcade PCB Box, two soundtrack CDs, an official book, acrylic artcards and more; then the Ultra Collector’s Edition additionally contains a commemorative coin, an invader standee and a Space Invaders Invincible board game. And I’d be more than happy to review the latter too if anyone wants to send me one, but otherwise, let’s take a quick look at the games!

Space Invaders Original Version. The Beatles of video games! I’ve always thought that The Beatles are overrated, but I still love this granddaddy of shooters! This is the original black and white, 4-digit score version of the arcade game from 1978 that would become a cultural and social phenomenon with its simple premise of moving left and right to shoot lasers at invading aliens moving backwards and forwards and down the screen while avoiding their fire, aided by four quickly diminishing shields. Just in case you didn’t know! I have to say that hearing this version in action is far more nostalgic to me than actually playing it, but playing it is still a real treat – it’s purity and simplicity will always translate to timeless addictiveness! I enjoyed the challenge mode here too, where you need to wipe out a full wave of invaders within 90 seconds, without getting hit, and both of those really up the tension!

Space Invaders Colour Version. This was the definitive version of the original arcade version, released later in 1978 and adding some colour to proceedings, as well as a 5-digit score panel. Otherwise, it’s the same classic gameplay as far as I can tell, though it’s a shame it’s exactly the same challenge mode here too. This is the way to play Space Invaders though, and the colour choices make it look like the first ever ZX Spectrum game on top of all its other plaudits

Space Invaders Part II. It turned out that the first game did alright for Taito, so in 1979 we got the sequel, which introduced new gameplay mechanics like enemy reinforcements, aliens that split in two and rainbow showers. It also had an attract mode, and as another gaming first, an end of level cut scene of sorts, with the final invader flying off in a space ship and sending out an SOS message! Otherwise, the look and feel (and ominous sound effects) are more or less what you know from the colour original, and as such, that probably makes this my favourite game of proper Space Invaders. Cool challenge mode here too, where you have to finish a round while triggering the rainbow effect, which involves destroying all enemies except a single 10-point invader, that will then leave a visible rainbow trail as it starts moving faster.

Lunar Rescue. That’s not Space Invaders! Right, but it’s another arcade shooter from 1979 developed on the same circuit board as Space Invaders. And I love this game! You’re steering your rescue ship down to increasingly small (but higher scoring) landing platforms on the moon, avoiding comets by dodging left and right while using a jet to control speed, but as sparingly as possible to conserve fuel. Once you’re down, you’ll pick up a survivor and have to get them back to your mothership, but now the comets have turned into aliens and you’re in for a more traditional Space Invaders kind of gunfight as you move upwards to carefully dock. This really is a joy to play, offering a quick succession of different risk-reward gameplay mechanics on a bright and detailed game screen, with slightly less ominous sound effects too!

Space Cyclone. We might have entered a new decade, but this 1980 arcade shooter is another re-use of the Space Invaders circuit board. Unfortunately, two years was a lifetime as the golden age of the arcade game got into its stride, meaning uptake for Space Cyclone cabinets was low; in fact, its legendary status now amongst arcade gamers is mostly down to its subsequent rarity! You’re moving your rocket ship left and right to shoot down attacking Bems, the insect cyborgs riding on meteors that act as the main enemy. Eventually they’ll drop down off the meteors, and if you let them land they’ll start building their own rocket with a cyclone cannon, which will launch into space and do you no good if you let them complete it! This all gives it a bit more of a Galaxian or Phoenix kind of feel than Space Invaders, but I reckon this is a real hidden gem, with its primitive synthesised speech shouting stuff like “we’re coming” and “gotcha” throughout the battle, and the shimmering star-field and multicoloured cartoon explosions when you get hit by the lighting-bolt laser from one of the big UFOs! I believe this is also the first ever home port of the game too, so definitely spend some time checking this one out!

Majestic Twelve. Or, to give it its full name, Majestic Twelve: The Space Invaders Part IV, which was the USA and Japan version of Super Space Invaders ‘91 in Europe, and that’s our next game on the list so we’ll mostly kill two birds with one stone here! We’re now in 1990, and have finally moved on from that original Space Invaders arcade board with the fourth instalment in the series. It plays like a more frenetic take on traditional Space Invaders, as you fight your way through eleven zones, interspersed with a cattle abduction bonus game where you have to protect your cows from formations of classic fifties-style silver flying saucers; that also makes up the challenge mode for this game. Some really cool visuals at play now, with different ships and different backgrounds from around the solar system in each zone – some of which vertically scroll – and a huge variety of robotic and more insect-like enemies in all kinds of formations. The mystery ship at the top of the screen drops power-ups too that look like they’re straight out of Arkanoid. Excellent update!

Super Space Invaders ‘91. Not really much to add here – it’s Majestic Twelve in all respects except there’s no zone selection; you just play through the eleven stages in order. One or the other doesn’t need to be here really.

Space Invaders DX. This one from 1994 is an old favourite from those PS2 collections I mentioned earlier! Loads going on here, with three modes to choose from – Original, Versus and Parody. Choosing Original then offers various screen types, including upright cabinet, black and white, black and white with cellophane and colour. From there it’s all very familiar, with a slightly punchier feel to the game but on different backgrounds. Versus gives you competitive multiplayer, with new dastardly mechanics such as increasing the number of aliens for your opponent. Parody mode it where this comes alive though, featuring improved graphics based on the SNES port and a cast of characters from Taito’s other games replacing the alien and character sprites, including Bubble Bobble, Darius, Arkanoid and The New Zealand Story, which absolutely pops when you first fire up this mode – almost as gorgeous as the original! In reality, as a single player that’s why you’ll be here because the original mode is probably done better elsewhere.

Space Invaders Extreme. This was released in 2008 to mark the 30th anniversary of Space Invaders, and gave the series a proper new lick of paint, with classic gameplay mechanics remixed on an ultra-modern looking and sounding sensory attack. In addition, the version here is actually based on the further enhanced 40th anniversary Steam release, which I don’t recall being available on consoles before, but I’m not sure about that. There’s eleven standard zones to get through, branching in increasingly difficulty, and five extras that really ramp up the challenge. Each zone contains multiple rounds that might involve traditional play or challenge modes, for example hit a certain number of red aliens before the clock runs out. There’s huge depth to scoring too, with all kinds of possibilities for multiplying your score, but there’s nothing like just wiping out an entire wave in a second with a giant laser power-up even if it’s not going to benefit you very much! This might be getting a bit retro in its own right by now, but it’s still a very fine take on the original experience that will appeal to the more modern eye. There’s a regular arcade mode and a free play mode where you can select zones, and my only complaint here is that the user interface here has suddenly changed into its own thing after a common one on all the preceding games, which also makes it harder to quit mid-game if you’re not feeling it. Top stuff otherwise though.

Space Invaders Gigamax 4 SE. We end our journey here (bear with me!) in 2018, and the first simultaneous multiplayer version of Space Invaders. This absolute beast includes both classic and new stages, boss battles and deformed enemies, and the biggest wave of Space Invaders you’ve ever seen! Work as a team and you’ll be speed-clearing the screen in no time though, backed by a new soundtrack from the legendary Taito house band, Zuntata, which more than makes up for what might be lacking in new visuals. If you’re a solo player it’s definitely worth a go, even if it will be the most daunting thing you’ve ever seen when you first load it up! You do kind of level up as you go though, which balances things out a bit, but ideally you want at least one more player.

Arkanoid vs Space Invaders. Unfortunately this wasn’t available for download with my review copy as I write this just before release, but I understand that when players officially buy the game in the Nintendo eShop, they can then download it. I do have the benefit of owning it on the Space Invaders Forever collection though, and as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t like it forcing me to play handheld, in portrait, on the touchscreen, but I do know it’s an unsurprisingly enjoyable mash-up of two classic franchises, if you’re not put off by it being a straight-from-mobile port, which I assume is what it still is.

Laying them out one by one seems to be spelling out quite the collection, but now we’ve done it, we need to come back to that point on the price… On one hand, you could argue that you’re getting $60 or £54.99 or your local currency’s worth of Space Invaders, despite a couple of omissions, but on the other, if you can convince yourself it’s good value, do you need that much worth of Space Invaders? If you do, maybe those Strictly Limited Games deluxe options are more up your street than the digital version I’m playing. I don’t know though, even in a 50% off sale I’d still probably be on the fence about this one; it’s a lot of cash for a lot of Space Invaders. Well, hopefully I’ve helped equip you to decide for yourself if you hadn’t dismissed it already, and just for some non-period flavour, that’s also about what you’d spend on a decent Grandstand Invaders From Mars handheld on eBay today!

Discovering Ninja JaJaMaru-kun on NES

Discovering Ninja JaJaMaru-kun on NES

According to my Nintendo Switch profile page, I’ve spent 80 hours or more on the NES online colleciton service thing, and a whopping 85 hours or more on the SNES version! And that’s because I think they’re great, and the fact that most of the internet seems to think the opposite because they don’t include Earthbound and other such apparent classics makes it all the more great to me! If I could have any game on there though, it would be F1 ROC: Race of Champions on SNES, closely following by its definitive version of Test Drive II (more here). And not to leave the NES out, I’d take its version of Silent Service. The rest I’m happy to leave to Nintendo, with their often slightly bizarre curation creating a perfect platform for discovery once you’re past all their classics.

I can immediately attribute a lot of the time spent on SNES to Super Mario World, which I fired up out of general interest having never played it before when the service launched a year after the NES one in September 2019, then spent the next two weeks obsessing over finding all 96 exits. I did enjoy a new way to play a lot of old favourites like Mario Kart, F-Zero, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Pilotwings too, but what I’ve enjoyed the most is spending time with some new classics for me, most notably Mario’s Super Picross, Demon’s Crest, Stunt Race and Pop ‘n Twinbee. And I’ve still got The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on my to-do list!

Speaking of Zelda, the original probably stands out for most time spent in the NES collection, though beating my head against its sequel wouldn’t be far behind! By coincidence, I’d just finished The Legend of Zelda on the NES Classic Mini when it appeared on Switch, and immediately restarted it again… Best Zelda ever! As well as going on a bit of a bender with all the NES Marios, the other game I got properly  got hooked on here was Punch-Out, spending hours and hours learning all of its complex rhythms! There were some more great discoveries here too though – Dr Mario would quickly become a close second to only the majesty of Tetris in my favourite puzzlers list, if such a list existed yet. Don’t tempt me! There was Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong 3, Tecmo Bowl, Mighty Bomb Jack and Kid Icarus, and I know I’m in a minority with this, but I need to mention Eliminator Boat Duel here and its redneck take on Micro Machines too!

All great stuff, and I for one couldn’t ask for more of this service. But I will take that rumoured (at the time of writing in July 2021) Game Boy Advance service on top, and if Nintendo is taking requests, V-Rally 3 (no chance), Mario Kart Super Circuit (the opposite of no chance) and Game & Watch Gallery Advance as a wild card, on the assumption we’re getting the rumoured GBA Castlevania collection on there too! Just imagine Mario’s Cement Factory or Octopus in all of the Game & Watch glory on that new OLED Switch screen… Would also compensate for what seems to be a drying up on the existing services too, particularly for NES games, though if it is on its last legs, the latest drop still definitely came up trumps with Ninja JaJaMaru-kun!

This is my absolute favourite kind of game discovery – I had absolutely no idea what this was when I loaded it up for the first time, which in this case is also slightly more forgivable than some of the higher profile omissions from my gaming experience I mentioned a little earlier! Ninja JaJaMaru-kun was a Japanese-only release by Jaleco on the Famicom in 1985, then it got an MSX release in 1986, which then appeared in Europe as Ninja II, the follow up to Ninja, which was the European release of Ninja-kun: Majou no Bouken if you’re still with me! It would be insane to try and unravel this and the rest of the Ninja-kun series here in any detail, but the latter was the first in the series, translates to the very cool Ninja-kun: Adventure of Devil Castle, is also known as Ninja-Kun’s Demon Castle Adventure and Ninja Kid, and was a 1984 arcade, NES and MSX vertically scrolling platformer.

Seemingly named after a character called Fukurokouji JaJaMaru from the Japanese kids TV show Okaasan to Issho, Ninja JaJaMaru-kun sees Ninja Kid return from his hellish castle adventure only to have to rescue the captured Princess Sakura from the evil pirate lord Namazu Dayuu, which translates to something like Catfish Pirate. By the way, I think Ninja JaJaMaru-kun itself means something like stubborn round little ninja. To paraphrase the Switch game blurb, JaJaMaru (Ninja Kid’s name, I think, although I’m now losing the will to live!) must use his throwing stars to defeat the monsters plucked from Japanese folklore that are lurking in each of Dayuu’s many hideouts, each with unique weapons and attacks. The only way to advance is to break the brick floors above him (with his head), then moving up, down and around the level’s platforms the take out these fiends. These broken bricks will sometimes give you power-ups such as invincibility, speed boosts, points bonuses and extra lives, but you need to keep an eye on them because they’ll occasionally reveal a bomb too, and that’s going to obliterate you if you hang around, just like the ones that catfish boy is going to be chucking at you every so often from his perch at the top of the level. Get three different power-ups (or four extra lives) though, and you’re in the big league because this is going to buy you a ride on Gamapa-kun, the giant frog, who’s going to gobble up everything in sight! Princess Sakura will also sometimes drop flower petals from the top of the level, and three of these will take you to a bonus stage where you’re chucking your throwing stars up at Namazu for bonus points, or at a bomb which will move you to the next level.

This all manifests as something like Bubble Bobble meets New Zealand Story with a dash of Rodland (more here), and that, dear viewers, is quite the heady brew as far as I’m concerned! Now, obviously, the first time I played it I didn’t know any of this – absolutely no idea what it was! I’d prioritised that month’s three SNES games, with a quick go on what I think were Joe & Mac, Magical Drop II and Spanky’s Quest. None of them made any impression whatsover so I jumped to the NES app, pressed the “new” or whatever it is icon, a picture with a load of Japanese text on it appeared and I pressed start! My very first impression was Hammer’s 1974 horror martial arts classic The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires; another heady brew, in principle at least… “Hammer Horror! Dragon Thrills! The First Kung-Fu Horror Spectacular!” is what the poster said, and it was some of those things I suppose. Great tagline though! Anyway, the reason for this was the first level’s enemies, and I then spent literally weeks trying to remember what they reminded me of because it wasn’t Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, but it was close. And as I was writing this very paragraph, it finally came to me – the Pionpi from Super Mario Land on Game Boy, the jumping Chinese vampires that keep coming back to life, but here’s a free expert tip: Superball!

Back with Ninja JaJaMaru-kun, so far so painfully NES, but in the best possible way. Apart from the jerky scrolling maybe. But this just looks so vintage NES, with its four concrete floors interspersed with bricks that become holes that you can mostly just about jump over once they’re headbutted, and suitably Japanese decoration, from sliding paper doors to gravestones to willowy trees on a mostly solid coloured background. These will change as you progress through levels, as will the enemies; they start as our vampire ghost lady things wandering about the place fairly predictably, and you’ll kill them with a single throwing star, but as you progress you’re going to have to start upping your combat. There’ll be skeletons, what might be a penguin in a suit that I mistook for something more racist until I connected the Switch to the TV, there’s umbrella things, cyclopses and various boss-type characters, which then become regular characters on subsequent levels. They’re all colourful and distinguishable enough without being anything more than more standard NES fare, and the same goes for your little ninja kid too.

There’s not a that much that’s going to set your ears on fire, but there’s plenty of sound going on all the same. There’s a very pleasant, albeit primitive theme tune going on in the background that doesn’t last long before it starts looping, but it’s very evocative of the setting and the main melody is actually quite catchy! I expect its simplicity is in part to make some space for all the sound effects going on though; there’s a sound for everything, and when things are getting frantic as you’re chasing the level’s last monster around the platforms and Dayuu is hurling loads of bombs at you because the timer’s getting low, there’s quite the cacophony going on! At the start of each level, there’s also what I think is supposed to be Dayuu laughing at you as the enemies are positioned on the level, but it’s a bit unidentifiable!

You start out at the bottom of platforms, with eight enemies positioned around the four floors, and they’ll stay on those floors until you start breaking bricks and making holes. Kill them all and it’s next level, but from level three onwards, there’s going to be one boss enemy that takes a bit more beating. You can jump on them to stun them, but get hit by one of their weapons and you lose a life. Same if you touch any of the bombs, or take too long and the flame that appears when the timer runs out catches up with you. The first couple of levels ease you in, but then it’s going to get rough, and I’m nowhere near getting to level 21, where the game loops back to the start again.

Ninja JaJaMaru-kun is a real joy to play. The controls are responsive and put you exactly where you want to be without demanding too much precision, which is great for some of the smaller brick sections and a boss on your tail! The bosses are a great move too, being close enough to the other enemy designs in shape and size that in the height of battle, they deliver a real sense of panic when you come face-to-face with one, much like Shao-Lin’s Road (more here).

Actually, the gameplay isn’t a million miles away from that either, which might also explain why I like it so much! It quickly becomes hugely challenging and hugely addictive, and you can see exactly why it made the leap from console to arcade in 1986! It got a really cool WonderSwan remake in 1999 too, Ganso JaJaMaru-kun, which added new levels and new bosses, and I desperately need to play it! In the meantime, I’m good with the NES version on Switch because there’s no way I’m getting bored of this any time soon. And when I do, there’s still a ton of other games I’ve only scratched the surface of on the Switch Online service, so watch this space for more of them!

Discovering Silent Hill 3 on PlayStation 2

Discovering Silent Hill 3 on PlayStation 2

I’ve had a strange relationship with Silent Hill. Or Silent Hills. I played what turned out to be the first fifteen minutes of the original PlayStation game several times after buying it on launch day in 1999, and it took me finding it in an old cardboard box to actually play it properly in 2020. And this time I instantly adored it! After that, I had to have the sequel on PS2 as soon as a reasonable price on eBay would allow! And wow, I wasn’t expecting what happened there, and it became one of my top five favourite games of all time. I went way over the top writing about it here, so won’t go nuts again now, but what I wouldn’t have said then (because I didn’t know at the time) was that for the past year or so since the time of writing, I’d play it over and over… I’ve always got a game of Silent Hill 2 on the go!

I eventually picked up a copy of Silent Hill 3 – also on eBay and also for a reasonable price – at the end of November 2020. It was more out of duty than really wanting to play it though; I knew it was very unlikely to top either of its predecessors in my eyes, but I also knew it wasn’t as bad as anything else that followed it, and it was the story sequel to the first game that I loved after all, so was worth a shot!

Silent Hill 3 originally appeared on PlayStation 2 in 2003 from Konami’s Team Silent. Interestingly, and unusually, it launched in Europe first, in May, then Japan in July and America in August. It’s more of the same (although apparently it was originally planned as a rail-shooter) and picks up the third-person survival horror exploration, puzzling, clunky combat and Oscar-worthy voice work from its predecessors. There’s fog too, so actually not sounding too bad so far!

Having just finished the game for the first time, I’m still processing the plot because it’s as bonkers as you’d imagine, so for this paragraph and the next I am going to spoil it a bit to see if I’ve got it! We are seventeen years after the first game, and the baby that gets handed over at the end of that one is at the shops for her dad, stops off for a burger, falls asleep and starts dreaming about Silent Hill. With you now in control, you’re wandering about in its nightmare amusement park until you get hit by the rollercoaster. She wakes up, gets confronted about her birth by a stereotypical private eye who Silent Hill-based cult “The Order” have hired to find her, then does a runner around the shopping mall, comes across The Order’s leader, ends up in a classic bloody, hellish, decaying Silent Hill Otherworld (a bit like Bedford’s town centre), and soon we’re doing all of Silent Hill’s familiar other stuff too!

Things quickly escalate into revenge for murder, as well as the resulting trip to real Silent Hill with the detective in tow to take down The Order. And this is where things get complicated… As well as learning all about the first game, Heather learns that she’s the reincarnation of Alessa, the original vessel for the cult’s god, and that they now want her to give birth to it. Gameplay-wise, we’re back in really familiar territory, in the wonderful fog of Silent Hill’s streets, it’s hospital and other Otherworlds, working your way to the cult and its plot, before a wide awake second visit to the nightmare amusement park to find your way into The Order’s church (providing you avoid the rollercoaster this time). It’s here that she confronts the big witch, works out what she’s up to and how she fits in with the original vessel, vomits out a supernatural fetus that the witch ends up swallowing then dying while she gives birth to it, and onto a boss fight with the new god and the end. I think. It all got a little bit hectic in that church!

Now for my story with the game, and after all that hanging around, I actually sat on Silent Hill 3 for exactly another six months after I bought it! That was partially down to me getting a bit carried away with filling in other gaps in my PS2 collection around the same time and being distracted by all of them, but mainly because the two times I got to it on my official list of games to play next, I decided I needed to play Silent Hill 2 again first… Mainly because I just like being there! Anyway, before I talk myself into ending up there again now, at first I wasn’t really clicking with the third instalment. I didn’t know what was going on (which didn’t really change, but I got accustomed to it), it was all a bit dark, the sun was shining through my window on a very hot day, and I was instantly frustrated by the ridiculous new 3D controls. I couldn’t make Heather go anywhere I wanted, which isn’t helpful when you’re in a pitch black fairground surrounded by holes in the floor and you don’t know what you’re doing or where you’re going! Fortunately, it’s easy to change to 2D controls, where Heather moves left and right and in and out of the screen regardless of the way she’s facing rather than trying to work out which direction is which in relation to where she is.

By the time I was back in the shopping mall, things were picking up a little, even if I wasn’t massively keen on the setting so far, but it was starting to feel like a Silent Hill game. As we progressed into the subway station, through the sewers and up around the construction site and other not Silent Hill yet town buildings on the way to our apartment, it went even further, and I found myself quite enjoying it simply because it was Silent Hill by numbers. And then we got to Silent Hill itself, and I welcomed the sight of my beloved fog and felt the warmth of cold familiarity as I wandered its streets, but then, again, I started to feel a little down on the game – Silent Hill was just a bit lifeless compared to how it had been in the previous two games, where every texture seemed to be alive and with the promise of secrets, demanding to be touched and explored. The town here just felt like a pathway to the next set-piece. But when that set piece is everyone’s favourite Silent Hill hospital, the mood immediately improves, and this was the start of the best of Silent Hill 3!

You know you’ve spent too long playing Silent Hill 2 when you enter Brookhaven Hospital for the first time and don’t only not need a map, but it feels like home – especially when it goes Otherworld too! I was so happy wandering around here, but there does come a point where things get new and unfamiliar, and this was probably the highlight of the game so far for me; an unmapped maze that appears through a new door, that siphons you through its concrete corridors and self-opening and -closing metal-grilled gates, building up incredible tension even though there’s no obvious threat apart from the prospect of running through these bleak passages forever! It wasn’t long, and with hindsight it wasn’t massively clever, but I got a real thrill out of this bit!

It was also around here that I started stopping the action to take screenshots, awkwardly old-school with a camera badly lined-up in front of the screen! As you exit the maze and climb a horror-drenched ladder into the hospital’s Otherworld, there’s a wonderful moment where you see a hand suspended outside the window of what’s now more like a torture chamber than a treatment room; the first of a concentrated series of horrific postcard imagery! There’s a mirror puzzle that is probably the creepiest moment of the game as the Otherworld literally closes in on you while your reflection becomes disembodied as you watch, apparently completely helpless and with no escape. I also got a real kick out of the twisted altar that triggers the boss here – just classic Silent Hill decoration!

It’s worth mentioning how it all looks while we’re talking decoration. It’s quite occult in feel versus the more personal hellscapes of its PS2 predecessor, and all of this religious imagery, set against more traditional themes of rust, decay and bucketloads of blood – and in such a wide variety of environments – gives it its own disturbing aesthetic. It’s very Jacob’s Ladder, the 1990 horror movie that delves into the bizarre mind of a messed-up Vietnam veteran, and is quite the influence on the Silent Hill aesthetic as a whole, though here there’s a more blatant reference to spot in the subway in Silent Hill 3! There’s a slight graininess to it all that adds an air of the video nasty, much like Silent Hill 2, but this time I think they’ve gone a bit further with the use of light and dark and shadows to ramp up the fear of the unknown. It’s certainly a looker, especially when you’re in the disturbed imagination of the Otherworld, which also felt a bit more gooey this time around.

That’s certainly true of the sound effects too – a lot of the mechanical, almost industrial audio terror from Silent Hill 2 is replaced by a more squelchy and organic ambient horror that you really don’t want to know the source of! And again, that’s still backed by the more traditional themes of children crying, monsters feasting, things opening and closing somewhere… But overall I think I found the sound less dense than in Silent Hill 2, and the atmosphere did suffer in comparison as a result. I’ll quickly mention the music here too – it’s nice enough, but Akira Yamaoka’s soundtrack was pretty forgettable to me while I was playing. Yeah, I know, maybe not a popular opinion! It’s very varied, the vocal tracks are strong, and there’s some more ambient tracks that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Miami Vice, which is the kind of praise that should make up for some of my ambivalence! That reminds me, despite what I said earlier, the voice acting isn’t actually that terrible this time out either!

Back to the game, and we were heading towards the home-stretch before I veered off into review land. Now we’re back in the Lakeside Amusement Park, the place we had burger-fuelled nightmares about in that fast-food joint at the start of the game! I know I said I liked that maze bit before, but it was really getting to know this place this time around that I suddenly realised I couldn’t put Silent Hill 3 down because after all those ups and downs, it was suddenly brilliant! As an aside, I also found my new favourite place to hang out in any video game ever here, and it’s in Silent Hill so my long-running plan to retire there based on my Silent Hill 2 obsession is still valid, but now I’m getting a part-time job as a rollercoaster operator! Let me set the scene… At the start of the game, you get woken up after being hit by the rollercoaster, so when you come across it again for real this time, you need to make sure the rollercoaster isn’t rollercoasting, and after a bit of detective work you end up climbing up the rickety stairs to the top of the rickety ride and into a locked cabin to sort that out. And I just loved that little, decrepit wooden hut, with its handful of dials and levers, and plenty of space to put your lunch down and make yourself comfortable looking out at the hell on earth through its dirty old cobwebbed windows. My idea of heaven on earth!

We did end up in Silent Hill by numbers territory again in the last section, the church, but it’s so well realised, and there’s so many twists and turns (around completely ridiculous plot points!) that you won’t really notice. There was one really fascinating (but very brief) side-story going on here though, which as I write is something I want to delve into a bit more later (after I’ve gone into the mystery figure in the far distance I just found for the first time at the end of Resident Evil 4)… As you leave the altar area and go backstage in the church, there’s a confession booth. Investigating the door closest to you informs you that there’s someone in there, so obviously you go around the back and play the priest! It’s clear that all’s not quite right as soon as you go in, with pictures on the wall that you won’t recognise but are clearly out of place. And then a woman’s voice, confessing murderous revenge for the death of her daughter, at the end of which you’re asked to forgive or not forgive, and whichever you choose will influence your ending, despite it being completely missable. But who is the woman is what’s currently fascinating me! Is it the baddie from the first game, or from this game, or the original vessel Alessa, or your character Heather herself having a premonition, or some other lost soul, or no one of importance at all except to question Heather’s morality before she goes all out? I don’t know, but just like my other current fascination, the Tombstone Thunderbird (one for your cryptozoology fans!), I plan to find out more!

I ended up really enjoying Silent Hill 3, far more than I’d expected going in, and came out of the other side with my own little bonus confessional mystery to investigate later too! I also came out with an unlimited ammo machine gun for my next play-through, simply because I ran out of ammo on the final boss and had to finish it off with a sword! And let me tell you, that was a shocker – I’ve never not ended up with a ton of ammo, grenades and rocket launchers when I’ve finished any Silent Hill or Resident Evil or similar game before! But would I be playing again without that helpful little incentive? Well, someone has to operate the rollercoaster, but apart from that, I’m not sure. Until I got to the fairground, I’d filled the Silent Hill 3 space on my PS2 and Atari ST games overflow shelf with my newly acquired Advanced Ski Simulator, which I had on the Spectrum but never on ST, and probably should have left it that way; and Silent Hill 3 was going back to eBay. Now it’s back, and I’ve got nowhere to put Ski Simulator! That said, this just isn’t Silent Hill 2 for me, and I can put that down to three things – the intensity of storytelling; the realisation of Silent Hill as a place; and its inhabitants, which I’ve just realised I’ve not really covered…

Let’s start with the obvious – no Pyramid Head! In fact, none of the bosses are memorable in the slightest, either on their own terms or most definitely in comparison with the horrific unrealities of Silent Hill 2. And in turn, the big hitting scenes they should be delivering here have very little impact. Moving to the regular enemies is a similar story, with the iconic sexualised insanity of the monster designs in the predecessor replaced with what’s mostly a charmless laziness akin to watching a Paranormal Activity movie (or that dreadful Silent Hill: Revelation 3D thing)! They’re all far scarier when you can hear them but can’t see them, and don’t even compete with some of the (admittedly brilliant) environmental horror they’re crawling around in. And as I think about them again, I am wondering if I’m better off just speed-running with my infinite machine gun to my rollercoaster hut and making a permanent save there!

How did I end up getting so down on this when we were so close to a second play-through? I reckon I’d get down on most things that aren’t Resident Evil 4 when I start comparing them to Silent Hill 2, so just ignore me! It’s a crazy, polished, atmospheric and sometimes overwhelmingly horrific tale that still looks and sounds great throughout its 7-8 hour duration. The puzzles aren’t too mental, but there’s an easy setting for both puzzles and gameplay if that’s not your bag, and you can always slide it in the other direction too if it is!  Actually, I just thought of a fantastic upper to close on, and that’s the extra costumes when you finish. There’s tons of them, and I think they’re unlocked for going out of your way on things in subsequent play-throughs (I’ll get back to you on that), but the one you get for finishing first time is this really cool red vest for Heather, that has a picture of her in action with Silent Hill written underneath. Wonder if there’s a Pyramid Head one somewhere?

Game Review: DariusBurst Another Chronicle EX+ on Nintendo Switch

Game Review: DariusBurst Another Chronicle EX+ on Nintendo Switch

When Darius+ arrived on the ZX Spectrum in 1990, it didn’t have any great impact on me, and certainly no signficance! It was just another horizontal shooter with big sprites that were a bit too big for the cramped undersea environments, and until you got to one of the very impressive big robot fish bosses it was all a bit of a slog… Especially when you’d been playing R-Type on the system for a couple of years by now! To its credit though, apart from the colours there wasn’t a lot in it when you compared it with the Atari ST version, which unfortunately was also enough for me to never buy it when I moved over there!

The impact would eventually come though, and that was with the arrival of G-Darius for PlayStation towards the end of 1998, and I think from HMV in Milton Keynes if I remember right! I still didn’t know anything about its arcade lineage stretching back to 1987, or even that this was a conversion of the fourth entry in that series, but I did know that those huge 3D polygons it was chucking around were absolutely outstanding! Certainly wasn’t a slog anymore either, and being taken in and out of the water while waves of enemies came in and out of your 2D plane was simply exhilerating. And who can forget their first encounter with Eclipse Eye, the giant yellow mechanical broadmouth gibberfish stage one boss!

I think the significance of the series started to dawn on me when I picked up Taito Legends 2, very late in the life of the PlayStation 2, which included the arcade versions of Darius Gaiden and G-Darius. Even with my limited exposure to the arcade games up to then, by now the war between us humans and the sealife-inspired Belsar Empire that’s out to destroy us above and below the surface was becoming a familiar one! That I was aware of, we’d had the Spectrum and 16-bit computer games, then I’d looked longingly at various exotic PC-Engine ports like Super Darius; more accessible was Darius II on the Mega Drive, and Sagaia on the Game Boy, which was a take on Darius+ which I think I prefer over my old Spectrum favourite Nemesis on there. The SNES had its own takes on Darius too (which were mostly Darius II) with Darius Twin and Darius Force. Then there was more for PC Engine, Sega Saturn, PlayStation and that new Windows PC thing before we arrived at the G-Darius release we just looked at. My own final stop with Darius before we get to my PS2 compilation though was not being able to get my hands on Darius R on Game Boy Advance when it came out in 2002 because the stupid thing was Japan-only! Turned out to be a really cool remix of various games in the series when I did finally get there a couple of years ago though…

And now we’ve got a bigger gap that brings us all the way back to today and the end of July 2021, completely up to date with my time with Darius and ready for the release of the latest installment in the series, DariusBurst Another Chronicle EX+! Let’s start by saying catchy title, and as you can maybe tell from that catchy title, by now the history of Darius is way too complex for me to go any further into than we have already, which is exactly why we stuck to my own brief encounters with it so far! In short though, this is a new revision of DariusBurst Another Chronicle, a 2010 arcade game that in turn was a remix of DariusBurst, a PlayStation Portable game from just before then that I think was only released in Japan (and the crazy prices it’s going for on eBay seem to confirm that)! Anyway, we’re here with the new one on Switch, it’s also available on PS4, and for transparency I was kindly given a download code for the purposes of my ramblings here.

We’ll come back to story (such as it is) and game modes and user interfaces and all that stuff later because I want to get one thing out of the way from the offset… the new, ultra-broad aspect ratio panorama view, modelled on the dual display of the arcade version, with the ability to seamlessly switch to a closer-up view, is absolutely stunning! Now, obviously the first time I fired it up I paid absolutely no regard to anything I was being told on the screen – I just impatiently hammered the A (and X…) buttons until it put me in a game like every normal person does with something new! Then I wondered what the hell I was looking at, with the game spread across this massive narrow band across the screen while the score was popping out of the screen in big text at the top. Then I started pushing other buttons that weren’t immediately shooting lasers at stuff to see if I could change this weird default view setting, and eventually got to the back-left trigger, and suddenly we were transitioning to a much more in-your-face, full screen view, like one of those big round magnifying glasses built into the side of a seahorse tank at an aquarium. Literally! Another press, and we’re back in this over-stretched widescreen thing again, so back again – this time to notice the splendour and detail of the stuff I was shooting lasers at as it got up close and personal – and then back again. And now the realisation that these absolutely gorgeous 3D fish monsters were part of this huge, dynamic marine vista, and I was just blown away!

This is all happening on the big TV in my living room, so after I’d composed myself again, the next thing I wanted to check out was how this was going to translate to the Switch’s handheld mode. First, once we’re past admiring visual modes and actually playing the game, we’re going to be avoiding masses of shimmering plankton-like bullet hell (almost, at times). Second, while I was hammering away at the A (and X…) button to rush into my first game, I couldn’t help but notice loads of text all over the place, and at some point I’d probably have to read some of it to get the most out of things like the new Burst Beam weapon, not to mention work out what the different game modes on offer might be!

It turned out that the text was the main issue, and actually playing felt physically good in handheld mode. Except for the rumble, which was already starting to grate when I was just holding the joy-con dock, but with the added heft of the switch vibrating around, no thanks! Easy to switch off in the options menu though. The text is a different matter. Some of it – let’s say the medium sized body text that explains things like what Original Mode entails – is actually easier to read holding the device that straining to see it on the TV from an armchair a couple of metres away. It’s a couple of screens later, where you’re looking at the stage maps for each difficulty before you start a game, that the eye strain really starts in both modes, but then from the next screen onwards you’re going from about 50% of the text getting virtually impossible to read in handheld, to almost all of it on the next! Fortunately we’re only one screen from the game finally loading here, but all the same, you’re losing all of the ship select information and then all of the how to play and upcoming boss data, which is all essential when you’re starting out. Especially as this is about the only instruction a newcomer to the series is going to get anywhere!

Just to close on our first point on handheld, apart from that, we’re definitely missing the visual wow of seeing this on a big screen, and there’s also a a definite loss of clarity, which seems to affect the backgrounds – such as distant star-fields – in the panorama view, and in the closer view, character detail seems less distinct. The power-up icons aren’t easy to read either, but not a showstopper. I don’t really play my Switch handheld at the best of times, but while the feel is good and the gameplay is intact, I reckon the loss of fidelity and generally lower impact versus a big screen isn’t really a compromise I want to make for something as grandiose as this.

While we’re on the topic of text and stuff, I’ve got a few bones to pick with the user interface! When you first load up, once you’ve pressed A to bypass several company logos, you’ve got the game logo and a flashing “Press Start” message. I guess the + button on Switch isn’t technically a start button, but it’s the start button! Press that, though, and you bring up the options menu because if you look closely in the bottom left corner, it says “X:Start” which is even less “Press Start” than the unofficial start button! Okay, we’ve now pressed X to start (although my muscle / brain tissue memory is still making me press + before I realise it means X every time I load it up) and we’re onto the game mode select screen. Now in the bottom left, we’ve got some new instructions, with “A:Decide” rather than “X:Start” or even Start start! All now goes swimmingly until we get to the ship select screen – the one where you can’t read the ship’s description because it’s too small. Now, as well as “A:Decide” we also now have “X:Entry” and I have no idea what this means – it certainly doesn’t do anything. All I can think is that if additional players are playing then they need to press X wherever they are. Doesn’t say that anywhere though! On a related subject, when I was digging around in the options menu, I noticed there’s a load of different cabinets you can change to, but I never did work out what this means either as changing it didn’t seem to do anything at all.

Last little moan, which admittedly could be down to me missing something really obvious, but anyway, the words “FREE PLAY” are in the middle of the screen in tiny letters all the time, from that initial game logo screen when it first loads through to everything you see until you turn it off thereafter, including right across the play area! You get a lot of “X:Entry” at the bottom left of the screen while you’re playing too, which I guess is inviting other players in, but who knows when you’re flying solo like me and there’s no instructions whatsoever anyway! Actually, I do know that there’s 4-player local co-op, though I think online is limited to ghost-ships and leaderboards.

Right, I lied, one more moan then the good stuff! There’s no back button on the menu-type screens. Pressing B in any of these selection or preamble screens takes you right back to the title. But be thankful for small mercies here, because every single Game Over won’t take you back to the title screen, but to the parade of company logos before it that most games only throw at you when you’re loading up for the first time, so you have to click through these with the A button to actually get back to the title screen (where you then have to click X and not Start) every time!

I like my user interfaces simple, uncluttered and consistent, which might not be rocket science, but it’s amazing how often it doesn’t happen! And I know we’re here for the shooting, but this is Taito and this is a full price release, and honestly I expect a little more attention to detail.

As far as why you’re here for the shooting goes, it would be really easy to say that the Belsar Empire is back and up to no good again so you have to stop them, but why take easy when we can easily take the description on the Nintendo UK website wholesale! And I quote:

Take part in the galaxy’s most awesome adventure yet, with this brand new update to the arcade classic Dariusburst: Another Chronicle! CHAOS has devastated the universe as the biomechanical hordes take on humanity once again. Without the support of the human network, the Silver Hawks plunge into the depths of EVIL fitted with Burst technology and set out liberate Planet Darius!

In this brand-new edition of Dariusburst, enjoy the enhanced visuals and authentic arcade action like never before! Conquer the evil Belsar forces in the complete EVENT Mode with all new scenarios exclusive to EX+! And for the first time, take flight in the Silver-Hawk Murakumo in all modes!

Rush into Dariusburst: Another Chronicle EX+! Be on your guard!

Now that’s clear, let’s take a look at the four game modes. I’m taking a bit of a flyer on this because it doesn’t really spell things out – surprise – but we start with Original mode, which I reckon is the original arcade version, where you choose from one of three difficulties and work your way through twelve branching zones, so Zone A (Easy) will lead to a choice of Zones D and E when you’ve beaten it, Zone B (Normal) leads to E and F, Zone C (Hard)… You’ve got the idea! While there might not be much in the way of instruction, there is a nice accessibility option throughout for infininite lives, so everyone might get there eventually, but whatever score you get ain’t getting recorded. I like this in a shooter though, because as I’ve said many times before, there’s a reason why the most iconic boss usually appears at the end of level one!

Right, next mode. Original EX is taking what you’ve learnt in Original mode and ramping up the difficulty, with new letters representing those branching zones all the way up to Z to prove it! This is rough, but there’s real longevity to be had here too, and we’re starting to see some value in that full price asking price! Speaking of which, next up is Chronicle mode, and this is the big one. A vast number of missions and objectives where you’re presented with a load of star systems like one of those hologram maps the Jedi have in Star Wars, then you choose the planet you want to liberate. From there, you’ll be given a stack of missions to complete, each taking in a stack of different zones, and that all adds up to a stack of time needed to see your way through all of them!

Last up is Event mode, which is another 21 new (or at least remixed) named stages with definitely all-new music that either only ever appeared on the arcade machine for a limited time, or have been created exclusively for EX+. I mentioned them being named for a reason too – the names are great! “Fierce Battle of the Cosmic Fissure Belt” or “New Assault on the Cosmic Graveyard” are a couple of highlights, but what you’re getting here is a bunch of either score attack or time attack stages (that even invite you to press any button you like to progress towards a game at one point)! Again, another stack of content to get through here, and while I think some of the stages are more new or more remixed than others, you’ve now got way more DariusBurst than you could ever wish for! That said, keep in mind that from what I understand, Event mode is the only thing that hasn’t been available in various other console releases previously, and if you already own those it would be worth checking first.

And what about all that new music! Once it fled the aural wasteland of the ZX Spectrum, half the battle for the Darius series was already won by its epic, atmospheric soundtracks, and this one, by Taito’s in-house sound team, Zuntata, is just about the best of the lot! There’s a heady mix of surreal ambience and melancholic trance, Silent Hill-style industrial and dark techno that all seems to know exactly where its place is depending on your mission and environment. There’s disco beats and J-pop, massive space operatics, haunting choirs and ethereal individual vocal performances. There’s jazz. Yuck! There’s the audio drama of the sea itself backed by militaristic drums. It’s the soundtrack that keeps on giving, and it’s stunning throughout – even the jazzy bits!

The impact of the soundtrack on your gameplay experience cannot be overstated, which is why it’s such a shame that playing handheld – where headphones are an easy option – isn’t really an option, but Nintendo makes it so impractical to use headphones when playing on a TV screen that it isn’t there either. And that’s a compromise that shouldn’t be acceptable to the gameplay here, because the complete experience is a wonderful thing! Dancing your way around the myriad sub-aquatic settings, filled with sci-fi reimaginings of marine life as a deep-sea mechanical bullet-hell menace is exhilarating enough, but when that deep klaxon sounds its warning over the soundtrack that’s already driven your adrenaline to fever pitch, the appearance of one of the giant robot monster fish bosses is nothing short of mesmerising! And it’s such a voyage of discovery too, and you just wonder what massive marine insanity is coming next – I mean, you’ve beaten Lightning Claw, Brightly Stare, Mud Wheel and Hermit Red-Purple, so where do you possibly go from there? Well, why not try Great Thing, Thousand Bullets, Brute Gluttons and Massive Whip for size! And they’re all based on the worst of what’s really lurking in the real deep, from whiplash squid to hermit crabs to, er, piranhas. Sea piranhas! And they’re all massive and epic and beautifully designed, and there’s very few that aren’t just an absolute thrill ride once you’ve got a bit of a grip on their moves!

There’s help at hand with your new multifunctional Burst Beam cannon though, opening up all kinds of tactical combat and massive score multiplier possibilities once you’ve got your head around it. This thing’s giving you the capability to turn the tide of a boss battle in a couple of button taps, whether you decide to use it as an enormous screen-slicing laser blast that you can also detach from your ship then rotate to bring down some hell of your own, or whether you decide to angle it so you’re effectively giving yourself a burning shield to obliterate enemy fire (which will also recharge it) as you blast away from behind cover. It’s got a trick up its sleeve to parry massive enemy fire bursts too, which will net you up to 96x scores if you’ve got your counter-game on. There’s enormous depth to this thing, and I’m not sure I’ve totally seen the best of it yet, but at the very least it won’t be long at all before you’re getting up close to a boss that’s about to unleash a giant lightning strike or something at you, detatching, spinning and locking your Burst Beam in its face then letting that take the brunt of its mouth juice while you do your thing in complete safety. For a few seconds at least! Quick mention for the tap of the right shoulder button to send fire backwards rather than forwards too. Why don’t all shooters do that?

I reckon that this is a rare case of the visuals playing second fiddle to the soundtrack, and I’m struggling to think of many games where that happens… Bits of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood on PC-Engine spring to mind, but not a lot else. Anyway, second fiddle or not, this is a feast for the eyes. And yes, I am still playing the Switch version and not PS4! Actually, I can imagine the loading times are a bit quicker on PS4, but to a frame-rate philistine like me I doubt there’s a lot more in it. Clearly, the boss fish are the high points; they remind me of seeing these exquisitely painted Warhammer or other nerd fantasy miniature figures being showcased in White Dwarf magazine or some unfathomable Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rule book back when Darius was flounder(!)ing on the Spectrum! Anyway, that’s good! Every metallic scale or tentacle has an air of being hand-painted then expertly dry-brushed for extra shadow or highlight, or a kind of subtle vein effect or scarring. And there’s a real mix of geometries to create life from straight edges, not to mention the mix of colours and the sinister grimace they seem to have captured on every one. And there’s more than forty of them!

A similar design philosophy is applied to even the smallest enemy that makes up the biggest of swarms, and seeing these things come at you is such a joy. I didn’t think some of the larger, more traditional regular enemy ship designs were massively creative, and they did remind me of those modern graphical overhauls of the first two R-Type games, with slightly less attention to detail than their more fishy-looking friends. The same is true of some of the asteroids (that break up old-school when you shoot them!) and big rock formations you come across, but in the heat of battle, as the actions scrolls along at some serious pace, you’re not going to complain! There’s huge variety in those backgrounds going by too, ranging from states of smoky aurora to planet-fields to complex natural and mechanical structures, but you rarely get the chance to admire their individual movement and organic transitions! There’s just so much else to take in, with the screen usually a mass of swarming enemies, laser fire, bullets, missiles, explosions (which, honestly, are mostly a bit underwhelming) and just general chaos. I think I might have seen a little judder on occasion when things got really mental, but on the whole this thing is a credit to getting the best out of the Switch.

Burst Beams, giant fish robots shooting multicoloured lasers out of one end and some kind of electric hurricane out of the other, tooled-up rock-falls, glistening razor shoals and a screen full of bullets of and explosions of every kind – all at once – with some kind of industrial-jazz booming and pumping up your heartbeat to bursting while the sounds of dozens and dozens of things shooting, exploding and dying (not to mention those terrifying boss warnings!) and this thing is just the best sensory overload you can imagine! Just play it on the biggest screen you can lay your hands on, play it loud, don’t have a heart attack and don’t forget it’s X not Start to start!

Game Review: Fantastic Night Dreams – Cotton Reboot! on Nintendo Switch

Game Review: Fantastic Night Dreams – Cotton Reboot! on Nintendo Switch

It must have been around the summer of 1985 that an advert for Palace Software’s Cauldron first caught my eye, dominated by its classical old witch stirring her giant cauldron full of bubbling bug life, though it was one of the Commodore 64 screenshots that really did it – the witch on her broomstick flying in front of a big full moon above a magical forest (they had such great trees on there!) and what is still one of the best-looking old hovels you’ll ever see in a game! This was part Defender-style shooter and part arcade platformer, with your hag searching out keys that would give her access to caverns where she’d find the ingredient for a spell to get rid of the evil Pumpking. It would be a while before I finally got a Spectrum +2, and a bit longer again before I found my way to Cauldron, but I’d never forgotten that single screenshot… So imagine my disappointment when I quickly conceded that the game stank! It was all so awkward and frustrating, and I just didn’t get it. I was a lot quicker off the bat getting the sequel the following year, but got its bouncing pumpkin vibe even less, so despite the Commodore 64 version of the original giving me what is still one of my favourite sights in any game ever, what held so much promise to 13-year old me has been a letdown ever since.

Half a decade later again and a very similar tale is emerging out of 1991, staring longingly at screenshots of this Sega arcade game that has all the witchy shooting and none of the witchy platforming of Cauldron, but with this mind-blowing cutesy-gothic anime art style! Could this be the one? Sadly, this time all that witchiness seemed even more out of reach, then and for no less than the two decades, including the subsequent ports to all kinds of systems that were always impossible or difficult to access! To put it in context, by this time my already limited exposure to arcades when the fair came to town through the eighties had now plummeted to a Hydra machine next to a Pit Fighter machine in a University of Hertfordshire Student Union bar! There was no chance I was getting my hands on this piece of Japanese exotica, whether in its original form or on some fancy and equally out of reach console like the PC-Engine (which turned out to be something like the case a couple of years later). But like Cauldron, I never forgot about it, and when my Sega Astro City Mini console arrived on its European release in the summer of 2021, there was one game I was finally jumping straight into the first time I fired it up, and that was, of course, Cotton, where it’s been a mainstay ever since!

Now, I might have taking my time getting to that original arcade game (Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams to give it its full name), but in all those intervening years I have skirted around other versions, such as Cotton Original on PlayStation, and other installments in the series, such as Cotton 100% on SNES and mad rail-shooter Panorama Cotton on Mega Drive, and in doing so have become a bit of the fan of the series, albeit one a bit like an Arsenal fan that’s never been to the Emirates. Or Highbury. Not only that, but I’ve also become a proper fan of some of the best of the cute ’em up genre it would go on to help define, with some of my all-time favourite shooter series such as TwinBee and Fantasy Zone. And that’s the world into which Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton Reboot! arrives, and, just for transparency, with a code kindly provided for review.

What we have here is an updated and remastered version of the original Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams, built around three game modes… There’s the X68000 original mode, which emulates the 1993 Sharp personal computer port that’s also possibly the definitive version of the game (including arcade); then there’s Arrange mode, and this is where you’ll find the main rebooting, with spectacularly redesigned graphics and characters in an all-new 16:9 format; and finally there’s score attack mode, where you’re competing online for the best possible score in either 2 or 5 minutes.

We’ll come back to all of that in a minute though because now’s a good time to look at what Cotton is actually all about! You’re a young witch called Nata de Cotton, and, accompanied by your saucy, bikini-clad fairy friend Silk, you’re on the hunt for your favourite candy, Willow, and are so crazy about it that you’ll take down anything that gets in your way, which is convenient because everything in your way is behind the demonic infestation that’s also brought darkness upon the world. In terms of plot, that’s pretty much all there is to Cotton, which is very welcome in these parts – justify your existence and move on to the action, like John Rambo! You’re travelling left to right and sometimes up and down through increasingly difficult gothic fantasy lands, powering up to overcome fiendish boss monsters and mass waves of their minions, all in the name of Willow.

We’ll have a delve into each game mode, though there’s a lot in common between the two main modes, with the new all-singing, all-dancing, completely bonkers Arrange mode, where most of the reboot in Cotton Reboot takes place, being more grounded in the X68000 version more than the original arcade version. Either way, fans of the original are going to be in very familiar territory throughout, and if you’ve not played it for the last twenty years, this graphical showcase might even be what those rose-tinted spectacles are telling your brain that this is exactly what you remember playing!

What you’re not going to be remembering is the number of enemies coming at you all at the same time though, and this is probably the key difference, because while the technical limitations on pushing sprites around might have been lifted now, once you’re a couple of levels in you’ll notice that you’re entering bullet-hell territory. It’s not full bullet-hell, but a kind of diet bullet-hell – like Nickelback to rock music, or Paranormal Activity to horror movies! All the same, it definitely reboots the gameplay style, and regardless of semantics about bullet-hell, all those enemies and all those “bullets” definitely make life harder despite your equally rebooted firepower.

On top of this, we’ve also got a few quality of life enhancements brought about by being developed for consoles (or ageing PCs) first, plus accessibility and a few mechanical upgrades. Actually, having played an awful lot of arcade Cotton on the Astro City Mini now, the most welcome change in both modes is simply having the bomb button mapped to the fire button by default so you’re getting both at once, because standalone bomb just gets ignored in the heat of battle for flying down low and using regular fire on whatever’s on the ground instead.

Outside of your regular arsenal, you’ll be supported by additional firepower from Silk and up to five more of her fairy friends if you spot them and save them from inprisonment along the way. As you mow down wave after wave of enemies, the screen will start to fill (literally!) with power-up items – there’s a bomb item that looks like a wristwatch, and makes your bomb more and more powerful, and there’s various types of crystal, which is where things start getting complicated in the Arrange mode! Shooting at a crystal effectively diffuses your fire, making it more powerful and more efficient in finding its way to enemies. In addition, these diffused shots are transformed into collectibles when they hit something, and these contribute to an item counter at the bottom-left of the screen, up to 100%. Now, I’m not 100% sure I’ve got this yet, but it’s a kind of multiplier effect, increasing your enemy score for as long as you don’t get hit, which will decrease the item level – whatever it is exactly, don’t get hit and you’ll get more points! And once you’ve got a bit of item level behind you, you can also press X which is going to launch a fever mode, turning fallen enemies into massive multiplier icons for a massive score bonus until doing so has depleted that level indicator.

Back to the crystals, they don’t only diffuse the shot, but they’ll also change colour the more you shoot them, TwinBee-style. Yellow means experience, which you need to power-up your shots. Orange is also experience, but more of it. And there’s a big bar at the bottom of the screen to show how that’s going. There’s also red, blue, purple and green, which are sources of magic, and each gets its own little icon at the bottom of the screen too, and you can store up to six of these, and each can level up three times to give you more magic power. Red gives you Fire Dragon; blue is Lightning; purple is Bomber; and green is Summon. Whichever one is flashing on the left of your group of magic icons is ready to go, and a press of the Switch’s B button will activate that spell. And that’s a good time to mention that if you head into the options menu, you can assign this wherever you like, as well as split the bomb and shot functions if you prefer.

In case you’re still following this crystal stuff, each magic also has a sub-magic function, and a quick press and hold of B will launch that instead for a different effect. A slightly longer hold is going to set your fairy loose with some special moves of her own, and longer again will put a temporary defensive bubble around you… Sounds a bit mad, but there’s enough on-screen indication to see you through with some practice, and I reckon if you reassign the bomb and shot buttons independently you’ll also separate these a bit more. And finally, back on crystals, if you keep shooting a crystal, it will eventually turn black, and this is just a big score item, starting at 10,000 points and getting bigger every time you pick another up. Just don’t forget to stop firing at black crystals, otherwise it will break and all that shooting will have been for nothing. And good luck managing all of that when the screen is full of the things and enemies coming from all directions too! Once you’ve got the hang of it, there’s even more to discover, for example, there are ways of using sub-magics to turn everything to black crystals for mega-scores that you can suck back to Cotton without manually collecting them. For really mega-scores though, here’s a tip that even beginners can get onboard with… At the end of each level there’s what I think are different scoring teabags falling from the sky to collect as bonuses, but if you avoid all of them rather than collect them like it wants you to, there’s secret multi-million point bonuses on offer!

Blimey, now we’ve been through that, there might be more to this reboot thing that I initially hinted at! It’s definitely worth pointing out that you can ignore all of that and just enjoy a fantastic shooter, and this is exactly what I’d recommend to begin with – take in the sights, get a feel for the enemy attacks, which are going to be the same attacks in the same place every game so you’ll be learning their patterns as you go, and this will allow you to start focussing on all that additional depth when you’re ready. You’ve also got infinite continues (plus three difficulties) in both Arrange mode and X68000, so you can even brute force your way to the end of the game if you wish. Whichever way you get to the end, you’re looking at under 45 minutes (and probably nearer 30) to go from point to point, but with all that depth to get to grips with to get those big scores once you’ve learnt your way through every level’s enemies (and minimised your continues if that’s your thing), there’s a lot of value for money here. A clear is also going to unlock Silk and Pril, another witch from the Trouble Witches series that I don’t have any idea about, but being able to play as both is a nice addition!

Arrange mode is just an every day is Halloween thrill ride! You could look at moments where the screen is completely stacked with enemies, bullets, magic and multiplier icons as a bit bewildering, but you’re better off just taking it as completely insane fun through six distinct eighties horror anime-inspired levels, each bookended by similarly-styled cut-scenes, and not forgetting the bonus final boss fight! This visual style is absolutely gorgeous, with beautifully crafted gothic backgrounds, taking in the best-looking haunted forest since Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, gothic mansions, impossible floating castles, mountain ranges, volcanoes, caves and all sorts more. My favourite is the graveyard though, which its dramatic deep sunset skylines reminding me of old Vincent Price movies like Masque of the Red Death. Beautiful! It did seem to lose a little contrast moving from a TV to Switch handheld mode, and that’s where I experienced a few unexpected deaths as I was caught by indistinct enemy fire against dark backgrounds that had lost their clarity on the small screen.

That said, the main character sprite really shines in handheld mode, with Cotton’s hair and clothes and broomstick twigs bouncing around as you move, and its really brought to life by subtle highlights and lowlights. If you have time to cast your eyes towards Silk the fairy, you’ll notice she’s doing her own thing too, with all sorts of animation going on despite her small size; you can even make out just how small and impractical her bikini is for this kind of scrap as well, though no need to look too closely because you’ll get a nice gratuitous shot of that on each end of level summary screen! The mid-level and end of level bosses look great too, even if not massively original or challenging after a few runs at them, and all of the above applies but on a larger scale. I did notice a little jaggedness to these bigger sprites against the much less pixellated (by design) backgrounds, and even more so against the very sharp crystals, bullets and so forth when hooked up to the TV though. You’ve probably seen the regular enemies before too – mostly standard cartoon horror tropes – but they’re enjoyable in the main, though I did find a couple, such as the Frankenstein-type monsters that throw their heads at you, and the grim reapers, a bit too cartoony, and a little jarring in the context of the level design they’re found in. Overall though, it’s the best-looking Cotton you could hope for!

All that cacophony of graphics is perfectly mirrored by the cacophony of noise going on everywhere too! It’s like being in a Japanese arcade (or, in fact, the assault on the senses you get almost anywhere you go in Tokyo), but where everything is concentrated into a single game! To try and break down some of this aural density, there’s the almost continuous sound of your weapon firing and bombs dropping, plus the explosions as they make contact, and the sound of the enemies and the mass of crystals dropping or being collected, interspersed with the sounds of magic when its used, and occasional shouts of “Barrier” and the like from Cotton or Silk or one of the more coherent enemies. Like those highlights that brought the graphics to life, the voice work, when it appears, really does the same with the sound. And the whole time there’s this insane J-pop type soundtrack over the top of everything. None more Japanese!

I know from experience that to the outsider, there are times you need a break from all that Japanese though – as wonderful as it is, there’s only so much of all that visual and audio stimulation that you can take in one go! And that’s where you might want to look at the slightly more considered X68000 mode, where we’re back in the realms of the traditional cute ’em up rather than veering towards bullet-hell. As we’ve already discussed, this is the 1993 Sharp X68000 Japan-only PC port of the original arcade game, where it got some mechanical updates we already discussed, new design features and a graphical overhaul that treated us to some of the best-looking pixel art from that era you’ll ever come across.

Bearing in mind my red-black colourblindness and the fact I’ve just got my Switch running next to my Astro City Mini, I’m seeing much more going on in the X68000 mode, for example in the first level, the addition of reflections of lights in the water, or a layer of wispy, semi-transparent dark clouds providing a parallax effect to the scrolling. There’s also a little more detail in character designs, but a lot more in textures, whether distant water or more immediate buildings, ruins, rocks, trees and the like. The sound seems a bit more meaty too, but I’m not sure how much of that is down to each machine’s speakers and how much is the games themselves. Apart from that, you’ll also notice differences in some of the enemy designs, their attack patterns and its also got its own boss designs. One thing I did notice when playing the two side-by-side was the slightly better-suited controls with the Astro City Mini’s chunky resin arcade stick versus the Switch’s joy-cons, which I think I still prefer over its directional buttons. There’s nothing wrong with it, and actually I was a little concerned it might feel clumsy, which turned out to not be the case at all, but I’m guessing the Switch (or, indeed, the PS4 version) possibly isn’t the most pure way to play Cotton.

The last game mode is Time Attack, which is a kind of online caravan mode that you can set at either 2 or 5 minutes to compete in onboard leaderboards. Here you’ll find yourself in a huge Roman Colosseum-type arena, packed with spectators, that scrolls endlessly (or for 5 minutes, at least) and throws masses of enemies at you so you can put all that stuff you learnt earlier about shooting crystals and fever modes into practice against other players from around the world! The setting doesn’t quite fit with Cotton (except, maybe, when the sun starts setting as the timer runs low), but this is a hell of a lot of fun, apart from being a stark reminder that you’re really not that good at this yet!

For a game that can be finished in half an hour or so, you’re getting an amazing amount of game with Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton Reboot! There’s the crazy looks, crazy sounds, crazy gameplay and just general craziness of Arrange mode, offering an accessible, modern, polished and did I mention crazy bullet-hell kind of horizontal shooter with a ton of depth if you want it. Then there’s the purity and best-in-class old-school aesthetic of the best version of a pioneering old arcade game that still stands tall with the best of the genre, and also has never been properly available here before! And there’s also the Time Attack mode that will decide if you’re good or not for you, however far you think you’ve come, and if you’re not, then back to Arrange mode with you because there’s sure to be more score you can tease out of that to help you on your way!

I have two go-to horizontal shooters on the Switch – Thunder Force AC and P-47. Whenever I get a quiet minute, or it’s half time in the football on the telly, I’ll fire up one of those and remember that you don’t get good at these things in 15 minute bursts once a week, but I’ll have a great time doing so! Now I’ve got a third and a fourth option with Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton Reboot! Stunning game in 1991, in 1993 and now in 2021. Take your pick!