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 BurgerTime on My Arcade, NES, Arcade and More!

Discovering BurgerTime on My Arcade, NES, Arcade and More!

As much as I always liked the look of BurgerTime when it arrived in town with the traveliing funfair a couple of times a year, it was always competing with Pole Position for those fleeting few minutes of my attention when we were allowed in its classically smoke-filled, seedy arcade. Before long, it would be competing with a sit-down Star Wars cabinet too, and by then even a spectacular 3D racer with a steering wheel and a gearstick that once blew a 10-year old’s mind was going to struggle to get another look-in!

BurgerTime was originally known as Hamburger when it was produced by Data East in Japan in 1982, but fearful of potential trademark issues, Bally Midway decided to rename it when they licensed it for Western release. Everything takes place on a single screen, where you control a little chef called Peter Pepper as he runs around six increasingly challenging mazes of ladders and platforms, creating dirty hamburgers from the ingredients lying around while avoiding various enemies, the dastardly Mr Hot Dog, Mr Egg and Mr Pickle! You create the burger by getting to the platform where one of the ingredients is placed and walking over its full length, which will cause it to drop to the level below. These include buns, patties, lettuce and sometimes tomatoes or cheese, and I’m sure they taste all the better for being trampled! If there’s another burger bit under it, then that will drop down a level too, until you’ve got them all stacked up on the bun at the bottom.

As well as avoiding the Mr men, you’re armed with a limited supply of pepper sprays, which will briefly hold them in their tracks, and extra bonuses will also appear from time to time in the form of french fries, coffee and ice creams. Dropping an ingredient on the bad guys is to be encouraged too! And once you’ve dropped all of the ingredients onto all of the burger plates (rather than the bad guys) on the screen, you can move on to the next. Complete all six screens before getting Mr Pickled with all of your lives and it will start all over again.

As stuff like Track & Field, Pac-Land, Out Run and Operation Wolf gradually evolved, running around some platforms making hamburgers and avoiding Mr Hot Dog wasn’t just not happening anymore, but was also just consigned to history! But only for a while… As well as a strangely limited number of home ports (which I’ll touch on shortly) and a much wider range of clones, such as Mr Wimpy, there were also some arcade sequels, with Peter Pepper’s Ice Cream Factory in 1984 and two-player Super BurgerTime in 1990, though I’ve never seen either in the wild; I think the latter is available on Nintendo Switch though. There was an Intellivision-only sequel called Diner too, an odd, blocky, pseudo 3D thing about kicking food down platforms! We pick up my story with BurgerTime again in 1991, but now we’re on that handheld miracle the Game Boy, under the guise of BurgerTime Deluxe.

The core gameplay loop might be the same, but the loop around six screens definitely isn’t in this version! You’ve got 24 all-new levels on Game Boy, though you’re probably going to see them all way before you see all of the arcade ones. They’re mostly quick to complete, and most are not massively difficult in comparison; you also get a password every four screens which makes your lives feel fairly expendable. There’s even more sprinkles on top though! You can get extra power ups, from chocolate, which makes you invincible (just like in real life!), to chicken nuggets that turn your enemies in hot dogs, but not Mr Hot Dogs I presume because that would be the opposite of a power-up! And we didn’t even talk about the cut scenes that tie together all of those loose ends you’ve been wondering about since 1982, or the giant donut that turns up later! It’s great to look at, with a huge amount of personality in those tiny, monochrome graphics that really make me pine for single-screen versions of Rodland and Bubble Bobble on there, and you’re also getting a jaunty take on the BurgerTime tune to keep you company and a nice variety of sound effects too. Most importantly, it feels fantastic to play, and despite the slightly easier difficulty, all the strategy is intact and moving Peter Pepper around the platform mazes is a joy.

In the intervening years since 1991, I’ve always gone back to BurgerTime Deluxe from time-to-time, but I’ve spent quite a lot of time on the NES version too. It’s a lovely port – not quite as polished as the arcade version, but it’s all present and correct, and in the absence of owning the arcade version, you can’t go wrong. My only criticism would be that it’s missing a little finesse in the controls (especially compared to Deluxe), and there’s a stickiness, especially on ladders, that you get used to, but demands a level of precision that feels like it shouldn’t be there.

The other version I know and love is the Atari 2600 port. Now, I get that there’s no need to ever play this when you have any of the other versions (though who has a Coleco Adam or an Aquarius nowadays?), but everyone should have a soft-spot for any attempt at an arcade port on there, and this is one of the better ones! As soon as you let your eyes adjust, you’ve got all the fun and all the strategy of a game of BurgerTime, and it’s as a good as it could possibly be! What’s missing, though, is any sniff of conversions for ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 or that other one. But, of course, we had some nice clones! Barmy Burgers is one I remember, but going back now it controls like a dog and it sounds weird, even for a Spectrum! There were loads more to choose from if that didn’t take your fancy though; in fact, it’s a bit like all those Bruce Lee clones you had around the same time – Bruce Le, Bruce Li, Bruce Thai, Lee Bruce… We had Burger Time, Burger Chase, BurgerSpace, Burger Boy, Chip Factory, Lunchtime, Burger Builder and Basic Burger. And probably better known than even BurgerTime in many parts, we had the mighty Ocean Software’s Mr Wimpy, of burger chain Wimpy fame! It wasn’t BurgerTime though…

I’m skipping past mobile games like 2007’s BurgerTime Delight, 2011’s 3D update BurgerTime World Tour on the consoles of the day, and the more recent BurgerTime Party on Switch from 2019 because I’ve never played any of them! Instead, we’re going to land on 9th May 2021, which was my birthday and I received a rather lovely table-top BurgerTime arcade cabinet replica from my Mum… And here finally begins a journey almost forty years in the making (and I’m not just talking about reading this post so far), the arcade version of BurgerTime! Almost, because this is actually that NES version again, but it’s worth stopping off here before we get to the “proper” arcade version!

The My Arcade BurgerTime Micro Player is fully licensed, stands at 17cm or nearly 7 inches tall, and features a quality 2.75 inch colour, backlit screen with plenty of brightness and the right amount of contrast. The design of the cabinet is very realistic – it could have just been a vague representation and no one would have complained, but this is nicely shaped, angled and proportioned, and well-built too. It’s powered by micro USB or four AA batteries, and it sounds awesome if you plug in some headphones, but for some casual play its built-in speaker sounds absolutely fine too. The glossy cabinet artwork closely resembles the original, with what appears to my eyes to be accurate imagery, but on a slightly modified layout to suit the mini cabinet dimensions and lack of coin slots and instruction panels.

There’s a big, surprisingly tactile on/off switch where the coin slots would have been at the bottom of the cabinet, and the “slots” light up red when it’s on. The control panel has a start and reset button, two buttons which both trigger the pepper spray, and a removable joystick so you can use the d-pad underneath if you prefer. Either method feels fine to me, though if I’ve got it on a table it feels slightly more natural to use the joystick than angle your fingers to the d-pad. What I really love here is that you’re in a game within two seconds of turning it on – hit start when the screen lights up and you’re away! Playing on a small scale like this does take a bit of getting used to, and it’s probably not ideal for long play sessions unless you want your hand cramping into a claw, but until it does there’s no problem zipping around the platforms and ladders. Speaking of zipping around, I have experienced a bit of slowdown a few screens in, but it’s brief when it happens and it seems to happen rarely. Just one other complaint – it doesn’t save your high scores when you turn it off!

Right, we’ve covered the arcade cabinet of sorts, now let’s cover the arcade game itself, and our final port of call, which is most definitely the original arcade version, but now we’re on the original PlayStation, and Arcade’s Greatest Hits: The Midway Collection 2. This is a really cool collection from 1997, and as well as BurgerTime, features the relatively obscure Blaster (a kind of 3D Robotron 2084 follow-up), Joust 2 (a proper follow-up), the unreleased (and very odd) competitive food-fighter Splat, and stone-cold classics Spy Hunter, Root Beer Tapper and Moon Patrol. Everything emulates really well here, and apart from a bit of time needed to get used to Spy Hunter, the PlayStation controller feels good too. The collection also includes a trivia game, which no one’s ever going to know most of the answers to, but the real fun here is in the video clips of the original game developers explaining those answers. Overall a very nice collection, as are the other volumes which include Atari and Williams classics too.

Anyway, we’re here for BurgerTime! It’s certainly a definitive version, and its interesting to play it back-to-back with the mini cabinet and the proper NES version, because there’s really not a lot in it apart from the aforementioned “finesse” to the controls, and a bit of graphical and audio clarity on top. The animation is very 1982, but I still don’t think a sesame seed burger bun has ever looked better in a game since! There’s also a surprising amount of detail in that tiny chef’s outfit, right down to the buttons, and the same for the shine on Mr Hot Dog or the highlights on Mr Pickle, though I will say that Mr Egg is a little less impressive! The audio is pure early eighties arcade too, with its shrill (in the nicest possible way) theme tune coming and going around the various sound effects and jingles.

Where this still absolutely holds up – in much the same way as its better known brethren like Pac-Man – is in its depth of gameplay. It doesn’t take long before your mind is a few seconds ahead of the action on screen, plotting out an optimum pattern that will lead enemies away from where you need a safe route to an ingredient, and even grouping them together so dropping something on them all at once gives you maximum breathing space! Like Pac-Man, you also need to avoid getting trapped between two incoming enemies, or getting stuck in a dead-end, because the only way out of these is to use your pepper spray, and ideally you don’t want to be using that until you really need to. There’s a couple of other tricks of the trade you soon get used to using – you start at the top and let gravity take the ingredients below with it; the only time you want to distract yourself with other layers is if it’s going to take a load of enemies with it. You can drop enemies down with the ingredients too, though this will involve them being on it as you stand on the last part of its length, so is a risky strategy.

The first stage is pretty straightforward, with a limited number of enemies and a limited number of platforms that you need so drop the ingredients down from, but from stage two onwards you’re being introduced to dead ends and enemy funnelling, and their numbers are going to start ramping up too! By the time you’re at stage four, your going to see eight layers of platforms to drop the hamburgers down from, and you’re going to spend most of your time trying to lead the enemies on a merry dance around the complex set of platforms just to pick off a single ingredient, so patience becomes key. The next two stages are less dense, but there’s also more dead ends and less connections between platforms, and whilst patience still applies, you can’t hang around on either of these! Apparently (because I’ve never got past stage six), this now loops until you get to 28, when the enemies go super-fast for periods and it all becomes about ducking in and out of safe zones. Which I will never need to worry about!

Absolutely wonderful game with timeless appeal, which does make me wonder why it’s not quite as consigned to history now like it seemed to have been for a while in the mid-eighties, but all the same is never mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Pac-Man and other arcade classics of the time, or even stuff like Chuckie Egg that soon followed in the same vein on the home computers… Maybe it just needed Pac-Man on some platforms instead. Or Peter Pepper should have learnt to jump!

Discovering Rodland on NES

Discovering Rodland on NES

I recently came upon a wonderful game called Mr Heli, or Battle Chopper in the US, or Mr. HELI no Daiboken on PC-Engine where I played it first, to be precise, or, minutes later, plain old Mr Heli again on ZX Spectrum! It’s a bit like Fantasy Zone meets multi-directional cavern shooter, and was originally a 1987 arcade game from Irem. When the ports arrived in 1989, I definitely remember the name, but that’s as far as it went – no interest in playing something like I could see in the tiny screenshots on the advert that did the rounds in the gaming magazines, when there were the wonders of Defender of the Crown, Xenon, Stunt Car Racer and Dungeon Master to experience on my fancy new Atari ST. And Mr Heli to a 17-year old… Now Battle Chopper might have been a different story!

Anyway, it’s a nice example of a game I’ve heard of but never had any intention of playing until I knew better. And then I loved it! There’s lots of others too, like Mega Man 2 then many other Mega Mans, or Balloon Fight and Dr Mario, also on NES, or the aforementioned Fantasy Zone and its variants. More recently (slightly) there’s Daytona USA and Sega Rally, or Super Mario Sunshine and Viewtiful Joe, and while we’re on the GameCube, I almost forgot my relatively new top three favourite game ever, Resident Evil 4! What’s a rarer breed, though, is games I haven’t played because I’ve just never heard of them. Now, obviously, there’s probably even more of these than the previous set of games, but because I haven’t heard of them they’re much harder to quantify! I can provide three examples though… The first is Victory Run, which I had no idea existed until I got my PC-Engine Mini for my birthday in 2020. And I just fell in love with its powered-up Out Run styled shenanigans immediately! Similarly, another racing game completely got me when a retro collecting friend mentioned getting an import cart of F1 ROC: Race of Champions on SNES. Sounded weird, turned out to be one of my favourite racers ever that I’ve now been playing solidly for over two years! And then we have Rodland…

I really can’t remember where I came across Rodland, but somehow it had completely escaped me between its release in the arcades in April of 1990, care of Jaleco, and some time in early 2021. Actually, it may well have been the appearance of its Arcade Archives release on Nintendo Switch – every Thursday at 2pm, I go to the switch eShop to see what this week’s Arcade Archives game is! What I can remember is that from the couple of screenshots you get with those, it reminded me of Rainbow Islands, and that alone made it worth investigating a bit more. Then within a few short steps across to some dodgy sites, there we were trying out a shiny new ROM of the NES conversion!

Given that the original is available on Switch, for mere Pounds no less, you may be wondering why I’m fannying about with the NES port. Well, it was partly being a skinflint, partly being scared of MAME, but mostly just another case of love at first sight, and I wanted some time to savour the NES version before the original stole my gaze forever, and several months later that’s where we still are! That said, I spent a good six weeks scouring eBay for the Atari ST version, which comes up occasionally, but I’d set myself a limit of £12 and we hadn’t got there when I realised the fallacy of getting into another conversion when I could get the real deal for half the price! I may have dabbled with the Commodore 64, Spectrum and Game Boy versions in the meantime though, and we’ll come back to them later.

Let’s have a quick look at the premise – cutesy single-screen platformer for one or two players about two fairies trying to rescue their mother from 40 screens of Maboot’s Tower after she got kidnapped. Our fairies, Tam and Rit, are armed with magic rods – presumably something to do with being in Rodland – which first stop the baddies (ranging from gargoyles to squirrels to orange men with killer hats!) in their tracks, then once they’re trapped by its magical forces, you can smash them dead into the platform! If you’re lucky, they’ll leave behind a variety of power-ups like a kind of shotgun ball or dynamite, or some bonus fruit, and kill them all then you’re onto the next level. Sounds more Bubble Bobble than Rainbow Islands so far, especially when you use bubbles to get about on some levels, but they do have one more trick up their sleeves – a temporary magic ladder that you can pull out to get somewhere you couldn’t before, ideal for doing a runner or some surprise entrapment. Each level also has a load of flowers on it, and if you get to all of them before you kill all the baddies you’ll enter a bonus mode where the enemies are powered up, but if you kill them quick enough you’ll be on the way to an extra life. Every ninth level is a boss stage, and that will net you big bonus points… A lot going on, and I think a lot of the appeal is its nods to the very best of Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands, but also BurgerTime and Chuckie Egg and the like, all with a modern early nineties sheen!

The ports started appearing in 1990, with the NES version eventually turning up here in Europe in 1993, though I don’t think it ever got released in the US. Having still not actually played the original version, it’s a bit difficult for me to make too many comparisons, but I do know that for everything that got lost in translation, there’s a few liberties taken too! There are benefits to having not played it though, because apart from seeing a few screenshots that tell me there should be some glorious backgrounds that are just crying out for an equally glorious PC-Engine port, I don’t really know what else I’m missing out on yet!

What you are getting is just an absolute joy to play, with so many ways to play, especially if you’re after big scores. Killing monsters is one thing, but grabbing all those flowers beforehand is another, and if you want to get the most out of getting all those flowers, you need enough monsters left on the screen to spell out EXTRA with the letters they leave when they die, but that’s high risk because you’ll be against the clock. It controls like a dream, with magic rods and magic ladders all behind a single button press, and no mucking about trying to line up a ladder climb – you just go where you want to go, using direction and momentum in descent from platforms to not only escape from sticky situations, but also puzzle out getting at some of the flowers. There’s a bit of puzzling (but not much) to the bosses too, but mostly it’s about planning your moves while reacting to immediate peril, and it works perfectly. And smashing those monsters from side to side is so much fun, but there’s strategy there too, using them as a weapon or positioning yourself so you smash them on one side then throw them off the edge on the other. Very simple, and a lot to get your teeth into!

I’ve still not got all the way through, but I am very much into the score chasing mechanics, meaning a real sense of frustration when I accidentally blow up the last monster before I’ve got all the flowers! That’s as much of a challenge as avoiding getting killed by the patrolling enemies up to the first boss, and whilst deaths are usually going to be down to your impatience attacking a shark and getting caught out by a ghost thing sneaking up on you rather than bad luck, there are a few difficulty spikes. For example, not long after the first boss (a load of crocodiles moving up and down platforms spitting smaller enemies at you) it’s very easy to get caught out by these flying mosquitos that suddenly spray high velocity venom spikes or whatever it is they spray at you! For an arcade conversion from its era, it’s not massively brutal though.

Graphically, on top of Rainbow Islands, there’s another similar game that comes to mind here, New Zealand Story. Very bold and in your face colours, even though there’s not massive variety in the somewhat bland backgrounds or the platforms themselves, for all the clever ways they’re positioned on each level. The monsters are full of their own personality though, as are your one or two fairies, and everything is brought to life by clever animations, from stars appearing as you swing a monster about to the various swaying flowers throwing out increasing numbers of points as you pass by. There’s a cheery title tune on top of some very cheery sound effects, but it’s mostly upbeat beeps of various kinds that are mostly forgettable, as pleasant and breezy as it all is.

The Rodland arcade game had a very special and unique feature – the sequel came with it! Just finish the game and there it is, a whole new story about an alien pyramid making off with your father, new characters and new level designs, although I don’t think there’s much different happening gameplay-wise. You could also get to it with a secret code, then go back again with another – pay your money, press up or down three times, off you go! This all led to three different endings too, one for the original game, one for the sequel and one for switching to one or the other with the code and beating an extra level that throws up. Sadly this wasn’t included in the NES version, but there were some nice hidden touches here too! On the options screen, you get to name your two fairies, but enter something rude like BUM, TIT, POO, NOB, SEX, etc. and you’ll make them blush! And ICH and EAT will let you jump between levels in the game. One of the options allows your fairies to jump, which also isn’t in the original, meaning stomping on enemies adds a new dimension of adorable violence!

I’ve only dabbled with some of the other ports, and mostly the Game Boy version, which only suffers from not being able to get a full level onto a single screen, making strategising about monsters versus flowers a little harder to keep track of. Otherwise, it feels just as good to play as the NES version. It’s a great looking game too, with some subtly shaded backgrounds hosting the most vibrant graphics you could hope for on a monochrome screen! Sounds lovely too, and I think I prefer its rendition of the theme tune over that of the Commodore 64, which definitely starts to grate a bit if you leave it on in the background; not SID’s finest hour! It’s not exactly vibrant either, with some classic C64 browns on a black background, and your character kind of floating around the place rather than moving around with any solidity and purpose. And despite that, it still manages to feel more sluggish than the other versions, including the Spectrum, which plays very nicely, sounds awesome in 128K, but despite some detailed sprites is completely black and white – no colour clash though!

One of the reasons I’m still messing around with video games over four decades on is that there’s still so much to discover, even if the surprises are gradually diminishing. But now and again they keep coming all the same, and Rodland is the perfect example of a wonderful surprise that might have been hidden for most of that time, but is definitely out in the wild now! All the qualities of the single-screen platformers that preceeded it are there – especially that one more go addictiveness – but there’s so much to offer of its own that keeps stacking on the fun. And as well as the Spectrum version, which I think deserves a bit more of my time, I’ve still got the original arcade version to get to, but that isn’t far away now – I promised myself that as a reward for getting to this point, so you never know, we might be back here again sometime!

Discovering Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti on NES

Discovering Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti on NES

As much as I’ve enjoyed dabbling with the series for years, I’d never actually made a serious attempt at any version of Splatterhouse until my PC-Engine Mini came along in June 2020. It was the very first game I fired-up on there, and to date is the only thing I’ve finished on there, though Fantasy Zone has certainly taken more of a beating! Anyway, PC-Engine Splatterhouse is a fantastic version that looks and feels perfectly at home there. Marvellous game!

It took me a few months of chipping away to get to the end, after which I planned an assault on the original arcade game, then the Mega Drive versions of II and III. And all along, I wasn’t even aware of anything of the sort on NES! Actually, it took a podcast I was listening to mentioning a “troubling” hooded figure in the NES game to make me pay attention and look it up. Now, I’m not the person to find anything offensive, but I can only imagine that the source of their offence was the innocent Satanist boss character who was something mistaken for something more racist…

Back to Splatterhouse, it’s an arcade beat ‘em up from Namco in 1988 that’s wonderfully heavy on the gore. It follows a couple (named as Rick and Jennifer in the later home versions) who get split up in a haunted mansion, where she gets possessed by monsters and he gets possessed by a Jason Vorhees mask. Then he goes on a side-scrolling squelchy, bloody rampage to save her. Which doesn’t really sound like your typical NES-fodder, so enter Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti, a very weird, cutely deformed Japan-only take on the arcade game that arrived on NES in 1989. Welcome to Devil Town…

The clues are there that this is probably a prequel, though it’s not hugely clear and not hugely important! Jennifer is mourning the death of Rick at his grave, he gets resurrected Vorhees-style (complete with mask, but not sure why this time) by a bolt of lighting, and all is well until The Great Pumpkin King – who happens to be buried in the grave next to him – gets sparked back into life by a second bolt of lighting and kidnaps her! A scrap across seven stage ensues, and if you manage to take him out at the end you’ll be informed by the game’s director that this would make a great movie. And then Rick takes off the mask and it comes to life through spooky powers, no doubt for future adventures.

Where Splatterhouse-proper is just a very simple, violent plod from left to right, there’s a bit more platforming involved in the chopping heads up with your axe here. But there’s not a lot more to the gameplay than that – it’s certainly fun, but it’s no Mario and it’s not really Splatterhouse either. Actually, it reminded me a lot of Kid Dracula, and what that is to Castlevania – a cartoon parody that still manages to cram in a bit of horror behind the laughs.

I must admit I was hoping for a bit more to the laughs as well, but that was entirely down to the game setting some high expectations early on! The first level is in a graveyard (and a very fine one at that, like a more populated version of the C64 Ghosts ‘n Goblins one), and towards the end you’ll come across Dracula emerging from under the ground to what sounds like Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Then four green gooey zombie monsters appear, the disco lights start, and they do an extended Thriller routine. And it’s really good! There are a good few fun bits that follow, with the black mass and the Alien scene standing out for me, but they never really reach those heights.

Something else that never reaches any great heights are the boss fights, which is absolutely fine by me! They are all perfectly pitched, where it’s going to take you a few goes to get to work them out, but once you’ve spotted the pattern you won’t be taking any damage – much like the in some of mainline Splatterhouse games, which aside from the violence and gore is a definite attraction to no-like-boss me. Speaking of damage, it’s handled in a interesting, almost RPG-like way, where every enemy you kill is racking up points for you. Get to fifty points and it’s permanently adding some health to your bar. However, if you die and use the between-stage password to carry on from where you left off, you’ll be starting with your basic health again which makes the game a lot harder, but again, it’s still very beatable, which is great!

There’s no doubt that the deformed art style is one of the main pulls here. It might be cute, but it still manages to pull off the monstrous, albeit usually in a very unrealistic Nintendo way. But the various environs are as creepy (and sometimes just plain dark) as you like, and they often look stunning – sometimes as good as it gets on the NES, with some really rich, vibrant colour palettes that are as full of character as the characters! There’s a semi-hidden Egyptian level that has the best large-scale use of gold colours you’ll ever see on a NES too! You’ve got some really cool monster design throughout, paying homage to the arcade game, but also referencing horror film and pop-culture all over the place – The Fly boss was another favourite! And everything animates so smoothly, with some very nice multi-layered scrolling for the time. It’s a looker without any doubt! Sounds alright too – the spot effects aren’t groundbreaking, but the chip tunes are perfectly positioned, and as multi-layered as the scrolling!

After getting a little down on the gameplay, talking about all of that has really brought home why I wanted to talk about the game in the first place! If you want a great platformer, there’s loads to choose from on NES. If you want over-the-top arcade horror, you’ve got the original Splatterhouse and it’s various sequels and remakes. But if you want the cutest upside-down cross you’ll ever see, you’ve got the Wanpaku Graffiti variant on NES!

My Life With… Pac-Land – Arcade / ZX Spectrum / Everything Else!

My Life With… Pac-Land – Arcade / ZX Spectrum / Everything Else!

There are very scientific reasons about why I can remember not only every second of Live Aid, but also where I was sitting when Status Quo came on, for example. Same for what I was eating for breakfast (toast) when the Mary Rose was pulled up, or what music was playing (1999 by Prince – see here for more on that) the first time I played Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. It’s a bit like those ghost theories about high-impact things being imprinted on places, but more real and that place is your brain, not the creepy underground boiler room in your middle school that I had forgotten all about until just now… But while that works for high-impact, I am wondering why I also remember what I was wearing (blue La Coste tracksuit) when I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits from the record section downstairs in Boots in Bedford in about 1984. And also why I don’t remember almost anything about what was an hotly anticipated, but in retrospect horrendous sounding, annual church trip to Great Yarmouth that was in full annual swing around the same time. Incidentally, I also have very few memories of why I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits as I’ve never been a fan!

Anyway, I’ve mentioned the church trip before, and playing Mini Munchman on the bus on the way there one year, and the arcade by the big funfair with the giant outside where we were dropped off and picked up that had a Track & Field machine. And on top of that, I vaguely remember thinking that one of the rollercoasters there seemed really rickety as we were going around it one time, but generally, I was thinking my only memories of what we actually did there revolved around that arcade. Now, a apart from a section in Computer & Video Games mag, an arcade was a once-per-year novelty in itself – so kind of makes sense according to our theory – and we’d be in it as soon as we arrived, then be hanging around in it with no money left to play anything anymore for a bit before we left. But coming back to memory, apart from “arcade” and exactly where the Track & Field machine was, in the far back-right corner, I really don’t remember anything else about what else was inside it either… At least until one year something new appeared, around the corner and about five machines to the right of Track & Field, that immediately demanded your full attention and pocket full of 10p’s!

Look it at it today, and it’s probably hard to imagine why Pac-Land might have that impact on a passer-by, but try passing-by this on the way to Track & Field in 1984 or 85, when you’re getting a double-whammy of not only seeing the Pac-Man in a new perspective, but a whole new side-scrolling perspective on gaming too!

Let’s get into the first new perspective, and its cartoon inspiration. As much as I’m a huge fan of Hanna-Barbera’s 1960’s and 70’s output, when it comes to the 1980’s it’s all about Pac-Man: The Animated series, which first aired in 1982 and ran for 21 episodes and a couple of specials until then end of 1984. And that makes it the first cartoon ever based on a video game! It was always going to be a hit with me because it was shown as part of my absolute school summer holiday favourite, Rat on the Road, the Roland Rat [Superstar] show that came on at the end of TV:AM! Which gives us a probable first airing date here of summer 1983. Interesting fact about this is that Roland Rat’s appearance then boosted the ailing breakfast show’s viewer numbers from around 100,000 to 1.8 million. Yeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhh, Rat-fans!

Back to Pac, you’ve got Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man (known as Pepper for some reason) and Baby Pac (in his only speaking role!), and they live in Pac-Village in a place called Pac-Land, of course! Actually, as we’re going far deeper into Pac-lore than I ever intended, what about the older Pac-kid, Jr. Pac-Man? I get that his love antics with Blinky’s daughter might have been problematic to the storyline, but it’s like he never existed! As some compensation, you do get Super-Pac in the second season! The plotline in most episodes is Pac-Man protecting the village and its power pellets from his familiar ghost foes (and Sue from Ms. Pac-Man) and their evil uncle, The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron… And let me tell you something, if I ever decided to change my name, I would change it to The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron!

The hugely vibrant look of the show was ported wholesale to the arcade game, as was the iconic music that looped throughout, which you could sniff out in an arcade like a pig sniffing out truffles; in an audio kind of way! The detailed character designs, complete with hats and hair – not to mention their super-smooth animation style – were also a big feature of the game. Pac-Man alone had 24 different frame patterns, where one or two was the norm at the time. As a[nother] side note, something that didn’t come from the cartoon, but by coincidence is relevant here, are the controls – they came from Track & Field, using buttons instead of a joystick, which allowed for those lovely springboard long jumping bits that will always be my favourite part of the game!

And this brings us to that second new perspective. Super Mario Bros. might spring to mind when you think of side-scrolling platformers, and rightly so because it pretty much set the template for anything else that followed it, but Pac-Land was doing the power-upped walking and running and jumping bidirectional horizontal scrolling thing a good year beforehand. It was far more influential than it gets credit for, but seeing it moving in an arcade was seeing that cartoon brought to life, from left to right and sometimes back again, and at the time that was very probably something you’d never seen the like of before!

Back to playing the game, each of the levels is a multi-stage journey to Fairy Land to get a lost fairy home, rewarding you with some super boots that will make your journey back through the level to your family a bit easier. You’ll be going through towns, forests, deserts then castles, and each stage ends with Break Time at the church on the hill where you’ll be awarded bonus points for your jumping performance as you come to a stop (preceding Mario and his flagpole), and I can’t emphasise how welcome that Break Time sign is on some of the more frantic stages! That said, it’s worth saying that things never really gets that frantic, which I think is why I appreciated the arcade game so much – good value for money for the casual player was as important as anything!

Obviously, there’s the ghosts that are constantly on your tail, driving buses at you, chucking stuff at you out of planes and allsorts more to hinder your progress. Then there’s enviromental obstacles like the aforementioned springboard, quicksand, ropey wooden bridges with spinning logs, fire hydrants and other water-based hazards ready to spray you down and take you down. But as well as the boots and sporadic power pills that do exactly what you expect them to do, there’s also a bunch of hidden stuff that will help you out. For example, turn around and push the right fire hydrant in certain stages and you’ll get a hat that will stop you being harmed by dangers from above. There’s also hidden fruit behind certain jumps (something else it preceded Mario with) and even a Galaxian flagship worth loads of points!

And the whole thing comes together to be such a joy to play! On the arcade machine, you’re going to get your 10p’s worth out of the first couple of stages for the visuals alone – the transitions from one distinct stage to another are just wonderful, and no matter how far you go, everything will soon become reassuringly familiar, and after each Break Time you’ll be fondly entering the next bit… before you realise that at some point things got a bit hard and you’re starting again!

In the grand scheme of things, whilst it had the biggest impact on me, the arcade machine is the version I played the least. That’s not unusual for me, having had infrequent access to arcade machines back then, but what is unusual is that I might have played a lot on more different versions of Pac-Land than any other game I can think of. It came out on nearly everything, and somehow I’ve spent a lot of time with it on nearly everything!

As was often the case, the Spectrum was the first version I really spent a lot of time on. Strangely though, the Spectrum version did come out about four years after the fact in 1988, along with CPC, MSX and Atari ST versions, and then the C64 version arrived even later. The Spectrum conversion gets a bad rap – it’s got weird colours and Pac-Man has a funny nose and it doesn’t scroll (meaning you need to remember that falling log is right after the next screen-flip!), but its genuinely only latterly that I’ve had those thoughts! It was and still is a very competent port with nearly everything else present and correct, and as was also often the case, it was Pac-Land in your house, on your Spectrum, and that’s all you needed for it to be fun! In terms of reviews at the time, I do remember it getting a bit of a hammering though. If it had come out in 1985 it might have fared better, but we’re not only years after the original (which was decades in eighties home computing terms!), we’re also years after the new Super Mario yardstick.

The version I’ve played most seriously on – not quite finishing it but not being far off – is the PC-Engine conversion from 1990, though actually playing it was much more recent. As much as I’d love it to be a part of the mostly beautifully curated library on my PC-Engine Mini, it’s not, but another machine in my collection does a very good impression of a PC-Engine and plays whatever game you care to throw at it right with no fuss, right through an HDMI cable! Much like the Spectrum conversion of Pac-Land, the PlayStation Classic is very unfairly maligned; at least when it has a USB stick with a certain emulator suite stuck on it! For me this is the ultimate conversion of Pac-Land. I know I’m going from almost 40-year memories, but this is exactly how the arcade version looked, sounded and played. In the last couple of years I’ve played dozens of hours, having a couple of games at least once a week. And that’s a beautiful thing to be able to do!

Trying its best to be as beautiful is the Commodore 64 version, and as a contemporary conversion for an 8-bit machine, you couldn’t expect any more. I’ve been playing this on the C64 Mini for a few years at the time of writing. The colours are a little muted, there’s only 16 levels (I think in common with most if not all other 8-bit conversions) and you can’t jump on top of some of the enemies so a touch from below is death here, but the soundtrack is classic C64! And it scrolls! It’s also a bit easier than the other versions so getting to the end of this one is very achievable.

I’ve not played a huge amount of the Amstrad CPC version – actually, when I finally got around to emulating a CPC for the very first time in 2019 (also on the PlayStation Classic, albeit a bit more fiddly to do than the PC Engine), it was the first thing I fired up and has been about the only thing I’ve regularly gone back to! It’s a real mish-mash of the other two 8-bit versions here, and would be on a par with the C64 version if it hadn’t inherited the Spectrum’s lack of scrolling!

Jumping back to around 1990, and the Atari ST version was a whole fantastic different matter. When I made the jump from Spectrum +2 to Atari ST, I very distinctly remember this being one of the games – together with Star Wars and Operation Wolf – that announced that arcade conversions were finally that mythical arcade-perfect we’d been hearing about for years! In retrospect it stuttered a bit in places, and was lacking parallax scrolling, but do you think that mattered coming from the Spectrum version? This was the holy grail of Pac-Land conversions to that point!

My brother was also a big fan of Pac-Land in the Great Yarmouth arcade, and he also owned a Lynx! And a couple of years later again, Pac-Land on there was also a fantastic conversion. I’d say in some stages it’s even more vibrant than the arcade version, with very faithful graphics, sound and gameplay. And let’s not forget, that’s a contemporary conversion in your hand, which the Atari Lynx was very good at! It moves at pace but the scrolling is a little off when it’s got big stuff like buildings to move along the screen (though I’ll take this over flip-screening and even the ST suffered from this). It’s checkpointing seemed a bit broken too – die in the forest and restart in halfway through the town, for example! It’s main crime though – and I’ll say “apparently” because I’m not the target audience for stuff like this – is that it has no ending! Just keeps going, I assume replaying the same levels over and over. No complaints from me about this version at all though. Still massively impressive!

Moving forwards half a decade again, and the original PlayStation was being peppered with loads of original arcade game version compilations covering loads of ancient stuff, and Namco was front and centre with no less than six of them! Pac-Land finally appeared in 1997 on Volume 4, drawing a short straw I think, being packaged with lesser known games in the West like Ordyne, Assault, The Return of Ishtar and Genpei Toma Den… Where’s Metrocross, Pac-Mania and Dragon Spirit??? (For information, coming a year later in Volume 5). But now we finally have the real holy grail of the actual arcade version in your home. And now I’m sitting here wondering why I spend so much time playing the PC-Engine version when the actual original is also sitting on exactly the same machine… Having just fired it up again, one thing is for sure – all that PC-Engine practice has made me really, really good at the arcade version now!

Most recently, we come to Namco Museum Archives Volume 2 on Nintendo Switch, which along with a favourite version of classic vertical shooter Xevious (Super Xevious) and loads of other NES goodies, we also have the NES conversion of Pac-Land. Firstly, it takes some getting used to, because as far as I can work out, unlike the PC-Engine version that allows you to press Select to switch from default “button” controls to regular “lever” controls, this one only seems to have button controls. And they take a bit of getting used to because you’re walking and running and changing direction on your right hand, and jumping with a directional button on the left. It’s also very minimal looking, Pac-Man is tiny on the screen, and it suffers from a bit of slowdown despite there being very little detail in the characters or backgrounds. There’s a few bits missing too, including the fairy screen – you get a Fairy Land sign like for Break Time instead – and also no super boots for your return trip. And like the Lynx version, I think it loops after 16 levels. I’m not doing a great job of selling it, but despite all of that, give it a chance and it plays absolutely fine, sounds lovely, and is a great version to have if you’re out and about with your Switch!

And that’s a whole lot of Pac-Land, one of my top five favourite arcade games (we’ll cover that another time), same on PC-Engine, and probably true on a lot of other systems too! Now do yourself a favour and dig up that cartoon!

A Note on the Game Boy in the Konami Anniversary Collections

A Note on the Game Boy in the Konami Anniversary Collections

They might not have the profile of some of the other games in these wonderful compilations, but the Game Boy is well represented in Konami’s Castlevania Anniversary Collection with both The Castlevania Adventure and Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge included. And then we have Operation C, where C, of course, stands for Contra in the Contra Anniversary Collection.

I’m going to skip over The Castlevania Adventure because I recently covered it in a bit more detail here. Instead, we’ll take a very quick look at the other two, which I’ve also played all the way through on Nintendo Switch.

Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is both a technical spectacle and an excellent game, and a perfect companion to Adventure. By this point the developers properly knew how to get the most out of the handheld hardware, so it looks even more wonderfully atmospheric, runs smoothly and sounds even more like a Castlevania game than its predecessor, despite the same limitations.

It’s pretty quick to get through the linear levels, which you can play most of the way through in any order, though the final boss fight is a bugger! You genuinely have to memorise every single move it’s going to make and every pixel on each of the on-screen platforms that you need to be positioned on for each move to counter it. Not to mention the untold experimentation to work out some of them. This is a real shock after the relative simplicity of getting that far, but it is a great feeling when you finally beat it.

Operation C was the first Contra game I jumped into from that collection – having dabbled with them all as a complete newcomer to the series, it seemed a bit easier than the rest, and as you can tell, I’m easily impressed when it comes to the Game Boy!

The classic run and gun design is all present in a compact form, but it did leave me struggling a bit until I tweaked the controls to be like Mega Man, then I sailed through the first area. I was then amazed that the second switched to top-down shooting like Ikari Warriors – not having any history with Contra beyond remembering a few screenshots and trying several first levels, I didn’t see that coming!

I think there were five gradually more bonkers stages in the end, including another top-down level with organic backgrounds and giant insects running about like something from Xenon 2! Some really cool jungle stages too in the classic Contra mould – just like Castlevania(s) on the Game Boy, the developers worked wonders with the monochrome visuals to generate just the right atmosphere.

Whether side-scrolling or top-down, none of the levels took more than a few goes to get through (apart from the first until I changed the buttons around), and the bosses were fairly easy until the (almost) last one, and that was also fairly straightforward once you worked out its couple of attack patterns. Which is how I like my bosses, and overall how I like my games!

Game Review: Dr. Mario World First Impressions

Game Review: Dr. Mario World First Impressions

Dr Mario World has landed a day early. I’ve played through the first 25 stages, and it’s definitely more Candy Crush than Dr Mario so far in gameplay terms, and it’s starting to feel like it in free to play mechanics too – there’s definitely timers ticking in the latest area and hearts ready to restrict my play time!

The idea is that you need to get rid of coloured viruses by matching two or more of them with your coloured capsule, which you slide up the screen and let it go on its way once you’ve got it positioned. There’s a single player campaign and versus mode where you can play your friends (maybe…), which unlocks when you’ve played enough of the campaign. And that’s about where paid gems and hearts and stuff came into play too.

It looks and sounds as great as you’d expect, and it’s a perfectly fine example of the match-three mobile puzzler, with skills and items and even a choice of doctor and assistant characters. Now and again it feels like Dr Mario (even when you’re Dr. Bowser). But only now and again unfortunately.

In theory the multiplayer does give it something extra, but this is Nintendo we’re talking about! I have unlocked this, I’ve played a random and it’s fun, but it looks like my Nintendo account friends can’t be accessed (or if they can, I don’t know how), and looking for Facebook friends is just giving error messages. Speaking of which, you’d better have a decent connection all the time – even with one I’ve had several lost connection error codes appear, and game freezes appearing too during normal gameplay. Hopefully that can be patched out like it was on Super Mario Run.

Despite the negative tone, I do enjoy a match-three, and I’m enjoying this so far… but I enjoy Dr. Mario on the NES an awful lot more, and I’d much rather be playing that timeless classic on my phone!

The Retro Arcadia Top Ten Games of 2018

The Retro Arcadia Top Ten Games of 2018

This year my SNES Classic Mini was finally joined by its previously impossible to buy NES sibling, plus a C64 Mini and almost a PlayStation Classic – I cancelled the day before it was shipped, not because of the controversial games list, but it just sounded like the finished article was very bare-bones and the emulation was crap. On the ones I hadn’t cancelled, I’ve loved pretty much everything on them more than anything that will ever be released again. On a similar note, I also love most of the old NES stuff that came with the Switch online service – especially the wonderful Tecmo Bowl, Balloon Fight and Mighty Bomb Jack. And on another similar note, I’ve loved playing a ton of the Switch Arcade Archives releases of Donkey Kong and 10-Yard fight, as well as ACA NEOGEO Super Sidekicks 3, and the fabulous Megadrive and SNK collections. And with a Switch now in my possession, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Golf Story from last year, and of course, Breath of the Wild, which I sandwiched between Ocarina of Time and the original Legend of Zelda (which I played on two different platforms almost in parallel).

Hovering just outside this list would be the Williams packs on Pinball FX, featuring some of the best tables ever produced; last-gen racing powerhouse Burnout Paradise Remastered on PS4; Castlevania Requiem (if I’d played a enough of either game included in time); and a game I’ve seriously been waiting 25 years to play, Night Trap on the Switch, which might not be the most mechanically-varied game ever, but was a technical marvel at the time and is still a fun romp today. I’m sure that had I played it yet, Red Dead Redemption 2 would be somewhere around the top, but finally playing and completing Mad Max just before it was released only confirmed I’m a bit done with open worlds at the moment, and I’ve more than enough to keep me going until they finish patching it and the price drops. And I’d have loved to have Tetris Effect on here, but after fifteen minutes of my first game on the beta, the motion sickness began…

As always, the rule here is if it’s been released for the first time on a platform this year, it’s fair game…

1 Gris (Switch)

The very last game I bought in 2018 (at time of writing on Christmas Eve at least). If you ever wanted to convince a non-gamer that gaming is an art form, you’d show them this, because it really is a wonderful piece of art in anyone’s language. I don’t think I’ve ever seen (and probably heard) anything quite as stunning as this on any platform, and maybe aside from Journey, anything as powerful. It’s a dream to play, and a dream to experience as it becomes more and more beautiful as you progress, and subtly more complex. A genuine gaming masterpiece.

2 Minit (Switch)

I avoided buying Minit when it came out on other platforms in the hope it would appear on Switch one day, which seemed like the right place for it, and that day came but a few horrendously hot months later. Bizarre premise of your hero living for only sixty seconds in an old-school Zelda-esque black and white pixel art rogue-lite world, doing simple quests, solving puzzles and killing monsters. Sixty seconds at a time. But it really works! It begins with almost no context or instruction, but you soon work out how things work to progress your story, planning out your next sixty second life as you carry out the next set of activities for this one. Fantastic game, very different, and perfect on the Switch. And when you’re done with the story, there’s a couple more hours picking up the stuff you probably missed then new game plus where sixty becomes forty. Future cult classic!

3 Moonlighter (Switch)

That wonderful Stardew Valley vibe where minutes are actually hours. But with more fighting. Moonlighter is a greeat rogue-like by night, and shopkeeper-sim by day, where you kill for booty to sell to buy armour, weapons, upgrades, better shop stuff and things to liven up your town so you can access new dungeons with better booty. Fantastic to play day or night.

4 Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! (Switch)

I searched Tokyo in 40 degree heat and 90% humidity for this bundled with the physical drum controller. I failed, but not long after it was all announced for European release and everything was well in the world again. I can’t remember the last time I had a stupid grin on my face playing a game, but there’s little here not to smile about, from the real drum you play along to a huge, bizarre playlist with, to the completely bonkers visual feast that could only come out of Japan happening on the screen. The ultimate party game, even if you’re the only one invited.

5 Mario Tennis Aces (Switch)

I never played Mario Tennis on the Game Boy Colour or Advance, so don’t lament the depth of their story modes apparently missing here. I did, however, sink dozens, if not hundreds of hours into Tennis (featuring Mario as umpire) on the original Game Boy. Jump into an online tournament on Mario Tennis Aces on the Switch, and that’s what you’ve got, dialled up to eleven with trick shots, specials, bullet-time and more, and all against real other people. There’s depth here too – after a few hours you start to notice little things that stack up to make all the difference; you work out how to properly use the trick shot or the blue glow around the ball or the star that sometimes appears on the ground or a dozen other minor things; and then you start winning one in five matches, then one in three, then two, and you’re reaching (and occasionally winning) tournament finals… Stunning looking game, polished to hell, full of character, and utterly addictive. Who cares about story modes (which is actually pretty enjoyable too)!

6 Hollow Knight (Switch)

Specifically here for the first 30 hours, then another 15 hours after 36 hours, then a few more after 53 hours. I absolutely hated everything in between and deleted the game twice in disgust at two bosses I just couldn’t beat. Until I did. Very few games over the last almost forty years have hooked me like this gorgeous looking, vast metroidvania did – even when it was gone, it kept dragging me back. 80% love, 20% pure hatred, and probably the best £7.99 I ever spent on a game.

7 Alto’s Odyssey (iOS)

I’ve played the original Alto’s Adventure more than any other game on mobile (or tablet in my case). It’s the perfect, premium mobile game, and has been my go-to time-passer across thousands and thousands of miles on plane journeys over the last few years. Alto’s Odyssey swaps snowboards for sandboards, but is more of the same, and then some. The new desert backdrop is stunning, and the day/night cycles, variable weather – especially the storms – and multiple biomes to explore make for some outstanding eye-candy. And the one-touch, backflipping gameplay remains as challenging, skilful and perfect as ever.

8 Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (Switch)

Old-school Castlevania in all but name with some really clever character-switching mechanics, atmospheric old-school graphics and sound that make me want to live in it, and plenty to explore and go back to when you’re able. In the five hours or so to complete first time, it gets progressively more tricky, but aside from a few frustrating sections (generally involving moving platforms in the late game), it’s all do-able after a few attempts and some experimentation with the characters, even on veteran mode. My only gripe is the checkpointing on the double final boss battle – going back to the very start is a real pain while you’re dying over and over again to learn how to beat the second part! Once you’re finally done, definitely worth playing the newly unlocked nightmare mode to explore those places you couldn’t before you had the right characters available. Great game with a lot of retro-love oozing out of it.

9 Mega Man Legacy Collection (Switch)

Much like Zelda, I’d never played a Mega Man game before this year, and now I’ve played and finished three of them; 2, 1 and 3, in that order. I’m particularly proud of finishing Mega Man 2, over a period of months, as I completely avoided all the quality of life enhancements like rewind and save in-progress that come with this wonderfully presented collection of games 1-6 in the series. It’s not just the games though, most of which are bonafide hardcore classics; those enhancements, the mass of settings options and the museum of art that accompanies every game make it one of the best compilations I’ve seen. And it’s the reason why Mega Man 11 is missing – I’ve played the demo dozens of times and it’s awesome, and would certainly deserve to be here in place of this from what I’ve seen, but I’m going to be busy with games 4-6, as well as the Mega Man X game on the SNES Classic Mini, for some time yet!

10 Owlboy (Switch)

There’s still pixel-art everywhere this year, but this really is a marvellous lesson in pixel-art design, and a great Metroidvania game to boot. The sky islands you navigate in this vertical platformer are diverse and stunning. Controlling your owl boy feels great. The evolution of the game mechanics works brilliantly as you meet new partners in crime. And those characters are ones you really care about as you make your way through the thought provoking story. Another brilliant Switch indie.

My Life With… The Legend of Zelda (NES / Switch)

My Life With… The Legend of Zelda (NES / Switch)

Much like Nintendo as a whole in the 1980’s (after Game & Watch at least), the Nintendo Entertainment System completely passed me by. When it launched in Europe, I was still fairly new to the ZX Spectrum, and when it was time to move on from there, I don’t remember ever even considering any console – it was just a choice between Amiga (boo) and Atari ST (yay)! Super Mario Land on the Game Boy would be the first time I’d touched anything Nintendo since Snoopy Tennis, and whilst everyone knew of Mario, I’d certainly never heard of Yoshi or Kirby, and definitely not Zelda or Link!

Over decades of gaming, of course I became more aware of the Zelda games, but was never compelled to try one on the Game Boy and its successors, the GameCube or my son’s Wii. Then when I got a 3DS in 2017, Ocarina of Time was dirt cheap and knowing its reputation, bought it with the console. Then didn’t touch it… Fast-forward to May 2018, a Switch for my birthday, as well as a copy of Breath of the Wild , which I also didn’t touch for months, but I had an excuse this time!

I decided I couldn’t start Breath of the Wild until I’d played one of the classic Zelda games, to have an appreciation of where it was coming from. By this time, I actually had a choice – as well as Ocarina of Time, I now had a NES Classic Mini too, which also offered the original The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. As I’d not really heard anyone over the years hyping up the NES games, and obviously everyone hypes up Ocarina of Time all the time, I went there first. And it was great, and I finished it (which took the entire summer), but it didn’t say greatest game of all time to me. I fired up Breath of the Wild the very same evening I finished Ocarina of Time, and over the 90+ hours it took me to finish it, it did blow me away. I was very glad I’d played Ocarina of Time first because it gave it context and also heightened the spectacle of this new masterpiece; now we’re getting closer to that greatest game of all time tag!

September 2018, and where do we go from here? By now, I’ve gone from couldn’t care less about Zelda to fanboy in the space of a few months, and I wanted more, so of course we go back to the beginning. And by now I have a choice of where to play it, with the launch of the Switch online service and its library of NES classics (and that dreadful football (soccer) game). I decided it deserved to be played with a proper controller though, so went for the NES Classic version. Initially at least…

Originally released in 1986 in Japan and 1987 elsewhere, you play Link, a young man out for some action-adventure who needs to find eight bits of the broken Triforce of Wisdom spread all over what must have seemed like a massive monster-filled Hyrule at the time, then confront the evil Ganon and rescue the kidnapped Princess Zelda. Then do it all again, should the urge take you, in a harder and remixed second quest.

I was aware that this game didn’t exactly hold your hand when your adventure begins; you start with nothing, and I knew about people spending hours burning bushes, bombing rocky outcrops and prodding statues just to find basic equipment before you even think about finding bits of Triforce. I’d also read an extremely useful tip – read the manual! In particular, it pointed to a map you find in there, apparently included because Nintendo of America decided it was all a bit too much…

Image 20-12-2018 at 09.30

Look really closely, and you can see question marks – at least you know where the bushes are worth burning! Eventually, suitably equipped with the start of what will be a veritable arsenal of powerful gear and life hearts by the time you’re done, you’ll come across a dungeon. Things are a bit more straightforward with the dungeons, where you’ll find a map, a compass, sometimes some equipment like a raft or whistle or magic rod, which will be essential for getting to or completing later dungeons, and then a boss between you and your bit of Triforce. Collect all the bits from the eight dungeons, then there’s one more dungeon hiding the big bad boss man and Princess Zelda.

As you get more powerful, the challenge ramps up, but all the time the focus is on exploring every aspect of the 128 screens of Hyrule and its dungeons, which is hugely rewarding when your patience finally pays off. The monsters that inhabit the dungeons do become more challenging too, and by the time you’re at the sixth or seventh, you’ll be tearing your hair out trying to dispatch a screen full of teleporting undead wizards or knights you can only attack from the side then getting out of there with enough health to make it worthwhile carrying on. None of this more so than in the final Ganon dungeon, which is a beast by the standards of 30 years ago or of today. Thank goodness for the modern convenience of easy saves and restarts on the NES Classic and the Switch…

I almost forgot the Switch. Somewhere around dungeon two, I’d completely fallen in love with this game and kept thinking how cool it would be to have this ready to go anytime and anywhere on the Switch. But by now I was thinking even more that the right way to play it was on a NES controller, as well as the fact that if I finished it on the NES Classic it would have made buying it worthwhile in itself. Then I had the brainwave of catching up to where I was on the NES Classic on the Switch, and playing every dungeon on there as soon as I’d finished it on the NES Classic. Which is what I did to the end, at which point I decided I could dabble in the second quest on the Switch whenever I feel like it.

The Legend of Zelda is an an incredible piece of games design today, and I can only imagine the impact it had on anyone that had the patience to get to the first dungeon back in 1986/7.  The remarkably atmospheric 8-bit world completely immerses you – through the distinct looking forests, deserts, coastlines and lakes as you traverse Hyrule; through the menagerie of different monsters and characters you come across; through the wonderful music and now-iconic sounds; and through the vast and ingenious world and dungeon design. Truly epic, and for me, one of the greatest games of all time.