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!

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!

Retro Arcadia Top 10 Games of 2021 – The Half Way Point!

Retro Arcadia Top 10 Games of 2021 – The Half Way Point!

Not sure I’ve ever got to the end of June and had a top ten games already, but I’m guessing the jump to Xbox Series X and it’s little Game Pass feature might have something to do with it! And that’s partly why I’m doing this now, because given what’s hopefully coming for the rest of the year, I reckon it might change a bit by December, so I just wanted to give these guys some credit before they don’t deserve it!

1. Resident Evil Village (Xbox Series X)
I wasn’t fussed about next-gen until the doors of Castle Dimitrescu were swept open in that very first gameplay footage back in January, and we climbed the grandest of staircases under the grandest of chandeliers under the grandest of ceilings, and it was just the best-looking thing I’d ever seen in a game! That combined with the clear influence of Resident Evil 4 – my third favourite game ever – to have me more hyped about Resident Evil Village than even Shao-Lin’s Road on the ZX Spectrum in 1986! And it more than lived up to that hype! A beautiful time, several times and counting.

2. Cyber Shadow (Xbox One)
Back in January, on my son’s hand-me-down Xbox, I succumbed to another Game Pass subscription for this retro arcade platformer, because a second one in the house for a month was still way cheaper than getting it on Switch! Little bit Metroid and a lot Ninja Gaiden – really punishing but begrudgingly fair, controls like a dream, and the levels are really well designed with some great variety, despite a couple of overly harsh checkpoints! And it’s also the best-looking and sounding NES game you could ever dream of, oozing this oppressive atmosphere behind all that polish.

3. Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection (Switch)
I’ve spent decades having the time of my life getting killed on the first two levels (but mostly the first!) of this game’s various Ghouls, Ghosts and Goblins predecessors, and I’m pleased to report that this one is no different! By far the most brutal in the series so far (although there are options for wimps and even optional mid-level checkpoints for all), and also the best looking, best sounding and, by all accounts, the most varied, though I’m unlikely to ever know about that!

4. Outriders (Xbox Series X)
Finally, I found my new Destiny! Fantastic feeling cover-shooter built around an addictive, repetitive and often joyfully mindless progressive level-up and loot loop that feels loads better if you jump in with others, though the flexible difficulty system means it works fine solo too. The magic classes mix things up, there’s various enhancement systems and all kinds of modification possible, a ridiculous amount of better weapons and armour to keep finding, and the story isn’t bad either. Looks mighty fine as well!

5. Narita Boy (Xbox Series X)
A pleasantly modern-feeling sort of metroidvania homage to the eighties that starts a bit bewildering as you’re dumped into a complex story made of complex language, but persevere a while and your back and forth will reward you with enormous environmental variety and loads of different enemies to overcome with increasingly fluid combat. And as you’re wandering and wondering at some glorious pseudo-Tron visuals and a fantastic synth-wave soundtrack, you’ll even start to work out what it’s all about too!

6. Genesis Noir (Xbox Series X)
I should hate this! Pointing, clicking and jazzing isn’t me… Unlike Howard Moon, I’m definitely not the jazzy boy! But I’m okay with some film noir, and I like some Pink Panther cartoon aesthetics, especially when they’re so painfully stylish! And this isn’t really point-and-click; it’s very tactile, and, unusually for that genre, its puzzles are mostly logical. There’s no escaping a bit of smoky jazz club in this absolutely unique anti-creation tale though, but I can forgive it that.

7. Travel Through Time Vol. 1: Northern Lights (ZX Spectrum)
For anyone interested in ZX Spectrums, you have to check this out! It’s up there with the machine’s best racing games, whether Enduro Racer and WEC Le Mans et al from its original run, or anything like 4K Race Refuelled or Just a Gal that followed more recently. Speaking of which, it’s from the same developer as Just a Gal, but this time the ingenuity, creativity and sheer craftsmanship on display here will just blow you away even more. Just stunning!

8. Pac-Man 99 (Switch)
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 it 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, and it’s really, really addictive, so I’m going to begrudgingly forgive it that and just say it’s great!

9. Danterrifik III (ZX Spectrum)
Yes, you read that right – another Spectrum game! This is a triumph of both minimalist design and the most brutal of old-school split-second, pixel-perfect punishing platforming. The intricate black, white and occasionally red Nazi-soiled religious imagery would look like this on any platform, and the exquisite soundtrack is as good as has ever graced the Spectrum – you might even think you’re listening to a Commodore 64 while your 99 lives are being chipped away in very rapid succession!

10. The Medium (Xbox Series X)
As the first game I played that was made for my new next-gen console, this was a disappointment! Just imagine the leap from playing Zub on ZX Spectrum to Defender of the Crown on Atari ST… Well, it was pretty much the opposite of that, and I might even say was a backwards step from something like Final Fantasy VII Remake on PS4! But as a horror walking simulator of sorts with a fantastic psychic otherworld mechanic and hard-hitting story, it really hit the spot.

Most Hours Spent in Gaming

Most Hours Spent in Gaming

Here’s some more pure self-indulgence just because I can’t resist a list, so feel free to go and do something less boring instead! My recent examination of Elite versus Perils of Willy (here) – as well as passing the 500 hour mark in Animal Crossing on Switch – got me thinking about what games I’ve put the most time into over the decades. There’s no question about the first two, both running into thousands and thousands of hours:
1. Kick Off on Atari ST
2. Elite on Atari ST

Kick Off is my second favourite game of all time. I can’t imagine the hours I spent either playing against my brothers or in the complex single player leagues and cups I invented where every player had a name long before that kind of thing was a thing. We turned it into far more than a top-down football game, and it extended the life of my Atari ST into the late nineties, way beyond when the first PlayStation should have consigned it into the loft.

Elite is also well within my top ten games ever, and unusually for me, that opinion is not exclusive to me either! Early experiences of the space-trading sim on the BBC astounded then fascinated me, but this version absolutely captivated me. A game that never knew there were limits from the outset, and equally there were no limits to playing it, pretty much forever.

Building out my top ten, I’ve got some other contenders that immediately spring to mind in no particular order yet:
– Pro Evolution Soccer 4 on PS2
– Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 on PSP
– Destiny on PS4
– No Man’s Sky on PS4
– New Star Soccer on iOS
– Animal Crossing New Horizons on Switch
– Football Manager on C64 on Pocket PC
– Tetris on Game Boy

Thinking out loud, I reckon Pro Evo on PSP then Tetris then Pro Evo on PS2 make up the top five. The only actual point of reference (at 500 hours) is Animal Crossing, and I’m going with that next, followed by Destiny and No Man’s Sky. To round out the top ten we’re going pre-smartphone, emulated Football Manager, and its spiritual descendant (and on actual smartphone) New Star Soccer.

My wife used to go nuts about my PSP always being in my hand every evening, but actually I think it was the fact I only ever played Pro Evo that annoyed her! It was full season after full season on there, even though it was about as predictable as old-school Scottish Premier League, with only a couple of teams ever in the reckoning! Actually, in a strange twist of fate about seven years later, my top goal scorer’s son and my son would become best friends in real life!

I am very familiar with the Tetris Effect. Not the game (for motion sickness reasons), but the phenomenon. I was playing Tetris every waking and non-waking hour like it or not! I loved my Game Boy, and Tetris never stopped being an integral part of its joy, through my sixth form years, university and buying at least three houses!

PS2 Pro Evo was the first to rekindle that Kick Off experience, and now everything looked just like on Match of the Day, and like on PSP later, I didn’t need to keep score for my league and cup fixes. And that Master League was just awesome – no matter how good you got, it always seemed to come down to the wire between you and one or two rivals!

I very rarely buy a game day one, but I knew that with Animal Crossing New Horizons I’d be getting incredible enjoyment and incredible value from whatever the asking price. In under two weeks I’d played more than 50 hours, and we’re now over ten times that. It’s the ultimate in gaming escapism, making the mundane as addictive as crack!

Destiny might have delivered less than it promised in the eyes of many, but not me! The shooting is as good as it’s ever got in any game, but the continuous search for upgrade materials through a continuous search for whatever was going on in that time and place you were in provided exactly the same addictive quality as Animal Crossing; it’s a different type of mundane, but you still can’t stop! Until you move to the country and have terrible internet…

Given what I’ve said about Elite, it’s no surprise that infinite space-trading discovery adventure No Man’s Sky rounds out my top ten, and it’s a game where tinkering eventually killed it for me. I was so happy with this game when it came out – unlike the rest of the world – and the first few major updates added loads to the experience that maybe should have been there previously. But the updates kept coming, and still keep coming to this day. And the one that made my sprawling moon base end up floating in the air and completely inaccessible was the beginning of a sadly quick ending.

Football Manager was one of the first games I played on my friend Paul’s Spectrum, then played it endlessly when I got my own, but it was on that forgotten pre-smartphone gadget the Pocket PC is where I spent the most time on this. It was great for emulating the C64, and this game was great for emulation. And it’s another that used to drive my wife crazy for all the aforementioned reasons!

Moving from football manager to player, New Star Soccer on iOS is one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played, to the point that in the end I knew I had a problem and had to go cold turkey! Unfortunately (or fortunately, for my sanity) it’s now a great example of a premium game destroyed by free-to-play mechanics. As well as excessive tinkering. Again.

I’m mostly happy with my top ten, but there’s also a few wildcards that I’m struggling to quantify versus the others; I just have a hunch that they might also be up there too!
– Snoopy Tennis Game & Watch
– Alto’s Adventure on iOS
– V-Rally 3 on Game Boy Advance
– Game Dev Story on iOS

Snoopy Tennis was ubiquitous in my hands in the first half of the eighties until I got my VIC-20. Likewise in the early 2000’s, I was travelling loads and always had V-Rally on the go on my GBA, and have barely taken a break from playing it since. And by 2015 I was travelling insane miles all over the world, and Alto was my plane and hotel time-killer… Until it was almost usurped by its successor in 2018 then along came Sega Ages Out Run on Switch a year later! Game Dev Story on iPhone figures here somewhere too, but in a much more concentrated time period – I went completely nuts on that for a couple of months when it came out; also one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played!

As an aside, I can probably pick out my longest narrative-driven play-throughs without too much thought, and because they weren’t long ago I even know the timings:
1. The Witcher 3 + some DLC on PS4 – 95 hours
2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Switch – 90 hours
3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – 80 hours

None of my long games list or my wildcards are much of a surprise to me. Unsurprisingly! But what I’d never thought about before was how many of these are football-related! I know your typical FIFA player is probably out-playing anything on my feeble list here every single year, but I don’t play stuff like that. Apart from the 50% of these games seemingly being stuff like that of sorts!

Wow. This wasn’t supposed to turn into an identity crisis! And let’s not even go to why a 48-year old man is spending 500 hours playing Animal Crossing in under six months… But ignoring all of that, I’m okay with representing on Atari ST with my two big hitters, and Kick Off is still my second favourite game of all time and Elite is still in my top ten, and that’s pretty cool, so let’s just stop there where everything is good with the world!

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!

In Defence of The Castlevania Adventure

In Defence of The Castlevania Adventure

I think Game Boy Castlevania Adventure gets a bum rap. Then again, I think that about Pit Fighter and the Spectrum version of Out Run too! (You can find out why here). Anyway, I remember being hugely impressed with it on the original hardware, and in retrospect, considering how early in the Game Boy’s life it came out, it really was an achievement. I’ve also just really enjoyed playing through it again in the Konami Castlevania Anniversary Collection on Switch…

The idea is that you make your way through four stages (or dark dungeons, torture chambers and vampire crypts as the description goes) of Dracula’s lair. After that, you enter what is called “the “dead” of night” to quote it exactly, to face off against Count Dracula and his multiple personalities. All with your “mystic” whip and mindful wits to sort you out.

A lot of the criticism I’ve seen of late relates to its inclusion on the aforementioned collection, on the basis of it being dull and poorly designed compared to the excellent sequel – also present – which renders it redundant, and no doubt taking the place of a GBA game or Symphony or whatever the missing favourite of the person criticising it is. I do get it, and wouldn’t have complained about an Aria of Sorrow or something being on here instead, or even the Game Boy Kid Dracula; actually, having just finished the NES version, I’d have really liked that! But I don’t think that makes it a bad game.

Admittedly the first stage is a bit sedate, but there’s some really challenging platforming, races against time and boss fights later on. Took me a few goes to remember how the end bit works, but the rest felt comfortably familiar, and more importantly, as fun as I remember. It looks really good too – very clean, very atmospheric, and it’s very clear where you need to be to make some of the more precise jumps that are called for later. It sounds like a Castlevania game too. And I for one am glad I got to play through it again on the collection!

Now I just need that Arcade Archives Pit Fighter release. Get talking to Atari, Hamster people!

My Life With… Out Run – Arcade / ZX Spectrum / Switch

My Life With… Out Run – Arcade / ZX Spectrum / Switch

A few weeks ago at the time of writing, the main event of WWE’s Wrestlemania 35 was the culmination of years of nauseating, cringeworthy, revisionist history, self-congratulation about revolutionising women’s wrestling… In other words, they stopped hiring porn stars to do bra and panties matches, and instead had real-life athletes pretending to knock the crap out of each other to varying degrees of success. 

Anyway, Ronda Rousey, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch headline the biggest event of the year, and after all the build-up and excitement, the match is decided by a botched finish. Rousey is pinned by Lynch, she clearly has her shoulders up, the ref carries on counting regardless, Lynch wins. And whilst the result was predictable, no one saw it coming like that, including, apparently, the competitors; then there’s a second of awkward silence rather than the huge desired pop that was destined to be replayed ad-infinitum from the crowd in attendance; meanwhile those watching at home are rewinding it to check that they really did just screw up the first (and last, while Vince McMahon is still alive) women’s Wrestlemania main event.

And what’s that got to do with Out Run? Well, a couple of days ago at the time of writing, after decades of playing it on all kinds of formats, I got to the end of one of its routes for the first time. On the arcade version no less, thanks to Sega Ages Out Run on Nintendo Switch. Over the past few months, I’ve come close a couple of times and knew that I knew this route well enough that it was just going to take a bit of luck to avoid more than one minor brush with danger, and I’d get there sooner or later. This run felt great, and whilst I didn’t look at the clock as I hit the final stage, I knew I just needed to take it easy, avoid traffic, and I’d do it. 

Then suddenly control of the car was taken away from me and I’m seeing the end-game screen. Did I really just get to the end? Did I miss a finish line and a heart-in-mouth second of thinking I’m about to do what I started trying to do more than 30 years ago? After that momentary confusion, the elation of a moment such a long time in coming arrived and what, thinking about it later, is probably my greatest gaming achievement. My heart was racing and would be again every time I thought of what I’d done over the next few hours. 

We need to go a long way back before we get to the Switch version though, via a much maligned version of Out Run on the humble ZX Spectrum! But to use another wrestling analogy, it might not be the Attitude Era, but I’ll take Macho Man versus Ricky The Dragon Steamboat every time! (And I’d take either over the bloated, politically correct, creatively bankrupt late night kids TV show we get now). 

Before we get there, we need to cover the arcade game too. As usual, I’d seen it coming in Computer & Video Games magazine back in 1986, and I remember being blown away by it in the wild (in Great Yarmouth I think) despite there only being a stand-up cabinet in that seaside arcade, rather than the deluxe sit-down version that was rumoured to spin you around and shake you about.

None of that was necessary though. This was the most exotic game ever – as close as you’d get to being in Miami Vice. The palm trees in the sand and the sails in the ocean zooming by; or the feeling of freedom as the road suddenly opens up in the very first corner from three lanes to this huge, six lane highway and the speed really kicks in… That first stage, which is honestly all I ever saw of it for a very long time, with its absolutely astounding graphics flying past at such an astounding speed, was the most exhilarating feeling I’d ever had playing a game. It was pretty tough though, and clearly made to keep your coins going in – hit another car or, even worse, a lorry, and if you were lucky you were just going to take a huge hit on your speed, but otherwise the car was spinning to a stop, or if you hit a roadside obstacle, you and your girl were spectacularly somersaulting through the air together with the Ferrari. And seeing any of these scenarios meant game over sooner rather than later because a very aggressive clock was ticking down to zero on every stage.

But even back then, strip away the remarkable technical achievement that was Out Run with or without physical bells and whistles, and it was still a lot more than your run of the mill racing game. There were no other racers and there was no first place; it was just you and your Ferrari trying to impress a girl by driving as fast as possible as far as possible down one or the other route of your choosing when (if) you got to the end of each stage, towards five different end locations, with the wind in your hair and the finest soundtrack that has ever graced a video game… That soundtrack! I wonder at what point they realised that Magical Sound Shower, Passing Breeze and Splash Wave were so good that they demanded their own selection screen before you started, with radio frequencies changing as a realistically moving hand moved the dial clockwise through them.

Before I move away from the arcade version for a while, as an aside, life met art earlier this year when I was in Florida with work, playing Out Run on the Switch in a hotel on the beach that was on a road that the first stage could have easily been modelled on. And while we’re aside-ing, now I’ve gone beyond the first stage, I can say that going down the big hill in the fourth of the final stages is now what I believe to be the most exhilarating feeling I’ve ever had playing a game!

As I mentioned in my previous post on Operation Wolf, together with that and R-Type, Out Run was a game I never thought I’d see a home version of. Which might be a lot to do with why I have such fondness for a conversion that everyone else seems to think is such a stinker! Or do they? Hang on just a minute before you start scoffing, while I share some review scores from early in 1988: Your Sinclair 8/10; Sinclair User 81%; Crash 71%. Not so bad, right? And justifiably so!

As usual, the Spectrum version took a hit on colours, going for a mostly monochrome look on various boldly coloured backgrounds, but apart from that your Ferrari looked just like you wanted it to – big and convertible with your girl by your side – and everything else looked more than fine and where it should be. You had all the tracks from the arcade version (not that I ever saw two thirds of them) and on my 128K version at least, you had great versions of two of the iconic pieces of music. There was a bit of multi-load going on to do a new track, but it stayed in memory if you were doing the same route again. Again, usual compromises and more than acceptable for having a version of this unbelievable arcade game in your own home. Until Operation Wolf arrived a few months later, getting this for my birthday in May was probably my most anticipated game ever, and I remember the very moment I loaded it up with little time left to do any more than that before I left for school, still not quite believing this was possible! I didn’t even notice it wasn’t quite as fast as the arcade version!

Yes, speed, apparently, is an issue for the Spectrum version that makes it so bad it’s mentioned in the same breath as Pit Fighter (also unjustified), though I’ve just played it again and I still don’t think it’s as bad as everyone thinks it is, looking through today’s eyes, let alone those of more than thirty years ago. It’s still perfectly playable, it’s just as hard as it always was, and it feels fine – just like the review scores from the time said it was!

Now I’m going to jump forward a few decades to Sega Ages Out Run for Nintendo Switch.  What on earth would 1987 me have thought about not just having the actual arcade version in my home, but having it in my hand too, should the mood take me! For less money than the Spectrum cassette was too! And not just the arcade version, but one with different coloured cars and speed, grip and damage buffs as rewards for getting to the end of four of the five routes and a true-to-life arcade experience once you’d done that and the fifth route too…

As I said earlier, I did finish the first of the five routes a few days ago with the regular red Ferrari. I was going to stop there – achievement enough and game finished as far as I was concerned – but within a day I was back in my new silver car to try out the increased grip version. Very nice and made corners so much easier. Then I decided I wanted to see every route and unlock every car. On my very next game, taking the same route to the final stage I’d memorised on my first run to the end, I got to the end of the second route. The third was fairly easy too, with only one new track to work out – my feeling is that once you’re on any of the final stages, you can just take it easy enough to avoid mistakes to reach the end. The fourth and fifth were a bit harder because you couldn’t get there by taking a left at the end of stage one, as I’d done all the time to this point, and had to go right instead onto a new set of tracks; they took me a couple more days. Definitely worth doing because the finished car with all four buffs active ends up handling a lot like the original one but a lot faster. Now I’m working my way through each of the routes on the original arcade version that finishing all five unlocked, and with the self-imposed pressure off, I couldn’t love this game any more than I do right now. Seems I’m finally quite good at it too!

Together with the aforementioned R-Type, I don’t think any game from the 80’s has stood the test of time like this has, and despite sequels and endless homages to it, has ever been or will ever be bettered for sheer exhilaration.

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.