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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game Review: Space Invaders Invincible Collection on Nintendo Switch

Game Review: Space Invaders Invincible Collection on Nintendo Switch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Game Review: Travel Through Time Vol. 1 – Northern Lights on ZX Spectrum

Game Review: Travel Through Time Vol. 1 – Northern Lights on ZX Spectrum

Throughout its lifetime, the limits of the ZX Spectrum were regularly tested and redefined by its racing games. Ironically, of course, that’s in stark contrast to its main 8-bit rival, whose limits were regularly defined by them… Buggy Boy, Super Cycle and maybe its interpretation of Power Drift excluded. Maybe.

Anyway, back on the Spectrum, we can go all the way back to the 1983-realism of Chequered Flag, with its lifelike cockpit and household name tracks; and it’s where my life with the Spectrum began! Not so much a racing game and more of a driving game, but no denying that the third-person 3D crime-fuelled cityscapes of 1986’s Turbo Esprit were a blueprint for Grand Theft Auto and more that followed. Things went nuts in 1987, with my number one (if we’re excluding Supersrint) Spectrum racing game ever Enduro Racer and its big thrill, big sprite off-road motorbiking; we also had another great arcade bike racer in Super Hang-On, and I’ll always maintain that the Spectrum’s conversion of Out Run was a stunner too! The superb arcade ports didn’t let up the following year, with WEC Le Mans’ super-smooth action coming very close to also being top of the pile. Then there was the depth of Nigel Mansell’s Grand Prix, and I’m also going to mention Super Trux for trying something new too, especially when it came to hills, and just being a really fun, under-appreciated racer!

Speaking of hills, 1989 saw a fantastic conversion of Power Drift which really nailed the gameplay of the original, and another game that’s often mentioned as one of the best (if not the best) of them all, Chase HQ, although as impressive as it runs, I’ve never really clicked with that on any system. I definitely clicked with Stunt Car Racer on another system (Atari ST), but the Spectrum also got a very impressive, albeit more bare bones version that really knows how to throw those big 3D shapes that make up those outrageous elevated tracks around. A couple of years later and we’re now really getting the most out the system’s 3D graphics capabilities – Chevy Chase is a beauty (especially the gorgeous sunset level); take your pick between Test Drive II or Toyota Celica GT Rally as the closest you’ll come to driving a car on the Spectrum (at least to look at…); and finally we approach the end of the Spectrum’s life with Super Monaco GP realising everything we thought we were looking at when we started our journey with Chequered Flag almost a decade earlier!

Super hang on a minute though! What’s all this talk about end of the Spectrum’s life? Okay, maybe briefly, but like another guy with a beard, it didn’t take Sir Clive’s little zombie long to rise from the grave with a bit of help from the insane homebrew scene that’s still thriving as we speak – no doubt whenever you’re reading this! We’ve had some absolute corkers when it comes to racing games especially over the last few years – all the way back in 2004 we had 4K Race, which was followed up with the sublime Pole Position-esque sequel 4K Race Refuelled, a super-smooth, super-fast arcade racer that fills a gap on the Spectrum I didn’t realise was there until I played it. Fast forward a few years to 2019 and we’ve got a couple of releases from developer Zosya Entertainment, who by this point were establishing themselves as a real sign of quality for modern ZX Spectrum gaming. The first game of theirs I remember wasn’t a racing game, but this really great looking fantasy (literally!) Amazon action adventure called Valley of Rains, complete with its raunchy cassette inlay! They’ve also produced the excellent platformer Bonnie and Clyde, in the vein of Bubble Bobble or Rodland, and the jaw-dropping first-person shooter The Dark: Redux, and you really need to be checking out anything with their name on… Including uber-stylised drift racer, Drift (which I’m rubbish at), and an arguably better take on the original Super Hang-On conversion by the name of Just a Gal, featuring the tale of a lady racer named Maureen!

And between the style and the storyline of these two games, we end our journey at the present day, with Zosya’s 2021 release, Travel Through Time Vol. 1: Northern Lights. Now, in getting here we’ve taken in the very best of ZX Spectrum racing (and sometimes ZX Spectrum gaming full-stop), but from the very outset it’s obvious that we’re also in the presence of something very, very special with this one!

We begin as you begin your amateur racing career in 1950’s Sweden, and what follows is a story-based racing game that spans four decades, six vehicles from those decades (up to the eighties in case you’re struggling to keep track) as the automotive industry develops in parallel, and follow the life of one family through that time. And all of this plays out through stylish cutscenes, and a variety of racing types, from challenge to time trial and duel to checkpoint chasing, and you’ll be racing at night and through different seasons and weather too.

We’re understandably in 128K-only territory here, so after a bright and breezy loading screen you’re getting a very bright and breezy AY theme tune, with meandering melodies skillfully layering over a familiar sounding Spectrum rhythm section that eventually end up in a quite moving crescendo. From there, as well as choosing your preferred control method, you’re also asked if you want OST CD or chip sound during gameplay, then you’re dumped into the 1950’s with a beautifully coloured, finely detailed and minimally animated cutscene.

The first stage is the simplest of all the different race modes – just drive with no time limits, get used to the controls and enjoy the scenery as you make your way to the first checkpoint. The first thing that hits you is the absolutely unique art style. It’s a kind of textured cartoon-noir that uses shadows to not only provide atmosphere, but somehow restrict the actual screen size without you really noticing, and this no doubt contributes to the immediate visual miracle in detail, speed and smoothness of movement. I’m a complete philistine when it comes to stuff like frame rate, and could not care less about 60 frames per second, 30 frames per second, performance mode, whatever. As long as doesn’t look like stop motion, I’ll take tons of graphics over the rest any time. And that’s the great thing about Spectrums and the like – no one cares! But when you’re hitting 25 FPS on there, even I know that’s pretty impressive. Especially when there’s tons of graphics going on in parallel!

From the outset, there’s so much detail everywhere you look that isn’t sky or shadow, which again, is such a clever performance enabler in this type of game! The first time it really hits you is something as simple as a pedestrian crossing you go over at the start of the first stage, and you think “that’s impressive” before you start noticing the dynamic shadows coming off the telegraph poles or trees or top of your car as it goes under a bridge, or the skidmarks when you brake hard, or just the difference in texture as land becomes water beneath the bridge you’re on. There’s so much attention to detail here that I’ve already said more than I should – it’s a racer but I really don’t want to spoil anything beyond a taster of the first few minutes! All that road decoration is more than eye-candy too, and you’ll soon be paying extreme attention to road signs that warn of upcoming hazards like sharp turns, narrowing roads and other regular racing game stuff, but also things like railway crossings – the first one you can ignore, but go through the next barrier without stopping and you’re in trouble… By the way, you’ll be thinking “that’s seriously impressive” by now and we’re still mere seconds into the first stage! The car sprites have an air of Buggy Boy about them – big and chunky, and what that lack in colour is more than made up for in detail – just check out the glimpse of side of the car when you’re turning! Although there’s not massive variety in them during individual events or even time periods, as a whole you are getting plenty to drive and even more to avoid, with the other cars’ AI apparently always having an eye on the rear-view mirror to make sure it’s always just in the way enough for a time-sapping clip as you pass by!

You should breeze through the first few stages despite the other cars, the trains and the introduction of various timers, and each brings new and varied scenery, new colours to complement the deep shadows (with only the slightest of occasional bleeding), and you’ll also progress the story through cutscenes. I have the say that the story isn’t the game’s strongest point, and while it’s a nice way to mix up the racing action, when you have a racer this good I can live without it! I reckon the developers had an idea this might be the case for many of us because a long hold on the gear change button will skip it and get you straight back into the action!

It was the first part of stage four where the challenge spiked a bit; this one is a checkpoint race, and the first checkpoint must have taken me about fifteen goes to get to. It’s all about setting expectations though, because from here onwards you’re going to have your work cut out, and the very next stage – a one-on-one duel – took forever, watching our opponent disappear at the start and then get further and further away on your little in-car distance meter as the race went on, over and over! By now it’s clear that the game is demanding perfection, and on many stages (but not all) that means learning every bend, every gear change and every beautiful undulation! Again, because it’s as good as it is, it just about gets away with it, because we’re still only starting out here!

Which is a good time to remind myself that this isn’t a text-based walkthrough, and I’ve already said I don’t want to spoil things, so after about 18 different stages and a brief vehicle change, you’re going to be doing that time travelling thing the game name talks about, and heading into the 1960’s to do it all over again, in a smart modern car and in all kinds of new environments and conditions. And then the 1970’s, and finally the 1980’s. I have to admit that getting there is going to be a push. As good as it feels to play, and for all the variety of race types, I honestly can’t see many people even getting half way, especially with the more brutal time limits on some of the stages. And certainly not in one session because your hand will have cramped into a claw long before that, although there is a password around 1970 if you’re not using save states between levels! That’s about as far as I’ve got so far too, but I reckon you’re looking at 5-6 hours of story at least.

But for all the difficulty spikes, it’s always wonderful racing! Behind the graphical (and some nice dynamic audio) frills, which genuinely never stop being a joy to behold (except, if I’m being a bit harsh, maybe in the snow stages where you lose the impact of all that missing black shadowing), this feels a lot like WEC Le Mans to play. And there’s not really a greater compliment I can pay any Spectrum racer’s gameplay; or at least none that doesn’t involve the words “Enduro” and “Racer” but for as good as it appears to be, I’m not quite ready to go there with this yet! Anyway, the car is very responsive, and you’ll find yourself constantly making decisions on accelerator position versus gear change versus brake as you seek the perfect runs often demanded, and with time, so far at least, these are always achievable with persistence. And as someone who just finished WEC Le Mans for the first time, I reckon I have that persistence, and I definitely have no problem with playing this for many more hours!

For anyone with any interest in the ZX Spectrum, you have to check this out! It’s up there with the machine’s very best racing games, whether from its original incarnation or any of the wonderful homebrews since. The ingenuinity, the creativity and the sheer craftsmanship on display here will simply blow you away. Oh yeah, while there is a cassette release for you purists, the digital version is completely free. No excuse. And volume one had better mean there’s a volume two on the way… Incredible!

Grab it here.

Game Review: Danterrifik III on ZX Spectrum

Game Review: Danterrifik III on ZX Spectrum

I might be rubbish at games, but me and brutal platformers have some history! Of course, stuff like The Perils of Willy on the VIC-20 was just a normal platformer when I was spending dozens and dozens of hours playing that. Same when I got to Willy’s better-known adventures on the ZX Spectrum a couple of years later, or stuff like Chuckie Egg on the Amstrad CPC. I reckon stuff being “difficult” rather than just par for the course started with the likes of Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and definitely its sequels, if we’re counting those as an evolution of the platforming genre. Castlevania was definitely a tough old platformer, and the Mega Mans went even further, refining difficulty as a badge of honour. Me and platforming went our separate ways a bit for a while, but I remember Rayman on the PlayStation was too hard for its own good, as were moments in Super Mario Sunshine on GameCube – a game I love and hate in equal measure! Coming quickly up to date (as this wasn’t supposed to be a history lesson), the same is true for Cuphead, Hollow Knight and Shovel Knight’s gorgeous, punishing adventures. And, of course, we have the more retro-looking modern branch of cruel platformer too, with the likes of Celeste (though I’m not a huge fan of this despite several attempts to be on several systems), the minimalist N++, which I’ve played to death on the Switch, and the undisputed heavyweight champion, Super Meat Boy, where you – a cube of meat – are literally a celebration of tough-as-nails platforming death!

Super Meat Boy is a very apt place to start (several hundred words later) as we turn to brand new ZX Spectrum platformer Danterrifik III, because unlike its early eighties forebears, its singular mission is exactly the same – it just wants to destroy you, in very rapid succession! I must confess that at the time of writing (although this will definitely get fixed very soon) I’ve never played either Danterrifik or its sequel, both released in 2020, also for the Spectrum, but can provide a quick recap from the cassette inlays… In the first game, protagonist Dan wakes up in a cemetery having been turned into a skeleton, and he’s making his way through hell (probably literally) to recover his soul, his body and his identity. In part two, he’s lost in the labyrinth of his own mind and pitted against both the satanic dangers of hell and his own surreal hallucinations. Some serious ZX Spectrum colour insanity too from what I can tell!

The setup for this, Danterrifik III, is a little less well signposted! No cassette inlays this time, and before I first played all I had were some words on a map I found on the wonderful Spectrum Computing website that I assume was from one of the incarnations of the creator, David Gracia. And I quote…

DAN HAS ESCAPED FROM DANTEMONIUM
BUT THIS IS NOT GOING TO BE
A HAPPY ENDING.
WE HAVE RECOVERED
OUR SADISTIC IDENTITY.
WE HAVE PAID FOR OUR
VIOLENT ACTS IN THE PAST.
TO BE CONTINUED…
DAS LEBEN IST NICHT
SCHWACHE VERZEIHEN. “FUHRER”

Doing a bit more digging now, we get a bit more information (or just different nonsensical words, depending on your point of view) and a much better translation of that German than my original attempt… Life does not forgive weakness [that’s the German bit]. Dan will have to pay for all his unpunished acts. Dantemonium [sounds like a song by Fields of the Nephilim] will be his place of reception as punishment. And apparently these are the words of the high priest of the German Catholic Church. But fear not, we’re getting to the meat of the game now… “Dan will face all kinds of physical and mental torture. The only option to get out alive is to escape from the Dantemonium Cathedral, where all kinds of monstrosities and despicable beings are housed who have also paid for their actions in the past, and have been locked up to unleash their heinous murderous instincts. Can Dan regain his identity and find out what happened to him? Why has he been locked up in a German Church called Dentemonium?”

Now that we’re completely clued up on why we’re here, you start the game in black and white, and you’d better stop trying to work out if that really is a Nazi bishop holding a decapitated head over there and move sharpish because there’s three bats about to fly at you and claim the first of your 99 lives! Reminds me of the Atari ST Turrican II demo from a Zero magazine cover disk – you know you’re in trouble when a game gives you 99 lives! That said, just to ramp up the difficulty a bit more, it’s two for one because every time you die you lose two lives!

What follows is some of the most fiendishly difficult platforming I’ve ever come across, where you’re not just looking at pixel perfect positioning, but split second timing too, with some of the tiniest windows you can imagine to react and move in and out of the tiniest of spaces before death comes knocking! And this might be one of about twenty such timing and moving conundrums of a single screen, so you’re going to be spending a lot of time just perfecting them, one at a time, usually at the expense of many of your lives until you’ve got it right, and then working out how to do the next in the same way, then pairing them together until you’ve made it across to the exit. And then doing it all over again across each of the 25 sadistic screens!

As well as platforms that have been shaved down to almost the point of impossibility, you’ve got all sorts of enemies to contend with, from giant spiders and vampire bats to scarred, disembodied heads, glowing demonic eyes, spikey mines floating about in the water (or is it blood?) and various fanged monsters. As well as your usual flames and spikes and moving objects you really shouldn’t touch! Dealing with all of this isn’t quite Mario, but you have a very predictable jump that’s also loose enough for some very necessary and very frequent mid-air adjustments that combine to make this feel almost as much a puzzler as a platformer. Despite that, the hit detection is going to have you seething, but I reckon as cruel as it is, it’s pretty much always fair once you’re aware that even a sniff of danger is killing you!

Everything is black and white (or white and black) with more or less red depending on the screen you’re on, very similar to something like the relatively recent Downwell if you’re familiar with that, though I was often put in mind of the old Spectrum Nemesis the Warlock in graphical style too. The opening screens are mostly black detail – some nice crumbling brickwork, church pews, church windows, murderous nazi bishops, etc. – on a pure white background with the odd red flame. Then you get red being introduced as liquid, often filling most of the screen, and then you’ll get white stone platforms on a mostly black brick background, again with the odd red highlight. The only real variation I remember is a grey minimalist impression of Hitler at about the halfway point! It mostly works really well, especially when it’s just white behind everything, though I did find a couple of screens a bit busy, possibly not aided by my red-black colourblindness. One thing’s for sure – you’ll forget you’re playing on a Spectrum because I’m fairly certain this is how it’s supposed to look whatever the platform. All in all very intricate, very stylish and very bold though, and as well as the slightly jarring appearance of blocky Hitler or a giant swastika, there’s a few really nice surprises to be found, if you have the time or inclination to get good!

While sound effects are as minimal as blocky Hitler’s moustache, the in-game music is absolutely incredible! This is about as close as I’ve heard the Spectrum coming to the Commodore 64’s SID chip, in the way you sometimes got it sounding like it had all kinds of channels playing at once when in reality it was all smoke and mirrors! It’s as sinister as it is impressive too, ranging from Castlevania-esque gothic flourishes through to a more thoughtful ebb and flow, before a classic Spectrum drum roll launches us back into the dense main melody. And somewhere it there it’s subtly restarting and looping again, but it really is as seamless as it is varied. Now I’m thinking about it, I’m struggling to think of any better in-game music than this on the Spectrum, and even if the brutality of the gameplay isn’t for you, you’ll want to play for the soundtrack alone!

At this point I was planning on saying I got as far as Hitler then gave up – I just wanted to give you that screenshot! But arguably harder than that young pretender Super Meat Boy or not, I’m a Perils of Willy veteran and there’s no way I’m being defeated by only 25 screens worth of the purest torture! That said, being a Spectrum game, unlike Super Meat Boy there’s no checkpointing, and modern life demanded I use the modern concession of a save state at the end of every one of those screens from Hitler onwards. All the same, that took me pretty much all of those hundred lives, as well as several hours of tearing my hair out, just to “cheat” my way to the ending. Speaking of which, I don’t know what it was about the last screen proper because most of the preceding few screens had really turned every move into a puzzle, but working out the correct timing as you leap around this upside-down bloodletting (to avoid spoiling my favourite bit completely) between a load of floating monsters was just completely bonkers to me, and having done it once after dozens of goes, I’m not sure I could ever repeat it.

And I never plan to repeat it! But I do plan to seek out the first two games to find out how bad they hate me too, and it sounds like there’s more to come, so keep watching the skies in the direction of Spain for more of this insane sado-masochistic old-school and then some platforming brilliance!

Game Review: Resident Evil Village on Xbox Series X

Game Review: Resident Evil Village on Xbox Series X

I know this isn’t retro, and I’m weeks behind any other reviews that actually mattered to anyone, but as well as having some form with Resident Evil, when I finished the game I wanted to try and reconcile some of the feelings I had about the experience, especially in relation the well-known fourth entry in the series, so I thought why not!

With the possible exception of Shaolin’s Road coming to ZX Spectrum in 1986, I’m not sure I was ever as excited about an upcoming game as I was Resident Evil Village. It was the January 2021 first gameplay trailer that did it, when the doors of the castle swung open and you were greeted by this majestic, shimmering chandelier hanging from the grandest of intricately carved vaulted ceilings, over the grandest of intricately carved wooden staircases, accented by gold and flames and all that fancy next-gen lighting! In fact, it was that very moment that I decided it was time to take the plunge, leading to weeks of Xbox Series X hunting, but I had five months and it arrived long before panic needed to set in… In fact, the only moment of panic was the day before the game’s release, when my wife informed me she’d never actually had an order confirmation (for good reason, it turned out!), so the two day wait I was already prepared to endure between 7th May and my birthday on the 9th was about to stretch to ruinous levels!

It didn’t, thanks to the eighth wonder of the world when you live in the middle of nowhere, one-day delivery! Anyway, why all this excitement? Firstly, even from the trailers, you could tell that the stench of Resident Evil 4 (more here) was all over it. And that’s not only my favourite Resident Evil, but my number three favourite game of all time; now, I might have been very late to that party, it being the last major game in the series I’d never played because back in 2005 I didn’t like the look of the first chapter that was in all of the screenshots we got, but this year alone it’s been played on GameCube twice, and Wii, and PlayStation 4. I love it, and so by extension, I should love this as well! Then there’s secondly, which is how it looks. Again, a moment in a trailer was all it took – I’ve written a bit about favourite sights in all of gaming, a couple of times in fact (here and here), but that castle hallway stomped all over what’s come before. I think it’s breathtaking! And as trailers became bizarrely timed Sunday night-only demos spanning my PS4 then Xbox Series X, I was getting similar feelings about the village before the castle, and then the rest of the castle… I’ve always said I could retire to Super Castlevania IV, and Castle Dimitrescu was that wonderful Super Nintendo pixel art brought to the most stunning real life in 2021! From what I’d seen in the trailers and the demos, they really couldn’t have made a game look more personally appealing to me than this one, and combine that with the Resident Evil 4 context and influence, and we have what might be the best game ever just over the horizon…

Before we go any further – even more important than saying I’ll do my best to avoid any spoilers – is turn on ray tracing if you’re on a next-gen console! It’s off by default but needs switching on to make a great-looking gaming the most sumptuous, gorgeous game you’ve ever seen! As I’ve mentioned this a couple of times already, we’ll start with graphics, and confirm that this is a really beautiful game; I know we’re only scratching the surface of next-gen consoles so far, and with this being available on the old ones there’s sure to be some compromise, but all the same, apart from some of the gorgeous lighting effects in the enhanced Dirt 5, this is the first time I’ve really felt that I’m experiencing Xbox Series X. The domestic scene setter at the beginning of the game is fine (and we’ll come back here shortly), but it’s when you’ve taken in a stunning vista of everything that’s about to come your way, then you finally arrive in the titular village that you start to really notice all the shadows and reflections, the glisten of snowflakes and flickering candlelight, and stunning details literally everywhere you look.

You’re going to have some of these shoved right in your face very early on too – hair effects are always a mark of next-generation machines, and lycans and werewolves (there is a difference!) are the perfect showcase for seeing these in action! There’s just so much fidelity in everything, whether static or in motion, and some of these early encounters are not just graphical showstoppers, but they also serve to absolutely terrify you with the prospect of everything else that’s going to be out to get you in the ordeal to come! An early introduction to pre-launch sensation Lady Dimitrescu and her three fellow Lords also hints at the variety to come, and even very deep into the game I was constantly jumping into the pause menu, opening up photo mode and getting a shot of the latest thing to blow me away as we travelled through their various distinct domains. Some of these had a real Universal horror vibe as well, which I really appreciated, both literally and also where everything exists to have an atmospheric purpose. And you’re constantly encouraged to take all of this in, looking for that tiny glint that tells you there’s something valuable to be dislodged by a bullet, but sometimes you’ll also just decide you need to sit back and admire it, whether the sight of a mass of crows circling some ruined battlements, or just watching resident merchant, The Duke, ignoring you and enjoying his cigar before hunting out a book, flicking some ash out of it as he finds the right page, then exhales a puff of smoke as he starts reading. So much effort has gone into not only creating a realistic gothic fantasy with startling attention to detail, but also by bringing almost everything in it to life. There’s no doubt that this is the best looking game that these eyes have ever seen!

Quick note on the story. This is a direct follow-up to Resident Evil 7, continuing the story of Ethan Winters after he rescued his wife from supernatural Texas Chainsaw country, but now they’re in exile somewhere in Eastern Europe and he’s got a baby daugher to rescue this time. After being kidnapped by Resident Evil stalwart Chris Redfield and his cronies, she’s kidnapped again by our aforementioned four supernatural crime-lords, who are all at the behest of wicked witch Mother Miranda. As well as being the best looking game I’ve ever played, this is undoubtedly my game of the year so far, trumping even Ghosts ‘n Goblins Ressurection, Outriders and Cyber Shadow, all of which I thought were utterly wonderful, then there’s Genesis Noir, Narita Boy, Pac-Man 99… And we’re still in May! Anyway, I choose to say this now because the first time I was introduced to this baddies collective in a very early cutscene, all of that pre-launch excitement about having a new and improved Resident Evil 4 on my hands got a teeny bit tempered. Lady Dimitrescu was fine, and her three insect-infused daughters even more fine to this particular old goth! Modern-day Frankestein Karl Hesienberg was alright too, even if he was no Ramon Salazar. But then there was this doll running about shouting like some crazed Harley Quinn nerd figure, who turned out to be representing Donna Beneviento, a creepy dollmaker. Now, I’m not saying that either of the first two are any kind of realistic, but they were at least grounded in the same kind of horror reality that we were treated to in most of the previous game with the Baker family, but all these in-your-face Bride of Chucky histrionics just seemed a bit out of place at this point. As did the fourth Lord, an oozing, deformed aquatic worm-man thing by the name of Savatore Moreau – I might have loved the lake monster boss from Resident Evil 4, and this might have been a strong hint towards something similar to come later, but all the same, it’s not really what I wanted as I transitioned from a lycan-infested scene of rural slaughter into the golden vampiric opulence of Castle Dimitrescu; a couple of Scooby Doo villains making an overly dramatic entrance was all a bit jarring!

Fortunately, you’re not given too long to dwell on this as you’re dumped into a rip-roaring Indiana Jones-style set piece; it really is a testament to the game design that when I finally got to the end of this frantic little interlude that I wondered quite how I’d managed to escape first time and in one piece, but some clever pacing and some subtle funnelling quietly served its purpose here, and it wouldn’t be the last time I’d have a similar feeling after some of the game’s later set pieces too. This might be a good time to mention the puzzles, which is something else I really appreciated, though for reasons that others might bemoan them! I’ve never come to Resident Evil for the puzzles, and anything beyond the lightweight brain teasers we recently saw in Resident Evil 3 Remake have been things I’ve learnt to tolerate more than enjoy; thankfully, the puzzles here might be even more lightweight, sometimes being a test of your brightness settings as much as your logical thought! As I said, maybe a turn-off for some, but you’re rarely going to be scratching your head about what to do or where to go next, especially if you’ve played any of the series before. There are definitely some secrets to find off the beaten track though, and after my first playthrough I had a list of various non-critical puzzles to go back to that I’d encountered but not found the right gear to solve, or just stuff I knew must exist but I hadn’t had the right gear to access at the time.

I’m not going to describe much beyond what everyone with any interest in the game has already seen in either trailers or demos or bigger boys’ reviews, but after spending a good chunk of time in Castle Dimitrescu, you are going to use the village as a bit of a metroidvania-inspired game hub, and then travel through each of the other three Lords’ themed worlds doing things very much inspired by every Resident Evil game you’ve ever played, and not just spiritual predecessor Resident Evil 4. Although one of them very much reminded me more of Doom 3 than any previous Resident Evil, but as my favourite shooter ever that’s something I can forgive! Actually, as I think about it, it did go a bit Call of Duty at one point too, though again, in a fun, chaotic scrap with guns kind of way, so again, quite forgiveable! As I may have hinted, the castle is my favourite area in this game, but there’s not that much to where you’ll spend the most time while exploring here, and whilst that’s not necessarily a criticism – especially from someone with my sense of direction – I did feel that you were too-quickly whisked through some of the later areas it expands into in comparison as you reach the end of your time there. On a related note, there’s one dominant puzzle that appears here very early on, but you spend several hours not being able to do much about; and when I say several hours, it may be less if you’re not soaking in every decadent detail like I was! Anyway, that puzzle contain various elements, and the first and even the second of these are going to take some tracking down, but then this was where the pacing caught me out a bit as suddenly the rest of it all fell into place in quick succession; pacing is undoubtedly one of the hallmarks of Resident Evil 4, and this could have taken some cues from that game’s castle area by just taking its time a bit more instead of excitedly getting you on a roll and then out of there.

Another hallmark of Resident Evil 4 for me is the boss fights. I’m not a massive fan of boss fights in general, but I did enjoy most of those, as well as some of the other giant enemies it introduced in between. I also really enjoyed most of the nerve-shredding but ultimately dumb Nemesis fights in Resident Evil 3 Remake, and I think it was these I missed the most here once the first main boss fight was done – which it should be said was great, with its frantic and often overwhelming chase around the ramparts! After that, and right up to the final boss fight where things get a bit more traditional again, I was just a bit underwhelmed by the rest of the bosses, and none more so than when one of them turned out to be a very straightforward game of hide and seek, with absolutely no user input outside of a glorified game of Where’s Wally!

I’m going to stop finding fault in a second, but while I am there’s just a couple more things that bothered me. Before launch there was a big debate about the pronunciation of Dimitrescu, with everyone that had ever had any exposure to anything Eastern European (i.e. not an American being told what to say by a Japanese guy at Capcom) knowing it’s pronounced exactly how it’s written. But in the game, it is actually pronounced “Dimitreesc” and having worked for a Japanese company for exactly twenty years and one week at the time of writing, I’ve a feeling that this is grounded in the Japanese language handling of the letter “u” at the end of a word being assumed to also directly translate to Romanian. A mistake, in other words, but even if not, it sounds ridiculous every time you hear it! Final moan is the punishment that Ethan’s hands take in the first hour of the game. Even more ridiculous! One of them literally gets torn apart, and there’s fingers bitten off, and you find out exactly why people say that if Jesus was crucified like the popular story says then the nails would have gone in his wrists and not his palms in the most graphic detail (twice), and he even has one sliced completely off. But a bit of rag and some magic healing juice and they all come back again, which is fine, but what about the sleeves that get sliced off too? Did I miss the magic sewing kit as well? And if you’re planning on explaining that away, do it sooner before it becomes an ongoing annoyance rather than later, by which I mean during the absolute end-game.

I know, to the normal person neither of these are likely to be a showstopper, but these little details can nag away, and combined with similar, relatively minor issues definitely contribute to why Resident Evil 4 is my number three favourite game of all time and this isn’t even in the reckoning, as good as it really is over its ten hours or so duration! As an analogy, there’s a well-know way of approaching seemingly insurmountable ingrained problems in large corporations, like a huge giant block of stone that’s stopping you continuing down the path; you just start chipping away a the corners, and even though getting rid of each tiny bit isn’t going to let you pass, eventually you’ll be able to roll the block out of the way. And that’s how I feel about Resident Evil Village versus my beloved Resident Evil 4, but in reverse. I think! All that said, I’m sure there’s also an argument somewhere in my head for the groundbreaking and more epic nature of 4 over this one’s eye on the past to add to its sense of wonder.

And make no mistake, it is wonderful, so let’s talk about some more good then, and a really nice nod to Resident Evil 4, The Duke, who even knowingly spouts a line from his Resident Evil 4 counterpart, The Merchant, and over time you’re going to appreciate this guy (and his familiar backing music) just as much. For me, his first appearance was actually one of more horrific moments in the game too; this huge obese aristocrat crammed into the most unlikely of spaces, found in the most unlikely of places to sell his wares. As well as selling ammo and upgrades, and taking unwanted treasure off your hands, he’s also going to offer weapon upgrades and permanent stat boosts by taking meats you collect from killed wildlife and crafting them into various recipes. It’s worth saying that the crafting scare stories you might have heard before launch are no more than this, so take it from someone who dislikes crafting almost as much as stealth, but not as much as deck-building, that it’s really nothing to worry about! The Duke is also going to move the story along in places, and a bit more besides, and for something I initially took to be little more than window dressing lifted out of Tod Browning’s Freaks, he really became a surprise highlight, full of character and full of detail, as well as that familiar source of relief when you see him so you can save and fiddle with your inventory in peace for a while, just like with The Merchant before him!

Apart from The Duke, the Four Lords (and saucy insect offspring) and Mother Miranda, you’re going to come across a skull-wielding hag to also point you in one direction or another, various villagers in various states of panic, illness or death, and they all combine to keep the story moving and giving you just enough rope to hang yourself with too! There’s also much more than lycans and werewolves of all varieties to fight, with zombies, fire-wielding archer ghoul-things, mechanical soldiers, living gargoyles, big hairy things and everything in between waiting around any given corner, alone or in a big group, ready to spell your doom. They’re not massively scary, and running to preserve precious ammo is often an option, but there’s good variety and plenty of ways to strategise when you do have to take them on. Shooting stuff feels really good too, and the non-stop parade of upgradeable guns, explosives and other supplies you’ll come across, then picking and choosing what to do with them is also a fun side-story that really adds some extra depth to proceedings.

What else? For all of its gameplay and character influences from earlier games, as well as the direct link to Resident Evil 7’s plot, if you’re perceptive (and by the end, even if you’re not) you’re going to get some nice loose ends tied with regard to the Umbrella Corporation; I’m not saying the narrative isn’t bonkers by any means, but there’s more to it than I expected! As I’ve mentioned, it’s not especially horrific, but there are some great moments of tension, in many cases relating to your lack of ammo, which is classic Resident Evil design! As is the sound – stick some cans over your ears and that tension is ramped up another 100%! Much like the graphics, there’s enormous attention to detail in this department too, with all sorts going on in all directions, and as much as you’re going to be constantly panning up to the ceiling for that tell-tale glint of some precious jewel, you’re also going to be listening for the creak of a bird cage and its hidden bonuses, or just what direction the next insane danger is coming from! The soundtrack is suitably haunting, and also injects the adrenalin when it needs to, but its not especially memorable; that said, I’ve a feeling it might be a bit of a slow-burner, and is something I’ll definitely pay more attention to on future play-throughs. You’ve got some trademark Resident Evil voice-acting too, but let’s stay focussed on the very, very good!

Resident Evil Village is definitely a Resident Evil game, but for me it’s not much of a pure horror game despite the vampires and werewolves; there’s no sense of dread, shock or revulsion, and you’re not going to get scared like I know some did in Resident Evil 7’s claustrophobic opening few hours, though there is one area that some might find disturbing in a similar way to why some people won’t watch the movie IT! But that’s absolutely fine because the very best of the previous Resident Evils took a similar approach, and as was just pointed out to me, just because I wasn’t scared doesn’t make it not a horror game altogether! Overall, the tense, varied and mostly brilliantly paced gameplay, combined especially with the jaw-dropping, atmospheric visuals, makes Resident Evil Village absolutely essential, especially if you’re already on next-gen machines. It’s not perfect, and even though it controls like a dream in first-person, it’s still not quite up there with Resident Evil 4, but apart from Feud on the ZX Spectrum and Kick Off on Atari ST, what is? That beautiful, beautiful castle though…

Outriders, Genesis Noir, Narita Boy – Celebrating One Incredible Week on Xbox Game Pass

Outriders, Genesis Noir, Narita Boy – Celebrating One Incredible Week on Xbox Game Pass

Game Pass is great, and in the very short space of time since I got my Xbox Series X and have been involved, has completely justified my jumping to Xbox after four day-one PlayStation generations before it! Actually, it was the main justification for it!

On top of everything Xbox to explore that I’d previously missed out on, the past couple of weeks – and in the space of about a week – there’s been no less than three stone cold classics that I’ve immediately played the hell out of to completion (though Outriders is sure to keep on giving way beyond the story), and as a quick non-retro bonus post I just wanted to give a quick impression of each…

Outriders

Finally, I found my new Destiny! Fantastic feeling cover-shooter built around an addictive, repetitive, 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!

Narita Boy

A pleasantly modern-feeling sort-of-metroidvania homage to the eighties that starts a bit bewildering as you’re dumped into a complex story using 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!

Genesis Noir

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.

If you’ve got access to Game Pass, definitely give these a go. And if you’re still holding out for an elusive PlayStation 5, I’d have a serious look at it too!

Game Review: Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Everlasting Life on ZX Spectrum

Game Review: Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Everlasting Life on ZX Spectrum

There was once a marvellous arcade game called Kung-Fu Master, and eventually it made its way to the ZX Spectrum where it became the most disappointing game of all time, and no matter how many times I give it a second chance, I reckon it’s always going to stink!

It was terrible – a mass of colour clash; played like a dog (in slow motion); scrolled like a speech impediment; had one of the most grating theme tunes that even the Spectrum could manage… Although if you were really lucky, the collision detection would take out the enemy behind you while you were kicking something in front, or if the screen “scrolled” when a knife-throwing enemy appeared it would turn into a regular one!

Unlike Kung-Fu Master, Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Everlasting Life isn’t terrible – in fact, it’s the exact opposite, and that’s why it’s almost equally disappointing! In its defence, it was released as an April Fool’s joke in 2017 by Misja van Laatum, developer of the still in development at the time of writing point-and-click adventure The Fountain of Youth, a game “in the spirit of LucasArts’ classic Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis”. And the joke is that it’s over before you know it, and there’s the precise nature of our disappointment here, because it’s not only nearly the best Indiana Jones game on the Spectrum, but given that’s not a major accomplishment in the eyes of many, it’s also nearly an absolute classic Spectrum platform adventure. And in the company of Manic Miner, Monty, etc. that would be a hell of an accomplishment!

We start with a lovely loading screen – even more lovely than Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a Spectrum game that I am hugely fond of – with Indy in front of a burning pyramid and two flying saucers firing laser beams at stuff, and then were ready to begin for real in Bora Gora, French Polynesia in 1939. The first screen is called Fortune and Glory, and you’re at the rainforest entrance to some ancient ruin full of ropes, platforms, occult-looking bull statues and what might be magenta spikes or poisonous flowers, but they’re magenta so just steer clear! You’re running, climbing and jumping your way up to the top and then into the Snake Pit! Indy might not like snakes, but there’s a statue a bit like the one at the start of the first movie down there, so we’ll grab that on the way down and back up, avoiding the patrolling snakes and more magenta flowers, but stopping on the way to get a tantalising glimpse of the crazy UFO screen you’re about to encounter next. This screen, The Dig Site, is the cruellest part of this April Fool’s joke, because unless you’re already in on it, it’s the point where you get excited about this game maybe being a classic, as the platforms get more complex in layout, and there’s a guard as well as giant insects and magenta flowers, not to mention the mystery of that big flying saucer at the bottom of the screen… And then once you’ve made the leap of faith down the big drop at the end of the screen, it all comes crashing down with “Happy April Fool’s Day” and a message about them having been making this game for a long time but not 31 years. And then in your disappointment you treat yourself to another playthrough, because what’s another 90 seconds when you’ve been so close to a classic, but now you’re so far away!

I was actually in on the joke by the time I played this, having seen my friend Nick Jenkin suffer the disappointment live on his wonderful YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/njenkin) – if you’re into retro-gaming, be sure to check that out, with a load of video reviews every week that are about how much you’d enjoy the game on those first few goes rather than expert gameplay… though in the style of gameplay we’re talking about here, he is a bit of a master! And there’s also a couple of live streams per week that are always an evening well-spent with the great community he’s gathered around him. Definitely never a disappointment!

Even after all of that, I still wanted to play the game and I still wanted to write about it because, for as long as it lasts, it is really good! I’ll never buy their real game, The Fountain of Youth, because I have absolutely no desire to ever play a point-and-click adventure, but I would pay good money and play the living daylights out of a Spectrum (or even Spectrum-inspired) platformer if this is the quality they can knock up as a joke! It’s a great looking game, with all kinds of detail in the different blocks and platforms, simple but perfectly functional character designs, and some very well thought out (and very varied) use of Spectrum colour, with only a bit of clash adding to its modern-day charm. Less is more in the sound department too, with perfectly well realised sound effects and thankfully no ten second loop of a dreadful Spectrum rendition of a nursery rhyme or something, as was the case with many of these games! And they’ve nailed the all-important jump controls too. It’s just great, and they need to abandon that other thing and just make more of this please!

Game Review: White Jaguar on ZX Spectrum

Game Review: White Jaguar on ZX Spectrum

The year 2020 might be remembered for other things before its ZX Spectrum game releases, but it’s definitely worth pointing out that towards its end we were really spoilt by some serious quality! We talked about late December’s wonderful Wonderful Dizzy here, but a month or so before that we were treated to something not a million miles away from the legendary Oliver Twins’ all-new epic, both in terms of gameplay, polish, and pushing the Spectrum to its graphical limits!

The Yandex Retro Games Battle is an annual ZX Spectrum development contest, with the best fifteen published and voted for by the public, then the top three get cash prizes. Keeping in mind everything is in Russian, I think I’m right in saying the eventual winner was Marsmare: Alienation, a metroidvania-infused arcade platformer; we’re going to have to come back to that because as fantastic as it looks, I didn’t know it existed until about thirty seconds ago! But what we can talk about it what I think was the runner-up, White Jaguar, a metroidvania-infused arcade platformer by developer and probable future legend romancha, alias Roman Varfolomeev!

I’m a great believer in you can judge a book by it’s cover, and the very first time you lay eyes on White Jaguar you know you’re in for something special… Just look at all the detail in those graphics and all those Spectrum colours all over each other! It really is one of the best-looking Spectrum games you’ll ever come across, drenched in Native American atmosphere set against this pinky, bluey, blacky forest skyline. It’s not just the fantastic use of minimal-clash colour too, but the incredible attention to detail, from distant birds and twinkling stars to the staggering variety in the stones and bricks and other environments, all meticulously and individually crafted and coloured. And the more you notice it, the more you look, and the more staggering you find it all! And this all goes on across multiple levels, each comprising a load of distinctive, just beautiful screens, filled with smooth-moving enemies and the fluid running, jumping and chucking of your little man. Not to mention his smooth-moving, fluid long hair too – this guy could bathe up a mountain and flick it about the place and Timotei would be all over him!

As implied previously, your little man is a Native American, and now we’re past the cover and onto his story, which actually, having played through the game, I’m still not that sure about! It seems to involve him seeking out his destiny and general greatness, and becoming “one of us” which I think means turning into a jaguar! This translates into a pretty intuitive arcade platformer, where you’ll be collecting items and new abilities that will allow you to backtrack and collect more, which in turn open up new areas until eventually your destiny turns up, and we’ll come back to that later! On the way, you’ll be platforming across rivers, through caves, over cactii and among ruins, avoiding obstacles, animals out to do you no good, and some really nasty mystical pieces of work that are going to gobble up your three lives in a heartbeat!

As well as a really precise jump, you can duck and throw an axe, which is very limited use and you’ll be desperately seeking out more as you go. It really does feel as good to play as it looks, and you’ll soon have a lie of the land, a handle on how to manage each of the enemy types, and will be going backwards and forwards through magical portals between levels making serious progress. It’s definitely not easy, and there were a couple of real difficulty spikes, but it’s not brutal by old-school Spectrum platformer standards by any means, and after a few goes you’ll have explored everything and be well on your way to completion well within an hour or so. Intriguingly, once you’re past the final double-boss fight (very reminiscent of a certain port of Ghosts ‘n Goblins), you’re informed youve completed Part 1, and it’s to be continued. And I certainly hope it is!

Just playing through it again, I still can’t get over how good some of these screens look, but the sound is definitely worth a shout out too, with pleasingly inoffensive and sparingly used Spectrum sound effects backed by a really impressive soundtrack that – like the graphics – ranks as some of the best the system has ever offered.

Like Wonderful Dizzy, anyone with any kind of interest in the Spectrum needs to play this, but it’s not just a great Spectrum game that more holds its own in one of its strongest genres, but a great game in general, and I can’t wait to see what romancha comes up with next… Part 2, please???