My Life With… Resident Evil 4 – Nintendo GameCube

My Life With… Resident Evil 4 – Nintendo GameCube

On the 1st August 1996, I was a couple of months into a five year career working for an electronic components distributor in the glamourous town of Leighton Buzzard. As well as being notable for rampant inbreeding (so a bigger boy told me!), it’s also known for the Great Train Robbery and actor Rusty Goffe, who was a Jawa and several other similarly-sized things in a film called Star Wars, though many of us will be more familiar with his work as The Canary Dwarf, Britain’s bounciest weather man, on the sadly defunct Live TV’s Topless Darts. None of that is relevant whatsoever here, except there wasn’t anywhere to buy games in Leighton Buzzard, so I had to call in to Toys R Us in Bedford on the way home to buy Resident Evil, because that was the day it came out here and I needed it immediately!

And there begins my rather disfunctional history with Resident Evil. There was never any question of me getting it the instant it came out – the violence, the realism, the zombies… It was going to be the best game ever! And for quite a long time, I absolutely loved it. Wandering around the best spooky mansion since Scooby Doo, shooting stuff in the face to that epic soundtrack, the first (and still one of the greatest) jump scares in a video game was all fantastic. But there was this ridiculous inventory system, and I kept finding all these items that I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in working out what to do with. Then Wipeout 2097 came out and Destruction Derby 2 and Twisted Metal 2 and WWF in Your House and Legacy of Kain, and then it had no chance of being the best game ever!

That didn’t stop me going through exactly the same process with its sequel a couple of years later though! Or Resident Evil 3: Nemesis in 1999, though in my defence having just played Remake on PS4, I reckon I was most of the way through that one when I ditched it! When I got a GameCube at the end of 2001, more than enough time had passed to justify getting its shiny new remake of the original, as well as Code: Veronica and Zero as a bit more time went by!

I think I just liked the idea of Resident Evil more than actually playing it! And that’s partially behind my decision not to buy Resident Evil 4 the day it came out, or, indeed, for about thirteen years afterwards (when I’d then sit on it for a couple more). For all the hype the game was getting ages before it came out in 2005, to me it just wasn’t Resident Evil – I was interested in zombies, not crazed Spaniards in mud huts. Even if one of them had a chainsaw and a bag on his head! I really was the worst hardcore Resident Evil fan ever! Anyway, I didn’t like how it looked in screenshots either – all that brown was like playing on a Commodore 64 all over again! I just wasn’t interested, no matter what the reviews said, ironically echoing all that best game ever stuff I’d had in my head when I handed over my money for the first game.

Before deciding I was finally going to play through Resident Evil 4 on the GameCube over Christmas 2020, there’s a bit more history to add. I finally played through the remaster (such as it is) of the original on PS4 a couple of years before that, prompted by being lent a copy of Resident Evil 7 and thinking I can’t play the new one without at least a refresh after all those years, particularly after it had been free one month with PlayStation Plus. And lo and behold, this time something was clicking here, no doubt down to the patience that comes with age; or more likely getting less good at just shooting stuff! I finished it then immediately dived into Resident Evil 7, and being decades beyond all about my aforementioned misplaced loyalty to the original games, loved the tense Texas Chainsaw vibe of the first two-thirds before it get a bit more mundane and unnecessarily dragged-out towards the end. Then I went back to my original PS1 disc, this time on the PS3, then the same with the original sequel before playing the absolutely brilliant Resident Evil 2 Remake on PS4 in 2019, followed by the less brilliant but – in my opinion at least – fun all the same Resident Evils 5 and 6 on Nintendo Switch. And through all of this, my impulse (i.e. cheap) eBay pick-up from some time over the last few years, Resident Evil 4, still sat there unloved next to my GameCube; and also next to a to-this-day equally unloved copy of Zelda: Wind Waker, but that will be another story!

In summary, aside from two GameCube games, we’re now caught up in the series to a respectable level at least, having at the time of writing in January 2021 literally just finished the also absolutely brilliant Resident Evil 3 Remake on PS4, so that makes it time to talk about its sequel! And would you believe that for all the years of first having an aversion to it, then having complete indifference to it, Resident Evil 4 has now had a remarkable impact on me and my long history in gaming.

We could go all the way back to way before the start of our tale here when the first one came out, and if you’d asked me what my favourite games were, without any hesitation whatsoever I’d have said Feud on the Spectrum, Kick Off on Atari ST and Renegade, also on the Spectrum and not that arcade version with its weird controls. And whilst my favourite games list has got much bigger, after all these years the bit at the top has never changed… And then we get to about halfway through Resident Evil 4, and this voice in my mind-brain starts telling me that this 15-year old imposter might actually be my favourite game ever, however outrageous that was sounding and however much I genuinely didn’t want to hear it! I mean, Silent Hill 2 (more here) entering the top ten not that long ago was bad enough – poor old Elevator Action – but now we’re talking about complete disruption to a load more things that have been not only been even more deeply pondered over, but have also been even more utterly sacred for so long…

It ended up at number three; nothing will ever top Feud and Kick Off! What’s even more shocking, though, is that it ended up there after such strained beginnings! By the time we got here, right at the end of 2020, having been through all those Resident Evils and developed a proper affection for what the series actually is – even if affection was all it was – I really wanted to get stuck into this. I duly inserted tiny little GameCube Disc 1 (which thankfully has you covered until the final chapter), pressed start and got into the opening Umbrella and its misdemeanours in 1998 recap; jump to six years later and returning hero Leon Kennedy is in “rural Europe” looking for the American President’s missing daughter, who was kidnapped by a strange cult just before he started an assignment to protect her. Someone’s spotted someone that looks like her, so here we are in the back of a police car with two distinctly Mexican-sounding local police escorts, on your way to your start point at a distinctly medieval-looking village, in the middle of nowhere in what is obviously meant to be Spain!

A couple more cutscenes later and we’re on our way, in what was a revolutionary over-the-shoulder viewpoint that would completely re-write action-adventure gaming… Except now, after all those re-writes you’ve been playing for the last fifteen years, the controls absolutely stink! And that’s before you’ve drawn your gun or pulled out your knife. Oh dear! Okay, we’ve come this far down this very atospheric dirt track in the woods and that looks like a house in the distance, so we’ll have a look. Now, this being a Resident Evil game, you’re obviously not going to use any gun ever given the choice because you have to save up all of your ammo for the final credits, so this first guy you’ve got to kill because you’re now in his house is going to have to get stabbed up. Shoulder button, knife out, slash, try and slash in the right direction, and what the hell is going on with this direction button??? Now we’re dead. Restart the game!

A couple more deaths later and you’ll have resorted to your gun; it’s twitchy as hell, the sight is moving wildly all over the screen in the opposite direction to where you want it, and you’ll be lucky to shoot this guy anywhere, let alone in the head where you know he wants it! He’s dead, so time to search the house then jump out of an upstairs window to go through the same process with two more guys (at once if you’re not quick enough). A couple more restarts later and you know where the items near them are, so decide to grab them then do a runner instead of fighting, right down to a save point in a shed! At this point I decided not to save but keep practicing my knife skills instead, but they didn’t get any better, so we save and move on down towards the village that had turned me off in all those screenshots, occasionally stopping to shoot one of the loads more enemies hanging around the trail if you have time to line up a shot because their back is turned, but otherwise just running, stopping only to try and smash open item boxes in more sheds with that stupid knife, then get out before one of them comes in and corners you!

Big gate ahead signifies a checkpoint and we’re in the village and there’s tons of angry villagers with a dead look in their eyes, and you know perfectly well that for all the creeping around you do at the start, you’re in for the most hellish fight you’ve ever been in – just because of these awful controls! Eventually you’re trapped in a house, and it goes all Night of the Living Dead with you trying to block up windows while you try and shoot and stab (good luck!) your way to some kind of safety upstairs, where they’re also now coming in through the windows on ladders! Somehow you get by and get out of one of them, and just start running frantically – at least you’re getting used to how that works now, even if you can’t shoot anything! And then the guy with the chainsaw and the bag on his head appears with a load more psycho-villages, and you can keep running but you can’t hide and eventually – more checkpoint restarts later – you concede that you’re going to have to get some tactics down for a scrap, but at least by now you’re starting to get used to shooting stuff, and eventually you’re starting to appreciate the incredible tension of being stuck in that house with loads of stuff coming through windows, or coming up against Dr Salvadore, the chainsaw guy, because now you’ve got a chance.

A couple of hours later, with the village sections behind you, the archaic controls are going to feel the most natural and pretty much perfect you could ever wish for, even by today’s standards! You’re going to be combining quick leg shots with knives and kicks, jumping between pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles and grenades, dodging and spinning and knowing what’s going to work for cover or just slowing things down, and then you can relax a bit and start marvelling at how everything looks because it turns out it’s not all about brown!

So far I’ve liked the initial creepy but too short woodland stroll, and the wooden-hutted village and farm bits actually turned out to be pretty cool as you run around them, with tons of detail giving a real sense of oppression and a surprising amount of claustrophobia, like that you might experience being stuck in a big city rather than rural Spain. You’ll eventually emerge into a valley, absolutely riddled with wooden platforms, rope bridges and all kinds of huts and a swarm of different enemies, and this is where you really first notice both the scale of the game and also its incredible visual quality. It’s also worth noting that we’re talking visual quality on a GameCube on a modern TV, so when it came out I can only imagine how impressive what they were getting out of that little purple box must have been! What really got me though, not long after this, was going up an even creepier wooded path then emerging into a big graveyard with a church towering over it on the hill in the distance. At this point I actually stopped playing the game, turned off the lights, and started taking photos of the TV, adjusting Leon until I got the shot of the scene over his shoulder that I wanted, and with the benefit of hindsight and far more thought than you should give something so trivial, can say it’s one of my favourite sights in any game ever!

After a bit more killing (zombie wolves not dogs for a change!) and a bit of classic Resident Evil item collection and puzzle-solving, it’s around here that we’re going to find Ashley, the President’s daughter, and oh no, next disappointment, she’s coming with us and it’s not only going to be dreadful escort missions, but she’s a 20-year old American girl that acts like a 15-year old American girl! Actually, neither turns out to be so bad, and for a mostly non-playable character from 2005, she even displays a modicum of intelligence and tactical nouse in combat! Anyway, I was going to say, this is probably a good point to expand on the plot, because it’s now clear that there’s more to all of this than just finding your newly un-kidnapped sidekick!

This mysterious cult that kidnapped her is called Los Illuminados, and it turns out that all these villagers that keep attacking you have not only renounced farming to pledge their lives to it, but have also become infected by a parasite called Las Plagas that’s taken over their minds! On your travels so far, you’ll have been captured and infected by it too, and while captive you meet Luis Sera, an investigator who was researching the cult; once you both escape he’ll become useful for filling you in on the plot throughout the game! And then we find Ashley, who it turns out was also injected with the parasite, and the cult leader’s plan is for her to take it home to inject her father with it, which will in turn allow him to take over the world. Once you’ve found her, you’ll end up in freaky man-child Ramon Salazar’s castle, get separated then have to start searching for her all over again. In the lead-up to fighting mutated Salazar, you’ll meet saucy blast from the Resident Evil 2 past Ada Wong who’ll both help and hinder you as you go on.

Next you’ll go to an island research facility to find Ashley, and someone else from Leon’s spec-ops past, Jack Krauser, appears as the mercenary that kidnapped Ashley. Now we learn that both he and Ada Wong are working for star (also STAR) of original Resident Evil Albert Wesker, now a born-again nutcase who also wants a piece of the Las Plagas action. After dispatching him you’ll find Ashley again, discover a big machine that can cure the pair of you, then have a showdown with the also-mutated big bad cult leader, assisted by Ada Wong and her inevitable Resident Evil final boss rocket launcher! As a final twist in the tail, Ada’s going to do a runner with Leon’s parasite sample, and all that’s left to do it escape the island on a jet-ski before it explodes!

The parasite enemies versus zombie enemies of previous Resident Evils do change things up quite a lot, where they’re quicker and have some intelligence about them, though shooting them in the head still works fine – especially when it’s from miles away with a fully-upgraded scope on your rifle! It’s not just zombie cult farmers, tooled-up chanting monks, very well-armed (and sometimes shielded) soldiers, walking suits of armour, chainsaw bag-head guys and the like you’ll be shooting up though. There’s different, much tougher (and far more sinister) versions of them that wouldn’t look out of place in Silent Hill; there’s various parasites, flying bugs and those undead wolves; there’s lumbering giants that act as regular mini-bosses and Iron Maidens with extending spikes on the outside; and there’s the regenerator – no doubt one of the most feared monsters in gaming history, relentlessly moving towards you, with multiple parasites regenerating body parts, each requiring individual attention from your rifle (or just shutting a door on them)!

That’s regular enemies, but you’ll come across a wonderful menagerie of bosses too. I’m not that keen on boss fights, but I think I only really struggled with Salazar when he turns into a humungous zombie flower and you need a bit more precision at speed than I’m capable of any more! It only took a few goes though. The rest are wildly varied, from a set-piece filled epic with superman Krauser to more regular shooting all the pulsating sacs filled with ooze Lovecraft-style monsters. The final boss – cult leader Osmund Saddler now mutated into a huge four-legged oozing thing – is a lot of fun, and when that rocket launcher is thrown into the mix there’s a great feeling as you realise you’ve just about done him in, but my favourite boss I think was the very first one. This was a lake monster, brought back to life by Saddler to stop anyone crossing it, and you’re hunting it down in a tiny fishing boat that is being dragged around by this giant whale thing after it got caught up in the anchor. And it’s from this vantage point that you’re trying to harpoon it, while steering and trying to avoid being capsized, which results in a frantic swim! Once its done for, it’s not over though because you’re still attached and now being dragged to the bottom. Thank goodness for quick-time events – one of many you’ll experience throughout the game, but I don’t remember this one being quite as punishing as others that may assume far more familiarity with a GameCube controller than you may have so long after the fact!

The aftermath of this fight sees you end up in a cabin on the other side of the lake, and another visually stunning moment as you look out of the window into the rain. This was another favourite moment for me, and that went straight into another! As you go outside and peer across the murk of the lake, you can just make out some blue flames, which you’ll now be starting to recognise as the welcoming signal of the Merchant having set up shop there. As fantastic as this guy is, you don’t want to be thinking too much about him and his various impossibilities though, like why he’s not dead, how he travels in the blink of an eye, who else he’s selling to and various other stock management issues – just enjoy this constantly out-of-place walking weapons shop with his wares hidden inside his long black coat or in his backpack, or in some of the more permanent establishments he frequents around the game, like this one! You’ll be buying new weapons and upgrades using coins you’ve found or by selling him treasures or stuff you don’t want. At certain locations he’ll also have an optional shooting gallery on the go, and he’s usually near a save point too!

Recalling all these things I enjoyed one after the other is testament to the game’s pacing throughout the 25 or so hours it took me to complete it. From the very start, it’s relentlessly pushing you forwards, whether to progress the story or to progress your ability to progress the story. You’re rarely going to be wondering where to go next or trying to fathom obscure puzzles involving myriad items and all the related back and forth Resident Evils before this loved to throw at you so much. There’s a bit of backtracking and a bit of puzzle-solving, but I’m struggling to remember anything that bothered me whatsoever, and on the whole you’re on your way from one set of set-pieces in one area to another set in the next, interspersed by different levels of adrenaline rush. This might be from something as simple and frequent as taking down a regular enemy with some style, getting through an onslaught of firey catapults, completing one of the frantic on-rails sections, or finding yourself face to face with Dr Salvadore and his chainsaw in a minecart, but the biggest rush for me came from just turning around and looking back at one particular room…

In Chapter 4 (of 5, each split into 3-4 areas plus one final chapter), you’re after a lion ornament to go into something else and open up a new part of the castle – all classic Resident Evil! You go through a door in from a very steampunk area to be faced by a cavernous room full of maze-like stone stairways and walkways across a sea of volcanic lava spraying all over the place. There’s also a load of dragon statues ready to spit flaming death all over you too, manned by monks in skeleton masks that you’ll need to snipe while taking on a load of their mates out to get you as you make your way across various platforms and obstacles. This took me a few goes, but once you’ve got the lie of the land you do fine, and the pay-off when you pick up the ornament and head back is incredible! You’re faced with this incredible, impossible set of structures across this vast flaming pit, smoke and fire everywhere, and you just think did I really just do that? Absolutely stunning. Again! When you combine so much fun from so much variety with that pacing we talked about, you’re getting close to perfect gameplay, but surely there’s a catch?

It wouldn’t be a Resident Evil game without some inventory management, so you’re going to spend a fair amount of time playing Tetris in your attaché case and making painful decisions about what to store or just abandon. As usual, it’s expandable as you make your way through the game, and key items and treasure are kept separately so they’re not taking up slots. And as usual, you can combine some health items, ammo and bits of weapons. I think there was one instance where there was a rocket launcher that just wasn’t going to fit, but otherwise there was usually space for all that handgun ammo I didn’t actually need!

We’ve not talked about how things sound yet, and as you’d expect from a game in this series (and genre in general) there’s some very ham-fisted dialogue delivered in typically unique ways! Actually, the voice acting isn’t bad – it’s certainly no Silent Hill 2 – and the script is mostly fine, even offering up a couple of genuinely funny lines, but it definitely gets cringeworthy at times, and I’m sure that in any remake that might come along in the future, Luis won’t be talking about her dad equipping Ashley’s with ballistics! And probably no close ups of his crotch when he says he’s got something for you guys either… You are going to get a lot of abuse coming your way in Spanish too, which is probably more effective if you don’t know Spanish (which I assume Leon doesn’t which is why it’s never translated), but it is proper good abuse!

The soundtrack is responsible for so much of the horror you’re going to experience throughout the game’s duration. It moves seamlessly from disturbing localised ambience to pulsating primitive rhythms, and from minimal almost industrial pieces to climactic gothic orchestrations. There’s thankfully a couple of tracks that wouldn’t be out of place in an eighties action movie like Cobra or Bloodsport too! Sound effects layer on even more disturbing ambience – love those killer monk chants! – and it really sounds like they’ve gone the extra mile with things like gunshots, where each distinct sound is going to include the chink of spent cartridges and the sounds of a reload as well.

I’ve talked about how impressive it still looks even being pumped out of a GameCube onto a modern TV. I know I have the benefit of being a complete luddite when it comes to things like resolution and frame rate though, where the upscaled PS4 version doesn’t look all that different to me, although that said I’m not certain it actually is! Some of the locations like the swamp, any of the woods, the church and a lot of the castle are pure Hammer Horror though, which might be a good analogy for how it looks – Plague of the Zombies (best film ever created!) looks like it was made when it was, but it still looks great! The polish might have tarnished a little with the years, but the creativity and artistry on the locales and their inhabitants (especially some of the nastier-looking bosses) haven’t one bit, with all the character models looking and moving great through brilliantly lit environments (especially when night comes). Details like the heat haze in that lava room, or just smoke rising or rain falling would also still impress today, bouncing realistically off of different surfaces, and those effects when you pop something’s head off are still second to none!

What else to say? Well, it’s oven got its own zombie dogs through the window moment! Like what I did there? Otherwise, looks great, sounds great and eventually plays great; is full of atmosphere, full of horror and full of variety; and the gameplay is just outstanding. And that’s even in 2021 as I write this, having now played the GameCube version twice and the Wii version once in the first three weeks of the year! I have to say that on one hand I expected a bit more of the Wii version, having heard many lauding its motion controls and it being the ultimate way to play, but I wasn’t that fussed. On the other hand, it cost me £1.10 on eBay so I can’t complain!!!

Now that it’s firmly entrenched in my top three games of all time, shockingly relegating the definitive version of Renegade to number four after all those years sitting pretty there, do I regret not playing it until now? If it wasn’t for those pesky screenshots, I’d have probably bought Resident Evil 4 back in 2005, day one, just like all its predecessors! But just like them, I’d have probably played it for a bit before being distracted by God of War, Call of Duty 2 and Star Wars Battlefront 2… What a meathead! But for me at the end of 2020, it was perfect! And now that remake would be pretty perfect too…

Discovering Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti on NES

Discovering Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti on NES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Life With… Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa (Nintendo 3DS)

My Life With… Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa (Nintendo 3DS)

There’s loads of game series I’ve had a quick go on at some point, but for whatever reason didn’t grab me until many years later, when they really did grab me and then some as I lapped up everything about them! Castlevania and Mega Man are the two prime suspects, but there’s also big hitters like 2D and 3D Mario and Zelda, and then there’s stuff like Road Rash and Splatterhouse and TwinBee and… I almost forgot my newly beloved Silent Hill! For all of these I’ve dived headfirst into pretty much every entry on every system (one way or another), and pretty much played through every one of them to completion (or at least to death) too, all in a relatively very short space of time.

But there’s only one series I can think of that all of this also applies to, but until relatively recently I’d genuinely never even heard of. And that would psychedelic Defender-ish shooter Fantasy Zone!

That’s not to say it had never been in my line of sight. When the Mean Machines section of Computer & Video games was still only a couple of pages at the back of the magazine, and covering stuff like the Sega Master System which realistically I was never going to own, I just don’t think I would have paid it much attention. In my defence in this case though, it was easy to miss! The May 1988 issue had a very odd mass Sega review section, and it’s odd because just as it’s explaining Fantasy Zone’s shop mechanic (we’ll return there). arcade game. That’s thrown you, but it’s actually exactly what the review does! The words “arcade game” suddenly appear after a full stop, then after another full stop they’re busy explaining team selection in World Soccer! Which is a shame because they’re definitely about to big up Fantasy Zone in their missing conclusion! Instead we’re just left with some scores in series! Nines across the board for graphics, sound, playability and overall is some good going! For comparison, the other four games (yes, four games – no wonder it got cocked-up!) in this single review didn’t fare quite as well… scrolling beat ‘em up Kung Fu Kid did alright with all eights. They loved playing World Soccer, with only graphics and sound trailing Fantasy Zone – and that’s exactly how it should be for pretty much all games ever! Teddy Boy is some kind of platform shoot and collect thing, and was deemed fairly average with sixes and sevens. Then there’s a little game called Double Dragon – which actually had its own separate review but shared the score box – with eights for everything except slightly average sound.

Couple of interesting points on what they’re saying about Fantasy Zone before they’re so rudely cut off… They start by saying that despite it being a “beaut” they’d seen the game “die a death” at The Crystal Rooms in Leicester Square. Now, if this is the place I’m thinking of, it was a very old-school casino in London that just did slot machines and bingo. Possibly why it died a death there? Anyway, what’s fun about it is that unlike most swanky London casinos the only dress code was that your clothes didn’t obscure the security cameras!

The other thing they call out is the “VERY” unusual colourful backdrop and aliens. And I love that because that is precisely what didn’t grab me in the small screenshot that accompanied the review back in May 1988, but very much did grab me in May 2017 when I first fired up the Sega 3D Classics Collection on 3DS that I’d just received for my birthday that month. As I’ve written about here, when the compilation first appeared at the end of 2016, I started getting the urge for the arcade version of Power Drift in the palm of my hand! My old favourite Thunder Blade was a real added bonus too, and I was fond of Puyo Puyo, but not especially fond of Sonic and Altered Beast, and I had no idea what these Galaxy Force and Maze Hunter and all-sorts of Fantasy Zone games were!

You’re getting the remade Fantasy Zone II and the Master System version in the standard game carousel, but there’s also a not very well hidden bonus game to find too! You just need to click the Extras button on the main game select screen, and from there it’s easy to spot the very obvious Fantasy Zone themed icon in the bottom left, where you’ve got the Master System version of the original too.

Before things get too confusing, it’s worth a quick history lesson (which admittedly may well confuse things even more)! The original Japanese arcade version of Fantasy Zone arrived there in 1986. It ran on an arcade board called System-16, which will be important in a sec! It then got the home version on Master System we’ve already looked at, and it would soon also end up on NES, MSX, PC-Engine, and Sharp X68000. The NES one is interesting because it was a Sunsoft Japan-only release originally, then an unlicensed (crappier) version was published by Tengen in the West in 1989. For completeness, Fantasy Zone Gear appeared on Sega Game Gear in 1991 and a Sega Saturn version also appeared in 1997, and then it was completely remade for PlayStation 2 using polygons rather than sprites, and had some Space Harrier styled stages where you were playing from behind. Mobile versions would follow in the early 2000’s, before Virtual Console and similar releases followed a few years later. The latest version I have is the stacked Sega Ages release on Nintendo Switch, though I’m still not convinced about the controls on there – neither method feels perfect.

In a bit of a reversal of the normal way of things, the sequel, Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa, appeared first on the Master System in 1987 and then got an arcade port, as well as versions for NES (strangely sub-titled The Teardrop of Opa-Opa) and MSX. The Master System version is probably the best-looking game on the system (although Road Rash might also have a shout), but conversely, the problem with doing things this way around is the arcade version looked worse than its predecessor; around two decades later this would finally be remedied! Fast-forward to 2008, and Sega released the Sega Ages Vol. 33 Fantasy Zone Complete Collection for PlayStation 2. And I really wish I could still get hold of a copy! It included Fantasy Zone, Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa, Fantasy Zone Gear, enhanced NES version (and secret inclusion) Fantasy Zone Neo Classic, paddle-controller shooter Galactic Protector (starring Opa Opa) and… Fantasy Zone II DX, and now we’re finally getting close to the point!

As we’ve noted, the arcade sequel came arse about face, but what if it had been developed originally on the System-16 arcade hardware rather than the Master System? That’s where wonder-retro developers M2 were coming from with DX. Their CEO, Naoki Horii, played a lot of the Master System game but always yearned for an original arcade version, so they took the System-16 board, added a little bit more memory to it, and came up with what was dubbed the DX version to avoid confusion with the1987 arcade version (which I’m still wondering if I’m doing here)! We’ll eventually come back to what it does differently, but for now we’re finally going to arrive at the game we’re supposed to be talking about here, because it was then re-released with even more extra features on Nintendo 3DS in Japan in 2014, then globally as 3D Fantasy Zone II W the following year. Which by my reckoning is what ended up on my Sega 3D Classics compilation!

My own journey to what turned into an absolute adoration of this version of Fantasy Zone II took quite a lot longer to develop though, and encompassed only marginally lower levels of adoration across various other Fantasy Zones on the way! In fact, after dabbling with everything on this compilation when I got it, I didn’t pay much attention to any of it again for the best part of four years, when once again the lure of Power Drift came calling! But that short time dabbling with it had lit a spark. I don’t think it was even the new and special version of Fantasy Zone II that did it either; it was that very original secret Master System version, and then things started to spiral all over the place…

I was messing around with emulating old games on Raspberry Pi around this time, and for the first time ever I was starting to appreciate the NES (and what a whirlwind journey that would turn into in a very short space of time on all sorts of systems with all those games we started with here)! And in doing so, I came across a dodgy US version of a game I was now finally familiar with on Master System called Fantasy Zone… big mistake – you want to stick with the Japanese version that doesn’t look all jerky and washed out! A short time after that, I picked up the handheld PocketGo after my Game Boy Advance SP backlight died, and that turned out to be very good at Game Gear games, and Fantasy Zone Gear turned out to be a very good Game Gear game! It would be messing around with emulation on a hacked PlayStation Classic (one of the best consoles ever in this dubious form!) in the middle of 2019 where my love for the series really started picking up steam though. I’ve been emulating stuff for decades, but this thing made it easy to emulate everything in one place, and it turns out an original PlayStation controller is a great universal controller too! By now I was looking out for Fantasy Zone as one of the first ports of call on any “new” system, and I was giving the Master System a lot of attention for the first time (where the Road Rash obsession I now have also started), and that’s where the sequel originally started getting under my skin – far more than it had on the 3DS first time around. And the PC-Engine version, and the Mega Drive’s Super Fantasy Zone, but they both deserve their own mention…

On any given day, I could easily justify to myself why any of 3D Fantasy Zone II W, Mega Drive Super Fantasy Zone and PC-Engine Fantasy Zone are not only my favourite games in the series, but one of my favourite games of all time! I really think it’s just the way the 3DS circle-pad feels with this game that generally wins out, but as I’m writing this, I was playing the PC-Engine version ten minutes ago (during half time of a not very exciting Leeds versus Arsenal game) and thinking maybe I’ve got that wrong. And if I’d fired up Super Fantasy Zone instead, probably the same outcome!

My brother-in-law and his wife very kindly got me a Mega Drive Mini for Christmas 2019, and of course I spent a couple of weeks playing everything, but then for a good four or five first months of 2020 it became my Super Fantasy Zone and Road Rash II (best game on the system!) machine. This is the perfect next-gen version of the original, with great graphics, great colours and the most joyful music you’ll ever hear in a video game! As well as some quality of life gameplay enhancements and more upgrades, there’s also new bosses, and I reckon it’s all a bit quicker and a bit harder too.

In June 2020, the new PC-Engine Mini finally hit the COVID-stricken virtual shelves, and this time my own wife had equally kindly preordered one for my birthday in May. And what a moment having my own piece of proper PC-Engine hardware after all those years of lusting after it was – the gaming equivalent of hooking up with Winona Ryder, though my wife is unlikely to have so readily sorted that out for me! First thing I played? Splatterhouse! But since then, that wonderful version of Fantasy Zone has become my gaming comfort food; me playing it earlier is no coincidence – I watch an awful lot of football and I play this in an awful lot of half-times!

Football-related circumstances then bring us full-circle back to the 3DS version. As I said ages ago, it started once again with the lure of Power Drift on the Sega 3D Classics Collection, when my son’s academy season finally restarted after the first COVID-related lockdown. All training is behind closed doors, meaning three lots of two hours worth of hanging around in a car park every week, which the 3DS is obviously the perfect antidote to! I beat every set of tracks on Power Drift in a week and a half (though to this day I haven’t really stopped playing it yet), and then we got serious with 3D Fantasy Zone II W… I think! That history lesson definitely confused me at the very least!

Now might be a good time to talk about the game itself! This is absolutely everything that was great about the original game and the sequel – the freely-scrolling tough but not brutal alien and base and boss shooting action; all of the main mechanics, from the ability to shoot and bomb on separate buttons, to the timed weapon and engine shop where you upgrade your ship using money collected from what you’ve shot. And of course, the absolutely glorious, colourful, whimsical aesthetic; and not forgetting that most joyful soundtrack ever!

We have loads on top of the original game though! Firstly, we’ve got late eighties arcade-quality graphics, and they’re imaginative and detailed and smooth (especially when compared back-to-back with the Master System original on there), and they’re just full of so much character. And although I’m not a fan, you’ve got stereoscopic 3D effects to blow you away here too. The flow of the game itself is a reimagining of the Master System game and subsequent conversions too, with some highlights (enemies, environments, music…) lifted but a lot of it new, and there’s even bits of the first arcade game here too. And you can even dial down the difficulty if you like; it’s your conscience!

One of the biggest changes, though, is the level design – every stage has parallel dimensions, the regular Bright Side and the higher reward but harder Dark Side. You can warp between the two where warp-zones appear behind some of the beaten bases, and if you take out a base in the Bright Side, it’s also gone in the Dark Side and vice versa. If you happen to be in the Dark Side when you take out the final base on a level, you’re going to get the same boss too, but with much harder attack patterns. There is a predictably bonkers story about your sentient craft, Opa-Opa, and the myriad cash-spewing invaders you’ll come across in each diverse stage, and you can start on any of the stages you’ve already beaten to progress the story a bit more easily, though your scores will suffer as a result.

The cash you collect is persistent, so you can also withdraw a bit of that when you start to give you a literal boost. However, I did find myself always sticking to an absolutely essential engine boost, twin bombs and an occasional laser weapon to make later stage bases a bit quicker to take down, and this is all very buyable from what you’ll make in any given run. If you die, or the very short timer on the weapons runs out, you are back to square one, so having a bit of cash, but also being a bit frugal and not buying a crazy engine (that you’ll also struggle to control unless you’re using it all the time – which you won’t be). There’s also secret weapons in secret shops that you just need to make sure you’re paying attention to find, and depending on what you’ve bought and how much of the Dark Side you’ve experienced, there’s apparently three endings, though I’ve only seen one so far! Actually, the end-game is the only place I’d make any real criticism because there’s a boss-rush before you get anywhere near, and I hate boss-rushes! Finally, there’s a completely separate endless survival mode where you’re playing as Upa-Upa, Opa-Opa’s brother, fighting his way through Link Loop Land. And it’s another absolutely amazing Fantasy Zone in its own right!

Long before I ever played Defender, I absolutely loved Andes Attack, a masterful Jeff Minter llama-based take on the game for the VIC-20. It’s fast and colourful, it’s old-school tough, and it’s as addictive as hell. And I still like it more than Defender! Fantasy Zone II on 3DS isn’t Defender, but the mechanics are not that far off, and I reckon how it looks probably isn’t far off how my imagination was filling in the gaps that my eyes weren’t seeing back in 1983 or whenever I first played Andes Attack!

The Fantasy Zone games I’ve talked about here are all unique and beautiful in their own way, but I think – at the time of writing at least – that Fantasy Zone II for 3DS is the most unique and beautiful of them all! The only thing that would improve it is if you could play it on a big screen, but still using that perfectly suited 3DS circle-pad. And that’s admittedly a bit of an ask! As would be being able to play that version for hours at a time in my car, so I’ll just count myself fortunate that the best version of the game is also perfectly suited to handheld. So far I reckon I’ve played it that way for around twenty hours, then at least the same again at home… I can’t get enough of it! And now I say that, I’m also slightly concerned that such a concentrated amount of time played might be swaying my opinions on this version over the Mega Drive and PC-Engine games that I’ve also come to love so dearly in only a slightly less concentrated period of time! On the other hand, all this love is probably all a bit cumulative from lapping up the series very late, but with all the enthusiasm and joy I’d have no doubt felt if I’d paid a bit more attention to that section in the back of a magazine in May of 1988… Just enjoy them all!

As a closing treat, you might have spotted that the issue of C&VG in question had a free badge on the cover. I think I’ve still got it, pinned to the old notice board it was stuck on the day I bought it!

Rediscovering Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare on Game Boy Colour

Rediscovering Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare on Game Boy Colour

For a good few years after the disappearance of the video shop, you had the DVD rental by post service. I used LoveFilm, eventually bought out by Amazon, but I’m sure there were others. And for the horror film collector with a PC that could copy DVD’s, these offered a wonderful service! For a fixed price of a tenner or so a month, you were getting up to three films from your wishlist of every genre title that ever got released in the post. If you were lucky, you could get them all copied and back in the post on the same day, then have a new batch two days later! And they soon mounted up to more than you could ever watch, and even 15 or 20 or whatever years later, I’ve still about a dozen 50-DVD spools worth of rented films I still haven’t got around to (or brought myself to) watching!

If I had to name one film that typified those boxes of unwatched films, it would be Alone in the Dark, the 2005 Uwe Boll classic starring Christian Slater, Stephen Dorff and Tara Reid. Paranormal detective follows clues to the death of his friend, ends up on Shadow Island with its demons and gateway to hell. Sounds great, and I recently added it to my Amazon Prime watchlist now its evolved from DVD to streaming obscurity, but still have never had any real inclination to watch it… Despite it often being nominated as one of the worst movies ever made!

The plot doesn’t sound that disimilar to Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare on the Game Boy Colour (and other platforms), and that’s because it was loosely based on it. Also known as Alone in the Dark 4, it’s a kind of reboot of the original game from 1992. Which is why the plot doesn’t sound that disimilar to that either! In 2008, Alone in the Dark was recognised by Guinness World Records Gamer’s Edition as the first ever 3D survival horror game. It was originally released on PC (MS-DOS) then ported to the 3DO a couple of years later. It has you going backwards and forwards around a haunted mansion in 1920’s Lousiana, solving puzzles, killing or running away from spooky stuff and, of course, managing your inventory like all good survival horror games that followed it! I remember it looked cool at the time, with hand-drawn backdrops behind some vintage 3D polygons, but like the film, I was never that inspired to get involved – and actually, by the time I could, Resident Evil had completely superceded it.

The 2001 Game Boy Colour game has your partner being found dead off the coast of Shadown Island, which is apparently off the coast of Massachusetts. It turns out he’s been after some magical tablets, which you get roped into searching for while you’re trying to solve the murder. And that means going to the island and wandering around the spooky woods, mansion grounds and mansion itself, looking for a clue that will lead you to the next through the story.

This all manifests in a mostly point-and-click feeling game, where you’re on the lookout for a glinting object that will turn out to be a key or a crowbar or a secret switch in the bookshelf that will open up the next place you need to get to. It’s relatively well signposted if you’re paying attention, especially once you get the lie of the land and stop getting lost in the often labyrinthian mansion! Now and again you’ll get something like the random encounters that drive you nuts in the old Final Fantasy games, where the game switches to an isometric scrolling shooter and you’re taking out werewolves and spiders and the like with your pistol or whatever weapon you find and prefer on the way. Apart from the final boss battle, which also takes this form but is a little more enjoyable than the rest of these encounters, it’s not going to take long for you to dread these happening. They’re really not fun and they are where you’re going to die, often through sloppy controls and the rubbish semi-auto aim rather than anything you did yourself. That said, it does a good job of forcing you to manage your ammo, to the point where most of the tensioni in the game comes from the prospect of running out, and finding more is always a huge relief.

And now you’re really wondering why I dismissed the original game, the star-studded movie adaptation by the master of the video game to movie adaptation, and indeed the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 versions of this very game (Windows and Dreamcast also exist), when it’s already apparent that I’ve not only played this, but also finished it on the Game Boy Colour…

Some context is necessary here! Obviously, the original Game Boy was a revolution and a revelation in handheld gaming, but whilst it was great to have some colour graphics, the Game Boy Colour never really made much of an impact because it didn’t really add anything more than that – more of the same games, different screen; like moving from the crappy green monitor Amstrad CPC option to the colour one fifteen or so year previously!

For me, that was until Alone in the Dark came along. Nothing had looked like it on such a tiny screen before, and if you were making comparisons, then look no further than the aforementioned PlayStation version because when screenshots first started appearing for this, it really was that good! And as you play through it, every location is absolutely sumptuous, oozing atmosphere in the palm of your hand like you’ve never seen before – to the point that I needed a second playthrough so that on almost every other screen I could crawl under my desk where there’s no reflections and get some photos of the screen!

Alone in the Dark didn’t only push the limits of the Game Boy Colour, but went beyond them! It benefitted from a rarely used but very cool high colour programming exploit that could get 2000 colours on the screen at once, rather than the typical maximum of 56, though I think it for most games was generally a lot less than that. And that made the environments look spectacular on the system. Or most of them… There was no way you were going to be anything but a 2D sprite, and there was definitely no way that sprite was doing anything more than moving around those beauties, so the crappy combat had to switch to a more traditional Game Boy Colour look, then switch back when you’d killed everything (or been killed because you’d run out of ammo).

To the modern eye, playing this is very early Resident Evil-lite in almost every respect (if it was on a handheld and needed a lacklustre combat mode for some reason), and if that sounds alright, then you’ll struggle to find a better looking and more enjoyable, atmospheric and surprisingly immersive few hours on your Game Boy Colour!

Game Boy Tetris Body-Paint Cosplay

Game Boy Tetris Body-Paint Cosplay

This quick bonus post poses a very important retro-gaming related question… How do you miss someone dressed as Tetris on Game Boy, in body-paint, no less, for nearly 8 years?

This Inna Doll session was part of a Mesh for UnikoGirls collaboration in 2012, by photographer Nicolas Ahouansou. You can see the full set and the rest of his work right here, but we also have a preview!

My Life With… Snoopy Tennis (Nintendo Game & Watch)

My Life With… Snoopy Tennis (Nintendo Game & Watch)

In the very early 1980’s, there was nothing more exciting than checking out the handheld gaming pages in the latest Argos catalogue! You had never seen anything like it, even though the last edition had only come out six months previous, and you’d have bitten anyone’s arm off to get your hands on any of them! Half of them were variants on Space Invaders (and for a time, I think half of those were probably called Space Invader, singular), including what must have been the first electronic game I ever laid my hands on, Grandstand’s Invader From Space – also featuring the first of many joysticks I ever broke!

You also had stuff like Missile Invader and Astro Wars, Scramble with its tiny controls and Galaxy Invader 1000 in its iconic yellow and black case. If you weren’t into space shooters, there was Caveman and Firefox F-7, some rubbish LED sports games, and it wouldn’t take long for Pocket Pac-Man, Munchman and Mini Munchman and loads more Pac-a-likes to appear. And these things kept coming and, of course, getting more advanced, like the wonderful BMX Flyers – my favourite example of the genre – all the way through to the TomyTronic 3D games like Thundering Turbo, Sky Attack and Shark Attack just a couple of years later!

And in parallel to these handheld – or often, in reality, tabletop – battery-guzzling beasts (Mini Munchman aside), there was the increasingly mind-boggling range of truly handheld Game & Watch games from gaming upstart Nintendo. At least until Donkey Kong Jr. arrived on Game & Watch Tabletop on the very day of writing this, the 28th of April, in 1983.

These things seemed to breed every time you looked away, with 60 of them eventually produced between 1980 and 1991 when the Game Boy had all but made them redundant. Even if you didn’t own it (though my next-door neighbour did) the first one that springs to mind is usually Donkey Kong from 1982, with its orange flip case, two LCD screens and the first ever incarnation of a D-Pad, but the first Game & Watch love of anyone that had one was probably one of the classic single screen, foamy, rubbery button games with Game A and Game B (usually harder, meaning faster), a clock and an alarm; and a little metal ring on the back you could pull out to make it stand up!

My first experience of Game & Watch, and one I’d continue to experience for what must have been hundreds of hours for years after, was Fire. Didn’t belong to me – was my auntie’s and resided at my Grandma’s house where we spent every Saturday afternoon, and whilst I must have played it all over the house, my abiding memory is stealing her armchair next to the big 1970’s mahogany-effect dresser while she was cooking lunch and playing it in comfort there!

This was originally one of the early Silver generation of Game & Watch, but the one I played was part of the Wide Screen generation released a year or so later in late 1981. This update looked similar but was nicer to hold, had a great looking case, even better looking graphics, and was widescreen! Either way, you were catching people jumping out of different floors in a burning building and bouncing them on your stretcher into an ambulance. Things soon got crazy frantic as you literally juggled multiple people bouncing at different speeds. Fantastic game! Even better was the alarm function though, with the fireman waving his bell about with a crazed look on his face!

I reckon I’d have first played Fire in the middle of 1982, which was enough bugging time for my parents to have got me my one and only Game & Watch for Christmas 1982. I’ve no idea how that ended up being Snoopy Tennis though. It could have been my idea – at aged ten I was definitely a fan of Charlie Brown in comic and TV form, but not a huge one; he might be better known for his Christmas and Halloween exploits, but was as much a part of school summer holiday morning TV back then as Roland Rat, Why Don’t You? and Huckleberry Finn (or Silas if you were unlucky that year). It was probably around the time I started playing tennis at school too, which I always enjoyed, but again, not a mega fan. Alternatively, that might have been the one that was in stock wherever it came from! Doesn’t really matter which because it was definitely the right choice!

Like all the great games from this period, it’s all so simple, so skill-based and so fiendishly addictive! You’re playing as Snoopy, stood with his tennis racket waiting for Charlie Brown to serve a ball at him, high, low or in the middle, and you’re moving up and down a tree to return them with perfect timing (first time or you’re screwed waiting for the animation to restart!) from the right position. When you return a shot, it flies over the top of Charlie Brown, who’ll be busy lining up his next ball, but now and again Lucy will appear on the wooden platform above him and hit the ball back at twice the speed, and if you return that she might disappear for a bit and let the ball go, or she might keep returning it like this for a few more shots at the same time as Charlie Brown is lobbing his balls at you with increasing frequency.

You get 2 points for every Charlie Brown ball returned and 3 points for Lucy’s, and as your score increases, so does the speed! It all starts out very sedate, especially on Game A (where Game B has more balls that move faster), but it won’t be long before there’s all sorts of balls moving at different speeds all over the screen, and your main task is judging which one you’re going to hit first. Miss three balls and it’s game over. Get to 100 points and it slows down again for a while before getting faster until another 100 points passes. Get to 200 points, 500 points, 1200 points, 1500 points… (yeah, right) and your misses are all cancelled out; should you have got there with no misses, then you’ve got about a minute of bonus time, where Charlie Brown’s shots are worth 5 points and Lucy’s are 6 points.

You’re controlling Snoopy with up and down buttons on the right side and a hit button on the left for your perfectly timed returns. The buttons feel great – really tactile and responsive and a bit spongy. And after about ten minutes of play, will be surrounded by a sweaty fingerprint outline spreading across the main case; and being able to wipe that away is actually the main benefit of getting that brief slowdown every 100 points!

The character graphics were incredibly sharp and perfectly realised – something these LCD games were years ahead of home computers in achieving – and these are perfectly complemented by the coloured overlays of Lucy’s platform on one side and Snoopy’s dog house on the other, with a wonderfully detailed and shaded tree for Snoopy to return shots from and Woodstock to sit in his nest surveying the action (at least until the alarm is ringing and he jumps out of his nest to the sound). The great attention to detail is capped off by the tufts of green grass along the bottom of the screen. The user interface is just perfect too; completely unobtrusive, but all-important stuff like your score and the current number of misses – shown by broken bottles – are just a tiny change in focus away without having to move your eyes from the very frantic later game action.

The other incredible thing about these games was the battery life. You’d easily get months of play out of two LR43 or SR43 cell batteries before the screen started fading and the sound disappeared, and, from experience later, you could literally leave it for years sleeping away and it would come back to life! And speaking of back to life, it still works absolutely perfectly today and is still as fiendishly addictive as ever!

Despite how pictures might look, because cameras don’t seem to like the technology when it’s running and show blemishes that just aren’t there, Snoopy Tennis and it’s early Game & Watch brethren (unlike some of the far more complex later releases like the Gauntlet abomination by Tiger Electronics!) are utterly timeless. And this is true whether you’re talking about the technology, the graphics or the gameplay – nothing has dated and it never will. It also sold 1.2 million units after its release in 1982, so if you don’t have it, I’ll bet it’s not that hard to track down. And whatever the asking price is when you read this, after almost 40 years of enjoyment at the time of writing, it will be worth every penny…

Just don’t push down on the LCD screen, no matter how cool it looks, because it’s not going to last another 40 years if you do!

A Note on the Game Boy in the Konami Anniversary Collections

A Note on the Game Boy in the Konami Anniversary Collections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Mario World First Impressions

Dr. Mario World First Impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Retro Arcadia Top Ten Games of 2018

The Retro Arcadia Top Ten Games of 2018

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

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

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

1 Gris (Switch)

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

2 Minit (Switch)

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

3 Moonlighter (Switch)

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

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

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

5 Mario Tennis Aces (Switch)

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

6 Hollow Knight (Switch)

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

7 Alto’s Odyssey (iOS)

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

8 Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (Switch)

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

9 Mega Man Legacy Collection (Switch)

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

10 Owlboy (Switch)

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