Friday, February 27, 2009

Super Star Soldier

Hudson Soft / NEC

A lot of people dig this game, but I've never been a big fan of it. I think it's ugly, sloppy, unoriginal, and clearly inferior to many other Turbo space verts.

Let's take a level-by-level look at this paper classic:

Stage 1 - Generic opening space stage. The melodic theme is the best number to be found in the game, though it isn't as good as Soldier Blade's first-stage tune or anything from Blazing Lazers' soundtrack.

Stage 2 - I've seen this level in way too many other verts. Soar over a dull green landscape before you reach a coastal base and then a stretch of sea, where a typical floating hunk of metal awaits you.

Stage 3 - Extremely ugly desert stage. The popular scorpion boss looks cool, but he's easy to defeat.

Stage 4 - Generic space stage with an orange circle in the background. Wonderful. The enormous boss would be just another bum in Soldier Blade, but he's one of the highlights here.

Stage 5 - Another stage straight from a million other shooters. Shoot the chunks of ice and watch them break into smaller parts. Serpents slink around in the meantime. The action isn't too terrible here, but the "monster that blows up and becomes a snake" boss is lame.

Stage 6 - This one is very reminiscent of Blazing Lazers, as it features fast scrolling and multitudes of small foes to fend off. Decent stage with satisfying action.

Stage 7 - The best level of the game. Launching an attack on a large battleship is nothing new, but the inside of this particular vessel looks pretty cool, and the speed run at the end is enjoyable enough. A rather anticlimactic bout with two meek spiders doesn't spoil the board entirely.

Stage 8 - Features the traditional boss gauntlet. Sadly, you have to fight through a seemingly endless stretch of riffraff before you reach it. I can't complain much about the final battle, though.

Stages 5 through 7 represent the best stretch of action that the game has to offer, but there's nothing here that matches the intensity of BL's toughest levels or calls for strategy like Nexzr's tightest sequences, and very few of the bosses can compete with Soldier Blade's multi-attack-type giants. The music isn't very good, and the graphics are quite bad; and there really aren't enough neat or original concepts at work to make up for the lackluster superficials. I will say that the game plays well enough to be mediocre rather than disastrous and offers a reasonably high level of challenge, and the green lightning weapon is actually pretty cool (though it's no Field Thunder).

New Adventure Island

Hudson Soft / TTI

I've always liked NAI's little introductory sequence, during which kidnappings take place and angry Master Higgins holds up his fist against a fiery backdrop. In fact, that depiction of the vengeance-minded fellow is even more awesome than Last Alert's famous BURNING KAZAMA scene...

...Well, no... no, it isn't... but it definitely beats the "Mode 7 falling fat man" nonsense in Super Adventure Island for the SNES.

Sadly, I can't say I'm quite as fond of the silly post-stage sketches (during which our chubby hero prances and dances about with gaggles of goofy animals). Even less appealing is the game's repetitive, obnoxious music; and while there are some impressive multilayer scenes to behold, the visuals seldom deviate from typical old-school-platformer fare. Don't count on a high level of challenge offsetting the aesthetic disappointments, as almost the entire adventure is cake, with no truly tricky spots until Stage 6 (of 7), and every boss (including the last one) is easy to defeat.

You'd think that all of those factors would add up to something no better than mediocre, but New Adventure Island is actually one of the most enjoyable HuCard games around. The nonstop action is its bread and butter. While it's not particularly tough, it constantly has you leaping, dashing, and tossing weaponry, all at a quick, unabated pace. You've always got to be on your toes, and the smooth controls really allow you to get in a zone and just enjoy the breezy ride, making NAI a perfect biding-time, pick-up-and-play sort of title (make sure you have a fair amount of time to bide, though, as once you get going with the chip, you may find that you simply can't stop playing it). It doesn't feature any memorable moments that will stick with you forever, but its pure playability will make you return to it often, making its general lack of difficulty forgivable.

These shadowy fools should've known better than to mess with Master Higgins on his wedding day.

We're presented with a Mario-style agenda: most of the island realms consist of four sub-stages, with every fourth one taking place in a boss's lair.

There's more than just "sunny island" stuff to be found here.

You can see some appealing multilayer scrolling in a few of the cavern levels.

I suppose that these guys loosely qualify as "mini-bosses."

Despite Higgins' concerned countenance, the bosses are easy to beat. The bear can cause some trouble with his "ice wall" attack, though.

Bozhe moi.

Beat this bum and get your woman back.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

TV Sports Hockey

Cinemaware / NEC

I bought TV Sports Hockey back when it was originally released, and I liked it at first. But then I got to play the Genesis' NHL Hockey, which is much more realistic and impressive. At this point, the only things I like about TVSH are the close-ups' graphics and the title-screen music. Let's cover a few of the primary problems:

- The passing game is unforgivably sloppy. You have to aim in the general direction you want to send a pass and pray that the puck goes tape to tape.

- You must abide by a ridiculous, old-fashioned "moving arrow" system when determining the direction of a shot.

- The action is very slow on the whole.

- The option to compete against another player is practically worthless, as the team with the fastest line can easily outskate the competition and create countless breakaway opportunities.

- The game simply doesn't simulate real hockey (in regards to player positioning and on-ice action) nearly as well as NHL.

Unfortunately, TVSH is the best hockey game the system has to offer. It's best to look to the Genesis for an old-school hockey sim... or simply live without one.

Teams represent different countries this time. No more "Sharks" or "Zombies."

No more long season modes, either. Just a quick tourney.

Attribute ratings are assigned to units rather than to individual players (except in the cases of goalies).

Shoot when the arrow's in the right spot, a la Blades of Steel.

The close-ups look pretty good... relatively speaking.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

TV Sports Football

Cinemaware / NEC

I was actually psyched for this game when it first came out. The PC version had a good reputation, and VideoGames & Computer Entertainment magazine gave the Turbo port high scores (this was before I realized that VG&CE regularly gave console ports of popular computer games generous grades). As I quickly discovered, and as everyone now knows, the game is a dud.

Everything on offense is busted. The passing system is the most unintuitive that I've ever experienced in a football game. You need to "aim" the quarterback's arm in the direction that you want him to throw the ball. Cinemaware had good intentions with this system (they wanted you to "lead" your receivers just as real quarterbacks lead theirs), but it feels absolutely awful. Rushing isn't a valid alternative to throwing, as your running back can't create his own holes at the point of attack. You have to wait for your offensive line to create a gap, and even if you manage to sneak through said gap, you won't get far before a linebacker decks you.

All aspects of defense actually work well enough, and I like how the players grunt and growl with every tackle. But the computer-controlled offenses are inept, so there isn't much you actually need to do on "D." And the gameplay is far too slow to be much fun anyway.

Cinemaware cut some corners in a fashion that was typical of them. You don't get to kick the ball off, just like you don't get to participate in tip-offs in TV Sports Basketball. Electronic Gaming Monthly claimed that the game has a good halftime show, but I don't recall ever seeing a halftime show. And while I'm certainly not the kind of gamer who demands real players and teams in his sports games, I do like there to be some individuality among a fantasy league's players. TV Sports Basketball has its speedy guards, deadly shooters, and slow benchwarmers, but the players in this game just seem like generic bums waddling around a field.

The one thing that's handled extremely well is field-goal kicking. In fact, the way to have "fun" with TVSF is to shun the regular game modes entirely and head to practice, where you can stick to attempting field goals. The close-up field-goal screen actually looks pretty good, and the attempts the game has you make can be tricky. Doing nothing but kicking will get boring relatively quickly, of course, but it really is about all the chip has to offer.

Needless to say, Cinemaware didn't quite get an official NFL license.

Feels like watching a real game on TV, eh?

There isn't much to the playbook, but on offense you should stick with just one play anyway: the Pro-set crossing pattern.

With that play called, you can leave your QB's arm pointing straight ahead. Your receiver will cross over the middle...

...for an easy completion almost every time.

I think I actually did play through an entire season back when I first obtained the game. The things we'll do to convince ourselves we've gotten our money's worth...

Kicking is definitely the coolest-looking and most enjoyable part.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Timeball (Blodia)

Manuel Constantinidis/Hudson Soft - 1990 - U.S.A.

Ahh, the infamous Timeball. Even in the US, it's probably better known as Blodia (its name in regions outside the US). Timeball endures the brunt of many-a-thrashing at the hands of Turbo players, often times being abused as an object of comparison by which to gauge a game's suckitude.

"Well, at least it's better than Blodia."
"That game sucks worse than Blodia! A rare achievement indeed!"

And for what? Is Timeball
really the epitome of all that was awful and putrid during the 16-bit era? In a word: no.

Those out there who know me know that I'm a sucker for a good puzzle game. And while I'd be going out on a limb by saying that Timeball classes with the best of 'em, it's many times removed from the worst of 'em.

So just what is it about Timeball that evokes such raw hatred from everyone? I've observed a definite correlation in the video game universe that ties a given title's difficulty with how much the average schmuck dislikes it. The harder the game, the "worse" the game. Case in point: Altered Beast. Deep Blue. Shape Shifter. Ghost Manor. I could go on and on. I've come to the conclusion that people in general like games that stick to a preconceived "norm" and any deviation beyond that realm just plain befuddles these clowns.

If this is truly the gauge of a game's greatness, then Timeball is guilty as charged. The goal of the game is to allow a glass ball to succesfully navigate a pipeline from beginning to end. Sounds simple enough, and it is. Except.... every pipeline has been "shuffled" so that you have to put it back together in the correct sequence or your ball will fall and shatter on the ground. The puzzles start out very simple but it won't be long before you're scratching your head.

Your score is awarded based on how quickly you complete each puzzle and how many moves it took you to reach that resolution. Gameplay is simple-- shuffle pipeline tiles around the board while the ball slowly traverses the course and when you're satisfied, hit the TURBO and let the ball zip through to the end. If Pipe Dream and that Puzzle game you used to be able to find under the Apple menu on those old Macs had a child, it would play exactly like Timeball.

Aesthetically the game is extremely utilitarian, but it's pleasant enough. The top and bottom of the screen display various environmental visuals that change every handful of levels or so. The majority of the screen is taken up by the game board where the real "action" happens. From the main menu you have a choice of two different music tracks or "None." As a matter of fact, the "Labyrinth" tune is one of my favorite video game tracks, ever. It's the kind of tune that fits this kind of game perfectly, and as many times as you hear it, it never gets old.

Timeball's biggest (only?) pitfall is the monotony that will inevitably ensue after you've been playing it for extended periods. Timeball is best played occasionally, in relatively short spurts. This should be no problem since the game will save your progress and high score table as you advance. There are 100 different boards total, and believe me, it will take many hours to see them all.

If you're like me and puzzle games appeal to you, or you're the kind of person who likes to sit down with a crossword or mind puzzle book every now and then, you'd probably do OK to nab a cheap copy (and it is cheap) of Timeball and give it a spin. You sure could do a lot worse.

Ninja Spirit

Irem / NEC

Ninja Spirit is part of a remarkably rare breed: it's a TurboChip that even the most adamant TG-16 detractors typically credit as being extremely cool. I'm going to go out on a limb and assert that its good reputation isn't attributable solely to the score of "10" bestowed upon it by Electronic Gaming Monthly's Sushi-X. I think we can ascribe the accolades to the dark, somber manner in which the game sets up and presents its hack-and-slash-and-jump-really-high action: the opening sequence is a scene of tragedy; and once the gloom sets in, it's never shaken. Well into the night, heavyhearted Moonlight makes a vengeance-driven trek through murky marshes and dimly lit temples as hordes of blade-hurling ninja, sneaky spear wielders, and solemn-faced giants look to deal the blow that evokes his death howl.

While exhilarating, the kill-heavy proceedings are hardly deep. It's as if Irem took the few alluring elements that old Legend of Kage has going for it (most notably the ridiculously high jumps Kage is capable of performing) and placed them in a context where the fundamentals are actually sound. Some of Moonlight's end-level adversaries are embarrassingly easy to beat, but most of them are memorable design-wise, and the music that augments the showdowns is wonderfully fast and intense. In fact, the moody Far Eastern-flavored soundtrack is superb on the whole and establishes a very appropriate sense of unease.

Multiple always-in-hand weapons, gravity-defying ceiling jaunts, and recruitable Moonlight-mimicking spirit-allies are other aspects that contribute to Ninja Spirit's high fun factor, which renders its lack of difficulty forgivable (note that its "Arcade" mode is significantly tougher than its "PC Engine" mode and does feature an extra ending scene). As far as old-school ninja games go, I'd say NS doesn't come close to the amazing Shinobi III but can hold its own against any of the rest.

The tragic opening.

NEC was very proud of this big boss back in the day. He appeared in lots of ads and preview/review screens.

You can defeat some bosses with the powered-up bomb weapon before they even have a chance to attack you.

Moonlit Stage 3 has its fair share of challenging parts. Musketmen try to sneak up on you while you concentrate on ghost warriors who can kill with a single slash...

...and staff-twirling monks make nuisances of themselves in the marshlands.

Do some ceiling walking in Stage 4.

The Stage 6 storm-lands look pretty cool and give you plenty of dangerous enemies to deal with.

A look at the last stage's famous ninja pit. Note the (equally famous) safe spot.

The bit of ending text that no one ever has enough time to read, as it's onscreen for only a split second before vanishing.