Jackal Isn’t Much Like the Arcade Version, and That’s Good

Jackal Isn’t Much Like the Arcade Version, and That’s Good

Similar to a lot of Konami games of the NES era, Jackal is truly better when you play with a friend. It’s a great pick-up-and-play game, that anyone can have fun with.

Developer Description

Your brothers-in-arms are hostages behind enemy lines, and you’re their only hope for freedom.

But the firepower you’ll face to rescue them is awesome. Cannons, tanks, submarines and snipers will blast you with horrific crossfire, while jet fighters zero in from above.

To defend yourself, you control the army’s advanced all-terrain attack jeep, with its arsenal of guided missiles and incendiary grenades.

Of course these are merely tools, and to save your countrymen you’ll need more than a handful of gunpowder. You’ll need a pocketful of miracles, and the ferocity of a wild Jackal!

Arcade Roots, But Not Too Deep

When Jackal was in development for the Japanese arcade market, it was originally designed to be played with a rotary joystick, similar to machines like Ikari Warriors from SNK. This would allow your character to move in 8 directions, as well as rotate, all with one stick.

Some time before release, they re-thought their control scheme and decided to go with a more traditional 8-way joystick like most other arcade systems. The game can be played with up to 2 players, each driving their own Jeep, which is equipped with a machine gun and a grenade launcher (or bazooka with upgrades). Both weapons can be fired in 8 directions.

When it was brought to the North American arcade market, they dropped the 8-way shooting on the machine gun, meaning you could only fire your machine gun upwards. While I’m not sure why the change was made, it’s certainly a debated topic as to whether or not this is a good change for gameplay. I prefer the upwards-only mechanic.

By the time Konami released Jackal on the NES, the company had already put out some heavy hitters for the system, which shows in the fit and finish in Jackal. Gradius, Life Force, Contra, TwinBee, Castlevania I & II, to name a few. To say that they were a juggernaut for the system would be an understatement.

To port the game to the NES, they kept the upward-only firing machine gun, and split the game up in to 6 stages, each with their own new boss. The final boss of the game was also tweaked, adding a second stage to the fight that’s not present in the arcade. 

Along with the graphical downgrades that needed to be done for the less powerful NES, they added a bunch of new tile sets to the game, to allow each stage to stand out. This creates a really nice sense of progression through the game, in place of the mostly-sand graphics the entire way through the arcade version.

It will come as no surprise then, that this is one of my favourite games in the NES library.

Return to ‘Nam

Your mission is to infiltrate the enemy lines, and rescue POW soldiers that have been imprisoned since the Vietnam War ended. You’ve been instructed to go in alone, as raising a big stink will only serve to bring retaliation from the enemy.

While you pilot your Jeep through the game, you will come along camps with buildings in a couple different varieties. The regular houses will have POWs that you release by blowing up the building (not sure why shooting down the door wouldn’t work), and your jeep can hold as many as you can find in a single level. In the green buildings (grey in later levels) there are POWs that flash when they exit their captivity, and they are your method of upgrading to a bazooka. The bazooka can be upgraded two additional times, making it spread in 4 directions when it hits the ground or an enemy. This can be very useful for taking out multiple enemies, or turrets that are sitting behind walls and barriers. Some players prefer sticking with only the grenade launcher, as it can always be launched over obstacles.

You transport the POWs to a helicopter drop point, and they are flown away to safety, netting you additional points and eventually more lives. If you die along the way, up to 4 POWs will scatter so you can gather them up again, and the rest of them will perish.

Gameplay

The gameplay is fast and engaging. You’re constantly in danger, and there are very few ways to protect yourself, other than the kill-or-be-killed strategy. As your machine gun can only shoot upwards, you’re decision-making to move into position for a machine gun shot, or face your Jeep towards the enemy to launch a grenade is something that will take a bit of time to learn.

If you bring along a friend, they will be piloting their own Jeep, and the action is slightly easier for the most part, but much more fun. Making fun of your buddy for all the stupid deaths is part of the experience!

If you manage to complete all 6 missions and defeat the final boss, the game will roll credits and begin again, allowing you to see how far you can really take your score.

Sound & Music

The sound in the game is typical Konami fare. The original music from the arcade is here, but it sounds much less tinny and in your face, because of the tame sound of the NES audio. The music is done very well, and the upbeat tunes perfectly matches with the setting of the game, constantly keeping a certain fevered tempo to the war-time action. You’ll probably find it getting stuck in your head when you’re finished playing, which I don’t mind in the least.

The sound effects serve their purpose well, and never get annoying. Every time the sound in this game hits my ears, I am brought right back to my childhood, hunched around a small wood grain CRT, on an orange shag carpet in my friend’s basement. We put many hours into this fantastic game, but never managed to finish it.

Graphics

The environments in the 6 stages are varied to a great extent, but the enemies themselves do not differ too much from stage to stage. The game moves from a typical Vietnam jungle setting to Roman temples (there are Roman temples in Vietnam?), to cliffside battles alongside wall-mounted turrets. 

As you progress through the game, the difficulty is ramped up nicely with a more diverse group of attackers, and more enemies on screen to deal with. In the final stages, you’ll be put into some devious situations that can easily take a couple playthroughs to learn how to defeat.

The difficulty then, is nicely balanced, but the game is not overly difficult at all. It’s a great game for a quick play with a friend, without becoming overwhelming to a newcomer. You really can’t go wrong with this title, and it’s a known classic on the NES for good reason.

I cannot recommend this game enough.

Jackal
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Released: September 1988
Platform: NES
MSRP: $49.99 USD

Go ahead, laugh at him for getting killed by the soldier he tried to run over.

Rock it.

Pros:
– More varied graphics than the arcade version
– 6 boss battles to fight through
– Excellent music
– Playing with a friend is an awesome experience, and it’s easy to pick up and play
– Probably the best port of the arcade original

Cons:
– Only 6 stages, can be finished in 30 minutes

Jackal (NES) any% Speedrun in 7:40

Slain: Back From Hell Will Test Your Metal

Slain: Back From Hell Will Test Your Metal

Slain: Back From Hell isn’t a retro game. It’s too pretty to be retro.

Indie Roots, Old School Inspiration

Slain: Back from Hell is a heavy metal inspired indie platformer, focused on melee weapon combat, a high level of difficulty, and killer visuals to complement the soundtrack. I emphasized the “heavy metal inspired” portion of that last comment because I think it’s important in the context of this title. Andrew Gilmour is responsible for the concept, art, and animation, and it very much feels like a labour of love. The amount of work in this game visually for one person to complete is staggering. He hired a programmer, two sound guys, and a musician to see his project through. He didn’t care that some people dislike metal, and he didn’t care that some people will not like the difficulty level. This was a project of his own design, for his own desires as a finished product.

I completely understand why this game didn’t get the raving reviews I think it deserves, and I’m here to tell you why.

When I was young, games typically came on plastic cartridges that you plugged into large slots on whatever console you happened to own. NES, Master System, Atari, they all worked relatively the same way. Within the cartridges themselves you had a ROM chip (read only memory) that the game console read the game data from. The size of the ROM was always limited to only what was needed by the game data, because memory wasn’t cheap.

The consequence of the high memory prices, along with the limitations of the consoles themselves meant that game size to be put on the ROMs were severely limited. Developers used limited resources, on limited consoles, to build games within limited budgets. It was not uncommon to see games that were 32k, 16k, 8k, or even 4k in total size. To give context a 4k file size is roughly 800-1000 times smaller than an average mp3 file, or 1400 times smaller than an average 15 megapixel shot from a modern smart phone.

So, then, what did developers do to make the games worth your money? How did they increase the longevity of the game, so you didn’t play through it in 15 minutes and put it down for the next title? They often did one or both of the following two things.

  1. They made the games difficult enough that players would need to practice for many hours before becoming skilled enough to finish it.
  2. They made games loop, often with a more difficult variant of the game following the first playthrough. Some developers even went the extra mile, and required you to finish the game 2 or more times in succession to see the “real” ending.

Unfortunately (in my opinion), the loss of the limitations described above is one of the chief reasons games have become less difficult with time. There are of course other factors like the lure of catering to a broader, younger audience, and the need to retain players within your game universe to monetize through other means that are not the price of the game itself.

That’s a topic for another day, however.

Well, what does that have to do with Slain?

Developer Description

You control the fate of Bathoryn, a doomed hero in a Gothic world, who seeks to liberate six cursed realms from six deadly overlords.

He must battle his way through this blighted land, packed with gruesome pixel art foes before ascending (or sometimes descending) into a stronghold, all the while defeating fiendish traps and vile monsters alike.

At the heart of every domain Bathoryn will confront a mighty foe – defeat it and his quest continues to its ultimate destiny. Fail, and you’ll die gruesomely – mauled by werewolves, disintegrated by floating monstrosities, squashed by great weights or torn apart by hidden blades. And you will fail…

Test Your Metal

Slain is not an easy game. If you grew up in the 8-bit era cutting your teeth on the likes of any shoot ’em up, Mega Man, Castlevania, or almost any home-bound arcade port, you just might enjoy this sort of punishment. If you didn’t, then I fear it may be a little much. I’m theorizing here, but I would guess that the majority of negative reviews towards this title will mention the toughness. If you’ve got the mettle to endure a death count in the hundreds, and enjoy a well crafted challenge, then read on.

The game spans 6 worlds, and it all plays out in a very linear fashion. There are no branching pathways, and very little puzzles (despite that being in the description of the game). You will always know where you need to go, and the enemies in your way will always be the obstacle to overcome. You have a sword to start, and the game introduces you to a few additional moves right out of the gate. The moves are the following:

  • Attack with your weapon
  • Block (has diminishing returns)
  • Evade jump backwards
  • Cast a fireball (uses mana)
  • Cast an area-of-effect spell (uses all of your mana)
  • Well-timed block (allows a powerful counter attack, and gains you mana)
  • Charge-up attack (takes a moment to charge up, making you vulnerable, and releases a heavy strike attack. If you hit an enemy with this, it will gain you mana)

While this all seems a little complicated, I assure you it’s all laid out in a very simple fashion, and you’ll pick it up in no time. The controls are sublime, and you never feel like you’re fumbling for your next button press. There is a little strategy involved, as checkpoints are laid out in such a fashion that using your mana wisely becomes part of the technique. Using your special attacks to gain mana can sometimes mean the difference between passing an area or death.

Later on in the game, two new weapons are introduced, a flaming sword, and an icy axe, and you can switch between all three on the fly. Enemies often have weaknesses that you can exploit by using a certain weapon, so you will be switching among them as you see fit. 

"if you lack the patience for it, your game is over."

The checkpoints are spaced apart in varying degree, and reaching one will fill your health and mana bars to full. The distance between the checkpoints can often feel quite far, and the obstacles that lay between them can be quite taxing. This is a breaking point for many, as there are several points in the game where you will be tested thoroughly. You may need dozens of attempts before succeeding, and if you lack the patience for it, your game is over. There are no other modes to play, no other branching paths to take, and no easy way out.

Visuals and Sound

Visually the game is an absolute stunner. Through all the triple-A titles I have played throughout my years of gaming, I don’t think I have ever stopped in awe and taken as many screenshots as I did while playing this beauty. The pixel art is top-of-the-fucking-shelf, and it’s often expertly animated to boot. You’ll be stopping to smell the roses as large skeletons barrel towards you ready to cut you down with one swing of their sword. I died while gawking at the art more than once, it’s safe to say.

Along with the art, the metal music pumps away, filling the game with a soundtrack that comes and goes with the varying level styles. Often it will fade into the background like a melodic helper, plodding along as you slash through skeletons like butter. It then ramps up for some of the more difficult sections and sets off a feeling of uneasiness and dread. The sound design in the came feels visceral. You can hear your sword clink on the hard ground as you die, your corpse dropping the weapon as it falls. When you counter-attack or charge-attack your enemies there is a whooshing sound and a screen shake to go along with the hit, making your motions feel weighty and powerful.

It all comes together in perfect harmony, and despite what the credits of the game say, it feels like one person did the entire game from start to finish. There’s a synergy about it, and it all comes together under the vision of one mind.

Slain is a game that, if you’re in the right mindset for, will absolutely impress you. The opening scene sets the visual expectation for the entire game, and it not only delivers but exceeds your expectations. The gameplay gets harder and harder, but more and more fun. There are frustrations and pitfalls, and you may want to throw your controller once in a while. Take a break, grab a Jack and Coke, and come back with fresh hands, because the reward at the end of the battle is a killer one. The end boss is stunning (if a little easy by comparison), and the feeling of playing through this beast of a game is one of triumph that’s well worth it’s small price tag.

Final Thoughts

While Slain: Back From Hell is not the most difficult game, far from it in fact; it does take some finesse to prevail. It’s certainly not easy, and it is not for the frail among you. It’s brutal and fun, fair but challenging.

Perhaps it’s a byproduct of where I am in my gaming life, or maybe I’m a little more stubborn than the average gamer. This beautiful game tested me, set me up for a headstrong venture into frustration, and ended with a self administered pat on the back for a well-deserved ending. If you revel in the challenge of a well-built game, and you’re an old fart that grew up with the NES or Master System, this game might be right up your alley.

Slain: Back From Hell
Developer: Wolf Brew Games
Publisher: Digerati
Released: March 24th, 2016
Platform: Windows, Linux, Mac, Xbox One, PS4, Switch, Vita
MSRP: $12.99 USD (As reviewed, Steam price)

If you’re not up for a challenge, just stay away. Go play Mario or something.

Rock it.

Pros:
– Incredibly good pixel art, animation, and lighting.
– Controls are fantastic
– Metal soundtrack kicks ass, doesn’t get boring or repetitive
– Difficulty is up there, but right on point. Does not pull any punches.

Cons:
– Can be very frustrating for those who do not prefer this style of gameplay.

A note on the ports I have played:

The Vita port looks incredible on the system's OLED screen, and if you like to game on-the-go, this is the way to play it. The game runs at 30 fps (as far as I can tell), but it feels relatively good. You can switch the controls so your character moves with the d-pad, and the load times while not great, are bearable.
The Switch port also feels like it's 30fps, despite the news that they dropped a 60 fps patch some time ago. It doesn't feel as nice as the Vita version, and the real killer here is that you cannot switch the controls at all. You'll be stuck playing an old-school platformer with an analog stick, which is an absolute deal breaker if you ask me. Avoid the switch release. Load times here are considerably better than the Vita.
The PC port plays at a locked 60 fps and feels even though an option to unlock the frame rate would be nice, it feels smooth as butter. It plays much better than the Vita and Switch. You have full control over the controls, and have the ability to bind each action yourself if you wish. There are also a few other things like a couple CRT filters that in my opinion aren't worth using. This is the absolute best way to play the game, and you can play it on pretty much any PC you might have lying around the house, as the system requirements are really low.
R-Type: The Bydo Empire Never Stood a Chance!

R-Type: The Bydo Empire Never Stood a Chance!

Developer Description

The galaxy is in deep peril: foul creatures from the evil Bydo Empire have warped across space to invade and conquer our planet! There is only one hope for victory. The Earth Defense League has chosen you to pilot R-9, a nuclear-powered space fighter that can cut through invading aliens faster than a light saber through butter.

Fly R-9 through many exciting levels of high-powered action. Use your plasma gun to rip through armies of nasty creatures and their deadly machines. And when the going gets really tough, pick up Droid Units to make your ship even harder hitting!

You’ll be up against creatures so mean and ugly they’ll make your hair stand on end. But Earth is depending on you. So strap yourself in the cockpit, put your fingers on the triggers, and blast ’em out of the skies!

I was a Master System kid. When it came time for the family to buy a gaming console for the first time, my brother was a major influence in what was bought. A close friend of the family had a Master System, and we had been at their house several times playing the likes of Spy Vs. Spy, After Burner, Hang-On and Safari Hunt.

My next door neighbor, friend down the street, and best friend across the street all had Nintendos, so I ended up getting really good exposure to both worlds.

While R-Type wouldn’t have been my first ever shoot ’em up, (that distinction would probably go to Omega Race or Demon Attack on the VIC-20), it’s certainly one of my favorites of all time. It was one of the first games our family bought for the Master System, and still remains one of my favorites to this day.

So why am I talking about it now?

I’m talking about it now because I only managed to finish the game recently. As a kid, it was one of my favourite games, but I was never able to get past stage 4. August of last year I set out to finally finish it, and it took me roughly a month of attempts on and off.

R-Type is infamous for its relentless difficulty, but fortunately for me, the Master System version runs at a slower pace than its arcade counterpart, mostly due to slow down on the system.

The game is a side-scrolling shoot ’em up, consisting of 8 levels. On the Master System version they managed to squeeze in an additional optional bonus level that can be found with a secret entrance point half-way through stage 4.

As far as shoot ’em up games go, the mechanics of R-Type are, on the surface, quite simple. There are only three weapons to choose from, and they can not be powered up any more than their base levels. You can switch between them by picking up the power-ups that are obtained by destroying a POW Armor Unit.

You also obtain homing missiles that shoot out in pairs and lock onto targets for you, as well as small orbs called Bits. They are small floating orbs on the top and bottom of your ship that will damage anything they touch.

The real calling card for R-Type is what’s called the Force Unit. It’s the fundamental mechanic that makes up all R-Type games. It’s a larger orb-like power-up that you can attach to the front or the back of your ship at will, as well as shoot out in either direction. There are lots of different ways to use it effectively in battle situations, and getting used to moving it around and shooting it out when necessary are paramount to being proficient at any R-Type game.

As the game moves through the levels, the difficulty increase certainly doesn’t take its time. Level two takes place in a Bydo Cave, where you will have a constant barrage of Bydo creatures coming at you, but the stage overall is manageable. Likely due to colour palette limitations, the background in the Master System version is blue, yet the original arcade version is grey. This stage really hilights some of the limitations of the port, which include the lack of overlap in the background and the bottom/top of the level, leading to dark blue blocks around all the surrounding tiles. There is also significant sprite flickering on the Death Snake in the later part of the level.

Stage 3 takes place around a large Bydo Mega Battleship, and this marks the first time the game really impressed me as a kid graphically. The massive ship is at least 2-3 times the size of the screen, and you fly around it destroying the many guns and lasers mounted to it. It’s an easier stage than the arcade version though, due to the lack of top and bottom walls. The ship can crush you into the walls as it moves up and down throughout the stage.

The fourth stage is where the difficulty is really ramped up, and this serves as a hard block for many players trying to progress through the game. There are dozens of Suotrons, which are small units that fly throughout the stage in many different directions, leaving a trail of cells that will destroy you if you come into contact with them. Dodging the Suotrons, destroying the paths of cells they make, and also dealing with all the other enemies will prove to be a punishing test. Memorisation of the enemy patterns and keen use of your Force Unit is a must to stand a chance.

"dealing with all the other enemies will prove to be a punishing test"

As the game progresses through the 8 levels (9 if you want to take on the bonus stage), the game does not stop for any free rides on the way to the top of fuck you mountain. If you die at any point during the game, you will lose all power-ups, and the struggle to get any momentum going can be very arduous. In the later stages, any death is almost certain to end your run, as your ship will be too slow to dodge the incoming attacks from the Bydo.

If you’re a fan of the Master System and you prefer the FM Audio option, the game also supports stereo sound with the Japanese Mark III FM Sound add-on. If you’re a hardware enthusiast, this can be modded into a North American system, and it can also be toggled on and off with most emulators for the Master System.


As I was working towards a 1CC (One Credit Clear, finishing the game without using a continue), I found that if I were to die at any point after stage 3, there would be no point in continuing at all. I must have died 20-30 times on stage 6, more on stage 7, and then maybe 10 times on stage 8 before finishing the game. This means a complete reset each time from the beginning of the game, because I would die over and over again trying to get my power-ups back.

In the end, I was only able to complete it by not dying at all. It sounds like a pretty impressive feat, but in reality it was a matter of consequence. I could not progress any longer if I died, so the only other way to continue the play was to beat my head against the wall of punishment until I eventually prevailed without a death. The satisfaction of completing a game that I love and had been playing since I was a kid is very special, and it only feeds my desire to finish more games from the system.

The port certainly has its flaws, and the TG16/PC Engine version is clearly regarded as the best of the bunch. However, I’m not sure I see the reason to play it over the arcade R-Type, as they are almost identical. The Master System is a slightly slower paced journey, one that is still rife with challenge, but perfectly playable. It’s not a broken mess as many of the other R-Type ports are, and the bonus stage is a new experience for fans of the series.

R-Type
Developer: irem, Master System Port by Compile
Publisher: Sega
Released: Oct 1st, 1988
Platform: Sega Master System
MSRP: $49.99 USD

Genesis controllers are your friend.

Love it.

Pros:
– Varied level design, colourful graphics, and great controls
– Good boss battles, lots of varying types
– 9th bonus level is a great addition to the Master System version
– Punishingly difficult

Cons:
– Slowdown during gameplay
– Lots of sprite flickering
– Punishingly difficult

Brute Force Has Not Aged Like a Fine Cheese

Brute Force Has Not Aged Like a Fine Cheese

My memory of Brute Force from when I originally played it in 2003 was hazy at best. I remembered that it was a 3rd person shooter, and that’s about it.

I picked up the game some time in 2003 when I was gaming frequently on the original Xbox, and I just got around to finally clearing it from my backlog this week, with my original copy that I purchased back in the day. I do remember the game fondly, but I couldn’t remember why I failed to finish it. Now I understand why.

Developer Description

The year is 2340 and more than fifty star systems are populated with colonies. But when an alien invasion threatens to put every living organism on the endangered species list, the Confederation of worlds must dispatch its elite special forces unit, code-named Brute Force. That’s you. As Brute Force, you command four separate intergalactic mercenaries. The trigger-happy assault trooper, cyborg sniper, stealthy assassin and feral alien are all played by you. As you guide these shooters through 20+ missions and 6 exotic worlds, your knowledge of squad based combat will be severely tested. Depending on the danger at hand, you’ll need to utilize the right Brute Force member for the job. Whether you play alone or in co-op mode, the battles escalate, the plot thickens and the violence gets addictive. It’s an experience of such epic proportion that it could only exist on Xbox. Good luck. To all four of you.

The game was developed by digitalANViL, a company that was founded by Chris Roberts in 1996 to bring back the “small-team” element that characterized the computer gaming industry throughout the 1980s. During the beginning stages of development of Brute Force (which was slated to be a PC game) the company was purchased by Microsoft for their Xbox platform, and support for PC was dropped. Chris Roberts left the company to pursue other avenues, and went on to found Cloud Imperium Games of Star Citizen fame.

Brute Force is a tactical 3rd person shooter, where you control one of four special forces mercenaries on missions laid out by the commander during cut scenes in-between each stage of the game. You are able to switch mercenaries on the fly. Each of the four characters has their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as a special ability.


Tex
is a stereotypical tough-guy marine type who can wield most weapons in the game, and can also disarm land mines. His special ability is dual wielding two guns at once for a short period of time. You start out with only Tex to play, and gain the other squad members throughout the beginning stages of the game.


Brutus
is a Feral. A lizard-like creature from the planet Ferix. He can also wield many types of weapons, and his special ability is a sort of rage mode where he slowly heals, is more resistant to damage, and can see enemies clearer with thermal vision. He also gains a charge attack.

Hawk is another human who’s main focus is stealth. She cannot carry most heavy weapons, and must always have a pistol of some sort. Her special ability is a stealth mode where she can sneak attack enemies with a power blade.

Flint is a cyborg female. Like Hawk, she is limited on what weapons she can carry, and mostly uses a sniper rifle for long range combat. Her special ability is an auto-targeting mode for sniping that can make quick work of dispatching enemies.

The difference in the characters is where the tactical branding of the game comes into play. Unfortunately, the balance of the characters is lacking, leading to the ability to easily play through the entire game using only Tex. At times, Hawk can feel almost completely useless due to narrow weapon choices, and much smaller health pool. I would occasionally switch to Flint at times for cleaning up enemies at a distance with a sniper rifle, before charging in to battle with Tex. I played through probably 95% of the game as Tex, which doesn’t exactly strike me as tactical. The game does a good job at introducing you to the characters separately, and hilighting their abilities, but the game doesn’t give ample opportunity to use each class, taking away from what could have been a lot more strategic focus in the game.

There are some basic commands that can be issued for your squad: Stand Ground, Move To, Fire at Will, and Cover Me. They are particularly useful on some of the tougher missions later in the game, where you do not want your party jumping into the fray all willy-nilly and dying. You can have them hold back a moment, while you pick off some of the stragglers with a sniper rifle to thin the herd.

Gameplay then, is oddly straight-forward. It’s a fun romp through various environments, but you may find that the levels are very linear. You always have a yellow dot on the mini-map to walk towards, and there are no actual side missions. There are secondary objectives like blowing up all the missile storage racks, or finding a certain item, but there is no real choice to be made about your next plan of action.

Throwing grenades into groups of enemies and watching them scatter and flee to cover is always fun, and the gun play feels decent for a 3rd person shooter. However, I can’t help but feel like the game would benefit from a 1st person perspective for the sake of gun-play and immersion. The enemy AI is quite good for 2003, and enemies will jump out of the way of grenades, take cover behind objects, and throw grenades towards your squad.

"The gameplay is a little too vanilla for what the hype built up."

Brute Force is a very linear game full of potential. I did enjoy the experience, but I wouldn't say it's a fantastic game. It's story line is forgettable, the characters are cliche, and the gameplay is a little too vanilla for what the hype built up. The difficulty of the game ramps up towards the end of the game, which adds a welcome addition for the need to use some tactics, but overall I found the game to be quite easy, and I am terrible with a controller.

I'm happy I spent the time with it, and I'm happy to remove it from my backlog, but I wouldn't play through it again. Perhaps for the time it was a much better game, but it certainly hasn't aged as good as I would have hoped.

Brute Force
Developer: digitalANViL / Microsoft
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Released: May 27th, 2003
Platform: Microsoft Xbox
MSRP: $49.99 USD

Why am I picking up all this DNA?

Skip it.

Pros:
– Good gun play
– Varying locations
– Co-op mode

Cons:
– Too linear
– Not enough squad based tactics
– Not difficult enough
– Repetitive mission style

Giana Sisters DS Marks the Return of a Classic

Giana Sisters DS Marks the Return of a Classic

To say that the original game “The Great Giana Sisters” has a cult following would be an understatement. Originally released in 1987 for the Commodore 64, and later ported to many other platforms including Amiga, Atari ST & DOS.

The trouble lies in the fact that the game shared all-too-many similarities with Nintendo’s own Super Mario Bros., released two years earlier in 1985. The two games share the same formula, right down to the fireball themed power-up, the block based level design, and the platforming mechanics. The first and second levels of the games are so similar, in fact, there is simply no room for argument.

According to urban legend, Nintendo sued for copyright infringement, which led to the game being pulled from store shelves. This was later debunked, but Nintendo did later admit that it influenced the removal of the game, sans lawsuit.

A later release in the series on the Nintendo DS, then, is a bit of a shocker. Fans of the original game such as I were befuddled, yet excited. Perhaps Nintendo just doesn’t see the game as a threat any longer, or perhaps the new game has enough gameplay differences that it will stand on its own.

Let’s take a look at it.

Developer Description

After falling into a dark, deep sleep, little Giana finds herself in a mysterious dreamworld where everything is strange and different. Many fascinating creatures lurk in this place full of traps and complicated mazes.

But Giana must possess the magical diamond before she can return! Two players can enjoy this fun-filled game with over 30 completely different levels.

The five-voiced musical sounds and the ever-changing graphics will make you want to play THE GREAT GIANA SISTERS over and over again!

Giana Sisters DS isn’t just an average remake or spiritual sequel. Armin Gessert, the programmer responsible for the original title makes his return for the DS title, with the intention of creating a full-fledged sequel. He founded Spellbound Entertainment in 1994, and had worked on several titles with the brand before beginning work on Giana Sisters DS. Armin passed away of a heart attack only 7 months after completing the game, perhaps making this game his magnum opus.

The game continues with the tried and true formula of Super Mario Bros. legacy. You run and jump, stomp on enemies, get a fireball power-up, and collect gems (coins) along the way. What’s different about Giana Sisters is that there is no run button, so your character moves at the same speed at all times. This removes some of the strategy for a beginner player, as you no longer have to choose when to run (or get used to running at all times, as a veteran would tell you). This isn’t really a downfall though, as I found the jumping, movement, and platforming in this game to be absolutely fantastic. The character feels right, and you fall right into the physics of the game almost immediately.

This game feels great.

Admittedly, the game does start off extremely slow. I believe this is to cater to the younger DS fanbase. The levels are extremely easy, with lots of Blue Gems to be found along the path. Like it’s counter-part, you gain a free life when you reach 100 gems. Finding the hidden Red Gems in each stage grants you access to the bonus stage in each world. In the beginning stages, this is as easy as grabbing them when you inevitably run across them. This lack of challenge in the beginning 2 or 3 worlds of the game is likely enough to turn off veteran gamers due to boredom. A catch-22 of sorts, as a higher difficulty may turn off younger players, which arguably is the audience here.

The game is split up into 9 worlds, and all but the last have 10 stages each including the bonus stage. If you manage to find all the Red Gems in the entire game, you gain access to a 32-level gauntlet, that’s a remake of the first game. You must play through this entire gauntlet in one sitting, with no stoppage to complete it.

The game also adds verticality to the mix, not just sticking to the straight push-right levels of the original.

The challenge comes later, and it’s worth enduring to find it. Levels become longer and more sprawling, often asking you to backtrack over areas to find gems or re-acquire abilities. The game can be downright punishing in a few levels, and I found it to be a refreshing change from the often too-easy design.

Also within the game are two abilities that are activated by tapping the bottom screen once you pick them up. This is a little bit of an interrupt of the flow of the game, as there are plenty of unused buttons on the DS that they could easily be mapped to, but for whatever reason they decided to use touch controls. It’s a silly choice, and I wish there was an option to change it. The same goes for the usage of one of the abilities. By default, the game wants you to blow into the microphone to float up in the bubble, but thankfully you can turn that option off.

The abilities add a welcome but of strategy to the game, and help to distance the game from Super Mario Bros., also adding in a change to the pace of the game that is very much needed from time to time.

The sprite work and graphics here are outstanding. They fit in perfectly with the tight controls, and the many frames of animation for the characters only help the feeling of a well put together, polished experience. The backgrounds look great, and the sound is also very well done. The music is a sort of hybrid between a new arrangement and the soothing sounds of the C64 original SID chip. Veteran gamers who have cut their teeth on the original will surely enjoy the callback here.

Sadly, I still struggle to recommend you spend your time playing this one. With ~82 levels in the main game, and 32 levels of the in-game remake, there is plenty of content to be had. However, I feel like the pace of the game is severely lacking. You need to play 2/3rds of the way through the game to get to the challenge if you regularly enjoy platformers, and even then, there are only probably 5-10 levels that will truly test you. The game suffers from a lack of strategy and power-ups, and the levels start to melt into each other, often feeling like you are playing a level that you have already completed.

“Have I played this level before? Was this in the original game?”

Each and every boss in the game is the same dragon, with the only difference being the number of hits it takes to kill, and its speed of movement. The last two levels (after the credits roll) are an exercise in patience, instead of well designed experience, testing the skills that you’ve spend 80+ levels honing.

"Veteran gamers who have cut their teeth on the original will surely enjoy the callback here."

For long time fans of the original game, this is surely worth a look. Even if you don't spend enough time with the game to complete it, there is enough here to entertain (albeit briefly) those who already know the characters. There are several levels that serve as a callback to the original, and there are new mechanics to learn and enjoy. For thsoe of you new to the series, give it a try, but keep your expectations low. Who knows, you may just stumble onto something that tickles your fancy.

Giana Sisters DS
Developer: Spellbound / Bitfield
Publisher: Destineer
Released: September 9th, 2011
Platform: Nintendo DS
MSRP: $19.99 USD

I still think Bowser could kick that dragon’s ass.

Play it.

Pros:
– Fantastic, well animated pixel graphics
– Perfect feeling to the controls
– 130+ levels

Cons:
– Challenge curve is too slow to rise
– Lacking depth and mechanics to test experienced players
– Questionable ability controls with touch-screen

Robocraft Alpha

Robocraft Alpha

Robocraft is currently in an alpha state, so anything said here is likely to change in time.

Like a double cheeseburger with bacon and hot sauce, Robocraft is a game of instant gratification or crippling regret. Which of the two you experience is as much about how well you build your robot, as it is about how well you play the game. Robocraft is an arena combat game at heart, and packaged with that is a really nice robot building system, allowing you to show off your skills all while gaining precious currency so you can afford your next upgrade. On top of that, the controls are smooth and tight, allowing for some skill to come into play with quick aiming, sneaky manoeuvring, and crazy flying.

"Robocraft is a game of instant gratification or crippling regret."

The game is played in short 7 minute rounds on the surface of Mars or a large Ice field on some unknown planet. Your builds are tested for their mettle within a few minutes of your work building it. When you fail you can go back to the building area and tweak some things. Add some stronger weapons, faster wheels, rocket boosters, more armour, and the list goes on. You choose each and every piece that makes up your robot, and you can build almost any sort of vehicle your mind can conjure up. Once you’re satisfied with your creation, your thrown into a battle field with up to 19 other players and their vehicles, 10 to a team. The goal is to either capture their base, or destroy their whole team.

Very simple at it’s core, yet exceedingly complicated when it comes to the unlimited combinations that can be made when designing your robot. While there are no specific classes to play, you can take on the role of whatever you want. Tank, sniper, scout, hit and runner, penis shaped trollbot, flying bomber, floating useless contraption, or even a three wheeled-wall climbing-hide-o-bot. The possibilities are endless.

The game is free to play, yet not pay to win. You can accelerate your growth through the different tiers of robots, but you cannot get any extra items over those who are playing completely for free.

This game is not only worth checking out because it’s free, but I would encourage you to spend $5 to unlock some things quickly and support the developers. Get a 4-man group of friends involved, and you will have a VERY good time.

Play it.

Pros:
– Fast, fun combat, unlike any other game
– Free to play
– Controls are really good, it rewards skilled shooters
– Runs on low end machines
– Busy servers, lots of population

Cons:
– Controls cannot be rebound (yet). Planned addition.
– Graphics aren’t great, but don’t need to be.

Zelda: A Link Between Worlds First Impressions

Zelda: A Link Between Worlds First Impressions

Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is set in the same world, and with much of the same characters as A Link To The Past (LttP) of SNES fame. As my favourite Zelda game of all time, it’s no surprise that I was excited to see Nintendo finally make a proper sequel.

LttP captured my heart as a young kid of probably only 12 years old, and is one of the two or three games that I gravitate back to about once every few years to play again. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve completed it, but I can say that I did it as recent as a few weeks ago, and was without knowledge of the new game to provoke me.


"It’s a blast to the past in 3D, and everything feels tight, well thought out and thoroughly fun."

It’s hard to describe exactly what that magic combination was, perhaps it’s just a perfect mix of action, puzzle solving, story line and exploration. Very few games capture me the way it did, but this new game has it in spades! They drop you right back into your house that you’re familiar with, and send you out to recognizable places to get the action flowing. Within a few minutes you’ve got a sword and you’re fighting glorious 3D versions of all the amazing enemies you remember. It’s a blast to the past in 3D, and everything feels tight, well thought out and thoroughly fun.

You get a bunch of your old tools, converse with some old friends, and fight familiar enemies.. but the gameplay is much different. There are new tricks up it’s sleeve, new puzzles, and new dungeons. It’s amazing fun, and doesn’t feel like a rehash at all.

I get to find the Master Sword again, I get to explore Hyrule again, I get to find all those sweet-ass tools again, and I get to do it in kick-ass 3D! I’m pumped!

Whether that means this is a biased impression of a long sought after sequel, or if it means that I’m more qualified than anyone to make these claims is up for debate, but I have a feeling I’ll be replaying this title many times. I think you should buy it. If that means you have to go buy a 3DS XL just for this game (like I did), I say it’s worth it.

Love, A Tiny Platformer That’s Better Than You Expect

Love, A Tiny Platformer That’s Better Than You Expect

Love+ is a tiny, charming platforming game with a pay-what-you want price tag from indie developer Fred Wood.

It’s a short game, only taking me roughly 20 to 30 minutes to play through it’s 11 levels, but it’s really worth seeing. The controls are fast and precise, but because there is a lack of keybindings for the game, I had to use my logitech software to map my gamepad to keystrokes.

The sounds, levels, music, and gameplay are really well polished and you won’t be disappointed.

You can download the demo and purchase the game here. It’s available as an enhanced version of the original game, and there is a sequel titled “kuso”, available here.

Love
Developer: Fred Wood
Publisher: Fred Wood
Released: Oct 5th, 2008
Platform: Windows
MSRP: $2.99 USD

They should port this to the VIC-20.

Play it.

Pros:
– Cute pixelated graphics
– Tight controls
– Challenging

Cons:
– Very short

VVVVVV: The Name of the Game

VVVVVV: The Name of the Game

You will understand the name, VVVVVV, when you play the game or watch a video.

VVVVVV shows an initial load screen that is a direct copy of the loading screen from old Commodore 64 games. The screen flashes all colours, and it has the exact same blue colour and font for “Loading…” Suffice to say, I was already smiling before I had even played the game. The game controls are very flicky, fast and a little tough to get used to, but by the time I had played through a bit of the game, I realized that this is a necessary evil to complete some of the levels. The game is based completely around one simple trick, changing gravity at will up and down (hence the name). It’s a one trick pony, but takes this concept and stretches it to the far reaches of possibility, with every puzzle imaginable with that one button press.

The game has a short simple story line tossed in which is nice, and adds a little bit of humor. You play as a captain of a ship, saving your crew members and bringing them back to your ship, via teleporters you must discover. There are no real “levels” to speak of, just an open world to explore with a map to guide you, with 6 hidden crew members to rescue, and 20 hidden “orbs” to collect. Each single screen you pass through has it’s own set of puzzles and challenges, ranging in difficulty from very easy tutorial-like, to extremely difficult twitch-moving action. There is a wide range here, and if you like a challenge this game will definitely give you that. It does however have checkpoints literally on almost every screen, so you won’t be repeating content.

“VVVVVV is deceptively simple. It’s refined, refreshing and most importantly of all, very fun.”

Don’t expect a long game, there are un-lockable game modes, and a room with “trophies” to get after you get all twenty orbs, but generally I would expect the game to last a few hours if you don’t go hunting for all the achievements. This is indie gaming at it’s best. Cheap, fun, and a fresh idea all wrapped into one game. It’s well worth it’s price on Steam, and now that it’s on sale for $2.50, you shouldn’t really think twice about it. It’s easily worth more than the price, and that is not an easy find nowadays.

VVVVVV
Developer: Terry Cavanagh
Publisher: Terry Cavanagh
Released: January 11th, 2010
Platform: Windows, OSX
MSRP: $4.99 USD

“I have an idea. I’m going to make a platformer with one button.”

Love it.

Pros:
– The graphics fit the gameplay and theme perfectly
– Fun, fast, simple, refreshingly new
– Good controls, they take a bit of getting used to
– Inexpensive

Cons:
– Short

Nimbus is Gravity Done to Perfection

Nimbus is Gravity Done to Perfection

Nimbus is a 2.5 platforming/puzzle/racing game. The graphics are very crisp and clean, and have a high degree of polish. All the objects and pick-ups are easy to spot, easy to recognize, and serve the game perfectly. You control an airship of sorts, that has no way to self-propel itself, so you glide around using gravity and the various objects in the game world to propel yourself to the finish line of each level. Within the levels are all sorts of objects that can change your trajectory or give you a much needed push. Cannons, arrows that pull you along a path, boost blocks, bump pads, gravity direction changers, and a few others. There are also all manner of platforming objects such as spikes, moving platforms, physics puzzles, keys, switches etc.

Nimbus appeals to me in a lot of areas. There is a game map that is similar to Super Mario World, including alternate routes that can be discovered by finding the alternate finish to some levels. The puzzles are very real and sometimes extremely difficult. You can find up to 68 gold coins scattered around in the levels in mostly hidden or difficult-to-get-to areas. You can unlock new ship models, and new smoke trails for your ship to leave in it’s wake.

The gameplay itself varies from slow, precision movement of the ship, to balls out, boosting all over, extremely fast racing style levels, to difficult puzzles with keys and switches to hit. Each level has a lasting impression to leave, and the style of play never gets boring. I believe the level design is what really sets this game off, and it’s clear that a lot of time, play testing, and care went into making most of the levels. The developers have already released a free Christmas theme level pack, and the amount of levels in the game is truly astounding for the price of the game. They also included a “scrapyard” that unlocks when you complete the game, which is a collection of maps they didn’t feel “made the cut” with the release of the game. Some of these scrapyard levels are frustrating, poorly designed, *extremely* difficult, or just not really very good. They are, however, interesting… and some of them are also my favourite levels in the game. They are a welcome bonus.

The controls in the game didn’t take getting used to for me like most reviews claim. I found them to be natural, simple, and generally very good. I did actually find them to be a little twitchy at times, but this is a necessary evil. Fast and precise movement really is needed in this game, as you need to make split second moves and decisions to avoid obstacles or race around the levels. The twitchy-ness in the controls never really bit me in the ass until the last three levels in the scrapyard (after I had completed the game). These last three levels are meant to be mind-numbingly difficult, so this doesn’t really take away from the game much at all in my opinion.

“…you need to make split second moves and decisions to avoid obstacles or race around the levels.”

Nimbus is a great ride. From the very first tutorial levels I was smiling, and I stuffed the whole game into a couple days because like a good book, I could not put it down. Nimbus is a very well thought out game, and the best deal in gaming I have seen in a long time. This game will stand out as one of the great puzzle games in my mind for a very long time, and I can see myself revisiting it regularly for way longer than $10 should allow me to.

Nimbus
Developer: Noumenon Games
Publisher: Noumenon Games
Released: October 25th, 2010
Platform: Windows
MSRP: $9.99 USD

If they fit any more content in here, they could cut half of it out and charge for it via DLC.

Love It.

Pros:
– Fast, addictive, refreshingly new, puzzle play
– Great graphics
– Good music, and excellent sound effects
– Global leader boards, all accessible in game
– Difficult puzzles will make you think & work for your good course times and bonus coins
– Great final boss battle

Cons:
– Slightly confusing button remapping
– Twitchy controls (while necessary can provide some frustration)