Review: Akalabeth – World of Doom

Starting off my Ultima reviews with a game that’s not technically part of the series may seem a bit weird. But in the eyes of many, Akalabeth is indeed the prequel to very first Ultima game. In fact, it is often referred to as “Ultima 0” and was even labeled as such when it was included in the Ultima Collection from 1998.

Akalabeth was the first game published by Richard Garriott (aka: Lord British). Originally only available on the Apple II, a fan-made DOS version of the game appeared on the internet sometime in the mid 90’s. A few years later, an official DOS port of the game was included with the Ultima Collection. These days, the game is available for free on the GOG platform. However, players should be aware that both DOS ports of the game come with their own issues.

The default version offered by GOG is the fan-made port. In many ways, this is the version that is most like the original Apple II release of Akalabeth. However, this release of the game also includes a nasty bug that can make the game un-winnable. (Basically, players are never given a bounty to kill. Thus, have no way to complete any objectives. This breaks the game completely). Once upon a time, there was a patch available to fix this bug. But these days it seems to have been lost to the antiquity of yesterday’s internet. Thankfully, the official port of the game does not have this problem. But it does not maintain the randomly generated levels found in the original release. Also, the 1998 version of the game includes the ability to save and reload your progress. This makes the game very exploitable and takes nearly all of the challenge out of the title. Also, the official version of the game includes color and a midi soundtrack that was lifted from Ultima III. These changes make many purists, like myself, cringe. Thankfully, both versions are actually available on GOG. (The 1998 port is included as a bonus download.) For the sake of this review, I did play the default GOG version. But I generally recommend the 1998 version to most people curious about the game.

The story for the game is simple. Not long ago, the world of Akalabeth was razed by an evil wizard named Mondain. A hero by the name of British rose up and drove the evil Mondain from the land. Now, having been crowned king, Lord British seeks adventurers brave enough to help him cleanse the land of any foul beasts that might still remain.

Akalabeth is one of the earliest CRPGs games ever to be made available. And despite appearing to be very basic in its design, it is surprisingly quite complex. When first starting the game, you will be asked to provide a “lucky number”. The number entered here actually serves as a seed of sorts. It helps generate the game’s maps and the character’s stats. Next, you will be prompted to enter a “level of play”. This is essentially the difficulty level for the game. Next up, you will be given a set of stats for your character and you will be asked to either accept them or re-roll. You can continue to re-roll stats for as long as you like until you find a set that seems acceptable, there’s no limit to the number of times you can try.

The game consists of four main screens; shops, the overworld, dungeons, and the castle. After creating your character, the first thing you will see is the shop screen. Here, you can spend your starting gold on a weapon and food. Buying lots of food is crucial in Akalabeth because every step your character takes consumes a bit of food. If you run out of food, you die. Essentially, most players will continue to re-roll their stats until they are given over 20 pieces of starting gold. Then they’ll buy a cheap weapon and spend the rest of the gold on food. If you neglect to buy any food, then you will die the instant you leave town. Brutal.

After leaving the shop, you will find yourself on a very archaic-looking overworld map. The next step in the game is locate a nearby dungeon, enter it, and kill monsters for gold. Each monster you slay will provide you with a few gold pieces. Once you have earned a significant amount of gold or once your food supply starts to run low, you will want to hightail it to the nearest shop so you can replenish your provisions. Once you are able to amass a small hoard of food, it is time to explore the overworld map in search of Lord British’s Castle. It’s also important to note, that each time you leave a dungeon, your character’s Hit Points will increase in accordance with the number of monsters slain.

Finding the castle is where the game really starts. From here, you begin a chain of quests. Each essentially requiring you to venture deeper into a dungeon in search of a specific monster. Once that monster is slain, you return to the castle to receive a new quest. Once you’ve slain all the monsters on Lord British’s list, you win the game.

When first exploring the overworld map, new players are often taken aback by the large number of shops and dungeons. The dirty little secret here is, they are all essentially the same. It doesn’t matter what shop or dungeon you enter, the contents never really change. So the real trick here is to simply find a shop and dungeon that are in close vicinity to Lord British’s castle and use only those locations to complete the game.

The dungeons themselves are where the real action takes place. Dungeons are presented in a crude 3D view, very similar to what you see in the early Wizardry games. Depending on which version of Akalabeth you are playing, the layout of the dungeon may change every time you exit and enter, or it may stay the same. Either way, it’s really not TOO difficult to navigate. The grid itself and the ladders leading up and down are always static. Only the location of the doors and the walls vary from level to level. I always recommend that players map out their journey on a piece of graph paper when playing to avoid getting hopelessly lost.

Being an older game, Akalabeth will certainly seem crude and undesirable to many modern gamers. It is definitely not a game most people these days will want to seek out. Personally, I enjoy older dungeon crawls like this. But then again, I grew up with them. I suspect that for many, this game would only serve as a curiosity. But, if you are adventurous and willing to take the time and patience needed to explore everything this game has to offer, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Difficulty: Hard –  If playing the game as intended, Akalabeth offers quite a challenge. Food management can be downright brutal as can many of the monster encounters. That being said, anyone willing to invest a little time in grinding should be able to boost their character to a point that makes the game manageable. If playing the 1998 version, it’s easy to cheese your way through entire game by exploiting a specific save/reload loophole thus reducing the game’s difficulty to nil.

Story: The game features a very barebones backstory. But considering the entire game really nothing more than a programming project by an ambitious high school student, this is forgivable.

Originality: When Garriott began designing this game, it was 1977. Despite being largely inspired D&D and Lord of the Rings, the concept of an RPG-style dungeon crawler was almost unheard of at the time. Some people like to argue that Akalabeth might actually be the first graphical RPG game ever made.

Soundtrack: The original game is silent and has no sound whatsoever. The 1998 release does include some basic noises and midi music (ripped from Ultima III), none of which are particularly impressive.

Fun: For most, this is a hard game to recommend. It’s random and tedious by today’s standards. Old grognards like me might appreciate it. But for the vast gaming population, Akalabeth is a pretty hard pill to swallow. Regardless, if you have a love for old school RPGs like Wizardry and Zork. This game might be worth a look.

Graphics: The graphics in this game are about as basic as you can get. But, for a game programmed entirely in BASIC, it’s actually quite impressive. The dungeons are white on black wireframe. As are the monsters and overworld map. Players on the Apple II get treated to the classic Apple II color palate. The 1998 remake also adds some basic colors to the text and wireframe models.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to master. You control your character with the arrow keys and execute all other commands with various letters on the keyboard. Reading the manual is a must.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Both versions of this game are available today completely free of charge.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – This is a tough one to score. Personally, I really like this game a lot. It reminds me of the games I used to play when I young. But understandably, it would be very difficult for someone accustomed to modern games to wrap their head around something like this. I first encountered Akalabeth in 1998 when it was released as part of the Ultima Collection and I found it enjoyable then. Revisiting it now, I can still appreciate it. But, even I can admit it has not aged very well. This fact, combined with the technical problems of the fan-created port that is distributed by default make it a pretty tough recommendation.

Available on: GOG

Review: Night Trap (25th Anniversary Edition)

You didn’t think I’d let the month of October go by without posting a review for a horror game did you? I know I usually review something spooky and paranormal. But this year, I decided to change things up a bit and go full-on campy with Night Trap.

If you’ve never heard of Night Trap, you’re not alone. It wasn’t exactly a big seller. To start with, it was released on the Sega CD, which was an add-on product that didn’t see very big sales in the first place. Second, it was extremely rare to find on store shelves due to a nearly unprecedented level of controversy. You see, Night Trap was labeled as one of the most morally offensive games of all time. Any parent who allowed their child to be exposed to such filth should be locked up! It was called pornographic and filled with excessive violence. The negative buzz around the game actually got so bad that many retailers pulled the product and refused to sell it. So what was the big deal? Is Night Trap really as disgusting and violent as its critics claim?

The answer is no. Not at all. I’m actually a pretty conservative guy when it comes to what I allow my children to be exposed to, and I’d let either of them play this game. I mean, there’s literally no concern. So what was the big deal? Well, to start with, Night Trap is not your regular video game. Instead, it is made up of actual video footage. It is very much like an interactive movie. I suppose having an interactive game featuring REAL scantily clad women in fictional peril was just too much for some. It stirred up so much hullabaloo that  Night Trap was one of the games directly responsible for the formation of the ESRB.

The gist of the game is simple. There’s been a rash of mysterious disappearances around the house of a very prominent family. It’s been determined that the house is equipped with a slew of traps and security features. To get to the bottom of the mystery, the police have sent in an undercover officer into the home with a group of teens. They’ve also been able to hack their way into the home’s security system, thus giving the police access to all of the traps remotely. Your job is monitor a number of security cameras and use the traps to capture any intruders or suspicious characters that might pose harm to either the undercover office or the teens in the house.

As the story goes on, you learn that the home’s owners are in league with a weird band of vampires called “Augers”. You must capture as many Augers as possible and avoid letting the house become overrun. This is easier said than done, as you will have to switch between a number of live feeds on they fly in attempt to detect any suspicious activity.

The original version of Night Trap was notoriously difficult. Today the game is available in a special 25th Anniversary Edition. This package includes the game in its original form, as well as a handful of alternate UI versions. Some of these new renditions do make the game a bit easier by allowing the players to see previews of all of the camera feeds. This can help save time by not forcing the player to constantly jump from screen to screen when monitoring the house.

The game itself is actually quite a novel idea. In a time when CD ROM drives were still considered to be jaw-dropping technology, making an interactive film was inevitable. Sure, the acting is terrible and the script is even worse. But the whole concept behind the game is both original and brilliant. Playing Night Trap is akin to experiencing an interactive B-grade horror flick. I was surprised at just much fun the game actually is. If you’re a fan of cheesy horror movies and you’re looking for something different this Halloween, Night Trap might be exactly what you’re looking for.

Difficulty: Variable –  Completing this game is no simple feat. This is true even when using the modern UI. If you really want a challenge, the original layout of the game makes things even more difficult. The trick to Night Trap is repetition. The more you fail and start over, the easier it gets. You’ll learn the story and memorize certain cues. But some parts will still require near perfect execution in order to avoid failure.

Story: Despite being exceptionally cheesy, the storyline for this game is well done and entertaining. The way it is presented is also very enthralling. At any given time, there’s a handful of different scenes available to watch. To see everything, you’ll need to play the game multiple times. The more you watch, the more you’ll see how the entire plot twists together. It’s actually quite brilliant.

Originality: At the time Night Trap hit the scene, there was nothing like it. Sure, interactive films were not a new concept. I remember seeing VHS tapes in the 80’s that would have you rewind and fast-forward to achieve a similar result. But never before had anyone taken the “interactive film” concept and made it so easy to use.

Soundtrack: The game features two memorable pieces of music. The first is a little background music that is heard whenever bad guys appear on the screen. The second is a terribly-good bubblegum song performed by one of the characters. Everything about the music in this game is B-grade cheese. But that’s actually part of the charm.

Fun: While there’s not much to the gameplay, it is actually quite fun. There’s a certain satisfaction achieved when you are able to perfectly anticipate and catch a handful of sneaky Augers. I enjoyed this game much more than I expected to.

Graphics: Being a FMV-based game, there are really no “graphics” to score. The game itself is made up of real video. The source material is quite old but holds up surprisingly well in the 25th Anniversary Edition.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are quite simple. On the PC its point and click with a single keyboard button to tap. On consoles it also just as simple.  The game is very dependent on the player’s reaction time, but offers no playcontrol issues whatsoever.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Campy violence.

Value:  If you’re going to play this game, your best bet is find a digital copy. The game sells for around $15 digitally and is also frequently on sale. If you’re looking for a physical copy, be ready to spend a upwards of $70-$80, as the game is already out of print.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Night Trap is a strange beast. Most people seek it out simply for the mythology that surrounds it. It’s very much a curiosity for many. But if you actually sit down with it and take the time to learn its charms, you just might find a pretty good game hiding under all the hearsay. I recommend this title to anyone who enjoys 80’s camp. It’s a riot and surprisingly pretty entertaining.

Available on: Steam, PS4, Nintendo Switch

Retro Rewind: Atari 2600

I’ve spent the last two posts talking about some of my favorite golden-age arcade games. This time, I’m going to focus on one of the earliest home video game consoles, the Atari 2600.  Interactive video games had actually been around for a quite some time.But they really hit the mainstream in the late 70’s-early 80’s. Hoping to cash in on what believed to be the “next big thing”, Magnavox developed the Odyssey – the first home video game console. However, it wasn’t until Atari released the Atari 2600 Video Computer System that the public really took notice.

The Atari 2600 was originally released in 1977 and took the market by storm. At last, friends could enjoy two-player video games in their own home. New and unique games were being released for the 2600 at a rapid-fire pace. Famous arcade titles were even being ported to the system (albeit in very poor quality). For several years, it seemed like the sky was the limit for Atari. However, by 1983 interest began to wane for the system. The overall poor quality of many of the games, as well as an over-saturated market ultimately led to the 2600’s downfall.

Many of the best games for the Atari 2600 were actually classic arcade games (Frogger, Pac-Man, Centipede), but these ports are dreadful when compared to the original arcade versions. Regardless, the 2600 still played host to some worthy titles. Four of my favorite 2600 games are as follows:

Adventure

Adventure – This was the first overworld exploration game. The purpose of Adventure is to explore an open environment in search of a magic chalice. Once found, return it the golden castle at the beginning of the game. To say Adventure was ahead of its time is an understatement. Games like The Legend of Zelda likely would not exist if it wasn’t for Adventure. This game invented the concept of free-roaming enemies, “continues”, and even Easter Eggs. Naturally, when compared with modern equivalents, Adventure has not aged well. But it is still worth a look for curious gamers.

Haunted House – If Adventure is considered the first fantasy-action games, then Haunted House might very well be the first survival horror title. In this game, you explore a dark haunted mansion in search of pieces to a broken urn. The gameplay is best described as “bumping around in the dark” while looking for items. To actually find anything, the player must light a match that illuminates a small area around them – but doing so will attract monsters. Haunted House was a favorite of mine as a child. But most everyone I knew refused to read the instruct booklet and therefore did not understand/enjoy the game. This a shame, as the game itself is quite well done.

Pitfall!

Pitfall! – If I had to pick a favorite Atari 2600 title, it would be Pitfall!.  This is a side-scrolling action game in which our hero must jump over rolling logs, swing on vines, and avoid mean little critters as he searches the jungle for rumored treasure. Pitfall! may have been the first side-scrolling game that I ever played. As a result, it kindled my interest in the genre for years to come. If you are going to play any game that the Atari 2600 has to offer, this is the one I recommend.

Swordquest – As an honorable mention, I’m including the Swordquest games in my list. I’m not doing so because they were particularly good games… but rather due to the legacy that follows them. Swordquest was a series that consisted of three released titles (Waterworld,  Earthworld, and Fireworld), and a fourth unreleased title (Airworld). These games were part of a larger real-life contest. Depending on which game you were playing, clues were hidden in the game’s instruction manual as well as in a comic book that was included with each game. Players who uncovered the game’s secrets could then write in and hope to be selected to participate in a special contest. The winner of the contest would be awarded with actual treasures. The rewards included: an 18-karat gold talisman that was littered with various gemstones, a jewel-adorned solid gold crown, a jeweled platinum chalice, and a gem-encrusted jewelry box. Of these rewards, two were distributed. The fate of the remaining two are shrouded in mystery… The gameplay itself is a mixture of various genres. For the most part, the main areas of the game were similar to Adventure. But occasionally, the style would switch to various puzzles and platform challenges.  Since the games themselves were designed around a now defunct contest, and the storyline for the games has been left unfinished, there’s very little reason to play these titles today. But the mythology behind them still fascinates many.

 

So, let’s say you’re curious and want to get your hands on these (and other) classic Atari 2600 games. How to do that? Well, a vast number of Atari 2600 titles are included in a the Atari Vault collection. This collection features one-hundred classic Atari titles (both 2600 and Arcade versions). Classics like Centipede, Crystal Castles, Adventure, Haunted House, etc are all included. Xbox One and PS4 users also have their own collection of classic Atari games. However, if you’re hankering to play some Pitfall! The Atari Vault will disappoint.  Currently, the only modern way to enjoy that game is on the Atari Flashback console (version 8 or newer).

 

For 2600 fans, the Atari Flashback 8 Gold is my currently my official recommendation. But, if you can be patient, the Atari Flashback 9 is just around the corner and will included even more long-forgotten games. These consoles simply plug into your TV using an HDMI port. – Just make sure you’re getting the GOLD version if you decide not to wait for the Atari Flashback 9. The non-gold “8” console does not use HDMI and will likely not be compatible with most modern televisions.

Atari Vault

 

 

Atari Vault is available on Steam,

Atari Flashback Classics (vol 1 and 2) are available on PS4 and Xbox One

 

Retro Rewind: Golden-Age Classics (Part 2)

First, I want to start this post with an apology for my absence. When I make multi-part posts like this one, I like to try to have them uploaded no more than a few days apart. In this case it’s been a little over a week since my last entry. This delay was largely due to a recent career change. That’s right, I’m no longer working from home in the banking industry. Instead, I’ve switched gears for something a little more blue-collar. I decided a few months ago that the mental stress caused by my previous job was best abandoned for something a bit simpler. It’s taken me a few weeks to adjust to the new schedule and find my groove. So again, I apologize for the delay. With that out of the way, let’s continue our journey into some of the classic arcade titles of the 1980’s!

Millipede

Millipede – In the same way that Galaga was a re-imagining of Galaxian, Millipede is an update to the classic Centipede. The gameplay is largely the same, with the exception of some new enemies and environmental objects. Millipede was intended to replace its predecessor. But for many players, myself included, it just didn’t have the same magic as the original game. I’m not sure what it is exactly – as both games are very similar. But I just prefer Centipede over this update. Sadly, if you’re curious about Millipede, you’re a bit out of luck. While Millipede has been released on a number of systems over the years, it is currently unavailable on modern consoles.

Donkey Kong Jr. – In my last entry I spoke a bit about the Nintendo arcade classic Donkey Kong. Well, as you might expect, Donkey Kong Jr. is a sequel to that legendary game. The original game ends when Mario captures Donkey Kong and rescues his girlfriend. In this title, you play as the son of Donkey Kong on a quest to rescue his father. Much like the previous game, this is a fast-paced platform title. It’s a fun twist on the original title and one that I actually find it to be a bit more enjoyable than the first. Donkey Kong Jr. is currently available on the Nintendo Virtual Console and coming soon to the Nintendo Switch online service. I highly recommend this one to anyone who enjoys Nintendo-style platformers.

Joust – Did you ever want to knock out a friend with a giant lance from the back of a speeding bird? If so, Joust is the game for you. While not the first 2-player co-operative/competitive video game, it was arguably the most popular.  In Joust, you can either work together with a friend to eliminate bad guys from the back of a flying ostrich, or you can simply duke it out head-to-head. Personally, I can tell you that when I was young, the whole point of playing Joust was to compete with someone else. It was very therapeutic. In fact, many disputes of my youth were settled via Joust matches. Today, curious gamers can  experience this title via the Xbox Live Arcade.

Moon Patrol

Moon Patrol – I loved this game when I was a kid. Nothing was better than Moon Patrol. I remember how excited I was to see that the game was finally available on the Atari 2600, only to quickly have that excitement deflated upon seeing just how horrendous the Atari port actually was. It was bad… So, so bad. The arcade was the only way to really experience this classic title when I was a kid. What made Moon Patrol so great? Well, first of all, there was the “moon buggy”. Who didn’t want to drive a funky-looking moon buggy across the lunar surface while blasting aliens and hopping craters? I know I sure did. The game was made even better by the catchy theme song that played throughout the game itself. All of this made Moon Patrol a classic that still withstands the test of time. Moon Patrol is available today on the PS4 and Nintendo Switch.

Pole PositionNeed for Speed, Forza, Gran Turismo – all of these game franchises owe their success to Pole PositionPole Position is the original arcade racing game. There was no joystick on a Pole Position machine. Instead, the game machine was equipped with a steering wheel and gas pedal. There was nothing else like it at the time. I remember sitting down in the arcade driver’s seat for the first time, I was blown away. This game was unlike anything else I had ever seen. For kids like me, Pole Position set a very unrealistic expectation about what driving a car was actually like – but that’s what makes it fun! Today, you can play the original game as part of the NAMCO Museum collection on Xbox Arcade.  However, the only way to relive the original experience is by sitting inside one of the classic Pole Position machines, assuming you can manage to find one.

Q*Bert – Here we have one of the true classic golden-age titles: Q*bert. When I was a kid, Q*Bert blew me away because it was a video game that could actually talk – well, sort of. The game has a very basic synthesizer built into the audio board. This allowed the game to output obscure vocal tones. However, these phonmes don’t actually end up being combined into English words, instead it was gibberish. The result was very unique and quirky. Regardless, it was pretty groundbreaking at the time. Q*Bert is a game in which each level is comprised of a number of 3D-like cubes. The player controls a funky little orange character that jumps from cube to cube in attempt to change each cube to a uniform color. Once every cube on the stage matches, the levels ends and the game progresses. Of course, there are a handful of bad guys hopping around also. So you must always be aware of your surroundings. This game was a favorite of mine when I was very young. Today, Q*Bert is available on the PS4 and Xbox One as part of Q*Bert Rebooted. This title includes the original classic, as well as a modern re-imagining of the game.

Mario Bros.

Mario Bros. – Most people you will encounter have played Super Mario Bros. But how many are familiar with its predecessor? That’s right, before they were “super”, they were just the “Mario Bros.” This game is a simple platformer, that consists of a number of stages. Mario (or Mario and Luigi – if playing in two-player mode) must defeat a set number of enemies in order to advance to the next stage. Unlike Super Mario Bros., the characters are unable to jump on top of monsters to defeat them. Instead, they must bang on the underside of the platform that the monsters inhabit. This will flip the monster onto its back, thus allowing Mario to kick them into oblivion. Even though Mario Bros. was designed to be a co-operative two-player title, many people enjoyed trying to sabotage the other player in one way or another. When I was a kid, this was only real reason to play the game. Mario Bros. has seen some form of release on almost every system Nintendo has put out over the years. However, each of these ports have paled in comparison to the actual arcade version. Today, the only way way to play the “true” version of Mario Bros. is via the Nintendo Switch. The game is included there as part of the “Arcade Archives” series.

Gauntlet – If you’re a fan of dungeon crawl games, you owe a debt of gratitude to Gauntlet. This is the game that started it all. Gauntlet is a multi-player action game with a fantasy theme. It supports up to four players, each taking the role of a different hero; Warrior, Elf, Wizard, and Valkyrie – each with unique strengths and weaknesses. The object of the game is navigate through the dungeon maze, face hordes of monsters, collect troves of treasure, and ultimately find the exit. In its day, this game was infamous for draining young arcade-goers of countless quarter. Admittedly, I spent a small fortune of my weekly allowance on “continues” for this title. I was completely enthralled with Gauntlet. In fact, this game might very be responsible for my lifelong fascination with the fantasy genre. For a time, the original Gauntlet was once available on Xbox Live Arcade. But today, this classic is currently unavailable on modern platforms. Instead, there is a modern reboot with the same name. But make no mistake, there is only one classic Gauntlet.

Rampage – If you’ve ever wanted to assume the role of a giant monster and destroy entire city blocks, Rampage is the game for you. In this game, you can control one of three kaiju monsters; a giant ape, a giant lizard, or a giant wolf. The goal is to complete demolish various US cities, stage by stage. Of course, military and other hazards await the player.  Rampage was another game that really shined in two-player mode. Sure, it was fun enough on its own, but experiencing it with a friend makes it even that much better. Today, the original game is available in the Midway Arcade Origins collection, which is compatible with the Xbox One. (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, not included.)

 

The games detailed in both this, and my last post are simply some of my personal arcade favorites from the golden-age of gaming. This is by no means meant to be a definitive list of golden-age classics. Nor should it be considered a complete “best of” list. In fact, there are many more wonderful arcade titles from the 80’s that captured my attention. Classics like Popeye, Bubble Bobble, Dragon Spirit, 1943, and Afterburner just to a name a few – all left major impressions on me.  However, if you are a younger gamer with an interest in retro-gaming, any of the titles mentioned in there two posts are excellent starting points.

Modern games are amazing. But it is always important to remember your roots.

Retro Rewind: Golden-Age Classics (Part 1)

Most kids today will never experience the thrill of setting foot into an old-school arcade. The closest they will get is likely someplace like Chuck E -Cheese’s or Dave & Buster’s. Sure, there may be a few retro-style arcade halls still tucked away here and there. But sadly, they are now few and far between.

Visiting an arcade in the 1980’s was quite an experience. Most of them were loud, dimly lit rooms, filled with glowing arcade cabinets. Sometimes there were neon bulbs or blacklights on the walls and ceiling. Occasionally, there would be a jukebox blasting music that struggled to be heard over the din of the digital beeps and bloops emanating from the arcade machines themselves.

It might be hard to imagine, but once upon a time, if you wanted to play really good games you simply had to fill up your pockets with quarters and head down to the local arcade. This was especially true in the days before the NES hit the scene. Sure, you could play games at home on the ATARI 2600, but the computing power of the 2600 paled in comparison to what was packed into most arcade machines.

The games that were popular during the golden age of gaming are simple by today’s standards. But nonetheless, they are classics and certainly worthy of attention. Now, I’m not going to go into great detail about the games themselves, but I do want to take a moment to provide a list of some of more memorable arcade classics that I enjoyed as a kid. I’m also going to provide details on how you can best experience these retro games on today’s platforms. So, without further delay, let’s dive in.

Space Invaders

Space Invaders – This is the original fixed shooter! In this game you control a mobile cannon that can move left to right across the bottom of the screen. You aim at rows of descending aliens that attack you with laser fire. Your cannon is protected partially from attacks by a number of bunker-like shields. If the aliens reach the bottom of the screen, or destroy all of the shields, the game is over. Space Invaders took the world by storm. It was a classic that will forever be remembered by older gamers like me. Sadly, there is not a true port of the original game available on modern consoles or for PC. However, a re-imagined version of the game, Space Invaders Extreme is available on Steam and XBOX Live Arcade.

Asteroids – This is a classic game from my youth. My summer camp had an Asteroids table and I wasted countless quarters on this thing. Asteroids in a top-down shooter. In it, you pilot a ship through an asteroid field. You can rotate the ship 360-degrees and thrust forward in whatever direction you are pointed. Asteroids of various size float by and you must shoot them with your laser, breaking them apart or destroying them entirely – without being hit. The best way to experience Asteroids today is through the Asteroid Deluxe title available on Xbox One or Xbox 360. This version of the game includes both to classic 1979 rendition, as well as a modern HD remake.

Galaxian – Many consider this game to be an evolution of Space Invaders. Also a fixed shooter, in Galaxian, you control a starfighter that can move left to right across the bottom of the screen. Hordes of alien ships line up across the top and attack. But unlike Space Invaders, these ships will swoop down and dive at the player. When comparing the two games, it is easy to see just how fast the technology behind the video game industry was evolving. The original version of Galaxian has been included as part of various NAMCO collections over the years, but it is not available on modern hardware at the time of this writing.

Pac-Man

Pac-Man – This is a game that needs no introduction. Pac-Man is arguably one of the most recognizable video games of all time. The purpose of the game is to navigate through various mazes and collect little pellets. Once every pellet is collected, you move on to the next level. The danger lies in being chased by four ghosts. Touching one of them will result in a life lost. However, the tides turn whenever Pac-Man eats one of the larger power pellets. Doing so gives him the ability to chomp down on his ghostly attackers for a limited time. I don’t know a single person who lived through the 1980’s that isn’t familiar with Pac-Man.  The name is synonymous with golden-age gaming. This classic title is available today in its original form on a number of systems. It is available on Steam, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch (as part of NAMCO Museum collection).

Donkey Kong – This game was one of the first platform games ever developed. Interestingly enough, it is also the game that introduced the character of Mario (then known as Jump Man) to gamers all over the world. Donkey Kong is a giant gorilla, and he’s kidnapped Mario’s girlfriend! Mario must navigate his way through four levels – dodging whatever Donkey Kong throws his way. It’s a short but sweet classic. It is also responsible for bringing the name “Nintendo” to the attention of the west. If you consider yourself to be a fan of retro classics, this is one game that you should be on your shortlist. Donkey Kong is is currently available on the Nintendo Virtual Console and the Nintendo Switch.

Ms. Pac-Man – At first glance, Ms. Pac-Man might seem to be nothing more than a simple re-skin of the classic Pac-Man. But instead, in many ways it is actually a vastly superior game. The ghost AI is a bit trickier, and the levels are a bit more refined. When it comes to Pac-Man, this is my favorite of the two. It is considered by many, (myself included) to be the definitive Pac-Man experience.  Ms. Pac-Man is available on Steam, PS4, Xbox Arcade.

Defender

Defender – Ahh, Defender. This is the game that started the “schmup” craze. Defender is a sidescrolling shoot-em-up style game that’s renown for it’s difficulty and its ability to take quarter after quarter until your pockets were left empty. In this game you pilot a starship. The goal is to defend against an alien invasion force. In many ways, the concept here is similar to what was found in Space Invaders. But this time in an action-based side-scrolling presentation instead of an overhead view. At the time of this writing, the only modern system Defender is available on is the Xbox One via the backwards compatible title; Midway Arcade Origins.

Centipede – For me, this was the game that started it all. Centipede holds of honor of being the first video game I ever got my hands on. Like Space Invaders, you control a little character that can move left to right across the bottom of the screen. The goal is to destroy centipedes before they reach the bottom of the stage. To make things difficult, the game-field is littered with little mushrooms that provide cover for the centipedes. Defeating the head of a centipede also leaves a mushroom behind – providing a new obstacle for your next go-round. To make things even more challenging, slugs, spiders and other creep crawlies also get in your way and attack you. All of this makes for a fast paced arcade experience. Today, the original arcade version is available to play on Xbox Live Arcade.

Frogger – Who could forget this little guy? Frogger is a game in which you control a little frog as he tries to hop to his home. Of course, along the way there are many dangers – cars, alligators and even… water? It’s a game of both patience and reflexes. Frogger is another classic from my youth. It is simple, yet charming enough to survive the test of time. This game has been ported across a number of systems over the years. Today, the original arcade version is available on Xbox Live Arcade (although without the classic Frogger theme song)

Galaga – Many people confuse this game with its older cousin Galaxian. The confusion is understandable. Both games are very similar both in terms of gameplay and design. In fact, Galaga is a sequel (or some argue a reimagining) of Galaxian. The design and concept is nearly identical, but at a faster pace and with a few new elements thrown in. For many players, Galaga is the more memorable of the two. Galaga is currently available on the Xbox Arcade, PS4, Steam and the Nintendo Switch (as part of the NAMCO Museum collection).

BurgerTime – I was never a big fan of this game. My father on the other hand, loved it as did many others, so I’m including it in my list. The object of this game is assemble a number of hamburgers. Each ingredient is suspended from various levels of ascending platforms. The player must climb ladders and run across the ingredients to make them fall onto the waiting bun below until the hamburger is complete. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. The player is chased by various bad guys (sausages, fried eggs, and pickle slices)… It’s weird, it’s trippy… but it’s ultimately entertaining.  BurgerTime has been ported to a number of systems over the years, but at the time of this writing, it is not available on modern hardware.

Dig Dug

Dig DugDig Dug is a quirky little game that involves digging tunnels in the ground and inflating pests until they explode… Sounds weird? Well, that’s because it is. But it is also lots of fun. When I was little, Dig Dug was extremely popular at my local arcade. I remember seeing one player (a college kid) actually make it to round 256 in the game. Reaching this final level results in an instant kill, but achieving it was on par with having “conquered” the game. Today, Dig Dug is available on Steam, PS4, Xbox Arcade, and the Nintendo Switch (via the NAMCO Museum collection)

I’m going to take a break here and resume my list in a second post sometime within the coming weeks. If you’re a younger player who is curious about golden-age gaming, or if you’re an old nerd like myself, I encourage you to seek out copies of these classics and give them a spin. Better yet, if you can find one nearby, venture out to an actual arcade and try to relive the glorious days or retro gaming. Being there, quarters in hand, was arguably the best part of the experience.

 

Review: Shenmue I & II

This is it! My review for Shenmue I & II is finally here! This also marks the last game in my “final four” list. After this review, I will be taking a short break from my “generational-backlog grind” and I’ll be focusing on a couple of fun projects. But for now, let me share my thoughts on this long-awaited collection.

For many, the Shenmue games are often considered to be two of the greatest video games ever made. I have long been aware of the legendary status they hold. But personally, I never had the chance to experience them until now. Both games were originally released on the Sega Dreamcast, a system often considered to be ahead of its time – but one that never seemed to break into the mainstream. For this reason, very few gamers actually got the pleasure of experiencing these titles the first time around. Regardless, Shenmue’s legacy refused to die. Finally, in 2015, a Kickstarter campaign was announced to fund the release of the third installment. The Kickstarter was a smashing success. As a result, the original two games have finally seen a re-release.

These are two games that I’ve wanted to get my hands on for over a decade. Now, having played and completed both entries, I’m excited to finally share my thoughts. Despite being two separate titles, I am reviewing both games together as a single collection. As a result, some parts of this review may contain mild spoilers. Be aware.

So, let’s start with the first game. Aside from taking place in 1980’s Japan, and being somewhat of an open-world title, I really didn’t know what to expect from Shenmue. I think a part of me was expecting some sort of martial arts beat-em-up/RPG hybrid. But that’s not all what I found. Instead, Shenmue ended up being more of an interactive story than anything else. Sure, there are some brief combat and action sequences – a number of which consist of brief QTE-style events. But for the most part, the game is very casual. The main character in Shenmue is Ryo Hazuki, a young Japanese man who is on a quest for revenge. Early in the game, Ryo witnesses the death of his father at the hand of a mysterious Chinese martial artist. He decides to do everything in his power to learn the identity of his father’s killer and hunt him down.

The game itself consists of open world exploration, as Ryo hunts for clues. He starts by questioning locals about the events of the day his father was killed. With each clue that is uncovered, a trail of breadcrumbs begins to appear that Ryo must follow further down the rabbit hole. His quest takes him from the streets of his local neighborhood into the secret bowels of the Japanese black market underworld.

While there are certainly some action sequences in Shenmue, I was surprised to learn it is more of a detective game than a fighting game. The majority of the gameplay is actually spent talking to NPCs and exploring than engaging in combat. Time passes as you hunt for clues. Ryo only has a few months to piece the mystery together before too much time has passed. That being said, the games gives you more than enough time to explore till you heart’s content. Part of the fun of Shenmue lies in environmental exploration/interaction. Ryo can visit stores and purchase various goods like groceries, toys and cassette tapes. The tapes contain musical numbers from the game’s soundtrack and can be played back on a cassette player Ryo finds in his bedroom. The toys are collectible items  that are obtained at random from gacha-style capsule machines. Ryo can even visit the local arcade which allows the player to experience some of Sega’s classic arcade games first-hand. To be honest, a lot of the game’s content is nothing more than a colossal waste of time. But… that’s part of the charm.

As a consequence of the game’s open nature, some parts of the story do seem to drag on occasionally. For example, anyone who’s really sat down to play Shenmue, will likely roll their eyes at the mention of the phrase, “Do you know where any sailors hang out?”. This is a reference to a seemingly endless storyline thread early in the title. Was it annoying? A little. But that didn’t bug me as much as the portion of the game in which Ryo has to work a nine-to-five  job at the local shipyard. Which of course, requires the player’s interaction. I don’t know about you… but if I wanted to play “Forklift Simulator”, I’d have bought that game instead. Despite these minor annoyances, I completely enchanted with the overall game itself.

Eventually, the first game comes to an end when Ryo departs Japan, headed for Hong-Kong.

Shenmue II was originally released in 2001, two years after the first game. But it picks up right where the first title left off. In fact, you can import data from the save file of the original game into this one. This is a feature not often seen with console titles, but one that I found to be very welcome. A year after its original release, it was ported to the Xbox. The Xbox version of the game is the source for this remaster.

In Shenmue II, Ryo’s search for his father’s killer has led him to Hong Kong. It is there that he must continue his hunt for clues. His journey will take him deeper into the criminal underworld. But not all of his interactions in Hong Kong are bad. During the story, Ryo will also make some new friends. I found the characters in this game to be much more interesting than those in the original title. Often times in the original Shenmue, interactions with NPCs often felt forced or unimportant. Sure there are a few exceptions. But for the most part, none of the NPCs really left an impression on me. That’s not the case at all in the sequel. The new characters are much more colorful. In fact, they often steal the show.

In many ways, Shenmue II is very similar to its predecessor. It’s also is largely an open-world, breadcrumb style game. However, the number of mini-games and interactive side-quests has increased. As players explore the streets of Hong Kong, Ryo can participate in street fighting and wrestling tournaments. He can also try his hand at a number of street-side gambling games. Of course, capsule toys make a comeback as well.

Shenmue II also ups the action a bit. There’s more combat and button-mashing QTE events in this title than were found in the original game. There’s also much more to explore. Players wanting to get the most out of the experience would do well to take their time and explore. There’s quite a few miss-able scenes and even characters tucked away in this game for those willing to dig deep.

Eventually, the setting for this game moves from the city of Hong Kong and further into mainland China, to an area known as Guilin.  The last portion of the game takes place in this locale and, despite being almost twenty years old, it features some of the most stunning visuals I’ve ever seen in a video game.

I’m not going to give anything away, but the story for Shenmue II ends with a massive cliff hanger. It’s going to kill me to wait a whole year to see the next chapter in this title, so I can’t imagine how bad it must have felt for original fans of the series.

Shenmue I and II is a great collection for a great price. Many aspects of these games were very much ahead of their time, while others have not aged well at all. Many people call this release a “remaster”. That isn’t exactly true. This package contains both games, presented in an HD format, but aside from being presented in an updated resolution and with a few QOL improvements, they are largely untouched from their original versions. I had a ball with these games, and I can’t wait for the next installment. But, I can also see how these are not going be games that will appeal to just anyone. Still, if you fancy yourself to be a gaming historian, you won’t want to miss out on these classic titles.

Difficulty: Easy – For the most part, these games provide little real challenge. They are played at a very casual pace with only a few tricky QTE-style events to pose any real difficulty. But even these events can be retried as many times as needed.

Story: This is why you want to play Shenmue. The tale told here is out of this world. Each game feels like an episode in a serial, and the storyline rivals any classic RPG you might come across. What starts out feeling like a crime drama, eventually ends up feeling much more epic and mysterious in the end.

Originality: While open-world style games were really nothing unheard of, Shenmue brought the genre to the console in a big way. The way it integrated mini-games into an explore-able environment was a radical change of pace. Another aspect of the game that really broke new ground was the way that it took real world locations and translated them into an open-world video game. Locales found in both games are real places. Dobuita Street in Yokosuka Japan, the walled-city of Kowloon – all of them were locations that were special to creator of Shenmue. In some ways, these games feel like a love letter he composed as a way to share his passion for certain places that were special to him.

Soundtrack: Overall, both games feature a varied and wonderful soundtrack. I have to give higher marks to Shenmue II when it comes to both music and overall audio quality. But admittedly, the voice acting in both games tends to be a bit sketchy at times. In fact, it ends up sounding a lot like an old Kung Fu movie. Which, in a weird way, is oddly appropriate.

Fun: Fans of open exploration and Asian-themed games will love Shenmue I & II. Players who prefer more structured or action-oriented games may be a bit put off.  Personally, I found the games to be relaxing and entertaining.  Despite being a bit surprised by the gameplay itself, I found myself having a blast with these two games.

Graphics: These games were released in 1999 and 2001, respectively. Despite being presented in an HD format, they show their age, but they do so pretty gracefully. At the time of release, they were both top-of-the line visually.

Playcontrol: This is probably my biggest complaint. Both games can be a bit hard to control at times. Ryo moves in a directional “tank-style” way – very similar to the classic Resident Evil games. Thankfully, this scheme takes place during the exploration portions of the game only. The QTE events in both games seem to be a bit touchy and unforgiving, and are often not very clear. Thankfully, the controls in combat are much more intuitive and function a lot like a beat-em-up style game.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Martial arts violence, mild language.

Value:  This collection is available for $30.00 and at that price is well worth it. I’m surprised to see bargain pricing for a set of games with a legacy as renown as Shenmue. So, even if you’re on the fence, the prices makes it worth checking out. The only thing that’s missing from this collection is the proper presentation “Shenmue Passport” content – which was online content exclusive to the Sega Dreamcast. However, these were really nothing more than some scoreboards and an online jukebox. The titlescreen for Shenmue II in this collection features almost the game content.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Shenmue I & II are not perfect games. But the quality of the storyline combined with the amount of content and the attention to detail gives this collection a four-star rating. If I had to pick a favorite of the two, I’d go with Shenmue II as the better of the two games. That being said, the first game provides a lot of atmosphere and an overall “comfy” feeling. So it’s hard to say the second is really “better”.  Again, if you’re a fan of Asian culture, or games with great storytelling, this collection is a must-have.

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Steam

Review: Legacy of Kain – Soul Reaver

The third entry in my “turn-of-the-century” Final Four is here; Legacy of Kain – Soul Reaver. Nearly two years ago, I reviewed the original title in the Legacy of Kain series: Blood Omen. It was a game that I had no prior experience with, but one that was often recommended to me. Personally, I was not especially impressed with it. I enjoyed the story and the atmosphere of the game. But I found the overall gameplay to be of poor quality. Regardless, I decided to give the second chapter in the series a fair chance. Originally released on the PS1, Dreamcast and PC – this game also connects all of the platforms I’m currently focusing on.

If you’ve played the original Legacy of Kain, it won’t take long for you to realize that Soul Reaver is a very different type of game. For starters, instead of being presented in the overhead view, like the original. This game switched to a third-person action perspective. Soul Reaver also focuses less on mindless combat and more on puzzle solving. In this regard, it is very reminiscent of other games from the era like Tomb Raider, Castlevania 64, or even (to a smaller extent), Ocarina of Time.

This game takes place fifteen-hundred years after the previous chapter. During this time, Kain (the previous game’s protagonist) has become a vampire lord. His armies overrun the land of Nosgoth. In this title, you play as Raziel, a vampire slain by hand of Kain. After his defeat, Raziel finds himself reborn as a wraith. He learns he was resurrected by an ancient god and has been tasked with defeating Kain and restoring Nosgoth to its former glory. Over the course of the game, the player will evolve Raziel’s powers so that he can ultimately face and defeat Kain.

As I mentioned earlier, Soul Reaver is vastly different than its predecessor. In fact, the only similarity between the two games comes from the storyline. In this game, the player controls Raziel in a 3D world. Players can run, jump and interact with objects. Upon defeating enemies, Raziel can consume their souls to restore his health.

The game is presented in a largely open-world format. Players are able to warp around and backtrack using portals that are unlocked as the player progresses through the game.

Since the majority of the enemies found in Soul Reaver are undead, simply beating them to a pulp is not enough to conquer them. Once they are defeated, the corpses must be either burned, drowned, impaled, or exposed to sunlight to be put to rest. Players can do this by interacting with environmental objects or with special weapons.

Another major aspect of the gameplay lies in puzzle solving. Players progressing through the game will often come across a number of environmental puzzles. These usually take the form of blocks and switches that must be moved into position or flipped in various combinations. In truth, these puzzles are probably the most challenging aspect of the game itself, but also a large part of what makes the game so memorable.

By today’s standards, Soul Reaver feels very antiquated. But at the time of its release, it was actually pretty revolutionary. Sure, 3D environmental puzzle games were nothing new, but this game provided a level of refinement that was second to none. Combined with excellent visuals and audio, Soul Reaver was quite a thing to behold.

Fans of the series should make every effort not to pass this game up. However, it has not aged particularly well and may not appeal to many gamers.

Difficulty: Medium – I’ve heard a number of people claim that this game is exceptionally difficult. I went into it expecting as much. But, I found those claims to be somewhat exaggerated. Sure, some of the boss fights and the puzzles can be a bit tricky. But I didn’t find them to be anything out of the ordinary. All in all, I felt the challenge was just about right for this type of game.

Story: One thing the Legacy of Kain series does well is storyline. The story unfolds through a number of FMVs and cutscenes scattered throughout the game. It is extremely well done. High marks here.

Originality: Credit should be given to the developers for making this game so radically different from its predecessor.  Even though there’s really nothing revolutionary brought to the table in terms of game design, the presentation still manages to feel new and refreshing.

Soundtrack: Superb. The game features an orchestral score that is simply amazing. The music is fitting and really sets the tone for the game itself. Also, the voice acting is second to none.

Fun: Fans of Tomb Raider and other 3D action/puzzle games will likely have a blast playing this game. As will fans of the gothic horror genre. For me, the best part of the game was the atmosphere and storyline. Even when the gameplay started to feel repetitive, the story was good enough to keep me entertained and wanting more.

Graphics: This title was released late in the life cycle of the PS1 and it shows. This is probably one of the best looking games on the platform. If you’re lucky enough to play the Dreamcast version of the game, it looks even better.

Playcontrol: The controls are not perfect, but they are better than most other games of this type from the same era. The camera is pretty accurate and can be rotated using the shoulder buttons. Unlike many early 3D games, it does not get in the way of the action. Occasionally, the controls can seem stiff and cumbersome, especially when dealing with jump puzzles. But overall, it’s not a big issue.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Violence, Occult Themes

Value:  This game is actually pretty short. In some ways, the amount of content actually makes the game feel incomplete. I completed the whole game in under twelve hours. These days, the game is available digitally on Steam and on PSN for around $6.00. At this price, it’s more than worth it even with the lack of content.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Legacy of Kain – Soul Reaver is far from perfect. But, it is an improvement to the original. This is one of those weird games that players will either cherish or despise – depending on your style. All things considered, it’s a pretty solid title with a unique feel. If you’re a fan of horror games or gothic settings,  this one is worth a look.

Available on: Steam, PSN

Other Reviews In This Series:

Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain   –  Soul Reaver  – Soul Reaver 2 –  Blood Omen 2 – Defiance

Check Up: No Man’s Sky (1.5 NEXT Update)

The long awaited multiplayer update to No Man’s Sky is finally here. This is the one that everyone has been waiting for. To call this simply a patch is almost criminal. This update completely transforms the game from the bottom up.

In truth, I really don’t know where to begin. I suppose I’ll start with the first two most obvious changes; REAL multiplayer and a new (default) third-person perspective. 

That’s right, long promised by the developers – No Man’s Sky now has honest-to-goodness multiplayer. You can meet up with other players in this living, breathing galaxy – for better or for worse. You can work together or, in a move that’s certain to be controversial, even attack each other. Hello Games has made it easy to join up with either friends or random players. Of course, if you prefer to play alone, you still have the option to lock other players out of your game.

The next thing, or maybe the first thing, players are likely to notice is that No Man’s Sky is no longer a first person game. That’s right, you can now see your character from the third-person. Of course, the option still exists to play in the first person if you choose. But it seems that the developers made the bold move of actually making this new perspective the default experience. This was likely the result of now having a number of character customization options. 

While these are obviously some pretty big changes, that’s not all. Nearly every aspect of the game has been revamped in one way or another. Everything from ship designs, to crafting and gathering have been overhauled in this new version. And in a good way too. For those of us who have been playing from the beginning, we’ve seen this game grow from a barren, boring universe to a what is now a vibrant, living community. 

The storyline that was introduced in the ATLAS Update has been refined even further, to the point of being near perfection. The changes to the crafting system have made base construction more meaningful and interesting. I can’t being to explain just how much this game has evolved with the introduction of this patch.

If you are an old player who gave up on the game in its early days. Or even if you’ve been interested but were afraid to take the plunge, you owe it to yourself to give No Man’s Sky a look now. Not since Final Fantasy XIV have I seen the developers double-down on their promise and turn a game around in such a drastic way. In my opinion, No Man’s Sky is now the game that was originally promised to us years ago. 

So what now? Well, Hello Games isn’t stopping with the NEXT Update. They’ve promise to continue releasing content updates. Next on the agenda is something called the “Community Season”. We’ll have to wait and see what they have up their sleeve. In the meantime, there’s no better time to reacquainted with this game.

Review: Forsaken (Remastered)

Wow. Here’s a game I never expected to review, Forsaken. That’s right, out of nowhere, this classic title has been remastered and is now available to a whole new generation of gamers.

Forsaken was a game that I actually enjoyed in my younger days. A friend and I both owned the PC version. And together, we spent many hours blasting our way through multiplayer matches. Despite our love for it, the PC release of Forsaken never really seemed to take off with the general public. Instead, most players are familiar with the Nintendo 64 version of the game.

When I started working on my backlog reviews, Forsaken was a game that I desperately wanted to revisit. However, I found the original release to be riddled with compatibility issues that made it nearly unplayable on modern systems. For this reason, I decided to put it on the back burner. But now, with the release of the remastered version of the game, I jumped at the chance to dive back in.

Admittedly, Forsaken is really nothing more than a Descent clone. In it, you play as a futuristic treasure hunter in a hovercraft. You zoom through cramped corridors, blasting other pilots and enemies – with the goal of collecting the treasure and making it out alive.

Like Descent, you can pilot your ship in a full 360-degree range of motion (well, “six-degrees”, if you want to get technical).  The biggest difference here is that you can choose to play as a number of different characters, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, one pilot might have a faster ship, but with a weaker hull or with less maneuverability.  Each pilot also has their own personality that is expressed through a series of audible taunts.

At the beginning of the game, only a handful of pilots are available to play. More are unlocked as you encounter and defeat them throughout the game itself. Now, perhaps it is my faulty memory, but I don’t seem to remember this mechanic in the original release of the game. I seem to recall having a full roster of characters right from the start. Perhaps I’m incorrect on this. Either way, this time around I actually found unlocking the characters to be enjoyable and motivating.

As for the gameplay itself, if you are familiar with any of the Descent games, you already know exactly what to expect; fast paced, flying action. Enemies will swarm you, forcing you to glide your ship behind corners for cover, only to dart back out in attempt to squeeze off a few shots. I found that controls handle very well. In fact, I daresay the playcontrol in Forsaken is an improvement over what was found in Descent.

The remastered version of Forsaken takes all of the content from the original PC release and the exclusive levels from the N64 and puts them all in one game, making this the absolute definitive version. The N64 levels are hidden, and must be unlocked by discovering secrets tucked away within the game’s main levels.

If you’re the type of player that likes to hunt secrets, that’s not all. In fact, this version of Forsaken also rewards players with “cheat codes” if they manage to find all of the gold bars that are hidden throughout each level. These codes can then be activated from a menu, providing players with everything from invincibility to alternate textures.

The single player content is entertaining in itself, but the multiplayer mode is arguably the most popular way to enjoy the game. Back in the day, I spent an embarrassing number of hours playing this game online with friends. Naturally, I was excited to try out multiplayer on this new remaster. However, every time I entered the lobby, I found it to be empty.

It seems that the Steam and GOG releases of the game do not share multiplayer lobbies. As a result, you are restricted to playing with others who use the same platform. This seems to be the main issue finding active multiplayer sessions. There’s just not enough people interested in a twenty year-old title. To say that this is a disappointment is an understatement. Despite the potential multiplayer troubles, Forsaken is still a game worthy of attention. Especially for six-degree shooter fans.

Difficulty: Variable – This game offers a number of difficulty settings, ranging from easy to nearly impossible. The settings affect both the number of enemies, enemy AI and even item placement. I found them all to be appropriate. There’s a setting for nearly every skill level.

Story: Games like this do not really need much of a story. The set up here is basic; post-apocalyptic Earth and scavengers.  It is simple, but for a game like this, more than enough.

Originality: Forsaken certainly did not invent the six-degree FPS genre. But it did manage to improve on it. By adding a little personality and some improved graphics and sound, this game brought the genre to a new era.

Soundtrack: One of better highlights of the game. The score for the game is catchy and appropriate; featuring high-energy techno tunes. The voice acting is over-the-top and ridiculous. This remastered version of the game incorporates the “adult themed” voice pack that was previously available as an add-on to the original game. Be warned.

Fun: If you enjoy futuristic, fast-paced FPS games, you’ll feel right at home with Forsaken. Sadly, due to the fragmented state of the multiplayer, it might end up feeling a little lonely.

Graphics: The original game was frequently bundled with graphics cards as a way to show off some of the (then) state-of-the-art dynamic lighting and Direct-3D rendering. These days, the graphics are nothing special, but they still look amazing in their presentation. Forsaken is a beautiful game.

Playcontrol: I found the controls in this game to be a huge improvement over Descent. Something about the default controls here just feels right. If I had to find any criticism, it would be with the UI and weapon cycling. Sometimes the UI seems a bit gaudy and overly large. But, it works.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: YES. Adult language, innuendo, and some nudity. (Nudity enabled via cheat code)

Value:  Forsaken Remastered is available for $19.99. Despite being an excellent game, I have a tough time recommending it at this price. The amount of a content is appropriate. But when considering the iffy multiplayer, this one might seem more appealing when on sale.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Forsaken is a long forgotten gem. It is a game that actually deserved the remaster treatment. For the most part, there is little to complain about. The game looks better than ever and is playable on modern machines. However, the best part of the game, the multiplayer – is damaged by the cross-platform wars.

Available on: Steam, GOG, Xbox One

Review: The Legend of Zelda – Oracle of Seasons/Ages

Nintendo fans rejoice! My long awaited review of the “Oracle” games is finally here. This review also marks the first of my GBC/N64 era “Final Four”. It has been a long time coming, but I’m proud to finally discuss these two classic titles.

Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages are two titles in The Legend of Zelda series. They were released simultaneously and as a result are very similar. In fact, they are actually designed with a special “linked game” mode that allows players to import progress from one game to the other. (More on that later).

At first glance, these games seem very similar to Link’s Awakening. The overall art and sound design are almost identical. But, the Oracle games take full advantage of the Game Boy Color’s graphics – resulting in a much better visual experience than even the DX version of Link’s Awakening.

The two games are nearly identical in terms of play. However, Oracle of Seasons tends to focus more on action, while Oracle of Ages shines a bigger spotlight on puzzle solving. The games are designed to be played in any order. But, for those that want to get technical, it is generally accepted that Oracle of Seasons should occur first in the timeline, followed by Oracle of Ages.

Once a player has completed one of the games, they are given a special password. When starting the second game, this password can be entered to enable the “linked game” feature. As the player progresses through the second title, they will be occasionally prompted to enter additional codes. These codes can be obtained by revisiting the completed first game and talking to specific NPCs. Once entered, these codes will grant perks or unlock special items/weapons in the second game. Thus, allowing the player to benefit from having already completed one of the games in the series.  If playing  these games on the original hardware, this same functionality is also available by using the link cable. But, most modern gamers are likely to be enjoying these courtesy of the 3DS Virtual Console.

It is also important to note that if playing a “linked game”, reaching the end of the second entry will activate a special final chapter. This definitive ending is only available for players who manage to tackle both OoA and OoS.

The storyline for the games start off in a similar way. Link is summoned by the Triforce, which then teleports him to a strange land. In Seasons, he finds himself in the land of Holodrum. It is there that he learns about a terrible creature named Onox who has shrouded the land in chaos. Seasons change on a whim and the people are fearful for their lives. To stop this, link must search for the eight Essences of Nature. Once collected, he will be able to defeat Onox and set things right.

In Ages, Link finds himself in the world of Lybrynna. It is here that Link discovers that the Oracle of Ages, Nayru has become possessed. As result, the flow of time has fallen into an erratic mess. This time, link must quest for the eight Essences of Time. Only then can he save Nayru and restore the flow of time to its proper path.

As mentioned above, completing both games unlocks a final chapter that puts a capstone on both adventures and reveals the true villain behind both games.

For the most part, both games play very much like any other Zelda title. Link explores various dungeons, recovers treasure and defeats bosses. The treasure he finds enable him to progress to new areas, etc. The big difference in these games are the introduction of the Seasons/Time mechanic. In OoS, Link gains the ability to change the seasons at will. This is useful in a number of ways. For example, in winter a mountain path might be blocked by drifts of snow. But, Link can change the season to summer so that the path will be clear. OoA works in a similar fashion. Link can travel through time to overcome obstacles much in the same way.

At first, one might think that by releasing two games side by side, Nintendo was simply trying to cash in on the concept made popular by Pokemon. But in reality, these are two completely separate games. The “linked game” mechanic does not come off as gimmicky at all. Instead, it actually feels very revolutionary, even by today’s standards.

In closing, I found both of these games to be flawless works of art. They certainly live up to the high standards set by the previous entries in the Zelda series. No fan;s library is complete without them.

Difficulty: Medium – The difficulty level for both of these games is pretty even. Neither is much harder than the other. I found both of them to be of average difficulty. Some spots, especially boss fights, can prove a bit troublesome at times. But in almost every case, there’s usually a weakness or strategy the be found.

Story: The storylines here are not as in-depth as what was found in the N64 or SNES Zelda titles. But, there’s enough lore here to keep things interesting and to drive players to completion.

Originality: In design, these games borrow heavily from the prior Game Boy title, Link’s Awakening. But the introduction of the Ages/Season switch mechanic, as well as the “linked game” option, really add a breath of fresh air that keep these titles feeling new and interesting.

Soundtrack: For a large part, the soundtrack for both of these games was lifted right out of Link’s Awakening. But each game also offers some of its own unique music. All in all, the new songs are fitting and appropriate, but they don’t reach iconic status of some of the previous titles in the series.

Fun: If you’re a fan of the Zelda series, these games will undoubtedly be enjoyable. The developers did a great job adding Easter eggs from the N64 titles into the these games. Seeing these brought a smile to my face more than once. Plus, It was just plain fun to figure out many of these classic-style puzzles again.

Graphics: There’s only so much you can do with the GBC hardware. But, these games manage to whip out every trick in the book. They are colorful and detailed, despite being held back by ancient technology. These two titles pretty much represent the pinnacle of GBC graphics.

Playcontrol: Overall no complaints. The controls are very precise and accurate. As with Link’s Awakening, the constant menu switching  can get a bit annoying, but it’s a minor complaint.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: No

Value:  Digitally, these games are available on 3DS Virtual Console for $5.99 each. At this price, they are well worth the money. Collectors can expect to pay anywhere from $10-$30 for original copies of the game.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Despite having farmed out development of these games to CapCom, the quality of both games matches that of any first-party Nintendo title. The Oracle titles are worthy of the Zelda name and I consider them a must-buy for any fan of the series. I played Oracle of Seasons many years a go, but this was the first time getting my hands dirty with Oracle of Ages. To truly appreciate these games, they must be enjoyed in tandem. I can’t recommend them enough.

Available on: 3DS Virtual Console

Other Games in this Series: 

LoZ –  LoZ II – Link to the Past – Link’s Awakening – Ocarina of Time – Majora’s Mask – Oracle of Season & Ages – Wind Waker – Four Swords – Minish Cap – Twilight Princess – Phantom Hourglass – Spirit Tracks – Skyward Sword – Link Between Worlds – Breath of the Wild