Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection part 1

In preparation for introducing the Genesis next month I feel it's necessary to talk about this release for the Xbox 360 and PS3. Unlike Nintendo, Sega has no qualms about putting out quite a bit of their content out through inexpensive compilations as well as other avenues like the Virtual Console. This makes it easier for gamers who might have missed the Genesis(whether by not being alive then or sticking to the Super Nintendo) to still play a portion of its library and to gauge whether they'd be interested in buying the actual system. On the other hand maybe Sega thinks that fans of the Collection will consider buying the Virtual Consoles releases which are better emulated and/or the "Vintage Collection" versions with more extras. 

Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection consists of 40 Genesis games and 9 games from both their Master System and the Arcade. The emulation is definitely an improvement over the last release for the PS2 & PSP and the front-end is also substantially better. The game offers a handful of visual modes including one for HDTV-owners but most gamers will and should leave it at the default setting. The extras aside from the hidden games are the same as in the last compilation(same interviews and everything) and aren't worth bothering with. Overall while not flawless this collection is solid in terms of visual and audio quality.

The games are the same as they've ever been. The classics have remained classics while lower-quality titles have only gotten worse. Like any other generation a number of the games featured in this set were only as good as what was out at the time, so when better options became available these games were no longer worthwhile. There are even a few stinkers that weren't even good at the time they came out, making them nothing more than curiousities and not worth a serious investment of time.

There are a handful of classics(IMO) in this compilation that I will go over in greater detail in the future. Any game that doesn't fall into this classification you can consider "looked at"and that will be all I'll ever say about them.

Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle - Before Sonic the Hedgehog Sega's mascot was a boy who enjoyed rice-cakes and played janken(rock, paper, scissors). Alex Kidd was huge on the Sega Master System and had many games(most consider Miracle World the best). Naturally an Alex Kidd game was released on the Genesis and it is terrible. Many years ago when I could only afford to rent games I tolerated Enchanted Castle because I couldn't stand playing through Sonic 1 or James Pond yet again. These days I have the freedom to play almost anything I want and it makes the awfulness in Enchanted Castle that much more apparent.

This game is your standard platformer fare. You punch/jumpkick foes, collect money to play janken to win prizes, and then face off against bosses at the end of most stages(in a game of janken of course). Fighting in this game is a futile effort. Since Alex Kidd dies in a single hit a missed punch or jump-kick is too costly and better off relegated to a last-ditch method to escape death. While the punch has at least some range the jump-kick is absolutely atrocious. It would have been so much simpler to have Alex Kidd simply jump on his foes or better yet re-design the game so it actually didn't lead to death if you weren't 100% on the mark. Controlling Alex outside of combat is just as bad. Movement feels slippery and makes getting around a chore. The level-design isn't much better as most of the time it consists of a straight-line and you'll be too busy searching for hidden areas(which are usually found by jump-kicking the ground) to really bother with the dull levels. 

By winning at Janken you can collect items for use throughout the stage(like a helicopter, motorcycle, a much-needed projectile weapon, etc) but to be honest I'm through trying to give this game a thorough review. It's ancient, awful, and I've wasted more than enough time talking about it. Unless you absolutely need that achievement or trophy do not bother with this game at all. 

Alien Storm - One of the benefits the Genesis had at the time was that arcade-ports were quite a bit more accurate than they were on the 8-bit systems. Granted the graphics and sound took a noticeable hit but for the most part they looked and played just like the arcade version. Alien Storm is one such game and it's a hack'n'slash whose closest cousin is Golden Axe. You select from three characters, a man, a woman, and a dwarf...okay actually a robot. Alone or with a friend you have to defeat the alien menace.

The difference between a hack'n'slash and a beatemup is that beatemups have always been more aggressive. In a hack'n'slash you have to play defensively and know your enemies in order to survive. Alien Storm is no different here as most of the time you're positioning yourself and manipulating the enemy's movement to keep from getting surrounded while you wear down your foes. Aside from a large assortment of weapons(that are all tied to a single button and are context-sensitive depending on how close you are to an enemy when you attack) you can dash, roll, and even jump. Some of these are necessary for conserving energy as without it your attacks are severely weakened. Also for a substantial cost of energy you can summon a special attack that damages everything on-screen.

In many of the stages the game mixes things up by introducing first-person areas that resemble gun games like Operation Wolf. Controlling a cursor you lay waste to scores of enemies(and everything else in sight) to find more energy and health-kits. It's an interesting break from the rest of the game and not much else.

While on the whole I prefer this game to the Golden Axe series(outside of Revenge of Death Adder, which never saw a home-port) I still think it suffers from a couple issues. The most major one is the bossfights. There are a couple throughout the game but they consist of one foe who has multiple forms. Why not take that guy and spread his multiple forms out to other stages? It's poor game design to have no major encounters for a few stages and then suddenly you're spending ten minutes on one boss. Plus you're most likely to run out of energy here so in order to damage him you have to do the rolling attack for a long period of time. The game picks up again after that but that's where the other problem rolls in. The final stage is a maze. A maze in an arcade hack'n'slash? Give me a break. Note to developers...don't ever do this.

Altered Beast - This was the title that launched with the Genesis. Many gamers are familiar with this title but they also want nothing to do with it because it's simply not very good. Zeus awakens a warrior from the dead to rescue his daughter from Hades. This involves punching & kicking through scores of enemies while grabbing the powerups, becoming the beast, beating the boss, and repeating for 5 stages.

The game takes place on a single plane where foes approach from both directions and the screen is almost constantly auto-scrolling. Your main target is flashing wolves that drop power-ups when they're defeated. Grab 1 power-up and you gain in strength, 2 grants even more strength, and 3 turns you into a beast. The beast form is different for each stage(though the fifth form is merely a palette swap of the first) but you don't get much time to play with it as the next time you run into Hades you have to fight the boss of the stage. If you're not in beast-form when you meet Hades you have to continue the level(and since the levels loop you could potentially be stuck forever if you stink at killing wolves). The boss-fights are your standard huge beasts with lots of projectiles(except oddly enough for the final) and after defeating them you get a score bonus for how fast you reached Hades(maximum points for having beast-form by the first time you run into him).

While the game is designed well enough and aspects like the punches and kicks are sensible and necessary the main failing is in the mechanics. After being knocked down you have no recovery period so if an enemy attacks as you get up you're going down again. This tends to be quite frustrating for some bosses. The clincher however is that this game really has no depth. There's no techniques for scoring better and since you gain substantially more points for finishing the stages quickly there's little reason to continue playing and putting yourself at risk. More than likely however is that you'll get bored with the game long before any of that. It makes sense why Altered Beast was a launch-title as it's good for little more than showing off the possibilities of the system.

Beyond Oasis - A young prince finds an ancient golden armlet and to save his land he must gain control of four spirits and use their powers to defeat the wielder of the silver armlet. While some would consider this title a Zelda clone, Beyond Oasis differentiates itself by taking on elements of a beatemup and putting a bit more emphasis on action & platforming over puzzle-solving(though there's a bit of that as well). 

I'll go ahead and get this out of the way. The soundtrack in this game is bad..really bad. It was composed by Yuzo Koshiro who is also responsible for classic works like Actraiser and Streets of Rage 2. Obviously he has the range and the talent but he does things with the Genesis soundchip that simply don't work. An unfortunate number of people will not get past the music and actually ignore this game and it is quite sad because I believe this title is an absolute classic.

Bonanza Bros. - I've never been a fan of stealth games. For one my introduction to the genre was the terrible Metal Gear 1 for the NES and it only got worse when in the Playstation 1 and beyond-age developers decided to put the "obligatory stealth-level" into every one of their forgettable titles. In the end there are maybe a handful of stealth games I actually enjoy.

Bonanza Bros. just happens to be one of them. This port of an arcade game follows two burglars who break into a variety of locales to steal valuables, avoid or knock-out the guards, and escape to the roof to progress. The game uses a dual-screen setup to imply that two-players should play for maximum enjoyment and each level is broken up by various rooms and filled with an assortment of policemen, security guards, SWAT members, and so on.

The stealth part comes in because most of the time these guys can't even see you. It's only when you get in their line of sight that they'll come after you. So by shooting your knock-out gun, smashing them with a nearby door, or even using a few traps you can evade them and get to the treasure. If you're spotted they'll flip out, chase you down, and start shooting...which makes your job more difficult. When you're hit you lose a life and all of the loot you picked up(giving your friend a chance to scoop it up).

Unlike other stealth games the developers decided to play up more unrealistic and therefore more fun aspects. To start with the various guards have no concept of peripheral vision. Thus these guards can only see what is straight ahead of them. Since the levels don't take place on a single plane it's easy to walk around guards as they turn and they'll never even notice your presence. Sure you could simply shoot them but there are instances where that isn't possible(like maybe there are other nearby guy guards that'll see you if you don't get moving). This makes for more interesting challenges and allows players to work on getting through the stages faster and thus collecting a larger time bonus. All in all this is a very underrated title and I really think you should check it out.

Columns - Though this series has pretty much been abandoned in favor of Puyo-Puyo some Sega fans still recall the days of yore when this game was popular. Columns is a "falling-block" style puzzle game(like Tetris) where you drop an assortment of colored jewels unto a playing field and match them up in lines of three. Upon matching up, the jewels disappear and you get points. As you play the game speeds up the rate at which jewels fall until you can no longer control them as they'll stack up and eventually lead to the end of your game.

The depth from this game comes from the player's ability to set up combos. When jewels disappear surrounding jewels will fall into their place, and depending the set-up other lines of jewels will disappear creating a combo. While this is good for clearing space it's mainly for scoring. Since jewels must be aligned horizontally, vertically, or diagonally there is little margin for error and it's difficult to "accidentally" get combos. 

While Columns has been rendered obsolete by newer titles there's probably no harm in spending some time with it. There's always some addictive quality to a game in the falling-block genre.

Comix Zone - Here's a unique one. A young comic-book artist is captured by one of his creations and trapped literally in the pages of his work. Each stage is actually a page out of a comic book as the player beats up foes, solves puzzles, and jumps between the panels. 

The main character is capable of a rather impressive array of moves including some simple combos. This is important as many of his fights are one-on-one and his foes will start to defend themselves and counter-attack if he attempts the same attacks one too many times(blocked attacks also tend to cost him health). Each stage strikes a healthy balance between puzzle-solving and fighting, and even offers multiple paths for minor replay value. The player can also hold three items(though one slot will almost always be held by his pet rat, who is very useful for solving puzzles and finding secrets). These run the usual gamut of healing & destruction and are self-explanatory. 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this game is its comic-book concept. This is actually quite unique in the design of the game as since the players can see the surrounding panels they can somewhat predict what the next area will hold. Larger panels are more likely to hold dangerous foes while smaller ones might traps to get around or maybe an item or two. It's certainly an interesting take on games that feel it necessary to tell you what you're likely to run into next as you progress. Comix Zone is also a bit of a challenge as you only have one life to work with and despite having a long health meter it's easy to chew through if you don't know what you're doing.

Sega is apt to put this game on almost every compilation they release but I guess they have good reason for it as this game is quite well-done. 

Decap Attack starring Chuck D. Head - I uh...oh God. Seriously this is the title of the game. Really now who greenlit this one? Anyway Decapattack is a very odd game. First off it's the Western version of the Mega-drive's Magical Turban Adventure. For some reason Sega decided to remake the graphics to something completely disturbing yet keep everything else intact. As Chuck you go through the levels jumping, floating, using potions to gain special powers, and smacking your head against anything that tries to get in your way. 

As far as platformers go there is little this game does exceptionally good or bad. In fact I'll go as far to say as it's perfectly mediocre. It might have been a good rental nearly twenty years ago but today it's something not worth bothering with. 

Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine - This game is basically Puyo Puyo but with the art and cutscenes replaced by characters from one of the Sonic cartoons from the mid-90s. As mentioned earlier Puyo-Puyo would become Column's replacement as Sega's falling-block franchise. 

The rules of Puyo-Puyo are a little different than Columns. Though the player still has to match up like-colored objects this time they're blobs(or beans). Furthermore these have to be matched in groups of four and there's no way to chain them diagonally. However the player can bulk them together(like in the shapes of rectangles) and destroy a much larger number of them at once(and combo possibilities still very much exist). Puyo-Puyo also happens to be tighter-designed and better developed or competitive playing(which is where most of the depth in the falling-block genre comes from). In Versus mode the player and a friend(or computer) get their own playing field but share the same blocks. To win the player has to create combos and otherwise remove large amounts of blobs to send them to their opponent's playfield(where they become clear and can only be destroyed by the disappearance of nearby colored blobs). Whoever's playfield fills up first is the loser.

The competitive aspect is important to Puyo-Puyo and makes up the entirety of the story-mode. Each stage is a different encounter with one of Robotnik's henchman and as you progress they have different tactics and exhibit better AI(though by AI I mean they're programmed to find the best solution possible). In fact after a certain point the only way you'll win against the AI is through their error or by figuring out the best solution before they can act upon it. Dr. Robotnik himself is a very tough encounter and those trying to get a high score in the story mode will certainly get crushed by him even if they happen to be Puyo-Puyo veterans. This aspect could probably use some better design as it reminds me of how the final boss in Twinkle Star Sprites behaves but I guess it's par for the genre as every final boss is like this. All the same I really don't think it should work like that.

Regardless there's little reason to not recommend this game. Besides if you like it you're more likely to check out the dozens of newer Puyo Puyo games right? At least that's what Sega hopes.

Dynamite Headdy - For an "Ultimate Genesis Collection" it seems rather odd that Dynamite Headdy is the sole Treasure-release available on this compilation. I guess Sega figures they'll make more money selling more popular Treasure titles like Alien Soldier and Gunstar Heroes through the other services.

But what is Treasure? If for some reason you've managed to stumble unto this blog without ever knowing about Treasure I'll do my best to provide an explanation. The story goes that one man split from Konami in the early 90s to create his own game-development team. The focus of this team has been on taking established genres and introducing their own approach. Gunstar Heroes for example is their take on the "run & gun" sub-genre(like Contra and Metal Slug). While many publishers have picked up Treasure's games for release in other territories more often than not they've been under the Sega umbrella and have a track-record of quality(though their fans have a tendency to over-rate their games). Yes I know it's not a good explanation but that's the jist of it. I'm not here to play wikipedia I just want to talk about some games.

Anyway Dynamite Headdy is an action-platformer. The protagonist Headdy is a puppet living in a world that resembles a stage and this world is in danger due to evil forces. How does Headdy defend himself from these evils? His head of course. Yes this compilation managed to get two games about tossing heads to kill bad guys. What are the odds? Headdy isn't limited to one head though, in fact he has several and they all have different powers. The catch is however that Headdy can only use whatever powers that happen to be nearby and only for a limited time. The game is designed around this aspect as before every situation there tends to be a little station that scrolls through the available power-ups. 

Just to give you an idea Headdy has heads for: shrinking to fit in tiny areas and dodge certain attacks, heads for climbing walls and across ceilings, heads for sucking up out-of-reach items, heads for hitting harder, heads for moving faster and jumping higher, three heads, sleepy heads to restore health, heads for heads, and so on. Also of these heads are easy to figure out and for the most part every situation has more than one way to get through them. If that wasn't enough Headdy is still a pretty capable guy with only a basic head. He can jump and fling his head in one of eight directions. Also he can grab unto certain objects(there's actually a tutorial section in the game to explain these things) to reach higher places. Most of the time however he's going to be using different heads for every situation.

The game is broken up into nine stages and they all have varying length. When I say varying I mean varying. Some stages might be only a few screens long while others are absolutely huge. There's no real balance in this but I guess it really doesn't matter. Most of the time you'll be too focused on the situation you're in to worry about what's next. Each stage is also filled with secret bonus points. These are exactly what they'red called and can be found through a variety of means. Suspicious objects when smacked by a head are most likely to drop these. They're good for score and not much else but if you're going for mastery you'll have to find them all.

One thing Treasure has always been known for is that they're clever and always trying new approaches to old concepts. This shows in their handling of concepts, mechanics, stage & enemy design. Despite the head being the most dangerous part of Headdy's body the enemy seems fixated on it and attacks generally seem to focus there. Sure this isn't like a 2D shooter(though there is a stage that resembles one) where you have to dodge hundreds of tiny bullets but there's an interesting instance where one boss specifically target's Headdy's head and you can throw off his aim by tossing your head). It isn't really touched upon in the rest of the game but that's part of Treasure's MO. They're likely to introduce ideas but then not do anything with them. It's sort of like "Hey see what I can do!" and that's it. Some might not enjoy this style of game design but I think it works great in Dynamite Headdy since the game is almost entirely this way. 

This game underwent a number of changes when it hit the US and Europe. The biggest change is that it is in fact quite a bit more difficult(the same thing has happened with Treasure's Astro Boy for the Game Boy Advance as well). Headdy takes more damage and you don't start with any continues(you can still earn them by collecting enough chips after defeating a boss). The Japanese version also has some different graphics for a few of the enemies and the ending is different. Thankfully unlike Streets of Rage 3, Dynamite Headdy wasn't ruined by the changes made for its Western release. Anyway this is a great game that I think you should spend some time on.

Ecco The Dolphin - Another day spent playing with his friends turns mysterious when they're all whisked away by a freak storm. In order to solve the mystery and defeat an alien menace(!?) Ecco must journey through the sea, into the arctic, through ancient ruins, and even into prehistoric times. Featuring amazing art direction for its time and a wonderful soundtrack it's fair to say that many Genesis fans regard this as an important title.

The game is broken up into nearly thirty levels of varying size, concept, and difficulty. The one constant however is that you're a Dolphin. You're capable of sonar for speaking to other animals(it's used for puzzle solving, creating a small map, and even attacking as well), accelerating to perform huge jumps and get somewhere faster, and a dash-attack for taking out hostile creatures. Though you spend most of the game in the sea like any other Dolphin you need to breathe air, whether by going to the surface or via other means you need air or it'll drain, then your health, and before you know it you're back at the beginning of the level(there are many other ways to die though and since this is a difficult game you'll be dying many times).

Throughout each stage your main goal tends to be figuring out the puzzles in order to progress. Using the hints given by animal friends and glyphs(giant crystals that assist or impede your progress) you gain the knowledge you require and by avoiding/fighting sea-life and eating fish(don't forget the air!) you can stay-alive long enough to get to the next level. The puzzles themselves take many forms. Some require finding a glyph that serves as a key while others require pushing blocks(yes this is very tricky to get used to since you use your nose to push) or leading special creatures with the sonar to unlock areas(also tricky). Deadly creatures are pretty easy to figure out and they take many forms. While you can destroy them there's little benefit as they respawn when you leave the immediate area. Thankfully this extends to the life-restoring fish so the player should focus on figuring out where they need to go.

The most impressive aspect of Ecco The Dolphin is its control. A lot of work was put into creating a game where a dolphin would behave realistically underwater. While the controls definitely take time to get used to they can be quite rewarding once mastered as they're very fluid and make strong use of mechanics. This is important as the game is quite challenging and while the stages aren't overly long screwing up still means restarting the stage and that can get old very quickly if you're not paying attention to your surroundings and blindly rushing through. 

The last few stages are particularly nasty as they mostly involve surviving long auto-scrolling corridors without getting crushed while fending off aliens. Honestly I think they're a bad idea. Sure if you just want to explore the levels and goof around with no repercussions there's passwords and an easy invincibility code but the final stages are perhaps a bit too difficult and unbalanced compared to the rest of the game. 

In the end it's a difficult yet worthwhile game if you can get into it.

Ecco: The Tides of Time - Every successful game deserves a sequel...but did Ecco really deserve this sequel? While for the most part the gameplay has gone unchanged the stage design and concept has jumped the shark(ugh). While many of the stages carry over from the original game Ecco 2 has seen fit to include even more of the levels I disliked from the first game. Now there are faster auto-scrolling stages that take places miles above the ocean, "behind-the-dolphin" perspective stages where Ecco has to go through rings to progress, and generally just a bunch of gimmicky stages that scream "we thought these would be clever so we threw them in". There's always room for gimmicks in a videogame but when there's an over-abundance of them all it does is ruin the direction of the game. This is definitely a disappointing sequel and the franchise wouldn't see a worthwhile follow-up until Ecco: Defender of the Future for the Dreamcast/PS2.

E-SWAT City Under Siege - As we're all aware new technology tends to get an "E" slapped in front of it. In this game you play the role of a rookie cop who quickly goes up the ranks and his awarded a spot in the E-SWAT. It's just like any other SWAT except there's jet packs, cannons, and many other technological advances to help combat the similar advances made by criminal masterminds everywhere.

After a couple stages as a regular cop with a gun, a jump, and not much else the player is given their own suit. From then on it's pretty simple. Get to the end of the stage, kill everything in your way, beat the boss. While this game shares the same concept and name the gameplay and level design is quite a bit different. While the arcade game features straightforward levels the Genesis game is multi-scrolling and the end of the level can rarely be reached by walking in a straight line. Aside from other differences the arcade version was two players as opposed to this game's one.

There's little else I can say about this one. Like Decapattack it's neither astoundingly awful nor amazingly awesome. It's still filler though and is only good for padding out this collection(cause as we all know more games means better value).

Fatal Labyrinth - Here's an odd one. This is an overhead "rogue-like" game where you have to reach the top floor to battle a great evil and save the town. Rogue-likes typically have a few things in common. The loot, dungeons, and enemies are randomized(though there's always a clear progression towards harder enemies and better loot), combat is very simplistic and depends more on position and equipment/items than tactics or skills, and they're very tough with high penalties for death. This rogue-like also happens to not allow saving or passwords of any kind(though I guess with the Ultimate Genesis Collection you could use the front-end game-saving utility to retain your progress, but that would just screw up the point of the game)

Like the title implies there's a lot to fear. Enemies hit hard and have no qualms about surrounding the lone adventurer. Furthermore food is required in order to survive and regain lost hit-points. Not enough food leads to starvation and rapid HP drain while too much food slows the player down and may potentially kill him. Potions, magic scrolls, rods, and equipment are scattered everywhere but unless you have some way to identify them they could be quite dangerous if used. In a game where death is around every corner and nothing remains the same in every playthrough all you can do is remain cautious.

It's fair to say this game is for a niche group. Rogue-likes are typically un-friendly for the un-aware and they do little to help struggling players. While Fatal Labyrinth offers continues they tend to set the player back quite a bit before they died. Also for a game where everything is randomized the player could run into great difficulties or they could stumble on a good weapon or a series of good items, making progress much easier. It should also be noted that while the player can also find money all it's good for is holding a better funeral if they die. It's really not a bad game though and if you like it maybe you'll consider some of the other rogue-likes(Like Shiren the Wanderer for the Nintendo DS, published by Sega).

Flicky - Like most other early arcade games Flicky has a simple concept. As the mother bird you have to rescue all of the chicks in the level and escape. In order to score the most points you want to grab as many chicks as you can at once before taking them to the exit as a long chain leads to big points. You also want to do this quickly as less time taken means more points gotten. The levels are wrap-around(like Defender) and you jump between platforms to reach all of the chicks.

Cats wander the stages and seek you out. Not only does touching a cat cost you a life but they can also crash into the train of chicks following you and cause them to scatter. Do you attempt to go back and rescue them? Knowing that the cat is nearby. Or do you deposit the chicks you have and hope the situation improves? Knowing that your score will suffer. Again it's a simple risk vs reward concept and Sega has done a fine job of establishing it. There are also objects you can pick up that when used will roll across the screen knocking out cats in its way(leading to bonus points if you hit multiple cats in a row) but annoyingly it shares the same button as the jump so you toss the object just as soon as you leap. I guess the game was never designed to support separate buttons for different commands. Otherwise this is a pretty good game. 

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