Category Archives: Video Games

Contra III: The Alien Wars Review

*Review based on Contra III: The Alien Wars’ release as part of the SNES Classic Edition*

Contra was one of the pioneers of the run-and-gun genre, made famous by its hectic action, steep challenge, and for popularizing the Konami Code. On the NES, Contra became one of the premiere third-party franchises for the console. It made perfect sense then, that Contra would make the jump to the Super NES, like so many other NES franchises did. But while the likes of Mario, Zelda and Mega Man found new life on Nintendo’s 16-bit machine, Contra’s leap to the SNES felt more like a continuation of the NES games, as opposed to their evolution. There’s still fun to be had with Contra III, though playing it today, it seems less impressive than many of its SNES peers.

The setup remains the same, with one or two players taking control of musclebound heroes who are armed with machine guns of unlimited ammo. You run, jump and shoot your way through stages, fight waves of enemies, and take on massive bosses.

It’s standard run-and-gun action, but there are some fun twists added to the mix. Notably, you can carry two different weapons at once. Picking up power-ups gives you new weapons – such as powerful lasers or the impossibly useful homing missiles – and you can carry two power-ups at a time by picking them up when a different weapon slot is selected. But should you die (and you will), you will lose whichever power-up you had in the selected slot when you died.

This makes it rather difficult to hold onto weapons, because Contra III is no slouch in the difficulty department, with a single enemy attack costing you a life. With how often the screen fills up with enemies, it can be hard to master your way around them to survive. And that famous Konami Code doesn’t work here, so there’s no easy access to extra lives. You have to tough it out the old fashion way.

On the bright side, you can find extra lives by defeating certain enemies or destroying certain objects, and you have a few continues to hold onto. On the downside, many enemy projectiles are incredibly small and hard to make out, so you’ll often get killed by an enemy shot that you didn’t even notice because of everything else that’s going on. Worse still, if you run out of continues, it’s back to the beginning of the game.

Admittedly, no matter how often you have to start over, you aren’t going all that far back, because Contra III only boasts a grand total of six stages. This means that Contra III is an incredibly short game, even for its day. While the SNES saw many franchises grow bigger when they made the jump to 16-bits, Contra III feels more like an NES game with a visual overhaul.

Back to the bright side of things, that visual overhaul comes with some benefits, the best of which being the second and fifth levels, which ditch the sidescrolling action in favor of a top-down perspective. Taking advantage of the SNES’ scaling and rotation capabilities, players can spin their character 360 degrees by the presses of the shoulder buttons. These stages make for a nice change of pace, and add a little variety to the equation.

Contra III: The Alien Wars remains a fun and exciting run-and-gun title, and provides a truly testing challenge, especially for two players. But it also feels a tad shallow, and maybe even a little outdated, due to its exceptionally short length. Though many still regard Contra III: The Alien Wars as an SNES classic, it feels more like a “pretty good” NES title that just happens to be 16-bits.

 

7.0

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Strikey Sisters Review

Strikey Sisters is a modern day brick breaker by DYA Games. Though this genre has largely been left behind to gaming’s yesteryear, Strikey Sisters does a great job at reminding players why such a simple genre can be so appealing, not to mention addictive.

The goal of each stage in Strikey Sisters is to eliminate every block and enemy on a stage, with the blocks needing to be destroyed first, as their presence allows the enemies to respawn. Once the blocks are dealt with, knock out all the enemies and you’re ready to move on. It’s simple enough in concept, but Strikey Sisters throws enough curveballs to make for quite a challenging experience.

As is often the case with games like this, the players can only move left and right at the bottom of the screen, with one or two players being able to control either of the titular sisters. In order to break the blocks and defeat enemies, the sisters have to repeatedly strike magic balls, which then bounce around the stage dealing damage to enemies and chipping away at the blocks. Each sister has three hit points to start with, which are depleted if they are either hit by an enemy attack, or if they miss their ball and it falls off the stage. Things get all the more hectic with two players, because if both players strike the same ball (something that will be inevitable), then it belongs to both players, meaning if it goes off course, both characters lose a heart.

The pinball-meets-Kirby’s Block Ball set up is a lot of fun, especially with two players, and it’s made all the better by the inclusions of power-ups that mix up the gameplay. You can get bombs that target all on-screen foes, or lasers that will destroy any block or enemy in its path. You can even get an item that slows the balls down so they’re easier to hit and keep track of. The best such power-up, however, is the iron ball which – as its name implies – turns the magic balls into iron, allowing them to plow through enemies and blocks with a single hit for a limited time. Strikey Sisters also features some pretty tough boss battles, who bombard players with repeated attacks, making their stages all the more difficult to complete.

Should you get stuck on a particularly difficult stage, multiple levels usually unlock at once, so you can always move on to something else and come back to a tough stage later. Additional replay value is added to the stages by the inclusions of gems and character cards. A level isn’t fully complete until you grab a gem that will appear from one of the bricks, and manage to collect a card of every enemy type that appears on the stage. To collect a card, just grab the card power-up and throw it at an enemy. These are simple additions, but they do add that little something extra for completionists.

The game is also an aesthetic treat, with graphics that are reminiscent of Saturn Bomberman, music that sounds like a cross between Kirby and Nights Into Dreams, and sound effects that echo Mega Man Legends. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but the visuals and audio really make Strikey Sisters feel like a love letter to the Sega Saturn and PSOne.

Indeed, fans of 2D gaming’s final run in the early years of the 32-bit era (before they saw a resurgence this last decade) are probably who Strikey Sisters is geared most for. Though any fan of simple gameplay, steep challenge and replay value can have a good time, especially if they bring a friend along.

 

8.0

Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting Review

*Review based on Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting’s release as part of the SNES Classic*

There is no questioning that Street Fighter II is one of the most impactful and important video games ever made. It single-handedly created the fighting game genre, and it could be argued that multiplayer and competitive gaming was forever influenced by it. Street Fighter II was such a success that Capcom continued to re-release the game under various new guises (a trend that continues even today with Ultra Street Fighter II on the Switch). Some of these subsequent releases featured notable changes such as additional characters, others had more subtle gameplay and balancing tweaks. The first such re-release was Street Fighter II: Championship Edition, which turned the four boss characters playable and allowed two players to pick the same characters. After that came Turbo: Hyper Fighting which, although containing the same detailed mechanics as the previous installments, is one of the lesser additions to the legendary title.

Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting retains the same basics as the original Street Fighter II, with a single player being able to take on the other characters in the arcade-style story mode, or two players can duke it out amongst each other in what was always the game’s biggest draw. The fighting mechanics of Street Fighter II were always deep and intricate, and that all remains true here (though so do the original game’s shortcomings, namely stiff character movements and many moves taking a good chunk of health, making for some disappointingly short matches). Turbo: Hyper Fighting also retains the four additional playable characters from Championship Edition, along with the eight originals, so there’s plenty of variety to be had in the combat.

So what’s different this time around? Well, true to its name, Turbo: Hyper Fighting includes a faster playing speed called Turbo mode, which makes the combat more hectic, and is definitely a test for one’s Street Fighter abilities. The characters also have a few new moves in their arsenal, such as Chun-Li now being able to throw a fireball and perform the Spinning Bird Kick in midair. Additionally, there are other, smaller tweaks to the game balance.

These changes are certainly welcome, and probably improve the overall experience. Likewise, the 16-bit graphics and iconic music are as pleasing as ever. But knowing that even more polished and enhanced versions of Street Fighter II were released shortly after, you have to wonder why Nintendo (or Capcom) decided to re-issue this relatively minimal version of Street Fighter II for the SNES Classic Edition. For its time, it may have refined the experience, but in a post-Super Street Fighter II world, it can be a little difficult to look back.

One change that isn’t so welcome is the enemy AI when playing alone. You’d hope that when refining the game, Capcom would have done the same with the AI, but the computer opponents of Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting are frustrating for all the wrong reasons, as they spam the same moves ad nauseam. Fighting against a tough opponent is fine, but when Ryu starts cheesing the Hadouken more frequently than even your cheapest gaming friends, it’s more annoying than it is difficult.

Street Fighter II remains one of the most influential video games ever made, and one of the few that can boast it created an entire genre. But each subsequent iteration was an improvement over the last, which makes the previous versions lose a little bit of their luster when playing today. When the superior Super Street Fighter II Turbo, as well as Street Fighters III and IV exist, Turbo: Hyper Fighting comes off as a little underwhelming, competent and fun though it may be.

 

7.5

Super Punch-Out!! Review

The Punch-Out!! series is one that many Nintendo fans remember fondly from the big N’s golden age, and with good reason. Though it seemed simplistic, Punch-Out!! boasts the same level of intricacy and depth that Nintendo games are known for. But it also seems relegated to the lesser echelon of Nintendo titles, laying dormant once Nintendo made the jump to 3D up until the series made a triumphant return on the Wii in 2009; only to once again fall off the radar in the years since (but at least series’ hero Little Mac has made it into Smash Bros. now, though he probably should have made the cut a few entries earlier than he did). The series’ final entry in its heyday was Super Punch-Out!! on the SNES, which remains a stellar experience to this day…even if it can get frustratingly difficult at times.

In Super Punch-Out!!, players take control of a very different-looking, more blonde Little Mac, and fight their way through the boxing world to become champion. The game features three normal circuits to fight through, each consisting of four opponents (three foes to climb the ranks, plus that cup’s champion), with a secret fourth circuit being unlockable if you can make it through the other three without losing (and good luck with that).

Though the NES game displayed the action from a top-down view, the jump to the SNES meant the series could now take advantage of then-new graphical effects, with Little Mac being made transparent during fights to give players a much more welcome third-person perspective.

The controls are simple enough; move left, right and backward to dodge enemy punches, press B to throw a right hand, and Y to give your opponent a mean left hook. Pressing the buttons on their own strikes at the opponent’s body, while pressing up on the D-pad with the buttons takes a strike at their head. Additionally, every hit you successfully land builds up a meter at the bottom of the screen. When this meter completely fills up, you can press the A button to unleash more powerful attacks as long as the meter remains full. Of course, every time Little Mac takes a punch, the meter drops.

“Damn you, Dragon Chan!”

This is all simple in structure, but in execution it makes for some surprisingly deep strategy. You have to constantly play close attention to your opponents’ movements and patterns, so you know what kind of punch or dodge to use at which time. This is made all the more strategic by the fact that every opponent fights differently. Some may fake-out punches before going for the real thing, others have strong midsections and can only be hurt by a punch to the face, and others completely break the rules of boxing by jumping off the ropes. Learning every enemy’s strategy is key to victory, and if you can master them well enough, you can even manage to fell your opponent before the standard three knockdowns.

On the downside of things, there does seem to be a little bit of a trial-and-error method to some fights, particular opponents who posses one-hit KO moves. On its own that’s not a terrible thing, but seeing as you have to start a circuit over should you get a game over, it can get a little annoying when you finally manage to defeat some particularly difficult opponents, only to lose to one of the more trial-and-error fights and have to go through each opponent all over again.

Another questionable element is that every fight has a three minute time limit, and if you fail to knock your opponent out within that time, you automatically lose. You could potentially knock your opponent down twice, and take very little damage in return, but you’ll still lose if the clock strikes the three minute mark. Whatever happened to winning by decision?

“We all box down here, Georgie!”

These complaints are ultimately minor, however, when you consider how much fun the overall package is. Along with the deep combat, Super Punch-Out!! is bursting with personality. Every character is an outlandish cartoon caricature; from Bruce Lee knockoffs to Bob Marley parodies. There’s just so much humor and charm in every fight that it becomes all the more enjoyable.

The upgraded graphics from previous installments help bring out this personality all the more. The character animations are incredibly detailed, and you’d be surprised just how extravagant the character movements and expressions can be, considering this was on 16-bit hardware.

Super Punch-Out!! is a refinement of the NES entry in the series, and remains a whole lot of fun to play today. Only truly dedicated players will probably finish all four of its circuits, but Super Punch-Out!!’s simple controls, deep combat and boatloads of personality make for some great entertainment, not to mention replay value.

 

8.0

Warning: Positivity Approaching!

Well dang, here we are again. I’m writing another blog about my long-delayed, soon-impending list of favorite video games of all time. And yes, I’m well aware that “soon-impending” is redundant.

So why am I writing about this again? For a very simple reason, I hope to review the remainder (or, at the very least, most) of the games I’d score a perfect 10 or a ‘near-perfect’ 9.5 before then. Since I still hope to make my official list in February, I better get cracking at them.

Suffice to say I’ll start to look a little more like an easy grader, considering I’ll have to pop a few of these high scoring reviews out in the next couple of months. But seeing as I can think of only a handful of additional titles that I’d give top honors to, I guess that means there could be an extensive dry spell of 9.5s and 10s after the fact (unless 2018 somehow repeats 2017’s ludicrous high quality in game design).

I actually have a short list of the games I need to review. Some are more fresh in the memory, and I know they’ll score highly. Others I haven’t played in a while, and need to revisit to see if they hold up. Thankfully, a handful of these games are readily available to me via the SNES Classic Edition.

Don’t worry, I still plan on reviewing some more recent games as well. I’ve been meaning to review Persona 5, Nioh, Nier: Automata, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions, and Metroid: Samus Returns for a while now. So hopefully I can get those done soon as well. Not to mention I just picked up Pokemon UltraSun and UltraMoon versions, so I should review at least one of those within the next while. And of course I still plan on catching up on my animated movie reviews, and it would be nice to review the Star Wars movies in time for The Last Jedi if possible.

Okay, I’m just rambling at this point. Mostly, I guess I just wanted to give a little update seeing as I haven’t written anything in nearly a week. So I hope you enjoyed this post, and look forward to my future reviews. Even if I may be squeezing in some all-time greats close together.

Super Mario Galaxy Turns 10!

Super Mario Galaxy was released on the Nintendo Wii on November 12, 2007, meaning that today is the tenth anniversary of its (western) release. Wow… I feel old.

Anyway, the ten-year milestone is always a big one, but I feel this is an exceptional cause for celebration in the video game world for a couple of reasons.

The first such reason is that Super Mario Galaxy can be seen as a resurgence of the Super Mario series, which is still going strong these ten years later. Sure, the Mario series never got into any real slump (he’s not Sonic, after all), but aside from the two Paper Mario titles on the N64 and GameCube, it felt like the series had been missing that little something extra after Super Mario 64. But then Galaxy came along and brought the series back to its strongest. Here was a game that could ranked alongside any of Nintendo’s best. And because of it, we later got the holy-crap-it’s-somehow-even-better Super Mario Galaxy 2 a few years later. Sure, Super Mario 3D Land was a bit of a regression, but Super Mario 3D World, while no Galaxy, delivered another Mario great shortly thereafter, largely because of the impact Galaxy made to the series, and its influence on Nintendo’s designers.

“Super Mario Galaxy also introduced us to best girl, Rosalina.”

This influence stretched past Nintendo’s doors, however, as many other developers sang the praises of Super Mario Galaxy. It also seemed to shift the industry as a whole in a more positive direction. After the early 2000s seemed to transform gaming into “edgelord” mode, where everything was dark and gritty, and vengeance seemed to be the go-to motive for the armies of “anti-heroes” of the time; Super Mario Galaxy’s high praise and strong sales seemed to lighten things up a bit, and reminded people that a colorful, cheerful game doesn’t equate to a bad one. Thankfully, we see a much wider variety of tones and styles in games today then we did in the 2000s, and although that’s not all on Galaxy’s shoulders, it probably is the centerpiece of this shift thanks to its acclaim and influence.

“Galaxy reintroduced Mario World’s constant sense of invention to the series. There was never a dull moment in Galaxy.”

Now perhaps this is just me talking, but I feel like Super Mario Galaxy revived the “perfect 10” in video games. That’s entirely subjective, of course, but I think if you look at most publications’ records of perfect scores, they seemed to pick up in numbers with the release of Super Mario Galaxy. I don’t think critics are any easier in giving perfect scores, I just think games have gotten better, and are at a height they haven’t been in since the 16-bit days. Again, it’s not that Galaxy magically made perfect 10s possible, but it can be seen as the beginning of this high level of quality.

Even on a more personal level, there were plenty of games I enjoyed greatly during the early 2000s, but at the same time, there aren’t a whole lot I’m quick to point out as some of the best games I’ve ever played if asked today. That’s certainly not a knock on those games (again, many of them were great), but as stated, I think Galaxy resurrected that timeless quality in games that hadn’t been seen since the Super Nintendo era.

I mean, when the worst thing I can say about Galaxy is that Galaxy 2 and Super Mario Odyssey are even better, that kind of speaks volumes about it.

Happy tenth anniversary Super Mario Galaxy! An all-time classic, without question.

Sonic Forces Review

Oh, Sonic.

To say that Sonic the Hedgehog has had a rough history ever since he made the transition into 3D is more than a little bit of an understatement. From games that were decent in their day but aged horribly (Sonic Adventure) to flat-out stinkers (Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric), Sonic has become something of a joke.

It finally seemed like Sonic the Hedgehog would make his triumphant return to greatness in 2017. Not only did the series receive a new, 16-bit sidescroller in the form of Sonic Mania, but it also received something of a follow-up to 2011’s Sonic Generations, one the few 3D entries the series could be proud of.

When Sonic Mania was released during the Summer, it really seemed like this was to be the year of the hedgehog, as Sonic Mania captured the very essence of Sonic’s best outings and created a fun and creative successor to the Genesis titles we’ve all waited over two decades for. But alas, despite being the “fastest thing alive,” Sonic just can’t seem to keep his momentum. All the good will established through Mania has seemingly run straight into a brick wall with Sonic Forces, a title whose potential seems continuously squandered through a rushed, unpolished execution.

Like Generations, Sonic Forces looks to combine both 2D and 3D Sonic gameplay. As in the 2011 game, players take control of either pot-bellied “Classic Sonic” whose stages are strictly 2D, or the trying-way-too-hard-to-be-cool Modern Sonic, whose stages switch between a 2D and 3D perspective.

Modern Sonic is equipped with a homing attack, which really only makes things feel like mindless button-mashing, since you just have to repeatedly hit the button to blast through enemies who can’t do anything against it. What really hurts Modern Sonic’s stages, however, are the sections that have Sonic blasting through a stage in 3D perspectives, largely because you can’t make out what’s in front of you until you crash into it. You’d be surprised just how often you slam into a robot and lose rings because you thought it was a speed booster, and many of the deaths you’ll encounter feel more attributed to an inability to see what’s ahead, as opposed to player error.

It should come as no surprise that Classic Sonic’s stages are the highlight of the game. Classic Sonic retains the “drop dash” from Sonic Mania, though he doesn’t control as smoothly as his recent 16-bit counterpart. Classic Sonic’s stages benefit from the 2D perspective and actually being able to see what’s in Sonic’s path, but better still is that you actually feel like you’re doing something more than pushing forward and spamming the homing attack. The Classic Sonic stages may not stack up to anything from Sonic Mania (or even Generations, for that matter), but at least they actually feel like there’s something to them.

“I tried to make an old-timey cartoon character, but it ended up looking like something far more sinister.”

But wait a minute, a third playable character joins the Sonics this time around, in the form of the player’s own created avatar. Yes, it appears as though Sega has been paying attention to the countless, eye-rolling Sonic OCs on Deviantart, and has given players the ability to make their characters (somewhat) canon. You can choose a species for your avatar (including hedgehogs, dogs, cats, wolves, and others), select different eyes, gloves, shoes, etc. The character customization is somewhat limited, but you gain more customizable items by performing well in the stages and meeting certain requirements.

“Some levels have your created character teaming up with Sonic, fulfilling the second biggest fantasy of the Sonic fanbase.”

Though the prospect of playing as your own character actually had some potential to add a new twist to Sonic gameplay, the levels in which you play as your avatar are perhaps the weakest of the lot. Instead of customizing abilities to make your avatar actually feel like a Sonic character, your avatar is instead equipped with a grappling hook and a weapon, the latter of which can be swapped out in between levels with any other weapons you’ve managed to unlock.

This is where things start to go off the rails. These abilities just aren’t fun. The hook basically works like a stiffer version of Modern Sonic’s homing attack, while all the weapons are just overpowered moves that you can just spam on mindless enemies who stand in place and pose no real threat.

“Where the hell is my character?!”

The avatar stages play closer to Modern Sonic’s, which means they also suffer from annoying perspectives in 3D sections. What’s all the worse is that even the 2D sections with the avatar get muddled with how small your character often ends up on the screen. And when clunky wall-jumping mechanics are suddenly introduced late in the game, it brings whatever fun the avatar stages had to a dead stop.

One of the worst aspects of Sonic Forces is its plot. Somehow, Dr. Eggman from the Modern Sonic dimension has found the Phantom Ruby from Sonic Mania, and has used its power to create a super being called Infinite. The ruby – and subsequently, Infinite – possesses the ability to alter reality, being able to create replicas of past Sonic villains Shadow the hedgehog, Metal Sonic, Chaos and Zavok (and no one else apparently, as Infinite just keeps recycling those four).

Anyway, Infinite defeats Sonic the Hedgehog in battle, and the famous blue hedgehog is believed to be dead by his friends (before his survival is unceremoniously revealed on the map screen…yeah). Turns out Sonic’s been captured, and in is absence, Dr. Eggman has finally succeeded in taking over the world. Knuckles now leads the resistance against Dr. Eggman, and has recruited the small army of goofy animal characters that have been introduced to the series over the years (not that most of these characters even matter, seeing as they only ever seem to show up to, well, show up). The player’s avatar is the “rookie” of the resistance, and Classic Sonic shows up after being sucked into a wormhole in Sonic Mania. Together, the resistance plans to rescue Sonic, defeat Eggman’s forces, stop Infinite, and bring freedom back to their planet.

The plot is just far too serious for its own good. There was a time when Sonic games being more story heavy was at least a novel concept, but the plots of the series have become something of a bad joke with how cheesy and forced they are, and Sonic Forces might be one of the worst offenders. I don’t have a problem with serious storylines, but considering this is a series about a cartoon hedgehog who runs really fast and fights robots, seeing it trying to be so serious and edgy really just makes it feel silly. It is possible to make meaningful stories with cartoony characters, but trying to turn Sonic the Hedgehog into something so dramatic just doesn’t work.

“Not creepy at all…”

Sonic Forces isn’t all bad, however. Along with the Classic Sonic stages bringing some fun to the table (though also reminding you that you could be playing Sonic Mania), the game looks great visually, and its musical score is actually quite good (just turn the volume down a bit when it comes to the vocal tracks). But whenever Sonic Forces starts to look like it’s getting better, it ends up stumbling and wasting its potential. Along with all the gameplay fumbles, the level design is nothing special, and the boss fights are particularly unmemorable (just catch up to them and spam that homing attack some more).

Sonic has certainly been in worse games than this. But Sonic Forces showcases many of the attributes that have lead to the series’ drastic fall from grace. And seeing as it’s coming off the heels of the exceptional Sonic Mania, the shortcomings of Forces are only magnified all the more.

If given some extra development time and polish, Sonic Forces could have been pretty good. As it is, well… it’s a 3D Sonic game.

 

5.5