Sonic the Hedgehog Turns 30! (And Nintendo 64 Turns 25!)

It’s been thirty years to the day that the original Sonic the Hedgehog game was released on the Sega Genesis, with its titular hedgehog instantly becoming a gaming icon. It also gave us one of gaming’s greatest foes in Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik.

The Sonic series has had a colorful history, to say the least. For every classic it’s produced, it’s had one or two disappointments, and even flat-out stinkers. For every Sonic 2, there was a Sonic Boom. For every Sonic CD, a Sonic: The Fighters. For every Sonic Colors, a Sonic ’06. Heck, even Sonic Mania – the best game the series saw in decades – was followed-up mere months later by the incompetent Sonic Forces (as if Sega took offense to Mania’s warm reception and goodwill, and made Sonic Forces out of spite). It’s a testament to the enduring appeal of Sonic himself that no matter how low the actual games got, Sonic remained an icon.

Sonic has made a name for himself outside of video games as well, starring in more animated series and comic books than any other video game character, and as recently as 2020 had his own actually-pretty-good movie (with a sequel on the way). It’s safe to say Sonic isn’t going anywhere, and nor should he.

Happy 30th birthday, Sonic the Hedgehog (and Robotnik too)!

That’s not the only video game anniversary today, though. June 23rd also marks the anniversary of the Nintendo 64, which launched in Japan on this day in 1996.

The Nintendo 64 is one of Nintendo’s best consoles in an historical sense, if maybe not in the timeless sense like the Super Nintendo. That is to say, the Nintendo 64 marked a pivotal moment in gaming history, and many of its games were great for the time, but only a few small handfuls of them have withstood the test of time (namely those with Mario, Zelda and Banjo in the title).

Of course, the Nintendo 64’s unique place in history as being the first real 3D console gives it a special kind of nostalgia (the Playstation and Saturn added 3D games as they went, but the N64 was built with them in mind, in case you thought I forgot about them). It was something completely different from the consoles that came before it, and just about every console since has built on what it started. Of course, being such a pioneer in gaming means that much of the N64’s library feels unpolished today, but you have to start somewhere. And the stuff that has held up on the N64, has held up surprisingly well.

So a fellow happy 25th birthday to the Nintendo 64!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play some Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario Party. Or maybe I’ll meet down the middle and play some Sonic Shuffle… No. I won’t play Sonic Shuffle.


CrazyBus Review

In the darkest corners of the video gaming universe lie the most irredeemably horrendous titles. These are games so terrible, that referring to them as video games should contain an asterisk. Hong Kong ’97 lurks in these murkiest of depths, with its non-existent gameplay and utter disregard for basic decency. Sitting alongside Hong Kong ’97 – albeit for somewhat different reasons – is CrazyBus.

The very existence of CrazyBus is one of gaming’s great anomalies. CrazyBus was little more than a test by its mysterious Venezuelan creator to try out their computing skills. For reasons unknowable, the creator then self-released the game as  an unlicensed title… on the Sega Genesis… in 2004.

The most immediate of CrazyBus’ great sins is its soundtrack. As soon as you boot up the game, your ears will be bombarded with horrible noises lapping over each other in a chaotic attempt to produce music. It is the most cluttered, ear-assaulting noise you are bound to hear in any game (I use that word loosely here). I wish I could say I’m exaggerating, but the truth is any and all sounds that emanate from CrazyBus really are just terrible noises. No other bad gaming soundtrack I’ve ever heard even comes remotely close.

As for the “game” itself, well, it’s the single most shallow and empty experience you could possibly have on any gaming platform. You have a selection of Venezuelan buses to choose from (represented by heavily pixelated stock photos of said buses), and after you decide on your vehicle (all of which look like they were spat out of Microsoft Paint, and bear no resemblance to the photos on the select screen), it’s time to play the game.

You hold right on the D-pad. That’s it.

I wish I were joking, but that’s all CrazyBus is. You hold right on the D-Pad, and your visual-eyesore of a bus will go right and rack up points. These points, I might add, go outside of the point counter, and oftentimes can’t even be properly read, as their garish colors clash with the backgrounds (with these backgrounds also being stock photos of buses). The only other input the player has is to honk the horn on the bus, just in case you wanted any more audial abuse.

But here’s where things get downright laughable. You can instantaneously claim the game’s highest possible score (65,535 points) simply by pressing left on the D-pad at the start of your session. And that is that.

There is nothing more to CrazyBus. Though it’s understandable that someone would dabble with their novice programming skills just to see if they could make anything at all, it’s considerably less understandable that someone would then take such a test and actually self-release it. And how such an individual could imagine that the noise of CrazyBus constitutes music is dumbfounding.

Why was this released? And on the Sega Genesis in the mid-2000s, no less? There’s absolutely nothing to it as a game, its visuals are beyond ugly, and the noise that emanates from it is simply ungodly.

Even as an unlicensed title, why on Earth was CrazyBus ever released?



Castlevania: Bloodlines Review

In its early years, Castlevania was synonymous with Nintendo. With the exception of Mega Man, Castlevania was probably the most revered third-party franchise on the NES. In 1997, the series would move on to Sony’s consoles with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which not only revamped the entire franchise, but remains one of the greatest video games of all time.

Somewhere in between the NES era and Symphony of the Night, however, was an oddity of the series: a Castlevania title on the Sega Genesis! This lone Genesis entry is Castlevania: Bloodlines. Though Bloodlines has received praise over the years, it’s largely overshadowed by its Super NES counterpart, Super Castlevania IV.

Most people still consider Super Castlevania IV to be the series’ best pre-Symphony title, which means that both Bloodlines and the “other” SNES entry, Dracula X, are often in its 16-bit shadow. Personally speaking, I find Dracula X holds up better than Super Castlevania IV due to more fluid controls. Perhaps I’m just destined for unpopular opinions, but I also find Bloodlines to be a more enjoyable game today than its more famous SNES alternative.

In Bloodlines, Dracula is (of course) on the verge of being resurrected once again, this time by the hands of his own niece, who plans on reviving her vampiric uncle by causing mass bloodshed, which she initiates by starting World War I. A distant descendant of the Belmont family, John Morris, seeks to stop the resurrection by making his way through Europe, slaying monsters along the way. Morris is aided in his quest by Eric Lecarde, who seeks to cure his girlfriend of vampirism, after Dracula’s niece cursed her.

What separates Bloodlines from most of its predecessors is that players can play as the two different heroes. Morris is equipped with a whip, giving the game a more traditional Castlevania feel, while Lecarde uses his trusty spear, to change up the gameplay.

Not only do the two heroes have different weapons, but some of the levels include different paths depending on which character is chosen. Further character-specific exploration is performed through Morris’ whip, which can be used to swing past gaps, while Lecarde can perform a high jump with his spear.

The game works like the other traditional Castlevanias, with players simply making their way through the stages to defeat the bosses at the end. But being able to experience the game in two different ways was a nice, unique touch for the series.

Another highlight of Bloodlines is that – much like in Dracula X – the basic sense of control feels more polished than Super Castlevania IV. You can now jump while going up and down stairs, so you don’t feel so vulnerable to attack or awkward to control. The jumping itself also feels a bit smoother, though it’s still a shame you can’t change trajectory mid-jump (sure, it’s more realistic, but not exactly ideal in a game with this much platforming).

On the downside, both Morris and Lecarde suffer from the series’ infamous knockback when hit, meaning that most of your deaths will occur by being sent down a pit after being hit by an enemy. Though on the bright side, when you fall down on a more vertical level after ascending for a while, you’ll just fall back to a previous section, whereas in Super Castlevania IV such areas would suddenly become bottomless chasms after they left the screen.

The level design is a real treat, with many stages taking advantage of the 16-bit hardware in fun and unique ways. One section of the second stage, for example, sees the bottom half of the screen covered in water, with the action on the upper half being reflected in it. Meanwhile, the game’s third boss torments the heroes by spinning the tower they’re standing on, which makes for a great visual effect.

The stages are all well designed and creative, and the hordes of monsters to be found in each mean there’s plenty of action to be had in each of them. Unfortunately, at only six stages, the game is even shorter than Dracula X. Granted, quality is always more important than quantity, but you can’t help but wish there were a little more to the adventure at hand.

Still, Castlevania: Bloodlines remains a stellar installment in the storied series. The gameplay is fun and smooth, and made just a little more varied with the addition of a second character. The graphics are still impressive, with plenty of inventive visual tricks spread throughout. And like any worthwhile Castlevania game, Bloodlines has a memorable soundtrack.

It’s simple Castlevania action. But sometimes, that’s all you need.



Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Review

Sonic the Hedgehog was once one of the most revered names in all of gaming, right alongside the likes of Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda. Though his transition into 3D began a downward spiral for the blue blur, with only a small handful of decent titles amid armies of mediocre and flat-out bad games. But no matter what Sonic’s status may be now, his original 2D outings on the Sega Genesis remain immensely fun even today.

There is perhaps no more beloved Sonic game than Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which took its predecessor’s foundations, added a good deal of polish, innovations and new elements, and provided what may still be the definitive Sonic the Hedgehog experience.

Sonic 2 retains the same basic setup as the first game. It’s a 2D platformer that sees Sonic zip through stages and collecting rings (the equivalent of Mario’s coins, which also work as Sonic’s health), with each world (called “zones” here) ending with a fight against the evil Dr. Robotnik, who is capturing animals and turning them into robots. It sounds pretty straightforward, but Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is so well executed that it ranks as one of the most fun 2D platformers ever made.

New elements were introduced here, the most notable being Miles “Tails” Prower, Sonic’s two-tailed fox sidekick. Tails’ inclusion lead to the addition of multiplayer to the Sonic experience. A second player could aid Sonic in getting through the main game, or a split-screen competitive mode allowed for Sonic and Tails to race through select stages against one another.

Another big addition to the gameplay was Sonic’s spindash move, which allowed Sonic to curl into a ball and blast off at top speed without the lengthy build-up. It’s a simple enough move, but it ends up being an integral aspect of the gameplay, and the Sonic formula was all the better for its inclusion.

The power-ups are few, but useful, and are found within TV monitors. The speed shoes make Sonic go even faster than normal, the force field gives Sonic an additional hit (an invaluable asset when trying to stock up on rings), and invincibility is self-explanatory.

The levels themselves are where Sonic 2 shows its true brilliance. The level design builds on that found in the original, with stages featuring multiple paths, leaving players to find the quickest way to the finish line or taking their time to collect rings and best the bonus stages.

Most of the zones contain two acts (stages) each, as opposed to the first game’s three. But there are twice as many zones here, and the stages are bigger and more intricate in Sonic 2, so it’s a fair trade.

There’s a wide amount of variety to be found within the zones. The first zone, called the Emerald Hill Zone, is close in aesthetics to the iconic Green Hill Zone of the first game, which eases players in. But after that, you’re immediately thrown into the Chemical Plant Zone, where Sonic and Tails must avoid drowning in poisonous liquids. There’s also the Casino Night Zone, which sends Sonic bouncing all over the place like a pinball, along with several other creative game worlds.

As great as the level design is, there are a few annoying instances that seem to work against Sonic’s trademark speed. Namely, the Aquatic Ruins Zone includes a number of enemies that pop out of walls, or are obstructed by the foreground, which means if you aren’t taking note, you have a good chance of losing your hard-earned rings. Though this may not be as bad as it sounds, as it does mean there’s more to Sonic than simply running fast.

The graphics are nice and colorful, and are a notable improvement over the original game. But the best aesthetic highlight is its soundtrack, which easily ranks as one of the best of the 16-bit era. There’s not a bad track in the whole lot.

Sonic 2 also continued the series’ trend of including some pretty standout bonus stages. If Sonic manages to hold on to at least 50 rings when he reaches a checkpoint, a halo of stars will surround said checkpoint. If Sonic jumps into the stars, he is teleported to a bonus stage.

Though these bonus stages aren’t quite as trippy as those found in the original, they are more notable for their usage of 3D visuals, and are probably more fun than their predecessors. These stages see Sonic and Tails running through a halfpipe and collecting rings, all while avoiding bombs. If Sonic and Tails manage to snag the required number of rings, they are awarded with a Chaos Emerald. If you can collect all seven emeralds, you unlock the ability to transform into Super Sonic!

While these bonus stages are fun, the early 3D can be a little straining on the eyes, and it can be difficult to see when rings or bombs are approaching until they’re right on top of you. Perhaps a bigger drawback is that if you’re playing solo with both Sonic and Tails (the game’s default option), Tails follows right behind Sonic, but is delayed in following his movements. There is a small benefit to this, since Tails can collect some of the rings you may have missed, but it also proves detrimental, since you’re more likely to fail the bonus stages due to Tails running headfirst into a bomb and losing rings than you are from losing due to your own miscalculation. You do have the option of just playing as Sonic or Tails on the title screen, but if you play in the default setting, be prepared to start hating Tails.

Another downside to these bonus stages is that, whether win or lose, all of the rings you had before reaching the checkpoint are gone. Granted, the rings respawn on the stage, but considering you are awarded with an extra life for every one-hundred rings you manage to hold onto, you’re often left having to pick and choose between taking your chance with the bonus stage, or just waiting to get an extra life.

It’s not a huge complaint, but certainly a questionable design choice that adds a little annoyance to an otherwise stellar game. Still, I suppose it’s a small price to pay for such great level design, music and control (16-bit Sonic was arguably the best controlling non-Nintendo platforming star).

It may also be a little frustrating to know that there’s no save feature in the game. On the bright side, Sonic 2 isn’t incredibly long, so it isn’t exactly necessary. But it is pretty difficult later on, so you may lament that a save feature wasn’t included in the series until Sonic 3 (though this only applies to the original Genesis version. Sonic 2’s countless re-releases have fixed this issue).

In case Sonic the Hedgehog 2 wasn’t satisfying enough as it is, if you happen to own the later Sonic & Knuckles (whether it be a fellow Genesis cartridge, an additional downloaded copy, or a fellow inclusion in one of the many Sonic compilations), you can combine it with Sonic 2 to play through the entire game as Knuckles!

Playing “Knuckles the Echidna in Sonic the Hedgehog 2” works as a fun alternative to the normal game, and is basically the retro equivalent of Shovel Knight’s different character campaigns. Though the stages remain the same when playing as Knuckles, the red echidna’s gliding and wall-climbing abilities mean there are different ways to tackle the stages.

Perhaps better still, when playing the Knuckles campaign, the aforementioned issues with the bonus stages are rectified. For one thing, you don’t have Tails running into the bombs. More importantly, the checkpoints save the number of rings you had when you touched them, so when you finish (or lose) the bonus stage or die, you come back with all of your rings.

Sadly, these improvements come with one caveat: Knuckles doesn’t control as well as Sonic. That’s not to say Knuckles controls poorly by any means, but Sonic actually comes surprisingly close to capturing the fluidity of Mario’s movements. Knuckles doesn’t quite reach that same level, as his jumps aren’t as high and he’s slower to gain momentum. Not to mention you may often end up gliding when you’re trying to bounce off an enemy, which can be detrimental during some boss fights.

Still, any complaints to be had with Sonic 2 are ultimately minor. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 improved on its predecessor in virtually every way, and defined the Sonic formula to such a high degree that it’s still widely seen as the pinnacle of the series. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles may have been bigger, but only Sonic CD has equalled Sonic 2 in terms of creativity. But in regards to sheer “Sonic-ness,” Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is still the series’ finest moment.



Dynamite Headdy Review

Developer Treasure is known for their unique brand of game design, often taking popular genres and filling them with oddball characters and an insane level of action. Though they were made famous for their first game – Gunstar Heroes on the Sega Genesis – Treasure released another game on the same console which, although not as popular nor quite as good as Gunstar Heroes, greatly epitomizes Treasure’s approach to gaming.

That game was Dynamite Headdy, an action-platformer that, in many ways, is one of the best examples of the genre. But one whose immense difficulty may not make it to everyone’s liking.

While Gunstar Heroes was a run-and-gun platformer, Dynamite Headdy is a little more straightforward. Players take control of Headdy, a puppet-creature with a detachable head, which can be swapped out with other heads that give Headdy different abilities.

Headdy controls simply enough. The C button jumps, B performs your current head’s ability (Headdy’s standard attack is throwing his head in different directions), and the A button removes one of the power-up heads.

These additional heads come in a variety of forms, each bringing a different power. One head shrinks Headdy so that he’s more difficult for enemies to hit, and can explore areas he otherwise couldn’t. A shuriken head allows Headdy to stick to walls, which can uncover more paths throughout the stages. The hammer head doubles your damage output for a short time. The pig head shoots homing stars out of its snout. And a sleeping head heals Headdy, at the expense of making him temporarily immobile.

This is just a sample of the many heads Headdy can find, which are obtained by (how else?) throwing your head at little boxes held by one of the friendly characters.

Dynamite Headdy is separated into nine different worlds (called “scenes” here, as the whole game is presented like a stage play), each of which are separated into different sections, which work as stages, in the sense that they are each given a label like 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, and so forth, similar to Super Mario Bros. But calling them levels wouldn’t be entirely accurate, as some of the sections are just a singular boss fight, and others are just abrupt cinematic moments.

In case of the latter, it feels a little bit like a waste. When you reach a new level, you kind of want an actual level, not a single screen where you just walk for a few seconds to activate a cinematic. Though in the case of the former, the boss fights are plentiful, varied and really creative. Major bosses are referred to as “Keymasters” and are identifiable by their immense size by a key that’s visible on their person.

The boss fights are a definite highlight of the game, and showcase Treasure’s unique brand of insanity (the first Keymaster is the game’s secondary antagonist – a teddy bear named Trouble Bruin – inside of a giant, inflatable wiener dog, with an orchestra playing a rendition of The Nutcracker Suite in the background). The good news is that the levels themselves showcase a similar variety, many of which take advantage of the Genesis’ graphical capabilities to the benefit of gameplay.

One early level sees Headdy jumping on rotating platforms, with players able to move Headdy in either a two-dimensional or three-dimensional plane, depending on the current position of the platforms. Another stage has Headdy jumping vertically up a tower, which rotates as Headdy moves from platform to platform, all while avoiding another of Trouble Bruin’s contraptions, which will remove sections of the tower at a time. The entire sixth world changes the game’s genre to a shoot-em-up, with Headdy getting three heads unique to this section (a plane, a bird, and a rocket, each with different shooting patterns).

The sheer variety and creativity in the game’s levels and boss fights are among the best of any 16-bit platformer. And they are complimented by colorful graphics, quirky character designs, and a fun and catchy soundtrack.

What prevents Dynamite Headdy from reaching the top of the 16-bit platforming mountain, however, is its unforgiving difficulty. Thankfully, the game doesn’t start out ludicrously difficult, but once the challenge does pick up, it’s downright brutal. Later stages will often have enemies and dangerous projectiles coming from all sides, some of the bosses begin using attacks that are random (which just makes them feel unfair), and more one-hit kill deathtraps are introduced as the game progresses.

Perhaps worst of all, the game features one head that is intentionally useless, as it’s so heavy that Headdy can only crawl on the ground, unable to even jump. And unlike the other heads, you can’t manually remove it, and have to wait for its time to run out. While I can appreciate the joke at hand, the problem is that this “power-up” is often placed in the heat of boss battles, where it’s really easy to grab it by accident, at which point you’re basically screwed. Again, it’s a funny gag when you first see it, but given how difficult the later bosses already are, placing this useless item in the midst of them feels like taking the joke too far.

What really makes this high level of difficulty a detriment is that you have very limited lives, and the levels don’t feature checkpoints. Die once, and you have to start the current stage all over again (including tough-as-nails, multi-phase boss fights). Get a game over, and you have to start the game over from the beginning.

“This is the boss of the shoot-em-up world, in the process of changing forms. It’s even more difficult than it is weird.”

It is possible to refill health, by finding bananas (Headdy’s favorite food) or grabbing the aforementioned sleeping head, but extra lives are incredibly rare. What’s worse, the only way to get a continue is after defeating a Keymaster boss, where you have to grab a large amount of the orange cubes that pop out of the boss’ explosion. The number of cubes don’t stack with subsequent bosses, so if you don’t grab enough cubes after a single fight, you don’t have any continues.

There is a saving grace to this, however, as there’s an easy-to-learn cheat code you can use at the title screen to select a stage. Normally, I wouldn’t want to resort to such things, but with how brutally difficult Dynamite Headdy is, and how stingy it is with the extra tries, I had no other choice but to use the level select code to get back to the levels I kept dying on. I don’t think I could beat this game without it. Even with it, some of the later bosses took several attempts to take down.

Dynamite Headdy is a game that showcases Treasure’s approach to game design in a nutshell: It’s weird, action-packed, chock-full of memorable boss fights, aesthetically pleasing, and really creative. On the downside, Dynamite Headdy’s embodiment of all things Treasure also includes their notorious difficulty, which is taken to all new levels here. Dynamite Headdy is a great game in so many ways, but its lack of opportunities to tackle its challenges outside of cheat codes gives it a weird disconnect with the player. If a game is going to be this difficult, at least give me some extra lives!



Vectorman Review

In 1995, the 16-bit generation was winding down. The Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn were released, and the Nintendo 64 was right around the corner. By this point, Nintendo had the 16-bit wars against the Sega Genesis all but won, thanks in no small part to the huge sales numbers of Donkey Kong Country in 1994. Still, Sega wanted the Genesis to gain one final edge, and in one of the system’s last acts against the SNES, Sega published the title Vectorman, which was to be Sega’s answer to Donkey Kong Country.

Like DKC, Vectorman used pre-rendered graphics, to give the game a more state-of-the-art, three-dimensional look, and to push the Genesis beyond its graphical limits. But as was the tradition with Sega back in the day, the cuter Nintendo characters of Donkey Kong Country were swapped with a more “cool” and “edgy” setting.

Vectorman is a robot. Or, more accurately, an Orbot, a robot comprised of orbs. The story is set in a future where mankind has left a polluted Earth in a mission to colonize other planets. While the humans are away, the Orbots are left to clean up the planet. One of the elite Orbots, Raster, watches Earth through a planet-wide computer network. Unfortunately, Raster is accidentally merged with a working nuclear missile due to an error, and becomes the maniacal Warhead. Using his computer network, Warhead plans a hostile takeover of Earth, and begins controlling the other Orbots. Thankfully, one clean-up Orbot, Vectorman, was in space during all of this, and upon returning to Earth, takes it upon himself to stop Warhead and set things right.

Basically, it’s like Wall-E with guns and explosions. Silly as it may sound, Vectorman actually ends up being a pretty fun game.

Vectorman is easy enough to control. He can run, jump and shoot in various directions. The brunt of the game’s sixteen stages are traditional action-platforming fare, with Vectorman blasting through enemies as he makes his way to the end of the stages, some of which feature a boss fight at the end, and some that don’t.

Stages are littered with TV monitors which, when destroyed, give Vectorman items or power-ups. The TVs can provide additional sparks – much like the countless sparks that litter the stages – which add to your point total, additional health, upgrades to your gun (such as rapid-fire or a shotgun-like burst), or even temporary transformations.

Unfortunately, the transformations are a bit disappointing. Although in concept it may sound intriguing to turn Vectorman into a bomb, drill, or a fish in order to find alternate routes through levels, the execution is a little bland. The transformations are incredibly short-lived, and only appear in TVs that are exceptionally close to where these transformations are to be used. It would have added to the fun if you could travel in these alternate forms for a bit longer, and for their intended uses to be more cleverly hidden. Instead, you basically know to rush to a nearby weak floor to drill or cracked wall to bomb as soon as you transform.

The other big complaint comes in the form of the stages that don’t follow the traditional run-and-gun format. While it’s nice that the game attempted a decent amount of variety, Vectorman never gives properly segues into these stages.

The second stage of the game, for example, abandons the platforming in favor of a top-down rail-shooter, where Vectorman is riding on a train as a giant robot tries to destroy the tracks. Not only do you have to shoot the hands of the giant robot as it grabs the tracks, but you also have to shoot missiles that are coming at you from all sides. It may not sound too out of the ordinary, but this all happens pretty much immediately after the end of the first stage.

Let’s compare this to Donkey Kong Country’s mine cart stages. In DKC, the mine cart stages begin like any other in the game, and players have to jump into a mine cart themselves before the gameplay changes. There’s a proper transition that lets the player know what’s coming. But here, you go from destroying a surprisingly difficult first boss, and then suddenly are thrown into an entire different kind of gameplay setup. If there’s no proper gameplay segue, there needs to be some kind of explanation, otherwise the change is just too sudden and confusing.

Perhaps these sudden changes wouldn’t be quite as bad, if it weren’t for the game’s often unforgiving difficulty. Now, for the most part, Vectorman is the good kind of difficult, where the challenge lies in the level design and boss fights. But on the more unforgiving side of things, Vectorman only has a small amount of health, and it doesn’t replenish in between stages. I’m not exaggerating when I say I died within seconds of entering the second level, because I only had one hit point left over when I finally managed to beat the first boss.

Similarly, Vectorman only has so many lives, and not a single continue. It’s true you can change the difficulty settings on the title screen (with the settings humorously being labelled “Lame,” “Wicked,” and “insane”), and the easier settings mean Vectorman has a few more hit points and lives while bosses take fewer hits, but finding additional extra lives is still a rare occurrence.

Donkey Kong Country – Vectorman’s supposed rival – was also a difficult game, but it was still decently generous by granting extra lives for every 100 bananas you collected (not to mention it had a save feature). But again, all the collectible objects in Vectorman do is add to your points (and high scores were largely an afterthought by the 16-bit generation). So even with the added bonuses of the easier difficulties, expect to see that game over screen more than a few times.

One other minor complaint is that the levels end far too unceremoniously. In most platformers, there’s some kind of destination at the end of a stage (the flagpoles in Super Mario Bros., or the spinning signs in Sonic the Hedgehog). But here, in the stages that don’t house bosses, they just kind abruptly end once Vectorman reaches a certain point. And in the levels that do have bosses, most of the bosses just kind of show up, with no visual introduction or changes in music. It’s not a big complaint, but it does kind of hurt the presentation.

Hopefully I don’t sound too negative towards Vectorman. Because, in the end, Vectorman is a really fun game. The simple run-and-gun action, combined with some sharp level design, make it an enjoyable platformer. And fittingly enough, the game’s pre-rendered graphics still hold up, and give the game a visual vibrancy that often rivals that of Donkey Kong Country. The music is similarly appealing, and is something of a marriage between techno dance mixes and more atmospheric pieces which, again, can be somewhat reminiscent of Donkey Kong Country (though the soundtrack never reaches the same heights of DKC, though that would be a hefty task that few games could accomplish).

So Vectorman is flawed, but it was a fun and largely overlooked game that probably deserved more. It only ever saw one sequel (also on Sega Genesis), and though a third, 3D installment was planned at one point, it was cancelled, and Vectorman has been drifting in limbo ever since. That’s a real shame, because Vectorman could have been one of Sega’s premiere franchises, right alongside Sonic the Hedgehog himself.



Tinhead Review

During the 1990s, the platformer genre saw a huge boom in popularity. After Sonic the Hedgehog struck it big, it seemed like every developer was trying their hand at making a mascot-based platformer. None of them saw the same success as Sonic, of course, but not all of these would-be platforming heroes were as abysmal as Bubsy. Case in point, the oft-forgotten Sega Genesis title Tinhead which, while flawed, showed enough potential that it’s a shame it never took off as its own franchise.

In Tinhead, players control (as you may have guessed) Tinhead, a charming robot whose cute design was a refreshing reprieve from all the “animals with attitude” that were inspired in Sonic’s wake. Tinhead can run and jump, like most of his platforming kin. But Tinhead differs from other genre heroes with his attack.

Tinhead can shoot little bullets out of the top of his head, and can change the trajectory of his shots (forward, upward and downward) by pressing the A button (C jumps, and B fires). Additionally, the bullets can bounce off walls, leading the player to get creative with how to take out enemies.

The method of attack is what helps make Tinhead a bit more creative than a lot of the other platformers of the time. Unfortunately, where Tinhead’s control stumbles is in his jumping which, being a platformer, can become bothersome.

Tinhead manages to take to the air well enough, but once his jumps reach their maximum height or length, he comes crashing down as though gravity suddenly has a vendetta against him. The jumping mechanics aren’t terrible, but they certainly are less fluid than you’d hope they’d be, as the rapid descents mean you have to be incredibly precise when it comes to the trickier platforming segments.

Yet another problem with the game’s physics comes in the form of going down slopes. Normally in a 2D platformer, the character will only slide down a slope if yo press down on the control pad. But in Tinhead, the poor robot will automatically slide downhill unless you are actively moving him upward. If you let go of the D-pad for even a split second, Tinhead will start to go downhill. It’s not a major complaint, but when you’re also fighting an enemy or trying to grab an item when going uphill, it can prove problematic.

By now I probably sound largely negative, but in all honesty Tinhead is a fun game. The story involves an evil intergalactic goblin who has stolen the stars, trapped them, and scattered them across the cosmos. The goal of each level is to find a star, and then head for a teleporter to clear it.

The game hosts four worlds, each consisting of three stages, and each stage being separated into two segments (each segment containing its own star and teleporter). There are colorful enemies who look like they wouldn’t be out of place in Sonic 3D Blast, and Tinhead can even ride on a weird dog/pogo ball hybrid for some extra distance in his jumps, as well as a propellor and jetpack.

One area in which Tinhead differs from other 16-bit platformers is that its titular character can have up to five hit points (grabbing a battery refills one hit point, while grabbing a lightning bolt refills them all). It’s a small change, but it does take away some of the stress out of the equation. I’d hate to think how difficult this game might be if Tinhead died in one or two hits along with the overly-precise platforming bits.

It’s simple stuff, but it’s charming and different enough to make it stand out, at least in regards to the other Sonic wannabes of the day. The visuals look nice and colorful, and the music is pretty darn good. Though there is one more notable complaint to be had with the boss fights, which can be incredibly tedious (just dodge their occasional attacks and keep firing. They don’t change patterns, and there’s not much in terms of strategy).

Tinhead may not have been a classic, as it’s a capable but unspectacular platformer with notable problems in its physics and boss fights. But it’s charming, and provides some solid fun. Who knows, maybe if Tinhead had been allowed a few sequels, he could have found his stride and became a full-on platforming star. If Bubsy was allowed to have sequels, I don’t see why Tinhead should have been denied them.



Bubsy 2 Review

Bubsy 2

Bubsy the Bobcat is one of the most reviled video game characters in history. The early 90s introduced the world to Sonic the Hedgehog, which ended up being a double-edged sword. On one hand, the Sonic series was (at least for a time) great. On the downside, it opened the floodgates for many developers to try their hand at making an “animal with attitude” mascot character in one generic platformer after another. Most of these characters fell off the radar and were rightfully forgotten about. But the nadir of that lot, Bubsy, was a persistent one, and the obnoxious bobcat starred in four different games that spanned multiple consoles. Though Bubsy 2 on the Sega Genesis isn’t the most panned game in the Bubsy series, it does, in its own way, greatly represent the forgettability of the series.

Bubsy 2 is a 2D platformer, of course. But unlike Sonic, the developers clearly only understood the genre from a first glance perspective, as Bubsy has none of the intricacies in design or polish in gameplay that made Sonic so fun.

You simply need to jump to know that things are off, as Bubsy’s jumps feel slippery, and are hard to control. It’s all too easy to jump over platforms you’re trying to jump on. Bubsy also runs fast (another obvious attempt at ripping off Sonic), but the levels work against the fast speed. There will be instant-kill spikes that pop out of the ground suddenly, electrical fences that will kill you when you run into them, and pools of water that, when stepped on, will kill Bubsy instantly. The game wants you to move fast, but the level design itself actively works against doing just that.

You have to wonder why the game even needed so many one-hit kill objects, considering Bubsy has something of a health meter (a picture of his obnoxious mug in the upper right corner of the scree. At full health it’s making the sassy smirk of a Dreamworks animated character, a concerned face when damaged, and a scared face when you’re one hit away from death).

From the title screen, players have the option of selecting world’s (selecting between the east or west wings of what I assume is a castle, and which floor to start on, with the bottom floors being labelled easy, the middle floors medium, and the top floors as hard). Each world has five themed stages: Ancient Egypt, Medieval, Space, Music and Flying.

Bubsy 2The first four categories are your standard platforming fair, with the music stages being the most confusing of the lot, as it seems you bounce around wildly every time you touch anything. The flying stages work like a shooter game, and see Bubsy firing a Nerf gun while flying a plane. I have to give them credit for going for a little variety, but these have to be some of the blandest flying stages I’ve ever seen, made all the worse (once again) by the poor controls and level design. You can only move the plane up or down, and most of the flying stages have passages so tight you basically have to take a hit from a wall or enemy in order to make it through.

This brings me to one of Bubsy 2’s greatest flaws: its utterly confusing layouts for the levels. Bubsy 2 is one of those shoddily-made platformers where it’s hard to discern what you can jump on and what you can’t. Many objects that look like platforms aren’t, and many things that don’t are. Combine that with Bubsy’s slippery controls, and it’s a disaster.

To make matters all the worse, there are really sloppy mini-games spread throughout the stages, which you find by going through doors. The most common mini-game is one where you catapult a frog and try to get it to land on various objects. It’s tedious, and goes on for an un-skippable minute.

Things get really aggravating by the fact that not all the doors lead to mini-games, and some are necessary to go through to progress through the stages, but there’s no way to differentiate between them. Going through the doors is a gamble, and if you enter a mini-game you’ll just feel like you’re wasting your time (again, you can’t simply skip or ignore them once you start them).

I will say that the graphics in the game are decent, though nothing special for the Genesis. Of course you have to compare it to Sonic, in which case there is no comparison, Sonic just looked way better (though I do admit I like the animation on the frogs when they get catapulted). The music and sound are incredibly generic, and Bubsy’s constant attempts at one-liners every time you die or win are just obnoxious.

Even if Bubsy controlled well, the game would still be a mediocre bore. The fact that the game is also plagued by awful controls and level design just make it all the worse. And yet, the Bubsy series was allowed to continue (thankfully for only two more games). It’s hard to say why. I don’t find anything about the character to be appealing. He just comes off as so manufactured and forced. Sure, Sonic didn’t have the most humble beginnings – being tailor-made to compete with Mario – but Sega gave Sonic enough attitude to give him both an edge and likability. Plus, there was something original about Sonic, and it certainly helps that his games were good.

Bubsy, on the other hand, has nothing going for him. His appearance is generic – from his “hey, look, it’s a cartoony bobcat” look to his nondescript, exclamation point shirt. But to really hammer it all home, his personality is just so in-your-face and repellent. He’s like that guy who believes everything he does is cool, but no one around him would ever agree with that sentiment.

Yeah, I just really hate Bubsy.



Dark Castle Review

Dark Castle

Dark Castle is unquestionably the worst game on the Sega Genesis, and equals – and perhaps outdoes – Bill and Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure for the title of worst video game I’ve ever played. It’s that bad.

For starters, the game looks like one of the uglier 8-bit titles. It’s hard to believe it was released on the same console in the same year as Sonic the Hedgehog, which still looks colorful and vibrant today. Dark Castle is an ugly game that was visually outdated on its release.

Graphics are only the smallest of Dark Castle’s offenses, however. The most prominent, game-breaking flaw of Dark Castle are the controls. It is the worst controlling game I have ever played.

You play as some guy with a mullet in a green shirt, who controls so poorly he may outdo Lester the Unlikely as my most hated video game character. This dude can only pick up throwing rocks for weapons, and is the worst jumper in gaming history.

Jumping is performed by pressing the A button, but the dude can only jump forward, and there’s no way to change his jumping height or distance, which makes any platforming feel awkward and clunky. And to throw rocks, you have to tap the D-pad up or down to position his arm just right (it can be positioned in any 180-degree direction in front of him), and then press the C button to throw a rock. It is beyond tedious.

All the more baffling is his ducking ability. If you press down on the D-pad along with the B button, he ducks for a split second. If you want to keep ducking, you press up on the D-pad and B. Why on earth two different actions for ducking were necessary is beyond me, and holding the up direction in order to stay ducking is just confusing.

The control scheme itself is horrendously awkward, but it’s made all the worse by its execution. I can’t even begin to describe how off the controls feel with the character’s movements and actions. The character will continuously trip (seemingly over nothing), he’ll stop and get dizzy from falling two feet (leading you susceptible to enemies, all of which kill you in one hit). And falling any higher than that will kill you.

Then there are functions which don’t even seem to work. To climb on ropes, you have to jump towards them and hold up on the D-pad, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. You’ll also fall if you try to move from one rope to another too quickly. There are indiscernible dead-ends left and right, and sometimes there’s no definition between the foreground and background, with one wall in particular seemingly in the background, until you reach a certain point of it and it becomes something of a wall right in front of you.

Dark CastleWith the aforementioned abysmal controls for throwing rocks, it’s an immense chore just to hit enemies. Most of the enemies are generic bats and rats, which are so small you have to be on the pixel to hit them, but there are also some human enemies as well, as well as small gnome-like creatures that make the most obnoxious sound effect in video game history. All of these enemies move quickly and usually come in hordes. Not to mention they either respawn or get back up after mere seconds. In order to rotate the character’s arm to throw the rocks (already a tedious endeavor) the character has to stand perfectly still. Combine that with his constant dizziness and tripping, and you’re basically a sitting duck no matter where you go.

The controls alone already make the game a disaster. But to add insult to injury, the game also plays some unfair tricks on the player. I’ve already mentioned the confusing wall and quick-fire enemy respawns, but there’s more where that came from, including a dungeon area which you’ll be visiting time and time again.

The dungeon is just a single screen, with a man whipping prisoners at the bottom and rows of rats, bats and human enemies above. Rocks pass right through the whipping man, and in order to subdue him you need to grab a nearby flail and hit him with it (before you think this is a new weapon, you automatically drop it as soon as you knock the whip guy out, and you can’t pick it back up again). You need to get past the whip guy while he’s unconscious (which, again, only lasts a few seconds) so you can grab one of two nearby keys. If the whipping guy gets back up while you’re getting the key, you’re dead, because you can’t get past him. But what’s even worse is that one of the two keys – which have no visual distinction from each other – is a trap that will kill you, and it randomly changes each time you try to grab it. So you go through all that trouble for a mere guessing game that has a 50/50 chance of making you start over.

That’s not even the worst part about the dungeon. The worst thing about it is how often you’ll get there. It seems like just about every room in the blasted castle somehow has its own way of getting you back there. If you stand still for too long, the floor might fall from underneath you, and it’s back to the dungeon. Other times you might trip and fall into a pit, and it’s back to the dungeon. In perhaps the most aggravating example, if you take too long to get past certain rooms, a weird gargoyle/flying monkey will appear – which you can’t avoid – and will then grab you and drop you into the dungeon. Naturally the only way out of the dungeon is to somehow get past all the enemies above and leave via the upper right corner of the screen, in which case you need to backtrack several rooms to get back to where you were. You are honestly just better off resetting the game.

Other unfair elements include the rat enemies. Not only are they hard to hit with rocks, but sometimes you can walk past them without any problems, and other times they kill you. There is no way to tell when they will kill you, making the act of going passed them a gamble.

Dark CastlePerhaps Dark Castle’s most humorous blunder is its music. The sole piece of music in the entire game – from the title screen to the end – is just a looped segment of a synthesized version of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which gets really old, really fast. You have the option of turning the music off in the pause menu, but here’s where things get really hilarious. You have to turn it off when a note isn’t playing to ensure you turn it off. If you turn it off during a note, that note will be sustained for either a short while, or until you turn the music back on and try again. Yes, you could play through the game with one long, continuous note through all of it. It is the most baffling audio slip-up I’ve ever heard in a game.

On top of that, the game’s sound effects are an assault on the ears. It seems every enemy is constantly bombarding you with insipid sounds, and the main character sounds like a total buffoon. If Dark Souls represents the pinnacle of video game sound effects, then Dark Castle sits at the exact opposite end of that spectrum.

If there’s any act of mercy to be found in Dark Castle, it’s that you can actually make the game considerably shorter right from the start. When the game begins, our idiotic hero stands in front of four doors, two with question marks above them, one with a shield, and one with the letters “BK” at the top (which apparently stands for ‘Black Knight’). Each door leads to a different section of the castle, though the whole thing is ultimately connected.

Normally, the two question mark doors are supposed to give you a fireball when completed, and the shield door gives you a shield, both of which are meant to make the final boss easier. But if you just go to the BK door, you only have three screens to worry about, the third of which is the encounter with the Black Knight (who fights you by throwing his never-ending supply of beer mugs at you, making him the goofiest final boss imaginable).

Still, even if you shorten the suffering, playing Dark Castle is still suffering. Its abysmal controls, lack of clarity, unfair obstacles, annoying sounds, blatantly unfinished elements, ugly graphics and all-around poor game design make it one of the worst video games of all time.



Shaq Fu Review

Shaq Fu

Very few video games are as infamous as Shaq Fu. A fighting game of the 16-bit era starring Shaquille O’Neal named after the NBA star’s rap album, the game is often considered one of the worst video games of all time.

In case the idea of a fighting game based around a NBA star and named after said NBA star’s rap album wasn’t weird enough, the game’s story mode sees Shaq walking around Little Tokyo, where he stumbles across a kung fu dojo (forget the fact that Tokyo is Japanese and kung fu is Chinese). In this dojo Shaq meets an old man who deduces that Shaq is “the magic one.” The old man then opens a portal to another dimension, where Shaq must apparently save the life of a young boy named Nezu. Shaq jumps into the portal without a second thought. Because why not?

Shaq FuThe opponents Shaq comes across are a parade of bizarre characters that include a cat girl, a voodoo princess, a hooded goblin-like creature, and a villainous mummy named Sett Ra, who kidnapped Nezu. So if you were hoping to see Shaq battle fellow NBA stars in another dimension, you’re out of luck.

As bonkers as the story is, it’s actually the game’s highlight, as its utterly ridiculous nature can provide some good laughs. The sheer lack of context behind everything in the plot (who is Nezu? Why was he kidnapped by a mummy? Why doesn’t Shaq seem weirded out that he’s fighting monsters in another dimension?), and the general absurdity of it all is just so silly it teeters in the “so bad it’s good” area.

Shaq Fu’s true fatal flaw is its gameplay. Shaq, or the other characters if you’re playing versus mode, are all incredibly stiff. Moves just don’t flow very well, meaning combos are a non-entity. You basically just keep button-mashing and hope you get lucky. The jumping is the worst part, with Shaq leaping into the air about a second after you hit the button. The jumping is not only awful, but also ironically so, considering Shaquille O’Neal’s NBA background.

Shaq FuThe story mode also has an awkward difficulty curve. The SNES version has three available fights to choose from the start, and completing those opens up three more that are progressed in order. Some fights are so easy, you can just keep hitting the same button and win (in one fight I just repeatedly kicked my opponent who did nothing but block, which resulted in him losing enough health by the time the clock ran out that I won the match). Others are considerably more difficult, with the aforementioned cat girl, one of the initial fights, being a particular pain, along with the final battle against the mummy.

Shaq Fu’s reputation proceeds it. It is a dreadful fighter that lacks any kind of depth, with a terrible sense of control and goofy visuals and animations to add a cherry on top. It may not be the most broken game I’ve ever played, but it’s certainly one of the worst fighters out there. It’s a sloppy, clunky, unpolished mess, made marginally more tolerable by its unintentionally comedic nature.

In short, it’s far from an all-star.