Tag Archives: Sega

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

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Sonic Mania Review

Sonic the Hedgehog is back!

It feels so good to be able to say that again, but it’s finally happened. Sonic the Hedgehog now has a new title to his name that lives up to the series’ most iconic entries on the Sega Genesis! In fact, I might even go so far as to say that Sonic Mania outdoes them.

Back in 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog hit the gaming scene, and quickly became a video game icon. Sonic was to be Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Mario, and indeed, for a few years, Sonic was even more popular than Nintendo’s famous plumber.

But it was not to last. While Sonic’s first several outings on the Sega Genesis (and its add-ons) are still highly revered even today, what he’s done since then has been a little less consistent. Mario proved to be a jack of all trades, seamlessly making the jump to 3D with Super Mario 64, transitioning into other genres with the likes of Super Mario Kart and Super Mario RPG, and still producing some of the best titles in gaming decades later with the likes of Super Mario Galaxy. Sonic, on the other hand, felt lost in time.

Though Sonic initially looked poised to replicate Mario’s versatility, the series would soon lose its footing. There wasn’t a proper Sonic title to be had on the Sega Saturn (and that console’s would-be Mario Kart, Sonic R, was a bit of a disaster), and though the Sonic Adventure titles on the Dreamcast were praised in their day, time hasn’t been kind to them, exposing utterly chaotic camerawork and more than a few notable technical issues. After that, Sonic became a multiplatform series once Sega went the third-party route, and things didn’t ease up for the blue blur.

During these years, Sega would try all kinds of experiments with their mascot. Some of these experiments worked to a degree, while others were all-time lows for the series. In many cases, it seemed like the Sonic franchise just leached its way onto anything, and that the developers at Sega would rather be making something else entirely (quite literally in the case of the infamous “Sonic the Hedgehog ’06”).

Whatever Sonic games that did shine during this time were those that played closest to the Genesis playbook, with Sonic Colors and Generations becoming fan favorites. Though sometimes Sega could get carried away with the nostalgia card, with the two episodes of “Sonic the Hedgehog 4” feeling like watered down, clunky versions of the classic template.

But now, we have Sonic Mania, and it’s a thing of beauty.

“Sonic Mania even includes an anime-style opening a la Sonic CD.”

Released as part of an extended 25th anniversary celebration to the franchise, Sonic Mania is perhaps a better gift to the series and its fans than they could have even asked for. Sonic Mania is everything Sonic should be.

Though Sonic Mania is published by Sega, its development team consists of notable members of the Sonic fan-game community. The game was helmed by Christian Whitehead, who was famously recruited by Sega to port a number of the classic Sonic titles to mobile platforms, and teamed by PagodaWest and Headcanon, who have a few Sonic fan-games to their resume.

I’m not sure whether it’s poetic or ironic that it literally took the fans to create the best Sonic game in over two decades, but the end results prove that Sonic Mania truly is a labor of love by people who love the franchise, for people who love the franchise.

First there are the obvious connections to the Genesis classics; the 16-bit visuals and character sprites make the game feel like a proud follow-up to Sonic’s initial outings, albeit taking advantage of modern hardware to make for some dazzling effects that weren’t possible back in the day. Additionally, the majority of Sonic Mania’s “Zones” are new versions of those found in Sonics 1, 2 and 3, Sonic & Knuckles, and Sonic CD. Some such “remixed” Zones even use the templates of their original forms, but with some new additions and tweaks, so that even when Sonic Mania is at its most comfortably familiar, it’s still full of surprises.

“Here’s the final boss from Sonic 2 in the first level of Sonic 1.”

For example, the game begins in Sonic the Hedgehog’s Green Hill Zone. While that first-ever level of the franchise has been countlessly recreated in recent years, it’s never been done so poetically as it is here. The Green Hill Zone begins almost identically to how it did back in 1991, until suddenly you notice one of Sonic 3’s magnetic shields in place of Sonic 1’s standard force field, and the corkscrew loops from Sonic 2’s Emerald Hill Zone are at play. Alterations such as this are just the tip of the ice burg, as Sonic Mania is constantly finding ways to reinvent what we know about Sonic’s past.

That’s not to say Sonic Mania is simply falling back on nostalgia, however, as it also includes level design that is entirely its own. Along with a few brand new Zones unique to Mania, the second “act” within the returning zones are less remixed, and more built from the ground up. Sonic Mania really is the perfect marriage of the old and the new for the franchise.

The gameplay is, once again, Sonic at its purest (and best) form. Players can select Sonic, Tails or Knuckles, each with their own abilities (Sonic is fastest and now has a “Drop Dash” move to keep momentum after jumping, while Tails can temporarily fly and Knuckles being able to glide and climb up walls). You’ll run through stages collecting rings, which once again work as a kind of health system (get hit and you lose your rings, get hit without rings and you’re dead). You can collect the aforementioned force fields and shields from Sonic 3 (magnet shields pull in rings and grant a double jump, fire shields give a charging attack and can burn through certain obstacles, and bubble shields allow you to breath under water and jump higher). There’s also a new power-up in the form of blue rings, which are something like a ‘ring insurance.’ The blue rings will make sure that, the next time Sonic gets hit, he can still reclaim every last ring he held by clumping them together in a few giant rings. The blue ring may not sound like much, but in those times when you make a little mistake that would have otherwise cost you hundreds of rings, it becomes a godsend.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a 16-bit Sonic title without some 3D bonus stages. If you can reach a checkpoint with twenty-five rings secured, you can jump into a halo above said checkpoint and play a new version of Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s famous Blue Sphere mini-games (and yes, they’re as hard as ever). Should you complete a Blue Sphere mini-game, you are rewarded with bonuses such as new game modes and unlockable content.

“Sega Saturn FTW!”

But Sonic Mania once again goes beyond the call of duty by including a second such bonus stage, this one brand new (albeit inspired by Sonic CD). If you can find a giant ring hidden in a stage, you are transported to one of these new bonus stages, where Sonic (or Knuckles or Tails) have to catch up to a UFO to claim a Chaos Emerald. These bonus stages have you collecting blue spheres to pick up speed to reach the UFO, while also gathering rings to put more time on the clock, all while being presented in Sega Saturn-inspired visuals.

Another iconic attribute of the Sonic games were the soundtracks. And good heavens, does Sonic Mania deliver on that front. Once again the creation of a series fan (Tee Lopes, famous for covers of various Sonic tracks), the soundtrack to Sonic Mania includes stellar remixes from Sonic’s past (each returning zone gets a different remix for both of its acts), while the brand new tracks are more than worthy successors to the franchise’s legendary music. Though the soundtrack takes most of its cues from Sonic CD – which up to this point had the best soundtrack in the series, hands down – it also feels distinctly its own. It may even be my favorite gaming soundtrack of 2017 and, yes, it may even top Sonic CD for the title of “best Sonic music ever.”

If I had to nitpick anything about Sonic Mania (and you’d have to nitpick to have anything negative to say), it’s that some of the obstacles in the Flying Battery Zone feel a bit unruly and hard to predict, which lead to more than a few accidental fumbles; and the Hydrocity Zone can be a little on the confusing side. But again, any complaints to be had are minor.

“Old levels now feature new gimmicks, like these bouncing gels in the Chemical Plant Zone.”

Sonic Mania obviously plays the nostalgia card, it is so much more than simply a trip down Hedgehog memory lane. This is exactly the kind of sequel the franchise has been begging for for two decades, and the kind of Sonic experience Sega has tried to create themselves in the past, but couldn’t quite get right (Sonic Generations was probably their best attempt). This is the classic Sonic gameplay we all know and love, but it’s also smarter than the games that inspired it. The level designs – which contain so many alternate routes and introduce so many new gameplay gimmicks that they never lose a shred of their charm – are arguably the deepest in the series, and even have a Mario sense of exploration about them to track down their every last secret. And the boss fights are, bar none, the most consistently entertaining in the franchise. No matter how difficult (or easy) the boss fights got, they all provided something new and left their mark.

Sonic Mania is the game fans have waited ever so patiently for. It’s so lovingly crafted, and so well executed, that it may actually have you forgetting about Sonic’s missteps over the years and make you feel like the series never slowed down. From the obvious homages to the most esoteric of references, Sonic Mania oozes an unmistakeable love for all things Sonic (well, all the good things), and lives up to the very best games the blue hedgehog has ever starred in.

If Sonic Mania is anything to go by, then Sonic has finally returned, and in such fashion that it feels like he never left.

 

9.0

Street Fighter: The Movie (Sega Saturn) Review

One of the great anomalies of the video game medium is Street Fighter: The Movie…the video game. Yes, it’s a video game, based on a movie, based on a video game.

Street Fighter II remains one of the most influential video games of all time, and during the 90s, it was everywhere. The 1994 film adaptation was one of the first “video game movies,” following in the footsteps of Super Mario Bros. a year earlier. Like the Super Mario Bros. movie, Street Fighter’s film adaptation is certainly no critical darling, but has a campy, guilty pleasure appeal about it, and the same can be applied to the game.

Street Fighter: The Movie… the video game is just a generic copy of the game that inspired the film that inspired it. It uses digitized actors a la Mortal Kombat, with most of the actors from the film reprising their roles (except, sadly, for Raul Julia as M. Bison, as his grave illness was taking its toll at the time).

You have a selection of most of Street Fighter 2’s roster (sans Dhalsim, who was – for whatever reason – a scientist and not a fighter in the movie). Additionally, you can play as Captain Sawada, an original character from the film whose role was so small, you may not even recognize him even if you’ve seen the movie.

“I approve of this!”

I have to admit, it’s actually pretty humorous seeing the game in motion. A match between Guile and Chun-Li becomes a battle between Jean-Claude Van Damme and Ming-Na Wen. Most of the characters retain the exact look they had in the movie, but some  now have clothing that more closely resembles their original video game appearances (we get to see Kylie Minogue in Cammy’s original gear, which is definitely a bonus).

It’s really just a fun game to look at. Obviously, the whole “digitized actor” thing hasn’t exactly aged well, but the simple fact that it looks like Street Fighter: The Movie is entertaining in its own way.

As stated, the gameplay is nothing special. It’s just a basic 2D fighter, and nowhere near as intricate or fluid as the “real” Street Fighter games. Though in all honesty, I’ve played worse. The biggest problem here is that the gameplay is bland and flavorless, but at least it isn’t flat-out broken.

“Praise be unto Sawada.”

You have a few game modes to choose from: Movie Mode is essentially a story mode, where players take control of Guile and follow the events of the movie. Street Battle is a more traditional arcade-style mode, where you can select your character and battle a series of opponents. Trial Mode sees players gunning for a high score against every opponent. Finally, Vs. Mode gives you the two-player battles you would expect from Street Fighter.

In the end, Street Fighter: The Movie… the game is, as you might suspect, not very good. But like the film on which it’s based, it has its own ironic appeal. It’s the kind of game you can break out with a friend, play a few rounds, and have a good laugh. I mean, you can play as Captain Sawada! Doesn’t that just say it all?

 

4.0

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.

 

9.0

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!

 

8.0

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.

 

7.5