Monday, 24 December 2012

Simply having a pixely Christmas Time

Season's greetings one and all!

With the festive period very much in full swing and the Big Day almost upon us, I thought I would take a little look at how Christmas plays a part in some of my favourite video games...tis the season, after all.

Shenmue - Dreamcast

Ryo nearly manages a smile at Christmas!
For me, there are very few sights in the gaming world that compare with that of the wonderful city of Yokosuka covered in snow and lit up at Christmas time. And as you would expect from such a magnificent game, Shenmue makes you feel as if you are really there, trudging through the crisp snow, downing cans of Jet Cola and spending all your pocket money on addictive capsule toys! And what's more, you can do all this (and so much more) to the accompaniment of some wonderful background music.

The very first time I played Shenmue was in the lead up to Christmas of 2001, and for this reason alone it will forever remain a special Christmas game to there aren't many better ways of hibernating the winter away!

Secret of Mana - Super Nintendo/Super Famicom

Christmas is saved, thanks to Salamando!
I'm not sure I've ever played another game where you have to beat the living daylights out of Father Christmas in order to help save the world...but here we have it with Square's masterful Secret of Mana! Upon arriving in the Ice Country, you find out that the jolly fat man has been kidnapped and as it turns out, possessed by the spirit of Frost Gigas. In order to stop him wreaking havoc you need to take him down fast...a few well place swings of a Flame Sabre and a couple of Fireballs help knock the sense back into Claus and save the day.

Secret of Mana will always be one of my all time favourite video games. It offers up a very rare experience, and the chance to save Christmas within it's joyous world makes that experience even sweeter.  

Christmas NiGHTS - Saturn

Nightopia, the ultimate Christmas destination...
The original NiGHTS was always a rather magical experience for me, but once you get the Christmas edition and (if need be) change the Saturn's internal clock to December...the fun starts to get really festive! Elliot and Claris journey once more to Nightopia and team up with the whimsical jester known as NiGHTS, this time to rescue the Christmas Star from the evil Gillwing. Flying around around Spring Valley while it's covered in a deep blanket of snow and with a gorgeous instrumental version of Jingle Bells as your musical accompaniment is genuinely out of this world!  

Christmas NiGHTS is not the longest or most complex game you're likely to play this year (only 2 levels long), but it another piece of unbridled joy from Sega and one which would put a smile on the face of all but the biggest of grinches.

Batman Returns - Super Nintendo/Super Famicom

Festive cheer...Gotham Style!
Not content with making one of the most accomplished beat-em-ups of the 16bit generation, Konami also saw fit to smother Batman Returns in a wonderful Christmas inspired glaze! The Penguin and Catwoman are intent on bringing chaos to Gotham during the holiday season...cue the Dark Knight and his dazzling array of moves and gadgets. In order to save the day, you must knock seven bells out of the baddies...which strangely enough, could be compared to shopping on Christmas Eve.

Although it's by far the darkest use of Christmas within this list, there is a definite allure to prowling the lawless streets of Gotham and dispensing some seasonal vigilante justice.

So there we have it. I sincerely hope this little list of games adds to your festive cheer!

To everyone who reads my written meanderings; I'd like to extend a massive thank you for your support and encouragement throughout the year. I wish you all a very happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Too weird for the west? Part 1: Gegege no Kitaro

Obviously not a winning lottery ticket...
Being a bit of a Super Nintendo fanatic, I've always been partial to the odd crazy platform game. Unfortunately for me I'm also a member of the PAL community...which in Nintendo's translation book, I could wear means 'leper'. As a result of this I sadly missed out on many of the wackiest and often finest titles this happy-go-lucky genre had to offer.

Now I'm not going to sit here and preach that all Japanese games should have been released in the west because...well lets just say; Super Bikuri Man. In some cases though the lack translation and release of certain titles was a genuine loss to those of us outside of Japan, Seiken Densetsu 3 being possibly the most famous example.

Thankfully through magazines like Super Play and now, the maturation of online retailers it's easy for people like me to hurl themselves head first into the curious and wonderful world of Japanese gaming's shining stars. And then give them a once over to try and see if they really were missed over here.

So lets start with this; the loveable (and equally infuriating) Gegege no Kitaro - Fukkatsu! Tenma Daiou for the Super Famicom.

The subtitles say it all...erm, yeah! 
Gegege no Kitaro - Fukkatsu! Tenma Daiou (roughly translated as "The Ghost of Kitaro"...I think) is a magnificent looking and exceedingly strange (even by these standards) platform game by Bandai, based on the long running manga and anime of the same name. As far as I know the story goes something like this: Kitaro is the young looking, but actually very old last surviving descendant of an ancient tribe made up of half spirit/half human folk. He also has one eye missing...though this is strangely not a problem! Anyways, he receives a letter informing him that he will soon die, and so off an exciting quest he must go.

Putting the boot in.
The visuals in this game grab hold of you from the minute you flip the switch, even though it was released fairly early on in the console's lifespan it is achingly pretty. From the myriad of (frankly unintelligible) cut-scenes to the actual levels themselves, Gegege no Kitaro is stunning and does a staggering job in showing off just what the Super Famicom could do. Most pleasing of all though is how well Bandai have managed to capture the likeness of Kitaro's world, the characters from the original manga and series are brilliantly represented and alongside the legions of bizarre enemies, are right of out of top drawer.

More sumptuous eye candy... 
Gameplay wise there's nothing much that hasn't been done before so you're unlikely to find your mind blown wide open, but what the game does it does very well indeed. The controls are pin sharp and super responsive...especially for a third party title and Kitaro himself has a impressively weird line-up of moves (that can also be powered up) to help him take down the scores of paranormal baddies. From firing nails out of his eye socket (yep!) to electrocuting himself ala Blanka, you can guarantee that disposing of his foes will be well as rather challenging.

Facial expression perfection here!
Though the levels are are a bit on the short side they are quite stunning to behold. Each one is packed full of lush and vivid backgrounds which again, considering this game's release date is breathtaking. Bandai also made good use of the Sufami's parallax capabilities which adds much to this visual splendour...funny how 16bit fans will always appreciate a nice bit of parallax eh! There are tons of enemies skulking about so you're never left short on action and then there's the obligatory end of level bosses, which are all hard as nails.

I spy with my little eye...sorry.
As I've touched on previously Gegege no Kitaro is tough, brutally tough in fact, and there are times when this does sour the experience somewhat. Platform games are at their best when they're challenging, but it really does need to be fair and if you're prone to the odd bout of pad throwing rage then approach with caution! One way to ease this ball breaking difficulty level is to grab a friend and utilise the two player option. Every level gives Kitaro a different 'helper' for player 2 to control, each one comes with their own kooky set of moves and weapons which adds to the fun and the madness (more importantly). Historically, these games are more enjoyable with a friend and the same is definitely true here.

Guess what...I died here too!
Overall then, it's not too difficult to see why Gegege no Kitarou was never selected to make the jump form east to west...although if it had, I'm sure it would have garnered a very loyal following (with me included). I can't help feeling that it's just a bit too weird and the fact that both the anime and the manga are not massively well known outside of Japan won't have helped either. Whilst on a personal level I consider this a great shame, I'm also quite thankful that as a kid I was spared the sheer rage that this game can induce!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

All you need is love...

As we all know, there are some ludicrously talented people out there. I'm lucky enough to read some of what these people write, and feel it's time that I try to share their work with anyone who reads this blog.

So without further ado:

Future Retro Gamer

A fantastic site, jam packed with news, reviews and blogs. The content is written by supremely talented people and I'd urge anyone with an interest in gaming, old or current to pay them a visit.

Australian Retro Gamer

Written by the retro gaming legend from down under, if you want quality content on a plethora of systems then this is the place to be!

Retro 101

Newly relaunched and ready to rock: 

"A new website and a host of new designs are giving Retro 101 a much needed shake up. The website is now much more flexible and allows articles to be published much more quickly and thus give you that nostalgic buzz more often. A host of new graphics created by talented young designers have also added a much needed identity for us."

Kimimi's blog

Right now, my number one source for the more obscure video game...she has taught me much (including how to run on Boku no Natsuyasumi!). Get yourself over there to see something new.

Retro Games Collector

Showcasing the very best in gaming collections, and providing quality, practical advice about retro systems. One of my favourite sites.


SHMUP legend, arcade legend and now I find out; fighting game legend! Plus, all round top bloke.

Quite Cross

Another all round top man, has a very enviable games collection and has been known to write poetry...about cricket!

Tinpot Gamer

A slice of what's nice! Lots of well written reviews on a wide range of video games.

Gaming Hell

Ah, Gaming Hell. This site is that good, it actually makes me want to play Pit Fighter over and over again just so I don't get into heaven! Astutely run by the long suffering 'Ed the Editor', anyone who enjoys video games should visit at least once!

Visit the site

Level Up Gaming

One of my favourite sites to call on for well written and thought provoking articles. Articles are written by a number of contributors so the style never gets too familiar.

Bigman Runs

The thoughts of a big man...who runs. Our good friend, Jay McNeill and his musings on various issues.

Visit the site

Nerds Review is the completely unnecessary blog devoted to reviews by nerds and for nerds. 'Nuff said really.

Visit the site

Gamer Spy

Articles written by our very own Blanka fiend...always worth a look!

So there we are. The next time you're wandering the internet and looking for somewhere to go, stop off at one of these fantastic haunts and say hello! 

And is all you need.

Triple Threat Top 10!

Some of the rowdy bunch that captured my heart...
For many years now (more than actually I care to remember, to be honest) fighting games have been my biggest attraction in the wonderful world of video games. From the first time I picked up IK+ on the Commodore 64 I found the allure of controlling master marital artists irresistible, and through the years this love only intensified with the barrage of staggering triumphs that were released in the genre. There is no other family of game that offers such diversity and depth of character, as the world of the fighting game (AM2's Fighting Palm tree, anyone?!). And it's testament to the genre that even today, the likes of Arcana Heart 3, Tekken Tag 2 and BlazBlu are keeping the torch lit. Just goes to show, knocking seven bells out of your mates will never get old!

Anyways, after a chance Twitter conversation with fellow brawling connoisseurs; Messrs Dave Bird and Anton Sombetzki, we decided to each jot down our top 10 favourite fighting games and then compare the lists...vs style! Given that we each enjoy differing gaming palettes, the variations in selections should hopefully make for some interesting reading.

This is the first time I've embarked on compiling this list so, here goes...or as Anton put it: "three dudes, ten games, one week!"

By the by, this not my take on the "definitive" or "greatest" fighting games. It just those which I hold dearest, and the systems on which I fell in love with please don't be offended if a certain game hasn't made it.

1. Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting (SNES/Super Famicom)

Funny what some new colours and a speed increase can do, eh...
As anyone who knows me (even a little bit) could probably tell you, I am bit of a Street Fighter nut, and Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting is my most beloved of the lot. In fact it is not only my favourite fighting game, but also my favourite game...period. I can honestly say that I have never felt the same level of anticipation or love for any other video game, nor has there been another game that I have ploughed the same (obscene) number of hours into in all my years of rolling quarter circles. For me this game has absolutely everything; a near perfect balance, an intelligent and diverse character roster, fantastic visuals and sound effects and possibly the most hated villain the fighting game world has ever seen. It was and still is a shining beacon for Capcom at their very best.

2. The King of Fighters 98 (PSX)

Dragon vs Wolf, in stunning SNK-ovision!
Pound for pound, the best King of Fighters game there is, and probably the best 3 on 3 fighting game I've ever had the privilege to play. KOF 98 is a kind of 'best of' from the previous instalments (94 to 97) and it certainly shows. It has probably the finest roster of characters I've ever seen in a fighting game with characters shipped in from all over wacky world of SNK, a ludicrous amount of depth and some wonderfully extravagant (but not over the top) combo attacks. What sets KOF 98 apart from all other fighting games though, is the sheer amount of minute detail that SNK stashed away inside it; little touches like Kensou choking on a pork bun and Terry's hat falling off when you lose a bout, are almost insignificant but show just how much effort was poured into the game. While it did borrow a lot from other games (namely Street Fighter), KOF 98 remains my favourite fighting game of its generation.

3. Tekken 2 (PSX)

Brush head biker, batters armoured a forest, why not!
The first Tekken game kind of passed me by (as did a lot of early polygonal 32bit games) but when it's sequel (imaginatively titled Tekken 2!) arrived on the scene it, demanded that I sit up and take notice of it. From the (even now) gorgeous CG intro sequence to the excellent soundtrack, Tekken 2 remains to this day my favourite poly-fighter. Where Namco truly excelled themselves though was with the sheer depth of this game...there are no other brawlers from this period with anywhere near the same amount of scale to them. There is a bewildering array of oddball fighters to choose from, and more than enough variety to suit all styles of play. More than this though, each character has a distinct personality to them that really helped to pull me in. Add to this a fascinating tactical approach to each bout, where a considered approach would often be rewarded (as opposed to the rather speed heavy/move spamming approach we now see in current Tekken games) and you are in for a royal treat.

4.  Street Fighter Alpha 2 (Saturn)

The Capcom geekometer is off the charts here...
I adore the Street Fighter Alpha series, it was definitely the logical way for Capcom to take Street Fighter at the time, and Alpha 2 is my favourite of the three. Although it has a smaller roster than Alpha 3, I've always considered it to be the most balanced of the series and I'd also say it's the prettiest, too. There are three distinctly different fighting styles you can choose from, lots of very impressive super combos and a mountain geek-tastic cameos in the stages stages (my favourite bit!). I've chosen the Saturn version of Alpha 2 here because it was the most faithful port around at the time, little (but significant) touches like the water reflections in Gen's stage and a number of extra animation frames just push it above the PSX version.

5. Capcom vs SNK 2: Millionaire's Fighting (Dreamcast)

After years of clamouring, the fans got their way...and it was good!
It's probably not wrong to call this game 'the fan boy's wet dream''s certainly how I felt when I got my hands on it. Happily for me though, the game managed to live up to the hype that surrounded it. The choice of characters on offer here is frankly insane, with a plethora of fan favourites making the cut. CvS 2's stand-out feature though, is it's choice of combat styles; there are three from both the Capcom and SNK stables, plus the ability to customise your own...this allows for some truly in-depth and epic tinkering, I found myself spending hours here just getting the balance tight for my own style. While the game is not perfect; a lack of Robert Garcia and a gimped Ryo Sakazaki are unfortunate, it is still one of the most magnificent fighting games I've ever picked up.

6. The Last Blade 2 (Neo Geo CD)

SNK's prettiest ever game?
Big shout time here. I consider The Last Blade 2 to the best looking game that SNK produced, and this is what initially drew me to it. The stunning vistas of feudal Japan, intriguing characters and innovative battle system, make for a splendid (and indeed my favourite) weapons based fighting game. It's slightly less comic book style than the (also magnificent) Samurai Shodown but manages to keep that manga feel to it...the SNK artists really outdid themselves with this one. Although the access times on the Neo Geo CD version mean you have to wait an eternity between bouts, this just adds to the anticipation...and lets you go and make a sandwich!

7. Street Fighter III Third Strike (Dreamcast)

The purists choice...and with good reason
Yes, its another Street Fighter game (sorry), but it really is hard to argue with the pedigree of Third Strike. After playing Alpha for so long, I initially found it difficult to get into Street Fighter III but once I picked up Third Strike and got to grips with it's intricacies I found it to be Capcom's best since Hyper Fighting. The new parry system allows for some epic counter attacking and for once, the new characters were of a pretty high standard (except for Urien in his undies!). The old favourites are not left to rot though with Capcom breathing new life into Ryu and Ken et al...this means loads of fun relearning them all over again! This game spent has spent so much time in my little Dreamcast, and I picked it up brand new just for £10, can't say fairer than that!

8. Garou: Mark of the Wolves (PS2)

Finally, Garou plays as good as it looks...
I've been a fan of the Garou/Fatal Fury games from the very beginning, but while each game was interesting and well presented I could never help thinking that not a single instalment was as polished, or as well executed as a Street Fighter least until Mark of the Wolves was released. SNK tweaked the system and made it more conventional (I know that sounds like a sell out but it honestly brings so much more to the game), giving it a much nicer flow while also introducing some new miscreants to the party. The overall result is incredible! I actually felt like all other Garou games had been made just to facilitate the arrival of MOTW. Sure, the game borrows heavily from other franchises but this doesn't diminish it's quality one bit. Although I own Mark of the Wolves for the Dreamcast too, I found myself ploughing the most number of hours into the Japanese PS2 version.

9. Fighters Megamix (Saturn)

This was the ultimate SEGA get together!
There was a list of reasons why I wanted to own a Sega Saturn back in the day, and top of that list was Fighters Megamix. An epic coming together of some of Sega's most beloved read like a who's who of fighting games! The fact that I could pit Akira against Bahn was brilliant, but to be able to then pit Bark against the Hornet car from a cage match was just too much! AM2 also saw fit to add to the ability to dodge, which enabled some sneaky counter attacks and a genuine extra layer of scope to the game. Fighters Megamix may lack the slick presentation of Tekken 2 but in terms of depth it runs Namco's finest very close indeed, and that helps propel it into this list and makes it the finest 3D fighting game I've ever played.

10. Killer Instinct (SNES)

Insane combos at their best!
When I first laid eyes on Killer Instinct I was gob-smacked by how stunning it looked but also fairly sceptical of what Rare seemed to be trying to achieve. Their formula of Street Fighter II + Mortal Kombat + massively insane combos struck me as a bit naughty and more than a bit lazy, this all changed however once I finally got my mitts the game. KI's biggest draw by far is the combo system, which is nothing short of brilliant. It takes a little while to learn what move links to the next but once you get the basics, you won't look back. As previously mentioned, it looks glorious and has one of the best soundtracks on the SNES. It may not be the most original game in terms of characters and settings but it certainly is bags of fun, and that surely, is the point.

So there we are then, my ten favourite fighting games. I hope you enjoyed reading the list as much as I enjoyed putting it together. Please feel free to vote, comment, share and subscribe...oh and check out my comrade's lists too!

Honourable mentions:

Samurai Shodown 2, Fighting Vipers, Dead Dance, Virtua Fighter 2, Street Fighter IV, World Heroes Perfect, Neo Geo Battle Coliseum, Soul Edge, SD Hiryu no Ken, Waku Waku 7, IK+, Flying Dragon, Last Bronx, Arcana Heart, Galaxy Fight, Super Smash Brothers, SvC Chaos, Gals Fighters, Rival Schools United by Fate

Vote for your favourite game?

There is just about enough time left for to mention a game that, while very popular would never make into (or even close to) my top 10 list...the elephant in the corner:

Mortal Kombat (Arcade and every console)

I'll come out with it straight away, I just don't "get" Mortal Kombat. Never have and probably never will. That's not to say I've never tried though, I've played (and indeed owned) at least four instalments of the series, and can honestly say I've never once enjoyed playing it. I don't know if it's the fact that it's too American, had stupid and ugly graphics or just that Midway managed to spawn a truck load of games based on nothing but overly gratuitous violence. For me, a fighting game must have depth, interesting characters and a fluid feel to it, Mortal Kombat has none of these. In fact the best way I can sum it up is like this; when my mate first got his SNES copy on 'Mortal Monday', I rushed round to his house to play it...within 30 minutes we were back playing Street Fighter II. Case closed.  

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Ding Dong...who’s there?!

A blue cat and the Hudson logo...happy days!

This week on FRG there was a bit of a cartoon theme in the air. Now we all know cartoons are awesome and are still the by far the greatest thing on television (after your games console of course), so this week’s batch of reviews were all to be of NES and Famicom games with cartoon origins. Obviously my immediate thoughts were: Duck Tales or Chip 'n Dale...job done right?! Wrong! I realised that my rather clever reviewer chums might have similar ideas, and that this would call for some outside the box (and indeed outside the country) thinking. So after a little deliberation I decided to go down the anime path and arrived at the slightly wacky but quite loveable Doraemon on the Famicom.

For those who aren’t familiar with this little Japanese icon; Doraemon is a robotic blue cat that travels back in time from the 22nd century to help out young children (as you do). Created in the late 60’s by the Fujiko Fujio partnership, his cute appearance was used to help educate the (young) audience on the importance of strong moral values such as honesty, courage and respect for the environment.

This particular title is one of the earliest Doraemon video games and was developed by (the now sadly defunct) Hudson Soft in 1986. The objective is to rescue Doraemon’s kidnapped friends who are being held captive by some baddies...I guess. This is achieved by besting the game’s three distinctly different sections, each of which was apparently designed by a different person. This somewhat clever concept makes for some very interesting contrasts in gameplay and adds a respectable slice of variety to the overall game.
Oh by the by, for anyone curious about the title of the review; Ding Dong is the name Doraemon goes by in China!

...erm...the title screen...sorry
Visuals – 7/ 10

Though never likely to challenge graphical juggernauts like Kirby’s Adventure and Little Sampson, Hudson did a thoroughly decent job with Doraemon’s graphics. The sprites are clear and well drawn and although some of the backgrounds do look a tad dull at times, the robotic feline hero and the slew of bad guys stand are a cute sight to look upon.

Each chapter opens with a bizarre (and quite possibly drug inspired!) kind of reminds me of a pinker version of the Twilight Zone or something, has to be seen to be believed. There are lots of wonderfully neat touches scattered through the various levels, such as Doraemon’s expression...he looks really sad(!), this attention to detail helps the game to stand out amongst the hordes of other mascot driven titles in the Famicom universe.

 There are also some rather pleasing (if very blatant) “homages” shall we call them, to some of the video game world’s more famous citizens: the turtles in the water level look suspiciously similar to the henchmen of a certain Bowser and I’m sure that I’ve seen that big octopus skulking about in Miracle World before! Anyways, it all looks attractive enough and is wrapped up in that oft seen Famicom glow, which we all love so dearly.

The Twilight Zone...Famicom Style!
Sound – 8 / 10

Portions of the soundtrack will be comfortingly familiar to anyone who has seen the Doraemon cartoons, and it is lovingly presented in beautiful 8bit midi. The joviality of some of the audio fits in well with the game’s main character as well as its colourful appearance.

The background music really is one of my favourite aspects of this game, and it has an almost Taito like quality to it. The tunes bury their way into your head so that hours after you finish playing you’re still humming away...I found myself doing this when I was brushing my teeth at night! Doraemon is another shining example of just how addictive and important video game music can be when done well.

Doraemon's face... hilarity!
Playability – 7 / 10

While Doraemon does not boast any revolutionary gameplay (and in truth, borrows quite heavily from other Famicom titles!), what it does have is solid, and well structured. As previously mentioned, the game is split into three chapters, each of which boasts a different style of play.

Chapter one plays a little bit like The Legend of Zelda; using a top down view with an adventure feel to it, there are also some 2D platform mini dungeons (makes me wonder if Nintendo where watching when planning Link’s Awakening). This part of the game is pretty standard fair, but is possibly the most arduous as you have no real idea of where to go!

Chapter two heads down the SHMUP route and plays in a fashion akin to Gradius, and R-Type with a little bit of vertical 1943 action chucked in for good measure. For my money, this was the most appealing part of the entire game, and my favourite part is the way Doraemon flies using a little helicopter blade on his head...hilarious stuff.

Chapter 3 takes place underwater and again borrows significantly from the Mushroom Kingdom’s finest. This is probably the nicest looking segment of the game and makes quality use of the Famicom’s capabilities.
Each level is ended by taking on and defeating the obligatory end of level boss, again this is standard pattern recognition stuff...just with the difficulty ramped up a level...or 10!

Longevity – 7 / 10

Doraemon is a classic example of the kind of game that appears to be cutesy and easy but then actually turns out to be a complete ball breaker to finish! The fact that you are given no steer at all on where you need to go or what you need to pick up makes for a lot of trial and error...not to mention dying. There is also a touch of Zelda about it in the way that once you are out of range; all enemies will re-appear...this certainly can make things interesting and although it can become a touch tiring, it’s not enough to spoil the game. In fact the challenge kept me coming back for more; the seemingly random exits and power-ups hark back to the days before gamers were told where to go at every turn.

While I was doing a bit of research on Doraemon I stumbled across a YouTube video of someone speed-running the entire took him just 12 minutes and 59 seconds. At first I was disappointed that the game could be despatched so easily, but after watching it a few times it seems the person is either (freakishly) fantastic at the game or uses some sort of über cheat code to get through it unscathed...either way don’t let it fool you, this game is far from easy. It won’t last weeks but provides a more than adequate challenge.

Platform fun is not forgotten here...

I’ll come clean now; I’m a complete sucker for games based on anime or manga so I was probably always going to like this one. But even if you’re not a fan or haven’t heard of Doraemon there’s still plenty to like about the game, it’s challenging, well made and fun. And while it comes nowhere near to toppling the titles it “borrows” ideas from, there’s enough variation there to keep most gamers satisfied. Weirdly the game did receive a fan translation but to be honest there’s so little text present that you could easily plough through the original Japanese version with no problems.

Oh...and like I said, Doraemon is a blue robotic cat from the 22nd century. You can’t argue with that now can you!


Score 7 out of 10

The SNES Knight Rises

Greetings friends! I've recently been moonlighting on another site writing the odd review. In a scandalous turn of events I've decided that I'm going to dual publish everything I review, so without further ado (ah, a rhyme!)...
The prelude to awesome...
I know I know...more Batman!

It does seem like the guy is absolutely everywhere at the moment. However the current hyperbole surrounding the Caped Crusader does give me the perfect excuse to talk a bit about one of his most highly regarded forays into the video game world: Batman Returns on the Super Nintendo.

Developed by the magicians at Konami back in 1992/93, Batman Returns is essentially a scrolling beat-em-up based on the movie of the same name...think Final Fight but with Keaton, Pfeiffer and DeVito replacing Cody, Hagger and Guy! The story goes something like this: maniacal business tycoon Max Shreck has formed an unholy alliance with The Penguin and Catwoman, together the three plan to bring Gotham to its knees (just for a change). As the heroic Dark Knight, you have to punch, kick and swing your way through a menagerie of baddies on the snowy streets to save the day. As it is commonly known, movie/game tie-ins are notorious for being, well...a bit cack really, but thankfully Konami bucked the trend here in a big way.

Konami + Super Power = amazement
Visuals – 9/10

As with the majority of Konami’s SNES offerings, the graphics on show are nothing short of divine. The game opens with a quite stunning intro sequence that shows off some swanky digitised stills from the film, amazingly Michelle Pfeiffer manages to look enticing even when displayed in 16bit!

The in-game sprites (both major and minor characters) have a chunky and well designed look about them. The entire game is fantastically animated and manages to move with a fluidity that is quite astounding given that it was one of the earlier titles to be released on the SNES. There is also some decent use of parallax scrolling within the levels, coupled with lush backgrounds and lighting effects (check out the Christmas tree for instance) to really turn heads.

The baddies are refreshingly original if a bit weird in places (giant skulls riding motorbikes anyone?), the mixture of clowns, jugglers and American Indians (nope, I have no idea either) makes a nice change from the stock street punks seen in the likes of Double Dragon and Undercover Cops. The end of level bosses; Catwoman in particular are sights to behold, and I actually found myself a couple of lives down from admiring them too much.

Parents queueing outside Toys r Us?!
Sound – 8/10

In the world of the scrolling beat-em-up, soundtracks are often left dripping in uninspiring or horribly cheesy background music. Happily Batman Returns brings to the table an epic rendition of Danny Elfman’s original movie score which not only belies the age of the game, but brings with it a real sense of that comic book atmosphere and this fits in perfectly with the gritty charm of Christmas in Gotham. Fans of the movie will instantly recognise signature melodies, and Konami’s use of the SNES’ quality sound chip set up is impressive to say the least.

The game is heavily loaded with some very satisfying sound effects; there are lots of hefty sounding thuds and cracks to let you know that bones are being crunched and heads are being cracked, these effects add a great deal to the game and are genuinely (and perhaps worryingly) realistic!

Or more likely squeal, as you punch her face in!
Playability 9/10

This where Konami really have pulled out the stops, Batman Returns plays like a dream. The brawling is right out of the top drawer and even gives the mighty Streets of Rage II a run for its money. Along with regular punches and kicks, the Dark Knight can also play a bit dirty by grabbing two enemies and cracking their heads together (rewarding) or even by throwing them at the wall or through windows...which is a wonderful touch (and immensely rewarding!).

The mandatory energy sapping special attack is also present and correct; a nice looking swing of the cape will take out all nearby enemies when things get a bit lairy. And of course, this being Batman there are a few elaborate gadgets to be called upon: the batarang, which stuns the crims for a couple of seconds allowing you to get the drop on them, and the batrope, which is ace for getting out of tight (and sometimes on fire!) spots. The last of these toys are the ‘test tubes’, loosing one of these bad boys unleashes a smart bomb effect and obliterates everything (normal) on screen...he’s nothing if not tooled up.

The two bones of contention I have with the gameplay are the slightly cheap boss fights, which can take up a good deal of your ‘test tubes’ and lives without you making much of a dent in their health bars, and the Batmobile section. It’s not that it’s terrible, the roads of Gotham look acceptable and the whole thing moves along at an ample pace, but it does just lack the polish that rest of the game displays so be honest, it’s a relief when it’s over and you get back to stoving heads in!

Insert Batfink joke here...
Longevity – 8/10

Unlike many scrolling beat-em-ups of the day, Batman Returns is actually pretty tough to beat, and should keep most players busy for a while...especially if you play it on the ‘mania’ setting which is completely mental! The boss fights alone can easily cost you a few lives, and while they can be a bit cheap, it’s nothing that’ll drive you to smashing the controller. The pick up and play appeal of this kind of game give serious relay value and I found myself playing it right the way through a couple of times.

The only thing that does slightly hamper the life of the game is the lack of two player mode. I know this is a bit harsh because the source material doesn’t really allow for one, but as any brawler fan can attest, stalking the streets and dishing out vigilante style justice is always more fun with a friend.

Christmas cheer...Gotham style

The bottom line is that Batman Returns is an absolute gem of a video game. For my money it is the best example of the scrolling beat-em-up genre on the SNES (outside of Japan at any rate), and probably the best Batman game I’ve ever played. It boasts glorious graphics, a wonderful soundtrack and has the charm and panache to rival even some of Nintendo’s own first party offerings. For anyone who is bored of Final Fight and Rival Turf or just wants a better SNES alternative to the Streets of Rage series then Batman Returns could and probably should be the game for you.

With this title Konami showed early on that their reputation as one of the Super Nintendo’s top developers was very much justified. And although a myriad of alternative ports of the game were released on a variety of other formats (Mega Drive, Amiga NES etc), it is the SNES title that remains the seminal instalment, and as such it would make a worthy addition to any retro collection.


8.5 out of 10

Sunday, 2 September 2012

On the wind down...

Following hot (or actually more lukewarmly) on the heels of the critically acclaimed A change of pace, (OK maybe not critically acclaimed, but pretty damn decent!) we have yet another playlist with which to chill your video gaming soul.

In attempt to showcase video game music in it's purest form and display just how splendid it can actually be, this collection consists of nothing but regular ol' background music. There are no piano, orchestral or acoustic versions present...just fantastically produced and engineered in-game music. For those unaware or perhaps even uninterested in video game music, I would urge you to give this playlist a listen and see if it helps to change your opinion.

Once again, the RPG features heavily with pieces from some of the musical heavyweights of the genre (Mitsuda, Uematsu, Kikuta etc), but there are also a couple of surprises waiting and a certain David Wise flying the flag for England.

Anyways, here is the complete track listing and for anyone who's interested in having a listen, the download link can be found below.

VGM Unwinding Vol II: BGM Galore
  1. Frontier Village Dali - Final Fantasy IX OST
  2. Lost Fragments - Chrono Cross OST
  3. The Treasure Which Cannot be Stolen - Xenogears OST
  4. Interrupted by Fireworks - Final Fantasy VII OST
  5. Underwater Exploration - Super Mario Sunshine OST
  6. Fear of the Heavens - Secret of Mana OST
  7. The Village of Chirping Birds - Genso Suikoden II OST
  8. Forest Interulde - Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest OSV
  9. Angel Culture - Grandia OST
  10. Peaceful Days - Chrono Trigger OSV
  11. Hope - Wild Arms OGS
  12. Heart Softening (Ode to Nanami) - Genso Suikoden II OST
  13. Stickerbrush Symphony -  Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest OSV
  14. Singing of the Gentle Wind - Xenogears OST
  15. Dream of the Shore (Boarding Another World) - Chrono Cross OST
  16. Brinstar Sector 2 - Super Metroid OSV
  17. Epilogue (To Good Friends) - Chrono Trigger OSV
  18. Good Egg Galaxy - Super Mario Galaxy OST
  19. Balrog - Street Fighter II Turbo OSV
  20. Find Ilia - The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
  21. A Peaceful Time Together: - Legend of Dragoon OSV
  22. Mining Melancholy - Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest OSV
  23. Celes - Final Fantasy VI OST
  24. Requiem of Grief - Genso Suikoden II OST
  25. Everyday Dream - Legend of Mana OST
  26. Marin sings the Ballard of the Windfish: The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening
I own physical and official copies of all albums/games this music was taken from

Once again, feedback and/or suggestions for future uploads are more than welcome. There are another 30 or so of these on the way so...happy listening!

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Cross pollination

Big news on today on Crystal Blue Dreams! Well maybe not that big, but worthy of a post at any rate.

I have joined the very talented team of writers on the books of up and coming website: Future Retro Gamer. My main focus will be on writing retro reviews and over the next few months I will be aiming to contribute a good number of articles on games for a variety of systems.

Fear not though avid readers! I have absolutely no intention of abandoning this site, and you can expect some decent updates at (hopefully) regular intervals. As I don't tend to write reviews in their purest form here, FRG gives me a chance to try my hand and see if I can cut down the waffle a bit!

Anyways, if you're interested then please have a read of my first review for the site (it's a beauty of a game)...comments and feedback are welcome both there and here.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Control freak Vol I: The SGB Commander

Over the past couple of months it has been well documented (on my Twitter feed at least) that I have a rather deep seated (and pretty weird to be honest) interest in console controllers. In fact, after a recent scout around my house it turns out that (if you include light-guns, sticks and a Dreamcast Keyboard) I have 107 of the things! I sounds as nuts to me as it does to you.

Anyways, seeing as I probably own about 1/5 of the world's controller population, I thought I would talk a little bit about some of the more interesting examples I've snared over the years. And you never know, after reading this you may even catch the bug slightly...

Straight out of 1994...a vintage year!
First up we have the SGB (Super Gameboy) Commander for the Super Famicom. Manufactured by Japanese by controller gurus; Hori, it was released in 1994 with the intention further enhancing the big screen Gameboy experience by making it easier to access and navigate the often clunky Super Gameboy menus. The first time I saw this in good old Super Play I knew I wanted one, but as with most interesting SFC peripherals of the time, the chance of a release outside of Japan was slim to...never.

Thank you Genki!
Happily, with the retro scene being what it is these days, I managed to acquire a Commander from one of my favourite stockists of über desirable Japanese goodies: Genki Video Games.

So all after all these years of waiting, was it worth it? Well yes, very much so!

First off, I think it looks stunning. Its design closely mimics that of Gunpei Yokoi's original (and also charming) Gameboy, with Hori even opting to use the same A and B buttons and d-pad from the controller's big brother. They even went to the trouble of placing a mock speaker in the corner...that's just ace in my book. As a fan of old video game stuff, the looks get a big thumbs up from me.

If you're going to mimic, then mimic the best
The build quality is also right out of the top drawer. It has a sturdy and chunky feel to it, and like the best controllers it doesn't feel like it will snap in half or fall apart when you reach the exciting part of a game...or that bit on Megaman 2 when Cut Man keeps cheating and the controller gets slightly thrown at the wall.

Importantly every one of the buttons and the d-pad has a classy feel to them, with no nasty clicking...quite rare in a third party peripheral. Although this one was licenced by Nintendo, which may explain why it's so impressive (access to the Kyoto parts bin!).

What a Christmas bundle this would have made...
With the SGB Commander being designed primarily for use with the Super Gameboy, it's layout is slightly different than your standard SFC/SNES controller. The shoulder buttons have been re-located so that they now flank the usual diamond layout of A, B, Y and X, my index fingers did feel lost for a moment but after that it all feels pretty natural, almost like a curvy NES pad.

I've used for a good few hours now on stuff like The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, Monster Max and Super Mario Land 2 and was really impressed. I even found myself messing with the menus and changing the colours just like in the old Link still looks amazing!

Friends reunited?
The Commander also doubles as a replacement SFC/SNES controller by way of a little switch above the start and select buttons. While it isn't ideal for action heavy titles like Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II, it will get you by in a good number of regular games, and in fact for slower paced games such as Sim City and Aerobiz I actually found myself favouring it over the regular pad.

A Triforce moment...
So there we are, although it was kind of pricey for a controller (£25), to me it was worth every penny. I'm very much looking forward to using my SGB Commander when I'm next scaling Tal Tal Heights, shooting down Tatanka and saving Dreamland.

Right, I'm off to trawl car boot sales for more pads!

By the by; if you were interested by this article, then please feel free to take a look at what I thought of Namco's weird and wonderful Negcon.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Ten reasons to buy (and love) Xenoblade Chronicles

Resplendent red sword, giant mech, long grass...good to go
This article was originally started in January 2012, mere minutes after I had bid a wistful farewell to the glittering cast of Xenoblade Chronicles. As a few of my dear friends are currently (or soon to be) wading through the bewitching world of the Bionis, it seemed right that I finish it off. I hope that along the way, this short article will inspire a few more people to experience Monolith's magnum opus, and if not then at least show that it was in fact Nintendo's much-derided Wii that boasted this generation's stand out RPG.

By the way; if the following seems a bit 'fan-boy', then I apologise. It has though, been a long time since any game enchanted me in such a way as this.

Onwards we go...

Having recently invested a significant amount of time (a little over 208 hours) into Xenoblade Chronicles, I feel confident in proclaiming that it is without doubt the finest 'new' role-playing game on sale today, and indeed the most exceptional since (the quite astounding) Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King. I would even go as far as to say that it is easily one of the most impressive, striking and memorable video games I have played in the last decade.

Coming up are ten attempts at me trying to explain my thinking.

1. It's on the Wii...

...and it's quality, I mean the kind of quality we used to see from Square when they were still good (cue the sound of jaws hitting floors). I can remember when the first videos of Xenoblade were released, and thinking to myself that there was no way such a game could be headed to the Wii, this was a RPG for crying out loud! Not since the heady days of Squaresoft and Enix on the SNES, had a Nintendo home console been able to boast such a magnificent example of the genre.

Although it true that the Wii does have a decent array of quality titles (here's my list of some of the more surprising), there is no getting away from the fact that it is now and always will be, known for the deluge of lazy, gimmicky and often shamefully unfinished mini games it was burdened with. And actually it is this apathetic and half arsed approach from the many companies which makes Xenoblade shine even clinically puts about 95% of the system's software developers to shame. You realise very quickly that if these developers had put in even half the effort into their games that Monolith Soft did with Xenoblade, then Wii owners wouldn't all have been left drowning in a shite infested sea of Carnival Games and Petz Horse Club.

It has depth, technical flair and genuine warmth in abundance and it highlights just what the little white machine can actually do in the right hands.

2. A mind blowing story

There have been many an RPG through the ages that can boast an epic storyline, and plots full of intrigue and suspense. There are even a select few that manage take us on a roller coaster of emotion and stay with us forever. Xenoblade sits comfortably in the latter category; it dispenses liberal helpings of joy, sadness, fear, and hope, all of which conspire to stir up real emotion and pull the gamer deeper into the world.

I fear I cannot do this staggering tale the justice it deserves without ruining it for people who are yet to experience it...but suffice it to say that it is all there and so much more. There is love, war, oppression, death, brutality, friendship, and it is all written in such a way that it worms it's way into your heart and captivates you from the very first scene to the closing credits. You are taken on such a grandiose journey that for me, the story of Xenoblade takes it's place alongside those of Final Fantasy VI, Suikoden II and Wild is nothing short of sensational.
The expansive Gaur Plains...pretty ain't she?!

3. The streamlined battle system

There's no disguising the fact that in terms of battle systems; Xenoblade is what FFXII should have been. And although it can take a bit of getting used to (you can't play it like a Final Fantasy game) it is an absolute joy once you're fully clued up. Left behind are the monotonous and dreary slogs of Squenix’s recent instalments, and in it's place is a fresh approach to active time and menu driven battles.

When an enemy is encountered, the transition from field to battle is seamless and there is no noticeable change to the game's pacing. Each fight skips along at rate not knots and although there are times when things seem to happen beyond your control, it all fits together and delivers a satisfying experience. The player is able to fully participate as the computer AI does a fairly decent job of looking after your comrades so you can concentrate on strategy and knocking seven bells out your adversaries.

The battle system seems to take as much inspiration from the ARPG genre as it does from the traditional ATB and turn based models and Monolith look to have recognised a negative shift in the tolerance of most new gamers toward slow-paced battles. The genuinely refreshing thing is that even though the system is designed for speed and ease of use, there is a ton of depth to it and more than enough strategy and customisation to keep hardcore pointy hat fans satisfied and engrossed.

4. Dazzling cutscenes

Although it is a bit 90's of me to sit here and wax lyrical about the quality of cutscene in a Japanese RPG; there is no denying that Xenoblade's are needlessly fantastic! It's obviously no revelation that the technical quality on show is nowhere near that of a PS3 or Xbox 360, however there is bucket loads of evidence to show that Monolith are wringing every last drop of power they can out of the can almost hear it struggling to process what is going on.

There is also the thoughtful addition of interactivity within certain scenes that can directly affect your party's view of one another. This is achieved by raising or lowering the 'affinity' between two members of your group, and this leads on to how they interact in the future. While it is hardly a brand new concept, it does bring a pinch of player involvement into the some cutscenes, and this only adds to the overall mood.

Every scene is presented with what feels like a 'glow', and all are exquisitely acted out (even in the English dub) with very pretty and refined in-game character models. The one area that leaves a bit to be desired is the facial expressions of the characters which look a touch dated (128-bit standard perhaps)...but it would take a cruel critic to let this detract. As much as the JRPG genre seems to divide people's opinion, there is no other style of game that can seem to match an RPG for cutscenes when it is on song.

5. The sheer size of the thing... bordering on ridiculous! The vastness of the world of Xenoblade is one of it's (many) trump cards, and one which it plays with continual and devastating effect. It's worth pointing out though that constant care is taken to not expose the player to too much too soon. However, once the game gets into it's stride, it seems very much like everywhere you can glimpse is reachable...very little is out of bounds.

I guess that the potential problem with a world of this size is the danger feeling it is almost too easy to get lost and sidetracked from the quest and story (this is probably more among novice players). This can lead to a game feeling like a dumbed down MMORPG (think FFXII again...sorry Squenix fans), happily though this is never the case with Xenoblade. The vistas can sometimes seem slightly intimidating with their scale, but it just seems to make the whole thing epic and make you feel like an explorer. In addition, there is always a handy pointer showing you the direction in which you need to head. Exploration is very much encouraged and is used as a clever way of gaining experience for your party...negating the need to build up as much as you would expect.
You can see why I'm besotted, no?

6. Sublime visuals

Most of us know that there is no way a Wii title can match the graphical prowess of the PS3 and Xbox 360. Once you spend some time with Xenoblade's rather special graphics though, it would honestly take a heart of stone forged from the mines of Narshe, to deny that this game is desperately pretty. You need only experience the splendour of the Eryth Sea Ether Fall or the golden snow of Valak Mountain to see this. I would defy anyone who does appreciate graphical finery not to be at least grudgingly impressed by this game's offerings.

There are few (if any) games on the Wii that even come close to the grandeur of this game. The impressive landscapes can be seen from miles away and the whole world is presented with a sheen that belies the game's humble underpinnings. I would go as far as to say that even Nintendo themselves would struggle to match this level of attractiveness.

When you can fall completely in love with a game (as I did), from merely gawping at the title screen, you know you're onto a winner. Watching the Monado blade stood amongst the tall blades of grass, while they gently sway with the wind, as the hours move elegantly by and day fades into night, is strangely breath taking.

7. An immaculate soundtrack

From the moment that you hear the stirring piano keys of Yoko Shimomura's opening score, you are left under no illusion that this game will be something special and your ears in particular are in for a treat. The main theme perfectly sums up the game's emotional nature, with it's gentle beginning giving way to an epic orchestral climax. 

I might as well cut straight to the chase now, the music in this game is nigh on perfect. I listen to a lot of video game music, and RPG music in particular, and if I'm honest, Xenoblade is the only video game OST I've heard that can hold a candle to Yasunori Mitsuda's Chrono Cross. Interestingly you can hear the great man's influence in throughout every track, although he is only credited for a small portion of the overall score. From the intrepid aria of Gaur Plains, which makes you feel like even more of an explorer; to the heartfelt 'Rikki's Tenderness', which evokes such emotion, we are reminded once again that this is the kind of music only the Japanese do well.

The background music will change (sometimes drastically) depending on whether you are wandering round during the day or at night...and some of this after dark music is nothing short of divine, Satorl Mash and Agni Ratha being prime examples.
None of that motion control malarkey here!

8. The ridiculously talented development team (Monolith Soft)

Let's be honest, if you were looking for a company to step up and deliver a gob smacking RPG in this day and age, then you could do far worse than go to Monolith Soft. The company is made up (for those who are unaware) of former Square employees...and not just any employees, many of the Monolith staff were responsible for genre defining games such as Chrono Cross, Xenogears and the Xenosaga series...not to be sniffed at.

I can't help but feel Nintendo played an absolute blinder when they bought Monolith from Namco and made them a first party developer. The company just oozes quality and has a genuine love for the RPG. If the rumour that they are working on a WiiU RPG turns out to be true, then it could help Nintendo to shift just a few more machines.

9. It "rescues the JRPG" as a genre

The game seems to have the ability to satisfy the modern gamer's desire for a more fluid and less arduous adventure. It allows the player to 'warp' to most landmarks in an instant (personally I think this is lazy, but I do see it's advantages), and it goes a long way to removing the need to level up your character to by fighting enemies over and over again. All this, helps the game to flow in a way that I've never really experienced in a traditional RPG. It's certainly no action RPG, but it does take a lot from it's sibling genre. Worry not though stats fans! At the same time, Xenoblade manages not to alienate the more hardened RPG fans by stuffing itself full of lovely customisation, neat skill exchanges and some truly magnificent side quests.

Over the last few years or so, there have been many in the gaming industry telling us that the Japanese RPG is dead, dying or just completely stagnant. While I would agree that there is far less development and evolution in this genre than many others, to just dismiss it in this way is total horse shit. The fact is the JRPG has simply had it's fifteen minutes of fame. The days of Squaresoft mega summons and Konami stars of destiny being the trendy thing in gaming are long gone. The JRPG has simply retreated back into obscurity, where it will still be loved vehemently by it's fans. I've no doubt that western gaming's latest mistress; the FPS will also one day experience this fate (I've got the champagne on ice for that day!). But all this aside, Xenoblade has been a welcome breath of fresh air for the genre and has done some exemplary work in appeasing many of the naysayers.
As heart warming as a lunch scene can be...

10. Influenced the starting a powerful fan movement

When Nintendo of America announced that Xenoblade Chronicles, the Last Story and Pandora's Tower; three of the Wii's most promising titles, would not be receiving a release in North America, there was, as you would expect a good deal of disappointment and anger from fans. This feeling was exacerbated further because all three games had been given the green light for translation and release in the PAL territories...I for one actually felt this went some way toward making up for Chrono Trigger and Earthbound (sorry American friends!).

The feeling of the fans became so strong that Operation Rainfall was formed. The following months saw legions of dedicated fans lobbying Nintendo of America via email, letter and even phone call, in the hopes of persuading them to release this trio of games. In what must be regarded as a victory for all fan-kind(!), Nintendo finally announced plans to release Xenoblade and The Last Story in North America.

I find it incredible and quite moving that the desire of ordinary people to experience 'mere' video games, could lead to such a movement and in turn, convince one of the world's premier entertainment companies to change it's mind. Everyone involved deserves massive thanks, and has my unwavering admiration.

In summary

I am well aware that my fevered ramblings do not really do justice to this jewel of a game. So I implore and even beg of you, if you have any interest at all in the RPG genre or even just in video games that are designed and built to be as good as they possibly can, then get this game.

I think it speaks volumes for me to say that Xenoblade Chronicles is worth the price of a Wii all on it's is just that good. With any luck, it's commercial success and critical acclaim will help to ensure the continued translation and release of more Japanese RPGs.

The Last Story sure has a lot to live up to...