Category Archives: retro gaming

Everything old is new again in NES Remix

gd nes remix initial thoughts impressions

It’s been said and said before, but I never had an NES of my own growing up. I got started on the SNES–that’s a super NES for those not hip with the gaming language–and a GameBoy for road-tripping purposes. Man, I miss that GameBoy along with my well-played copies of Tetris and Super Mario Land. Anyways, there were a few neighbors that I hung out with and got to mostly watch them play NES titles from the side, and so I ended up missing out on a lot of what many might consider true Nintendo classics. Though I do now also own a NES Classic, which is tiny and cute and needs to see me use it way more, and I have gone back and tried a few of these classics over the years, such as Jetpac, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid.

When word got out that Nintendo was shutting down its Nintendo Club program back in the summer of 2015, I got my act together and spent points that needed spending. You can see what I procured for myself, though obviously this post is going to be all about that NES Remix. ::takes a deep breath:: Right. Here’s everything remixed in this kickoff of Nintendo’s new series, which, as of this posting, is three entries deep:

  • Balloon Fight
  • Baseball
  • Clu Clu Land
  • Donkey Kong
  • Donkey Kong Jr.
  • Donkey Kong 3
  • Excitebike
  • Golf
  • Ice Climber
  • Mario Bros.
  • Pinball
  • Super Mario Bros.
  • Tennis
  • The Legend of Zelda
  • Urban Champion
  • Wrecking Crew

NES Remix is all about changing things up, going from the expected to the unexpected. Most challenges in NES Remix are simply excerpts from these vintage games, involving timed tasks, such as speedrunning, clearing an area without dying, or defeating a certain number of enemies while utilizing a given power-up. They do not start out very taxing, and it’s more about nailing the challenges perfectly in good time to earn stars and 8-bit stamps for your collection book. Stamps that, now thanks to the ice-cold removal of the Miiverse app, are pretty much useless, but whatever…I still like collecting ’em.

However, the remix categories are additionally based on the fundamental reshaping or combination of games, sometimes by blending in more modern graphical features of the Wii U, for a new experience that may even be technologically impossible on an actual NES console. For example: completing a darkened level that is lit only by a spotlight superimposed over the player’s character, navigating on disappearing platforms in Super Mario Bros., or playing a Donkey Kong stage as Link instead of Mario, as seen in the screenshot at the top of this post, challenged by Link’s inability to, y’know, jump over incoming barrels. These are neat and the real draw of NES Remix, even if modders have been toying with this stuff for years; it is fun to see Nintendo’s stab at it.

Naturally, I was more interested in seeing the remixes for games I’m familiar with, such as Balloon Fight, Excitebike, and The Legend of Zelda. Other games, like Ice Climber, the Donkey Kong entries, and Urban Champion, did nothing for me, as I already didn’t know how to play them to begin with. I recently unlocked all the levels for Pinball and immediately cleared them because Pinball is just the best, whether in real life or videogame form. I sometimes lose myself in Kirby’s Pinball Land because, every now and then, you just need to hit a ball with some paddles and earn a high score.

NES Remix is good fun. I don’t want to complete every challenge it throws at me, and that’s fine. I’ll stick to the games I know and appreciate and ignore the oddballs. Still, I have other Wii U titles to get to as I inch closer and closer to boxing up the system and getting a Switch.

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Paul’s Preeminent PlayStation Plus Purge – Sky Force Anniversary

Sky Force Anniversary is described as a legendary shoot-em-up, but I unfortunately never really heard of it until I sat down the other day to give it a go on the ol’ PlayStation 3. Over my many years of playing all these dang vidyagamez, shoot-em-ups are a genre I just don’t find myself drawn to…though I do remember playing a lot of Thunder Spirits and U.N. Squadron on the SNES back in the day. Maybe a bit of RayStorm too. Still, if I am to play one of these, I prefer them to not be bullet hell style, as that is just masochism at its finest.

After some minimal research, I discovered that Sky Force is a vertically scrolling shoot-em-up series created by the Polish developer Infinite Dreams. The gameplay is reminiscent of Capcom’s 19XX series and Seibu Kaihatsu’s Raiden series, of which I don’t think I’ve played either, featuring a weapon upgrade system and large end-of-stage bosses. The first title in the series was originally released for Symbian and Pocket PC in 2004 and was ported to Palm webOS (2005), iOS (2009), and Android (2010). Also, the first game in the series was 2D and entirely sprite-based.

You start off Sky Force Anniversary with a fairly powerful ship, shooting down waves of incoming enemies with ease. Alas, as expected, things happen, and your ship loses all its great abilities. It is up to the player to build their battle-ship back to its glorious former self over the proceeding handful of levels. Warning: it’s going to take time, and by time..I mean grinding. The first few levels are not technically difficult, but enemies will take more hits to destroy and you’ll find your ship exploding sooner than expected. Defeating enemies drops collectible stars, which used to upgrade your ship in the hanger between levels, with each upgrade requiring more and more stars, naturally. Despite only unlocking up to the third mission, I found myself replaying missions one and two just to earn more stars and boost my ship a bit. It’s not exactly a barrel of fun, but it gets the job done…slowly.

All in all, Sky Force Anniversary feels slightly more scaled back in terms of overwhelming action, focusing instead more on patterns and the movement of enemies. You won’t experience a thousand and one bullets flying at your ship, but rather a small handful, with other things to track as well, such as stars to collect, people to rescue, boxes to shoot open, and so on. Each level has four bonus goals to complete, such as rescuing people or killing the majority of enemies, though it seems like, at least for the first three levels, these are all the same. Evidently, if you complete all four challenges, you can play an even harder version of the mission.

See ya, Sky Force Anniversary. You were a decent amount of fun for a few levels, but you just aren’t my thing. My favorite part, overall, was the little “ya-hoos” that people screamed when you rescued them off the ground.

Oh look, another reoccurring feature for Grinding Down. At least this one has both a purpose and an end goal–to rid myself of my digital collection of PlayStation Plus “freebies” as I look to discontinue the service soon. I got my PlayStation 3 back in January 2013 and have since been downloading just about every game offered up to me monthly thanks to the service’s subscription, but let’s be honest. Many of these games aren’t great, and the PlayStation 3 is long past its time in the limelight for stronger choices. So I’m gonna play ’em, uninstall ’em. Join me on this grand endeavor.

You have 10 seconds to survive Sonic Blast’s underwater levels

I played some Sonic Blast the other day, and I almost beat it. I’m not going to tell you why I had the sudden urge to play a Sonic the Hedgehog game, nor why I decided to pick that one of all my options. The game originally appeared on the Sega Game Gear way back in 1996, but also later managed to eek its way on to the Sega Master System…but only in Brazil. Huh. Nowadays, it can be found on various other platforms through collections, even as recent as a digital download on the Nintendo 3DS. My version is found deep inside the 2004 release Sonic Mega Collection Plus for the PlayStation 2, which I got almost three years ago during a PS2 shopping spree.

Sonic Blast clearly wanted to–pun intended–ape the same style of pre-rendered graphics from Super Nintendo’s big 1994 release Donkey Kong Country. For sure, those Rare titles had a look, even if they haven’t aged well. However, to ensure that details are visible, both sprites for Sonic and Knuckles are bigger than their counterparts in earlier titles, which results in a “zoomed in” look. This means you get to see less of the level on the screen and will often not know what is coming up, whether it be a bunch of rings, an enemy, or a death pit of spikes. I also had this problem with Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge and Metroid II: Return of Samus, both of which put all their effort into ensuring you see the game’s hero up close and personal at the sacrifice of gameplay.

And, well…it’s a Sonic the Hedgehog game. You generally move left to right across the screen, jumping, collecting rings, avoiding enemies, and searching for the spinning signpost that signals the level is over. Usually, to get there, it’s a complicated puzzle path. There’s not much new here overall, though you can also play as Knuckles from the get-go, which I did not do. Sonic Blast is relatively short, about five zones long, with each zone made up of a couple levels and a boss fight against Doctor Eggman that tasks you with jumping on his spaceship’s windshield several times to crack it open.

I got all the way up to the Blue Marine Zone, which is the fourth zone. Alas, it’s mostly underwater, with bits of ancient ruins, like crumbled columns, in the background to begin questioning yourself on the true nature of this beast and whether it all takes place on Earth. Also, there’s a bunch of pipes that shoot you this way and that way and all around with fervor and strong water currents to deal with. Here’s the kicker: you’ll drown if you stay in water for too long. If you need air, you can either get out of the water, find an air bubble, or travel along one of the previously mentioned suction tubes.

Drowning in Sonic the Hedgehog games is not whacking the originality ball into space. It’s been there since the beginning, with a wonderfully haunting ditty to remind you that death comes at your fast and there’s no time to do anything about it and you’ll never get to see your loved ones again and the end is oh-so near. That’s whatever, but my main beef with the mechanic specific to Sonic Blast is that…you have no indication of how much air you have left. If you linger too long under the water, you’ll eventually get a 10-second timer on top of the screen silently counting down to the Blue Blur’s demise. That classic piece of music I linked to above does not play. Considering the maze-like design of this zone and limited options for filling up Sonic’s lungs, I was frustrated and lost all of my lives and continue credits in this one section, having had zero deaths up to this point as the difficulty wasn’t all that challenging.

Wait. Okay, no–I had to look up a video walkthrough to confirm I wasn’t missing something, that this was user error, and it sort of was. See, if you stand Sonic over an area where tiny air bubbles are coming out of the ground–because of science, duh–it depletes your number of rings. I guess that means you are briefly buying more oxygen, but it’s not very clear as there’s no meter or picture or even animation from the Legendary Blue Hedgehog to indicate anything is happening; a sound effect would have gone a long way. But just like how Sonic’s air supply was depleted, so was my interest in playing further, seeing as this dropped me unceremoniously back to the title screen.

In the end, my forty or so minutes with Sonic Blast was anything but that. What? You had to know a joke like that was coming. Anyways, maybe one day I’ll feel inspired to go back and finish off its final acts, knowing what I know now about air bubbles and rings. Or maybe I’ll try another Sonic the Hedgehog title in my PS2 collection, considering it has something like 20 games in it, albeit not all star the Blue One and some must first be unlocked. Or perhaps I’ll never touch anything Sonic the Hedgehog-related ever again. All are likely options.

Je ne comprends pas The City of Lost Children, d’accord

There were two big events in my childhood/teenhood that caused me to stay home from school for several days and recover in bed or on the living room couch with lots of tea, buttered white toast, and TV sitcom marathons. Also videogames on the television, all on my SNES or PlayStation 1 with the kewl PSM lid cover, but I did eat up nearly an entire run of Gilligan’s Island at some point too though perhaps that was just a highly visual fever dream. My favorite character is Mary Ann, by the way, and the episode most firmly cemented in my brain revolved around a method actor visiting the island and pretending to be a Tarzan-like jungle lord. Shrugs.

Right, back to the stay-at-home events. One had to do with me getting my wisdom teeth removed, and the other was related to an injury to my left knee that required surgery, pain killers crushed up in applesauce, and physical therapy. Both were not fun and had me in various states of wooziness, and I don’t remember exactly which event it was, but for one of them, my mother let me rent a bunch of games for the PlayStation to keep me entertained. Me thinks it was for the wisdom teeth removal, since I knew when that was happening and wanted some guaranteed pleasures during the downtime.

Well, I selected three PlayStation 1 games from our local store that rented games (not a Blockbuster, sorry), all on their box art alone–Destruction Derby, The City of Lost Children, and Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror. I mean, look at how cool these covers are:

Er, maybe not. Well, I thought they were killer then.

Of these, I remember enjoying Destruction Derby a lot, not understanding how a point-and-click adventure game worked in Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror, especially using a controller, and being completed dumbfounded by The City of Lost Children, which, if you didn’t already know, is an adaptation of the 1995 movie of the same name by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Also, if you’re not familiar with the film, you have no chance of understanding what’s going on in this game–trust me on this. The introductory cutscene doesn’t really explain anything, not even introducing you to the character you will be playing as for the entire game. Thankfully, the manual offers a brief summary of the plot, but even that is not much to work from.

I’ll do my best here. The City of Lost Children takes place in a nameless, steampunk-inspired city by the seaside. A less-than-good scientist, most likely evil, has his henchmen kidnap children in order to steal their dreams to prevent the process of his premature aging. Y’know, normal kidnapping reasons. Anyways, the opening cutscene shows one of these children getting kidnapped, and that’s really all the information the game gives you before giving you control over 12-year-old Miette, which means “crumb” in French. You start inside a classroom, with a pair of Siamese sisters at the front telling you to go steal money from some hut because they said so.

Little to my teenage knowledge, this was an adventure game. Not exactly a point and click one, but still one where you walked around, gathered items, and made progress by using those items on people or other items to make things happen. Like a Metroidvania, but with less action involved. Considering it would still be many, many years before I would fall in love with the genre, I probably went into The City of Lost Children thinking it was in the same vein as things like Resident Evil or Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain. Boy was I not at all right. Not one teeny tiny bit. I’d later come to have fun with Blazing Dragons and Discworld II: Mortality Bytes!, so this being an adventure game alone had nothing to do with my terrible time with it. That is a result of it being exceedingly obtuse and poorly designed.

A strong memory that stands out: Miette, saying “I can’t do anything” or “I can’t manage it,” every time you interact on something she can’t do anything with. Which was on a lot of items in that early portion of the game I banged my head against. Compound this with the sluggish, tank-like controls and sometimes odd camera angles that made it hard to see where something lead to another screen, and my rented time with the game was spent wandering around the first few areas aimlessly until I decided enough was enough and at least knew what to do with my vehicle in Destruction Derby–crash it. Which is a shame, because I thought The City of Lost Children looked stunning at the time, and, while the polygons are not as sharp as today’s standards, there’s still a strong, off-kilter aesthetic here from Psygnosis, the British developer that gave us gems like Colony Wars, G-Police, and, uh, Hexx: Heresy of the Wizard, that makes this one of the more unique-looking games from the generation.

Anyways, I’m sure someone has paid it forward and done a recorded playthrough of The City of Lost Children and put it up for free on the Internet for everyone to watch. Maybe one day I’ll even search it out. Until then, I hope you enjoyed this random trip down my memory lane.

Adding to the Backlog – Three More PlayStation 2 Titles, Woo

I’m not out to collect every single PlayStation 2 game ever made, because they sure did make a whole lot of them, but I have a list of several titles that I missed during the console’s heydays and am genuinely interested in acquiring and, when the time is right, playing. Yes, playing, because I love games of varying ages, especially JRPGs from this specific era in the industry, for reasons I’m not totally clear on just yet. They don’t make them like they used to, and when they try, they don’t always succeed. Anyways, for a good while there, I was able to find some PlayStation 2 cases at my local GameStops, but they eventually needed more shelf-space for other things, like amiibos and virtual reality gear, and stopped stocking them.

Recently, at a comic convention last April, I was able to grab a working copy of Dark Cloud, which I once had and was actually the very first game I got for my system as a young boy with some steady income before being dumb and trading it in for something else. The game, not the system. I’m still rocking my original PlayStation 2 because I take good care of my stuff. Right, the last time I added a bunch of old-ish games in one solid lump was back in February 2016, with me stocking up on an astounding ten games for my collection; you’ll not be surprised to learn I’ve not tried a single one of them yet. Sigh. One day, when the world is full of free time and no consequences or guilt-laden clouds.

Over the weekend, while Melanie was taking a buttercream flowers class, I had an hour or so to kill in Somerville, NJ, and so I stopped in Retro Classics to peruse their wares. I’ve been in the store before, picking up PS2 copies of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and The Hobbit for my constantly growing assemblage of all things related to The Lord of the Rings, but the last time I went I forgot to bring a list and found myself second-guessing whether or not I had this or that copy of said title and was reluctant to make any purchases. It’s always good to be prepared, and this time I totally was.

Here’s what I got:

That might not seem all that exciting of a haul to you, but Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse is something I’ve never seen out in the wild, and my love for strange JRPGs from this era was too strong to resist grabbing a copy for around $15.00. Perhaps I now have more of a reason than ever to finally play through the first game, eating up those lengthy anime-driven cutscenes and e-mails and card-based minigames, knowing there is actually more to follow. The store also has a retail copy of Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra, but it was a little too pricey for me at the moment. You can see that I also nabbed Wallace & Gromit in Project Zoo, which pairs nicely with my case-less copy of Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and X-Men Legends so that I can go back to the beginning of when these comic book hero videogames became more RPG than mindless punching and optic blasting. I’m pretty pleased with the trio.

Anyways, that’s all for now. Alas, most of my list of desired PS2 games are really obscure beasts, like Summoner 2, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Legaia 2: Duel Saga, and I just don’t think I’ll ever run into them at a store and I’m too timid to try and find them online for a “good” price and deal with trusting a stranger somewhere in the world to deliver on their promises. I’ll keep looking, but I won’t hold my breath. Because I’ll run out of air rather quickly. Until then, looks like I have some other things I can play. Y’know, when I find the time.

I’m floating in a most peculiar way in Jetpac’s space

Y’all should know by now that I’d  do nearly anything for a free game. Some things I won’t do include swimming with sharks, eating an entire jar of mayonnaise, or going on one of those roller-coasters where you are dangling in the air from shoulder straps, your feet inches away from smacking into something solid and breaking into a thousand pieces. Otherwise, so long as I don’t end up in a lot of physical pain, I’m game.

And so, during this past week of E3 2017 shenanigans, there was a chance to earn Rare Replay, No Time to Explain, The Final Station, and a bunch of other digital rewards for zero dollars by simply watching Microsoft’s press conference live through Mixer, its streaming service formally known as Beam. Alas, I was too late to catch the conference, but there were other chances to participate throughout the week.

Of all those goodies, Rare Replay is the “game” I was most excited to receive; it’s a big collection of Rare’s history, a company that, after reviewing its portfolio, I have actually had little contact with, but appreciate their humor and love of colorful graphics from afar. I think I have only ever played one Rare game found in the collection, and that was Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. Outside the collection, I’ve enjoyed Marble Madness, Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (sorry, not you, Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!), and that opening level repeatedly on an emulated copy of GoldenEye 007 (please don’t arrest me). So there’s a lot to try out for the first time in this collection, and I have no intentions of playing through it in chronological order, but I did start it all off with Rare’s first game Jetpac, back when the company was called Ultimate Play the Game.

Jetman’s plight in Jetpac is one that pre-dates Groundhog Day, the film, by about ten years, but surely was an inspiration to anyone thinking about what it meant to be stuck in a time loop, repeating the same day and tasks again and again. Jetman must assemble his rocket (which spawns in installments scattered around the map) and fill it with a select amount of fuel before taking off to the next planet. This procedure is then repeated, over and over, with no end seemingly in sight. In addition to this, Jetman has to defend himself from the planet’s native aliens, which a varied and have different attack patterns. Some move diagonally, and others lock on to the tiny astronaut and follow him around the screen. He’s got a ray gun that shoots horizontal lasers for defense, and things like gems can be collected for bonus points.

By and far, my favorite thing about Jetpac is its wraparound world. You go to one edge of the screen, cross over, and appear on the other side. This is extremely handy when trying to avoid a group of enemies or make a shortcut to the rocketship. I’m sure this wasn’t the first game to do this, but I’m too tired to look up when Mario Bros. came out versus this game. Regardless, it works, and I have to say that, some 34 years later, the game plays pretty great. Jetman is pretty quick to move around, and the only problem I had was with collision on the platforms, which made him bounce back, often right into an alien enemy I was trying to avoid. The repetitious gameplay gets old, but one has to remember that this came from an era of high scores and bragging.

Thankfully, Rare Replay throws in some additional things to do, both in their milestone quests and snapshot features. Milestones are things like “kill X number of aliens” or “fill your rocketship up with fuel X times” while snapshots make things a little more tricky. One took away Jetman’s laser gun, forcing you to maneuver on your own quick wits, and another tasked him with completing five wraparounds in a row without dying. I happily completed all of these and popped every Achievement related to the title.

There are other games in the Jetpac series left to try out in Rare Replay, but I don’t know what I will tackle next. I suspect I’ll save some of the collectathons for later in life, when I have the time and am in a find shiny things kind of mood. Either way, I highly recommend you check out Jetpac and to not be put off by its age or graphics, of which I think the latter is pretty cool. The sound effects department is lacking, but I absolutely love the bright, crisp colors–the blurry screenshot above doesn’t do it justice, I know–and there’s a surprising amount of strategy and skill involved in bringing canisters of fuel to and fro. Certainly more than I expected when first launching it, and it’s always great to see where a company started. Here’s hoping Sea of Thieves incorporates some elements from Jetpac, like bringing bits of grog back to your ship one glass at a time until there’s enough to get the entire crew wasted and off to some other island.

2017 Game Review Haiku, #59 – Jetpac

Rebuild your rocket
Collect parts, fuel–defend it
Love the wraparound

I can’t believe I’m still doing this. I can’t believe I’ll ever stop. These game summaries in chunks of five, seven, and five syllable lines paint pictures in the mind better than any half a dozen descriptive paragraphs I could ever write. Trust me, I’ve tried. Brevity is the place to be. At this point, I’ve done over 200 of these things and have no plans of slowing down. So get ready for another year of haikus. Doumo arigatou gozaimasu.