Game Review: Splatoon (Wii U)


Splatoon North American box art.

Title: Splatoon
Developer: Nintendo EAD Group No. 2 (Yusuke Amano and Tsubasa Sakaguchi)
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Wii U
Genre: Third-Person Single/Multiplayer Team-Based Shooter
Release Date: May 29, 2015


(Editor’s Note: The following review is of the vanilla version of Splatoon using a North American copy of Splatoon for the Wii U, both of which are owned by the reviewer.)


To say that Nintendo has forged some incredible original works in the world of gaming is definitely an understatement. This has been proven time and time again with the likes of the Mario, Metroid, and Zelda series and other such original properties. However, it has been quite a long time since this storied developer has created something new, as opposed to renovating preexisting franchises. With the Wii U having a rocky start in the eighth generation, it has been in desperate need of solid first-party and third-party support that truly stands out. Luckily, Nintendo has broken this cycle with the creation of Splatoon. This game is actually something new that not only attempts something different from the Nintendo status quot, but is also a refreshing twist on the third person shooter formula. There is a solid amalgamation of game play styles and concepts that are married together with a balance and polish that is synonymous with the developer’s pedigree of concocting quality games. This, along with the 1990s styled aesthetic, graffiti motif and a catchy soundtrack to match culminates into a delightfully charming and quirky exclusive for the system. Unfortunately, there are some arbitrary design choices with the implementations of control input, Amiibo usage and lack of voice communication that hold this entry back from being a masterpiece across the board. Despite these shortcomings that persistently rear their ugly heads, Splatoon manages to rise above them and emerges as a pleasantly unique and profoundly entertaining third-person shooter platformer in its own right.

The setting of Splatoon is based around the booming city of Inkopolis, where the humanoid squid people called Inklings live. The Inklings partake in battles over territory and other competitive matches of combat in order to amp up their reputation. However, all is not well in Inkopolis. Unbeknownst to the masses, the evil Octarians have stolen the Zapfish that supply power to the city and the Inkling’s fresh lifestyle. It is up to the player, who assumes the role of Agent No. 3, to recapture the precious Zapfish from Octo Valley and save his or her home. As serious as this premise sounds, it is conveyed and handled in such a silly way where you cannot take it seriously. It simply serves as a backdrop for this this journey, which merely exists to teach the player how to utilize the wide array of game play mechanics and how they work in tandem. This is perfectly fine, as this main story line is presented as just a fun and quirky adventure that works well within the conceit of the game’s world.

The overall presentation of Splatoon is very fascinating because it is a great centralized experience. On top of being the core setting of the game’s universe, Inkopolis also serves as the main hub area and menu for the player. After some expository character creation and control customization, the player goes through a short tutorial and is then tossed into the main town. Here, the player can access the single player campaign in Octo Valley, regular and ranked online multiplayer matches at the Lobby, new gear for purchase at the Booyah Base stores and head-to-head skirmishes at the Battle Dojo. Other diversions include playing minigames at the arcade cabinet, ordering special coveted gear through Spyke, posting messages and sketches to the Miiverse and uploading special exclusive content via select Amiibos. All of this is contained within the confines of Inkopolis and is easily within the player’s reach or visibility.

If you do not want to be bothered by running over to certain locations, you can simply access these areas through the map menu shown on the tablet controller screen. On the same display you can customize your controls once more, check and equip your gear for online matches and even try the layout in a test map. With all of these elements conveniently attached to the Inkopolis hub, there is nothing overly tedious or boring about menu navigation or simply getting into the action. The city of Inkopolis feels vibrant and persistent because of how everything revolves around it, with real world players meandering about accompanied by the electronic beats plus the hustle and bustle of the town. Something that also adds to the charm of this world is that each play session begins with an installment of Inkopolis News – a Television program, hosted by the ever-so-fresh Callie and Marie, that reveals new game updates on top of the latest multiplayer maps in the current rotation. There is something to be said for a title in which the act of just starting the game and accessing various modes is appealing in its own regard.

The control agency is another interesting and unique aspect of Splatoon that sets it apart from other third-person shooters. The game allows for a twin stick layout for moving around the environment and rotating the third-person camera. However, the default layout makes use of the tablet controller’s gyroscopic sensor to allow camera rotation for free looking and aiming. While it feels awkward at first, getting accustomed to this scheme makes for more precision than using a thumb stick for the same thing. To aid any disorientation of the gyro sensor, pressing the Y button resets the camera.

Pressing the right trigger will fire the player’s equipped primary weapon and pressing the right bumper will use the paired secondary weapon. Using the left trigger will make the on-screen Inkling morph into its squid form for as long as long as said trigger is held down. This transformation mechanic plays an important part in the game play. The rest of the controls allow the player to jump about the level, use his or her special weapon and alternate between explosive types. Bear in mind that some of these auxiliary controls are exclusive to certain game modes. The default control scheme is very intuitive, as it is easy to master and eventually becomes second nature across both the single player and multiplayer sections.

In terms of the game play, Splatoon has a great deal of complexity with each core element tying into one another to form a symbiotic relationship. This game is just as much a platformer as it is a third-person shooter. As opposed to other entries in the genre, the Inklings aptly shoot brightly colored ink instead of bullets. This ink is used to kill enemies, but also dynamically paints any horizontal or vertical solid surfaces that it lands on within the environment. This will deplete the player’s ammunition reserve, which is represented visually on the Inkling’s ink tank worn on his or her back instead of having a numeric HUD element on-screen (this becomes a HUD element when submerged). Explosive weapons, which yield an area-of-effect attack and pigment coverage, use up considerable amounts of ink at one time.

When it comes to reloading and acquiring more ammo, Splatoon also deviates from the standard formula. When weapons are not in use, the character’s ink tank will slowly fill up. However, refilling ammo quickly ties back into the transformation mechanic. Morphing into squid form, while on inked surfaces of the player character’s respective color, will make him or her submerge in the ink. While submerged, the player’s tank refills at a rapid pace. This is such a great feature because it presents unique solution to a problem seen in plenty of modern shooter titles. Having to stop everything to hunt for more ammunition or scrounging for discarded guns can sometimes be a bummer, especially while embroiled in a heated firefight. This reload mechanic negates the issue of having to break away from the flow of combat and environmental traversal.

Taking damage and regaining health works a lot like reloading. Players will take damage from getting shot or by walking on differently colored ink, poisoning the Inkling. The player can neither swim in bad ink nor run across it. Taking too much damage will eventually result in death. Falling off of level environment yields the same result. Thankfully, health is slowly regained by avoiding fire and poisonous ink, which can be expedited by dipping down into the player’s ink. Just like the reload feature, quickly regaining life can be done without disrupting the flow of the hybrid game play.

However, this is not the only important use of the squid form while dipping into puddles of good ink. This ability ties into the finer points of movement and platforming as well. Players can use this form to swim through ink covered areas at a faster speed than simply running on foot. The player even climb up covered walls in order access higher platforms when in this form. Being a squid also makes the Inkling take a semi-liquid form that can slip through perforated floors and walls. These abilities add an innovative twist to both the shooting and platform game play ensemble that works surprising well when put into practice.

There is a neat stealth element that comes into play when submerged. In the single player campaign the player can dip down to confuse the Octarian enemies and swim behind them to score an easy kill. This also can work in a multiplayer capacity, provided that the opponent does not shoot its color ink in the player’s location. It is amazing how all of these various elements are brilliantly woven together to offer both a breadth and depth to the game that allows for so many different play styles, which can be utilized on the fly at any given moment.

As mentioned before, the single player campaign revolves around the region known as Octo Valley. The player must venture through five regions, accessing new levels along the way, in order to reclaim all of the Zapfish to restore full power to Inkopolis. The player cannot use special gear from the multiplayer component in this area. Instead, the player has access to a basic gun and alternative explosive weapon from the outset. Throughout these action stages the player can collect Power Orbs the can be used to unlock upgrades to the gun, acquiring new explosive items and other such enhancements.

The single player missions are well designed with the inclusion cool little gimmicks that make traversing the landscape lots of fun. To begin with, the levels are designed with structural elements that borrow from the layout of skateboard parks with ramps, bowls and other related formations. These formations that are littered throughout the stages along with ink propelled lifts, zip lines and super jump pads make use of the core game play mechanics in a meaningful and appealing way. Every region of the valley is punctuated by a boss battle stage where the player must exploit its weak points to overpower and destroy it in order to progress to the next region.

There are a couple of diversions in Octo Valley put in place to entice the player to complete the campaign. Each level has a scroll in a hidden location that reveals more information on the history of the Inklings and their dealings with the Octarians. The other reward for completing regions consists of blueprints that that can be taken to the Booyah Base weapon shop to unlock new arms for purchase in the multiplayer component. These cool knickknacks, though interesting to a certain extant, come off as attempts to pad out the length of the single player mode. The campaign is extremely polished and fun as it is, but having some more regions to visit would have been welcome. The thin amount of content is also seen in the local and online competetive multiplayer sections.

The multiplayer component of Splatoon splits into two different realms. With these modes, the player can use the blueprints found in the single player mode and buy various accouterments. This gear can be bought with in-game currency (accrued through playing online matches) at the Booyah Base – Inkopololis’ premier chain of bodegas that includes Ammo Knights (weapons store), Shrimp Kicks (shoe store), Jelly Fresh (clothing store) and Cooler Heads (headgear store). Again, the 90s style artistic representation along with the vernacular shines through quite well with how the shops are presented and how the shopkeepers interact with your character in Skater Boy jive.

The first mode is a local multplayer mode at the Battle Dojo that sadly supports only two players at one time. In this mode both players must engage in a competition to see who can pop the most balloons before the timer runs out. It is a fun mode that looks fantastic, has solid music and does take advantage of the well wrought game mechanics. One problem is that this game variant is the only one for local multplayer, which is pretty thin in the ways of content. The main downfall is that there are serious issues with this mode’s implementation. Because of the fact that you cannot connect two tablet controllers to the Wii U to play Battle Dojo, the game has a workaround for this issue that only exasperates the problem.

Player two can either use the Wii Remote in conjunction with the nunchaku or the Classic controller. These control options barley give the same allowance in agency as found in using the tablet pad. The most optimal solution is to use the Wii U Pro controller. However, this controller does not have a built-in gyroscopic sensor that the tablet controller uses for its unique camera control feature. This can be solved by augmenting the Pro pad with the Motion Plus add-on for the Wii. Not only is the controller input situation a mess, but it is a potentially expensive one depending on whether or not one already has all of these peripherals.

These issues also affect the display situation for playing local multiplayer. In order to circumvent the issue of a player looking at another player’s screen, the first player’s game play is displayed on the tablet controller screen and the second player’s game is shown in the television screen. This is one of the most baffling design choices, as playing with the gyroscopic aiming while having to manipulate the actual object also containing the game display constantly warps the first player’s sense of spacial relation and depth. If it was not for these issues, the local multiplayer Battle Dojo feature would be very accessible on top of being as entertaining and long lasting as the other modes. In the end, the local head-to-head play in Splatoon is a mixed bag.

Luckily, this is not an issue in the online multiplayer and this particular mode is truly what takes the center stage of the entire game. Vanilla Splatoon’s online competition section is broken up into three areas consisting of matches with friends on the Nintendo Network, non-ranked territory claiming skirmishes and ranked death matches using randomization for forming two teams of four inklings. This is where character progression differs greatly from the single player.

This mode features an experience focused persistence system mixed with buying and upgrading equipment that both combine to enhance the properties of the player’s online Inkling avatar. Competitors can gain experience points and in-game cash by participating in ranked and non-ranked matches to eventually turn their squid kid warriors into tough and well-outfitted forces to be reckoned with. Experience points will help to upgrade the character’s overall level, but also contributes toward unlocking new perks for weapons and other bits of equipped gear. Various pieces of gear have certain perks that can improve weapon effectiveness, movement in combat and defensive advantages. Winning matches will award the player a hearty helping of experience and money, but the game is forgiving enough to even grant the losers of battles with a meager amount of both.

When it comes to the offensive tools Splatoon offers quite the wide array of weapon types that have their own methods of attack, range and tactical usage depending on the architectural layout of certain combat environments. Fully automatic paint blasters that operate like assault rifles abound along with long range ink rifles, melee oriented paint rollers and short ranged shotgun equivalent paint brushes that project large spatters of ink at a short range. All of these families of arms are quirky and odd, but they manage to pave the way for a multitude of specific play styles while fitting in well in this colorful and wacky universe.

Just like the aforementioned single player component the wonderfully designed symbiotic circle of core game play mechanics works incredibly well when put through its paces while competing against thinking human opponents. This rings especially true for the platforming and stealth elements. This makes for a very chaotic and unpredictable when paired with the combination of the currently selected map and mode variant.

The game variants at launch are composed of two types called Turf War and Splat Fest. Turf War matches are won by covering majority of the horizontal surface area of the arena in a time constraint and Splat Fest is the typical death match mode where getting the most kills earns victory. The matches online last roughly six minutes each and feature some of the most energetic fast-paced action to be seen since the likes Quake III: Arena and the original Unreal Tournament. Even when losing matches at first, you always feel as if you have gained something in the form of cash, experience and a better understanding of how different player implement their own play styles.

Another cool thing about Splatoon’s online play is that it is an open and randomized system. You will never know who will be your adversaries or allies, making for more unpredictability. This honestly prevents the online space from getting boring and lends itself to a global community that surrounds the game. If living in the United States and playing Splatoon during the wee hours of the morning, one can fully expect to be playing against players from the other side of the globe. This perfectly segues into one of the amazing yet possibly unforeseen high notes of this title.

Splatoon has to have the most pleasant, courteous and amicable community out of any online competitive shooter. Do not misinterpret this as an admission that the Splatoon community is weak. To the contrary, the game’s community is just a competitive, fervent and outspoken as that of any other game in the current landscape. For some reason, this player base can be rowdy and dish out the trash talk without crossing the line and still manages to be group comprised of good sportsmen whether in victory or defeat; something that is truly respectable. While the multiplayer provide an unbridled and virtually unlimited amount of fun, it is not without its issues.

Map selection is not a choice for players to make, as the game itself usages a stage rotation system that showcases two playable maps for each game variant that rotates every four hours. This seems like an interesting approach to keeping this realm of play fresh, but it suffers from the same issue that hampers the single player and local multiplayer. There is simply not a lot content with this mode and it will not take that much time to experience the modes and content available herein. This is not the only issue with multiplayer Splatoon that stands out. The two most damning design choices have to do with in-game communication (or lack there of) and the implementation of Amiibo support. Voice communication while waiting in lobbies and during matches is simply not a supported feature in Splatoon.

This is absolutely baffling because it is impossible to coordinate any sort of strategy and/or alert allies to sudden hazards. Only by looking at movement patterns and the limited body language can players attempt to forge some semblance strategic planning, which amounts to nothing in most cases. It is quite obvious that, in an attempt to avoid the deluge of gamers who spout hateful and ignorant nonsense, Nintendo omitted this standard feature that could be feasibly done with the tablet controller’s microphone and headphone jack. The goodhearted intentions behind this decision are understandable, but the non-existence of this feature will mostly be a phantom pain felt by anyone who is accustomed to having voice chat in any multiplayer shooter both third-person or first-person.

The usage of Amiibos in Splatoon is truly a disgusting inclusion. There are only three Amiibos that are usable in the game and take the form of an Inkling squid, boy and girl characters. Each one unlocks extra content in the form of exclusive gear and levels to play through in single player. This is content that cannot procured in any other way and these Amiibos, like so many others that Nintendo habitually makes scant production runs of, are already out of print and have since become grossly overpriced collectibles. The fact that the content provided by these toy are intentionally exclusive the inclusion is blatantly anti-consumer and shameless. This feature is simply not needed in a game where the balance is a part of the game’s overall design. The Amiibo content most certainly puts a moderate damper on the experience.

It is unfortunate that these issues exist in Splatoon because they do nothing but hold this charming and inventive title back from being undeniably stellar. Though the few problems seen herein are substantial, they are not enough to destroy the indomitable spirit of the aesthetic, aural and mechanical accomplishments housed within the game’s world. The game is too cool and actually ends up overshadowing these problems in most cases.

The upbeat and totally radical vibes that ooze from every corner in the world of Splatoon shine through every aspect. It is such a lively place with its day glow colors and playfully edgy attitude. This is clearly a setting where all is wicked cool all of the time and hot summer fun reigns supreme. All of the Inklings look like character’s from 90s cartoons like Rocket Power with their skateboarder inspired threads and accompanying lingo. When ink lands on the grounds and on walls it dynamically spreads and cascades depending on the physics involved, which is a cool visual effect. For anyone who grew up during the 1990s it is sort of a fond trip down memory lane, but is still bound to be appealing to those who welcome a diversion from the muddy and dismally gray shooters that constantly spring up like pesky weeds. The solid visuals are further solidified by the game’s soundtrack and sound design.

Sounds are organic and appropriate, delivering a sense of impact and texture that compliment the inclusions of the weapon’s ballistic qualities as well as the footsteps Inklings make while running on wet sticking surfaces. The score of Splatoon tries to marry the synthetic tones of electronica along with the percussive beats and shredding guitar of punk rock to create something that truly complements the fun fresh style that title crafts in the art department. It is quite easy to unknowingly nod your head to these rocking tracks while the game is firing on all cylinders during the thick of the action. In the ways of presentation, Splatoon just feels right.

Nintendo has certainly taken a bold step in a new direction by attempting a third-person shooter, but has handled it a way that gives it a unique character and attitude that is very much its own. By fusing shooter game play with unique environmental traversal and timeless platforming, the game feels natural with its joyous fluidity. The single player, though short, is enjoyable for what it is and the online multiplayer is absolutely addicting. This title is not without its problems, as the controller input debacle and Amiibo implementation plus the lack of voice communication are obvious blemishes that prevent this excursion from being a masterpiece from all vantage points. However, these problems are the result of a development team experimenting with something outside of its comfort zone. A harmonious amalgamation of the 90s inspired aesthetics make it difficult to stay upset with these issues for long and the fun spirited charm is very refreshing. Splatoon is an awesome new take on the shooter formula that is more than worth checking out for anyone who wants that familiar action with a twist and is not afraid of a little color.




Rating IV-V

Game Review: Virtual Hydlide (SAT)


Virtual Hydlide North American box art.


Title: Virtual Hydlide
Developer: T&E Soft
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Sega Saturn
Genre: Third-Person Action Role Playing
Release Date: April 28, 1995


(Editor’s Note: This game was covered playing a North American copy of Virtual Hydlide for the Sega Saturn, both owned by the reviewer.)


Virtual Hydlide is a game that falls into the action role-playing genre which boasts the ability to procedural generate worlds. This title tries very hard to be a definitive action oriented emergent game play experience exclusively for the Sega Saturn. However, this game falls very short from the bar of quality despite being able to create unique overworld maps. Aside from the procedural generation and a surprisingly great musical score this game is brought down by linear game progression, redundant game play, borderline unresponsive controls, technical issues, a dysfunctional camera, muddy visuals and uninspired aesthetics. There are a few redeeming qualities to this game, but it will likely take more time than what most people have patience for in order to find them. Virtual Hydlide can be easily described as being a game that is far less than the sum of its parts.

The story of Virtual Hydlide is practically identical to that of its forbearer originally released on home computers as well as the Nintendo Entertainment system over fifteen years before. The game is set in the world of Fairyland and all is not well. The princess of this land has been transformed into three fairies by an evil sorcerer and it is up to a nameless adventurer to break this spell and bring both the princess and peace back to Fairyland. The story is basic to say the least and the fact that it is told through poorly made cheesy full motion video sequences does not help the story either. This premise for an adventure or role-playing game would have been good if this game had been an 8-Bit era game. However, the standards storytelling and progression have changed and grown since the days of the first Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, Dragon Warrior, and Legend of Zelda games. Thus, Virtual Hydlide’s story is essentially non-existent and looks as if it was simply shoehorned into the game. It is pretty much a cut-and-paste job that simply uses the first Hydlide’s story without further fleshing it out.

Before starting a new game the player has the option to select the difficulty and decide whether to randomly create a new world. The difficulty only changes aspects like having a completely viewable map from the outset and the aid of a compass that dynamically points in the direction of the next dungeon. Playing on harder difficulties is not recommended because it does not actually make the game any harder in terms of combat or strategy; it only requires more time to uncover the entire over world map which more tedious and time-consuming as opposed to being actually difficult. One of the few areas in which this game shines is how it is able to randomly generate the over world. When selected the game will produce a code consisting of various characters which somehow dictate features like plains, forests, rivers, mountains, plateaus, and where each dungeon is located. While this is a neat aspect of the game, all the dungeons the player needs to visit must be beaten in a particular order. This order is the same no matter how many time one generates a random map. This is because certain items that make beating the next dungeon possible are always located in the same respective dungeons. While the world generation feature is a nice idea and is decently implemented it is unfortunately squandered by how strictly structured the game progression is.

From a graphical standpoint, Virtual Hydlide is unbelievably ugly. The game is a haphazard blend of three-dimensional environments peppered with entities that are two-dimensional sprites. The perspective is of the third person in which the camera is slightly behind the back. The visuals are uninspired, look generic, and have so few frames and colors making it difficult fully express what certain things are or what is happening when turning and running making for considerable disorientation. All the textures and sprites have such a muddy look about them and the issue that all the creatures, objects, and even the player’s adventurous avatar looks pitifully mundane is apparent throughout the experience. With this pseudo 3D graphical style one would think that, with only 3D rendered terrains and environments, there would not be a significant performance hit. However, Virtual Hydlide constantly bouts with frame rate issues that cripple the game’s performance and the responsiveness. This is such a horrendous problem that rears its ugly head at the worst of times when combating multiple enemies while the frame rate is caught in the single digits. It is such a hinderence that, if you wanted to do an action, it will take almost two whole seconds for that button press to register. That is completely unacceptable by any game’s standards. The only thing that can compensate for this barely playable game is the musical score consisting mostly of symphonic music. These tracks capture the sense of grand adventure in way that the other aspects of the game cannot measure up to.

Game play in Virtual Hydlide is a subject that can lead one to suggest that this is a game with an identity crisis. The combat is fairly simple as it consists mostly of swordplay and blocking. Bladed weapons have two forms of attacks as where blunt weapons like clubs and war hammers have only one attack. Blocking is only useful in boss battles where the given enemy has a set pattern of movements and attacks. However, when fighting mundane enemies the use of a shield block is not even necessary because they often flinch thus provoking an attack of opportunity. Standing still can regenerate health and is necessary because of the lack of healing items in the game. In terms of combat Virtual Hydlide is not much more than a button masher. Another design issue with this is that, with the 2.5D graphics, it can hard to judge distances between the character and enemy monsters. Sometimes enemies can clip through your character and attack you from behind. This can often leave you defenseless when turning around takes precious time to do.

The RPG elements in this title are there, but are also very contrived and unnecessarily  minimalistic. Unlike most other role-playing games that use an experience based leveling system for character growth Virtual Hydlide has it so that you do not level up until you have collected special items and artifacts. Instead of leveling through combat killing enemies and collecting gold only adds points to your score located above the health meter. In a RPG the last thing one should think about is score; score is for arcade style games. Gold should be useful for buying and trading loot gained from exploring dungeons. However, there are no towns or shops in this game. This is unfortunate because having such things would have added to the exploratory possibilities, so this is another case where Virtual Hydlide drops the ball. It is important to note that Virtual Hydlide’s menus and control mapping are well done and intuitive. It is a shame that these two aspects are buried by entire slew of issues.

There some titles out there that have some easily seen redeeming qualities to them, but Virtual Hydlide is not one of those games. This is a game that will most likely make one wonder how those few redeeming factors even made it into this game. The technical problems with frame rate, the lack of good story, watered down RPG elements, and many other issues render this title borderline unplayable. Virtual Hydlide is a mess of a bad game that can only be recommended to anyone who may be intrigued by its great soundtrack or its procedural world creation or even the fact that this is a Sega Saturn exclusive. Otherwise, it is in your best interest to steer clear from this piece of software.



Rating II-V

Game Review: Hyper Vanguard Force IV (WEB)



Game Title: Hyper Vanguard Force IV
Developer: Dave Richard and Christine Marsh
Publisher: Turbulent (via RSI official site)
Platform: (WEB) [Unity]
Genre: Top down vertical scrolling space shooter
Release Date: 2015


(Editor’s Note: This game covered playing the free web based title Hyper Vanguard Force IV using a PC and the latest version of Mozilla Firefox owned by the reviewer.)


With Chris Roberts’ return to the game industry, there has a great deal of attention devoted to his latest effort known as Star Citizen. A love note to the space faring combat games of old, Star Citizen is slowly developing its own unique universe in a way that is quite believable. Ships not only have names, but also belong to various companies that have their own style and personality. This attention to detail with commercials, brands, and logos are created to ground Star Citizen in some sense of reality. One of the best instances of this effort is actually not an official product of Cloud Imperium Games (the developer behind Star Citizen). This is a web based fan made vertically scrolling shoot ’em up title called Hyper Vanguard Force IV that uses the ship designs from the upcoming space flight title to make a faux retro style game. Even though Hyper Vanguard Force IV is a woefully short game, it is one that is filled to the brim with addicting game play and a flare that pays homage to the PC and arcade shooter games of yesteryear.

The story of this game is simply heaping pile of campy B movie cheese. In the Verse, space pirates run rampant and do what they will with no consequence. Star pilots no longer fly in fear of the pirates and simply make trinkets that replicate the crafts they once piloted. You play as Meredith who is a Vanguard pilot. All is well until the evil space pirate captain Balthazar steals your prized Vanguard model miniature that once populated your dashboard. Since nobody steals from a Vanguard pilot, you give chase to Balthazar across three systems to get it back at any cost. It is such a shallow and cornball premise for a game that sounds like something out of the old classic Mega Man or Castlevania titles. It is silly, which at least shows that this is a title that does not take itself seriously. That is perfectly fine because the most enjoyable bits have to do with the overall game play and visual presentation.

The game play and control of Hyper Vanguard Force IV are simple enough. The player maneuvers the space craft by simply dragging the cursor about the screen. Something that will take a bit of acclimation is the fact that your ship does not move one-to-one with your mouse cursor. there is a bit of delay between the movement of said cursor and how the ship is moving. This may seem as being a control flaw at first, but this choice makes maneuvering your craft feel smooth and natural; not abrupt and jerky like most of the web based shooters powered by Flash back in the early to mid aughts. Instead, this game implements elegant movement alla Raptor: Call of the Shadows (DOS). Clicking and holding the button down fires all the Vanguards weapons at once. This includes your primary gun, side weapons and missiles.

Like most scrolling shooters, destroying enemies yields collectibles in the form of fire rate upgrades and currency. The fire rate increases remain with you only for the duration of the stage. Win or lose, you retain the currency, which is essential for purchasing weapon and shield upgrades in the menu before starting a level. Some stages will be insanely difficult at first, but with unlocking upgrades you will eventually tackle these challenges to fight for a high score. With the online integration you can compete with the best players from across the globe.

For a small three level shooter affair, Hyper Vanguard Force IV offers a great deal of replayability. Depending on how well you tackle each mission you can get medals for beating them with taking no damage and/or eliminating all foes. This is how the player fully beats Hyper Vanguard Force IV on the Normal difficulty. When that is completed, the Hyperpink difficulty is accessible on a level to level basis. This challenge mode runs each mission at faster speeds with enemy fire dealing more damage. At some points it feels like those Japanese style Bullet Hell shooters, forcing you to bob and weave through clusters of enemy projectiles moving at different speeds and from multiple directions. As far as game play is concerned, this is a challenging game that makes you fight for every accomplishment. The upgrade system incentivizes you to press on, testing how those new improvements fare against the opposition. Its fast paced nature and rewarding systems make this an addicting game that is hard to put down.

On top of the immensely satisfying game play, Hyper Vanguard Force IV sports a solid graphical presentation. Being a sprite based title, HVFIV features pixel art renditions of space crafts that are featured in Star Citizen. The sprites are so well rendered that it feels like you are playing a game that is using a creative license akin to licensed driving games that use real world cars. Even more interesting than the pixel art translation is how they move and are manipulated in the environment. rather than using multiple static frames to simulate ship rotation or just having the ships only appear vertically, HVFIV employs a heavy amount of sprite scaling and rotation that gives the game a similar feel that can be found in Super Nintendo titles that prominently use the Mode 7 technology. It is a neat little touch that adds to the old school cool nature of this space romp.

The soundtrack to this game is appropriate well composed, but is a bit on the forgettable side. The one track that will stick in your mind is the title/menu music. The whole score features sound samples and instrumentation that are reminiscent of both the Commodore 64 SID chip and the old DOS era sound cards like Soundblaster and Gravis Ultrasound. It is a solid mix that will most likely delight if you played games on C64 or DOS. However, the real meat of the audio presentation is the sound design, which makes blowing away countless enemy vessels nothing short of gratifying. When the game is running at max speed on Hyperpink difficulty it is a blissful symphony of pure unadulterated destruction.

When first dissecting Hyper Vanguard Force IV, one can see an extremely short experience with a myriad of disparate elements. However, it is cohesive arrangement and presentation of said elements that form to create a game that is entertaining in its own right, but is also a very fond trip down memory lane for anyone who started gaming back when 2D sprites and nebulous sounds dazzled their senses. It is short and may disappoint some, while the difficulty can put off others. Nonetheless, this title is a short and sweet vertical slice of scrolling shooter gaming goodness. Star Citizen fan or not, Hyper Vanguard Force IV is solid little space shooter excursion that is well worth playing. Hope to see you out there in the Verse.




Rating V-V

Game Review: Shoot ’em (PC)


Game Title: Shoot ’em
Developer: Jan Ringoš
Publisher: Tringi Netbase
Platform: (PC)
Genre: Third person isometric real time strategy tactical
Release Date: 2008


(Editor’s Note: This game was covered playing a digital copy of Shoot ’em for PC on a PC running Windows XP, all owned by the reviewer.)


Shoot ’em is a freeware PC game that is unabashedly simple and has retro gaming feel about it. It is essentially a shooter with one level and is intended to be a score attack affair. From the outset this title is not a game with a lot of depth or replay value, but it somehow manages to be an aesthetically pleasing and addicting game.

Shoot ’em is devoid of any story, but this is because it is designed like arcade titles like those made during the golden age of the arcade in America. The premise is that the player is manning a gun turret and must defend his or her ship against an onslaught of asteroids of varying colors. The object is to hold off these asteroids as long as possible. Though these circumstances have no storied explanation, the core focus of this short form 3D action shooter romp is the game play.

The controls for Shoot ’em are simple and easy to learn because they only utilize a standard mouse. Right clicking fires the gun turret, left clicking fires mines that explode on contact and dragging aims the main guns. The controls are very intuitive and responsive and leave nothing more to be desired.

As mentioned before, the main obstacles are Technicolor asteroids that are on a collision course for the player’s ship. They approach slowly and in few numbers at first, but exponentially appear more frequently and eventually reach overwhelming quantities. The colors of the asteroids and other objects dictate how much damage they do when colliding with the ship. Some objects, when shot down, yield bonuses. These rewards range from extra points to ammo increases/enhancements and extra contact mines.

In terms of game play, Shoot ’em has a delightful retro arcade feel. The game cannot be beaten and only ends when the player loses. The only object is to accrue as many points as possible until the inevitable end. With the random nature in which the asteroids spawn this game never plays exactly the same every time. This means that memorization does not make the game any easier. It also means that some play attempts be dwarfed by a lack of ammo powerups or other aiding objects. Truly a case where the luck of the draw dictates variability of one’s success.

The graphical and audio presentation of Shoot ’em is healthy helping of old school cool giving this little gem a great deal of character. The game employs 3D graphics as a framework for its game play mechanics, but does it with a twist. The games polygonal graphics are entirely rendered using ASCII characters as opposed to raster based flat shaded polygons. It is an interesting effect that is oddly mesmerizing to see in motion as it runs at a steady high framerate. ASCII character usage for rudimentary graphics was a technique used for older DOS titles like Rogue and other such role playing games of that era, but to see it implemented in this fashion is inexplicably beautiful.

The accompanying music compliments this old game feeling in spades. The menu and in-game tracks are composed with an instrumentation that is akin to the Sound Blaster powered DOS games of old and does not slouch in getting pumped up for frenetic high stake action. The sound design makes firing the turret guns and popping out mines extremely satisfying. This is a game where cranking up the volume is quite necessary.

Shoot ’em is a game that is old world for all the right reasons. It has been a long time since a game so simple was so satisfying and addicting. The graphics have a unique charm to them and the music with the sound fits like a glove. This title is a solid piece of freeware that is definitely worth playing.



Rating IV-V

Game Review: Syndicate (DOS)


Game Title: Syndicate
Developer: Bullfrog Productions Ltd.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform: DOS
Genre: Third person isometric real time strategy tactical
Release Date: 1993


(Editor’s Note: This game was covered playing a North American copy of Syndicate for DOS on a PC running DOSbox, all owned by the reviewer.)


Real time strategy games take many forms depending on what the focus is. The aim with most RTS games has been to command large groups of soldiers on large battlefields in multi objective based missions. Some games in the genre have taken the objective motivated mission structure and gone in interesting directions. Syndicate is one such game that takes this school of thought and tries to wrap it all up in a near future world. Syndicate is a refreshing entry into the genre that keeps unit command minimal in number to focus on more direct control over the characters. This, blended with stunning visuals, fluid animation, an intuitive backend system, and the overall unique futuristic aesthetic style make Syndicate a satisfying and engrossing experience.


The backdrop for Syndicate is set in an alternate future where advanced technology and other commodities are owned by large corporations. These organizations have such power that their influence and dominance is what truly determines a nation’s borders. It is a premise that takes that of the film Robocop and takes it to the extreme. It is a setting that is seldom seen in games and helps to make this title truly stand out.The game play of Syndicate is very straight forward as well as intuitive. The game is played from a semi top down isometric third person perspective. When in a mission area the player takes command of one to four cybernetic agents depending on the player’s preference.


Movement is achieved by left clicking in the desired direction. The combat is also straight forward as right clicking will make the agents fire their weapons in the direction of the cursor. It is easy to pick up and master and while it seems that the play is simplistic because of only having four soldiers and simple controls, there are many variables that allow for a slew of strategic decisions. The focus is more tactical than in other RTS titles mostly because you only have four units that you have to look after at a time. Every agent has its own sub screen where the player can tinker with three colored bars that, when altered in certain ways, give that agent special perks like increased speed and health regeneration and so on. These enhancements can be more beneficial with advanced equipment like shields and larger guns that can both be acquired in mission areas through killing certain enemies.


The game play is simple in terms of control, but does not make for a shallow experience. The combat is immensely satisfying and it is delightful to see your little trench coat wearing team marching around and shooting while enemies get knocked back and around until they collapse in the tiny puddle of their own blood or dances around after being hit by a flame thrower. The game play is shown on a micro level and yet still manages to be realistic and visceral. Another way to build up your agent is through research and development. Throughout the game the player has to invest in R&D projects that expand the breadth of weapons and cybernetic upgrades that enhance the agents’ properties. Syndicate has a real time clock that runs both in mission segments and on the mission briefing, research, and outfitting menus. Through taxing citizens of the countries you have economic control over you can collect money that can be poured into research projects that can yield more advanced weapons, key mission items and cybernetic enhancements. With full cybernetic outfitting, upgraded agents can hold heavier items and weapons without being overly encumbered. Other advantages include better accuracy and a voluntary self destruct that is useful as a last resort to take a group of enemies out.


After starting a new game the player assumes the role of a leader of a crime syndicate organization of his or her creation. After naming the company and selecting a logo the player is presented with a map of the world which is used to select missions. Also, this area is used to monitor revenue and tax rates for citizens. Selecting a mission will prompt briefings on the mission at hand. There are several categories of mission types like escorting, assassination, persuasion, hostile takeovers and so on. All mission area layouts vary depending on what region it takes place in. Before embarking on missions there are many things to keep the player occupied and things to prepare. Making sure your agents have weapons and other equipment needed for the upcoming mission is key. While it is possible to abort missions in progress it would be a waste of time to get to your objective without having the necessary items.

It is an interesting change to the RTS formula to have the micro management and action segments completely separate. The feature that ties both elements together is the fact everything operates in real time. The player can start researching something and it may finish while playing one or two missions. It is a pleasant surprise to have finished a mission and find that now you have access to a neat new weapon or a better version of a cybernetic upgrade. The graphics are stellar and present such an interesting look into what a dystopian corporatized future could look like. Cities have the façade being metropolises, but are rotting civic centers where citizens go through the motions blind to the reality that they themselves are commodities. Structures and landscapes are beautifully crafted to look intentionally artificial and humanly fabricated. Everything has a cool cyberpunk feel that permeates throughout the entire game. Another interesting part of this title is the dynamic music. While the number of tracks can be counted on one hand it is important to note that, when in mission areas, the music will change to indicate an imminent danger like enemy agents.


If any versions of this game can be recommended, the PC iteration is by far the best in terms of all the elements of functionality and aesthetics. The Commodore Amiga is fine for what it is, but there are some differences in resolution and in the color palette. The only home console versions that remotely resemble the two main computer versions are the Atari Jaguar and 3DO ports. They are as close to the original version as any consoles can get. Other ports like the one for the SNES and Sega Genesis are completely forgettable because they are completely different games and have practically nothing to do with the original interpretations. They lack the proper agency to engage in the game play that characterizes the DOS version and also fail to compare in the graphics department.


Syndicate is simply a cool departure from the stereotypical RTS formula that thrives because of a great setting, graphical style, intuitive direct control over characters, and risky changes made to the conventions of the genre. Certain aspects like a cohesive story and large musical are practically non-existent, but this does not actually take away from how fun, delightfully complex and visceral the game is. If you are a fan of the genre or have always wanted to play a real time strategy game that puts more focus on character combat as opposed to worrying mostly about stuff like building structures then Syndicate is a must play.



Rating V-V

Game Review: Ridge Racer (PS)

Ridge Racer (PS) North American Box Art

Ridge Racer (PS) North American Box Art


Game Title: Ridge Racer
Developer: Namco
Publisher: Namco
System: Playstation
Genre: Arcade style 3D racing
Release Date: September 9, 1995


(Editor’s Note: This game was covered playing a North American copy of Ridge Racer for the Sony Playstation, all owned by the reviewer.)


Ridge Racer is an early generation Playstation title that exists in 3D, but does not attempt to be driving simulator like other entries in the genre. This title is all about embodying the sheer thrill of racing, pulling off high speed drifts through sharp turns, getting air off of jumps and pushing the red line all while riding through a winding and scenic raceway against an assortment of opponents. It is a concept that is executed incredibly well through well implemented racing physics and mechanics, nice visuals, neat little touches, an adrenaline pumping soundtrack and great deal of attention to detail. Ridge Racer is a game that succeeds in being a thoroughly entertaining and addictive racing experience and helps to define the Playstation as a platform. At boot-up the game start with a loading screen that has a playable meta-game of Galaxian. It is sort of a look at Namco’s humble beginnings before fading into the bold Namco logo.

Ridge Racer has one raceway with multiple variations and mode sets. These are changed by selecting a track difficulty which dictates aspects like max speed for all cars, the amount of laps required to complete a race and can even affect the layout of the raceway. The game also starts with a small selection of cars to choose from which vary in terms of maximum speed, rate of acceleration and steering. While the amount of content to start with is a little thin more content can be unlocked through ranking in first place in various races. Lastly, you can choose between a manual and automatic transmission. All these choices add up to a great deal of challenge requiring quick adaption.

The thing that makes Ridge Racer so fun is how tight and the racing is depending on all the previously mentioned variables. The main goal is to get first place in each race and avoid running out of time. The only ways one can lose is if the player runs out of time or he/she fails to rank in the first three spots. With cars that excel in steering and handling it is more advantageous to slow down around turns, but cars that are built for speed and acceleration will be better off drifting through sharp turns. Physics are also in play, so if you are pushing the red line while about to hit a steep incline downward you get some air so being centered on the road and speed is crucial. There is such a great sense of speed and excitement to be had from hitting a sharp two point turn and drifting through it at 70Mph and emerging unscathed, passing two to three opponents on a straightaway or zooming past the finish line. Ridge Racer happens to capture that sensation that most people could only imagine having racing at full speed on a real raceway and while driving a real muscle car. It is an experience that is both exhilarating and liberating all at once.

What the game play provides is already more than satisfying, but the music also makes Ridge Racer simply an immensely fun game to play. For the most part, the soundtrack consists of techno music. This title is all about speed and all of the music certainly embodies this as well as the thrill of racing in general. These tracks are great because they get you pumped while playing through each race. The soundtrack is an amazing and unforgettable touch to this game that will keep you coming back for more.

One huge thing to note about Ridge Racer is that the overall game is optimized for a seamless experience. After the said loading screen featuring Galaxian there are no more loading sequences for the rest of the game. It is so seamless that you may forget that this is game is on CD. The performance of Ridge Racer is almost perfect. The textures do not distort at particular angles and draw distance is never an issue when it comes to anticipating turns. The camera is fairly reliable by rotating appropriately with the action and sticking to a static distance from the player’s vehicle when in 3rd person point of view as opposed to the standard 1st person perspective. However, there are a couple of technical issues with this title. Clipping is sometimes a problem when drifting around turns when other vehicles are in the way. It seems random as to whether you may collide with car or clip through it. Also, the frame rate sometimes will dip into the high teens at certain areas of the track with multiple cars that are all clumped together. Even though these problems have the ability to throw one while playing, they are seldom in appearance.

Ridge Racer represents a promising future in the genre of 3D racing and driving games. The overall presentation of this title is equally as good as its mechanical execution. It all comes together to create a racing experience that is challenging and deeply entertaining. If you are racing game fan or own a Playstation then there is no reason why you should not play this game.



Rating V-V

Game Review: Tekken (PS)

tekken front

Tekken (PS1) North American Box Art


Game Title: Tekken
Developer: Namco
Publisher: Namco
Platform: Sony Playstation
Genre: 3D Fighting
Release Date: November 1995


(Editor’s Note: This game was covered playing a North American copy of Tekken for the Sony Playstation, all owned by the reviewer.)


With fighting games finally making the plunge into the third dimension, the gaming world has seen two major titles emerge from this landscape. With games like Battle Arena Toshinden and Virtua Fighter it is hard to deny that the future of the genre looks promising in terms of innovation. The next major step in this evolutionary ladder is most defintitely Tekken: The Iron Fist Tournament because it by far the more intuitive and accessible fighting games made to date. Tekken flourishes because of very responsive controls, sensible button combos, a nice variety of characters with differing styles, unique environments and a two soundtrack option that includes great arranged and original arcade music. With the exception of minor blemishes Tekken is a solid and well implemented fighting game.


Tekken takes place respectively in the modern day where there is an annual tournament known as the Iron Fist Tournament dubbed the Tekken. This event is funded by a financial group called Mishima Zaibatsu. Eight fighters are selected from around the world to compete to eventually face the leader of the financial group named Heihachi Mishima. The winner is crowned the King of the Iron Fists. All these chosen fighters have personal reasons for competing including plots of vengeance and aspirations of grandeur. The story is fine for what it is, but it is not anything terrible special.


All the characters follow national and ethnic archetypes that are clear references to pop culture icons. A great example is the fighter Marshall Law who is clearly a nod to the legacy of Bruce Lee. King is a Luchador wrestler from Mexico. Jack is not only a reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger, but is also a reference to the Terminator films because he is a cyborg. It is a neat way cobble all these various iconic identities and have them duke it out in a tournament setting.


For the most part, this version of Tekken replicates all the mechanics from the arcade version quite well. The controls to this game are most intuitive and technical of any fighting game to date. The face button layout controls the fighter’s limbs. The left and top face buttons control the left and right arms of the fight as where the bottom and right buttons controls the left and right legs of the fighter. It is a perfect control system, which requires no customization because it feels incredibly organic. Through combining adjacent punch and kick button will make your fighter attempt a throw or grappling move. Each fight has at least two grapple moves which are different depending on the fighter chosen. All the moves are at least realistic and believable. In other words, you will not be throwing fire balls and breaking the laws of physics.


All characters share a set of mundane moves and attacks, but also have their own sets of special techniques along with move combos that can be discovered. On top of this, there are solid mechanics for blocking, countering, and evading throw and grapples. Every fighter has moves that are so powerful that they are unable to be blocked. However, all these power moves take time to charge or do, so it is possible to attack an enemy and stop him or her from finishing the attack which is a great instant of balance.  Another cool trick is tackling the opponent and mashing the punch buttons and punching the living daylights out of the opponent. The fighting and visceral nature of it is incredibly satisfying.

All these elements are unchanged in the two player mode where two people can choose their combatants and compete in the same format as the arcade mode. A great feature in this mode is the ability to set handicaps for either player. If one player is far more advanced in the game than the other, he or she can set the handicap accordingly so that it will always be a fair fight.

The perfect control in Tekken is only complemented by the graphics music that are a significant leap forward compared to earlier 3D polygonal fighting games. The environmental layouts are all unique and are accompanied by their own theme music. Instead of having a ring in the stage in which both combatants have to stay within, every stage has no boundaries and goes on forever. One interesting thing to note about the aesthetics in the game play is that the camera is almost dynamic and changes angles when a special move is properly used. It is a great touch to add to the action and in the beginning of each match you have the option to press the select button to change the camera from a profile on profile angle to a top down angle. One would think the top down angle would cripple the game play with it being strictly direction based, but it works just as well as the other camera angle. All the character models are well detailed and unique. Whenever moves connect with the opponent plasma effects show the point of contact. This happens the same way that blood spray in the Mortal Kombat games behaves. The animations are also top notch and all the competitors are given a great deal of character. Some of the more advanced and damaging attacks show sparks of intense energy which is a flashy graphical feature. On top of this most of the fighters have two or more costumes that can be unlocked.

Other things that can be unlocked are stages and secret characters. These characters are great because they may have moves that, before, were exclusive to the original selectable fighters. It is awesome to unlock a fighter who may have moves from one to three of your favorite characters rolled into one. The extra stages are cool as well, but they used recycled music to fill the gap.

There are only a couple of minor problems with Tekken with one being more of a prevailing issue than the other. The bigger issue is that sometimes attacks will not connect even though the plasma effects indicate otherwise. It is a graphical quirk that can throw anyone off guard while the opponent takes advantage and hits the player with the same move. While this is only an issue with computer becomes more of an annoyance when playing on the harder difficulties. The other minor problem is that the menus and the navigation of them are very clunky.

Tekken may not be the first 3D fighting game ever, but it is one of the better iterations in the sub genre. This is a title that has found a happy medium as far as the control goes and it succeeds in being unique and not being a colorless imitation of previous 3D fighting games. The overall presentation and mechanical execution of the entire experience both culminate to make this into something truly special. If you have been waiting for the gateway game into the future of fighting games and 3D gaming on a console then Tekken is a title you should not pass up.



Rating IV-V

Game Review: Shadow Squadron (32X)

Shadow Squadron North American Box Art

Shadow Squadron North American Box Art


Name: Shadow Squadron (Stellar Assault)
Release Date: 1995
Developer: Sega
Platform: Sega 32X
Genre/Type: 3D arcade space combat flight simulation


(Editor’s Note: This game was covered playing a North American copy of Shadow Squadron for the Sega 32X system, all owned by the reviewer.)


The space combat simulation genre has seen quite a few interesting entries that have pushed the envelope of design and presentation throughout the years. The Wing Commander, Elite and the Starglider games have blown the sub genre wide open. However, the genre has not translated very well to console gaming. One of the better attempts was Star Fox for the Super Nintendo, which turned out to be a glorified rail shooter; albeit a great one. With that, Sega has decided to throw its hat into the ring by releasing its take on the genre exclusively for the Sega 32X. This platform, also known as the Mega 32X and Super 32X in Europe and Japan respectively, is often seen as a commercial failure rife with lackluster ports and arcade translations that never measure up to the originals. However, there are a few exceptions to this frame of thought. Shadow Squadron alone is abundant proof of this, as it presents an incredibly rich space combat experience that exudes a high level of polish and a character that is unparalleled.

Shadow Squadron 07

Taking off from the mothership.


The plot of Shadow Squadron is woefully short to say the least. None of it is conveyed within the game, with some snippets of story coming from the game manual and the back of the box. Assuming the role of a Cadet First Class of the Shadow Squadron, the player must do battle with an unnamed militant faction to destroy a sun laser they are developing. Though it is thin, the story is just a backdrop for the mission based space combat framework and is very characteristic of Sega’s arcade game development heritage.

Shadow Squadron 06

Checking all vital systems.

In Shadow Squadron the player has to complete several missions that are centered around combating large battle cruisers and light fighter crafts among other objectives depending on the mission parameters. On the side, the player can play to get the highest score possible before getting a game over; another aspect that points back to Sega’s arcade gaming history. Each mission is prefaced by a briefing showing projected images of the area and paints it with pertinent objects with appropriate labels. It then states what conditions need to be met in order to successfully complete the stage in order to move on to the next. This is a solid implement that is woven well into the game, giving the player enough direction without excessive hand holding.

Shadow Squadron 08

Jumping to light speed.

When in the single player mode, you have the choice between two space crafts from the outset these. Both have their own particular feature sets differing in fire power, maneuverability and shield strength. The Feather 1 is a light fighter craft that has weak shields, but handles the best and has short range auto firing laser cannons and guided torpedoes. This craft is supplied with a shield and energy refit after each mission. The Feather 2 is a heavy fighter craft with tougher shields, but is harder to handle and has heavy long range single fire laser cannons and guided bombs. This craft is not refit after each mission. Both crafts can use a Spectral Shield that gradually drains shield energy, but makes them resistant to damage from enemy fire and collisions. There is a great balance between the two selectable crafts that caters to both offensive and defensive play styles. This choice is a primary driver as how certain challenges are tackled.


The Feather 2 specifically can be piloted manually or the player can elect an auto pilot option where the computer controls the ship. The player only has to worry about using the laser cannon that can be aimed independently from the craft. This a unique feature that essentially turns Shadow Squadron into a rail shooter and is nice option for those who want to enjoy the game without being greatly challenged.

This also lends itself to an interesting two player mode where a couple of individuals pilot the Feather 2. The first player only has control of the craft’s movement, as where the second only controls the weapons systems that have some swiveling abilities relative to where the craft is facing. It is novel feature, presenting a dynamic that forces both players to communicate and coordinate attack strategies.

Shadow Squadron 05

Absolute control over your fighter craft.

However, the first notable area of solid execution in Shadow Squadron is controlling your space craft. All the controls for movement in a fully 360° 3D space environment allow for the player to turn and rotate the Feather crafts freely like one would expect from other games of the genre with ease. You even have full control over the throttle with the ability to boost and slow down. The default layout is very easy to learn, yet hard to master. Advanced techniques like ramming ships while using the Spectral Shield and more advanced maneuvers come with time acclimating to the controls that eventually become an extension of your thoughts.

If, in any case, this default scheme is not for you the game allows you to remap the button configuration. The player can even invert the steering pitch of the ship so that it controls opposite to how a space craft ought to operate. The colors of all ships in the game can even be customized to the player’s preference. It is clear that the development team at Sega made this game to be as accessible as possible and it absolutely shows.

This well implemented control scheme and its customization lends itself perfectly well to the core game play of Shadow Squadron. As opposed to being a gussied up rail like other console based space shooter outings, this game allots you a full 360° of movement in large sections of space littered with space cruisers and light fighters to combat. The unbridled sense of freedom when engaging targets and traversing the mission’s environments is something that cannot be denied. Being able to approach an adversary from any angle or vantage point is but a snippet of what solidifies this sensation. With all of this freedom, it can be potentially disorienting when trying to find particular targets and find a sense of direction.

Shadow Squadron 11

Firing a laser guided torpedo.

It is because of this possibility that your space craft has two vitally important heads up display (HUD) elements that essentially help to circumvent this issue. The first takes the form of a radar display that shows enemy fighters and cruisers represented by yellow dots and ovals respectively. Unlike other space combat games that present radar systems where the objects are rendered as sprites, Shadow Squadron’s radar renders them in full 3D to take advantage of the one-to-one tracking of the actual entities existing in the level environment; a lovely touch. The other visual aid comes in the form of holographic displays that point in the direction of the closest mission focused target that needs to be dispatched.

When it comes to the game play, Shadow Squadron is a deceptively complex game. While the controls and the objectives are easily comprehended, there is an uncanny level of depth with everything else. This is first apparent when observing that the player has to manage his or her shields and ship energy. Your shields are exhausted by taking damage as where the ship’s energy reserves are constantly being expended on its engines and weapons systems. Excessive use of the boosters and laser guided torpedoes can quickly juice through energy. When the ship’s energy reserves are completely drained, the ship will siphon energy from the shields and denies the ability to use torpedoes.

Shadow Squadron 09

Huge explosions equal big points!

Being careless in this regard can turn a normal mission into a desperate struggle for survival and can be avoided by being conservative about energy consumption. Another way to keep your energy usage in check is to discern in what order you are going to take down mission objectives. This also includes avoiding confrontation with small fighters if their destruction pertains to the mission goals. It is a fascinating layer of complexity and difficulty that makes this more than just a mindless shooter romp.

The difficulty of this title goes beyond this player strategy. With every new mission, the game throws new challenges at the player. At first, fighters just fly about as a mere distraction and only take pot shots at your ship. Eventually, they become more accurate and will even ram your craft. With the large space frigates torpedoes start by moving slowly in a set direction. Gradually throughout the campaign, they will begin to travel faster and will even home in on your location. This constantly evolving difficulty prevents the game play of Shadow Squadron from getting stale by keeping the player alert.

Another area of strategy applies to destroying enemy star vessels. Each vessel consists of many parts that constitute hard points that individually destructible. By destroying enough of these points the player can completely annihilate these large ships. However, some hard points are more crucial to the ship’s operation and deal larger amounts of damage to the ship when wrecked. This forces you to pick your battles as to how you take down those larger targets. Figuring out these weaknesses leads to faster victories which means your energy reserves are not exhausted as quickly. These layers of intricacy make for a deep space combat experience that rewards the player for being efficient and smart about forming strategies on the fly. This makes Shadow Squadron, for all intents and purposes, a thinking man’s action oriented space faring combat experience.

This is all supported by a 3D engine that is constructed to perform impeccably well. While other entries in the genre have been pushing watershed polygonal graphics that suffer from staggering frame rates that dip lower with lots of action, Shadow Squadron does not suffer from this. This title runs at a relatively high frame rate where slow down is borderline nonexistent; when it does it is negligible. Another issue that the graphics do not suffer from is Z ordering errors. You never run into situations where some polygonal faces appear in the wrong order in relation with others. The engine that governs the visuals of the world is crisp, tight and well wrought.

Shadow Squadron 12

This gravitational portal is almost forty times the size of your craft. That is massive!

With this, another thing to note about the aesthetics is that very few assets in the game have any texture mapping. For the most part, all the ships consist of flat shaded polygons. This may be a deal breaker for some, but everything has an appealing artistic design from a geometric perspective; more so than the Star Wars arcade game for the Sega 32X. Parts of ships that are lights or boosters have a flashing effervescence. The same applies to lasers and torpedoes. Some missions have large structures that absolutely huge in scale and others are littered with asteroids that drift about as opposed to being static objects. There is a great deal of neat little aesthetic touches that make this a beautiful game to look at in motion; so much so that the game has a trace mode that simply show replays of previous missions flown, with well placed camera angles that show all of the action.

Shadow Squadron 13

It is just you against this large armada.

There is such a profound entertainment value to Shadow Squadron that is a result of the fluent controls coupled with the crisp nature of the visuals. Destroying large space frigates yield flying particles and huge bombastic explosions, which is immensely satisfying. The same applies to the small fighters. When you manage to deftly take down one or two light fighters and witness them drift astray to then blow apart over the star studded celestial background really brings that feeling of being in a space dogfight home. This is tied together well with nice little set pieces like the ship’s initial systems check, launch and refits between missions that show holographic displays of your ships pertinent vital areas. It is such an engrossing experience that gets a hold of you and will not let go.

The thing that ties all of these elements together into tight and gripping package is the music. Shadow Squadron’s soundtrack takes orchestral, pop and jazz elements and actually takes these ingredients to form a unique style. They culminate to form a musical motif that complements the space combat theme that gives you the feeling of being on an intrepid adventure, having to contend with insurmountable dangers. It is a delightfully unorthodox soundtrack that will stick in the player’s mind long after playing. This sound gives the game such a special character that is not seen in other games of the genre. The sound design is solid and bolsters the satisfying nature of Shadow Squadron’s game play. The explosion and collision sounds pack such a punch that adds gravity to what is happening on screen.

Sega has truly concocted something special with Shadow Squadron. Just the fact that this is a 3D space flight combat simulation game on a console is something that most would consider to be recipe for disaster. However, this game soars above these notions and manages to create gripping space combat experience with a character all its own. It meets the standards of the genre in some respects and exceeds them in others. From the fluent controls to the stellar soundtrack, all of these elements combine to make a game that can proudly stand among its peers in the genre. If you have an affinity toward space combat flight simulations, or are looking for a definitive reason to own a Sega 32x, you should not go without experiencing Shadow Squadron.




Rating V-V

Game Review: Fade To Black (PS1)

Fade 2 Black front

Fade 2 Black North American Box Art.



Name: Fade to Black (F2B)
Release Date: June 28, 1996
Developer: Delphine Software International (Paul Cuisset)
Platform: Sony Playstation
Genre/Type: 3D scifi third person action adventure


(Editor’s Note: This game was covered playing a North American copy of Fade to Black for the Sony Playstation system, all owned by the reviewer.)


Fade to Black is an ambitious title that takes one of Delphine Software International’s successful previous works and attempts to present a proper sequel and/or successor. This game brings the world and main character of Flashback: The Quest for Identity and brings it into the third dimension, while trying to retain the core tenants of the original. Unfortunately, Conrad Hart’s transition into 3D gaming is not as graceful as fans of the original adventure would like. While Fade to Black has is to be lauded for its graphical presentation and high production values, substantial technical issues and counter-intuitive design choices prevent this bold game from being the masterpiece it could have been.

The plot of Fade to Black picks up right after the events of Flashback, where Conrad B. Hart is in a state of cryogenic sleep after successfully destroying the antagonistic alien race’s home planet of Morphs. He drifts aimlessly through outer space for half a century before being found by a space vessel. Conrad is jolted from his slumber only to find that he is back in the clutches of the Morphs, as they are now identified as. He is then transported to the lunar prison of New Alcatraz. He is offered help through a mysterious man known as John.

The game’s story picks up from that point. Fade to Black’s overall story line is yet another amalgamation of late 80’s science fiction action movie tropes, much like Flashback. The premise of this game hinges itself on the element of a rebellion or underground resistance movement on part of the humans, unlike its predecessor’s plot that has more to do with self discovery and mystery within a well realized scifi world. Though it does not match the luster of Flashback’s story and can be a little predictable at times, Fade to Black makes a decent attempt to give itself a solid thematic framework that helps to drive the player to continue on through the game to uncover more of the adventures of Conrad and his ongoing struggle against the Morphs and the threat to humanity they represent.

Fade to Black makes a bold move by doing something that has been seldom done with other storied franchises; it makes the transition from a 2D sprite based cinematic platformer to a 3D third person action adventure game. It is a drastic change to this series and Delphine makes an attempt to make this a vastly different experience, while preserving the core aspects of the original game.

Like Flashback, this game revolves around Conrad traversing the environment in order to accomplish certain objectives while avoiding dangers and combating a plethora of enemies using gun based combat. These objectives often require finding important items and solving puzzles. Drawing from the influences of other Delphine titles like Flashback and Out of this World, this game preserves the notion of blatantly poor actions resulting in instant death and requires this experience to be tackled with a very slow and deliberate pace. This may be a turn off for players expecting more of an action oriented game. However, this title’s mechanics are cleverly framed around this pacing.

With Fade to Black’s plunge into 3D gaming, the game play no longer uses extensive platform mechanics because all environments are constructed as single floor areas. With levels containing multiple floors, teleporters and gravity lifts are used to enter new floors. Level traversal simply involves Conrad walking and running and occasionally hopping forward to avoid pitfalls and environmental hazards. However, many of the traps and hazards are now designed around this change. Also, littered about the levels are lockers that contain key items and other supplies that are crucial to Conrad’s survival like ammunition upgrades and shield recharges, among other necessary and useful items. This is an incentive to thoroughly explore all areas.

The control agency of this title has also significantly changed to account for this alteration in design. You control Conrad from a third person behind-the-back perspective that mostly stays this way when moving him about the environment. He can walk, run, strafe, hop forward, duck, peek around corners and perform 180 degree turns. When engaging in combat, the camera zooms in to give a beveled angle to show exactly where your gun is pointed. This is put in the place of painting an aiming reticle. Other camera changes involve cinematic omniscient views when Conrad opens lockers or steps on floor panel switches.

Conrad can also wield a pistol that has interchangeable ammunition, as well as explosives to combat enemies. In these encounters, a reticle will appear, showing where an enemy is and blinks when it attacks. When in combat mode, Conrad can fire his weapon and throw explosive mines if he has any. He can also dodge fire by ducking and can sidestep along with being able to step forward and backward. Your character moves slower when in combat as opposed to when just moving normally, so planning a fight strategy in advance is crucial.

Humanoid enemies also move in this slow fashion as to make the gun play balanced, much like how the gun play is balanced in Flashback. The AI that governs the enemies’ movement is another challenging aspect. The Morphs run to cover, sidestep to dodge your shots and even turn into a gelatinous form to evade your attacks. It is an understatement this, in conjunction with other hazards and instant death traps, makes Fade to Black an incredibly difficult title.

There is an element of intimacy with the combat, where you are essentially in a gun duel with the enemy and when fighting one or more alien hostiles. These battles are extremely tense, but satisfying when you emerge victorious and unscathed or with little damage taken to your shield (Conrad’s life gauge). Puzzles involving accessing new areas and accomplishing objectives are given little to no hand holding, but do offer subtle hints to their solutions. The thrill of resolving these problems is also very satisfying coupled with being able to push the story forward.

Another aspect of this game that pushes the player to progress throughout the experience is the overall graphical presentation and the atmosphere it helps to set. The 3D visuals of Fade to Black look fantastic and the environments are well wrought. There is a large variety of locations that range from high tech space facilities to organic structures to ancient temples and the game’s 3D graphics technology along with the artistic design helps to realize these levels and their unique motifs. The level that takes place on Pluto is especially interesting because of its color palette and object design that give the level an organic look. There is some inconsistencies between 3D objects and character models. While the models are textured, some of the object are just made up of flat shaded polygons. Though this is the case, all of these objects are well rendered from a geometric standpoint. When these visuals are married with the objectives and puzzles it helps to keep Fade to Black fresh from one level to the next. Aside from the set pieces, there even segments of the game where Conrad has to pilot a space ship and engage in space flight combat segments that offer something new. The game play is punctuated with CG cut-scenes that advance the game’s narrative and also show how Conrad meets his demise whenever he dies in game and they look very impressive for what they are.

The music and sound design are two core elements that compliment the aesthetics. The sound effects are appropriate and have a punch to them, helping to solidify the scifi vibe and offer the combat and hazards an intense gravity. Part of what makes the sound so superb is that they are dynamic and range in volume depending on how close Conrad is to the source of them. Anticipating a potential hazard or firefight is easy and possible with this sound design. The music is another high point of Fade to Black, as it greatly add to the game’s atmosphere. It is a large soundtrack with songs ranging from melodic themes to ominous ambient tunes. With a wide range of tracks, the music will change on the fly when entering new rooms within the same level. The music is also dynamic and changes from the room theme to a bombastic swelling of music when you are confronted by enemies. Messages received within levels and the dialogue in cut-scenes are well recorded and voiced. It cannot be understated how the experience is heightened by its audio prowess.

The graphical and audio presentation of Fade to Black is an incredible display of high production value that makes it feel like you are playing a certified scifi film classic. It is very unfortunate that all of these great features are almost completely ruined by technical issues and design choices that make this game absolutely frustrating to play at times. These issues have to do with the collision detection, character control, the camera, performance inconsistencies and poorly implemented features.

While the 3D world of this game looks fantastic, it is not fine tuned with regards to collision with wall and objects in the environment. No matter what, you will manage to get caught on objects and corners of walls instead of just glancing off of them. This culminates into a perfect storm when trying to avoid fights with aliens or fire from automated gun turrets. This leads to plenty of unfair deaths.

The movement control over your character is one of the bigger areas where Delphine Software dropped the ball. By using the default control scheme (the only scheme documented in the manual),it is impossible step forward in minute increments. Just tapping up on the directional pad makes Conrad take a big forward step. This can make it unnecessarily difficult to approach hazards with caution, causing you to touch electrified floor panels or attract heat seeking mines by accident resulting in instant death.

Not only is this a crippling factor, but this control scheme lacks any of the more advanced control features that allow Conrad to peek around corners, make small steps and perform quick turns. Fade to Black makes the awful decision of making the most limiting control layout the default. Worse still, the schemes that have these feature have nonsensical button mappings; mappings that will require a couple hours and plenty of deaths for the player to acclimate to.

One poor design choice has to do with the camera. It is regarded as a solid entity and always gets shifted toward the character’s back when up against a solid wall. This will often leave you only able to see the back of his head. This also proves to be problematic when avoiding hazards in close quartered environments, of which there are many. Your view can even be obstructed by pillars and other tall environmental objects. The only way to shift the view is to turn your character in a different direction. Sometimes this is not an option if you have to jump over a hazard in that direction, forcing you to take a leap of faith and risk instant death via something you were unable to see.

The camera in combat mode is a problem as well. The beveled angle that the camera assumes in combat makes it impossible to see enemies from long distances. You have to get within relatively close proximity of the enemy in order to see its whole body in combat and you can possibly sustain a couple cheap hits when trying get within proper range. If you step on switches while in combat the camera will still change to a cinematic perspective, but will not revert back when the switch is depressed. If this happens while fighting an enemy it is virtually impossible to see, in which direction, you are aiming. You have to holster your weapon and then pull it back out to reset the camera. In this time, you could easily get killed by an adversary; another unfair death. With all the attention to detail in the stages, the frame rate will sometimes bog down to the teens and make the clunky controls feel worse. Throw combat into the mix and, more often then not, it can make for needlessly difficult firefights that mostly end in death.

When Conrad dies you are presented with a death/game over cut-scene that shows exactly how he dies. It is jarring and flashy at first, but this feature becomes very annoying after just a few deaths. This is especially the case because the game has to load the cut-scene which takes time. If you are trying to get past a difficult section and keep dying it is frustrating having to wait for all that time; even more so when the section, if not done right, results in instant death.

After dying, you restart at the beginning of the level you are currently playing through. Fade to Black supports both a password system and memory card saves where you can record your current location and progress at any point in the game. However, you do not leave off at your last save point when you die. You simply restart at the beginning. This design choice further exasperates the issue of having to wait for too long before starting where you truly left off. This was not an issue with first game. It is a shame that this title is plagued by these factors. Had these problems been addressed then this game could have been an fair challenge to the player from start to finish.

It is hard to deny the ambition of what Fade to Black aspires to be from the outset. The visuals are well conceived, presenting interesting environments wrought in a way that offer some incredible set pieces. the audio from both a musical and sound design perspective is equally well done, feeding into the atmosphere and tone of the game. When it is performing at its best, this is an intense and profoundly entertaining experience with its intimate combat and puzzle solving. The story is not bad either, though it is not as fresh as that of its predecessor. Technical shortcomings negatively impact the game play and can be infuriating at times, as they often take away from this game’s overall presentation. The control layouts and poor conveyance toward the various scheme layouts helps to make it abundantly clear that Conrad Hart’s transition into 3D is not as graceful as it could have been. Despite these problems, it is still a fun game that has a unique feel and game play that is unlike other entries in the genre. With that, if you are a fan of Flashback or have a taste for scifi action adventure games with high production values and are willing to overlook these flaws then Fade to Black is an interesting title you may enjoy.



Rating III-V

Game Review: Kid Icarus (NES)


Kid Icarus NES North American Box Art

Kid Icarus NES North American Box Art


Name: Kid Icarus
Release Date: December 1987
Developer: Nintendo (Gunpei Yokoi)
Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
Genre/Type: 2D Platform Vertical Scrolling Adventure


(Editor’s Note: This game was covered playing a North American copy of Kid Icarus for the Nintendo entertainment system played to completion.)


Kid Icarus is an interesting game primarily because of what it tries to achieve. It definitely takes a cue from three iconic games. In the game, an angel by the name of Pit is called upon by Platenia to save Angel Land from the evil Medusa. However, that will not be an easy task as Pit is trapped in the realm of Hades, and must make his way up there, fighting minions of evil on the way. While this game has a some ambitious ideas along with a fantastic soundtrack, Kid Icarus ultimately suffers from various technical problems.

The game play in Kid Icarus is interesting and almost unique in a sense. It adopts its side scrolling platform game play from Super Mario Bros., its vertical scrolling platform game play and combat (and password system) from Metroid, and its dungeon crawling adventure game play and item collecting from The Legend of Zelda. In theory, this ambitious idea to culminate these vastly different styles of play into one game seems like one of the greatest ideas for this game or even gaming in general. In practice, however, Kid Icarus does not quite come together in a cohesive or functional way.

In terms of character control, Kid Icarus is below mediocre when at its best. The things Pit is physically capable of is fairly limited as a result of design and not of technology. In Kid Icarus Pit can can shoot his bow and even aim upward, but cannot jump while aiming upward. Issues like this have been solved by this time with Metroid. Another issue concerning control is ducking in Kid Icarus. Ducking down to avoid enemies is a very useful feature in the game, but when on a semi-solid platforms ducking while standing on them makes Pit pass through the platform which, more often than not, ends up with Pit falling to his death. Also, Pit has wings on his back and yet he cannot fly without a special and expensive feather powerup which is still not so great as it is only temporary. In the end, the control comes up as being unnecessarily crippled.

The game starts out with some levels designed after Metroid’s vertical scrolling platform game play. This level and game play style is by far the most unplayable part of the game. When Pit jumps to a higher platform, the level environment scrolls downward. However, the level’s geometry cannot move back up, so falling or moving back down is not an option and results in death if attempted. There is a problem with this. If the floor beneath Pit is not visible on screen, then it does not exist in the game’s logic. An example in which this is an issue is if Pit climbs up just enough where the level scrolls down just enough to make the floor not present on screen. It could be the ground floor that pit started on. If Pit were to drop to that floor (that is not present on screen only by an inch) Pit “falls to hid death”. That is pretty lame considering that floor is just a little shy of existing on screen. That is not to say that this is the only technical issue that hurts this game. With how the level’s geometry scrolls, the levels play as if what is shown on screen and what is a solid platform are two different entities that have little or no cohesion. This results in Pit’s unintended ability to clip through corners of platforms and even through solid entities. This coupled with the fact that level design calls for some precise platforming does not help as certain level sections play as if they were not designed to accommodate for this technical anomaly. An other design flaw has to do with how enemies generate and exist in the level’s overall environment. Only a couple of enemy types exist native to a platform within the level. This is fine on its own, but enemies sometimes spawn within solid entities in the level’s architecture. On top of that, the other monsters will just fall from the sky. The problem with this is that there could be a ceiling above Pit where the enemies are coming from, but since it is not present on screen, it does not exist. This makes very little sense and makes the game more frustrating because of this illogical feature. The game does not get more difficult when done with these levels.

Kid Icarus contains boss battles, but require you to do lots of dungeon crawling to get to those fights. This is where the game The Legend of Zelda comes in as another one of the three core competencies of this game. Like The Legend of Zelda, Pit has to traverse a series of rooms on a dungeon map. One of these rooms contains the boss of a particular world. It plays like a 2D platform game, but it is fairly standard. Another adopted feature is the currency and item portion of Kid Icarus. In the game, the currency is hearts. every level has a store in which Pit can bring his purse of hearts and purchase goods. This all seems well and good. However, there is no real proper balance between how much life Pit loses versus the cost of store items (which is unnecessarily high). This just turns the dungeon crawling levels into a long and tedious grind to get enough hearts to buy the bare bone items required just to survive and get by in the dungeon, let alone hammers to free the petrified soldiers of Platenia. The difficulty from one room to another is also something that seems vastly unbalanced. some rooms are a breeze to traverse as where the next room could contain enemies that are among the toughest to defeat. The previously mentioned sprite collision issue as well as the environment clipping are also substantial issues in this segment of Kid Icarus. Expect to spend anywhere from forty minutes to an entire hour when attempting to beat one of these dungeon crawling levels.

The third and last significant game play style is exhibited in the side scrolling levels that pay homage to Super Mario Bros. in a big way. The level designs of these particular stages are fine, but the way they all play out is standard of any generic game that features any platforming. However there is something good to be said about this particular level style as the only serious technical problem that seems to be present is the shoddy sprite collision with items.

Now, all this does not mean that Kid Icarus is a terrible game. One of the things that may keep someone going back to this game is the role playing game like persistence in Kid Icarus. While clearing levels and killing monsters, Pit will come across some upgrades that add to his overall attack power and life capacity. This will something that is bound to attract some people because it’s a part of Kid Icarus that is not broken nor is it unbalanced.

Another fantastic aspect of Kid Icarus is its Soundtrack, which seems to capture the essence of the ancient greek mythological trappings in which the game takes place. There may not a terrible amount of songs in the game’s entire musical score, but the quality of the compositions overrides the physical size of it. This is clearly the high note of the experience this game has to offer.

Lastly, the general art direction of of Kid Icarus is one thing that makes the game so inviting initially. The depictions of the Greek landscapes, Hades, and Angel Land. The visuals stick in the mind long after playing it. The sprites are nicely designed, but the animations could have complemented that.

It is abundantly clear that Kid Icarus has issues. That does not mean the game is horrible. It does have its high points with some of the graphics and all the quality music. However, every time game brings itself up, it just puts itself down all the time with its game play and balancing problems. With that, Kid Icarus is okay, but its questionable quality makes it impossible to recommend to just anyone.




Rating III-V