Been a gamer since a young age, starting with my parents Sega Mega Drive, then upgrading to the holy Nintendo 64. Since then I've enjoyed my Playstation 1 & 2, XBox, Gamecube and now rock an XBox 360. Got the nostalgia bug recently and decided to hunt down a Sega Mega Drive and relive those fond memories by starting a retro games collection. This blog will follow that retro Sega hunt, possibly venturing into Super Nintendo country if I ever buy one...
This is a first: a review of a Mega Drive game that I DID NOT own as a child. Unlike Sonic and Altered Beast, where my views were slightly biased due to nostalgic memory-lane hopping, I can't bestow Batman Forever that same favor. The only reason this game is one of the first three I purchased for my retro game journey, was it was one of the only three in the store at the time. But I digress, I'm here today to take you all back to 1995; when the Mega Drive was reaching it's final hours, the PlayStation was about to conquer all that lay before it, and Acclaim released their tie-in to the film that featured Batman using a hearing-aid to crack a bank vault. Oh dear.
The concept of Batman Forever is all well and good. Play as either Batman or Robin (or both with a second player), choose your gadget load-out and fight, swing, rappel and swoop your way through locations from the movie. Fundamentally this all works. The fighting moves you're equipped with are varied enough, the plot of the movie is followed generally well and the game offers a good mix of fighting and swinging around. But that's where the positives pretty much stop. For one, being able to pick your secondary gadget load-out is a neat concept, as is the collection of blueprints throughout the game that unlock further gadgets. However, truth be told, not once did I use a secondary gadget in the game. Never did I feel the need to; and even if I did feel the urge to break out my "Sticky Goo Gun" or "Bat Bola", I wouldn't even know how to. Therein lies the second problem, and this one's a doozy. The control setup is just plain batty (sorry). While your standard kicks, punches and blocks all have their own button, to perform other necessary tasks like using your rappel gun or leaping down to platforms below requires multiple buttons at the same time, and only half the time does this actually work. Needing to press 'up' and 'x' at the same time to rappel upwards resulted in me just kind of jumping on the spot several times before it worked. This is made more painful by making the 'up' button jump, and 'up, up' glide. Several times when I solely needed to jump, I'd find myself merrily gliding off over an edge into the abyss below. There are several puzzles in the game that require quick jumping, grabbing, gliding etc. Needless to say, these were made way more frustrating than they needed to be.
While pointlessly jumping up and down or gliding off edges, be sure to take in the mixed-bag of visuals the game carries with it. The 3D characters aren't bad for the time, reminding me of the characters in the 'Mortal Kombat' games. Same can't be said for the backgrounds though. They mostly capture the look of the movie and they aren't terrible to be honest. Their moody, shadowy tone is quite unique and gives the game it's own style. But moody and shadowy can also be translated to drab. The fourth level for example is so steeped in shadows that it's almost entirely black, save for some shadowy crates and metal beams. The later levels show off a more varied style, and I found myself enjoying the last few levels the most. Every stage features some nice little touch to liven things up. Riding elevators between floors as the city passes you by, fighting on top of a vault being carried over the city, battling on top of a moving train, there are always little diversions to keep you from beating up endless armies of thugs, which is nice.
Then there's the sound. The sound effects are pretty low key, never really jumping out at me, and there were a few poor quality sound clips from the film. But the biggest gripe is the god-awful music. Not only do the songs not fit with the tone or mood of the game at all but they are annoyingly repetitive and just plain painful. You'll be thankful there's an option to switch the music off. There was one decent track during the 'batcave' level but that doesn't make up for the shocking 'bank vault' music that pops up several times during the game.
As you may have noticed, Batman Forever did not exactly ignite my world. There are some nice concepts and ideas, and a decent enough fighting system, but it's all pulled down by frustrating controls, hit-and-miss visuals, maddening platforming puzzles and painful music. It had enough style and substance to keep me going to the end, but it's not an adventure I'll be taking up again any time soon, with or without a second player.
You may recall Altered Beast with a sense of teary-eyed nostalgia or eye-rolling rage, depending on your experience with the game. Chances are, if you had a Sega Mega Drive, you probably had or played Altered Beast at least once (it did ship with the original console after all). However, herein lies the difficulty in writing an accurate review for the game. First, I look at Altered Beast with that teary-eyed nostalgia, as it is another one of those games that shaped my early childhood. However, secondly, looking at it from a modern viewpoint, it is pretty damn awful. Thirdly, I've never actually been able to finish this game, even now. I think I'm well versed enough with it though to be able to make a critique on it so here goes nothing.
For those who aren't fully aware of the origins of Altered Beast, it was originally an arcade game that got ported over to the Mega Drive and shipped with the console itself in the beginning. This is why it lingers in the memory of most Mega Drive owners. Including me. Playing the game again now was almost as nostalgic as playing Sonic. The music, the simplistic yet charming visuals, the difficulty of getting past that damn level 2 boss, the thrill of transforming into "the beast" at the end of each stage. Yes, these were all hallmarks of my younger days. Oh how times have changed. Is the game still playable? Yes, to an extent. I've played it many times since buying it, trying to finish the blasted thing, never quite getting there. It was common lore back in the day that the boss fight at the end of round 2 was nigh on impossible. Paying now in my twenties, I can get past him with relative ease every time. However, getting much further past him is an entirely different can of worms. Furthest I've reached is mid-way through round 4 (there are only 5 rounds in the game). But something about the title keeps pulling me back. Perhaps it's that nostalgic need to actually finish it all these years later.
So there is a sense of the "good ol' days" hanging over the game. But take a second to stand back and strap on your critiquing cap or helmet, and take a look at how limited this game really is. For starters the visuals and effects are pretty piss-poor. Compare the title to it's arcade predecessor for an indication at how much this title was hacked at presentation-wise for it's home console release. The backgrounds are flatter, the characters are blockier and the effects are far less detailed. Each stage does have it's own look and feel and in some cases, it's not terrible to look at (the round 1 graveyard or the round 4 palace for instance), yet some levels, like the round 3 caverns, are painstakingly dull to look at. Sound wise, there are a few tracks here that stick in my memory well, however, play the game a bit and you'll realize there are only about 3 or 4 tracks in the whole game. They just get reused every couple levels or so. This is pretty lazy quite honestly. The sound effects (how few there are in the game) aren't terrible, though the same can't be said for the dialogue. Who could forget starting the game to Zeus ordering you to "Rise from your gwave"? All it needs is a complimentary line of "welease wodger" and we're in farce territory (brownie points if you get that reference).
Gameplay wise, it doesn't get much simpler than this. Move right, killing things with occasionally unresponsive controls. Kill blue cow things to get orbs. Collect 3 to turn into your altered state in order to defeat the boss and progress. Why the evil villain waits around for you to reach the peak of your powers before fighting you is beyond me. Each level gives you a different state; a wolf, a dragon, a cuddle looking bear, a tiger, and a gold wolf (lazily its the same as the first wolf, just a different colour). If done right, you can reach these states pretty early in each level, reaching the boss rather quick. In fact if you play the game well, you can probably finish the 5 levels in around 15-20 minutes. You'd think playing with a friend in co-op would make the game easier. However it only lengthens the experience as both players fight for orbs and get in each others way. You could probably excuse the game if there was health or power-ups to pick up on the way but no. There's nothing. You're given 2 lives to begin with, and must keep them throughout the game...
In the end, Altered Beast is a pretty bad, lazily ported game, that only holds value if it belongs in your childhood game collection. Me? I'll keep playing it in a desperate attempt to finally finish what I started 20 years ago. As soon as I finish that last level and complete the story (wait, there's a story?), I'll place it in a pile and never speak of it again....until the next time I'm in need of a nostalgia boost.
I probably couldn't pick a better place to start my journey and collection through Sega Mega Drive titles. When the console is mentioned, this is the game that most likely springs to most people's minds. It stands as one of the first games I ever played and it's everlasting charm still holds up today in a world of COD's, GOW's and other violent acronyms.
Sonic was released back in 1991, a couple of years after the Sega Mega Drive was released, at a time when Sega was desperate for it's own mascot to rival that fat, Italian plumber some other company was making squillions off of. Think of how different the world would be, if one of the original concepts - an armadillo - came to fruition. Luckily instead we have a spiky blue hedgehog that speeds around in red trainers, collecting gold rings, spinning around like a saw-blade and chasing after Robotnik - a fat evil scientist with a wicked mustache. Yes these were the days when you needed little story to propel a game. Get the gold rings, try and get the chaos emeralds, avoid the nasty things, rinse, repeat, and that's all there is to it. Sonic took the basic side-scrolling platform format and imbued it with speed and a magic that has yet to be recreated.
22 years after its release, Sonic still holds up, gameplay wise. It's ridiculously easy to pick up and play, and still has that intoxicating charm that lures you in. Get 50 rings to reach the bonus stage, get 100 rings to gain an extra life, stockpile those lives for that f**king underwater Labyrinth stage, get all the emeralds. It's simple but addictive stuff. It's not exactly an epic though. Upon finding an original Sonic cartridge when I purchased the Mega Drive, I decided to give the game a whirl first up and found myself finishing the game within an hour. I chalk this up to my intense experience with the game, but still, six zones split into three stages each won't occupy the avid gamer for too long, even with the bonus stages thrown in. While I'm on the subject of the bonus stages, who could forget the trippy, spiraling, almost hypnotic rotating mazes you were forced to float through? Psychedelic music entrances you while odd images of fish and birds move around behind your ever-moving maze. It's the gaming equivalent of an acid trip that not many games have since re-created successfully (though the psychotropic drug-trip in Fallout 3 comes close).
The presentation of Sonic's debut is probably the most memorable portion of the game, to me anyway. Those catchy-ass songs still linger in my mind all these years later, and hearing them again in all their 16-bit glory was nostalgia at it's finest. The visuals are as I remembered; vibrant and full of colour and life; something I always felt was lacking from earlier rival Super Mario titles (which looked great, don't get me wrong, but there's a lot more detail present here). Every level has it's own unique style, villains and environmental doodads that keep the game refreshing as you progress. Remember those bastard caterpillar things covered in spikes? I certainly do. By the time you finish each zone, you're faced with Robotnik, armed with whatever death-bringing, level-specific attachment he has on his little floating metallic egg thing. Whether swinging a giant wrecking ball, spouting lava, dropping bombs or trying to pierce your noggin with a metal spike, the boss battles aren't nearly as difficult as I remember. I seem to remember there being a boss battle for the Labyrinth zone, when all you do is follow Robotnik up a tunnel as it fills with water. Maybe my memory is on the fritz.
It seemed like providence finding a Sonic cartridge 22 years on. Upon purchasing my console, I noticed a stack of old games on the counter. Within the muddled mess was a case labelled "Sonic The Hedgehog". Apparently, that stack of games had only JUST been traded in that morning. A day earlier and I would have waltzed out of the store, Mega Drive in hand, thinking to myself "first order of business - locate Sonic on Ebay and buy it!". Such is the undeniable draw of this game that it had to be the first on my list of games to track and down and buy. I can sleep easy now knowing I once again have a copy of Sonic in my room, and the fractured memory of my childhood has regained one of it's massive missing pieces.
I write my first blog with some trepidation. Not for lack of what to say but more for concern of boring the majority of current gamers out there who deem any game system earlier than our current generation "obsolete and kinda shit". I'm a big fan of current gaming, don't get me wrong. Assassin's Creed is the bee's knee's for me at the moment (what bee appendages have to do with a fondness for a certain game is beyond me). However, I long for the days when gamers were simpler. A time when games involved nothing more than jump, run right and shoot, and yet were somehow harder or offered a steeper learning curve than today's games.
Recently I began to think fondly back to the early 90's when I was a young lad, and my parents owned a Sega Mega Drive. I remember walking into department stores and going to the entertainment section to feast my eyes on all the wild and wonderful Mega Drive games on display. A time when the latest Sonic The Hedgehog or Super Mario game was almost considered "an event". Somewhere between the 90's and now, gaming has lost that magic to me. My early 90's childhood consisted of Sega games, Michael Jackson music, the dawn of The Simpsons, and awesome movies (Terminator 2 anyone? How bout' some Jurassic Park?). I wouldn't trade those days in for the world. However recently I came to a realization. While I still enjoy endlessly watching The Simpsons, occasionally listening to some classic Jacko and enjoying every re-watch of Terminator 2, there was one part of my childhood I wanted back. My ever so simple Sega.
The desperate need for nostalgia began by downloading Mega Drive ROMS for my emulator and for a while it was good, but it just wasn't the same. It lacked the magic that came from holding that controller in your hand and seeing the game as it was meant to be played, on a TV, not in a window on my PC. And that's when the decision was made to track down a Sega Mega Drive and begin my Mega Drive game collection. I may have a vast collection of ROMS on my PC but now it only serves as a 'try before I buy' system. What I really want is the game in good ol' fashioned cartridge form.
Luckily, recently I stumbled upon a first model Sega Mega Drive (the model I owned as a child) and a few games. My collection has started. Hence this blog. I searched around and noticed very few reviews floating around online for old school games (unless it's a review of a modern re-release in some kind of game's compilation), so I decided to blog my journey through retro games, reviewing each one I come across on its own merits. Hopefully, anyone keen to start their own collection can use my reviews as a basis. Anyways, enough with the introductions. Let's begin...