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The introduction of the original Wii was particularily exciting for our industry. Though it may be difficult to remember, there was a time when each new release for the platform was seen as an opporunity to make good on Nintendo's promise of truly changing the way we play games. Instead, publishers were frantically releasing anything and everything they could get their hands on as to quickly cash-in on the rapidly fading motion controller phenomenon. Perhaps no single title is more infamous for ushering in this era of shovelware dreck than 2007's Ninjabread Man. Far more interesting than the game itself is the story behind it and one of the more shameless development studios in modern game design.
Ninjabread Man originally began development as a modern re-imagining of the Amiga classic Zool. Data Design Interactive secured the rights and started work on a new entry in the series with a projected release of 2004/05 (see original intro cinematic above). Unfortunately for DDI, Zool's rights holders were thoroughly unimpressed with their offerings, forcing the studio to replace the Ninja of the Nth Dimension with their own original character. The design of the titular Ninja was a perfunctory but fitting design that easily meshed with Zool's world and the new game saw release in 2005 for the PS2/PC in europe and worldwide for Nintendo's Wii in 2007. For development, DDI utilized their own in-house game engine. While far from impressive, the "GODS" engine (for Game Oriented Development System) was unique in that it wasn't reliant on any single platform's machine code or development kit. As sort of a predecessor to the Unity engine it's focus was instead on ease of porting from one console to the next. However, this had the nasty side-effect of leaving games developed with GODS woefully unoptimized for any device.
Ninjabread Man is in and of itself a very derivitave work with gameplay that would be more at home on early 5th generation platforms like the Jaguar or 3DO. Character movement has more in common with the likes of Bubsy 3D than more modern platformers. In that way, I found a modicum of fun in the game as sort of an unintentional throwback title. It was like going back to a time before the release of Tomb Raider or Super Mario 64 cemented the basics of 3D running and jumping. I've always loved going back to the Sega Saturn or Playstation and playing older 3D platformers to see how developers grappled with camera control and 360 degree movement. But in 2007, such a lack of understanding for the genre's fundemental's is unacceptable. Control is sloppy, unrespnsive and the game lacks variety of any kind offering only a bare bones experience. Enemies are easily dispatched and combat is all around thoroughly uninspired. There are only a total of three levels (four if you count the tutorial) and the entire game can be completed in roughly 45 minutes.
Ultimately, I find the whole thing more than a little frustrating because I see so much potential here. As a $20 budget release it utterly fails, but with a little more content and polish it could have succeeded as a $5 WiiWare release. The versatility of the GODS engine could have given DDI a real edge if they used it's penchant for rapid development to allow them to focus on design and mechanics. Instead they used these short cycles to churn out below mediocre titles again and again. Infact, they released 62 different Wii games that year alone, with three of them being little more than reskins of Ninjabread Man. It was estimated in 2008 that DDI was responsible for 40% of the Wii's value software library in Europe. Now, they're relegated to being a work-for-hire studio, having since closed their headquarters in the UK. Had their mission been to make quality software instead of flooding the market with shovelware, the Wii's library as a whole may be seen differently today.
As a personal note, I'd like to state that I had vehemently avoided purchasing this game for years. It wasn't until learning about it's origins as a Zool title and finding it on sale for $2 that I changed my mind.
The competition between Sony and Microsoft this generation has been sporting, friendly and downright civil. A far cry from the bloodthirsty, kill or be killed corporate attitudes of the past. While most industry observers have likely welcomed this shift in attitudes, I can't help but find myself needlessly nostalgic for the console races of yesteryear. When Sega introduced the Genesis in 1989 they poised themselves as the David ready to take down a Goliath. Infact, you would've been forgiven for thinking that Nintendo's market dominance couldn't be threatened by anyone. Unfortunately for them, Sega was ready to present themselves as the antithesis to Nintendo while slinging mud in their direction anytime an opportunity to do so presented itself. This lead to what may be the most famous marketing blitz this industry has ever seen. Sega had made a name for themselves as leaders in the coin-op space, so the first wave of software for their new console would consist of nearly 1:1 ports of their best arcade games. However, with too few recognizable franchises they decided to compliment their initial offerings with celebrity endorsed titles that were accompanied by the slogan: "Genesis Does What Nintendon't!". I don't think any game better exemplifies this segment of their earliest offerings better than James "Buster" Douglas' Knockout Boxing.
In 1990, the world of Championship Boxing saw arguably it's biggest upset in the history of the sport when the previously undefeated champ Mike Tyson was KO'ed by relative newcomer Buster Douglas. With Iron Mike's defeat came an opportunity for Sega to repurpose Taito's Final Blow arcade title as a game starring Mr. Douglas when publishing it for the Genesis here in the west. The result of the ensuing licensing deal between Douglas and Sega was James "Buster" Douglas' Knockout Boxing, a game that was both a near perfect arcade port and a celebrity endorsed title. The game would also simultaneously serve as a symbol of Sega's intent to one up their competition (Nintendo), who had signed Tyson for a similar deal to market their arcade-to-home conversion of Punch-Out!! only a few years earlier. Buster Douglas himself could even be seen in early Genesis adverts shouting "Does!" in time with the console's slogan.
The game offers players the chance to take on the role of Douglas while working their way to the championship title bout. You'll encounter a small roster of ficticious opponents representing a variety of nationalities until you're granted the opportunity to go up against Iron
Mike Head himself. However, that's where the similarities to Nintendo's Punch-Out franchise end. The game uses large detailed sprites that take up two thirds the height of the screen to showcase the power the Genesis offered over it's 8-bit predecessors. Taito has decided to eschew the simon-says gameplay of the Punch-Out series in favour of more reflex oriented gameplay. Adversaries forego telegraphing their movements in advance, requiring players to be light on their feet and use a strong offense to win a match. It's this different play style with it's emphasis on movement that I find most appealing. You simply don't know how a match is going to play out beforehand plus the action on display is fast and frantic.
Control is simple, as you would likely expect from an arcade title. Left and right on the directional pad controls your movement while up and down positions your arms high or low. The A and B buttons punch with either arm and the C button allows you to duck to quickly evade. Likewise you can also double tap backwards to quickly hop away from your opponent. Whether your arms are high or low will dictate if you throw a jab or a hook but this movement is also used to block. Pressing both A and B simultaneously will execute a power puch that can KO the other boxer if it connects. The controls are elegant and responsive, making it easy to jump into the game immediately. This low barrier to entry makes the game very approachable and it features a finely tuned difficulty curve to keep the game flowing. It won't be long before you find yourself infront of Iron Head... only to be promptly disposed of because he's nigh impossible to defeat. To this day I still haven't beaten Iron Head.
Knockout Boxing is very much a product of it's time, a remnant of Sega's past marketing strategy that boarders on advertainment. But, it's exciting arcade action delivers an alternative to Nintendo's offerings. It's larger-than-life animated characters marry a stunning presentation with exhilerating reflex based gameplay. In many ways it's the antithesis to Punch-Out!!, perhaps deliberately so and a move Sega would repeat when marketing their blue hedgehog a year later. While it doesn't have the depth or complexity of other boxing games of the time, it still stands as my go to version of the game. And perhaps one day, I'll be good enough to take on the champ.
With the recent release of Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric on the Wii U we've seen a slew of reviews come and go, all united under a banner of disappointment. As a longtime Sonic fan I've seen a fair share of low review scores attached to the hedgehog's name and all the hubbub surrounding the title did little to stir the electrons in my noggin. However, there is a trend in the online space (particularly when it comes to YouTube's gaming community) I wanted to discuss in regards to echoing sentiments revolving around reviews. I've settled on naming these occurrences "Critique Parroting". Lately, I've been rediscovering my treasured Sega Genesis library and having a ball while doing so. I decided to give Strider Returns a chance since I've been a fan of the original since youth. I was treated to a thoroughly mediocre but admittedly mildly enjoyable romp of a sequel. Whenever I finish with a title for the first time, I make a point to do some research on the game in question. I look for interviews, development diaries and of course, reviews. In the case of Strider Returns, I was only able to come across minimal snippets of development history and one brief but interesting interview. When it comes to reviews, I try to find multiple reviews for both sides but with a game like Strider Returns, that can be a tall order. On YouTube I could find only one critic who found positive aspects about the game to talk about. In response to every other review of Strider Returns, he made this following video:
While I don't think as highly of Strider Returns as this particular critic does, I do appreciate his full review for offering up a different look at it. Now, whenever I discuss games with others online, be it in this blog or on a forum I try to remember the old adage: "Not every game is a masterpiece, but every game is somebody's favourite". I don't tell myself this before writing because I'm trying to avoid hurting someone's feelings in regards to a game they may enjoy, but instead I find it's a great way to remind myself to try and look at the product from all sides to present others with much more constructive feedback. The problem of Critique Parroting is symptomatic of a much larger issue in the YouTube community, and that's a distinct lack of originality. Much like the games industry itself, most YouTubers aren't brave enough to forge their own path or craft a unique identity for themselves. Instead they settle for replicating the most successful formula seen thus far, which means we can expect another twelve dozen hundred copies like The Irate Gamer in our future. And with every copy made, the quality usually decreases.
That brings me back to Sonic Boom, because it shares a lot in common with Strider Returns. Both titles are western developed spin-offs of popular Japanese games. Both were poorly optimized due to inexperience. Both strayed significantly from their source material and both were panned by critics following their respective releases. And yet, I enjoyed both for what they were despite what they weren't. The games in question took their series' in new directions and offered something original. I'm certainly not delusional enough to think that either is a masterpiece or a landmark title for it's platform but I am intelligent enough to find some merit in these games without too much effort and I think that's something a complete overview of any product needs. Unfortunately, it's becoming more and more difficult to find a middle road these days. Anytime I scour YouTube for some retro reviews I'm generally greeted with "angry" critics shouting into their microphones before they've even come to any logical conclusions. If I've found something fun in these games, I can't be the only one.
With all of the controversies surrounding reviews we've seen this year, I've been looking for more alternative sources for information. However, it's become apparent to me that no source is entirely free of it's own unique pitfalls. I should note that when it comes to amateur content like this, creators don't have any responsibility to anyone, except themselves. If they want to follow the trends and regurgitate the same thoughts as everyone else, they should feel free to. But isn't anything worth doing, worth doing well? And if you're just going to say the same thing as everyone else without adding anything new, what's the point? What's the point if the only thing making your review unique is the awful capture quality and a weak microphone?
To be a Dragon you've gotta be strong. Humble, never braggin'!
Cross promotion used to play a much bigger role in video games when I was younger. It wasn't entirely uncommon to see cereal, toys or even cartoons based on video game characters. Case in point, in the early 90s DiC made several cartoon series based on popular franchises to limited success, one such series was Double Dragon. The television series itself was a mixed bag. The show was offered as a loose adaptation of the plot from the original home console port on the NES. Ultimately, I feel the show was big on ideas but low on the funds to properly execute them. Regardless, the show was popluar enough to be renewed for a second season and it even saw a video game tie-in on home consoles. That's right, the television series based on a video game was to recieve it's own video game adaptation. What a world we live in. As if to further compound the silliness, the game wouldn't be a side-scrolling brawler, instead it was decided to be turned into a one-on-one tournament fighter in the hopes of cashing in on Street Fighter II's recent success. TradeWest, who had published most home versions of the original games in America, would hand development for this new title off to their newly founded and short-lived internal development studio, Leland Interactive Media.
The 90s certainly wasn't suffering from a lack of fighting games. Following the release of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat, 16-bit consoles saw an influx of tournament fighters all hoping for a fraction of their success. It's no wonder then, that Double Dragon V would be viewed with some much deserved cynicism. Afterall, this game is one of the most transparent corporate cash grabs of it's time. This falls into the same boat as other shameless endeavours like Primal Rage, Cosmic Carnage or Clayfighter. However, for what it is, Double Dragon V is pretty darn good. For one, the controls are spot on. It's easy to pick up for the first time and executing special attacks is relatively straightforward. It's easy to discover special moves without too much trouble and the designers have strayed away from cryptic commands. Also, the AI offers a challenge without being as relentless as Eternal Champions or Mortal Kombat II. It's not impossible to complete the game's modes with just a little effort.
It should be said, despite all it's flaws, I really enjoy the cartoon series. I'm certain that your mileage with this title will vary depending on how much you enjoy the show as well. The game offers painstakingly recreated locales from the series. The environments are colourful, animated and populated with familiar
toys vehicles. The cast of characters is also populated with the brothers' rogues gallery and special mention has to be given to their fluid animation. It feels like you're playing the cartoon and it feels great to play as Billy or Jimmy and make short work of these thugs. The game also features a "quest mode" that plays like an abridged episode. A few plot points have been taken from the show and it's a lot of fun slowly working your way towards the Shadow Dojo to defeat the Shadow Master. I do wish however, that characters like Abobo and Machine Gun Willy made an appearance. Admitedly they only had a brief presence in the show but it would have gone a long way to connect this game to the past ones. Even the dominatrix-esque character Dominique feels like a missed opportunity as the developers could have simply named her Linda.
Regardless, Double Dragon V manages to avoid many pitfalls commonly seen in the "me too" fighter crowd. The game is full of colour and plays surprisingly well. It's an obvious copy-cat but it's and obvious copy-cat that had some serious effort go into it. The designers clearly spent a lot of time on this project and it would be a shame to have all that work be forgotten simply because it's something different in the series. More work could have been done to better connect this title to it's roots but as it stands, Double Dragon V is a great fighting game, especially if you've played the classics to death. Lately, I've been feeling particularily nostalgic for those halcyon days when your favourite video games were simply everywhere. It was nice to go back for a while with this relic from the past.
Double Dragon V: The Shadow Falls is available on Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo Entertainment System & Atari Jaguar. This overview was written after completing the game again on Sega Genesis.
It should come as a surprise to no one when I say that I grew up with the Sega Genesis. It would be accurate to describe the console as my first love in gaming. Even as the years have passed and other consoles have come and gone, the Sega Genesis marks the beginning for me. That's why it delights me that the console has enjoyed such longevity over ther years. But did you know that the Genesis/Mega Drive still has newer iterations being manufactured to this day? We're all familiar with clone consoles, their relative popularity with hobbyists and the slowly increasing market revolving around them. One need only to enter their local flea market or independant game store to find a small selection of them readily available. But what makes the Sega Genesis different is that their have been officially lisenced iterations of these clones available in North America.
The first series of these officially licensed clones was made available in 2004. Designed & sold by Radica Games, these microconsoles were to compete with the recent influx of similar devices from Jakks Pacific. I remember seeing these readily available at the likes of Walmart and Futureshop when I was in highschool. My family had since sold our Sega Genesis and I was interested in purchasing one only to be disappointed when I returned with the necessary funds, they sold rather quickly. What makes these units unique when compared to the subsequent consoles I'm going to discuss today is that they ran on actual Genesis hardware shrunk down to a single chip, much like the Famiclones that are all too common in China. Because of this, they are incredibly customizable with a brief search showing that they can be modded to output S-Video, accept cartridges and even have authentic audio quality. It's a shame that units like these aren't available anymore.
That brings me to the main focus of this article and the current manufacturer of official Sega hardware, AtGames. There is an astonishingly limited amount of information regarding their partnership with Sega and these units themselves but I'll impart with you what little I've been able to discover. It seems AtGames began circulating their version of the Mega Drive in China somewhere in the mid 2000s. Later in the decade Sega began to officially endorse their products and license their games for sale with them in North America and you can find them available in big department stores and toy stores around the holidays. AtGames version of the Genesis doesn't run on a new iteration of the original hardware but instead runs on a 32-bit chip called the Firecore. Their consoles are typically sold with 15-40 games installed on them with the deluxe models actually including a cartridge slot. Sega must have been impressed with something about the hardware (probably how inexpensive it is) because these units are still being produced.
The Firecore itself is where most criticism against the units is levied. Afterall, AtGames' build quality is acceptable, the game selection always includes great Sega titles, many of these units include expandability in one form or another (more on that later) and they're widely available at a very low price. But the console's Achillies' heel will always lie in it's emulation. In proper Sega fashion, this new version of the Sega Genesis (sometimes referred to as the "model 4") has inferior audio compared to all prior models of the Genesis. In a move I suspect has been done to keep emulation at full speed, the audio has been downsampled. When playing a variety of different games the results can vary from indistinquishable from the original to downright awful, but typically the difference isn't too bad and that's coming from someone who played a lot of Genesis in the 90s. However, this difference is what keeps these consoles from being widely adopted by collectors and purists, who would (understandably) want no difference. Otherwise, emulation is excellent, seemingly running at full speed with a clean video out and responsive controls. I'm personally delighted that these are as widely available as they are and this clip from Annoyed Gamer sort of sums it all up pretty well.
Like I said, these are available in a wide variety of different versions. There's the deluxe model with two wireless 6-button controllers and a cartridge slot. There are at least two versions with motion controllers and faux-Wii games (shudder) in addition to a collection of Genesis games. And there's the one I settled on (pictured above) that is an arcade stick with 26 Genesis games and an SD card slot dubbed the "Arcade Master". And yes, the SD card is for exactly what you think it is. The included games are an excellent cross-section of Sega arcade games (Altered Beast, Golden Axe, Shadow Dancer, Virtua Fighter 2) arcade-style games (Arrow Flash, Eternal Champions, Streets of Rage) and a few others that nicely fit the theme (Kid Chameleon, Sonic Spinball). I also made a point of thoroughly testing the SD card support and encountered no problems among the 100+ games I tested on it. I chose this version because the arcade games have always been my favourite part of Sega's library and I prefer playing old games with an arcade stick. The controller itself is surprisingly well built and the stick/buttons feel authentic and responsive through the use of microswitches.
These aren't going to set the world on fire and they're not going to replace anyone's genuine Genesis. They're not even likely to replace your Hyperkin Retron. But they are pretty nifty and inexpensive, and for my money they'll work in a pinch. These toys are a cool novelty and a great conversation piece when you have your other gamer friends over and anyone who grew up with the Genesis is likely to appreciate that it's still available in one form or another.
About a year ago YouTuber TotalBiscuit created a video asking "Have single-player FPS gone backwards?" and his premise caused me to take pause. The first-person shooter genre is one that I had largely ignored in recent years despite their dominant presence in the industry. However, there was a time when I enjoyed shooters as much as any other game on my PC and I can even remember being excited when high-profile shooters were announced. I've spent the past year playing a large variety of classic FPS titles I remember from my childhood. Games like Wolfenstein 3D, Rise of the Triad, Quake & Half-Life. However, none of the games I played completely rekindled my love for the genre quite like Brutal Doom.
For those not in the know, Brutal Doom is a modification for the Doom series that decidedly cranks all of the game's best elements up to eleven. It's an assuredly juvenile good time that revels in copious amounts of testosterone-fueled violence & gruesomely depraved gore. Brutal Doom has been making it's rounds on the internet for a while now and has seen a level of unprecedented popularity in the Doom community. After recently gathering my collection of iD Software games I decided to finally see what all the fuss was about and I was more than pleasantly surprised. After installing the mod with my copy of Ultimate Doom I made short work of that title's four episodes, then I installed Doom II, followed by the Master Levels for Doom II and then Final Doom. I was abolutely hooked, Brutal Doom isn't simply the best FPS I've played in recent memory, it's the best FPS I've ever played.
This is, in part, due to the mod's 90s sensibilities. Doom is, at it's core, the antithesis of the modern shooter and Brutal Doom successfully upgrades all aspects of the game's core mechanics. The mod's new features compliment the original design without detracting from what makes Doom so great in the first place, all while slightly modernizing the experience (for the better). In short, Brutal Doom is a gore mod but leaving it at that would do a major disservice to all the hard work that's gone into the project. Do not write it off as a simple novelty, Brutal Doom also increases the number of monsters, the game's speed, difficulty and adds new melee attacks. However, it would be impossible to convey just how much of an improvement it actually is by simply listing it's new features because so much of what it adds is in the smaller touches. Like how the new weapon effects make your attacks feel more powerful or how monster blood, guts & flesh cast across the walls & ceilings of the corridors. The end result is a more visceral game that aims to be everything Doom can be without betraying what it actually already is.
I believe much of what TotalBiscuit mentions in his video is true. FPS games from their golden days in the 90s expected more from the player. Even without a modification like this you could still expect yourself to be surrounded by more enemies than you would in a newer release and with fewer supplies. You needed to minimize the damage you took because there was a limited amount of health packs but there isn't any cover around. Levels weren't linear, instead the player is faced with a labyrinth of corridors and passageways. It all adds up to make a gameplay experience I find to be much more engaging. And now, after having played through the entire original Doom collection I have sunk more time into this game than any other released in the past five years, and I've already played through these levels in my childhood. It stands as a testement to the original's excellent design that Doom can still manage to be this engaging after all these years.