Archive for the ‘A Look Back’ Category

A Look Back: Azrael #1

TITLE: Azrael #1
AUTHOR:
Denny O’Neil
ARTIST: Barry Kitson
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
ORIGINAL PRICE: $1.95
RELEASE DATE: February 1995

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

No, not that Azrael. Michael Lane has nothing on my guy. Who’s my guy, you ask? That would be Jean Paul Valley. The tall, fresh-faced, bespectacled college student who became the Batman (“AzBats,” to quote Nightwing) during the Knightfall saga.

For the uninitiated, Jean Paul Valley was the first Azrael, a fierce warrior and deadly assassin subconsciously trained from birth via subliminal messages and hypnosis to become the enforcer of the Order of St. Dumas. Or rather, a splinter group of it headed by a Brother Rollo. Jean Paul was abruptly forced into a life of violence when his father, the previous Azrael, came bleeding on his doorstep. Before dying, his father gave him instructions to use funds he left for him to go to Switzerland in order to receive training as the next Azrael. Jean Paul would later his father intended for him to use the funds to escape from a life as an assassin, but then we wouldn’t have gotten Azrael, now would we?

Jean Paul received his training, fell in with Batman after a brief fight, helped take down the man who had killed his father along with several members of the Order, saving Bruce Wayne/Batman’s life in the process, and then became an ally of Batman. When Bats was critically injured by Bane during Knightfall, Bruce had Jean Paul take up the mantle of the Bat. It was less than a good idea, to say the least. The mentally fragile Jean Paul was driven into a state of mania and malice, leading him to deliberately allow the death of the serial killer Abattoir. Once Bruce Wayne recovered, he was forced to take the mantle back from Jean Paul after a climactic battle. But what happened to him after that? His story was not yet over. We were thus given the next chapter in the life of Jean Paul Valley, via his own ongoing series, which began in Azrael #1.

This story sees Jean Paul wandering the streets of Gotham City, hallucinating and beating people up. He eventually meets up with ex-psychiatrist Brian Bryan, who offers him a friendly ear. Of course, those people that Jean Paul beat up while hallucinating himself as Azrael fighting a twisted, demonic version of Batman are not happy with our hero. Meanwhile, Batman isn’t yet done with Jean Paul. And neither is the Order of St. Dumas.

I’ll be honest. Denny O’Neil’s original, series-long run on Azrael was not the best stuff in comics at the time. Many plotlines and scenarios were reused again and again, such as Jean Paul being framed for murder, or him going on a crazed rampage, or both at the same time. As much as I like O’Neil’s work, and as much as I respect him for how he helped revolutionize comics, he dropped the ball with his handling of Azrael in his last years on the title. All that said, the first issue of the series is pretty darn awesome.

In one issue, we’re reintroduced to Jean Paul as a hapless, sympathetic youth who suffers from a severe mental illness. This is a pet topic of mine, actually, because I just love heroes with emotional baggage who also aren’t super-gruff jerkholes. Jean Paul is likeable, lovable even. Despite being a surrounded by Batman’s shadow, he’s a genuinely nice guy. He’s kind of a blank slate, since we don’t get to get into his head by way of inner monologue very often. O’Neil, for some reason, feels the need to describe what’s going on with caption boxes full of third person narration. But it’s that very same blank slate that allows us to sympathize with Jean Paul, to judge him by his actions and dialogue alone, and not by what he tells us. It is a good idea from a comic book standpoint? Maybe not. Azrael, like Batman, needs a Watson. Otherwise he just talks to himself, as brilliantly lampshaded in Azrael #32. But Azrael’s Watson comes right along.

In this issue, we’re also introduced to Brian Bryan, the aforementioned ex-psychiatrist and current alcoholic, who would go on to become a strong recurring character in the Azrael series. Brian Bryan is an excellent foil for Jean Paul. Jean Paul is simple and childlike, while Bryan is a cynical adult. Jean Paul is all but oblivious, but wishes to be aware; Bryan is painfully aware, and turns to alcohol to become oblivious to his inherent problems as a homeless person.

Speaking of the homeless, I’d like to give O’Neil credit for making Azrael the only title I’ve ever read which manages to almost perfectly encapsulate the human side of Gotham City from the standpoint of a superhero. Who are all these people that Batman spends his nights trying to protect? What do they want, and why do they want it? In this case, some mean homeless guy wants Jean Paul’s shoes. This focus on the people of Gotham continues on through the No Man’s Land saga and beyond, showcasing just who the people of Gotham City are. It’s probably the one thing that O’Neil’s run on Azrael has in common with the newer title: It’s very, very street level. And a street level story set in Batman’s city with very little Batman in it can be either very scary, or as it is here, very touching. The feel of the street level setting is bolstered by the terrific’90s art, which captures the mood perfectly.

My final commendation for this first issue is that the pacing is just perfect. We’ve got the clever set up, the gradual unveiling of our players, the seeding of the Order of St. Dumas arc which will drive the series for the first quarter or so of its run, and a cliff hanger ending which will have us picking up issue number 2. It’s a terrific beginning of a terrific run, or at least a partly terrific run.

I’m glad to own the first issue of the original Azrael series, and I hope to one day own the last issue. One of the reasons Jean Paul Valley’s Azrael is one of my favorite characters is because there’s relatively little written on him. The character’s formative years were largely written by O’Neil, and given the way he writes, there’s only so much we can know about poor Jean Paul. I’d like to see how a more modern writer, like Scott Snyder, Ed Brubaker, or even Grant Morrison would handle him. Never mind Michael Lane. I say go Jean Paul Valley any day.

Front page image from Rob Siebert’s collection. Images 2 and 3 courtesy from dc.wikia.com.

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Read more from Levi Sweeney at The Life and Times of Levi Sweeney

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A Look Back: The First Great Spider-Man Story?

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

I’ve been on an early Spider-Man kick lately. For the past few weeks I’ve had my nose in the first eight volumes of thMarvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man series. We’re talking the definitive, golden age of Spider-Man, a la Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and John Romita. While it’s fairly obvious these guys had no idea they were creating what many now deem to be “modern day mythology,” it’s also clear how much fun they were having putting these issues together. And it’s thrilling to know how groundbreaking those early issues were in terms of the superhero genre. As he was developing Spider-Man and his world, Stan Lee was told…

1. Teenagers couldn’t be superheroes, only sidekicks.
2. People would be turned off by a spider-themed hero.
3. A hero with an “average” build wouldn’t be appealing.
4. Peter Parker’s doting Aunt May would make him look weak.
5. A hero with everyday problems wouldn’t seem heroic enough.

But of course, Spider-Man changed everything, and nothing moreso than the way we look at superheroes, and the tremendous weights they carry. Peter Parker had supervillains to face, of course. But he also had bills to pay (it’s tough to cash a check in a superhero costume), a doting aunt to keep happy (“You know how easily you catch cold!”), a boss who loathed superheroes (“It’s the work of that miserable Spider-Man!”), and a relentless school bully (“Why don’tcha watch and see what a real man is like, bookworm?”). Spider-Man had everyday problems just like his readers. As such, when those problems started to add up, and his world began to crumble around him, we could sympathize and relate to him that much more.

Most of these elements were present when Spidey made his debut in Amazing Fantasy #15, circa August 1962. In retrospect, it’s amazing how quickly Lee and Ditko were able to establish the now classic Spider-Man formula. But for my money, the first time they really hit one out of the park wasn’t until more than a year later, when The Amazing Spider-Man #4 was published in September 1963.

This was the first issue that, to me, really had it all. The ol’ Parker luck was really in full swing here, and what results is an issue that, almost 50 years later, still holds up.

In terms of the Spider-Man timeline, this issue is already tremendously significant, because it marks the debut of one of Spidey’s most notorious villains, Sandman. Like a great many Marvel villains, Flint Marko was part of a freak accident which granted him superpowers. After escaping from a maximum security prison, Marko was chased into an “atomic devices testing center.” He found his way to a “lonely, forbidden-area beach,” where he fell victim to a nuclear test explosion. As a result, he discovered his body could taken on the qualities of sand. He could quickly transform his body into sand, be it soft and weightless or rock hard in consistency. In addition, he can also mold his hands into different shapes, i.e. weapons. As the cover clearly indicates, this issue we see our friend Mr. Parker bamboozled by his new opponent’s powers, as his punches either go right through the Sandman, or are met with a jaw that’s been hardened to the consistency of a brick wall.

In the end, Spidey wins his first battle with Sandman with the help of a vacuum cleaner, of all things. He tricks Sandy into going…er, sandy, and then sucks him up in the machine. Not exactly a dignified way for a villain to end his first appearance, but I suppose it does make Spidey look resourceful. In retrospect, it’s a wonder the vacuum bit didn’t make it to theaters with Sandman in Spider-Man 3, considering some of the other goofy stuff that happened in that movie. Also, if I’m not mistaken the vacuum cleaner moment marked the first time our hero called himself “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man!”

As if Sandman weren’t enough, Peter was also having costume problems in this issue. And this is where the real genius of The Amazing Spider-Man #4 occurs. During their first fight, Marko tears Spider-Man’s mask. As he only uses one costume, Peter needs to sew the mask back together so he can return to action. But, as is the case with many teenage boys, Peter isn’t exactly an expert at sewing. So the task doesn’t come easy. On top of all that, Peter’s Aunt May is convinced he’s sick with a fever, and forced him to stay in bed while Sandman terrorizes the city! What’s so brilliant about this is that it makes the story more relatable to children in particular. What kid HASN’T tried to sneakily do something behind an adults back, and feared getting caught? Peter wants to go out and have a rip-roaring adventure, but his aunt is making him stay inside! It’s classic Stan Lee, and certainly one of the best early Spider-Man moments.

Speaking of relatable, Peter’s issues with Flash Thompson also come to a head in this issue. From the very first page of Amazing Fantasy #15 (shown above), Flash had been established not as a brutish bully per se, but the jerk in school who picks on “Puny Parker.” In this issue, Peter finally gets fed up and nearly decks Flash. But he stops and realizes that if he loses his temper he could seriously hurt someone, given his added super-powered strength. So with the patience of Job, Peter backs down, only to swallow even more abuse from Flash.

I love this moment because it beautifully illustrates how Peter’s great strength extends to the mental and emotional, as well as the physical. Once again, Peter is forced to put his own feelings asisde, and sacrifice in the mark of his great responsibility. And again, this is a moment almost every reader can relate to. We obviously don’t all have superpowers. But we’ve all known people like Flash, and we’d all love the power to put them in their place once and for all. Here Peter has that power, but he refuses to allow himself to use it. We feel for him and we admire him at the same time.

But Peter does get to have a little fun at the expense of Spider-Man’s harshest critic, J. Jonah Jameson. Since his first appearance four months earlier in The Amazing Spider-Man #1, JJJ had been wreaking havoc on Spidey’s public image. That doesn’t stop here, but Spidey gets to wreak a little havoc of his own by putting some webbing on his Daily Bugle boss’ chair. Naturally, when Jonah sits he gets stuck, and his pants eventually tear. This leads to a rather comically awkward moment where Peter has to bring him a new pair. And to boot, they’re purple. In the end, however, Jonah gets the last laugh. Peter spends the last page of the issue down in the dumps, as people on the street are reading Jameson’s latest smear piece.

So now, take a step back and look at all the elements here. As always, we have our dashing (but not too dashing), colorful, and ever lovable hero. But we also have…

- A fresh supervillain with abilities that at first seem impossible to overcome.
- An embarassing torn costume scenario, which our hero has to fix himself while simultaneously appeasing his doting aunt.
- The harmless, yet grating, tauntings of Flash Thompson, who Peter is forced to show restraint around.
- The not-so-harmless writings of J. Jonah Jameson, whose words have turned much of the public against our hero, despite all the good he’s done.
- An ending which leaves our hero torn. He is triumphant, yet dejected. He’s won a battle, but is he losing a war?

Stan Lee and Steve Ditko wove all these plot threads together into a single issue. And of course, these are all scenarios and themes that continue to be present in the Spider-Man mythology to this day. Power and responsibility, overcoming great odds, showing restraint for the greater good, doing the right thing even when it isn’t popular. These are some of the things that make Spider-Man who and what he is, and are part of the reason he’s endured for 50 years.

Did Lee and Ditko have the word “masterpiece” running through their minds when they crafted The Amazing Spider-Man #4? Probably not. Heck, in 1963 I’d wager most people didn’t think “comic book” and “masterpiece” belonged in the same sentence. For that matter, maybe they still don’t. But considering the era it was created in, and what it helped cement in terms of the character’s mythology, this issue IS a masterpiece. For my money, it’s the first great Spider-Man story.

‘Nuff said.

Front page image, image 3 and image 5 from supermegamonkey.net. Image 1 from ditkocultist.com. Image 4 from author’s collection. 

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A Look Back at Banjo-Kazooie

By Justin Polak
Co-Founder, Ambassador to the Mushroom Kingdom

If you told me when I started writing for this site that I would have an article about Banjo-Kazooie, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you said that I would be writing something positive about Banjo-Kazooie, I would outright call you a liar. I have a somewhat complicated history with Rare’s popular Nintendo 64 game, released in the summer of 1998.

My sister received Banjo-Kazooie as a gift shortly after its release date. I am 10 years her senior, so while I was in the middle of high school, she was just getting into video games. I don’t really remember who gave it to her, or even for what occasion, but she was quickly discouraged by the game’s difficulty for someone as young as her. She wasn’t wrong. I recently replayed it, and there were some tough spots for me now! Anyway, I decided to give Banjo a spin, and I ended up spending nearly all of my free time with it. My parent’s even joked that they were glad at least someone was playing my sister’s new video game.

However, I lost my patience with Mad Monster Mansion, a spooky themed level which, to me, had the first real spike in the game’s difficulty curve. Combine general annoyance with being a teenager, and you get someone who just didn’t have time for a game that was thematically aimed at a younger audience. I always had an open mind when it came to video games, but around that age I wanted to get back into more “mature” titles.

I also got tired of all the collecting Banjo-Kazooie tasked on the player. There are 10 jiggies (golden jigsaw pieces) to find per level, which would allow you to unlock more worlds to further you progress in the game. There are also 100 notes to find per world. Collecting them is actually more important because you need set note totals that count across ALL worlds to unlock doors that lead deeper into Gruntilda’s Lair; Gruntilda being the game’s villain and the lair being the hub world.

It really didn’t help that I put the self imposed challenge on myself to collect every single jiggy and note. You don’t need all of them to beat the game, but for whatever reason I decided to have a completionist attitude. As a result of my sudden lost of interest, the game collected dust for many years. I would go on to remember Banjo-Kazooie as, “That annoying collecting game.”

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. My friends and I discover JonTron, a popular reviewer on YouTube. Turns out JonTron is around eight years younger than me. How is that relevant? Well, most internet reviewers I ended up following over the years are very close to my age. If said reviewers got nostalgic, I would be right there with them as they walked down memory lane. JonTron is the first reviewer I have decided to follow that talks about the Nintendo 64 era with as much reverence as people around my age would show for the original Nintendo (JonTron and I do meet half way when it comes to the Super Nintendo, however)! He is also a huge fan of Rare games, so hearing him talk so passionately in some reviews about the developer sent me on a Rare game kick. Before I knew it, JonTron ended up convincing me to give Banjo-Kazooie another go.

And that leads me to today. I have finally gone back and completed Banjo-Kazooie. I even stuck to my original goal of getting every jiggy, note, and all other possible things to do in the game. My opinion of the the Nintendo 64 classic has done a complete 180. At various points throughout my playthrough, I even felt more positive than I did when I originally tried the game! The collection angle wasn’t nearly annoying as I remembered it.

I do remember why I was discouraged back in the day, however. I got reminded of exactly why I was annoyed with the initial difficulty spike when I had my first death in Bubblegloop Swamp. If you lose a life in a level, you have to start note collecting all over again. The jiggies you collect will save. But if you got 99 out of 100 notes, guess what? You have to collect 1 through 100 all over again. You also have to face this fate if you willingly walk out of a level, or save and quit while in a level. So if you want your note total per level to be 100, you have to do it without losing a life or giving up!

I won’t lie: I was very annoyed when I rediscovered that rule, but I was able to deal with it and move on. I have never played the Xbox Live Arcade version of Banjo-Kazooie, but I do know that in that version, notes save if you lose a life. However, I have to admit that taking out that punishment removes a lot of the challenge and tension I felt while exploring all the wide variety of worlds the game had to offer. Finally finding the last couple of notes at the edge of death in any level was a thrilling feeling, and makes up for all the annoyance felt beforehand.

There are two aspects of Banjo-Kazooie I didn’t really notice the first time that I ended up falling in love with: The soundtrack and the writing. Grant Kirkhope, who composed TONS of music for Rare (including the ever popular Goldeneye 007), did an amazing job with the soundtrack. He hit that sweet spot in gaming music that is memorable and catchy, yet seamlessly integrates itself into the game’s visuals. Part of the illusion was how the soundtrack in all areas would change pitch, speed, instruments, etc. depending on what section of a map you were on.

The writing was simple enough for a child to get through, but fun enough for an adult to read. I always liked how Gruntilda would taunt the player the whole game and speak all of her dialogue in rhyme. I also loved how each character, even if it had only a couple of lines, would carry its own unique sound. The more I played it, the more I realized how much effort was poured into Banjo-Kazooie.

The best example of this effort is the game’s brilliant level design. Not only does the craziness of Gruntilda’s Lair feel like a real place with a logical design flow, but the worlds within the lair itself all stand out. Banjo-Kazooie is able to have the grass level, desert level, ice level or whatever without me going, “Oh, this is going to be a typical [trope] level,” for the most part. It helps that a couple of the worlds carried a theme not often seen in platformers. Rare even meant to make a sewer themed level interesting! I think what helps the level design overall is that unlike Super Mario 64, if you collect a jiggy, Banjo-Kazooie’s star if you will, you aren’t booted out of the level. You can stay as long as you like until you die, collect everything or leave at your own leisure.

The only real flaws I found after all these years is that the camera really reminds you that the game was made when even the best developers were still getting used to making a three dimensional video game. Sometimes the camera was just as big of threat to you falling down a loooooong way as an enemy that gets a lucky shot in. I also think the game could have used better pacing. I adored Gobi’s Valley, a desert themed level. But the ease of difficulty when compared to the previous two levels had me thinking it should have been placed earlier in the game.

Then you’ve got the other side of the coin on the difficulty/pacing issue. Rusty Bucket Bay are three words I would never expect to scream out loud in rage, but boy did Banjo-Kazooie bring out my inner demons on that day! The average time for me to get everything in all other levels was an hour. My time for Rusty Bucket Bay? Two hours and forty five minutes! As far as pacing goes, this clearly should have been the last world to traverse since not only was it harder than Click Clock Wood, but a hell of a lot more interesting too.

However, my overall experience is a very positive one. Mark me down as yet another fan of Banjo-Kazooie. My only regret is that I didn’t give the game its proper chance when I could have hopped aboard when the franchise was brand new! I never even played Banjo-Tooie or even took a look at it! If only there was some way to track down old games in this day and age…

Some games I like just a bit more as time goes on, while others age poorly. My latest go around with Banjo-Kazooie ended up turning my opinion around in a positive way. I suppose it takes a special game to do that. Well, that and a little maturity on my part!

Front page image from vizzed.com. Image 2 from cheapassgamer.net. Image 3 from ntlworld.com. Image 4 grotesequegirl.blogspot.com. Image 5 from therwp.com. 

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A Look Back at the Sega Dreamcast

Image from world-of-games.co.ukBy John Flickinger
Staff Writer, Coffee Fiend

Innovative games tend to come in two varieties: hardware based games like Trauma Center and Wii Bowling that use elements like touch screens and motion controls to do things that had previously never been done, and games that are just plain clever and different unlike most of what is available.

Indie games like Crayon Physics and World of Goo fall into this category. One of the things that defined the Sega Dreamcast was having a catalog that included a lot of those “clever and different” titles that were innovative, in many cases ahead of their time, and for some, just plain weird. In any case they were loads of fun, and very memorable. This year marks the Dreamcast’s 12-year anniversary, it seems like a good time to reflect on some of the more innovative titles available for the Dreamcast.

Before delving into games, let’s take a look at the system itself, especially for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t seen one. The Dreamcast was released on 9/9/99,  which was pretty cool, or at least about as cool as a release date can be anyway. It was the first major 128-bit console, which means that at the time it had graphics unlike anything we had ever seen and was capable of things that no current generation console could do, like connect to the internet. In the late 1990s all that was available for most people was dial-up, and the Dreamcast’s built in 56k modem allowed for online play and it wasn’t anywhere near as robust as services like XBox Live and Playstation Network, but many games could be played online.

The Dreamcast also had connectivity with the Neo Geo Pocket Color through a link cable. Most of the games that supported this were SNK games, and the features were very limited, but it was an interesting idea.

Finally there’s the Dreamcast’s memory card. The “Visual Memory Unit” or VMU,  plugged into the controller. It had an LCD screen which was viewable through the controller and displayed graphics, animations, and helpful info while you played. When the Dreamcast was off the VMU could be used for other things. It had a D-Pad and two buttons which could play games downloaded onto it from Dreamcast titles. VMUs could also connect to other VMUs to copy save files which was useful if you needed to save but didn’t have enough free blocks on the card you wanted to use. Some games even had little apps the VMU could run, for example Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 let you use in-game points to purchase characters which would be unlocked the next time you played.

All these features are great, but hardware means nothing without a great line up to play on it, so let’s take a look at some titles.

Jet Grind Radio / Jet Set Radio Future
This was a game where graffiti taggers on roller blades skated around a fictional Japanese town spraying their tags on walls over their rivals’ graphics while avoiding the police all set to the soundtrack of a pirate radio station. Saying that it was “different” might be an understatement, but it was a lot of fun. It was one of the first cel-shaded games which gave it a very cartoony feel, and the only thing that came close to it’s gameplay style was it’s sequel Jet Set Radio Future. There were many playable characters and you had to prove your worth by doing some fancy skating to win challenges to impress these potential allies in order for them to join you and become playable. The rival gangs weren’t violent street gangs, but rather cartoony caricatures. The police used rubber bullets and tear gas, but were never out to kill, so it was pretty non-violent given the subject matter. Jet Grind Radio is without a doubt one of the most unique games released for the Dreamcast.

Shenmue
This was originally going to be a trilogy, but the third game was never released. When it came out it was one of the most detailed games ever made. Shenmue is a sandbox style RPG that takes place in 1980s Japan. You play the role of a teenager named Ryo who is on a mission to avenge his father’s death. Time passes, and days go on, but what you choose to do with those days is completely up to you. The weather changed with each day, and the game developers went out of their way to match the game’s weather with the actual forecast for that day in the 1980s. Day gradually turned into night and you could watch the whole transition take place which added to the realism.

On a given day Ryo could play with a kitten, talk to townspeople, play real emulated 1980s Sega arcade games, buy a soda, collect figurines, train to become a better fighter, or actually play detective and advance the plot. The fighting was very similar to Virtua Fighter, and whether you wanted to train or not was up to you. In fact whether you did anything or not was up to you, and the freedom was a fairly new experience given the lack of sandbox games at the time, let alone one where every detail was carefully created. You would reap the benefits or consequences of your actions and overall it was a very immersive experience.

Phantasy Star Online
PSO was a great departure from the rest of the Phantasy Star series, and it’s a lot of fun but quite honestly it’s bland by today’s standards, especially when compared to the newer games in the series. However being one of the first online RPGs for a console it’s pretty impressive. It has various classes and follows the standard hunter/gatherer “kill things to collect things so that you can kill more things” model which can be addictive albeit a little repetitive. It also had a single player campaign which consisted mostly of fetch quests and other tasks that have you going from point A to point B. In a nutshell this game is what the Phantasy Star Universe, and Phantasy Star Portable games were in their infancy.

Illbleed
This is a very different take on survival horror. You rely on your senses and use a set of goggles referred to as a “horror monitor” to find items and mark traps to disarm them. You need to take your time marking the traps so you don’t fall victim to them, and watch your adrenaline levels. As the name implies, you will bleed when you fail to avoid a trap, and the more you bleed the slower you can move. The items you collect are things like relaxation CDs to bring your adrenaline down, and health items to stop your bleeding. You also avoid enemies which is very common in survival horror games, but this is one of the few where the environments are just as scary as the enemies, if not scarier.

Crazy Taxi / Crazy Taxi 2
These were fairly popular arcade titles, and they have been re-released several times. For anyone unfamiliar with them, the Crazy Taxi games let you pick a cab driver, then pick up fares and drive them to their destination. By itself that may sound a little boring, but the faster you get them to their destinations the higher your fare will be, your taxi is completely indestructible, you can use speed boosts, “jump” high with hydraulics, and the city has things you can plow through with your taxi. Fueling the driving mayhem was a soundtrack with bands like The Offspring and Bad Religion that the re-releases don’t have, possibly due to licensing restrictions. There were also challenge modes and mini games to added to the replay value.

Typing of the Dead
One of the accessories the Dreamcast had was a keyboard which seemed like it was mainly used to aid communication in Phantasy Star Online. Typing of the Dead uses this keyboard, and the game is based off of the rail shooter House of the Dead 2. The difference is that instead of using a light gun to shoot at the zombies and other creatures that are trying to attack you, each enemy has a word over their head, and typing the word fires at them. Type correctly and you hit with every shot, but make a typo and you miss. Bosses have goofy words like “yummyumyuumyummyummy” or whole sentences full of puns and Sega references. This might be the only “M” rated typing tutor ever made.

Seaman
In 1998 Nintendo released Hey You Pikachu! a game where you use a microphone to interact with a Pikachu on the screen. Then a year later Seaman was released on the Dreamcast. You use a microphone to interact with a sea creature that has a creepy human face. Over time your creature evolves into something new. This really needs to be seen in order to be believed, but I must warn you, if you are inebriated in any way, please refrain from watching this video. It is the Japanese commercial, and it’s some serious nightmare fuel that cannot be unseen. Consider yourself warned.

ChuChu Rocket!
This was a puzzle game that didn’t use blocks, gems, crystals, interconnecting pieces, or any kind of pattern matching. Now there are loads of Flash puzzle games, tons of puzzle games for cell phones, and a massive casual games genre, which wasn’t the case in the 1990s. This game was about “ChuChus” or space mice, and as the name implies, you need to get the ChuChus to a rocket by placing arrow tiles down. You set your tiles then the ChuChus march in a line. When they hit a wall they turn right, when they hit an arrow they turn in the direction of the arrow, when they hit KapuKapus (space cats) or pits they die, and when they hit a rocket they win the stage. That’s about it, and it’s a very simplistic but enjoyable game. It also had an online mode and great multiplayer where a flood of ChuChus are released and up to 4 people place tiles down, with each player trying to lead the mice into their own rocket while preventing the other 3 players from doing so. There was a puzzle mode level editor, and Sega saved all of the levels that were uploaded online. Later on when ChuChu Rocket! was re-released for the Gameboy Advanced they included 2,500 user created levels. Talk about replay value.

The 2K Sports Games
EA didn’t support the Dreamcast with sports titles. That would have been a major blow for Sega had it not been for the first ever 2K games in the year 2000. Back then EA didn’t have exclusive rights to every sports license under the sun, and the 2K games would attempt to make a series of games that would directly compete with EA. The ambition was outrageous, but the fact that these games were actually able to hold up to franchises like Madden and NBA Live was very impressive. The graphics were more realistic due to the Dreamcast’s hardware, and the gameplay was solid. Some people would even go so far as to say that they surpassed their EA counterparts of the same year. They weren’t innovative in the sense that they were new types of games, but in a genre dominated by one company, they were certainly a breath of fresh air. One more thing worth noting was that these were some of the earliest sports games to be played online on a console thanks to the Dreamcast’s modem.

Space Channel 5
The rhythm genre was just starting to take off with games like Dance Dance Revolution, but this was before Frequency which also means that it was before Guitar Hero and Rock Band. There weren’t a lot of games being played with instruments, although the Dreamcast did have Samba de Amigo: a rhythm game played with a special set of maracas. Space Channel 5 was a different kind of rhythm game featuring Ulala, a space reporter who uses dance to mesmerize aliens, then shoots them in rythm. You mimic steps after you see them, and an example set would go something like “left, right, chu, chu, chu” where you hit the directions in rhythm, then “chu” shoots in time to zap the aliens. Ulala frees, and is accompanied by other characters including Space Michael who is based upon, and voiced by, Michael Jackson. It was another very unique Dreamcast title.

The Dreamcast was a great system, but unfortunately it didn’t last very long. The PS2, XBox, and Gamecube buried it in the marketplace. Nonetheless it had a lot of great games, far more than I could ever list here. That isn’t to say that it didn’t have shovelware titles, but the games that Sega published along with third party games like SoulCalibur and Street Fighter III were classics. Most of these games still hold up since the graphics are comparable to the Wii, and believe it or not you can still buy brand new VMUs on ebay. Really, if you love video games, do yourself a favor and hit ebay to pick up a Dreamcast if you don’t already own one. The games and accessories are fairly cheap, and there’s something for everybody. Just about everything listed here are family friendly without feeling like “kiddie” games. Despite the “M” rating, even Typing of the Dead and Illbleed are and closer to modern “T” rated games given the new level of realism that modern games have. It’s exciting when a new generation of consoles comes out because of the potential for new and innovative titles. Most of the time there are a few competing systems that each have unique titles on them, but for at least a little while the Dreamcast was the only system of it’s generation, and instead of just making sequels of successful Saturn games they came out with these incredibly unique games which is pretty amazing if you think about it.

Front page image from uni.edu. Image 1 from world-of-games.co.uk

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A Look Back at the Sega Channel

By Brian Norman
Staff Writer, Puzzle Game Master

If you are under 25 years old, you may have never heard of Sega Channel. Hell, if you are over 25, you might not have either. I was lucky enough to have it for about 2 years when I was growing up and it brought me a lot of great times. It also helped me find a few great games to add the collection. Let’s take a look at this building block to online gaming as we know it.

Sega Channel was an important piece of gaming history. Although not the first service of its kind, Sega Channel garnered more success than any of its predecessors. In researching for this piece, I learned that before SC there was Atari’s GameLine and Intellivision’s PlayCable. Sega Channel was moderately successful, getting about 250,000 users. I see SC as a precursor to the Xbox Live Arcade and the Nintendo Wii’s Virtual Console.

Sega seemed to have a penchant for adding on to the Genesis system. The add-ons included the Sega CD, the 32X , the power base (a backwards converter for master system games) and the Sega channel of course. I really can’t think of another system around the time of Genesis to do anything like that. Even a game or two seemed to be set up like that, such as Sonic and Knuckles, with its lock-on technology. I liked the Sega CD to some extent, with classics like Dragon’s Lair and Sewer Shark (guilty pleasure), but the system also lead to many bad live action video games. The 32X was one of Sega’s big time flops, with very little developer support it was M.I.A. in no time. However, Sega Channel rocked, and I will lay it down for you as to why.

The service gave subscribers access to 50 games a month using a cable modem adapter for the Sega Genesis, and I loved it. It was like paying for five rentals per month but getting way more. At power up it would load a game menu that was categorized for sorting games by things like Wings N Wheels, Classics, The Think Tank, etc. The service also featured sneak peeks and demos of games that were not released yet, and Sega Channel exclusives like Golden Axe III — a great old school side scrolling beat em’ up — and Mega Man: Wiley Wars, which was a collection of the first three Mega Man games. Another great feature was the contests they would run on the service. The only one I can remember was for the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta, where you competed for records in different events.

This trip down memory lane for me includes playing some great games, and some truly bad but hilarious to play games. I remember staying up way too late playing Time Killers with my friend Justin; it was a crappy fighting game where you could kill your opponent at the start of the round by decapitating them. I also remember yet another sub-par fighter called Primal Rage, the most basic of fighters but with crude/lame humor, like a giant ape pissing on a dinosaur, as if we don’t see that every day, I mean really. I see giant apes pissing on things constantly, but I don’t decide to feature it in a weak-ass fighting game. Sega Channel also brought me cool games like ShadowRun — not the awful bomb that dropped in 1997 — Gemfire (a strategy game like Risk set in medieval times) and Haunting Starring Polterguy. I’ll dive into that one another time because it deserves a story unto itself.

There were times when the service would lock up, and I would be calling the cable service at 1 in the morning getting them to reset transmission, and the 50 game lineup didn’t fully change every month, but all in all Sega Channel was an excellent service that gave gamers access to a variety of games and lead to some they may never have found before. Sadly, the Sega Channel only lasted four years, but I think it opened the door for the latest generation of online game marketplaces, and it will always hold a place in my gaming heart.

Front page photo from nintendoagemedia.com, Sega Channel Adaptor photo from vglounge.com, Sega Channel screen from wn.com, Sega Channel Sonic screen from okaygeek.com.

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A Look Back at ActRaiser

By Justin Polak
Co-founder, Ambassador of the Mushroom Kingdom

As of this writing, I will be turning 29 tomorrow. I am coming to accept the fact that I am getting older, hopefully wiser and that some of my favorite video games are roughly two decades old. Sure, I recently wrote an article about that kind of goes against nostalgia, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like to dabble in the past. I guess I feel like I came across as a little harsh in that last article, so I suppose it’s only fair that I show that while I dislike people clinging to the past to justify present opinions, I am not against the idea of remembering good times.

I wanted a Super Nintendo more than anything in the world, like most children, when it came out in the summer of 1991. I got my first taste of the console first hand at — where else — a cousin’s house. Obviously, what sold me was the standard Mario game at the time, Super Mario World, and Final Fantasy IV (back when we all thought it was Final Fantasy II) enamored me. However, there was a third game that filled me thoughts throughout the days when I was yearning to own the system.

ActRaiser was a very unique game for its time, and still has a charm to it today. Developed by Enix long before the Squaresoft/Enix merger, the game had you control a being known as “The Master”, which you could name, leading to kids such as myself to name it absurdly as possible. Thanks to a battle fought long ago against Tanzara, an evil deity, The Master falls into a deep slumber to recover from the battle. In time, the people of the world stop believing in The Master, and each area is controlled by six of Tanzara’s subordinates.

I’ll cut to the chase in case you haven’t figured it out. You basically control God who is waging war against Satan and six of his top buddies. The censorship policies of Nintendo of America were pretty strict in those days, so some mild wordplay was needed. I can understand why Nintendo tried to disguise the plot, but I am positive that many players assumed they were playing a game based off of Christian beliefs anyway.

Moving on, when God woke up, the lack of faith from the people meant that he was severely weakened, and had no power. As expected, God regains his power as the game goes on, but the way the gameplay unfolds moved in a different direction than one would think at the time.

Upon first playing the game, you enter in God’s name. The only real option that is available to you is to fight monsters, so away you go. What follows is a standard side scrolling action game. You slice enemies with your sword, you lose life, you gain life, you earn an extra guy, you fight a boss at the end of the level and you even accumulate unnecessary points! However, your next task isn’t to fight through another stage, but to build a thriving population on the area you just liberated.

When in sim mode, you control an angel that serves your every need. With his help, you can direct people to build a town, cast acquired spells when needed and fend off monsters that seek to put a stop to your progress. Scattered throughout several lairs on the map, a way to permanently quell the menace is to direct your followers to the lair’s themselves. They will automatically seal them, and in most cases learn how to build better homes in the process. The better the homes, the more population fills your world. You want to make sure you squeeze as many people as you can into that map because your level depends on how many citizens live and breathe safely.

Though it’s not nearly as complex as even the first Sim City, even if we are talking about the SNES version, the sim mode was a huge draw for ActRaiser. Many people were disappointed when ActRaiser II turned out to be a simple action game, including myself. Though the mechanics are simple when you get the hang of things, it is incredibly satisfying to build a strong civilization in each area. It may seem cruel, but a good way many players leveled up quickly was by purposely destroying older houses, thus having a higher overall population once the best houses were rebuilt over the scorch marks of the old.

The game’s design also had you bouncing back and forth between maps at certain points. Since the game had religious themes, you had the ability to check in with your people worshiping you. The two town leaders would offer a variety of items to aid you on rebuilding the world. Some items, however, where instrumental on solving another area’s problem. Plus, each area included small story segments which somewhat personified each area. In addition to that, every place you rebuild has a distinct flavor to it. Though the environments seem pretty standard and cliché today, you have to admit there is a reason desert, jungle, fire and ice based areas still work.

When all the monster lairs are sealed, a huge crisis immediately presents itself, and the only way to solve it is to fly right back into action mode and play another side scrolling stage that faces you off with one of Satan’s buddies. I’ve always felt that the level design and graphics really shone through in every Act 2 level. So much effort and detail is poured into every area, it’s unbelievable. Even if I play this game today, I still get impressed by certain backgrounds that perfectly utilized Mode 7, a graphics tool that presented the illusion of depth, thus artificially making some elements to appear to be in 3D (see, Nintendo’s obsession with 3D isn’t a recent trend)!

Perhaps the best part of this game is the sound effects and music. Frequent readers may have come familiar with my obsession of video game music, but the game’s excellent score by Yuzo Koshiro didn’t draw me in simply because I love the way it sounds, and believe me, I do. What amazed me was the sheer quality of it. Keep in mind that this game was released very early in the lifetime of the SNES, and it still managed to outshine the sound quality of much later titles. The music seriously does sound less midi-based and more like it was created with a limited orchestra. When you get hit, your character even lets out a very realistic sounding grunt. Yes, today this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but back when the SNES was only a few months old, this was a major technical achievement.

Lastly, what I have come to appreciate over time is the religious theme throughout this game. As said above, the US version got censored, but it was still very apparent that you were a good god facing off against an evil one. Religion is a subject that few games tackle, and when it does, it’s generally found in JRPG storyline that showcases how religion can easily be misused in the wrong hands, or worse, created by the wrong person. It’s nice to see a basic struggle of good versus evil presented in a mature way, censored or not. The ending is what chills me the most, and I feel it points out a sad truth about humanity. If you haven’t played the game and plan on doing so, skip the next paragraph.

After evil is vanquished, God and his angel helper revisit each area and reminisce on the trials they faced and certain people that stood out to them. After their tour is over, they notice that no one goes to any shrine to worship them because all of the world’s problems are solved. God and the angel decide to leave the world again, knowing that the people may need their assistance once more. I found it slightly bittersweet that even after the world was rebuilt from complete decimation, humanity grew complacent, despite there being absolute proof that not only God exists, but he fights for them as hard as possible. I may be reading too much into this, but perhaps the developers were saying that even if people get exactly what they want, they are doomed to stay on a path where the same problems will repeat themselves.

If you own a Wii, it’s the best legal way to get a copy of this game right now through the Virtual Console service. If you’ve never experienced ActRaiser before, it goes without saying at this point that I think it’s a worthy purchase. The game isn’t exactly unknown, but it’s one of those gems that have been buried under more popular titles as the years have gone on. Who knew playing god could be so much fun?

Front page image from sydlexia.com, screensh0ts from mobygames.com.

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A Look Back: The OTHER Darth Vader Commercials

Image from last.fm.

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

So much of humor starts out as tension and fear. We take something that would normally scare the pants off us, and make it into something silly to eliminate the frightening element. It’s a classic bait-and-switch tool that both entertainers and advertisers love to use.

And by God, you’re not likely to find someone who enduces more tension and fear for the sake of entertainment than Darth Vader, who took the world by storm yet again on Super Bowl Sunday in a new Volkswagen commercial.

Why do I get the feeling this is what fans expected young Anakin Skywalker to look like in The Phantom Menace?

Though it’s rarely been done in a manner as funny, cute or clever as this, using Darth Vader for advertising purposes is hardly a new idea. The iconic nature of the character, combined with the way it obviously benefits Lucasfilm to keep Star Wars in the mainstream spotlight (the franchise is a money magnet, in case you’ve been asleep for 30 years), make our favorite dark lord a natural choice for commercials and TV spots. These are some of my favorite Darth Vader commercials from years gone by. Some of them were great, some of them have were okay, and at least one of them was spectacularly INSANE!

A few years ago, Spike TV acquired the rights to all six Star Wars films, and put out a bunch of commercials with the characters. Here’s one of them.

Did they honestly expect him to play fair?

This next one obviously uses a scene from the original 1977 film, but digitally inserts a new actor, who provides most of the dialogue. The looks on the faces of the other actors sync up surprisingly well.

I’m surprised the guy even got reception. If we can’t use cell phones on planes, you’d think they’d enforce the rule for a space station the size of a damn moon. What if it threw off the big laser? They could’ve blown up the wrong planet, and the movie would have been over! Nice going, moron.

This Target commercial is strictly okay, in my opinion. The bit is clever, but the costume looks store bought.

What, Kim Kardashian wasn’t available?

This commercial for DirectTV isn’t solely focused on Darth Vader. Heck, it isn’t even entirely in English! But it’s just too bizarre to ignore. I can’t decide if it’s hilarious, or just disturbing…

You know what? It IS disturbing. Having “Silent Night” in the background pushed it over the edge. That image of the four of them skipping through the field will haunt me. Why Vader was lumped in with a bunch of slasher villains, I have no idea. But you know what? It’s so stupid, it works.

In fact, the more I watch it, the more I love it. You complete me, DirectTV Darth Vader commercial! My life will never be the same again!

But even so, this is only my second favorite Darth Vader commercial of all time.

I admit, I’m biased. This commercial debuted in 1994, when I was a kid. So it’s a sentimental favorite. But you can’t deny it’s a great bit. Also, note the pre-DVD version of Emperor Palpatine from 1980. Why “Get his battery” didn’t take off as a catch phrase is beyond me. I’m going to start saying it all the time now. I don’t think it’ll ever replace “I was frozen today!” as the best random line to insert into a conversation. But if we all get behind it, it could take off!

Videos from their respective YouTube posters.
Front page photo from thefoxisblack.com.

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A Look Back at I Come in Peace

TITLE: I Come In Peace
STARRING: Dolph Lundgren, Brian Benben, Betsy Brantley, Matthias
Hues, Jay Bilas
DIRECTOR: Craig R. Baxley
STUDIO: Triumph Releasing Corporation
RATED: R
RUN TIME: 91 min
RELEASED:
September 28, 1990

By Justin Polak
Co-founder, Ambassador to the Mushroom Kingdom

WARNING: Throughout this article, I spoil various plot points of this movie. The movie is a couple of decades old, but I know some people are sensitive to those things.

As a child, I hung out with my cousins a lot. One of them happened to be only a couple of years older than me, but when you are a kid that small age gap makes all the difference in the world. He was once a child of the 80s that loved action movies, especially those with intense violence. Wanting to be as cool as my older cousin, I followed action movies as much as he did as a result. As a rule of thumb, the bloodier the movie was, the better it seemed. So yeah, we’re talking about movies ranging from the late 80s to early 90s.

Of course, everyone from my generation remembers Terminator 2, Rambo, Die Hard, Commando, Demolition Man, etc. Well, the random mess that is my brain suddenly recalled a long forgotten 1990 action flick. I had to have watched this movie on VHS at least a dozen times. However, other movies released around that time like Total Recall drew my attention away from it.

Image from hardassrecords.blogspot.com.

I Come in Peace stars Dolph Lundgren, who most people remember as the intimidating Russian boxer Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. He also was one of many action stars that appeared in The Expendables this past summer. It’s actually too bad that Lundgren didn’t become more of an action star akin to Schwarzenegger or Stallone. Though I Come in Peace doesn’t stand out in the public eye when people think of old action movies, upon re-watching it I was really impressed how well he carried the movie. It’s not like the guy didn’t have work throughout the years, but he should have been given more lead roles. One might think that my childhood memories are glorifying his performance, but I honestly forgot he was in the movie until I tracked it down recently.

The movie is worth watching for the ridiculous premise alone. Lundgren plays Detective Jack Caine who is trying put a stop to the White Boys. No I am not referring to an obscure rap duo. The White Boys are skyscraper dwelling, white collar drug dealers in the middle of trying to push a major amount of heroin they stole from the feds. They must be a successful bunch because even the lowliest lackeys wear expensive suits and drive the latest sports cars.

At the movie’s outset, the White Boys score two major victories against the Houston Police Department. Jack’s partner gets killed after a botched undercover sting operation that was supposed to bust Victor Manning, a major player in the White Boys. Jack was unfortunately distracted from his back up duties while stopping a robbery next door. Oh, and what about that heroin shipment they stole? It was in a federal reserve that was promptly blown up right after the gang made the score.

Normally, a movie would take that premise and run with it. Not so in I Come in Peace! After the White Boys kill Jack’s partner, Victor leaves some of the White Boys behind to pack up the heroin. A strange visitor enters the room unnoticed and launches a flying disc that cuts through the bad guys like a hot knife through butter. He quickly steals the drugs and escapes right before Jack unnecessarily rolls in the scene finding everyone dead.

That wasn’t the first time the audience was shown this disc-wielding murderer. Before Jack, the White Boys, or anything else is revealed, the movie opens with a man’s car getting destroyed by an object from the sky. A monstrous figure that looks almost like Christopher Lambert emerges from the wreckage and walks right up to the man and says, “I come in peace.”  The fate of the man is left unknown …until we see what the alien does to people later.

That’s right, I said it was an alien. I Come in Peace not only has businessmen with a silly gang name as antagonists, but an evil alien enters the fray to mix things up!  But why is he here claiming he comes in peace when all he seems to be doing is murdering people and stealing drugs?

Image from videodetective.com.

The answer is very simple. The alien needed the drugs to forcibly inject a lethal amount of heroin in unsuspecting victims. He does not give them a chance to die from an overdose, though. He stabs their heads to steal a liquid from the brain. Why? Because on the planet where he comes from, endorphins released from the human brain as a result of drug use is a rare and potent drug itself. Instead of a movie that deals with privileged drug dealers, it instead focuses on extraterrestrial drug dealing. Why did this premise never catch on?

Before I revisited this film, the first thing I remembered was the alien weaponry. You see, a good alien eventually joins the battle. He eventually gets killed by the bad alien and gives the protagonists his weapon before passing on. The gun has multiple settings on it referred to as levels. The higher the level, the more explosive the guns are. A memorable scene has Jack’s new FBI partner nearly killing a couple of White Boys with the gun right after exclaiming, “That’s it, these guys are level two!” Well, as a kid it seemed pretty damn cool…

Image from filmschoolrejects.com

Despite how silly this movie sounds, any action movie buff should check it out if they have not heard of it. Just be prepared for hilariously over the top acting by any and all minor characters, as well as some of the other leads. Besides the set up, don’t expect this movie to do anything different compared to others from its time. If you took shots of beer every time an action movie cliché was brought up, you’d be half dead and wasted. Also, this movie was set up for a potential sequel that never came into fruition as Victor Manning was established to have escaped to Rio early in the movie.

The climax ends with one of the best one-liners I have ever heard. After the bad alien is incapacitated, the following exchange occurs between him and Jack.

Bad Alien: I come in peace.
Jack Caine: And you go in pieces, asshole.

I’m sure you can guess how the alien died.

Front page image from latinoreview.com.

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A Look Back at the Space Quest Series

By Justin Polak
Co-founder, Ambassador to the Mushroom Kingdom

It’s not often that I speak of PC gaming, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it. Although I’ve always preferred consoles, it used to be that PC games were like looking into the future of where console gaming could go, mainly in terms of graphics.

Calm down PC fanboys, that’s still the case. But the gap between the graphical prowess of a PC as opposed to a console is much wider the further you go back in time. My family actually did end up getting a PC back when I was a child, and I did have staples such as Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? However, two of my closest cousins always seemed to have the best PCs back in the late 80′s/early 90′s.

Image from emuparadise.org

That’s where Space Quest, a series originally published and developed by Sierra, comes in. My first experience with the series was Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon. One night when a cousin of mine and I were hanging out, he showed me a bunch of PC games. I was impressed with all of them, but the only one that stood out in my memory for years was Space Quest III. If anything, that game was my introduction to the adventure genre, and I was wowed by the simple fact that success was based on inputting the correct commands via typing on the keyboard and having a good sense of investigative logic.

Of course, I ended up trying all three games in the series that were available at the time and failing miserably. That was okay though because when the main character Roger Wilco died, the end result was hilarious as well as gruesome. Roger didn’t simply fall over dead or leap off the screen when the grim reaper met him. Based on how you failed, you would watch Roger’s fate unfold followed by a text box cheerfully explaining all the details of his demise. Some games in the series, like many Sierra games, had an accompanying picture that showed the unforgiving nature of death.  Space Quest III had the most creative and graphic depictions of sheer failure.

If anything, I believe the first three games in the series are the best because of how simplistic they are. A newcomer will find  the games challenging, but I feel the style and attitude for adventure games worked better in a time where a Sound Blaster PC card was a huge deal and a mouse was an innovative idea.

Image from abandonia.com

While Space Quest III—along with Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter and Space Quest II: Vohaul’s Revenge—may seem ancient, they are well worth playing to this day. I’ll admit they’re better appreciated if you grew up with gaming like I did and can place your mind on the limitations of games back then, but I believe they are still relevant and engaging games. Be warned though, the first two games feature points that cause you to be stuck forever if you aren’t careful. Multiple save files are your friends.

Having said that, the only game in the series that I think dropped the ball was the last installment, Space Quest 6: The Spinal Frontier. Many puzzles boiled down to guesswork, the humor seemed very forced, deaths were there for the sake of being there instead of feeling like peril came naturally, the overall story up to that point seemed to be ignored and the voice acting was downright annoying. The only other game in the series that had voice acting was Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers. But the voice work in that particular game was charming, with the right amount of melodramatic cheese sprinkled in it.

Image from queststudios.com

Speaking of the last half of the series, while I did say I like the first three more, I can’t deny the awesome plot elements, creative thinking and advancements that Space Quest IV and Space Quest V: The Next Mutation brought to the table. Space Quest IV had a very cool time travel plot that had the player rip back and fourth through past and fictional future Space Quest games. At the same time there were many fourth wall breaking moments that I found very creative. For example, all the characters didn’t refer to the time by a year but rather what game they were in. You literally heard characters say things like, “I had to come back to the Space Quest IV era!” The status bar on the top of the screen also changed with what time/games you were in. I wish the series had extended to the future eras of the series just to see what the rest of the adventures were like!

Space Quest V, on the other hand, was like playing an interactive parody of the original Star Trek series. The premise alone provides an interesting twist to that point in the series. Roger Wilco’s  entire hook is that he was never a suave hero. He never had aspirations beyond being a janitor. That’s right, you play as a simple janitor that happened to be in the wrong place at the right time throughout the series. By Space Quest V, Wilco made an off screen decision to enlist in Star Con instead of simply being a janitor for the organization. The combination of cheating on a test and a power fluctuation whilst scanning said test landed him the job as Captain…of a garbage collecting ship! Still, he was the man in charge with a memorable crew.

Image from infoaddict.com

It’s worth noting that Space Quest was created by Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy. Back in the early days, they were known as the Two Guys from Andromeda. They worked together for the first four games in the series. Space Quest V only had Crowe on board, while Space Quest 6 had Murphy as a creative consultant (which explains why that one was such a bad game). Although I liked the fifth game, there’s no denying how beautifully these guys worked together. If two people sit down and create game that actually makes players want to find each and every way to die, then you know they’ve done something right.

The best part is that the Space Quest series can still be played today. The most common and efficient way to purchase these games are through Steam. In fact, all six can be bought for one $20 package. If you have the time and the money to spare, I recommend playing through at least a couple of them. Obviously, I would say the only game to steer clear from is Space Quest 6, but five out of six well crafted adventure games are worth the price of admission.

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A Look Back at Shining Force II

By Justin Polak
Ambassador to the Mushroom Kingdom

I was first introduced to one of my best friends back in Jr. High. One of reasons why we connected so well was because of our love for console RPGs, and we wasted no time showing off each other’s game collections. As I helped him get back into the Final Fantasy series, he told me about a different kind of RPG. Instead of random encounters with a small party, the player controlled a massive unit on an individual basis.

This game was called Shining Force, and right off the bat I knew that I loved it. I wasn’t very good at the game back in those days, as I was not used to Strategy Role Playing Games, or SRPGs for short. Nevertheless, I was hooked. Unfortunately, back when I was a kid, I didn’t have a source of my own income, so I wouldn’t own a copy until many years down the road.

That’s where Shining Force II comes into the picture. I may have not had my own income, but I sure could sucker my parent’s into getting me a video game for Christmas! By this time Shining Force II was already on store shelves, and I opted to ask for the newest entry at the time. Come Christmas day, my wish was granted, and the very second family obligations were put to rest, I raced into my room and played from the middle of the day to far past when I should have gone to bed.

Those of you unfamiliar with Shining Force II may be asking yourself what is so great about the game right about now. Well, I’ll be happy to explain!

Image from gamefaqs.com.

As mentioned earlier, in Shining Force II the player controls a fighting unit one member at a time. The game allows up to thirty party members to be discovered with the limit of twelve of them in each battle. Fighting classes come in wide varieties, and once certain characters reach a certain level, the player can opt to promote them to an all-new fighting class. There are even a few characters that can choose between promotions, assuming you found certain secret items. Despite the advancements made in the SRPGs over the years, I have found these very basic aspects of Shining Force II have aged gracefully, and the game is still very fun to play to this day.

Battles are often intense and challenging, even if you have played through the game multiple times. The key to nearly every battle is to position your characters in such a way where the enemy won’t devastate them if they stayed in a group, but not letting an individual character or two get smashed because he or she strayed too far from the pack. You also have to be mindful of both yours and the enemy’s range of attacks. Is it worth it to send Archers, Centaurs and Mages ahead of the group to try to get a quick kill? Maybe you should put some heavy hitters with high defense close to stronger enemies as a distraction? How about rushing with all of your fighters? Where’s the best place to keep your healers so they can easily recover lost hit points while not letting the enemy obliterate them? On top of many questions like these, the main character must not fall in battle or it is game over.

Image from gamefaqs.com.

Although the rough translation of the dialogue is very primitive and unintentionally hilarious compared to today’s games, the overall story is interesting enough to follow. Not all playable characters get developed over the course of the game, but I find you can still get very attached to certain characters by simply watching them grow in the battlefield over time. I sometimes sit there for several minutes pining over whom I should develop for my battle party. This decision is even more difficult when I have to cut a longtime active member from seeing some action.

Lastly, the music of Shining Force II perfectly conveys the sense of light-hearted adventure mixed with an ominous sense of foreboding. What’s notable about this game compared to the first Shining Force is that there are multiple battle themes depending on if characters are promoted or not, or which kind of enemy attacks. This may sound like it’s not that big of a deal, but it sure helped with the cinematic style during the battle cutscenes back in 1994. The only flaw in the soundtrack is that there aren’t many songs, and most of them are pretty short loops. However, the music is quite memorable and carries one of the best Genesis soundtracks.

Shining Force II is a lost gem from the Sega Genesis that still is very playable to this day. There are multiple ways of legally obtaining the game right now, in fact. It’s for sale on the Wii’s Virtual Console, as well as part of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection found on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

No matter where you find it, Shining Force II is a game worthy of your attention. Despite the genre’s advancements and how much gaming has grown in general, it is still a highly engaging game to experience.

Front page image from gamefaqs.com.

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