Jun 8, 2019

The Top 100 Best RPGs of all Time

Logo and cover art for this list of the top 100 best RPGs ever.

What are the best RPGs of all time? This has long been a topic of debate between fans of both western style and Japanese style role playing games. I grew up playing RPGs. It wasn't my first genre, but it was the most enthralling for me. Journeying out on a long quest, twisting plots, slow paced battle systems and even grinding experience points have always been far more interesting to me than running through corridors shooting firearms at foes. Without RPGs it's very likely I would have quit gaming a long time ago. With that said, I'm here today to talk about what I consider to be the greatest role playing games of all time. These are the best RPGs strictly in my opinion, and this should not be taken as a be all end all list. There are a few caveats to this list however. Just to name a few:

I've always been a much bigger fan of Japanese RPGs than the Western equivalent. I have nothing against the latter, but the regional based sub-genre has just failed to maintain my interest.

I have not played every role playing game ever made. If you don't see one of your favorites here then there's chance I've never experienced it. I'm constantly on the lookout for RPGs I may have overlooked so please feel free to mention them in the comments section.

This list is just for fun and I'm in no way claiming to be the end all of great RPGs. So please don't take it too seriously!

With that out of the way let's get started. Here are the best RPGs of all time.

Jun 7, 2019

Mischief Makers Review (Nintendo 64, 1997)

The front cover for the Nintendo 64 action platformer Mischief Makers.


Owning just a Nintendo 64 was difficult for any regular gamer. Sure, it had some of the most memorable and greatest games of all time, but the release calendar suffered many of the longest droughts of any system. 1997 was one of the system's better years. Not only did it bring with it Goldeneye 007 and Mario Kart 64, but also a much lesser known, smaller scale release that just happens to be one of my favorite video games of all time. This title was called Mischief Makers, and it failed to get a lot of attention due to the fact that it was a two dimensional side scroller in an age of 3D platform games. It was not only the first game of its type on the Nintendo 64, but also marks the first Treasure title released on a Nintendo platform. Today I'm here to tell you why this amazing and widely overlooked title belongs in every serious gamer's collection.

Mischief Makers puts you in control of an android named Marina. I say 'android,' but she's actually an 'Ultra Intergalactic Cybot G,' whatever that means. One day Marina is called to action as the inventor who created her is kidnapped by a weird group of aliens called "Clancers." It's up to her to save him, and eventually the very world itself. Mischief Makers' story may sound standard, but it's full of zany characters and situations. It's a real riot, and it's one of the wackiest games available on the Nintendo 64. As I mentioned earlier Mischief Makers is a two dimensional action platformer. As Marina you can run left/right, jump, grab items/enemies, and use your rocket boosters to gain momentum in any direction. The main gimmick here is Marina's ability to shake items and enemies. This interaction is regularly required to use on elements in each environment, and the developers came up with some really creative uses for it.

A significant amount of the platforming in this game is focused around your jet pack and grabbing abilities. The C-buttons control the propulsion direction, but they only work in short bursts that require you to press them repeatedly. You can manipulate many items while holding on and using the rocket boost, and this concept is constant throughout the entire game. These that depend on the rocket boost are the ones that I found most difficult; you need fast reactions and later on one misstep will lead to certain death. One unique aspect of Mischief Makers is the fact that falling off a cliff doesn't mean instant death and often times you'll lose only a portion of your life bar and be thrown back into an earlier section of the stage. It's a tough game and it being forgiving makes Mischief Makers much more approachable. Level design is kept extremely inventive, and in many stages you have different objectives or hazards. I particularly enjoy the levels where the everything sways, and also the areas where you have to lead other characters from the start to the end. The variety is really cool, and there isn't any particular task that isn't fun or that doesn't offer a unique challenge.

The main character Marina directs a robot through the desert using her rocket boosters.

The gameplay evolves constantly from start to finish, and this keeps Mischief Makers interesting all of the way to the end credits. It's one of the most fresh platformers released even to this day. Marina is armed with a ton of abilities the game does a really nice job of easing you into it and teaching you how to play. You'll be tested with simple tasks in the beginning, but later on the obstacles become much more significant and trying. It's a perfect balance.  Sometimes you'll handle mechanics that are only present in that single stage such as controlling a robot using only your rocket boosts, or shaking items to rotate the roof around. Entire games have been built around these singular concepts, but for Mischief Makers it's a mere stage that takes just a few minutes to complete.

The highest point of this game is its boss fights. Treasure came up with some really inventive ways to incorporate Marina's skills in battling against them, and they're no pushover let me tell you. These characters are done in typical screen filling fashion wherein you must memorize attack and movement patterns. Some of these encounters are really unique. Migen throws punches at you that you must catch and then throw back, there's a kitty which you must play dodgeball against, and even a high speed motorbike battle against a huge bazooka toting rival. Most bosses come complete with voice samples and zany dialogue, and this makes them extremely memorable and charming. While the whole game is excellent the boss encounters are simply incredible, and are among the best that the developers have ever designed.

Mischief Makers isn't a particularly impressive Nintendo 64 game, but the art style more than makes up for this. Because of its two dimensional nature this game holds up significantly better than most other games of its era. This title is mostly sprite based with both backgrounds and characters coming off as a little blocky especially during instances where the camera zooms on them. The characters have a very cartoon-ish and colorful look that is extremely pleasant and memorable. Sprite work is so well done here that this game has a sort digitized look like in Donkey Kong Country or Yoshi's Story. What's really impressive is the fact that the game never suffers from even the slightest amount of slowdown even when facing full screen boss characters or several different enemies at once. The only problem I can think of whatsoever is that the backgrounds can sometimes be a bit drab but that's hardly a major issue. Because it relies more on style than pushing the hardware Mischief Makers is still a really good looking game even today.

Marina walks through a room with moving platforms and lava on the floor.

Most people I've spoken to who have played this game hated its soundtrack, but I for one have always loved it. The music is very typical for a Treasure title, and it fits the atmosphere perfectly with upbeat compositions and quirky high pitched notes. I especially like the intro and screen transition themes, but it's all really enjoyable to be honest. The sound effects are also extremely well done. Everything from Marina's jump to her rocket boost is all very nice. The voice samples are extremely charming and memorable. Anyone who has played this game will remember Marina's 'shake, shake' sample, or the 'help me, Marina!' clip at the beginning. For a cartridge based game the voice work is surprisingly clear, and it's actually pretty impressive.

It's criminal how underrated Mischief Makers is. At release most critics just cast it aside, but it has always been one of my most favorite games on the platform. Not only that but it's also one of the best platform games of all time. Treasure is a developer long known for making fun and quirky games, but Mischief Makers might just be their very best title of all time. If you have any interest in the genre you owe it to yourself to track this one down; the prices for it on Ebay are surprisingly reasonable and it's easy to find. Most gamers will disagree with me but I think it's the singular best game Treasure has ever made. Yes, it even beats out Gunstar Heroes. It's cheap, fun, has a great sense of style and humor. So then, what are you waiting for?

Pros:

+ Excellent graphics that stand up even today
+ Huge amount of gameplay variety with ever changing mechanics
+ Inventive and fun level design that's timeless
+ Great soundtrack and graphics

Cons:

- Some bland backgrounds
- Graphics can sometimes be blocky

Overall Grade: A

Jun 6, 2019

Download Review (PC-Engine, 1990)

The front cover of Download for the PC-Engine.

The Turbografx-16 console was no slouch when it came to scrolling shooters of both the horizontal and vertical variety. North America got its fare share of domestic releases, but many of the best were left in Japan. The subject of today’s review is one of these such games. Download was released for the PC Engine, the Japanese version of the Turbografx-16 console, in 1990. From what I gather it has a cult following and is one of the many import recommendations I found during my research. While it’s not particularly memorable, Download (now that’s an innocuous title) is a decent romp that’s good clean fun.

There’s some sort of story here but what it’s about is anyone’s guess. I don’t speak or read Japanese, and while there’s a surprising amount of English text here all of the story exposition is in moon speak as far as my understanding goes. What I can ascertain is that this game takes place in the future and follows a cyberpunk motif with anime characters fighting against an army of robots. The story is told through still scenes and dialogue, and the production values of these sequences are pretty good considering the year it was released.

Download is a side scrolling shooter. You guide the main character’s spaceship through six auto scrolling post apocalyptic stages dodging projectiles and hundreds of robotic enemies along the way. This is not one of those ‘one hit kills’ affairs (thank goodness) and your ship instead has a life bar and you start the stage over when it is depleted. What is nice is the fact that, while you do lose your weapon upgrades upon doing so, you can continue endlessly. Hardcore fans will scoff at this principle, but I found it welcome from the sea of unforgiving shooters of this era.

A space ship flies and shoots through a night time scene.

The weapon system is very basic and by the books. What’s nice is you can choose between two different types of shots at the start of each stage, either the Vulcan or laser, and have three options as far as support weapons go. I find that the shield and homing shots are equally useful, and so I just stick with those and ignore the third choice. I can’t even remember what it is to be honest. Download would be a more interesting game if players were offered the chance to change your weapon on the fly, but that’s a small complaint. There are four different power-ups you’ll find in each stage and include a recovery item, upgrade to your main weapon, recharge of your secondary item, and a bomb that destroys all enemies on screen. These are released from specific crafts and change periodically so if you need something in particular you can just wait to collect the power up until it cycles to the one you had in mind.

Download is a pretty entertaining game with elaborate boss encounters (these offer a lot of variety too) and gameplay scenarios that will keep you on your toes. It’s pretty fun, but Download isn’t without its issues. For starters the game is a little easy even pretending for a moment that you can’t continue endlessly. No one section of the game took me more than one try as the patterns aren’t that hard to notice and there’s usually a safe portion of the screen you can hang out on. The boss encounters are also pretty easy and all have at least one easy to figure out strategy wherein you can dodge every attack easily. Figuring these out is the biggest challenge the game offers, but even that won’t leave anyone scratching their head. It’s rewarding, but I would have liked it if these patterns were more puzzling.

In addition Download is a darn short game. My first time through took me under an hour to complete, and the second was around half that. I don’t expect most games of this era to span weeks or even days, but it felt like I had barely sat down before the credits started rolling. This is one case where the difficulty should have been turned up, or the developers should have included a greater variety of weapons to make it more replayable. Two is too few, and many shooters released prior to this offered more variety in this regard. As it stands Download just doesn’t have enough content even by the system standards. High scores just aren’t enough to keep players coming back in this case because there’s not enough of a challenge.

A red ship shoots at a boss character in a city during the day.

My final complaint is a very minor one. Download, despite going with cyberpunk motif, just doesn’t have much style. It looks very generic especially when out side by side with other PC Engine offerings such as Super Star Soldier and Soldier Blade. The enemy design are entirely too generic with and there’s no overarching identity to this game. It’s visually bland, and with such a rich theme to explore the artists failed to come up with anything interesting. There’s a big emphasis on the story and I’m sure it adds something to the experience, but I doubt it makes up for these shortcomings. The Turbografx-16 has a huge library of shooters and the fact that the developers seem to not even have tried to give this one its own identity is hugely disappointing. It’s no wonder Download is rarely brought by the most hardcore fans of the genre.

Download lacks a clear identity which makes the visuals boring overall. There are some decent effects such as multiple layers of parallax scrolling, and tons of on screen projectiles without even a hint of slowdown, but it’s hard to care when everything just seems to blend together. I prefer my shooters colorful and the palette here is just plain drab. It almost looks like it was painted over with a coating of NES graphics to be honest, and were it not for the effects and solid engine I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to find out this was a Master System release. Even worse than the visual style (or lack thereof) is the soundtrack. The hardware might be limited, but it was proven many times that an inspired composer could produce magic from the archaic bleeps and blips. That wasn’t the case here. Nothing sounds particularly clear, and there’s a high pitched quality to the music that is far from pleasant. It almost sounds like that trademark screeching effect you hear in so many Sega Genesis games, and no, that’s not a compliment. You’re better off muting this one.

Download has its issues, and there are a lot of shooters that are significantly better not only from the same era, but also on the same system. Many of these don’t even need to be imported. I imagine the reason this one has the cult following it does is because of the simple fact that it’s rare. It has almost no style, is very forgettable, ugly and sounds bad. With that said Download is still a mildly entertaining game. It won’t push most experienced gamers, but the various scenarios, and boss encounters are pretty fun. Finding safe places to wait, or memorizing patterns are both more rewarding than you’d expect here. I recommend Download, but just barely, and mostly to gamers who are looking for an easier scrolling shooter that’s low on penalty and generally kind of relaxing. Now if only I can figure out what’s going on in the story….

Pros:

+ Fun gameplay
+ Unlimited continues

Cons:

- Stylistically boring
- Limited weapons
- Terrible soundtrack
- Dull graphics

Overall Grade: C

Jun 5, 2019

Power Stone Review (Sega Dreamcast, 1999)

The front cover for the Sega Dreamcast game Power Stone by Capcom.


The Sega Dreamcast featured one of the best launch line-ups that I can remember. Not only did it have the first full blown 3D Sonic title, but also one of the most highly revered fighting games of all time. I'm speaking of the original Soul Calibur, It's a fantastic title, and absolutely blew everyone's minds. Unfortunately Namco's sword play fighter stole the limelight from many of the other launch titles. Power Stone was yet another fighting game that was released in time for the system's North American debut, but this one didn't get nearly the acclaim. It's a shame too because, while it isn't as flashy as Soul Calibur, Power Stone is more unique and ultimately the most memorable early Dreamcast release in my opinion. Capcom never seemed particularly interested in making three dimensional fighting games (outside of Rival Schools) and they took a very fun direction with this one. Let's jump right in and take a look at this legendary release.

Power Stone takes place in the 19th century. It is the age of exploration and legends speak of a relic which can grant its user anything that they wish. This of course attracts a wide range of fighters competing for this magical stone, and it is these people who fill out the cast of playable characters. Capcom followed generic regional cliches (including a ninja from Japan, a fortune teller from the desert sands who rides atop a flying carpet, and more) but the game has a very colorful and fun style that sets it apart from so many others. By default you only have eight characters to choose from. This is a little disappointing when you compare it to many other fighting games of this time, but I found this number to be acceptable. Plus, you have two secret characters that can be unlocked. The roster includes three basic categories which are common in most fighting games; fast, slow, and average. My favorites include the Edward Falcon (who is highlighted on the cover), pirate Valgas, and Jack who appears to be a mummy but might be based off of Jack the Ripper. There's a good amount of variety in the roster, and most of the cast are charming and highly memorable.

Two characters fight each other in an indoor arena as one is knocked through a glass wall.

The game itself is a one-on-one 3D fighter, but not of the typical variety. Gameplay does not emphasize two dimensional combat, and instead your character roams freely throughout the battlefield by default. It's a bit difficult to grasp in the beginning because this is vastly differently from virtually every other fighting game out there. The battlefields are generally small areas which feature multiple tiers. There are tons of destructible elements in each environment, and even hazards to avoid. What's cool is the fact that as the two combatants get closer to one another the camera zooms in, and as they separate it pulls back. Each character can run, jump and they all have a variety of kicks, punches, and aerial attacks in their arsenal. There's a combo system in place, but I've never been able to figure it out beyond scoring a few consecutive hits by repeatedly pressing the same button. It's not the emphasis here which is refreshing.. Both players have a life bar shown as gems at the top of the screen, and all damage they take drains this with no restorative items to be found. The ultimate victor is determined by the typical best of three matches method.

What really sets Power Stone apart are the items. Every battle arena is full of destructible boxes, barrels, and more that can be knocked or thrown at your opponent. Many of these contain weapons to aid your character in combat, and are picked up with the B button. The arsenal includes swords, poles, a rocket launcher, pistol, and even a flamethrower. None of the characters have projectile attacks by default (which is actually quite refreshing) and so the last few of the aforementioned weapons are the only real way to keep distance between you and the opponent. Now we get to the game's major gimmick; the power stones. These come in three different varieties; yellow, red, and blue. Both fighters begin with one, and the others appear randomly as the match goes on sometimes spawning out of thin air. What's cool is the fact that you can knock collected power stones out of your opponents possession with well placed hits and try to collect them for yourself. When you acquire all three of them your character transforms into a super powerful version of their former selves with all new and very devastating attacks. It may sound like the kiss of death, but I found as I became more experienced I was able to avoid certain doom when my opponent managed to transform thanks to the creative level designs that give you the chance to escape and dodge.

The character select screen featuring eight playable fighters.

This is no Virtua Fighter or even Tekken. Power Stone isn't as skill based as your typical fighting game and the most fun you'll have with it is in mashing buttons. That's fine and dandy if you're a casual fan, but I'm sure more serious fighting game players won't be so interested. The gameplay here is a little unfocused to be honest. It's fast and furious with little rhyme or reason; the winner is usually the first person to gather up the power stones. The items make things incredibly frantic, and while that's good for a party game when you have a few friends over it's not exactly well suited for tournament play. Many compare this release to Super Smash Bros., but to be honest that's grasping at straws. Power Stone is its own thing and that's why it has become such a legend among Sega fans.

Power Stone isn't as graphically intensive as say, Soul Calibur, or many later Dreamcast games but it's a definite step up from what was available on the previous consoles. The character models and environments feature highly detailed textures as well as high polygon counts that makes everything look decently rounded. In an age when developers were pushing for dark and realistic graphics Capcom went with a decidedly colorful anime aesthetic that's much appreciated. The art style is extremely pleasant, and I particularly like the character models despite the designers playing off of cliches a bit too much. Possibly the greatest thing about this game on a visual level is the fact that it has full support for the VGA adapter. This makes the colors and details absolutely pop on my HDTV. The soundtrack on the other hand I'm not a huge fan of. It's distinct and adds a flair of character to the game, but it's definitely not one that I would listen to outside of the game. I do like some of the themes, especially for the old west stage. The voice overs (save for the announcer) generally are muffled and are only in Japanese. It's no big deal though.

Power Stone is a very difficult game to describe because it's so different. Imagine a fighting game that's as frantic as the fastest moving beat 'em up, and as varied as the best of the 3D platformers. That's Power Stone. Sure, it's not going to impress the fighting genre's elite but it's infinitely more approachable than your typical fighter. Some compare it to Smash Bros. but that never made much sense to me; Power Stone is its own thing and there will probably never be anything else quite like it. It's a crime there's no Power Stone 3.

Pros:

+ Excellent graphics with VGA support
+ Fun, frantic, and addictive gameplay
+ Great multi-player

Cons:

- Unfocused gameplay
- No four player support

Overall Grade: A-

Jun 4, 2019

Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Douchuu Review (Nintendo Famicom, 1986)

Front cover for the Japanese Famicom import game Ganbare Goemon.

Ganbare Goemon is one of Konami's long running video game franchises. Originating in the arcades with a release called Mr. Goemon, the series then moved to the Famicom (the Nintendo Entertainment System as it's known in the West) and from there spawned new installments on the Super Nintendo, Sony PlayStation, Game Boy, Nintendo 64 and more. While the coin-op release is what started everything the formula for all iterations that followed was established by the first 8-bit release, and that happens to be the subject of our review today. Ganbare Goemon: Karakuri Douchuu has been mostly forgotten today, but in my opinion it's still worth playing. Let's take a look at it, shall we?

There's not really much of a story to speak of. You play as the historic thief of Japanese folklore, Ishikawa Goemon (he's a Robin Hood of sorts) as you traverse feudal Japan battling foes, collecting passes, eating food, and jumping. Yes, jumping. You'll be doing a lot of random hopping around in this game, but I'll get to that aspect later. Ganbare Goemon is a beat 'em up of sorts, but it's a free roaming one with stores, randomly spawning enemies, hidden items and secret passages. Your goal is to obtain three passes at which point the door forward to the next stage opens up. Goemon is limited by his health bar and timer both located at the top of the screen, and when either runs out he loses. While the game is a bit weird it's a far cry from the sequels that are completely over the top.

A screenshot of the game where Goemon is running through the streets of a village.

Ganbare Goemon: Karakuri Douchuu is a little unfocused in my opinion. You aren't pushed in any one direction, and spend most of the duration of the game wandering around almost aimlessly. Enemies spawn into each stage from off-screen endlessly, and they don't have set patterns so it can be difficult to predict where they're going to go. As Goemon you can only jump and strike with your weapon so gameplay is a little basic, but it works and the game is consistently keeps you on your toes so I can't complain too much. The biggest issue with Ganbare Goemon is progression. The passes are hidden in some very boneheaded places. Each stage has two of these passes in secret passages which are revealed by jumping. This means you're going to be hopping all over the place which is a little annoying to be honest. The third can be either purchased from the store or found within a neat little three dimensional maze navigated ala the original Phantasy Star. On one hand it's nice that you're given multiple options for getting the last pass, but at the same time it's so random.

What saves the game is all of the things you can do in it. Wandering the levels is fine but it's bogged down by the incessant need to continually hop through each environment. What I'm talking about are the stores and various businesses scattered throughout each town area. The basic shop sells food which recovers Goemon's health. Others offer armor, incense, sandals and more. All of these offer you bonuses such as giving you protection or allowing you to jump farther and run faster. There's even a home where you can spend money gambling, but I never have much success here. In addition to the aforementioned power-ups you'll also find cat statues which allow you to use projectile attacks in place of Goemon's trademark pipe weapon, purses with money, scrolls that increase your life, and more. One of the high points of this game is all of the items you can find, and all of the stores and shops to buy things in because it makes the world feel more alive and interesting. Not to mention the fact that it adds a little much needed variety to the package.

The Goemon we all know has blue hair and lives in a wacky world with little robot ninjas, men who wear women's clothing, and a giant roller blading mecha robot. The franchise is well known to be one of the wackiest series to come out of Japan, and that's kind of its claim to fame. The original Ganbare Goemon doesn't have that same benefit. As I already mentioned, this is before Konami went all out with the goofy aesthetic, and while it looks cartoony and over-the-top it's nowhere near what you would expect from an installment in this franchise. The enemies are kind of comical with such foes as running man in kimono, ninja with throwing stars, killer crabs, and much more. There's even a damsel in distress character that runs around the stages, and you're penalized if you harm her. Unfortunately it's tough to tell that the sprite is supposed to represent this because the design could be any random enemy to be honest. They definitely weren't designed by someone who wanted to make a serious video game, but are still a far cry from what we would later see in the franchise. It's interesting to note that in this first release Goemon doesn't even have his trademark blue hair; it's black/brown instead.

Another screenshot wherein Goemon is in an underground section of the game trying to find a pass.

To be blunt, this is not a very good looking Famicom game. The environments lack detail and feature just singular colors, and it can be difficult to figure out what the items are. They just look like messes of pixels to me. Also, why does it look like the sprite for the character Goemon is constantly leaning forward? The highlight here is the elaborate backdrops for each stage. These are drawn with heavy detail and help differentiate the stages from one another. These almost make up for the rest of the lackluster presentation. The music fares a little better, but for the most part it's the same track repeating over and over again. There's no discernable loop and the audio has a distinct Asian flare to it that really manages to capture the atmosphere perfectly. The soundtrack is largely forgettable, but it's decent overall.

Ganbare Goemon Karakuri Douchuu is pretty decent by Famicom standards, but I'm surprised it spawned such a storied franchise to be honest. The game has a fun world to explore, and with all the secrets it makes doing so worthwhile. I really have enjoyed the time I spent with this title, but it has some pretty serious issues. Whoever thought the method by which you uncover the hidden passageways (jumping completely at random) clearly didn't think things through. Wasting your time wandering aimlessly until you find a stairwell just isn't as fun as the rest of the game, and I found that jumping around led me to get hit by the enemies far too often. Also, each area of every town looks too similar and with multiple tiers it can make navigation confusing. The basic gameplay is fun, but it wasn't until a few more sequels that Konami finally perfected the formula. This one still has a lot of historic value as the start of what once was a huge franchise and beloved hero in the video game industry. It's such a shame that Konami has since retired Goemon, but at least we still have all of the old installments that were never released in English to play for the first time.

Pros:

Basic gameplay is fun and somewhat relaxing
Fun extra stuff to do
Decent exploration

Cons:

Repetitive
Annoying jumping mechanic
Drab graphics

Overall Rating: C

May 28, 2019

Dragon Force Review (Sega Saturn, 1996)

Front cover of Dragon Force for the Sega Saturn.

Believe it or not there was a point in time where the Sega Saturn looked like it would be the primary platform for role playing games in the 32-bit generation. Titles like Grandia, the Lunar remakes, and the Shining series were all slated for it and that line-up isn't half bad. Behind most of these releases was North American publisher Working Designs who had big plans to translate them into English. Plans fell through when Sega prematurely killed the console, but before then Working Designs was one of the most supportive publishers on the platform. One of the role playing games they brought overseas was a strategy title called Dragon Force which released to excellent reviews and a fair amount of hype. I was a little late to the party but it quickly became one of my favorites.

Dragon Force is a strategy role playing game with an anime characters and colorful scenery. The land of Legendra is under threat by an evil god, Madruk, whose revival is imminent. This continent consists of several different countries each governed by a monarch, and you begin by selecting which of these characters you would like to play as. There are eight total, but only six are available during your first play through (the other two feature more unique approaches to the story) to unlock their scenarios. No matter who you choose the story is pretty much the same; your monarch discovers they have a glowing crest on their hand indicating them as a member of the Dragon Force – the only group capable of stopping Madruk should he be revived. You must conquer all of the other countries and bring together all of the monarchs to finally face off against the god of destruction himself. There are a few twists depending on the scenario chosen, but that's the story in a nutshell.

Two enemy armies face off against each other on an indoor battlefield.
A typical battle scene. Look at how charming those little guys are!
The way in which Dragon Force plays out is very unique. Rather than moving from battlefield to battlefield in a linear fashion you instead can choose how you want to progress. You have a world map that's set up somewhat like a board based strategy game complete with destinations and routes. It is from here that you perform all out-of-battle actions such as deploying troops and moving your units around. Because it's all in real-time, and the map is several screens big, you must frequently monitor the goings on of other countries so that you're not caught off guard when they attack. A battle ensues when two units (these are groups composed of up to five generals) collide on the map be it when storming a castle or meeting in the wide open. There's a lot to pay attention to here, and enemy units will get the drop on you from time to time.

Battles are also real-time affairs. You get a side-view of the battlefield as you are shown the formation of troops chosen by the enemy, and then get to choose your own. The battle is over when a general either is defeated or runs away. What's interesting is that you do not have direct control over any characters during combat. Your units move on their own based on the general command you've chosen, and your general is completely stationary. You can only change commands for your units, use your general's special moves when their bar at the bottom of the screen has filled, or flee. It may sound a little boring but that's far from the truth – these skirmishes can be pretty massive with a maximum of one hundred units per side! That's a lot of on-screen chaos and it's quite fun to watch unfold. Defeated generals are sometimes taken captive automatically, and can later be swayed to join your side which helps to grow the size of your army while hurting your foe.

What makes Dragon Force so special is the sheer variety it offers. The option to choose your monarch is nice, and each specializes in a particular troop type (these all have their strengths and weaknesses) which makes playing as each of them feel remarkably different. The gameplay scenarios from just the map placement makes them distinct from one another. Additionally you will never be attacked by enemies in a linear fashion. Different nations will send different arrangements of generals against you in a random order every time. Each play through is completely unique. Those who enjoy micro-managing will have a heyday here as each general has their own stats, can equip items, and special moves to attack the enemy general and/or army with. Keeping track of one hundred plus generals sounds like no easy task, but Dragon Force makes it painless by allowing you to get as detailed as you want. You will still need to delve out awards to strengthen generals and keep them loyal, but a lot of the other stuff (such as searching for items or fortifying castles) can be ignored with little penalty. This helps to keep the game from being tedious or daunting to new players.

A world map showing castles with differently colored flags and various troops from different in-game countries.
The world of Legendra. It takes a lot of work to take over the whole island.
I do have a few small complaints however. At a certain point in the story a small group of enemies spawns on the map at select intervals and target your monarch. In the beginning it's the skull children, and later it's two thieves named Paine and Agonne. The problem is they tend to show up in inopportune locations where you have limited generals and troops making them a real pain as you have to abandon castles to clear a path for them to travel and meet with a more powerful party. This seems to be a mechanism in place to help give valuable experience points to your generals you've left behind, but their appearance is downright tedious. By the end of the game their appearances are beyond annoying and this issue really should have been dealt with. Another issue, albeit a much smaller one, is with Working Design's script for this game. The company is well known for interjecting unusual humor into it's games, but it can be a hit or miss. The jokes mostly hit their mark here, but random mentions of constipation just feel out of place.

The Sega Saturn is at heart a two dimensional sprite pushing powerhouse machine, and with Dragon Force the developers got to push it quite a bit. The world map is a little underwhelming with a clear lack of detail on both the character sprites (they just look like small avatars of the monarch in question) and terrain (it's a map, after all). The battles however are very impressive even today. Two hundred independently moving units is impressive to look at, and the fact that you can zoom in and out without even a hint of slowdown is quite an accomplishment. Each troop type has their own animations and while the cavalry and soldier (which just thrust their weapons) are very boring others such as the beastmen (who do a flip when they attack) and zombies are full of personality and downright fun to watch in action. The music doesn't fare quite as well, but it still makes for a decent and memorable soundtrack. Every monarch has their own world map theme, and we have several renditions of the battle music that play depending on the terrain.

Simply put Dragon Force is the best strategy role playing game I've encountered. The sheer variety, micromanaging, and evolving scenarios keep this one high up on my replay list. What's more is the fact that there's nothing else out there that's quite like it (unless you count the sequel, which never made its way overseas). Like most of the best games on the platform Dragon Force will cost you a pretty penny to obtain, but this one is worth its weight in gold.

Pros:

+ Excellent graphics and charming art style
+ Great soundtrack
+ Fun and addictive gameplay
+ Unique and unlike any other strategy RPG

Cons:

- Re-spawning enemies gets old fast
- Repetitive

Overall Grade: A

May 25, 2019

Dead in the Water Review (Sony PlayStation, 1999)

Front cover for the Sony PlayStation version of the video game Dead in the Water.

The vehicular combat genre was once a pretty big enterprise. Twisted Metal was generally considered king, but other franchises and one offs were released and many of these were actually pretty competent. Others were quick cash in trash. I heard a lot of bad things about one of these such games, Dead in the Water released for the original Playstation console in 1998. It was forgotten long ago and the only exposition it received post launch is because it was re-released on Sony's digital service. The genre has long died off but I'm still thirsty for more so I decided to give Dead in the Water a shot despite the negative buzz surrounding it. I found that it's not as bad as the critics say, but it's not exactly fantastic either.

Dead in the Water's scenario centers around a battle tournament in the Bermuda Triangle. Contestants are some of the craziest you'll find with souped up boats turned into killing machines. The last man standing gets any request they wish for granted. It's a pretty generic set-up, but hey, it works. Dead in the Water is very similar to Twisted Metal, but instead of cars the line-up consists solely of aquatic vessels. Honestly this doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of difference except the vehicles are much more difficult to control. Instead of holding down a gas button you instead control the level of the speed by pressing the up or down buttons and the vessel moves continuously. When you hit something your boat comes to a screeching halt which is a little inconsistent especially when it looks like you should be able to slide over the obstacle. The mechanics are a little off with the controls, but Dead in the Water is still perfectly playable.

A car and boat combination drives across the water in a desert area.
The lighting effects are pretty impressive by 32-bit standards.
The roster of characters is highly generic, and due to the whole 'edgy' style it goes for has aged quite badly. You have the typical ex police officer, secret agent, ex-army member, redneck, etc. We've seen it all in just about every other vehicular combat title and there's really no standouts here. Each character does have their own in-game bio but these are all ridiculous. Dead in the Water doesn't take itself seriously and neither should you. Either way, each has their own ratings in fields such as acceleration, armor, speed and weapons. Aside from aesthetics these are the only thing that separates them from each other. What I don't understand is why half of the vehicles are boats and the other half are amphibious cars. Why go with a nautical theme if you're just going to use cars?

The only thing that sets Dead in the Water apart from the pack is that it offers both the typical vehicular 'destroy all enemies' mode as well as a racing tournament. The first of these is your basic car combat game wherein you drive around a course picking up weapons and fighting a group of foes in a general free for all. Once you drain the life bar of an opponent they're out. Racing is pretty typical but I found it interesting that there aren't separate tracks for both modes. What's interesting is the fact that you'll still pick up weapons and can blow your foes up during a race. Unfortunately this makes things unbalanced. It's tough to simply race when your foes are constantly hitting you from behind and you're helpless against them. The game rewards the players behind far too much, and if you're blown up you automatically lose. Racing really should have been reworked because as it is it's just not a whole lot of fun.

There's even an upgrade system in place and you can save any upgrades you've given to your vehicle to use in other modes. These include areas like the weaponry, speed, armor, etc. It's a decent system but hardly a standout feature. There's a fully featured multiplayer mode which allows you to play any mode with a friend via split screen or even system link. You can both load your car upgrades which is pretty much the only interesting use of any of the aforementioned features in this game. These features are all well and good but the game just generally isn't a whole lot of fun. A friend at least makes things tolerable, but even then it fails to make up for the weird stage designs, the boring and generic weaponry, and the wonky driving mechanics I spoke of earlier. Multiplayer at least makes the game mildly enjoyable at least.

A boat that looks like a car is driving across the ocean with glaciers in the distance.
Here's your obligatory ice stage.
Dead in the Water isn't exactly a looker. The first thing you'll notice is that it suffers from the weird Playstation 'tude' of the late 90s. Every character is basically a flamboyant characature of some kind of villain or hero from movies. This point is further hit home by the fact that the pictures in the biographies are cartoons and feature gigantic heads. With that said the game looks pretty darn good in still shots. The vehicles are nicely detailed, and the environments are quite colorful. In motion it's still not terrible, but I do have issue with just how pixelated everything is. The water effects are pretty decent for the aged hardware but the waves can look pretty angular sometimes. It's a mixed bag visually, but not half bad given the platform. The soundtrack fares better with a nice mix of hard rock and grunge music. It's not something I would listen to on my own, but the soundtrack fits the action pretty well.

While I've been pretty negative it's not all bad here. Dead in the Water is mildly enjoyable, and it's pretty consistent throughout. The battle mode is the meat and potatoes here and is obviously what the developers designed first. It's really all you need to be honest. Racing just doesn't work here because the combat aspects just muddy the water. It's bad all around, but having the option is nice I guess. There are a lot of different methods of play here but it doesn't really help when the experience is so mediocre. Dead in the Water is only for the more hardcore fans of the genre who miss this long dead style of play.

Pros:

+ Lots of different game modes
+ Novel concept

Cons:

- Weird mechanics
- Goofy 90s art style

Overall Grade: D+

May 23, 2019

Destruction Derby Review (Sony PlayStation, 1995)

Front cover of Destruction Derby for the original Sony PlayStation console.

One series I used to hear about in my teen years was Destruction Derby. I guess all of the cool kids were playing it while I was left out in the cold. It’s one of those games that you can tell just about everything you need to know about it from the title alone. Today I loaded it up for the first time and spent several hours tearing metal and burning rubber. But is it any good?

Okay so maybe you can’t tell everything about it from the name alone. I was surprised to discover that Destruction Derby is first and foremost a racing game. Yes, it's not all about banging up cars, and that's a good thing. Staying true to the name however damage to your vehicle and others is central to gameplay. You have a diagram of your car in the bottom right hand corner of the screen with numerous green arrows pointing at different sections of the machine. They change color as you incur more damage, and you can even see the vehicle getting beat up in the model itself as the hood starts caving in or windows break. When one part of the car takes too much damage the race ends immediately.

The first play mode, and it's the main one, is called Wreckin' Racing. Here your success is monitored by how many points you manage to rack up. You earn these based on two factors; your final placement in said race and the mayhem you're able to stir up with the other drivers. Spinning them out as well as completely destroying their car is how it's done here. Honestly it's pretty fun and refreshing that your only objective isn't to win. You also have a stock car race which is more traditional and your success is entirely based on finishing ahead of the other competitors. These modes share the same courses between them. You also have time trials but that's boring.

Cars race in the daytime on a narrow course as they crash into each other.
Whoever thought the narrow course design was a good idea should be fired.
Last but not least, and what most people are probably anticipating with the name, is the Destruction Derby. This takes place in a bowl like arena and the last car that can still drive is the winner. As you can imagine this mode of play is pure chaos. There are so many computer controlled cars it's ridiculous and they leave you no time to breathe. This isn't as fun as it sounds. I found the actual derby to be frustrating and the poor AI makes it kind of boring. The arena is pretty small as well so doubling back to find a better vantage is a moot point. I found it can be pretty easy if you just stay moving the entire time, but there's very little strategy involved. What's worse is that if you lose you have to sit there and wait for the match to finish off-screen which is really annoying.

My beef with Destruction Derby is the courses. They're very small and claustrophobic, and in some areas they funnel down to even thinner gameplay areas. This means big pile-ups are commonplace. This wouldn't be so bad except the courses are so short you're sure to lap the other drivers. The result is you getting trapped behind walls of enemy cars forced to damage your own vehicle to maintain your standing. The controls are a little sloppy and it often feels like you're driving through mud, and hitting a foe or being on the recieving end can send you spinning far too often. When this occurs it's painstaking to turn around and get back on track because you're not only battling the controls but the narrow courses as well.

What's off putting is that this game suffers from what I like to call that 'early Playstation funk.' It was released in a time when, with this new console, developers were trying too hard to appeal more to adults and so they made their menus and interface very stale and painstakingly boring. It took me a good few minutes to even figure out how to get the settings how I wanted them when I first played because of this, and it seems like every single menu is locked behind a loading screen. The word 'functional' obviously wasn't in the developer's vocabulary when designing the layout here. Most everything about Destruction Derby feels dated because of this.

A scene from Destruction Derby wherein a series of cars are smashing into each other.
It's as hectic as it looks.
For an early PS1 game Destruction Derby isn't half bad to look at. That's hardly a lot of praise however. The cars are blocky but I found myself somewhat impressed with the way the damage shows on them. Unfortunately the cars (especially from behind) look more like textured boxes than anything. When there's too many on-screen at once they sometimes disappear only to show up again in the most inopportune places. The worst offense however is the backgrounds. They're walls textured to look like mountains, beaches, or crowds and they look just awful. When you get close they're extremely blocky and it really breaks the immersion. This is something that plagued the console throughout its run because developers were so bent on trying to make things look as photorealistic as possible that they used real photos for textures. It was ugly back then and so you can only imagine how it looks now. The music is really good, but fails to match the on-screen carnage. You would expect ripping guitar and heavy rock music, but instead the developers went with techno electronic. I like it, but it just doesn't fit.

Destruction Derby at its best is mildly entertaining. When you get the hang of the sluggish controls sliding around corners is rewarding. These good feelings are short lived as you're far too often going to run into a wall of wreckage which completely ruins the pace of the race. The Destruction Derby mode (which should be the main course) is pretty overwhelming to be honest and just about as barebones as you can get. If you were looking for a racing game at the time of release Ridge Racer was a much better choice, and if you wanted to destroy some cars Twisted Metal had your number. There just wasn't much room for Destruction Derby, and it's even less viable now.

Pros:

+ Nice variety in game modes
+ Rewarding learning curve

Cons:

- Blocky graphics
- Overly constricted racing courses
- Sluggish controls

Overall Grade: D+

May 22, 2019

Cruis’n USA Review (Nintendo 64, 1996)

Front cover of Cruis'n USA for the Nintendo 64.

For the first couple of years it was an absolutely brutal time to own just a Nintendo 64. Right out of the gates the system had some serious issues with software droughts. The system launched with just a few games and to add insult to injury the release schedule was pretty barren. I knew some people who, half a year after release, owned every piece of software for it. With such a small and concise library the duds stuck out like a sore thumb. Cruis'n USA is one of those games. This was to be a showcase for the system; a port of the popular arcade game and it was sure to set the world on fire. Critics panned it and compared it unfavorably to the coin op version. I had never played either one, but today I'm diving into the Nintendo 64 game to see if the reviewers were right.

Cruis'n USA is a mix between a traditional racer and a simple driving game ala Outrun. While your goal is to reach the finish line ahead of all seven other racers a timer counts down at the top of the screen and when it reaches zero you lose. You gain precious seconds from reaching the checkpoints. It's a pretty basic system with a few quirks. The tracks are composed entirely of highways and freeways across the United States, and on these courses you'll be forced to deal with pedestrian traffic. What's cool is that the traffic drives on the correct real-life side of the road, and so you'll only deal with oncoming vehicles if you travel on the left side. You also have other obstacles such as cones, trees, etc. And are slowed down when you veer off road. You're given the choice of several cars with different speed and handling but more are unlocked as you complete races in the single player game at each difficulty level. This is a pretty basic racer with very basic options.

A silver car drives over the Golden Gate Bridge while racing.
Real life landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge are the highlight of this game.
So what sets Cruis'n USA apart from the rest of the pack? Not much to be honest. I will admit that I do enjoy the 'race across the country' theme and I found several of the locales to be interesting such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Grand Canyon. There isn't a boring level in my opinion and I even enjoyed driving through places like Iowa and Indiana. I did chuckle a bit that the game is so focused on the Western United States and bypasses most of the Midwest because I mean, why wouldn't they skip all that? Each stage has its own set of hazards but by far the best one I encountered is the moving train that you have to beat across the tracks. The only areas I didn't like are those with narrow roadways through forests because the controls aren't fine tuned for precision.

The gameplay engine is a little weird to be honest. The physics are very odd. I don't think I've played a game where a car controls quite like it does in Cruis'n USA. While the developers did a good job of making each vehicle feel like it has actual weight the way they turn feels entirely random and like none of them have ever driven a car before. Perhaps it's because the analog stick was new, but you can nearly whip your car into a full circle at the highest speed just by tilting it a little in either direction. The controls are just a bit too touchy for my tastes, and there are far too many turns and curves in the game. Additionally when your vehicle crashes into something it spins out instead of bouncing off of it which is quite odd. It could make sense in some situations, but crashing into a tree head-on should not cause you to spin out. That's just weird. What's more is that when you hit a pedestrian vehicle they too will lose control, and it can be tough to get back into the race when they're rotating in front of you for no reason.

The player drives his car underneath a bridge in a city.
The pop-in is pretty bad, and the animations are stiff and weird. Yep, it's an early 64-bit racing game!
The graphics are actually pretty good for the time period in which it was released. Cruis'n USA looks better than both Ridge Racer and Daytona USA on the Playstation and Saturn respectively. The cars appear a little boxy and animate oddly but the models are serviceable. Cruis'n USA's main strength is in the environments. While there's a bit of pop-in it's not as bad as your typical Nintendo 64 title. The courses feature fantastic looking slopes and great scenery that, while it's mostly paper-thin and pixelated, looks much better and more smooth than its contemporaries. Real world landmarks are easily recognizable, and there are quite a few personal touches to give the game its own character. There are a few weird aspects such as the spin-out animations and how cars drop like rocks off of jumps, but I can forgive these problems. I actually find it very funny that, upon completing a race in first place, you're 'treated' to an animation of a woman holding the trophy. Unfortunately it looks like she's having a seizure. The soundtrack is pretty lame in my opinion with simple rock based midi tracks playing in the background, but at least you can switch between songs via the in-game radio. It's not a new feature by any means (Outrun did it a decade prior) but it's cool nonetheless.

Cruis'n USA isn't a bad game, per se. It has some fundamental issues with the game engine and these really hold it back, but there's some good too. The scenery is nice to look at and racing is actually pretty rewarding. Few times have I had to concentrate so hard on a racing game with both breakneck turns and oncoming traffic frequent here, but overall the experience was mildly enjoyable. Cruis'n USA is certainly a product of its time, and although it hasn't aged particularly well there's still a mildly enjoyable time to be found within the plastic casing of this cartridge.

Pros:

+ Decent graphics
+ Fun theme

Cons:

- Weird glitches
- Poor physics
- Pop in
- Midi soundtrack

Overall Grade: C-

May 20, 2019

Earth Defense Force Review (Super Nintendo, 1992)

Front cover of Super Earth Defense Force for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

The Super Nintendo beat out the competition in most genres, but scrolling shooters was not one of them. Competing hardware featured lightning fast space shooting action while Nintendo's slower CPU kind of struggled. Many shooters chug and feature incredible amounts of slowdown. Next to the blazing fast likes of Gaiares and Thunder Force on the Genesis this looked pretty bad. A few developers did however manage to get the best out Nintendo's 16-bit machine, but it's a small club. Earth Defense Force is a series I've heard about a few times, but always on more modern hardware. I learned of a Super Nintendo release, and wondered if it too suffers at the hands of the slow CPU. Thankfully it doesn't, and Earth Defense Force (or E.D.F.) is a decent little game.

The plot is of course nonsensical. There's something going on with an evil force building a secret weapon to use against Earth on the dark side of the moon, and you're a part of the defense force tasked with defeating them and saving the planet. There's pretty much no exposition so the weak story doesn't matter. E.D.F is a horizontally scrolling shooter wherein you must survive incoming waves of enemies either defeating or dodging them until you reach a boss whom you must destroy. It's a very typical set-up, and this game doesn't re-define the genre. It does however have a few unique tricks in its book that help set it apart from the rest.

A ship flies above the clouds shooting blue lasers at enemies.
The backgrounds are pretty but the level design is bland.
My favorite aspect of the game is the fact that you don't collect different weapons. At the beginning of each stage you choose the type of firepower you want to use, and you're stuck with that until you complete the level or use a credit to continue. There's a staggering eight different weapon types and they're all rated in three areas including power, rate of fire and speed. Personally I found it a little unbalanced; the grenade is absolutely terrible and I can't imagine anyone using it. Meanwhile the homing laser is overpowered and using anything else just feels like you're trying to artificially increase the difficulty. Still, having the options is nice and I enjoyed experimenting with the system.

You also get two 'options' (as they're called in other games) and these can either combine with your ship, or go out on their own to increase the number of projectiles you're shooting. Some weapons have other functions with these, but for the most part that's how they work which adds further to the options at your disposal. You can also upgrade your weapon, but not in the typical way. Instead of collecting a power-up you instead fill a bar at the top of the screen by defeating enemies. When this reaches max you gain a level and your weapon becomes stronger. Furthermore this also upgrades the two assist ships giving them new effects. It's a pretty neat system that harkens to the role playing genre, and it's very unique for a shooter from this era. What's also unique is that your ship isn't destroyed by a single hit; instead it loses a notch on its shields. When this is depleted you must use a credit to continue.

So why isn't Earth Defense Force regarded as a classic? The developers had all of these unique ideas but unfortunately they didn't focus on the basics. Some of the stages are downright boring. Enemy patterns are so typical and generic that they will make hardened players sleepy. The first few stages are particularly bad with the intro featuring set pieces, patterns, and obstacles that are actually less complex than the original Gradius on the 8-bit Nintendo. That's pretty sad, and it's not even as memorable as the aforementioned title. Another problem is the stages lack environmental hazards. Because enemies approach in waves, and the levels are sparsely populated, this means that there's a lot of monotonous moments when you're simply waiting for something to happen. Earth Defense Force has it's moments of greatness, and I really do appreciate the unique features it brings to the table, but it really is a little boring to play sometimes.

The main spaceship flies through a level above a cityscape at night.
The screen is rarely busy enough to concern even beginner players.
It also doesn't really push the hardware. While the action and scrolling is quite smooth I wasn't really impressed with the graphics most of the time. It's a very generic and ordinary looking shooter that fails to distinguish itself from the pack visually. The art style is very plain and standard for the genre with ordinary looking ships as enemies, and larger mechanical objects as boss encounters. They based a few of these off of animals but made some odd choices. Why would anyone make a ship shaped like a shrimp? I don't really understand what they were thinking with that one. The only really interesting effect used here is mode 7. The developers incorporated it in order to make it look like you're approaching planets and objects in the background, and even though I've played a million games that use it, I found it pretty impressive. This is a very clever way to make it look like you're actually moving through space. The soundtrack fares a little better with some decent electronica style music. The first stage's theme is particularly catchy and fits the cloud filled sky background perfectly.

I really wanted to like Earth Defense Force. It had some really neat ideas, but these were wrapped in a rather boring package that suffers from uninspired development. It seems to me that they designed the game around these novel gameplay elements and threw together the rest of the package without much thought. Although it's a little empty and lifeless Earth Defense Force is still a decent game. It's worth playing for any fan of the genre but everyone else will probably be bored to tears with it.

Pros:

+ Some neat gameplay conventions that are unique to the genre
+ Good soundtrack

Cons:

- Bad stage design
- Gameplay is largely uninspired and gets boring fast

Overall Grade: D+