Archive for the Retro Games Category

Castlevania: The Adventure – Rebirth Thoughts

Posted in Best / Worst, Blog, Castlevania, Games, Retro Games on October 20, 2021 by slateman

I tinkered with this back in the day but never played it through, despite its rather kick-ass soundtrack. I’m on a Castlevania tear as of late, clearly thanks to the Advance Collection’s surprise announcement & quick release. Having taken down two of the collection’s three GBA games (I realize Dracula XX is on there as well, but I just beat that three years ago), I wanted to get a look at this title and I quite enjoyed it!

Unfortunately, this game is not available officially anywhere and I don’t see Konami digging that deep in the archives to issue this one at any time, so now is as good as ever to dive in. This game is a bit harder than some later entries, a throwback to the Classicvania formula replete with old-school sound effects. Visuals are pretty cool, blending 2D style with some 3D effects. The stages are all familiar-looking and while they don’t aim to diverge from traditions, they’re fun and colorful. From graveyards to the clock tower to the standard steps to Dracula, the game never exceeds its budget concept and that’s just fine with me. Much like the other two Rebirth titles (Contra & Gradius), they know exactly what they ought to be and there’s a reason Konami issued these on the Wii and not one of the other more-powerful platforms.

Fire, water, stained glass backgrounds very cool, but enemy diversity suffers, with numerous palette-swapped enemies feeling redundant. Overall, the visual style is a half progression from HOD – I think I actually prefer Aria’s predecessor.

The game’s five stages cover the gamut of Castlevania tropes and Simon controls rather well, given the throwback nature of the title. Whip enhancements were a nice perk and different-colored candles revealed which kind of bonus was added before even hitting them. There were plenty of quirky sections including a gear mechanism towards the end, however, the best mechanic added to this Rebirth game was the branching path concept. Despite being rather thorough in games, the numerous locked doors and alternate pathways truly lend themselves toward additional playthroughs with some choices skipping mid-bosses entirely.

And the bosses were indeed cool. Many familiar faces returned, now often featuring different move sets. Early level battles are quite easy, but later ones required the usual Castlevania accuracy. None were truly thrilling to behold, however, Death was impressive and Dracula’s final form was a rigorous challenge.

The end result was a pretty straightforward game with plenty of replay value. The soundtrack is killer, as they often are, and despite the thin storyline, I truly enoyed my romp through the rebirth of this Game Boy game. While it’s new enough to avoid the retro tag, I’m counting it as it’s more unaccessible than most other retro entries in this franchise!

Castlevania: Harmony Of Dissonance Thoughts

Posted in Best / Worst, Blog, Castlevania, Games, Lists, Retro Games on October 11, 2021 by slateman

Immediately after polishing off Circle Of The Moon, I progressed to Harmony Of Dissonance, the GBA’s second installment. Changes are immediately evident: larger sprites, much more colorful visuals, upgraded graphics, new enemies and a more adept protagonist. While the story is ultimately a rehash of CotM, there’s a lot to like here, particularly in comparison to its predecessor. Unfortunately, large chunks of this game have tremendous downsides which make the inferior Circle Of The Moon a comparable title.

As I progressed into the second castle, I made a realization: I almost certainly never beat this game. Stumbling across an old save – it appears the 60% mark was about my limit. If memory serves me right, I revisited it later and felt the same pang of frustration. The game is deliberately obtuse, an old tactic employed to artificially lengthen the game’s duration. Several areas are off-limits, but the map “opens” them up, thereby marking them and making a revisit quite challenging. The rewind feature is spectacular to erase some of those mistakes, but oftentimes a key opens just a very specific door or two with no word of where that might be. The overly-spacious two-castle system compounds this issue as warping is initially slower and more arduous than in the past and there’s an awful lot of running around just to revisit a dead-end you knew about in the past. In fact, things are so spacious that the main goal is to dash through vast swathes of the castle searching for the next extension – unfortunately almost always stumbling upon another wall or impassable segment.

20 years later and with the aid of decades of guides, this task is much simpler, but no less absurd. The enemies themselves are quite diverse, building off of CotM with 3D effects and the like, but despite the size of the bosses and their impressive animations (both attack and death), most felt rather uninspired and far easier to beat. The initial GBA game was a rigorous challenge; this game is not. Once again, you resort to zipping through portions of the castles, here designated as A and B, and even getting hit is rarely a concern. Fortunately, controlling Juste is far more forgiving than Nathan Graves and his animations are substantially more impressive. Those wonderful bosses, added animations and effects come at a hefty cost: the game’s sound. It suffers and contains scant few memorable tunes, a series staple. In fact, the title sounds like an archaic NES game, but even that is too kind, as the songs here don’t contain the standard hook. The shopkeeper’s tune sounds downright ancient and represents one of the weakest set of tunes in any Castlevania ever.

My gripes continue, but Harmony Of Dissonance is generally fun once things get moving. There are a ton of items to collect, different armors and the like, though none are incredibly exciting, and there’s nothing comparable to CotM’s DSS system, unfortunately. Collecting furntire isn’t quite my style. Visually it sings with a huge assortment of backgrounds & colorful enemies: overall it’s a lot of fun to look at. Scouring screenshots is a lot more rewarding than the first GBA game.

As I approach 200%, it’s so interesting to discover (re-remember?) that I never finished this. The era of its arrival was a tumultuous one for me – however, I’m almost certain I completed every subsequent 2D Castlevania on the GBA & NDS. Until I can verify by getting my old-school GBA from Maine, I remain uncertain if I actually beat Dracula in Circle Of The Moon as well! Wouldn’t be surprised if I hadn’t!

As a stepping stone to Aria Of Sorrow, the game really is impressive despite its numerous flaws. I’m tremendously happy I got to revisit this with the assistance of guides, save states and the rewind feature. I am stoked to finish it and to move on to its successor!

Late Update: I’ve now beaten the game and witnessed all three of the title’s endings. My final map count is at 99.7% for each castle, maxing out at 194.4%. I appear to be missing the same number of rooms in each. The two versions of Maxim were uniquely-different fights and the Dracula Wraith final boss was a pretty cool, horrible amalgamation of his body parts (a callback to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest – much like the Simon Wraith callback to the original Castlevania.)

Castlevania: Advance Collection Thoughts – Circle Of The Moon

Posted in Best / Worst, Blog, Castlevania, Games, Retro Games on October 2, 2021 by slateman

I played Circle Of The Moon back when it launched in June 2001 on the Game Boy Advance. I went through the game on the non-backlit launch GBA and quite enjoyed the first real sequel to Symphony Of The Night. The game was fun, but flawed, and it was quickly followed up by its successor merely 15 months later. I recall that title and its improvements. The entries flowed for the next half decade and my, how i took for granted the golden age I lived through.

Now two decades hence, I dropped a cool $20 for this four-title collection and I started at the beginning (sort of). Things are substantially different now, as I’m equipped with a mobile phone to look up a FAQ, save states to revert to former safe spots and a glorious rewind feature to wipe clean each and every misstep – if I so desire. Instead of backtracking, losing progress and getting frustrated by the challenging bosses, I’m consuming this game with a nigh-perfect run. It’s wonderful but it also reveals the game’s shortcomings. These are both due to design and storage limitations. Most of the Metroidvania tropes are here with a very limited selection of updates and collectibles. 90% of the discoveries in this game are HP, MP or Heart upgrades. While useful, they’re not tremendously thrilling and the series’ search & backtrack formula is therefore less rewarding.

The game’s DSS system is quite interesting and this collection updates the manner of collecting cards. Save states may render those upgrades less important, but the design is fantastic nonetheless.

Circle Of The Moon was impressive for the era and is still a worthwhile play in spite of those shortcomings. Recycled, palette swap enemies and repeating level backgrounds do limit the diversity, but none of this was really surprising for a handheld, particularly one that replaced the old-school Game Boy Color. And the limited graphics are offset by a rather good soundtrack. The controls are stiff, but that improves as the sequels progress. Several of the bosses are truly difficult and some sections presents a tough challenge. It’s all good though, as I have been zipping through, enjoying the experience. There is great replay value in the DSS system, but I look forward to beating Dracula and moving on, possibly 100%ing it in the process.

The story is thin and the controls are clunky but overall it’s exciting being able to play this (legitimately) for the first time in so many years. My real hopes is that a DS collection is to follow. If the rumors of a reboot are true and if I could have all three collections on my PS5, I’d consider this a new golden age of Castlevania!

Late Edit: I completed the game, deliberately not reaching 100%. In retrospect, I believe it’s possible I never completed this game back during its initial release. Beating Dracula now was a total pain in the ass – I think it’s entirely plausible that I never beat that asshole without aids. In any event, it was a fun playthrough today and I’m glad this game was re-issued.

Retro-Game Backlog Entry #9: Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts

Posted in Best / Worst, Blog, Games, Lists, Retro Games on August 27, 2019 by slateman

I vividly remember playing the original Ghosts ‘N Goblins in the back corner of some shady restaurant ages ago. The machine had two buttons on either side of the stick, but the right side didn’t work. So there I stood, playing this filthy machine with cigarette ashes on it, with my hands swapped: right hand crossed over my left. It didn’t help that the game was notoriously difficult to begin with. Certainly the button issue only exacerbated that challenge.

As the years went on, I played the sequels and spin-offs. Ghouls ‘N Ghosts, its Super sequel on consoles, Maximo earned me some publishing cred and later, the PSP’s Ultimate Ghosts ‘N Goblins. I never completed that last title: it was far too difficult. That would’ve been over a decade ago.

I find my patience for these types of game has dwindled. I don’t care for Mega Man games like I used to and a return to the franchise seemed truly unlikely. However, something piqued my interest as I sat in my newest temporary quarters, with Vesuvius in the distance. Given my passion for using save states, the series might not seem so daunting. Of course I would be mistaken in that regard, but the real question was: which game should I go back to? After some research, it was decided! the SNES game it would be! Like many other titles on this backlog, I’d played this iteration before but didn’t think I ever beat it. Now having played it again (and twice), I can verify – there’s no way in goddamn hell I beat this game.

To begin, the start is oh-so-familiar. The graveyard, the music, the weapons. Everyone who has played any of these titles will feel right at home and the new double-jump mechanic opens things up quite a bit, especially given the unforgiving jumping controls. Each of the first few stages is broken into two uniquely-different segments. Here we have the standard cemetery followed by a watery section with waves crashing over you. While this is not a truly difficult portion (and I played on standard difficulty), it’s riddled with memorization sections that inevitably lead to death your first run through. Even with my cheating ways of save states, this game demanded a specific set of memorized jumps and perfect setups. Skull platforms roll towards you requiring rigid timing. Enemies appear just as Arthur launches himself. It was perfectly normal for the time, but damn frustrating decades later.

The second stage begins on a haunted ship before asking you to navigate the waters on rafts. Stage three descended into fiery depths while five was the standard icy world. This one came with fantastic rain effects and the best song of the above-average soundtrack. These straddled a fourth level that showed off Nintendo’s Mode 7 effects, spinning the stage around as you went along new paths. It was unique and showy and quite entertaining. However, when the sixth stage began, the stages no longer split and the endgame was present. These two levels culminated in Astaroth and Nebiroth battles which were demanding, but not impossible. The biggest issue was with controlling jumps and the commitment once you did jump. These could ruin your run quickly. However, another concern with the latter boss was time. After taking quite a while to reach the second Astaroth, I barely beat him before time ran out. Sadly, Nebiroth followed and with a scant 20 seconds remaining, the only solution was to restart the stage all over again. It felt a wee bit too bullshitty for me, so I tossed on an infinite time code and beat his ass. I have no shame.

Speaking of bosses, there were several impressive ones. The cockatrice, a 360 centipede dude, a hydra and some frozen monstrosity were all generally fair challenges. The expected animations were there in spades and for the most part, it wasn’t the hardest game ever. Unfortunately, defeating the final boss revealed that you simply couldn’t see the game’s true ending on the first run. A second was required with a specific weapon in order to fight the real final boss. This is par for the course w/ GNG games, but it was something I gladly had forgotten about. Play again? Hrmph…I don’t know if I really want to!

However, I really wanted to see the real ending and it turns out the GBA version featured an arrange mode which changed levels 2-5 and the Princess’ Bracelet could be found during the first run through. Thus, I dove back in for a second full replay. You have a choice between an easy path and a hard one which mimic two of the standard difficulties from the original. A third path altered those four middle levels completely which made the entire game a different experience. These came with new bosses and the fourth level was a revamp of the original GNG level! These were wonderful and made the slightly-downgraded GBA title a remarkable port.

This all made a second playthrough truly worth it and allowed me to fight Sardius (Samael in Japan). An intense challenge, he unlocked the true ending which was worth the wait. A bit of detail about the Princess’ Bracelet is followed by short details about a number of enemies and then a full credits scene, with Arthur and Princess Prin Prin riding off before the sunrise. The full replay really gave me a full feeling for the game and while I’ll never return to play it all again, I fully appreciate the difficulty the game and the series sets. I might consider the PSP game again, but not without save states! Judge me if you will, but that game was friggin’ hard!!!

Retro-Game Backlog Entry #8: Castlevania Chronicles

Posted in Best / Worst, Blog, Castlevania, Games, Lists, Retro Games on August 13, 2019 by slateman

Castlevania Chronicles (which loses the -s in Japan) was a 2001 collection landing exclusively on the Playstation. The remake of the Japanese-only Akumajou Dracula (itself a reboot of the original Castlevania) was one I was excited to finally play it when it arrived at the budget-friendly price of a mere $20. While my retro-gaming backlog has since evolved to include games I’ve actually played before, I don’t think I ever quite beat this game. Playing the arrange mode rather than the original, I found the rigorous challenge quite demanding, and I bet I never made it through. Let’s see how it fared, remembering I didn’t really even touch upon the classic X68000 version. Note that much like many other games of the era, Japan received the better box art.

This retread through classic Castlevania locales was fun and the updated visuals looked good enough when compared to traditional 2D sprites. It loses some of that magic of animation when moving into the quasi-3D world but Simon animated well, even with his strange new hair color and the setpieces remained exciting. Large bosses, colorful stages and some cool 3D techniques made for a visually-appealing romp through Dracula’s castle. However, its difficulty was quite the challenge and my up-and-down life rendered the experience a stop-and-go one, marred with hardware issues and long breaks in play. None of this truly diminished the fun, and my trusty SN30 Pro worked well, though I had some lag issues when playing on my phone initially.

The diverse stages really were quite refreshing, bouncing from the usual forests and castle entrance to blues and greens and bright environs.

Bosses were large and diverse, and of course challenging, however with three selectable difficulties, playing on easy mode at least opens the game up to casual fans. The remixed soundtrack remains one of my highlights, with new takes on familiar tracks and the official CD release made available later contained that and the original X68000 tracks. I didn’t hit upon them, but there are two MIDI song lists available when playing the original title. Several unlockables exist as well, with a small art gallery, which also contains SotN pieces, an interview with Iga (in the West, not Japan) and the like.

The entire collection feels a bit bare-bones in spite of these perks, but for $20, it’s hard to complain. Simon controls better than in the original, sections feel bombastic and the music rocks. Traditionally I’d write a lot more about this, but it’s taken me about a month to complete the game. I suppose I really should go back and zip through the original version. What I find interesting is that Iga took the time to remake this obscure entry instead of the world-renowned Dracula X: Chi No Rondo. (That took another six years – but it felt like far longer than that back in the day!)

Getting to Dracula contained the expected transitions: Death, a staircase before the moon and a pair of forms when fighting him. Their predictability was the only real shortcoming, to me, as that tradition is part of gaming history. The redone ending, featuring a crumbling castle, was dreadful but par for the course in the late ’90s.

Just for fun, I took a few snaps from the intro of the X68000 game, given here as larger thumbnails because of their odd number.





Again, this article should be longer than it is – but such is life. Why don’t you go back and review an 18-year-old remake of a 26-year-old game? That’s what I thought!!!

Retro-Game Backlog Entry #7: Alien Vs. Predator

Posted in Aliens, Best / Worst, Blog, Games, Lists, Retro Games on July 18, 2019 by slateman


Capcom was a well-oiled machine by 1994, building off the opportunities after Street Fighter II’s ridiculous success. Their side-scrolling beat-em-up Alien Vs. Predator was not the first entry into the crossover franchise, but it remains my favorite. I don’t recall actually playing this in arcades; it came out a little late for me, but I did play it via emulation sometime in the next decade and quite liked it. Will returning to it offer the same nostalgia for a 1990s quarter muncher or has it aged less well than its contemporaries? Having moved from temporary quarters in Sweden to temp quarters in Italy, now seemed a good time to find out the answer to that very question!

Laptop, SN30 Pro and RetroArch. Check. It starts out great, mowing down aliens as one of four different characters, each of whom plays quite differently. Of course I chose Linn Kurosawa, an awesome character Capcom has oddly not cashed in on enough! The stages blazed by with two different attacks, sub weapons aplenty and killer animations. The CPS2’s Q-Sound allowed for kick-ass audio: explosions that boomed and the familiar tinny gun sound from my favorite movie ever: Aliens.

However, at its heart, it’s a side-scrolling beat-em-up. How much more can you do with the genre? Little things help, with special moves, the usual food and point pick-ups and the lot. You can shoot grenades away as enemies throw them at you. There is a bonus stage later on and one level had you driving atop one of the mobile units from the movies. However, in the middle, the usual spin arrives: that the evil madman from Weyland Yutani (misspelled in the ending as Wayland) wants to harness their power, etc. etc. etc. Thus, for a good portion of the game, you end up fighting human soldiers. This was likely a good choice to keep it from getting stale but I ended up simply not caring. Segments felt repetitive and while the game fashioned a story out of the absurd premise, even that grew thin.

Cut scenes were spread throughout the game which was quite nice and it contained plenty of dialogue – a far cry from brawlers from half a decade earlier. Animations in these interludes were minimal but in the rest of the game they were spectacular. Multiple types of aliens existed with a bevy of attacks and hit animations. Flame throwers engulfed enemies in fire and the game was bombastic as it should be. However, with two bosses being the queen, it appears in retrospect the diversity of enemies simply wasn’t there. What was there was pretty kick-ass, I must admit. Backgrounds were colorful, detailed and fit the series perfectly.

In the end, my fond memories were not quite matched by the game’s fun factor. Released three years earlier, I’d just as soon go back to Sunset Riders first. It was definitely an entertaining run and playing as other characters might spice things up a bit. This is set to appear on Capcom’s upcoming all-in-one arcade stick, a great entry considering few have played it in the last 25 years.

Retro-Game Backlog Entry #6: Sunset Riders

Posted in Best / Worst, Blog, Games, Lists, Retro Games on July 5, 2019 by slateman

Konami’s 1991 side-scrolling western has always been fondly remembered in the annals of gaming, though it never received a follow-up. The title’s impressive animation and lighthearted theme made for a game that stood out in a time of ever-increasing machisimo – an trend that never seems to have faded. Despite playing this back in the day and not really fitting the backlog category, it’s a game I have wanted to revisit for some time. Thus, while the packers jam virtually every possession of mine into boxes and I’m required to be in the house while it happens, today was the day to hit up nostalgia alley. There was only one small hiccup; I played the wrong game.

With a laptop and an external drive available, I booted up RetroArch and synched up my trusty 8BitDo SN30 Pro. The thing is awesome. A quick search on mamedb.org told me the file name to search (as I don’t have a full MAME frontend on the laptop) and away I went! The game, while good, seemed to be a bit lacking. It was reasonable but the animation seemed substantially off and it really lacked some of the punch my memory told me it should have. Upon beating it, with no real story or level transitions, I inspected to see that I was in fact playing the Genesis/Mega Drive port and not the arcade original. Well, that explained a lot!

Still, it was a fun game despite its reused assets and lack of diversity. There were fewer stages and animations but the final stage had a bit more than the arcade game as your hero ran through the city streets. Each world was split in two: the first half to save the lady and the second to face a boss. The simple mechanic effectively doubled the level count, though it was far from transparent. On one level, however, rain started falling, a pretty cool effect on the 16-bit system! I took some snapshots and have no real urge to play the SNES game to compare a third time. I went straight into the arcade game after and chose my favorite: Cormano!

Moving on to the far superior and technically impressive, the arcade version came in two flavors: a two-player model and a four-player one. The latter actually assigned a character to a controller and since Cormano was the fourth such choice, I opted for the two-player game where you could choose who you played as. The experience was familiar, both from my prior Genesis run-through and from my near-three-decade-old memories. This game is fantastic. Animations are over the top. Explosions are enormous. Action sequences are thrilling and colors are tremendously vibrant. From the first stage where you step on a rake and hit yourself in the balls to flames engulfing enemies, the entire run-through was just a pleasure.

Music is the clear weak link, sounding much like an arcade might in 1991. But songs aren’t memorable and they feel repetitive and bland. Sound effects are better and the voice samples, which were changed to speech bubbles in the home versions, are pretty cool.

Of particular note is how un-PC it is. Native Americans run at you with every stereotype known to man and the boss, Chief Scalpem (changed to WigWam on home consoles) begins by saying, “Me ready for Pow-Wow.” Women fare no better. While they are present with dynamite throughout, they are often relegated to the usual sex symbols. You can enter saloons and emerge, babe in hand, with a power up of some kind and a kiss on the cheek. Damsels in distress can be found and they even dance for you in one stage. It’s all nonsense and the absurd nature of it all may be enough to offend nowadays. Perhaps this is why Konami never re-issued it on newer consoles.

But as ridiculous as the entire game may be, it’s a tremendous amount of fun. Horseback-riding sections, bonus levels and characters with different animations and weapons keep the action fast and entertaining and worth revisiting. While the other titles in this retro-game backlog may be console experiences or one-and-done efforts, I would gladly come back to Sunset Riders and very well may do so one day. Maybe get a few controllers and play through with the kids. Politically incorrect or not, it was a genuinely-fun game that looks great even now, 28 years later.

Retro-Game Backlog Entry #5: Castlevania: Dracula XX

Posted in Best / Worst, Blog, Castlevania, Games, Lists, Retro Games on November 10, 2018 by slateman

After Castlevania III, I must’ve just stopped playing the series. I appear to have missed everything up until Symphony Of The Night in 1997. It makes sense; I had no SNES or Genesis and college meant poverty for most. So, as I address this backlog, these titles feel very new, despite their age. Now, I tinkered with some of them, Super Castlevania IV most notably, but I most certainly never beat them and with Dracula XX (not Rondo Of Blood, the SNES sequel to it), I never would have had the patience to complete it without emulation!

However, going back to the start…Dracula XX was Konami’s attempt to bring the legendary Rondo to the SNES without severely downscaling it. Instead, they made an entirely-different but kinda-the-same game. In every aspect it’s inferior. What we got was a noble attempt. Several of the key elements were recreated here and it rewarded exploration with a pair of bonus stages and girls to rescue. Unfortunately, since those same features were on the Turbo CD game, it’s impossible not to compare.

Richter returns and the fantastic hero traipses throughout familiar stages replete with beautiful fiery and watery effects. They look impressive but the design of those same stages is really quite weak. It was a product of its time; every jump was situated with a particularly-placed enemy crafted with the sole purpose of instilling frustration. Death comes from everywhere, jumps, floating heads, annoying enemies – it can be grueling. The foes are the customary ones, with many a true challenge. Saving the two girls is a must for the good endings, but even those were far too brief.


The game’s music, on the other hand, doesn’t let down. Well, it’s not that any game in the series at that time did. The familiar tunes don’t have quite the same punch as Bloodlines’ tracks did, but that’s no worry. I found myself muting everything else or turning up the volume as I played with headphones just because of the soundtrack. They rarely disappoint.

And then we have Dracula himself. After a rather easy battle in the original Dracula X, Konami decided to concoct the bullshittiest final boss I think I’ve ever encountered. The walk up to the tower was impressive, before a glowing moon, but the rest of it was memorable for all the wrong reasons. He had two forms: the first similar to what we all know and a second beast form where he flies above. However, the whole battle takes place on columns and the screen is wide. Therefore, you don’t have access to attack many times and in the time-honored tradition, a hit bounces you back – oftentimes to your death! Oh, it’s just so much fun, particularly when you manage to get to the final form and die by one misplaced jump. It’s fucking brutal and I would’ve been so pissed had I purchased this thing back in the day. You will die. Over and over. And not in any fair fashion. I’m getting angry just thinking about it and it marks one of those many gaming quotes, “I’m never going to do that again in my life.”

That final battle mars what is otherwise an OK game. It’s frustrating but looks good and sounds great. This title isn’t fondly remembered, understandably so. However, I’ll take Richter over those Bloodlines heroes any day. Another day, another retro game completed. I’m thinking I’ll hit up Super Castlevania IV next. I never loved that one, but most people do. See how it goes!


Retro-Game Backlog Entry #4: Castlevania: Bloodlines

Posted in Best / Worst, Blog, Castlevania, Games, Lists, Retro Games on November 1, 2018 by slateman

Having proclaimed my love for Castlevania already, one might expect for me to have played virtually every entry. However, it is not the case. Of course, I have gone through a vast majority of the series, but a handful eluded my gaze over the past three decades. One such title is the Genesis game Castlevania: Bloodlines.

I never owned the hardware and during the mid-90s, I avoided Castlevania entirely. In fact, it was only many years later that I got around to Super Castlevania IV. In any event, let’s address the best part of this game first: the music. The series is known for its hummable tunes and this game shows them off in spades. Familiar melodies return, but virtually every portion of the game’s audio shines and it stands as the title’s highlight, hands down.

Nothing else about this game stood out quite as much. The modern environments really didn’t work for me and were in direct contrast to the moody locales in every other Castlevania title. Some bosses and game effects just felt like excuses to show off the system’s tech. In a later level your screen is torn in half or you’re mirrored above the stage. Enemies flail about displaying interesting 3D effects but none were truly interesting themselves. Machine foes, reflecting patterns and fancy displays seemed more important than good level-design choices or enemy choices. I didn’t particularly enjoy big chunks of the game. This was compounded by the ending.

As with many other games of the time, the ending ramps up the difficulty substantially. I’m not a fan of boss-rush modes and the game’s finale is just nonsense. First you face Death who looks as bad-ass as usual. He dishes out these cards and whichever one you hit dictates who you fight: any of the bosses from stages 2-5. While they are random, you have to defeat all four. One of the cards is a screenful of meat. Hopefully you didn’t get that one first! So, after beating four bosses, you square off against Death who isn’t particularly difficult. OK! Now for Dracula, right? Nope…you head up another set of stairs and find a woman who summons a Medusa-like creature before you fight the woman herself. She’s rather easy once you’ve got the pattern down, fortunately.

And NOW you fight Dracula – assuming the stage – boss rush – death – medusa – chick boss combo didn’t kill you. Now you get a classic three-form Dracula battle before an atrociously-underwhelming finale boots you back to the beginning urging you to beat it on expert mode.

Beyond the music, there were certainly perks. Some of the effects were more than simply flash, and I’m sure at the time it was all really quite impressive. Large enemies and bright colors added a beautiful visual flair and newcomer Eric Lecarde changed how the game was played – with different paths for him and for John Morris. These all added up to a unique experience and one that is quite interesting in the series’ universe.

Ultimately though, while the game has a fair share of perks and good replay value, I will probably never return to this game. That soundtrack, however, will get some new spins as there is some truly phenomenal music. Beyond the killer tunes though, there’s not enough to beckon me back. I’ll stick with the classics of the series instead – spoken after 200.6%ed Symphony Of The Night and purchased Castlevania Requiem.


Retro-Game Backlog Entry #3: Ninja Spirit

Posted in Best / Worst, Blog, Games, Lists, Retro Games on September 23, 2018 by slateman

Irem’s 1988 title Ninja Spirit is reportedly the first TurboGrafx-16 title to receive a perfect 10 from EGM upon its release in 1988. My memories of this game are fond: the high-leaping ninja, his mirror clones and, of course, that first boss. Returning to this game was a mostly-positive experience marred, once again, by the inordinate difficulty spike common for games of the time.

The game’s familiar intro begins with our hero’s father being killed by an unspecified green glob attack. Moonlight, the protagonist who strangely is a wolf, begins his quest for vengeance. The game’s presentation is highly stylized and entirely over-the-top. Equipped with several possible weapons, my playthroughs often stuck with the standard sword, despite its weakness in several cases. Having up to two mirror images of yourself plus shadowy sword trails make for a memorable introduction. Ninja enemies spawn from everywhere, throwing daggers and filling the screen with impressive sprites. As you get accustomed to the incredibly-floaty physics, the first stage’s boss appears, an utterly-massive, six-armed demon. He is by no means difficult, but virtually anyone who has played this game recalls his striking appearance. I’d imagine this was the biggest boss for any game at the time, 30 years ago.

The relative simplicity of the first stage is forgiving, particularly on the TurboGrafx mode which allows several hits from minor characters before death. The arcade original did not have this and as the game progresses, most non-croney enemies will still result in a one-hit death. Using your clones to block and attack while you remain safe at a distance is a great method, but certain foes take an awful lot of hits. As stages progress, memorization is your ally – these guys get difficult! The vertical stage is reminiscent of Contra and the bosses never get as surprising as stage 1, at least until the end. More on that in a minute.

The music isn’t far from what you’d expect from a 1988 title. It is dark and mysterious, entirely fitting for a shadowy ninja game. The tracks aren’t entirely memorable, but they suit the title perfectly. I suppose, in retrospect, I never quite found a better ninja title in my gaming days. I never got into Ninja Gaiden (outside the original and brutal trilogy in the ’80s) and need to return to Nioh, which was rather good. We’ll see if Sekiro can trump this upon its release next spring. I digress.

Running along the ceilings in later stages and battling baton-wielding toads all gets very rigorous. The screen is littered with enemies and flying attacks making survival without powered-up weapons a chore. Though enemies carrying those perks are numerous, sometimes getting to them is suicide – perhaps a good risk-versus-reward balance.

Honestly, WTF?

But then after you’ve survived the last levels of memorization and mania, you’re ready to descend the pit towards the final boss. As difficulty goes in games, this is just stupid. The aforementioned pit is literred with flying ninjas, swords held high. You jump into said chasm blindly and one hit from any of these hundreds of foes will end you. Descending through these guys is quite literally the definition of memorization because after a few lost lives, you’re forced to repeat the entirety of the fifth stage. And by that, you’re just running as fast as you can to avoid ninjas that take multiple hits but who can kill you in one and these deadly puffs of gas that don’t seem to affect aforementioned super-powered ninjas. Yes, memorize this pattern because after the run-away technique and the memorize this one-hit-death pit of stupidity, you reach the boss. This guy’s green snaky attacks are what killed your father – though we never really learn why. My method here was to throw shurikens and run away like my own life depended on it. The unnamed boss doesn’t move, fortunately, but after all these sequences of precision and stress, that’s good. It’s OK if you die to him, you can redo that ‘falling in a pit of flying fucking ninjas’ all over again!

The credits sequence has cool half-screen images of all seven bosses with their chapter names written in elegant Chinese. You’re then presented with some semblance of a story, about you having saved the day, but it doesn’t matter, evil will just return. Inspirational! Now go back and play it on arcade mode!

Final Verdict
I’d play Ninja Spirit again. But I don’t know if I would care to try beating it again. To be fair, the hour-long experience fit right in for the time. Had you purchased a $50 game and beat it in one sitting, you would be disappointed. The 25-hour experiences of today were virtually unheard of back then and this was an arcade port, remember! However, while the setting, ambience and feel are familiar and wonderful, the rigor of the end-game makes it difficult to appreciate nowadays. I’m wholeheartedly glad to have returned if only for the sheer glee of revisiting that first stage. There’s a nice sound test where you can listen to all the music and there are also curious messages unlocked by a code – good for a laugh, I suppose. Much like the prior entries into this retro-gaming list, the first levels of this game are a lot of fun and worth a try. I’m glad I’m embarking on this journey. I’m thinking Gunstar Heroes next.