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Column: Bastards Of 32-Bit

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Pinball on Saturn

September 2, 2006 5:12 AM |

satpin1.jpg"['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a tri-weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers several pinball titles for the Sega Saturn, all of which were released between 1995 and 1996.]

Saturn Silverball

Despite its popularity in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, the video pinball genre has suffered a steep decline in recent years. This is likely a direct result of the declining availability of real pinball tables in arcades, which are also slowly dying out. Though pinball is kept on life support thanks to the efforts of sole surviving table manufacturer Stern, few video game publishers seem interested in releasing pinball simulations in this day and age, outside of budget-priced compilations like Pinball Hall of Fame and the rare oddball title like Flipnic.

It's a shame that the genre died when it did, as the 32-bit era saw some of the best video pinball titles of all time. The Sega Saturn in particular was, perhaps, the last console to offer truly great and original takes on the genre. Only a few ever saw U.S. release, but import-savvy pinball fans should stay on the lookout for these Sega Saturn exclusives, some of which are among the genre's finest moments.

Last Gladiators / Necronomicon

Last Gladiators, along with its Japan-only sequel Necronomicon, are arguably the greatest pinball simulations to ever be released on any platform. All tables in both games are very well crafted, with special attention paid to detail and realism. The action plays out from an angled viewpoint, giving a good view of the entire table at once, with dot matrix-styled animations and announcements relegated to temporary windows that are always placed in such a way as to never block the player's view of the playfield. In short, they're both great sims that eliminate many of the technical problems usually associated the genre.

What really sets these titles apart, though, is the fact that they are metal to the max. The games are characterized by their symphonic heavy metal soundtracks (Necronomicon even features two songs written by John Petrucci, of the progressive metal group Dream Theater) and all-too-serious narration that runs in the background during gameplay. The table art fits the theme too, featuring all manner of bearded wizards and long-haired gladiator types.

This may sound cheesy, but in practice, all of these elements work together to make a game that's really exciting to play, in addition to being unintentionally hilarious at times. The guitar-heavy soundtrack, combined with the constant stream of loud sound effects and overwrought voice samples, create the same kind of noisy, kinetic life that a real pinball machine has. As a result, Last Gladiators and Necronomicon manage to successfully recreate the feel of playing an actual pinball table, as opposed to playing a simulation of a table's mechanics -- an achievement that few sims have ever accomplished.

satpin2.jpgKyuutenkai: Fantastic Pinball

Developed by Technosoft (the company responsible for porting the fantasy-themed pinball title Devil's Crush to the Sega Genesis as Dragon's Fury), Kyuutenkai: Fantastic Pinball was not exactly designed with accurate simulation in mind. Kyuutenkai plays almost exactly like an entry in Naxat Soft's Crush series, in fact, complete with "living" bumpers, wandering enemies, and bonus rounds that take place outside of the main table.

Kyuutenkai introduces a few new features not found in the Crush games, however. The game allows you to pick between three characters before the plunger is pulled, all of whom have their own attributes that affect how the game is played. The pinball itself can also be powered up, allowing it to hit enemies and obstacles for greater damage. These improvements make for great additions to the Crush formula, and give the game much-needed depth and longevity.

Kyuutenkai has a few quirks related to physics and difficulty (it's damn hard!), but it remains a great throwback to the realism-be-damned video pinball games of days past. The overly anime look may be off-putting initially, but brave your way past all the gigantic eyeballs and squeaky voices and you'll find a worthy successor of Naxat Soft's 16-bit efforts.

oh god why won't the screen stop movBLARGFFThe Pinball Ghetto

The Saturn also played host to at least two more pinball titles -- Hyper 3D Pinball and Pro Pinball: The Web -- both of which were released in the United States in 1996. Pro Pinball, while a decent enough simulation, fails to duplicate the aggressive energy of Last Gladiators, and suffers for only featuring one playable table. Sequels to Pro Pinball were later released on the PlayStation, but unfortunately, all of them also feature the same lethargic gameplay that plagues The Web.

On the other hand, Hyper 3D Pinball features multiple tables, but the tradeoff is that they all suck badly. By default, the game is played from a top-down view that nauseatingly shifts the camera around constantly, much in the style of shovelware PlayStation tragedies like KISS Pinball and Austin Powers Pinball. Other camera angles don't fare much better, as the graphics, sound, and physics in all of the tables are embarrassingly lame, making Hyper 3D Pinball in no way redeemable.

But hey, Last Gladiators alone is more than enough to make a Sega Saturn owner forget about these disappointments. Though the genre may be all but dead today, Last Gladiators and Necronomicon continue to reign as the kings of pinball simulation. It's simply unfortunate that there won't be many other challengers to the throne.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Tail of the Sun

August 11, 2006 5:06 PM |

tailofthesun1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers Tail of the Sun for the Sony PlayStation, published by Artdink and released in the United States in April 1997.]

Wild, pure, simple crap.

Artdink is no stranger to this site, having been responsible for some of gaming's more interesting efforts during its 13-year reign as publisher of niche titles. For all the innovation and fresh ideas present in Artdink's games, however, there's no denying that many of these titles are acquired tastes at best, and can be actively unlikable at worst.

Tail of the Sun is one of Artdink's hardest games to defend. It's not for everyone, and what little enjoyment you'll glean from it will likely be of the ironic variety. If you can appreciate the comedy inherent in watching a narcoleptic caveman being mauled to death when he falls asleep during a fight with a mammoth, however, Tail of the Sun could be worth your time.

tailofthesun2.jpgBetter living through baked goods.

Back in the prehistoric era, there apparently wasn't much to do other than eat, sleep, and die. Consequently, this is what you'll spend the bulk of your time doing in Tail of the Sun. Controlling one member of a growing tribe of cavemen at a time, you'll venture out into the chunky polygonal landscape in search of nourishing cookies scattered throughout the land, in order to feed your hungry family back home.

Yes, cookies. In one of Tail of the Sun's more bizarre twists, a core element of gameplay involves the collecting and eating of cookies -- all of which were officially licensed from a Japanese bakery and rendered with a loving attention to detail, according to an in-game advertisement. These cookies, when eaten, will enhance the abilities of all of your tribesmen, allowing them to hit harder, run faster, and swim for more than a few seconds without drowning.

Once your tribe becomes strong enough to travel to the far north without dropping dead of exhaustion halfway, so begins your search for mammoth tusks. By hunting down the mammoths of the north and slapping them until they explode, your caveman can gather their tusks and begin to construct a tower, with the goal being to build it high enough to reach the sun.

It's unlikely you'll get to this point, however, as the game's glacial pace is all but an immediate turn-off, and is a problem that's only compounded by your character's habit of falling asleep at any given moment. This will lead to cheap deaths that are somehow hilarious in their tragedy; there's nothing that can be done to prevent your character from drowning after he falls asleep while swimming, so why not laugh about the futility of it all?

This is the most exciting screenshot I could find out of the 100 or so I took.Oh look it's a mammotZZZZZZZ

As one of the few living and sane humans who has ever played Tail of the Sun to completion (look, I was a bored teenager who would rent damn near anything during the PlayStation era so long as it was new, all right?), I can say that the ending is totally worth it. The game features multiple endings depending on how well you accomplished your goals; the one I received was a surrealistic description of how my tribe eventually murdered and cannibalized itself into extinction. I guess spending much of the game beating my tribesmen to death out of boredom wasn't such a good idea after all.

While Tail of the Sun may have just barely been entertaining enough to finish back upon its first release, it's difficult to imagine anyone having the patience to do so nowadays. The long load times, lulling atmosphere, and real-time sleep simulation all do their part to make the game as off-putting as possible. Still, it could be fun with the right group of friends. Try seeing what happens when you let your caveman fall asleep at the top of a mountain sometime. It's good stuff!

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Tempo Series

August 4, 2006 11:58 AM |

tempo1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers the Tempo series, published by Sega and released across several platforms in the United States and Japan in 1995 and 1998.]

Tempo's in the house tonight.

Tempo led a short, unfortunate life in the video gaming world. Unlike the stars of many mascot-based platformers, Tempo wasn't an unlikable jerk; he was just a little grasshopper who wanted to share his love of hip hop dancing with the world. He never infuriated players with repetitive one-liners, and he never got totally in your face with his x-treme attitude.

Poor Tempo merely had the misfortune to arrive on the scene after Bubsy and his ilk had successfully buried the character-driven platformer deep into the Earth's mantle. The fact that Tempo made his debut on Sega's notoriously undersupported 32X didn't exactly help his cause, either. The Tempo games remain an engaging play today, however, and could end up being pleasant surprises to the many who missed these titles when they were first released.

tempo2.jpgYou know he's gonna move your mind.

Developed by RED Company (better known as the creators of Bonk's Adventure and the Sakura Taisen series), Tempo stands out as one of the best games to ever be released for the 32X. Whereas other 32X titles failed in trying to push the hardware's weak 3D capabilities to its limits, Tempo opted instead to use the 32X's power to infuse the game with fluid animation and vibrant background graphics. The result is a solid, refined platformer with a unique look and style made possible by the added horsepower of the 32X.

Tempo is built around the concept of gameplay as performance art. The game's levels are actually sets built inside a TV studio, and an unseen audience often vocally reacts to the action on-screen. While it's entirely possible to play through the game as if it were any other platformer, skilled play and the use of the more complex moves available to Tempo is pleasing to the audience, and is consequently awarded with more points. There are many different endings possible, all of which reflect how well the player entertained the audience throughout the game.

Tempo was followed up in 1998 by a Japan-only sequel for the Sega Saturn. Super Tempo ditches the TV show setup of the original title, and introduces several new gameplay mechanics that make for a radically different experience as compared to its predecessor. Super Tempo is also characterized by its reliance on bizarre humor and obscure references to Japanese folklore, much in the vein of fellow Saturn platformer Keio Yuugekitai Katsugekihen. Unfortunately, this title would mark the end of the Tempo series, as no further sequels were ever released or will likely ever surface.

Didn't buy my game huh? WHY I OUGHTTAThe groove is outta sight.

The debut of the 32X version of Tempo was accompanied by the almost simultaneous release of Tempo Jr. for Sega's Game Gear in 1995. Though it's interesting that such an obscure series would see a unique portable entry, Tempo Jr. is best forgotten because...well, it's pretty bad. Sega did their best to try and cram as much of Tempo's trademark fluid animation into the Game Gear title as possible, but the end result is a sub-average platformer with none of the gameplay innovations found in the original 32X release.

If anything, the mere existence of Tempo Jr. signifies that Sega likely wanted Tempo to be a major franchise, with new releases and sequels spanning all of the company's available platforms. The failure of the 32X as a console pretty much insured that this dream would never become a reality, however. Tempo may have had heart and charm, but neither was enough to overcome the combined evil forces of Bubsy and Sega add-on hardware.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Skullmonkeys

July 28, 2006 1:48 PM |

skullmonkeys1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers Skullmonkeys for the Sony PlayStation, published by Electronic Arts and released in the United States in January 1998.]

Of clay monkeys and platforms.

Any game can possess a solid and original gameplay concept, but can fail due to a lack of care given by its developers. Take The Zombie vs. Ambulance, for instance -- a title which, despite its awesome premise, is rendered boring due to its generic presentation and instantly repetitive gameplay. The lesson to be learned by developers here is that in the absence of creativity or unique ideas, even a game about a zombie-killing ambulance can be unplayable.

Other games, on the other hand, may base themselves around a hackneyed concept, but contain fresh ideas that are executed so well that the end result is something truly remarkable. These games are made with a passion that extends beyond contractual obligation. They possess unnecessary amounts of charm, and exude a kind of polish that can only come from a team of people who genuinely want to make a great video game. Such is the case with Skullmonkeys.

skullmonkeys2.jpgLess clicky more hoppy.

As sequel to the point-and-click PC adventure title The Neverhood, Skullmonkeys defied expectations by being -- of all things -- a sidescrolling platformer. The game offers little variation on the platforming formula, and many of the genre's cliches are in full effect throughout. It's still a fun and very playable game regardless, but much of its gameplay will seem very familiar to fans of platforming titles.

It's the imaginative design that defined The Neverhood that makes Skullmonkeys into the noteworthy title it is, however. The characters are likeable, and a unique claymation style gives the game a look that separates it from other lowly PlayStation platformers like Punky Skunk and Johnny Bazookatone.

Most incredible of all, Skullmonkeys is often a very funny game, and intentionally so. This is most obviously apparent in the varied character animations and silly FMV sequences, but Skullmonkeys' soundtrack (composed by Terry Scott Taylor) is also exceptional in this aspect. The background music that plays during bonus rooms is perhaps what best exemplifies the game's bizarre sense of humor -- the track is a soothing acoustic lullaby, accompanied by the singing of a man who identifies himself as "your little invisible musical friend for life." To elaborate further would only be a disservice to the greatness of this song.

Joe-Head Joe in all his glory.Mad props to Ton Ton.

The humor becomes even more ridiculous at times, so much so that many of the game's stranger moments feel like inside jokes shared among the staff. One of the bosses, in fact, is nothing more than the gigantic digitized head of one of the Skullmonkeys' artists, propped up on a pair of legs. The game's available weaponry is pretty odd, too, ranging from exploding birds to a screen-clearing smart bomb called the "Universe Enema."

These playful touches show that Skullmonkeys was a labor of love, and effectively transform an otherwise nondescript platform hopper into a memorable experience full of charm and personality. The game may be relatively difficult to find today, but it's well worth tracking down.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Sin and Punishment

July 21, 2006 11:45 AM |

sinandpunishment1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers Tsumi to Batsu: Chikyu no Keishousha (Sin and Punishment: Successor of the Earth) for the Nintendo 64, published by Nintendo and released in Japan in November 2000.]

Glass Soldier

It's really difficult to evaluate a Treasure-developed game based on its merits alone, without Treasure's fans getting in the way of things. The company has produced several titles of varying quality over the years, but Treasure loyalists will insist that every single one of them is gaming gold. They'll argue that Stretch Panic is worthy of being featured on a magazine cover, for instance, and some would even go so far as to say that Advance Guardian Heroes has redeeming qualities.

Conversely, Treasure detractors will tell you that all of the company's titles are overrated, and that none of them are worth playing. Yes, this includes Radiant Silvergun. It always includes Radiant Silvergun.

Both parties do an equally good job of making one question whether it's okay to enjoy Treasure's games. Does liking Sin and Punishment make me a mindless Treasure fanboy drone? Man, I sure hope it doesn't.

sinandpunishment2.jpgAnd now, a 5000-word tribute to Buster's Bad Dream.

The majority of Sin and Punishment plays like an updated version of Cabal or Nam-1975. Your character is able to shoot, jump, dash, and move left and right along a limited 2D plane while the game automatically guides you between destinations. Shooting comes in two flavors: lock-on bullets that are the key to defeating enemies who move around a lot, and a gun that requires manual aiming, but also fires more powerful shots.

Sin and Punishment sticks to the standard rail-based shooter formula most of the time, but some of the more interesting moments come when the game breaks away from what is to be expected from the genre. In its final moments, Sin and Punishment abandons its run-and-gun gameplay for a level that plays like a side-scrolling platformer, and the multiple bosses in every level offer their own surprises in terms of strategy requirements.

GET BONUS!Rakugaki Showtime more like BEST GAME EVER

Its gameplay may be fast and fun, but Sin and Punishment has not gone without its share of criticism. Much has been made of its lack of difficulty and short length, sometimes in reviews that complain about the game being easy when it's played on the easy difficulty setting. In reality, the title is actually a fair bit longer than the average shooter; most playthroughs will take about an hour or so. As with most shooters, the appeal in Sin and Punishment comes not in grinding through the game by dying repeatedly and abusing the generous checkpoint system, but in finessing through the waves of enemies and using as few continues as possible.

Sin and Punishment was at one time considered for release in the United States, but the waning popularity of the Nintendo 64 in 2000 ensured that the title never left Japan. Rumors have suggested that Sin and Punishment will be a part of the Nintendo Wii's download service, however, so the game could very well find new life with the next generation of consoles. Treasure fans, your frothing demand should increase with haste.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Roll Away

July 14, 2006 8:32 AM |

rollaway1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers Roll Away for the Sony PlayStation, published by Psygnosis and released in the United States in November 1998.]

Rollin' Rollin' Rollin'

Looking up information on obscure titles can be a chore sometimes. When entered into a search engine, a name like Roll Away, for example, will yield tons of pages promising "1000'S OF CHEAT CODES!!", few of which apply to the game in question. This is only slightly less helpful than the search results that tout themselves as being "the ultimate Roll Away resource," but offer only a single paragraph review of the game, at most.

In this case, it's not until you search for the game's European title, "Kula World", that you begin to get some useful results. Though the game flopped in the United States, it became somewhat of an underground hit in Europe, where the title was lauded for its 3D take on the single-screen puzzle genre of yesteryear.

rollaway2.jpgCall it "quirky" and I'll punch you.

Roll Away was developed by a Sweden-based design team of roughly a half-dozen people, and the game's premise was the result of an idea one of the graphics designers had during a dream. In the game, players must guide a gravity-defying beach ball through a rotating, 3D labyrinth in order to collect items needed to exit each level.

The game closely follows the example set by classic "find the key/find the exit" puzzlers like Solomon's Key and The Adventures of Lolo, and the constant shifts in perspective give Roll Away its own unique brand of challenge.

The beach ball will cling to any solid surface, so much of the game will be spent rolling along walls and ceilings. Trying not to become disoriented is where most of the challenge comes from, though there are a number of obstacles in each level that can get in the way or deflate your beach ball, forcing you to start over. Roll Away becomes difficult quickly, and later levels require both twitch reflexes and the complete mastery of your beach ball's limited abilities.

Collect enough fruit and you'll get to the blood and pea soup bonus round.The Internet has good things on it, too.

As addictive and fun as the game may be, however, it's no mystery as to why Roll Away never achieved the popularity it deserved. The title received little in the way of magazine coverage, and advertising was practically nonexistent.

Even the back of Roll Away's jewel case seems clueless at how to make the experience sound appealing; the gameplay summary includes the phrase "the world's coolest beach ball," and "Pick up coins, gems and fruit," is actually listed as a bullet point.

Following the release of Roll Away, developer Game Design Sweden AB soon changed its name to PlayCom, and has made a name for itself in its achievements in Shockwave-based gaming. Roll Away itself, in fact, has been successfully cloned in the fan-made Shockwave game Frenzirynth.

Though consoles rarely see the release of puzzlers like Roll Away in today's market, the genre has found new life on the Internet and mobile platforms. Perhaps these are the new gaming frontiers to watch, for those who remain fans of the "fruit-collecting beach ball" brand of puzzle game.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Cosmic Race

July 7, 2006 8:55 AM |

cosmicrace1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers Cosmic Race for the Sony PlayStation, published by Neorex and released in Japan in January 1995.]

All hail Gazuga!

Bad games are an inevitability for every console, but only a few stand out as being among the worst of all time. Bad games are fleeting; their life span is determined by however long the possibility for a cheap laugh exists. For a game to be considered as one of the worst of all time, however, it has to have impact. The worst games have legends attached to them, are universally loathed, and eventually become ingrained in gaming culture.

Cosmic Race is a title that is legendary for its many failures, all of which were highlighted in a review printed in a 1996 issue of Game Players. The game's infamous review was one characterized by disbelief, and Game Players' editors maintained that there could never be a game worse than Cosmic Race. The magazine even made Cosmic Race a semi-permanent part of its ratings system: 100% was "perfect"; 0% was "Cosmic Race."

Obviously, I was overjoyed when I was finally able to track down a copy.

cosmicrace2.jpgTo The Box with you.

Playing Cosmic Race for the first time is a bewildering experience, as its gameplay seemingly strives to be as counterintuitive as possible. Start a race and as soon as you hear the word "Go", your ship will immediately sink under the track and become stuck in the ground. Your time will then likely run out before you can escape, ending the game well before you'll be able to figure out what went wrong.

So what happened? Well, like some kind of idiot, you probably expected the accelerate function to be mapped to the X button. That's just what they wanted you to think! According to Cosmic Race, the best place for the accelerator is obviously the R1 shoulder button. Duh. This only becomes apparent after a few more experimental plays, however, after which the next big challenge is figuring out how to turn your ship. If you think that merely pressing left and right on the directional pad will navigate you through turns, you're not ready for Cosmic Race.

I'M BOREDNot quite as good as Rocket Dogs.

Once the controls are understood (under no circumstances can they ever be "mastered"), it becomes easier to concentrate on Cosmic Race's many other flaws. As Game Players noted in its review, much of the game's graphics seem to have been cribbed directly from clipart found in early PlayStation devkits.

This lends the game a kind of patchwork quality -- Cosmic Race's graphics are the visual equivalent of a song constructed using only Casio keyboard demo loops. The non-stolen artwork doesn't fare much better, as much of it leans toward the scary side of anthropomorphism. The gameplay really isn't so bad, however...that is, if you can look past the fact that collision detection is essentially random.

In the end, though, Cosmic Race left me a little disappointed. It's bad, sure, but there are far worse games out there. The inexplicably awesome soundtrack alone keeps it out of 0% range, and the simple race-to-the-finish gameplay is compelling precisely because the game's programmers botched it so badly. It's more fair to call Cosmic Race the stupidest game of all time, rather than one of the worst. As for whether it's worth tracking down just to see this stupidity in action, that's another matter entirely.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Death Tank Zwei

June 30, 2006 7:06 AM |

deathtank1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers Death Tank Zwei, a hidden game found within Duke Nukem 3D for the Sega Saturn, published by Sega and released in the United States in 1997.]

Minigame as star attraction.

There are rarities, there are obscurities, and then there's Death Tank Zwei. Death Tank Zwei can't be bought, nor can it be downloaded. Its mere existence is not known to many, and earning the right to play it involves following a precise set of instructions, none of which are at all obvious or even hinted at. As elusive as it may be, however, Death Tank Zwei is easily the Saturn's best multiplayer game, outclassing even Guardian Heroes and the legendary 10-player Saturn Bomberman.

To play Death Tank Zwei, you'll first need to own copies of the Sega Saturn ports of Duke Nukem 3D and Quake. Boot up Quake, then create a save file in your Saturn's internal memory. Then start up Duke 3D and Death Tank Zwei should be accessible on the main menu.

Alternately, Death Tank Zwei can be unlocked by playing through Duke Nukem 3D and destroying every single toilet in the entire game.

Yeah, you're probably going to want to go with the save file method.

deathtank2.jpgNuts to your dated FPSes!

It's definitely worth the trouble, though, as Death Tank Zwei is one of the most fun multiplayer games available on any platform. Think Scorched Earth with up to seven players and you've got the basic gist of it. Unlike Worms and other Scorched Earth-alikes, however, Death Tank Zwei is not turn-based, and allows for every player to move and shoot at all times. The gameplay is more fast-paced and frenzied as a result, which makes an excellent pick-up-and-play party game.

All action takes place on a single screen, where up to seven player-controlled tanks are initially dropped onto a randomly-generated battleground. This terrain will change as the battle unfolds, as player shots will quickly blow away large chunks of the field. Players have access to a number of weapons, each of which have their own tactical uses and strengths, and all of which can be purchased with points earned by destroying opponents in previous rounds.

There would be more players in these shots but SOMEONE had to go and take his multitaps back to Florida!Death Tank! Death Tank! Death Tank!

This all may sound taxing at first, but Death Tank Zwei is beautifully simple in concept. The game is built on a foundation of quick multiplayer action -- there's no storyline, or even a single-player mode. The object is simply to humiliate up to six of your friends with your superior aiming skills. Or, failing that, your ability to stockpile weapons. Nothing beats hoarding an arsenal for several turns in anticipation for that one round where you'll suddenly use a combination of airstrikes, nukes, and Death's Heads to destroy your opponents before they even realize that the game has started.

Death Tank Zwei may at first glance appear to be nothing more than a throwaway minigame, but it contains all sorts of little touches that show that it was a labor of love. The occasional intrusion of rule variations like Blitz Rounds keep gameplay sessions fresh for extended periods of time, and the game even goes so far as to keep track of win/loss statistics for dozens of player profiles via the Saturn's internal battery. Hell, the title screen features its own thrash-metal theme song! With vocals! You can almost feel how bored the game's programmers must have been during the development of Duke Nukem 3D.

Really, if you're at all into multiplayer games, there are none I'd recommend higher than Death Tank Zwei. It was a hit at my last party, and I can see myself playing it for hours at a time with the right crowd. Just make sure you have plenty of jumpjet fuel on hand for when you call in the airstrikes.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Tail Concerto

June 23, 2006 8:01 AM |

tailconcerto1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers Tail Concerto for the Sony PlayStation, published by Atlus and released in the United States in August of 1999.]

Less bumpy, more fuzzy.

I wanted to like Steambot Chronicles a lot more than I did. It sounded like something I'd enjoy, being a fan of multigenre blends and all, but it suffered for having too much dialogue and not enough action, and ended up becoming boring quickly. It didn't help that the game looks and plays a lot worse than I ever thought it could, either.

Tail Concerto is like a prototypical Steambot Chronicles. Both games promise a lighthearted adventure coupled with steam-powered robots, but only Tail Concerto delivers on this promise in the context of an entertaining game. It's weird that I'd enjoy one game and not the other, though. Maybe it's my anti-mech bias kicking in again. Or maybe if the creators of Steambot Chronicles had fixed up the controls and changed the human cast into kitties and puppies, I would've liked it a lot more. One of those things, I guess.

tailconcerto2.jpgOutgrowing RPGs kind of sucks.

Tail Concerto is one of those action games that had hyped its "RPG elements" to such an extent that it made me a little wary at first. Personally, I always think of "RPG elements" as being the boring parts of a game. Whenever an action or adventure title suddenly decides to shift into RPG mode, this almost always means that a lot of talking, exploration, or leveling up are in store. Depending on how well these elements are implemented, a game can either benefit from the added depth or become terminally dull in the process.

Tail Concerto succeeds in making its RPG elements as painless as possible. The dialogue is brief and the voice acting is good, but most importantly, the exploration elements are actually fun. Much of Tail Concerto is made enjoyable by your character's ability to enter houses and break stuff during exploration segments. The game encourages this, in fact -- many items can only be found by walking into peoples' houses and destroying their furniture. There's never any punishment for this, and it effectively allows for Tail Concerto to be both an action game and an RPG simultaneously, with neither genre ever becoming overwhelming enough for the experience to become repetitive.

Taste bubble justice, misguided kitties!Because shooting bubbles at things just works.

Despite its RPG-like qualities, however, Tail Concerto is very much a 3D platformer. You play as a mech-piloting puppy who shoots bubbles at kitties. The world's cat population is causing trouble with the dogs, see, and it's your job as an officer of the law to capture them. There's fetch quests and a few segments involving the dreaded mine cart, but everything in Tail Concerto is handled with a charm that makes even the most mundane of video game conventions seem fresh and enjoyable.

Fans of the Mega Man Legends series (and The Misadventures of Tron Bonne, in particular) would do well to check out Tail Concerto, as the games share a similar lighthearted vibe and graphics style. Even if you prefer your video game storylines to be serious and brooding, though, you could still find yourself falling in love with Tail Concerto's levity and optimism.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Warhawk

June 16, 2006 8:48 AM |

warhawk1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers Warhawk for the Sony PlayStation, published by Sony Computer Entertainment America and released in the United States in November of 1995.]

Plane blows up other planes, makes good.

Returning to the PlayStation's first-generation titles can be a risky venture. They're good for whenever you find yourself on a nostalgia kick, but more often than not you usually end up wondering how you ever tolerated all that weird polygonal tearing and warping. Even worse, it's hard looking at titles like these and coming to grips with the fact that, at some point in your life, $50 for Battle Arena Toshinden seemed like a really good deal.

Some titles have aged better than others, though, and Warhawk's gameplay holds up better than much of the PlayStation's first-generation library. The likes of Street Fighter: The Movie and King's Field don't exactly provide much competition, but even when judged on its own merits, Warhawk is still a lot of fun to play today.

warhawk2.jpgWhen sprite-based explosions were good enough.

Warhawk wears its age like a badge of honor. Start the game and you'll find yourself watching an FMV sequence. A live-action FMV sequence. The actors are bad, the sets are sparse, and the storyline is pretty dumb. Still, it's fun to watch the tough-as-nails commander (with a heart of gold) chew out the Warhawk's young, cocky hotshot of a pilot and his levelheaded and steadfast copilot after every stage. It's like the Sega CD never left us!

Gameplay doesn't require much in the way of description. You control an armored aircraft that can somehow go from accelerate to reverse in a matter of seconds. Using this ship, you're charged with the task of stamping out terrorism, which is occasionally accomplished by flying into volcanoes to collect canisters of red goo.

Thankfully, your ship doesn't actually control like the bulky chunk of metal it appears to be. Control is where the game excels -- whereas many flight-based games get bogged down in realism, the ship in Warhawk can stop on a dime, hover, and spin in place while in mid-air. Your ship's unusual freedom of movement is what allows for much the game to take place within enclosed environments, which often deteriorate into Death Star trench-style obstacle courses. Warhawk may be an aerial combat game at heart, but the emphasis on flight precision is what keeps the experience fresh more than ten years after the game's initial release.

Thrilling FMV sequences, starring...this guy!Needs more motion-sensing controller.

One of Warhawk's more interesting features is that it contains more than thirty different endings, not all of which require playing the game to completion. Dying on any of the game's levels produces a unique ending text for each. It's even possible to get a "good" ending this way...that is, if your idea of a good ending is the evil terrorist leader choking to death at the dinner table while laughing at your plane's flaming wreckage.

To get the best ending requires some ingenuity on the player's part, however. During the last mission, the game informs you that the only way to kill the final boss is to ram your plane into it, sacrificing your characters' lives in the process. Or so you'd think! If you've read the instruction manual, you'll know that the Warhawk has a cockpit ejection function, which you can use to your advantage in order to see the best ending.

The thought put into these numerous endings demonstrates that Warhawk wasn't just a throwaway first-gen title. Warhawk was developed with the sort of care and detail that makes it worth revisiting today, and hopefully, the upcoming PlayStation 3 sequel will follow suit.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]