Category Archives: Column: Bastards Of 32-Bit

September 2, 2006

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

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.]

August 11, 2006

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

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.]

August 4, 2006

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

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.]

July 28, 2006

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Skullmonkeys

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.]

July 21, 2006

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

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.]

July 14, 2006

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

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.]

July 7, 2006

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

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.]

June 30, 2006

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

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.]

June 23, 2006

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

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.]

June 16, 2006

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Warhawk

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.]

June 9, 2006

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Burning Rangers

brangers1.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 Burning Rangers for the Sega Saturn, published by Sega and released in the United States in May of 1998.]

Treasure the life.

Shadow the Hedgehog. Sonic Riders. Sonic Heroes. It wasn't always like this. At one point in time, Sonic Team was a font of creativity. Innovative titles like Samba de Amigo and NiGHTS brought the development team much critical acclaim, even if these games weren't always a success in terms of sales. After the death of the Dreamcast, however, things changed. Though Sonic Team's portable software output remains solid if mostly unremarkable, console gamers have for years now been forced to endure a torrent of awful Sonic the Hedgehog sequels and spinoffs. The trend shows no sign of waning, either; if initial impressions of the upcoming next-gen Sonic title are to be believed, there's little hope of seeing a glimmer of Sonic Team's former creative spark ever again.

But let's think happy thoughts! Burning Rangers is a game that was developed during the peak of Sonic Team's creativity, and it plays like nothing that has been released since. It's a little rough around the edges, sure, but Burning Rangers is arguably more innovative than anything Sonic Team has developed in the last five years.

brangers2.jpgHave goddess on your wings.

So, get this: you're a firefighter. Not just any old firefighter, mind -- you're a firefighter from the future. As such, you have access to a jetpack and a laser-powered water cannon to help you in your task of putting out fires and saving lives. Gameplay is exploration-based, and requires careful navigation through environments that explode and collapse around you.

Burning Rangers would be little more than a simple 3D platformer if not for its implementation of audio as a crucial gameplay element. Listening to radio chatter between your teammates is a requirement in many cases, and since the game lacks a mapping function, you'll often need to rely on the aid of a navigator in order to make progress. The game has a habit of thrusting you into total darkness or into situations where fire affects visibility, and there's a great amount of tension in having to rely solely upon your navigator's spoken directions in order to survive.

CRADLE'S ROCKIN' WITH LOOOOOVEJust Burning Rangers.

With so much of Burning Rangers' gameplay reliant upon audio, it's kind of a shame that the voice acting isn't better than it is. The game's entire translation is pretty flaky, actually; one of the lead characters is referred to as "Lead" and "Reed" interchangeably, and most of the dialogue inexplicably has a creepy, faux-seductive quality about it. The floaty controls could use a lot of work as well, and the game's rough graphics and framerate are hard to stomach at times. If ever a game cried out for a remake, it's Burning Rangers.

Despite its problems, though, Burning Rangers has a number of good ideas and innovations in its favor. After a small adjustment period, it's possible to ignore the gameplay annoyances and concentrate more on the joys of putting out fires and saving polygonal Sonic Team staff members (including Yuji Naka himself!) from certain doom.

In any case, it sure beats the hell out of Shadow the Hedgehog. Because seriously.

[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.]

June 2, 2006

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Imadoki no Vampire: Bloody Bride

bloodyb1.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 Imadoki no Vampire: Bloody Bride for the Sony PlayStation, published by Atlus and released in Japan in 1996.]

I want to suck your blood. Wanna go out?

The dating simulation genre has long flirted with breaking into non-Japanese markets. Sure, there have been numerous RPGs in the past that have incorporated datesim elements -- Thousand Arms and the Harvest Moon series come to mind -- but the United States has yet to see a single console release of a full-on, Tokimeki Memorial-style dating simulator. Though the genre may flourish overseas, it seems that in the United States at least, dating-centric gameplay is doomed to always play a supplemental role to a larger overall experience.

Japan, on the other hand, suffers no shortage of quality dating simulators. The region still to this day sees several new dating simulators released every month, and the genre's popularity shows no sign of waning. It's this popularity that encourages datesim publishers to often include unique storylines and unusual gameplay concepts in their offerings, in attempts to make their titles stand out from the rest. Such is the case with Imadoki no Vampire: Bloody Bride, a title most accurately described as a vampire dating sim.

bloodyb2.jpgTokimeki Dracula.

To be more specific, it's a dating sim that has you playing the role of a vampire. As part of a traditional vampire coming-of-age ceremony (or something), you're charged with the task of seducing a young woman and drinking her blood. The trick comes in the seduction part; according to the Vampire Rules, any blood you drink must be given willingly. This is where the datesim elements come into play, and where your bumbling attempts at becoming Casanova Dracula begin.

In order to drink a girl's blood with her consent, you're going to have to win her heart first. This involves doing any number of things you would do in any other dating simulation, all of which are given their own unexpected twists, thanks to the fact that you must keep your identity as a vampire a secret at all times. It's easy to forget your own weaknesses, so careful planning must be made in order to avoid potential problems. At an amusement park, for example, taking your girl to the house of mirrors would lead to a small disaster. A roller coaster ride would be a much safer option. While making these decisions, you must also maintain good hygiene, keep careful tabs on other potential victims, and find enough time to stalk the streets at night. Yes, being a vampire is more than about sucking blood -- it's also about effective time management.

CTRL+F5 CTRL+F5 CTRL+F5Ladies love cool vampires.

It can be argued that most dating simulators do little to distinguish themselves from one another. Most are content to base their gameplay entirely on dialogue trees and statistics management, but Bloody Bride takes this rote formula and applies its own brand of vampiric quirk to craft an enjoyable and interesting experience.

Also of note is that there is a full English translation patch available for Bloody Bride, making the game playable from beginning to end for non-Japanese speakers. The only problems are that the English dialogue is in all caps, and that the translation is a little shaky at times, often to a humorous extent. It's hard not to laugh when your character is turned down for a date, for one thing, since his response is always an abrupt "AH!! REGRETTABLE!!" Still, the translation lends a sort of stilted charm to the game, and Bloody Bride's unique premise and storyline make it well worth a look for anyone interested in trying their hand at a vampire dating simulation.

[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.]

May 26, 2006

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Um Jammer Lammy

lammy1.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 Um Jammer Lammy for the Sony PlayStation, developed by NaNaOn-Sha, published by Sony Computer Entertainment America and released in the United States in July 1999.]

It's a bit of a rush and a bit of a dash!

While most video game genres expand over time and continue to offer new twists and complexities to old formulas, such is not the case for the rhythm genre. What began with story-based, character-driven titles like Parappa the Rapper soon gave way to more simplistic, arcade-friendly fare such as Beatmania and Dance Dance Revolution, both of which refined the mechanics of music-based gameplay, yet eliminated many of the more complex elements that once characterized the genre.

This move can be seen as beneficial to the genre, as early rhythm games were often criticized as being too short, and for possessing too little depth. Modern games in Konami's Bemani series, on the other hand, are almost infinitely replayable due to their lack of specific goals or finite storylines. For all the advancements the genre has seen, however, there's a certain charm present in older music-based games that modern titles seem to lack. Um Jammer Lammy may not have the length and depth that Bemani fans crave, but it possesses wit and charm in spades.

lammy2.jpgThere's no foolin' around with deers.

Um Jammer Lammy stars a would-be rockstar lamb named Lammy, and you're in charge of helping her get to her big concert on time. Along the way, you'll have to help Lammy put out fires, land an airplane, and escape from the clutches of hell itself...using only the power of her mind. Heavy stuff! Gameplay is cue-based, with timed button presses simulating the playing of a guitar in accompaniment to various call-and-response sequences. If this formula sounds familiar, the similarities to Parappa the Rapper are beyond coincidence; Lammy takes place in the same universe as Parappa, and features many of the same characters.

Um Jammer Lammy never garnered the recognition and critical praise that Parappa did, however. This is somewhat puzzling, as Lammy's soundtrack is one of the best to ever be featured in a video game, and easily bests the music found in Parappa and its sequel. Gameplay in Lammy also has much more variety to it; unlike Parappa, two-player cooperative and competitive modes give the game life beyond the completion of its story mode, and there are several optional goals to achieve both in single-player stages and when playing against a computer-controlled opponent. One of the game's best features comes upon the completion of the story mode: an entirely new set of stages that star Parappa as the main character! These stages -- which feature all-new music and rap-based challenges -- prove to be an inclusion that doubles the game's length.

If I'm dead, then the game's over! What a STUPID game!I thought milk was pink!

The game is still a short-lived experience in comparison to modern rhythm titles, but what Lammy lacks in replay factor it more than makes up for in sheer weirdness. Make no mistake, this is one bizarre game. In the third level, a caterpillar vomits uncontrollably while it urges you to put children to sleep by strumming them like guitars. For landing a plane, you're given a set of false teeth, which add a wah-wah pedal effect to your guitar when you equip them. The game's strangest moment, however, was censored out of the United States release -- in short, Lammy trips on a banana peel, dies, and goes to hell, where she has to battle an evil J-Pop idol for her mortal soul.

You won't find moments like this in Dance Dance Revolution, that's for sure. Story-based rhythm games may have never achieved the popularity of their Bemani successors, but titles like Gitaroo Man Lives! prove that the subgenre isn't dead yet. One can only hope that a Lammy sequel isn't far behind.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: If you're a fan of music games in general and NaNaOn-Sha in particular, you might want to check out the recent Gaijin Restoration column on 'Vib Ribbon', another classic rhythm game for PS1 from Masaya Matsuura and friends!]

[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.]

May 19, 2006

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Blast Corps

blastcorps1.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 Blast Corps for the Nintendo 64, published by Nintendo and released in the United States in February 1997.]

Time to get moving!

Rare was once a force to be reckoned with in the games industry. The company was responsible for numerous quality titles during its heyday, but somewhere along the line, Rare seemed to forget how to make fun games. Many of Rare's more recent titles have been criticized for their focus on pointless widget-collecting, and the surplus number of used copies of Kameo and Perfect Dark Zero available at many retailers offer some indication of Rare's failure to capture the modern gaming market.

It wasn't always like this, though. Many gamers have fond memories of playing Rare's Donkey Kong Country series, and GoldenEye was considered one of the best console first-person shooters of its time. During this era, Rare also released Blast Corps, a title that had all the hallmarks of a classic, but was largely overlooked.

blastcorps2.jpgShow us what you got!

The objective of Blast Corps is to destroy buildings. That's pretty much it. Games have been based around this concept before -- Rampage comes to mind, for one -- but Blast Corps manages to add enough variety to the destruction-based gameplay mechanic to make it never boring or repetitive. There's some reason or another behind all the violence -- some story about a runaway nuclear-equipped vehicle that will explode if it collides with anything in its path -- but the almost complete lack of cutscenes makes it easy to concentrate on blowing stuff up.

The game's objectives aren't as mindless as they sound, though. In the process of clearing a path for the nuclear tanker, you'll often have to find creative ways to destroy the obstacles in your way. The game provides you with a number of vehicles in every stage, each with its own special abilities -- the bulldozer is best suited for the quick leveling of small buildings, for instance, but some situations may call for a missile-launching motorcycle, or the speed of a racecar.

In many cases, Blast Corps more closely resembles a puzzle game than anything else, as the game often requires the use of several vehicles in sequence, in order to overcome environment-based obstacles on the way to a demolition site. These elements of planning and strategy make the act of demolition more satisfying than it would be otherwise.

It's like Pilotwings, only completely different.You can DO this.

Blast Corps also contains a number of side missions in addition to the main levels, most of which are time trials that test one's ability to use specific vehicles effectively. There's an impressive amount of optional goals and unlockables in the game, as most stages can be replayed for the sake of finding hidden items, or to raze an entire city's worth of buildings following an initial run-through. You'll be playing for weeks if you want to achieve the game's highest rank of "You can stop now."

Blast Corps adds a degree of depth to a simplistic formula, and the result is an engaging title that can be as mindless or as complex an experience as you want to make it. Plus, if nothing else, the game lets you control a giant flying robot who crushes buildings with its butt. How is that not awesome?

[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.]

May 12, 2006

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Elemental Gearbolt

elegear1.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 Elemental Gearbolt for the Sony PlayStation, published by Working Designs and released in the United States in June 1998.]

Our elementals go to 11!

Working Designs' legacy is built on the "*sigh*"s and "ugh"s of a legion of disaffected gamers. Though the company translated and released dozens of titles in the United States during its 14-year run, Working Designs' distinct brand of humor and penchant for adding or changing content during localization earned it the ire of what seems to be the entire Internet. Complaint has been registered with practically every title Working Designs has published, ranging from legitimate concerns over difficulty rebalancing to essay-length screeds over how a game is completely ruined if its script contains the word "Wheaties".

Elemental Gearbolt has one of the smallest localization footprints of any Working Designs-published title, and is consequently discussed less often than many of the company's other games. The title remains one of the best lightgun shooters to ever be released, however, and few games in the genre have yet to match it in terms of depth and originality.

elegear2.jpgLike Dirge of Cerberus, except it's a game.

If you've played any modern lightgun shooter, you know what to expect from Elemental Gearbolt on a basic level. The game takes place in a first-person perspective, and all movement occurs on predetermined rails. Enemies pop up. You shoot them. Avoid dying for high score.

Elemental Gearbolt takes this basic formula and then further simplifies it, adding its own twists and subtleties. You have unlimited ammo and never need to reload, but you can't just go around blasting everything as fast as you can. You can only fire one bullet every half a second or so; attempting to shoot faster will result in your gun jamming momentarily. This deliberate pacing gives the game a curious sense of rhythm, and necessitates the use of a greater amount of strategy and accuracy than most other lightgun shooters.

Once you get into the beat of firing as often as the game will allow, Elemental Gearbolt becomes a soothing experience, somehow exuding an aura of calm amidst all the explosions. The game's fantasy setting and orchestral soundtrack contribute in a big way; it's easy to be lulled as the view soars over mountaintops, the music swelling as you rhythmically blast away at biomechanical creatures in the distance. Despite the game's difficulty, Elemental Gearbolt is always more relaxing than it is frustrating, yet remains just as compelling as the more frantic titles in the genre.

Just ignore the anime crap and you'll do fine.Warning: sweaty palms corrode gold plating.

As with many of the best games, Elemental Gearbolt accommodates and welcomes expert play. A trade-off sequence at the end of every level presents the opportunity to either upgrade your weapons or add bonus points to your score, meaning that the highest scores can only be earned by playing with crippled weaponry. Working Designs further refined the game's scoring system for its English release, and also ran a series of high score contests for a short while. Winners of the Elemental Gearbolt contest at 1998's E3 received a gold-plated GunCon -- a prized item that has now become one of the most sought-after collectibles in the PlayStation's library.

Despite what your opinion of Working Designs may be, Elemental Gearbolt is well worth checking out. The game's atmosphere is unlike anything seen before or since in the lightgun shooter genre, and its elements of strategy make it stand out among its peers. The possibility of winning a golden GunCon may have long passed, but Elemental Gearbolt's excellent gameplay remains.

[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.]

May 5, 2006

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Ore no Ryouri

orenoryouri1.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 takes a look at Ore no Ryouri for the Sony PlayStation, published by SCEI and released in Japan in September 1999.]

Who's the chef? Me. I am.

To import-hungry gamers, the PlayStation Underground was one hell of a tease. Disguising itself as a quarterly disc-based magazine, the typical issue of Underground was little more than a series of videos and demos promoting the latest PlayStation releases. Occasionally, however, the magazine would feature import coverage, with some issues going so far as to include playable time-limited versions of titles available only in Japan. Trouble is, only a small percentage of these games would later see release in America, leaving many players forever curious about what existed beyond the first few minutes of gameplay in titles like Metal Slug and Puyo Puyo Sun.

One of the more popular imports to be featured in the magazine was Ore no Ryouri, or "I'm the Chef", as it was called in the one-level demo version played by Underground subscribers. The title's unique gameplay won it many fans among Underground members, but despite many subsequent requests for an American release, no English version ever surfaced.

orenoryouri2.jpgIt's hard out here for a chef.

Ore no Ryouri is commonly described as a cooking simulator, but the game's scope goes way beyond mere food preparation. You're responsible for all of your restaurant's cooking duties, yes, but you're also the guy in charge of washing dishes, counting money, and chasing down dine-and-dashers when the situation calls for it. Careful handling of food during the cooking portion is important as well; customers don't tend to react too well if their soup includes a fingertip you cut off while slicing vegetables.

The game's multitasking requirements may initially seem daunting, but tasks are made simpler by the fact that control is limited to a single button and the DualShock controller's analog sticks. Cooking in particular feels very natural, as control in most cases involves manipulating both analog sticks in roughly the same way as one would use both hands. Chopping meat requires fast movements to simulate quick strokes of a knife, for instance, and making a good ice cream cone involves a slow rotation of one stick in order to give it an attractive swirl.

There's also a story about a frog or something.To clarify: A mama who cooks.

Do well enough in a level and you'll soon face the area boss in a cookoff, where skillful cooking on one side will cause the lesser chef's restaurant to suffer a series of roach infestations and belligerent customers. Ore no Ryouri contains a fun two-player mode similar to these boss battles, along with a number of bonus extras and pointless minigames to round out the package.

While Ore no Ryouri may have never found an American release, the PlayStation Underground demo version is captivating enough in its own right, and is very much worth seeking out for fans of unconventional gameplay. Similar action can also be found in the game's spiritual sequel, Cooking Mama for the Nintendo DS, which was recently announced for release in the United States. Now if only some enterprising party would develop a cooking simulator that takes full advantage of the Nintendo Wii's control scheme...

[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.]

April 28, 2006

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Space Station Silicon Valley

sssv1.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 Space Station Silicon Valley for the Nintendo 64, published by Take-Two Interactive and released in the United States in October 1998.]

When suicidal rodents become passé.

In 1998, developer DMA Design faced a crossroads. Known previously for the creation of the Lemmings series, DMA experienced a dry spell in the mid-90's when Lemmings's popularity waned, following a glut of rereleases and expansion packs. 1998 was to mark a new beginning for the company, however. This year saw the release of three DMA-developed titles, one of which would propel the company to new heights of fame and fortune, while the other two would languish in relative obscurity.

Suffice to say, DMA's biggest success in 1998 was not with the Nintendo 64 sci-fi action title Body Harvest, nor was it with this week's featured game, Space Station Silicon Valley. In the end, neither game had the impact of DMA's other 1998 release, Grand Theft Auto.

sssv2.jpgAttack of the killer ROMs!

Compared to Grand Theft Auto, Space Station Silicon Valley is a silly game indeed. As a new arrival at a space station inhabited by robotic animals, you play as a mobile computer chip with the ability to temporarily possess and control any deactivated creature you encounter. Gameplay is based around a series of objectives, many of which can only be accomplished by using special abilities unique to certain animals. One level may have you possessing a dog in order to herd sheep into a pen, for example, while others require a more complex series of tasks that involve using some animals to attack and deactivate others before objectives can be completed.

While Grand Theft Auto represented a radical departure for DMA Design in terms of genre and gameplay, Space Station Silicon Valley shares many similarities with the company's earlier Lemmings games. There's no central character, for one thing; the player-controlled computer chip has no special abilities of its own, and serves only as a medium of travel between deactivated animals.

The concepts of player-encouraged cooperation and teamwork are present here as well, and are made more challenging by the fact that some of the animals instinctively want to kill one another. In many ways, Space Station Silicon Valley represents the last great evolution of the Lemmings-styled puzzle game, as the subgenre is rarely attempted in modern gaming.

Featuring N64 blur effects!Save a hooker, possess a robot dog.

The game contains a good amount of wit and charm that makes it stand out among character-driven puzzle titles. Character design has a goofy Nick Park vibe to it, and there's a lot of subtle humor to be found throughout. The implementation of the game's soundtrack is particularly clever: background music is piped into every level through a series of speakers, which can be destroyed if one wishes to play in silence.

Space Station Silicon Valley's cutesy look and puzzle-rich gameplay may seem like a far cry from Grand Theft Auto, but the games share some common ground -- both feature gameplay that involves the hijacking of transportation, be it vehicle or animal. It's not too much of a leap in logic to equate beating a hooker to death with biting a sheep on the butt in order to take over its body, either. Well, okay, maybe it is. Still, few titles can claim to be even remotely similar to Space Station Silicon Valley, and it occupies a unique position in the N64's library of forgotten classics.

[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.]

April 21, 2006

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Pepsiman

pepsiman1.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 Pepsiman for the Sony PlayStation, published by KID and released in Japan in March 1999.]

Have a Pepsi!

Product placement in video games is usually a little bit more subtle than it is in Pepsiman. Most gamers probably don't bat an eyelash when a game makes you collect iPods to access hidden music, and does it really matter if your game has a few Snickers banners in it? In the past, there have been titles that exist solely to promote dog food and the magical power of Skittles, so it's difficult to categorize any kind of incidental advertising in gaming as "blatant".

Pepsiman, however, is a game that takes product placement beyond what could even be considered blatant and crosses over into the realm of the absurd. In Pepsiman, you play as a man -- himself presumably made entirely out of Pepsi -- who runs through a number of stages collecting Pepsi cans and distributing delicious Pepsi to those in need of refreshment. The game is based off of a series of Japanese Pepsi advertisements, and it's even more ridiculous than it sounds.

pepsiman2.jpgEverybody Pepsi!

The first level's introduction is a good indicator of the madness to come. The heroic Pepsiman theme blares in the background, serenading the player with repeated cries of "Pepsimaaaan! Pepsi-Pepsi-Pep-Pepsimaaaan!" A Pepsi deliveryman calls out to you, in desperate need of help. "There are a bunch of people waiting in front of the vending machines, and they want Pepsi!" he says. "And the word is that they're just about to riot. Can't you do something, Pepsiman?" Pepsiman nods, then rushes to the scene. It's up to you to ensure that Pepsiman gets there in time, before a war can erupt on the streets.

Pepsiman's gameplay was once described to me as being "like Crash Bandicoot for idiots." Take that for what you will. Pepsiman runs unceasingly forward, and your job is to make sure that he doesn't trip over anything in his path. Circumstances may occasionally force Pepsiman to ride a skateboard, or navigate the landscape with a trashcan over his head, but gameplay always involves lots of jumping, dodging, and Pepsi can collecting. All of this matters little in the end, though; once a level's goal is reached and crisis is averted, Pepsiman immediately suffers a violent death. Such is the way of Pepsi.

Pepsi for big fat American jerks!Pepsi for Pizza!

After Pepsiman dies and before he is resurrected without explanation for the next stage, the player is rewarded with a live-action FMV cutscene featuring a fat American man extolling the virtues of Pepsi. These clips are devoid of context, and none of them have anything at all to do with gameplay. One such scene begins with the guy laughing while shoving potato chips into his mouth. He then laughs at an even greater intensity, causing crumbs to shoot out of his mouth and onto his protruding stomach. He pauses to take a sip of Pepsi, then looks directly into the camera and cheerfully states, "Pepsi for TV game!" Fade to black, end of scene, begin next level.

Truth be told, Pepsiman as a game is not very much fun to play. The controls could be a lot better, and later levels are full of cheap, frustrating deaths. Still, the idea of preventing riots and saving lives using the power of Pepsi has an undeniable appeal, and the lure of the next inexplicable FMV cutscene will keep you playing until the end.

[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.]

April 14, 2006

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Devil Dice

devildice1.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 THQ-published puzzle title Devil Dice for the Sony PlayStation, released in the U.S. in June 1998.]

Alea Jacta Est!

It takes a spark of inspiration and not a small amount of luck for a homebrew title to cross over into the mainstream. There aren't many games that have successfully done so in the past, and the stories behind attempted releases like Drymouth and Cave Story's PSP port give some indication of the peril that small-time developers face when trusting their work to publishers.

Devil Dice is one of the lucky homebrew titles that possessed both the necessary creative energy and the good fortune to avoid exploitation by an unscrupulous publisher. Initially programmed using nothing more than the Net Yaroze consumer development toolkit, Devil Dice so impressed Sony that the result was eventually a commercially-released game, followed by a number of sequels, the newest of which was recently released for the PSP. Despite two domestic releases, however, the Devil Dice series remains an obscurity in the United States.

devildice2.jpg(It means "The die is cast!")

As with the best puzzle games, Devil Dice's gameplay is simple in premise, but full of nuance. You control a little devil who runs around a playfield where dice spawn underfoot. In an attempt to stop the onslaught of dice, you can move them around by either pushing them or rolling them into other dice of the same top face number. Once you push together a set amount of dice determined by top face (two connected dice with a top face of two, six with a top face of six, etc.), the dice glow and start to sink back into the ground. It's at this point that you have the opportunity to eliminate more dice by rolling or pushing dice of the same top face into the sinking set. This is where the game's combo system comes into play, with further matches rewarded with more points.

Devil Dice contains a number of variations upon the main game, including the requisite puzzle mode -- where screens must be cleared in a certain number of moves -- and various flavors of multiplayer. Devil Dice can be played competitively with up to five people at a time, but the cooperative two-player mode is even more engrossing. Together, two players can set up chains and combos to mutual benefit, and can perform time-saving moves that aren't possible with a single player. Few puzzle games encourage cooperation rather than competition, and this mode alone provides plenty of reason for replay.

Hey, the game quoted Caesar, not me.(Julius Caesar said that.)

As fun as Devil Dice may be, its gameplay is surpassed in every way by the Japan-only sequel XI Jumbo. XI Jumbo expands upon the original's cooperative two-player mode, and also introduces the ability to jump and flip dice, adding a whole new element of strategy to the Devil Dice formula.

XI Jumbo was later followed by XI Go for the PlayStation 2, which found an American release under the title Bombastic. Bombastic features a quest mode and new exploding dice, but these innovations ultimately add little to the core gameplay. Fortunately, Bombastic includes the original Devil Dice and XI Jumbo gameplay modes as unlockable bonuses, both of which retain their great cooperative play modes.

Devil Dice may have never found its audience in the United States as it did in Japan, but Bombastic remains one of the best puzzle titles to be released on the PS2, and fans of cooperative gameplay owe it to themselves to check the series out.

[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.]

April 7, 2006

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Bulk Slash

bulkslash1.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 focuses on Hudson's Bulk Slash for the Sega Saturn, which was released in July 1997 in Japan.]

Not your grandma's mech game.

I don't get mech games. I can't find the fun in Virtual On, the complexity of the Armored Core series scares the hell out of me, and even though Carnage Heart would be a perfect fit for this column, I just can't make myself play it. I'm not quite sure why, but it seems like the appeal behind controlling giant robots will always elude me.

Bulk Slash is the only game in my experience that has been the exception to this rule. It's the mech game for people who hate mech games; the number-crunching statistics screens inherent to the genre are nowhere to be found here, and it's one of the few games of its kind that doesn't make a huge ordeal out of something as simple as a 180-degree turn. The game further differentiates itself from its peers by being playable without the use of a ridiculous and expensive controller. That, and it's actually fun to play.

bulkslash2.jpgNeither fat nor fanfiction.

Simulation-minded mech fans should stay far away from this one; Bulk Slash is an action game through and through. You pilot a robot through several fenced-in 3D stages, blasting everything that you can get a lock on and hunting down assigned targets as quickly as possible. Your mech has the ability to change from a ground-based biped into an airborne jet (and vice-versa) at any time -- a necessity, since there's often a lot of ground to cover in every level.

Graphically, the game takes advantage of the hardware's strengths without trying to push it too hard. There's a bit of a pop-in problem at times, but the framerate is fast and consistent enough to make the concession worthwhile. The Saturn isn't exactly known for its ability to render 3D graphics, either, so it's impressive to see a game of this type handled so well on the console.

giant robot shootin' down a butterflyMore man than machine.

Other aesthetic touches further add to the game's charm; the use of bright colors is refreshing to see, making the game stand in stark contrast with the muted tones present in many other mech games. The weapons are pretty cool too: the lock-on lasers and napalm bombs arc crazily, and there's a certain specific thrill involved in marching up to a huge gun turret and destroying it with a laser sword.

With its easy-to-master controls and a simple stage-boss-stage-boss structure, Bulk Slash feels like less of a mech game and more of an action game with a mech in it. Where other games of the genre are bogged down with simulation aspects, Bulk Slash places its focus on action throughout. This may be where the game succeeds in places others fail; stilted realism may appeal to only a select few, but the allure of giant robots shooting things is universal. If you like robots but don't want to program them, put them together, or guide them along a hex-based grid, Bulk Slash is a great alternative.

[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.]

March 31, 2006

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Fox Hunt

foxhunt1.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 Capcom's PlayStation title Fox Hunt, which debuted in September 1996 in North America.]

We don't need a spy, just...a guy.

We can look back and laugh now, but for whatever reason, full-motion video was at one time thought of as the future of gaming. Though it had its roots in the 1980s with arcade games like Dragon's Lair, FMV-based gameplay experienced a revival of sorts in the 90s, with the advent of the Sega CD and the release of infamous titles like Night Trap and Sewer Shark.

The trend continued on through the introduction of the Sony PlayStation. Early releases for the console included upgraded ports of FMV-based shooters like Novastorm and Starblade Alpha, and many titles persisted in the inclusion of live-action video cutscenes. To the horror of gamers burned by consoles like the Sega CD and the Philips CD-i, it seemed like FMV would never die.

Then, along came Fox Hunt.

foxhunt2.jpgSo good it'll save your life!

Despite FMV's bad reputation, Fox Hunt had a lot going for it. Developed by Capcom (yes, that Capcom!) for the Sony PlayStation, Fox Hunt was filmed with a budget of five million dollars, a huge amount in comparison to the money spent on the campy Digital Pictures FMV games of old. It's this budget that gave Fox Hunt its star power -- the game features actors George Lazenby and Rob Lowe in major roles -- and secured a soundtrack full of popular licensed music.

As a game, Fox Hunt was to be a multi-genre epic consisting of item collecting, puzzle solving, and shooting segments -- practically every gameplay element ever attempted in its FMV predecessors, except for perhaps Night Trap's vampire-trapping mechanic. If ever an FMV game could succeed and win over the bitter hearts of former Sega CD owners, it would be Fox Hunt.

from Fox Hunt to The West WingI'M HUNGRY

Naturally, Fox Hunt turned out to be one of the worst games of all time. Despite its promise, the game managed to cram the worst parts of every single FMV title ever made into one unplayable nightmare. The plot makes little sense. The puzzles make less sense. The shooting segments are almost impossible to play thanks to terrible controls, and otherwise talented actors are wasted in their brief appearances.

This is to say nothing of the full-motion video itself, which is three hours of the stupidest thing you will ever watch. Your jaw will go slack as you see your character clap his hands and laugh while he navigates a hospital maze in a rocket-powered wheelchair. You'll witness multiple "pull my finger" gags, one of which features the shocking twist of your character burping...and then farting! It's almost a shame that Fox Hunt is considered to be one of the rarest PlayStation games to ever be released, but then, this is probably for the best.

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- its flaws, Fox Hunt remains a significant piece of gaming history. As one of the last games of its kind to be released for any console, it can be assumed that Fox Hunt's failure was what finally put an end to FMV-based gameplay for good. For this, we can all be grateful. Thank you, Fox Hunt.

[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.]

March 24, 2006

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Pokémon Snap

pokesnap01.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.]

Because "Bastards of 32-Bit (And Also 64-Bit Sometimes)" wasn't as catchy.

Photography has largely existed in videogames as a supplemental element of gameplay. Titles in the Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto series, for example, give the player the ability to frame and shoot photographs, but the act seldom results in meaningful consequence. Rarer still are games that feature photography as a dominant gameplay mechanic. There's Gekisha Boy, and...well, that's pretty much it.

Amidst its RPG predecessors and a number of spinoffs into safe, marketable genres, Pokémon Snap stands out as an oddity. Rather than milk the Pokémon franchise with yet another puzzle or card battle game as the company is wont to do, Nintendo instead decided to try something new for the series's Nintendo 64 debut: a game based around photography. The reaction from fans was mixed, to say the least, and the game was generally ignored in favor of more conventional Pokémon releases.

pokesnap02.jpgOh! Wonderful!

The object of Pokémon Snap is to take the best possible pictures of various fictional creatures, as found in their natural habitats. There are optional items one can use to lure the Pokémon closer and to make them strike poses, but otherwise, gameplay centers around simple point-and-shoot photography. Points are awarded for picture clarity and subject matter, with dynamic action shots being the most desirable.

Players cruise along a predetermined path through an environment, and scripted events involving the Pokémon will occur at certain points during the trip. It's up to the player whether he or she wants to photograph these scenes at face value, or interfere with the goings-on in the interest of a better photo opportunity. For the most part, players will get the best results by screwing with nature as much as possible. A picture of Pikachu smiling at the camera will only get you so many points, but a shot taken after you bonk him on the head with an apple and knock him out cold will result in Professor Oak giving you bonus points and calling your cruelty "Very funny!"

magmar in the housePokémon without the Pokémon.

The game's leisurely pace offers a serene experience, free from the pressures and anxiety found in more action-oriented titles. The events that occur are generally out of your control, but there's just enough interactivity present to encourage replay, in the interest of getting better shots. Pokémon Snap also makes for a great two-player game, as players can take turns to try and capture the best picture of the elusive Psyduck, or alternately try and rack up the highest Charmander bodycount in the volcano level by Pester Balling the poor creatures into submission.

Pokémon Snap's unconventional gameplay may have been a turnoff to fans, but more tragic was the fact that this unique, original title went overlooked by many simply because of its possession of the Pokémon license. It doesn't take any sort of familiarity with the Pokémon franchise to find the simple fun in photography, and if you approach this one with an open mind, you might end up enjoying a Pokémon game more than you ever thought you would.

[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.]

March 17, 2006

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Mr. Bones

mrbones01.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 discusses Zono-developed, Sega-published Sega Saturn 2D multi-genre title Mr. Bones, which was released in the U.S. in September 1996, and in Japan in June 1997.]

You know I got the blues.

Way back when, games only had to do one thing and do it well in order to be successful. The blending of genres was discouraged, and any attempt to do so often resulted in uneven titles like The Adventures of Bayou Billy for the NES: a game whose weakness in parts resulted in a mediocre whole. Genre blending is practically a requirement in many of today's games, however, and developers are under constant pressure to cram several games into one complete experience.

Somewhere between the old days and modern-day Bayou Billys like True Crime: New York City and 24: The Game came Mr. Bones for the Sega Saturn. Developed by Zono Inc., Mr. Bones is a genre blender to the extreme. Nearly every level of the game features different gameplay mechanics, and the end result is about as schizophrenic as you'd expect: some parts are fun, others are completely terrible. Yet somehow, the game makes for a compelling and worthwhile experience in the end.

mrbones02.jpgOh there go all my bones!

Mr. Bones is a dead blues guitarist resurrected by evil vampire magic. Stick with me here. As it turns out, Mr. Bones is the only non-evil skeleton to be brought back to life when a megalomaniacal vampire decides to raise an army of the dead to do his bidding. You'll guide Mr. Bones as he runs far away from home, learns to play guitar, hops into a parallel dimension, then returns to defeat the skeleton army and save the world by harnessing the power of the blues.

Though the plot sounds strange, Mr. Bones's gameplay is even more unconventional. Styles shift from level to level; one is a rhythm-based challenge that involves defeating a horde of evil skeletons by playing the guitar. Another is a joke-telling contest, where sentence fragments mapped to various buttons on the controller must be pieced together in proper order to tell a successful joke. A few stages overlay your character on top of FMV obstacle courses, and others even resemble overhead-view shooters.

mrbones03.jpgDon't think about it, just play it.

A majority of scenes contain gameplay of the sidescrolling platformer variety, though even these offer a surprising amount of originality. One such level is nothing more than a slow climb to the top of a series of glass platforms. There are few enemies, and the background is a slideshow of still images displaying a cosmic void. An old man's voice narrates and waxes philosophical throughout, his words punctuated by blues guitar riffs. Though the gameplay in this stage involves nothing more than a series of jumps, the minimalist presentation exudes spirituality and soul the likes of which are not found in many other games.

Then, a few stages later, you find yourself at a level called "The Ice Lake", which is about as unfun as it sounds. Bayou Billy syndrome strikes again. Still, despite some weak moments, Mr. Bones is worth a playthrough, especially if you use the level select code to skip the stupid parts. The fewer times you die at the ice lake, the more you will enjoy Mr. Bones.

[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.]

March 10, 2006

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - No One Can Stop Mr. Domino

mrdomino1.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 features PlayStation game No One Can Stop Mr. Domino!, published by Artdink in Japan in January 1998, and released by Acclaim in the U.S. in October 1998.]

No one, I tell you. NO ONE!

It's easy to hate a company like Artdink. In years past, the Japanese development house has covered genres that vary from the niche (Oh boy! Train simulators!) to the hopelessly obtuse (Oh boy! Uh, aquatic reef simulators!), with many of their titles further hampered by the fact that they aren't very much fun to play.

No One Can Stop Mr. Domino, on the other hand, was one of Artdink's few games that successfully combined an interesting concept with compelling gameplay. Put out in America by Acclaim (of all people) back in 1998, most gamers never gave the title a second look, resulting in a quick and unceremonious trip to bargain bin obscurity for Mr. Domino.

mrdomino2.jpgGrandpa's in the house.

The game stars a little domino man out to use his domino powers to create havoc in the human world. Despite his mighty aspirations, Mr. Domino's powers are limited to placing a series of dominoes behind him as he runs a circular path around each level. Once a level is lapped at least once, Mr. Domino can run into previously-placed dominoes in order to cause chain reactions and trigger traps that will teach those filthy humans a lesson for ever taking him so lightly.

Make no mistake: Mr. Domino is the jerk to end all jerks. The game begins with him performing various acts of benign mischief against inanimate objects, but once you get to level three, the gloves come off. In this level, Mr. Domino attacks an innocent family by using dominoes to trigger traps around their house. Dad gets punched in the genitals. Mom gets caught in an explosion. At the end of the level, grandpa is crushed by a giant bell. Through all this, Mr. Domino never stops smiling.

mrdomino3.jpgSeriously, don't even try to stop him.

A level is completed whenever the required number of traps are triggered by falling dominoes. These traps can be set off one by one, but ideally, the player wants to trigger them all in succession in order to earn the highest scores. This is made difficult and occasionally frustrating thanks to the fact that Mr. Domino marches continually forward (no one can stop him, remember?) during each level, and the slightest misstep can ruin what was once a perfect domino setup. Skillfully dodging the obstacles in Mr. Domino's way and then watching a well-placed series of dominoes trigger several traps in a row offers the kind of satisfaction that makes it all worthwhile, however.

It's rare to see a puzzle game strive to accomplish something beyond the geometric shape dropping/matching/clearing archetype, and Mr. Domino does so with style and an inexplicable sense of humor. Don't let the terrifying prospect of an Acclaim and Artdink collaboration throw you; No One Can Stop Mr. Domino will only set you back a few bucks for a used copy, and it could very well be the most important story ever told about a domino man's struggle against humankind.

[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.]


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