Monday, 21 June 2021

Narita Boy Review (Nintendo Switch)

 

Another world, another time; the 1980s. For those of a certain age the decade is a pop culture wonderland, full of treasured films, music, TV shows and games. The team at Studio Koba clearly fall into this age bracket (and if not, at least feel as though they should be), as Narita Boy is a mash-up of so many things from the era of big hair, neon design and synth-led pop music (your memories of the 80s may vary).

Narita Boy himself is a standard 80’s gamer kid that gets sucked into the Digital Kingdom of the game of the same name, one created by Lionel Pearl (also known as “The Creator” in game). Your aim is to stop the Stallions from corrupting the digital kingdom by restoring the creator’s memories. So far, so TRON, but the best part of the story is the glimpse you get into Lionel’s life when a memory is restored. These moments drive you to discover more about Lionel, a Steve Jobs/Shigeru Miyamoto style figure whose childhood experiences add a human face to the game. Without these quiet moments to cut through the techspeak it’s likely the story would have been mostly ignored.

As for the game itself, it feels like it wants to be a Metroidvania, but can’t quite bring itself to be. Often, you’ll reach a locked door and be told to locate a Techno Key to unlock it. Cue wandering around the area looking for the next NPC who will invariably tell you to speak to another NPC in order to locate the key, then backtrack to the locked door once you have it. As such, progression feels more DOOM than Symphony of the Night, and fells like a lazy design choice. It’s a shame, as you unlock plenty of abilities throughout which are on occasion used to reach previously inaccessible areas, but more often than not they’re used briefly then forgotten. Some may lead to a Battletoads-style surfing section (although nowhere near as frustrating), or changing into an animal form to progress through a forest, but are never used again. Thankfully, most will be used in combat, and this is the meat of the game.

Initially the combat consists of mashing the attack button, and feels flat. Over time, you gain a dodge move, then a charge attack, and so on. The enemies you encounter after each combat upgrade will make you use these abilities, and by the end of the game you’ve learned enemy attack patterns, when to dodge, when to recharge your health, when to switch fire forms to deal more damage, and when to attack. Mashing the attack button won’t see you through, so pattern recognition becomes essential in making progress. The combat is easily Narita Boy’s strongest point, as the platforming doesn’t quite feel right. Narita Boy feels more sluggish and weightier that his spindly frame suggests, yet thankfully there’s not too heavy a focus on pixel-perfect jumping.

The visual design throughout is firmly in TRON territory – a little neon lighting here and there, the setting as a whole – but it’s all been animated in a traditional 2D manner, frame by frame. This makes for great looking movement of characters and environments, much like The Game Kitchen’s Blasphemous or the rotoscoped classics Prince of Persia and Flashback. The backgrounds are mostly muted tones, bringing to mind games on the C64 (although I couldn’t help but think of the classic endless runner, Canabalt). The retro design even extends to the original Team 17 logo being used at the beginning of the game, something this old Commodore Amiga fan associates with his teenage years. It’s a nice-looking game, and everything is clear even during its more chaotic fights. The CRT filter over the top of the game (including video distortion on the edges of the screen) really adds to the atmosphere.

The music is a mixture of catchy synth and bit tunes (none catchier than the closing theme, something worth completing the game for), and the sound design overall is in keeping with those 80s vibes. However, hearing “Rest in FORCE!” each time you die may lead to frustration.

Narita Boy is a challenging title, but always feels as though it can be overcome. Enemies are varied, and most will need a different approach, be it shoulder charging to break a defence or goading them into attacking first, the fights are a memory game, and all the more rewarding when you’ve figured them out. The boss battles themselves are great fun - the final boss took me several attempts, but the feeling of accomplishment once it was defeated gave me that same feeling as beating a game back in the 8-bit days. The backtracking for keys leads to the game’s duller moments, but don’t diminish from the experience enough to spoil the enjoyment.

Narita Boy displays its 80s influence as boldly as a neon green shell suit. Some of its design choices harken back to a bygone age (key collecting, no world map), but this may well be by design - older games were often obscure – but I await the potential sequel with anticipation. Whether it decides to go down the Metroidvania route further or not (play it through to the end and you’ll see what I mean), I hope Studio Koba can at least match the quality and challenge of Narita Boy. After all, “we’re only gonna fail if we give up”.

8/10

Written by Dan Gill

Monday, 14 June 2021

Piko Interactive Collection 2 Review (Evercade)

 

The first Piko Interactive collection was an oddball pick and mix of titles covering a wide range of genres. As a result there was really something for everyone to discover and enjoy. The second collection takes a more focused approach and contains a host of sports based titles. Retro based sports games can be hit and miss though so we weren’t sure what to initially make of the fourteen game line up.

Though there are undoubtedly highlights here we’ll get through the filler first – and unfortunately there is a sizable chunk of it. Winter and Summer Challenge for instance were never that great on first release and now the cramped screen space, confusing controls and unresponsive inputs really have not improved. While it may offer some fun in multiplayer there is very little to draw you back past the initial curious nostalgia.

The two football games here are also disappointing. World Trophy Soccer is slow and cumbersome and just made us wish International Superstar Soccer was an option. Considering we have Sensible Soccer coming it is easily forgettable. Football Madness’ only real claim to fame here is that it’s the first Playstation game to make one of the collections. It’s ok in multiplayer but really it’s a painfully average game despite the power ups and more arcade style of play.

Speaking of painfully average the two Shut Up and Jam games are also included. Once again we found ourselves thinking about much better games set in the genre. NBA Jam this isn’t, and both games feel lose with players having little weight to them and the game seeming too random to really get players to invest the time to develop skills. Again, as a multiplayer option it works much better.

While we are in the realm of American sport it’s fair to say Power Football certainly isn’t up there with the John Madden games either with the whole thing lacking the pace and intensity of the best video game depictions of American Football.  Beast Ball however is a great fun take on the sport with vikings, lizards and other creatures battering each other senseless. It lacks in terms of depth but it’s great for quick sessions. The only real issue with it is that this Mega Drive version of the game isn’t quite as good as the original Amiga version but it does capture the feel of the game well and should keep players returning to it.

Another often overlooked game is Eliminator Boat Duel on the NES which really finds a new lease of life here. In the original game you only have single life with which to complete the championship meaning you have to win every race first time or start again from the beginning. Here though the save state option has made the experience a lot more enjoyable and now players can really take in the mad cap races as you switch from top down to 3D racing views while avoiding obstacles and edging ahead of your opponent. It’s not the only racing game included here either with the painfully average Full Throttle All-American Racing another game that just sort of makes up the numbers.

Of much higher quality is the first GBA game to make its way to the Evercade in Racing Fever. The view may be way too zoomed in but it’s a fun top down racer with a decent selection of cars to choose from and has you racing against three opponents over a decent array of tracks.

The star of the show in this genre though is undoubtedly Top Racer 2 (Top gear 2), which will be a reason for many to pick up the cart. Reasonably pricey to get hold of now it’s an excellent racing game which builds on the solid foundation of the original in the best ways. The campaign is lengthy, the handling is decent and there’s a host of upgrades and things to play around with as you make your way through the races. It comes highly recommended and makes a lot of the less spectacular games included more palatable.

The other main reason to pick up this collection is of course Soccer Kid. Yet another of the Amiga platformers that has jumped to console the little dude certainly has something of a cult following and it’s easy to see why. The faults of many an Amiga platformer are still here such as the loose feeling controls but the main gimmick helps to keep it above its peers. We are of course talking about the football that Soccer Kid uses as his main way of dispatching enemies. Control of it can be a little tricky to begin with but once you’ve worked out how the momentum of it works it’s a satisfying experience belting it at the many caricatured people that inhabit the levels. The level design is also decent throughout and though it does fall into the trap of many an Amiga platformer and descends into frustration in later levels the save states are always there if you need them to help you out.

Overall, the second collection of games from Piko Interactive is hit and miss. Some of these will work much better when the VS makes multiplayer a real option but on the whole there’s a lot of games here living off nostalgia and very little else. That said the cart is still worth picking up due to the inclusion of Soccer Kid and Top Racer 2. Racing Fever, Beast Ball and Eliminator Boat Duel also help to sweeten the package as all are fun and competent games. With this in mind we would still recommend it to Evercade owners – just don’t expect everything on here to be world beating once the nostalgia wears off.

 

Overall -

Beast Ball                                                             3/5

Eliminator Boat Duel                                       4/5

Football Madness                                            2/5

Full Throttle All-American Racing               2/5

Hoops Shut Up And Jam                                2/5

Hoops Shut Up And Jam 2                             3/5

Power Football                                                  2/5

Racing Fever                                                      3/5

Soccer Kid                                                           4/5

Summer Challenge                                          2/5

Top Racer 2                                                         5/5

Winter Challenge                                             2/5

World Trophy Soccer                                      2/5

Monday, 7 June 2021

Kaze and the Wild Masks Review (Nintendo Switch)


Kaze and the Wild Masks has been causing quite a stir among fans of retro styled games recently and it’s not even a Metroidvania. Heavily influenced by classic Rayman and Donkey Kong games it certainly wears its influences clearly on its sleeve but Kaze is more than just another imitator.

Indeed, when were first looking at it we wondered if instead we should just go back and play one of its main influences instead? As it turns out that would have been a mistake as Kaze has more than enough of its own personality to stand alone in the market.

As always with these things the plot is somewhat crazy. In this case you need to save your friend Hogo from a host of recently cursed and mutated evil vegetables. In order to do this you need to use magical masks that offers unique abilities as well as your standard running, jumping and floating skills. The masks in question are similar to Donkey Kong’s animal friends and allow Kaze to draw on the powers of a shark (for swimming), A Tiger (for climbing) an Eagle (for Flying) and a Lizard (for, erm, zipping around).

You can’t use the masks all the time and they are instead limited to specific levels designed around the particular skill set required. The abilities help to add variety and do lead to some fiendish and downright evil level design. Speaking of which, the games that most influence Kaze’s levels are clearly both the original Rayman and the Origins and Legends reboots. The rhythm of them is very similar and when you are placed into one of the ‘chase’ stages we couldn’t help thinking about the crushingly difficult auto-run stages featured heavily in Origins in particular.

This highlights another feature of Kaze, that being it’s tough even from the early going. This can be mitigated to some degree though the settings which allows players to pick a difficulty which adds extras checkpoints but be prepared to need a sizable chunk of patience in order to progress. You are also going to need to have a Jedi-like understanding of the controls as well. This isn’t one for the feint hearted.

It’s handy then that the controls work well. Away from the masks, Kaze has a number of standard abilities at the player’s disposal. The key ones are the spin (which acts much like Dixie Kong’s hair, Or a Tasmanian Devils spin for that matter), a downward dive and the good old head bounce. The head bounce is surprisingly the one that you’ll need to get the hang of due to the fact that you spin afterwards. This fine for when you need to continue forward momentum but you can’t jump out of the animation. This means if you miss time jumping on an enemy that you need to bounce off to reach a platform by a fraction you normally end up plummeting to your doom.

On the standard setting you only get one checkpoint per level as well so be prepared to repeat the same sections over and over again. This highlights one feature of Kaze and retro gaming that we really don’t want to be reminded of. Yes, the dreaded ‘memory test’ is very much present here.

There are numerous levels where players have no real chance of progressing without edging through each section following death after death. There simply isn’t enough time for players to react to things on the fly so remembering how enemies move and the sequence of obstacles becomes the only route to progression. The same fate befalls boss battles meaning you are effectively having to play each one at least three times to have any chance of success.

The level design in general though is excellent, so those that can cope with the throwback style will find little else to complain about. This goes for the game overall as well as the general presentation and feel is excellent. The fact it easily matches Rayman and Donkey Kong in terms of mechanics and style speaks volumes for the work that has been put into it.

Overall, Kaze and the Wild Masks is a perfect throwback to the days of the 16-bit platformer (or at least the homages to 16-bit platformers that came later). This is both a good and bad thing depending on how you look at it. We could have done with it being a little bit less faithful in a few aspects but there is so much here to love that anyone with that retro inkling should put it at the top of their platforming wish list.

 

Overall 8/10

Monday, 31 May 2021

Jaleco Collection 1 Review (Evercade)

A well know name in the world of arcade and early console gaming, Jaleco were prolific in the nineties across the NES, SNES and Gameboy.  While not being as high profile or as critically well received as some other Japanese developers such as Capcom and Konami, they did none the less put out some interesting titles across a range of different genres. This first collection on the Evercade draws together ten games from the company spread across the NES and SNES.

One of Jaleco’s most well-known franchises is the Rushing Beat series. This cart contains two games from it with Rival Turf and Brawl Brothers both present. Sadly, Peace Keepers – the best game in trilogy, isn’t here. Out of the two, Rival Turf holds up the best with fairly solid action on show which should keep you entertained for a while. It’s a bit of a nostalgic trip for us as well as it’s a game that was one of the first real options for two player brawling on the SNES back in the day.  Brawl Brothers looks bigger and brighter but is incredibly repetitive and dull with even the punching animations looking drab. Neither are particular ground breaking though.

Two sports games are also included with Bases Loaded on the NES being an easily forgettable baseball game and Super Goal 2 (Super Soccer), making up the package. Despite our initial fears, Super Goal 2 does actually work in short sessions as a fairly solid arcade football game. Once you get the controls sorted passing, tackling and shooting do have a logic to them and game moves along at a decent pace. Goalkeepers aren’t massive push overs either so fans of old school arcade sports games should find something to enjoy here.

Jaleco has also included three NES platform games which are all worth playing. City Connection is strange little game where you have to drive a car around jumping up and down levels to colour in the platforms. While you are doing this you need to avoid obstacles and little chibi police cars that zoom around. It’s a bit scrappy, but good fun and can become strangely addictive at times.

Totally Rad is an obnoxiously colourful game where you have access to a whole host of spells you can use to power up and transform your character. It’s a pretty standard action platformer but the different abilities keep it enjoyable and it plays pretty well. It’s also not massively long and had a moderate impact when originally released. It’s well worth checking out and will be a bit of a hidden gem for a lot of people.

Astynax, is the most action orientated of the three. Here you need to make your way through levels by walking to the right, avoiding traps and smacking monster with a host of large weapons. Sprites are big and the game is great fun. There are some issues with slowdown and flicker at times which can be frustrating but at least now we have the save states to account for any cheap deaths. Once you get the hang of it there is a rewarding and enduring game here and it’s certainly one of the better games on the cartridge.

In stark contrast Earth Defence Force is one of the worst side scrolling shooters we’ve come across on the SNES. Collision detection is lose and feedback from taking damage is non-existent. The whole game carries no weight to it at all and it’s just a massive let down. This is one best left avoided.

The last two games are top down maze adventures. Ignition Factor puts you in the roll of a Fireman who needs to enter complexes and rescue a set amount of people within a set time period. It’s a nice idea but it’s quite a frustrating game to play with players needing to choose equipment without really knowing the circumstances they are going into. The controls are also a bit stilted and there is a strange set of rules working away in the background which dictates things such as you only being able to jump when you are on a walkway. It’s quite an original take on the genre but we’d rather be playing The Firemen any day.

The last game here is Operation Logic Bomb which is a solid maze style shooter. It’s full of traps, switches and all the other expected things that games in this genre usually come with. It executes it all very well though and this is another example of an often overlooked game that deserves a bit of the spotlight. Controls work well and enemies are challenging and varied throughout. It's yet another reason to add the cart to your collection.

Overall, the Jaleco collection has been a bit of surprise for us. When it was initially announced there wasn’t much here that really got us excited. Having played through it though we are pleased to say that there are a host of often overlooked games here that warrant your attention. It may not be the most spectacular collection of games but they are certainly solid for the most part and Evercade owners should have fun unearthing a couple of real hidden gems.

 

Overall -

Astynax                                4/5

City Connection                  3/5

Totally Rad                          3/5

Operation Logic Bomb       4/5

Ignition factor                    3/5

Super Goal 2                       3/5

Earth Defence Force          2/5

Rival Turf                           3/5

Brawl Brothers                  2/5

Bases Loaded                     2/5