Monday, 26 July 2021

Cotton Reboot! Review (Nintendo Switch)

In terms of games you may have been expecting to make their way to the Switch, it’s fair to say that a Sharp X68000 version of an arcade shooter featuring witches may well have been near the bottom of the list. But none the less the cute’em up with the cult following has not only made its way to the system but has also managed to secure a Western physical release thanks to ININ game.

The release contains both the enhanced reboot version and also the original X68000 release. The X68000 version is included over the original arcade version due to it generally being held up as a superior game containing changed attack patterns and extra bosses. The reboot is based on this version as well. That said, both version of the game present are dramatically different in terms of look, speed and generally how they play so you are effectively getting two games for your money.

Cotton is a side scrolling shooter in the vein of R-Type and Deathsmiles – Just with witches taken from a studio Ghibli movie backed up by a laser toting fairy. The gimmick with Cotton revolves around coloured gem pickups and the magic system. The gems act as power ups and give different shot types, add to your magic and bomb stock and also raise your experience level which in turn improves your damage output. The gems do more than this as well though and are key to building your score. When shot, the gems split your shots meaning you have increased fire power. This in turn also acts to raise the score multiplier. Once the gems turn black though your shots no longer split and instead simply block your shots which acts as an effective risk reward system.

The magic system effectively gives you a host of special skills you can use such as raining boulders down from the sky or blitzing the screen with lightning. You pick up the various spells from gems as you go through the game and can also raise their level and set off a sub version of what they do. I had real issues with this system as it’s completely colour coded so not great for the colour blind. As a result I would normally just be pressing the button and seeing what happened next without the ability to plan any sort of real strategy.

The reboot version of the game also presented some issues in this area. The sheer amount of stuff, enemies, bullets, background art and general beauty hitting the screen did cause a lot of problems with bullets and enemies disappearing into the explosion of colours. Again, this could be a colour blind thing but I suspect this will cause issues for a fair few people – especially in handheld mode. The same issue doesn’t really effect the X68000 version as the different colour palette and slower pace of the game reduces the issue significantly.

Both versions of the game do look decidedly lovely though. The cartoon visuals of the reboot match the original style well and though incredibly busy at times it does make you want to stop and take screen shots at every possible moment. The original version of the game also looks great in its retro way. It has a slightly more low-key colour palette but it’s a remarkably well designed game from a visual point of view.

Overall, Cotton is a fun and worthwhile shooter for fans of the genre to experience. Aside from the look it doesn’t really do anything particular outstanding or different compared to the big hitters in the genre but it’s certainly strong enough to warrant a purchase. Not many games look as good as this either and it’s clear a lot of care and attention has gone into bringing a fairly niche franchise to a Western audience. All in all it’s a great fun package that will serve shooter fans well.

 

Overall 7/10

Monday, 19 July 2021

Piko Interactive Collection 1 Review (Evercade)



Piko Interactive are a company that specialise in collecting unloved IP and then packaging it for modern platforms. Sometimes they get IP outright and sometimes they spend the time to acquire prototypes, unfinished or foreign language games and then work on them to get them ready for market. This first collection from the company for the Evercade contains a wide range of games from different genres and backgrounds and is the very definition of eclectic.

Seven of the twenty included games fall into the realm of platformers. 8 Eyes is a relatively poor NES game much in the vein of the original Castlevania titles and Radical Rex and Dorke and Yimp are fairly lose in terms of their controls and are more frustrating than fun. Jim Powers is a SNES game which has been completed by Piko Interactive and must be among the most difficult games ever made.  But, there are some hidden gems here. Power Pigs is colourful and fairly solid but for us the two standouts are Tinhead and Switchblade.

Tinhead is a very Amigary platformer (think lose controls), but it’s inventive and the save states help alleviate the ‘memory test’ elements that many games of the time where known for. It’s certainly a game we have been going back to often and well worth playing. Switchblade takes a bit of getting used to but once you work out its single button combat system (another game with home computer roots), it’s an engaging and addictive adventure platformer where you explore one huge level looking for pieces of a magic sword.

Aside from platformers there are also a host of games which involve punching people in the face. Power Punch is a truly awful Punch Out clone and Way of the Exploding Fist is the NES version of the game which Piko Interactive has again taken the time to complete from its prototype. It’s fairly solid but does lack some of the character (and the bonus stage), from the other versions.

The Water Margin on the other hand is an excellent side scrolling beat’em up. This really is the definition of a hidden gem and it has been localised here for a Western audience. It’s big and bold with great special moves and is a must play. Also well worth playing is Iron Commando. Another really solid side scroller it has bags of character and is only let down a touch by the fact it’s a bit unbalanced in terms of the difficulty.

For those that want to go adventuring the cartridge also has you well catered for. There are two traditional RPG’s (officially translated for the first time) with Canon: legends of the New Gods taking the Fire Emblem like approach and Brave Battle Saga the more Breath of Fire/Dragon Quest route. Canon is incredibly tough due to players not having access to information such as how far enemies can move. But it’s pretty solid throughout and fans of the genre should get on with it well. Brave Battle Saga is excellent and if you are into your traditional JRPG games then this will keep you busy of around forty hours which makes this cart very impressive in terms of value for money.

3D adventuring is also well covered here with Drakken and its sequel Dragon View included. Make no mistake, both games are tough as nails but also great fun to explore. Drakken uses the more traditional four player party system whereas Dragon View changes to a side on action game once destinations are reached. Just make sure you’ve got a guide nearby unless you want to become truly lost in the wilderness.

Isometric adventure fans aren’t left out either with cult Mega Drive game The Immortal also here. It’s clunky and slow but there’s still very little like it out there and is a massively ambitious game for the system. Again, the save states are very handy here for alleviating any mounting frustration. If you have some patience with it you should be rewarded with another solid quest.

Four unique games round out the package. Top Racer (Top Gear), is a solid SNES racing game, but the far superior sequel is included in the second Piko cartridge. Even though, it’s still good fun and has the added depth of being able to upgrade your car.

Magic Girl is a short but sweet vertically scrolling shooter that’s good for a quick blast and The Humans is a unique take on the Lemmings format. Again, its natural home is on a computer system with a mouse but despite the slow pace it certainly has a charm to it. Yet again the save states are here to save the day as well.

The final game on the cart is Nightshade which is an ambitious NES game that’s part point and click adventure and part action. It has a great atmosphere and look to it but the NES was never the natural home of this type of game so again, some patience is required to get the most out of it. It is worth sticking with though.

Overall, the first Piko Interactive Collection is a weird and wacky selection of games from all sorts of sources. There is bound be something that you gravitate towards here and equally games you will never touch again. The good stuff far outweighs the bad though and the inclusion of real heavy hitters such as Brave Battle Saga and The Water Margin backed up with cult classics and solid games such as Drakken and Tinhead means it deserves a place in any Evercade owners collection.

 

Overall -

Brave Battle Saga                                                            4/5

Cannon – Legends of the New Gods                               3/5

Water Margin                                                                   4/5

Iron Commando                                                               3/5

Way of the Exploding Fist                                              3/5

Power Punch II                                                               1/5

Tinhead                                                                           4/5

Radical Rex                                                                   2/5

Jim Powers – The Lost Dimension                               2/5

8 Eyes                                                                            2/5

Power Pigs of the Dark Age                                          3/5

Dorke and Yimp                                                            2/5

Switchblade                                                                   4/5

Dragon view                                                                   3/5

Drakken                                                                          3/5

The Immortal                                                                  3/5

Magic Girl                                                                       3/5

Nightshade                                                                       3/5

Top Racer                                                                         3/5

Humans                                                                             3/5

Friday, 16 July 2021

Atari 2600/7800: A Visual Compendium Review

For those of you that read our recent review of the SNES Pixel Book you’ll know we are becoming very big fans of Bitmap Books. The visual compendium series now stretches across a whole range of computers and consoles and we thought the best place to start would be with one of the earliest games machines of them all.

As its name suggests the Atari 2600/7800 compendium covers an absolutely massive range of games from the two systems. There are screen shots galore, interviews and short features from a host of industry legends and developers and it has all been curated as thoughtfully as ever. If you are a fan of gaming history then this book alone will give you a well-rounded understanding of the games, systems and general state of the industry at the time from an Atari point of view.

The cover and slip case are of the standard we have now come to expect from the company. A simple design featuring a host of characters from iconic games is used which allows for clear visual identification of which system the book is aimed at. The slip case also has a hologram element to it so you can see the characters move to different poses depending on what angle you are looking at it from. It’s a nice touch that mimics the animation style of the games in a fun way.

The book starts with an excellent and extensive historical piece before leading into the beautifully captured shots of the blocky pixels that the 2600 produced. Most games are presented as a single shot spread over a double page with decent chunk of text from industry veterans included to tell you about any interesting trivia or historical context surrounding it. Despite the basic level of graphics the 2600 was capable of producing the pictures used are incredibly crisp and show the minimalist design off to its absolute best. It’s a wonderful achievement to make some of these games look so good.

Aside from the games there are also detailed interviews with important figures from the time such as Carol Shaw, Joe Decuir and Dennis Koble and profiles of important publishing houses such as Activision and Imagic. These pieces really help to give greater insight into the time period and the process of developing and publishing for the systems and further moves the book closer to being a sort of one stop shop for all the information you might need.

As you work through to the end of the 2600 games you’ll find that an interesting section dedicated to unreleased prototypes. Here, designers and programmers give information on the aim of the titles and offer insights into where they may have fitted into the market any why they never made. It’s a brief section but again shows the level of detail that has been included when compiling the book.

There’s also a great section focusing on the box art of the games which highlights some of the awesome designers and art work that has been produced for the system. It’s guaranteed to get anyone who remembers buying games purely based on the picture on the front drowning in a sea of nostalgia.

The 7800 section of the book is just as detailed with the superior graphical power showcased in just as careful and considered a way as its predecessor. It also helps to show there was much more to the 7800 than just Ninja Golf (which everyone seems to have discovered via the Evercade).  

Overall, this is another release from Bitmap Books that is absolutely packed with content. There is so much in here that it’ll take you a good while to be able to take everything in. It’s not just the information or screenshots that set the book apart though. Everything here is considered and thought about from placement of graphics to curation to overall page design and visual signification. If only all books would take this sort of care and attention when it came to their subject matter.

Monday, 12 July 2021

Huntdown Review (Steam)

Upon release Huntdown somehow went under our radar. We aren’t really sure how this happened as it’s not exactly a quiet or subtle game. In fact, it’s one of the craziest and most intense experiences we’ve ever played.

The best way to describe Huntdown is that it’s a side scrolling action mix of Contra, Judge Dredd and The Warriors set on fire and pushed down a hill in a cyber punk styled shopping trolley. It’s so incredibly full-on, violent and well realised that it has quickly shot to the top of our go to games list on the Switch.

The game has players pick from one of three super bounty hunters before blasting their way through four areas divided up into stages with a larger than life mob boss at the end of each. At your disposal are an endlessly diverse amount of weapons ranging from assault rifles, flame throwers and hockey sticks with new ones being introduced throughout. While using these tools of destruction to rain down justice on the criminal gangs your chosen hero will offer up one liners from every 80’s and 90’s action movie ever made and generally kick arse.

Set pieces are never far away and even when the scripted moments take a rest your arsenal is more than capable of creating its own. A particular highlight was when we jumped from a lift, blasted one goon with a shotgun and turned, kicking another into an explosive barrel which then set of a chain reaction of carnage.

The sound and look of Huntdown is also exceptional. The heavy cyber punk influence is consistent and creative throughout and the detail of the level design in exceptional. If there is one issue it’s that in handheld mode the game has almost too much going on to see properly which makes things even more difficult. It’s strange to say but this particular 2D blaster really should be experienced on the big screen with the sound turned up as loudly as possible.

Each of the four areas has its own distinct style and represents a different part of the gang controlled city. This reflects in the enemies as well with the first gang seeming like your everyday 80’s thugs before things take a turn towards the influence of The Warriors with hoodlums in over the top ice hockey gear and motor bikes. The bosses are great as well with each being larger than life characters that are challenging but not impossible to overcome.

To increase the scope of Huntdown, an arcade mode was a good idea. Re-playability, aside from ramping difficulty is a tough thing on such a linear, traditional, format. You can jump between the different areas to start, and so the game responsibly recommends finishing the campaign first (as the methodical reveal of each progressively more ludicrous bounty characters is one of the joys of Huntdown).

This mode will appeal to those who want to try for the kill combos and who enjoy the pursuit of high scores, but also just for those who want to jump back in for a time. You could say there’s a nod at the roguelite with this mode.

Furthering the commitment to the “olde skool” are the various gaudy pickups, and that one-life-left thrill. It compliments the main campaign well, and provides a bit of a legacy for players. Keep it in your library, you never know when you might want to just jump back in. A solid, no-frills feature that works.

We’ve been trying to find a criticism of the game and the truth is there really isn’t one. Ok, it’s not going to last you forever but there is still a decent chunk of game here and you’ll certainly want to revisit it. The check point system is good so you are never too frustrated and there are some limited secrets to find in the form of the hidden brief case collectables in each level. The cover mechanic also works well and your character controls like a dream. There really isn’t anything to moan about.

Overall, Huntdown is one of the best action games we’ve played in years. It’s up there with the very best games in the genre and even eclipses the excellent Not a Hero. It’s no exaggeration to say that if this had been released in the 16-bit era we would be heralding it along with Contra and other classics of the genre. If action is your thing then we cannot recommend this enough.

 Overall 10/10

Friday, 9 July 2021

The Unofficial SNES Pixel Book Review


For a fair while now Bitmap books have been producing a whole host of homages and call backs to magical days of retro gaming. With that in mind we thought it was probably time that we started to take a closer look and start to review some of these titles. The first on our list is this love letter to Super Nintendo graphics and what a special book it is.

To start with it’s fair to say that even by hardback coffee book standards this is both large and a very strange shape. But, it works. The 272 pages are set out in the dimensions of 250mm × 250mm and it just seems to be the perfect size to portray these pixel graphics to their fullest and most impressive. The books outer cover is solid and colourful and gives you every confidence that it will protect its precious cargo while also adding an air of grandiosity and ceremony to the book held within it. As a lesson on how to give a good first impression this is a masterclass.

Once you’ve finished marvelling at the impressive cover you are welcomed to the world of 16-bit pixels by a well written introduction and explanation as to how the book has been laid out. In this case the games are set out into genres based on their defining characteristics such as platform games, shooting games, adventures etc. It’s presented in a fun and cohesively clear way that makes navigating to your favourite easy while also leading readers to similar games that they may not have heard of or know little about.

The main focus here though is the glorious pixel graphics of the era. Though there are detailed summaries and explanations throughout the book to do with everything from various genres to different types of adventure game bosses, most of the individual games are restricted to single sentences or small paragraphs at best. One particularly striking image from Pocky and Rocky simply states ‘Destroyer of Rice Balls’ above it for instance. This is of course to showcase the art work in its best possible way but once you have had your interest peaked by a particular title it’s likely you’ll have to look elsewhere to really get the information on it.

That said, if you want an introduction into the world of 16-bit games in terms of mechanics and styles this certainly is covered. For instance, the adventure game section takes time to discuss core elements of games viewed from different perspectives (top-down, isometric etc.), while the RPG section talks about menu systems and inventories. This is a really unique take and something you don’t normally see in these sorts of books. In that sense it really does help you to understand core mechanics of a lot of these genres and games.

When there is text it is entertaining, insightful and well worth reading. The way the book is written really seems to highlight things that we may have all noticed but not necessarily thought about in the way it talks about them. The analysis present is easy to follow, logical and something that genuinely informed us and peaked our curiosity to learn more. It’s excellent work and you can tell it’s been well thought about and written with both passion and detail imbued within it.

Overall, The Unofficial SNES Pixel Book is incredibly impressive. We’ve played a lot of games on the SNES over the years but this has managed to get us to think about them in a completely different way and notice details we have overlooked many times. It’s a remarkable achievement in all areas of design and writing and we can’t think of anything really that would have improved it. We can’t recommend it enough and anyone interested in design, style and mechanics of these classic titles won’t be disappointed. It’s also got Shadowrun and Hagane in it so what’s not to like?

 


*Original photo Bitmap books.

Monday, 5 July 2021

Super Magbot Review (Nintendo Switch)

 

Written by Dan Gill

Imagine if someone told you that they wanted to make Super Meat Boy, but remove the ability to jump. Instead, you have to use magnets and choose the correct polarity to attract to or repel from them in order to make it through the level. Well, imagine no more, as Astral Pixel have made this waking nightmare a reality in Super Magbot.

The aim of the game is to save the galaxy from a terrible fate. Same old story, but the flavour is just there to provide justification for Magbot’s platforming. Spread over more than a hundred levels, the aim is to collect Star Fragments to progress through the death trap-strewn levels, each world culminating in a boss level. The game is wrapped up in a nice and simplistic 16-bit aesthetic, and I mean that in a positive way. Level design is clear so you can clearly see where you need to go and how to get there.

Initially the control mode may seem a little off-putting, with its attract/repel dynamic, but once figured out you’ll be pinging Magbot around the screen like nobody’s business. The tight level design offers just enough of a draw to keep you coming back for more after each inevitable failure. And fail you will, as you’ll need decent coordination and timing in order to make it through the bottomless pits, sawblades and swamps to the next Star Fragment.

The left and right triggers choose blue and red polarity respectively, each colour attracting to magnets of the opposite colour, while the same colour repels. On top of knowing the colour sequence you need, you also have to aim Magbot’s magnet with the right stick, and time the button press as you pass the magnetic surface. It requires some split-second responses and mastery of the controls to reach the goal, and will no doubt lead to the game becoming a firm favourite of speed runners.

Each level is a single screen affair, with a few exceptions. For example, the first boss chases Magbot through a scrolling level, meaning you have to rely on your fingers doing what your brain tells you as the level reveals itself. At least on the standard levels you can glance at all the magnets and figure out a path to the goal, but these sections add a nice change of pace.

So, is Super Magbot for you? The answer really is down to what you want from a game. If you want a nice, relaxing puzzler, then probably not. The game is geared toward those who relish a challenge and won’t let the frustration of failing get to them. Levels are short enough to feel that one more go may just get you through to the next, and the reward of overcoming the challenge is immensely satisfying. Stick with it, and you’ll likely fall for its charms and challenge, but if you bounce of it without giving it a chance you’re missing out on a little gem.

 

9/10

Friday, 2 July 2021

Disgaea 6: Defiance of Destiny Review (Switch)

Just when you think you’ve cleared your Switch backlog here comes the next version of the everlasting time sink that is Disgaea. It’s pause for thought that someone out there may have spent a large portion of their waking life playing Disgaea games. 1, 4 and 5 are already available just on the Switch and multiple versions of all the games span all the way back to the series debut in 2003 on the PS2. It’s a testament to the quality of the series that such a niche genre has had consistent Western releases for so long. And we’ve played all of them.

This time the story focuses on a lowly but arrogant zombie named Zed who’s realm and way of life is threatened by an unnamed God of Destruction. However, Zed has the unique ability of Super Reincarnation which means not only that he cannot permanently die, but also that each time he does he comes back to life stronger. Naturally, Zed sets out across the Netherworld to defeat the menace and win the day. As stories go we found it to be solid but perhaps not as weirdly humorous as some of other games. (But then how can you beat a vampire that shouts SARDINES! As Prinny’s charge into battle).

It’s an intimidating series, but Disgaea 6 is the first game in the long running franchise to put in real allowances for newcomers with numerous things now in place to try and placate the ‘grind’. It’s impossible to go through every system without effectively creating a hundred point list but some of the more obvious thing include – experience being able to be shared with non-fighting characters, an adjustable cheat menu, auto-battling and game speed-up systems. But don’t let this put you hardcore Disgaea fans off because these new systems have actually been built into the makeup of the game with level caps being raised to 99999999 and the Dark Assembly and other options available to add twists onto just about everything.

The auto-battle system can also become like a meta game in itself. Much like games like Final Fantasy 12 you can programme your team with all sorts of detailed instructions meaning taking the time to properly prep your team will likely become an obsession for many players before they try and beat the levels from a more managerial setting.

The wealth of systems we have come to expect from Disgaea are all still here. So the lifting, geo symbols, team system, teams attacks and character creation systems remain. It looks like the occasionally seen system that allows monsters to be turned into weapons is absent though. The particular gimmick of this game (aside, from the speed up systems), is that of mounted units and large monsters. Mounted units have greater movement and combat reach and the oversized monsters are incredibly strong and can attack multiple panels at once. It’s an interesting dynamic to add to levels which can often feel condensed and cramped and certainly adds another level of both attacking and defensive strategy.

So far so good, but the problem is we really struggled to engage with Disgaea 6. It just seems a little off in places and it’s hard to really identify why. The most obvious aspect is perhaps the new 3D look of the game. We’ve always had an issue with the colours being used in Disgaea (geo panels especially), but the added detail to levels seem to serve to make them cluttered and it’s really difficult to see colour dependant objects on the map. At times we were even struggling to find the cursor. Non-colour-blind gamers out there may well feel differently about this of course. To us it just looks a bit too busy.

The other thing that stands out a bit is how strangely the characters move - especially in the base area. It just looks really odd. It’s like frames of animation are missing and when you jump it feels like Zed has no weight to him. The base area is also incredibly cramped together which obviously means less wandering around but also less grandeur and opportunity for flourishes in what should be your super evil lair. Again, it’s not a big thing but it just didn’t feel quite how Disgaea should.

Overall, the mechanics of Disgaea 6 are as strong as ever and all of the new additions are both welcome and integrated brilliantly. The story and overall visual design may not be quite as inspired or anarchically crazy as before but that is somewhat of a minor point. If you like Disgaea then here’s another time sink for you and if you’ve never played it before then this is a great place to start. Just because it’s not our favourite Disgaea ever (SARDINES!), doesn’t mean it’s still not better than almost every other strategy RPG out there. You’ve finished the other three Disgaea games on the Switch now anyway right D00D?

Overall 8/10