Monday, 29 November 2021

A Gremlin in the Work Review

Recently, we looked at The Secret History of Mac Gaming which was a passion project dedicated to an often overlooked section of gaming history. A Gremlin in the Works follows hot on its heels and again falls very much into the passion project category. This time Mark James Hardisty has untaken the mammoth task of compiling over five hundred pages on one of the corner stones of the British gaming scene – Gremlin Graphics.

As always with Bitmap productions great attention is always spent on the covers. This one comes with a bright green cover adorned with the Gremlin logo that will be familiar to gamers of a certain age. It’s another example of a well-judged design intended to fire up nostalgic memories.

The content of the book is almost exclusively interviews with the key figures of the company and games. As a result it can be a little hard to get into. We would have ideally liked more of a mix of commentary on the games, historical writing and interviews but at least you know everything you are reading is coming first hand from the source. Think of it as a massively extended section of the team interviews you used to get in gaming mags of the time. It is a bit of a shame though when it comes to the games themselves as we would have loved even more screenshots and more context with regards to how the games have aged and the influence they have had – outside of the interviews about them.

But there’s no arguing that the interviews here are extensive, insightful and entertaining. The book presents first-hand accounts right from the start of the company as a computer shop all the way up to the much later Sumo Digital days. All of the major game releases are also well covered with insightful and interesting input from developers and programmers who worked on them. If you’ve ever wanted the inside scoop on ‘Thing on a Spring’ or even ‘Actua Soccer’ then look no further.

The other thing that really stands out is the connection Gremlin had to other historical events that where happening at the time. As the shop and company where based in Sheffield there’s some interesting commentary on the environment around the place during touchstone moments such as the miners strikes and the fact that this turn of events led to Monty Mole becoming a miner himself and Scargill being set up as the last boss of the game.

Overall, A Gremlin in the Works is a well-researched and detailed account of one of the most iconic companies in the micro-computer era told by those who were there. While it may not be as instantly accessible as the visual compendiums and box art table books it will be of interest to those who want to dig into the fine detail of gaming history. It’s commendable that someone has put this much effort into recording such an important time in the industry and as such it should be respected and recognised as the important document it is.


*picture from Bitmap Books.

Friday, 26 November 2021

Cotton 100% (Switch Review)

 

Written by Dan Gill

Ratalaika is on a mission at the moment. It seems the publisher is determined to bring a load of 16-bit era shooters to modern platforms, and this can only be a good thing, even if some of the games themselves aren’t exactly classics, it’s nice to have some sense of preservation. Their recent releases of Cotton titles are appreciated, being the series never had a widespread release back in the 90s, and copies of the original carts fetch silly money these days.

Cotton 100% is the second game in the series about the eponymous witch. A side scrolling shooter with some light RPG elements, the game’s design is very much of the Parodius and Pop ‘n Twinbee camp, favouring bright, fantasy themed levels and cute character designs over the usual sci-fi fare that normally defines the genre. It looks good, too. The bright backgrounds and characters offer a refreshing change from the futuristic theme of most SCHMUPs, and even though things can get busy on screen, the backdrop never causes things in the fore to be missed. When things get really busy on screen, there is noticeable slowdown sadly, and it’s a shame this couldn’t have been fixed in the port.

The gameplay itself is pretty standard, but enjoyable enough. Cotton earns power ups (the type can be changed by shooting it repeatedly), and experience is earned through destroying enemies. If you manage to avoid losing lives, this ends up making Cotton death on broom. As such, the game can feel a little easy compared to other examples of the genre, and the power up system is a little simple when compared with Parodius’ Gradius-aping approach.

Along with the original game, there are some modern improvements as you’d expect of almost any reissue these days (screen filters, cheats, rewind and the like), but as with Panorama Cotton there’s no English script. Each level is preceded by a brief anime style intro relaying the story with Japanese text. It’s a shame an English translation is missing, as it would elevate the game from a decent port to something that feels more like a labour of love.

As it stands, with the removal of the usual barriers of the cost of an original copy of the game (or the moral dilemma of venturing down the emulation route), this is still a welcome release. The game - while different to most in the broader shoot ‘em up genre – isn't one that stands out than others in its niche field of cutesy shooters. It’s an enjoyable, pretty romp through what I’m sure is a fun story, and is worth a look, just expect to be charmed rather than challenged.

7/10

Monday, 22 November 2021

Arcade Tycoon Review (Steam)

 

Written by Thomas Sharpe

During a hot summer, somewhere in Normandy, and in a water park I was electrocuted by a pinball machine. Amidst rickety flumes and gravel pathways that pricked your feet, an attendant shrugged this off stating to my parents that I should have been wearing Wellington boots. Perhaps this was some sort of Napoleonic call-back; that I was vulnerable without the plastic namesakes, or perhaps the attendant honestly did not care about health and safety that much. Either way, I was brought back, like Proust, to this moment in a quiet corner of France, by Arcade Tycoon.

Nostalgia is the name of the game with this title. It is a kind-hearted reminiscence of arcades of pop-culture. I have no such memories of the sort of arcades this game is trying to engage. These are the arcades of America, with John Hughes and ‘80s stuff. Kids leaning against cabinets and Space Invaders and those sit-down two-person Pac-Man tables with their bleary glass. What we get in Arcade Tycoon is this, with the game structure probably widely received as Theme Hospital, but I was far more reminded of violent pizzeria simulator Pizza Tycoon.

The game looks good, and obvious love has been poured by the small team into the cheerful aesthetics that you can populate your arcade. In a well-structured tutorial, you can get to grips with the basics (placing cabinets, managing power, hiring staff, upgrades, amenities, and so on) and then you’re let out into other locations, each with their own challenges. There are few surprises in the fundamentals; buy some cabinets and manage how much they cost; place down some vending machines to keep people refreshed; hire some staff to fix stuff, and a Roomba cleaning robot thing to funnel up trash. Customers come in, hang out, drop litter, play games, and give you their cash and feedback on what sucks and what un-sucks. Paint the walls, place up decals that sort of look like things from famous games, but don’t because copyright probably. I recommend the skeleton decorations.

This side of Arcade Tycoon is functional and mildly fun, but sadly, the surrounding management part (i.e., the Tycoon bit), I felt, was unbalanced and clunky. The user-interface is the first thing that got on my goat, as it looks the part, but is lacking in clarity and sense. From the way windows block others to symbols and organisation, it just felt a bit like an obstacle after a while. Further, there is a system of upgrading and unlocking new options for developing your arcade. You gain stars as a secondary currency by accepting and completing challenges that appear on a list, and these stars can be spent on upgrades. The upside of this is that the challenges can sometimes be fun and push you to do interesting things with your arcade. Other times, it requires you to undo your hard work and undermine your efforts. I can see the crazy appeal of this, and maybe I play far too much of much more po-faced serious management games, but I just didn’t want to work against myself to get much needed upgrades.

Despite there being a vast array of assets, the visual style is busy. Be prepared for your eyes to be bombarded with authentically jarring art. Personally, I liked it, but I do think there could be a few more types of customers. Feels like the clone farm sometimes.

I really wanted to like this more than I did, as I believe it is created from a fun and cheerful place, but the management aspects were all over the shop. The world, however much it is somewhere I’d like to spend more time in, reflects little sense back out to me, and so I got little from it to scratch a fun-casual management game itch.


Overall 5/10

Friday, 19 November 2021

The Secret History of Mac Gaming: Expanded Edition Review

Bitmap books has done a wonderful job of presenting some beautifully laid out books that show off the look and feel of gaming systems from years gone by and act as quick injections of nostalgia. The Secret History of Mac Gaming is different to the bulk of their output in that this is a much more in-depth and less picture heavy insight into a world that we dare say many gamers will have little to no knowledge of (including ourselves). It’s a good thing then that this hefty hardback can back up the promise of its premise with well researched and fascinating writing from author Richard Moss.

Before we get into that, we should stop to admire the stunning cover design of the book. In all its glory we have an early Apple Mac computer displayed in the same graphical style as the first Apple Mac OS screen displays. Despite never owning one (and rarely playing one), the computer that emerges from the dot based art conjures instant nostalgia and we just knew after seeing the care that has been taken with it that the rest of the book would meet a similar level of quality.

It’s worth noting though that this book really is more of a serious and in-depth look at a key company and time in video game history. It’s not the sort of book that can be just flicked through like so many other of the company’s releases. This really requires sitting and reading for a decent period of time in order to get the most out of it. That’s not particularly difficult though as the stories and interviews within are really well handled which means it remains consistently interesting throughout its four hundred and eighty plus pages.

For those wanting to dive into specific sections of the story there is a very clear layout and chapter separation so that is still very much possible. But most of the bulk of this book is text with only a few screenshots used to highlight certain games being spoken about so you’ll need to read a whole chapter at a time to make much sense of it.

The book is a treasure trove of information though. Our personal favourite of which is the chapter based around Apple’s attempt to break into the console market with Bandai after creating the Pippin. We’ll admit that we had never even heard of this and the story of the chaos and different approaches the two companies had to this is a great insight into the industry at the time. It’s something that is often overlooked in the wider retro gaming community so having a spotlight placed on it here is most welcome and will hopefully get readers looking into more obscure and forgotten systems out there which can only be a good thing.

Overall, Author Richard Moss has done a brilliant job in turning a real passion project, which he clearly holds dear, into something that is both informative and interesting to read. This book is perhaps aimed at a bit more of a niche audience than many of Bitmap Books releases but for anyone who remembers the Apple as a gaming machine or is interested in the history of video games and game development this is an absolutely essential read.

 

*picture from Bitmap Books website

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Panorama Cotton (Switch Review)

 

“Welcome to the fantasy zone. Get ready!” will elicit fond memories from many gamers from the mid to late 80s. Space Harrier was a refreshing take on the shoot-em-up genre back in 1985, and its port from arcade to home computer and console only bolstered its popularity. While the rail shooter enjoyed some popularity past the Yu Suzuki classic, it often felt like the genre was a bit gimmicky during the 16-bit era. The true sense of speeding towards the horizon was restricted by the hardware running the game - at least until the true 3D era of gaming came about. Panorama Cotton sits in this overlap of generations and suffers because of it.

The third game in the “cute-em-up" Cotton series, you control the eponymous Cotton, a witch on a broomstick whose aim is to get rid of all the burnt willow in the kingdom, as it’s believed this is causing Queen Velvet to behave erratically. Unfortunately, none of this comes across in Ratalaika’s port, as there’s no English translation of the script. This is most surprising, given their solid port of Gley Lancer.

The game itself is standard on rails fare, and hasn’t aged particularly well. To be fair to Panorama Cotton, not many rail shooters from the era do fare well, but being this was released a year after the SNES classic StarFox/Starwing, it was a step back, even then. It stands out from others by having branching paths throughout levels, which is a nice touch, and there are some really nice graphical flourishes here and there (in the first level Cotton heads over the cliff and through a waterfall, which is fairly effective for the then aging Mega Drive), but otherwise it’s much like Space Harrier or Afterburner II – a horizon and some rocks hurtling towards you.

Things get busy on screen throughout, and at some points there’s noticeable slowdown. Power ups can get lost among the chaos, and it’s often tough to see what you’re picking up. You can change what benefit a pick up provides by shooting it, so it’s often a case of blasting away and hoping for the best.

As with many ports, there are some tweaks here and there (rewind mode, save states, cheats) alongside the original game, which is always appreciated. This is also the cheapest way to buy the game too, as the original MD release apparently only had 4000 copies printed, so you’re saving at least £500 going by today’s eBay prices. The lack of an English script translation is a little disappointing, and the game is a product of its time, but if you like your curios this may be worth picking up. However, if you’re more interested in gameplay there are better rail shooters out there to spend your money on.

5/10

Monday, 15 November 2021

Mega Cat Studio Collection 2 Review (Evercade)

 

The first Mega Cat collection was excellent. A real surprise, the collection of new games developed for retro systems had a selection of the Evercade handhelds best games on it with the real standout being the Strider inspired Tanzer. As such, this second collection of eight games has a lot to live up to.

It doesn’t get off to the best start with the first thing you see when you open the box being a leaflet letting you know that Roniu’s Tale wasn’t finished in time for the collection and will be patched in later via a system update. This is annoying as it’s exactly the kind of thing that the Evercade is meant to be avoiding. It’s also a shame as the few levels of the game that are included here in an extended demo show signs of it being a pretty good puzzle/maze style game.

Puzzle games, mostly with platform elements, form the real basis for this second collection. There is one pure platformer here in Devwill Too though. It’s ok but somewhat uninspired. The between level comic scenes are nice but the game repeats assets too much and just feels average all round. Still, at least it’s quite short.

The trio of puzzle platformers fair a lot better. Alter Ego is an excellent game where you have to control two versions of a character at once with you movement being mirrored. The key is to swapping back and forth to the ‘active’ version of your character at the right time in order to avoid traps and monsters. Some creatures and traps will kill your active dude while others will kill your non-active one so it’s a constant test of reflexes throughout and certainly a game we’d like to see more of in the future.

Gluf, is also an excellent game which puts a twist on the ‘paint all the blocks’ genre. Here you have to charge yourself up on a battery block then move over tiles to change their colour. If you run out of charge you have to go back to the block and charge up again. This starts out simple enough but once you get platforms involved which can only be stepped on a certain number of times it makes you really stop and plan a route around the levels. Yazzie follows a similar style but here you are collecting gold bars and need to consider how to use pick axes to remove blocks. There is also a bug in one of the later levels which make sit impassable so you’ll need a code in order to complete the game. This aside though, it’s also great fun and something well worth playing through.

The puzzling continues with Romeow and Julicat which is a cross between Tetris and Pipemania. Here you have a board where Tetris shapes need to be placed. The idea is you need to complete a certain amount of placements in order to complete the level. On later levels these can reach into the hundreds so the challenge comes in placing shape so that they form lines and disappear. This then means there is room to put more down. If you run out of space it’s game over. We would have liked the levels to be a bit shorter as it can be quite a slow game but it works well enough and you can always use the save states to take a break.

Misplaced, is another inventive attempt at a puzzle game. Here you view a single screen level from above and have to kind of draw lines and shapes with your character. Once you have done this the idea is to match the line up so it then reaches another part of the floating levels. Your character can then walk along the line to the new location. While doing this you also need to collect gems and avoid enemies. Sometimes the floor falls away as well just for extra peril. Again, it’s not quite perfect but works well enough as a fun distraction.

The one game here that stands out as being different from the rest is Arkagis Revolution. This is a top down maze blaster where you control a ship sent out on missions to blast stuff. It’s probably the most high profile game on the cart and it’s pretty solid. The gimmick with it is you can rotate the ship through 360 degrees as you zoom around in a sort of mode 7 style way. We would suggest playing around with the control settings as much as you can because the thing plays a whole lot better if you can get as much of the rotating on the Evercade shoulder buttons as possible. It can get a bit samey and you feel like you can’t quite see enough of the screen but its solid blasting action and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Overall, the second Mega Cat Studio collection is pretty solid overall. It lacks a bit of the variety of the first cart and there’s nothing here as spectacular as Tanzer (but what is), but there is still more than enough here to justify the price tag. The lack of a complete Roniu’s Tale can’t be overlooked but we are hopeful that this will be addressed soon and the game itself seems decent. The three puzzle platformers and Arkagis Revolution are all great fun and the other games provide a good enough distraction. If Mega Cat Studios keeps up this level of quality we’ll be more than happy to have more carts from them in the future.

 

Alter Ego                                         4/5

Arkagis Revolution                        4/5

Devwill Too                                     2/5

Gluf                                                  4/5

Misplaced                                       3/5

Romeow and Julicat                      3/5

Roniu’s Tale                                    no score

Yazzie                                              4/5

Monday, 8 November 2021

Spelunky Review (Switch)

Spelunky has been around for quite a while in one form or another and it proved to be a decent move when it arrived on Xbox Live Arcade some time ago. It’s taken a while, but now the rock hard exploration game has made its way to the Switch
and shows it’s just as addictive now as it’s always been.

The game has a very simple premise. You need to guide your explorer deeper and deeper into a cave while collecting treasure. The twist comes when you realise that each time you enter the cave the levels generate randomly. This means you never know what obstacles you are going to come up against. Unlike most games with randomly generated levels, here it actually works.

Starting in the cave world, every four levels completed will see you move onto new areas with new hazards and enemies. These include jungles, ice caves, temples and a host of secret areas such as hell itself. Each area also has random events that can occur such as the dead rising from the grave or large areas of open water. This helps keep things varied and fresh as you continually die and have to re-negotiate the levels.

While moving from one area to the next you will also come across the tunnel man. Meeting him three times and giving up the equipment or money he asks for will see a short cut opened to that area of the cave. This helps to ease the frustration of having to make your way through levels you have already beaten but comes at the cost of having your run not admissible to the score board. 

To start with Spelunky can be a frustrating and unforgiving game but the more you play the more it will get its hooks into you. It takes time but eventually you will learn to take obstacles one at a time and become ever more cautious as you delve deeper and deeper. To help you in your quest you have a number of different items at your disposal. 

You start out with ropes which can be fired to create safe routes to climb up and down and bombs which to clear path ways. There are a whole host of other objects available as well. Things such as jetpacks, climbing gloves and freeze guns can be purchases from shop keepers in exchange for the gold and gems you’ve found. Placement is random so you’re never quite sure what you are going to get.

As you get more and more used to the way you have to approach the game you’ll soon find yourself racing through the levels but it never becomes easy. You are always only one slip away from death and even the most experienced of adventurers can be easily caught out with a miss timed jump or careless fall. Some of our attempts lasted only a few seconds before death while others became slow and careful pursuits as we tried to get the last item needed to the tunnel man to open a shortcut. It all adds to the fun and Spelunky is tactile enough to be played with whichever approach you wish.

Overall, while it’s fair to say that Spelunky isn’t for the feint hearted it is undeniably an excellent game. Gamers who are like the ‘Rogue-like’ format will be in exploration heaven here. The ability to play on the Vita is also a match made in heaven (though graphics can be a little small at times). If you’re up for a tough and rewarding platformer then Spelunky is the game for you. Even against tough competition it’s clear it’s a cut above other games of its type.

Overall 9/10

Monday, 1 November 2021

Gleylancer Review (Switch)

 

Written by Dan Gill

Shoot ‘em ups were ten-a-penny on Sega’s 16-bit powerhouse; Zero Wing, Steel Empire, Hellfire, Gynoug, Thunderforce, I could go on. Some are remembered as being the finest of their genre (Thunderforce IV, take a bow), while some live on as memes (I’m looking at you Zero Wing). Some titles slipped through the net, and never really received the recognition they deserved. This is where Gleylancer sits.

Gleylancer originally only released in Japan, but eventually made it to western audiences via the Wii’s Virtual Console service. When it was originally released in 1992 it was met with mixed reviews (and was even slated on its Wii release by some), but upon playing it it’s hard to see why. It looks similar to Thunderforce IV, has some lovely anime style cutscenes, and plays well. Perhaps it was a sign of the times where it was another shooter in a sea of many, but now with this Switch port it’s pitched at a tempting price point for fans of the genre.

The story – as told through the game’s lovely cutscenes – details teenage star fighter pilot Lucia’s quest to fight through an alien race’s defences in order to rescue her father, who happens to be a high-ranking admiral in the Federation navy.  While the story isn’t all that important in a game like this, the presentation is great, and it’s nice to have the action broken up with a bit of context. However, if you’re just looking to blow stuff up you can skip the story.

The basic gameplay of Gleylancer is much the same as in any other shooter; blast enemies, dodge bullets and objects. Upon starting a new game, you get to choose your “mover system” (think R-Type's “bits”). You can have the support craft shoot in the direction you’re moving, shoot in the reverse direction, lock on to enemies and so on. The configuration you choose remains with you throughout the game.

Once you start the first level you’re met with an assault of parallax scrolling asteroids in the background, something else that brings to mind TFIV, but it’s initially off-putting. Enemies and bullets can be hard to spot, and later in the level you’ll need to avoid debris that can’t be destroyed. The initial experience isn’t particularly pleasant, especially if you’re playing in handheld mode. However, once you get past level one, things are a lot clearer, and it’s easier to focus on the action.

The game offers the usual fare; blast smaller ships, battle a boss at the end of each level. There are sections however which focus on dodging and manoeuvring through tight sections in levels, meaning you’ll release your grip on the fire button every now and then. This adds a bit of variety, and some tense moments as you squeeze the Gleylancer through the narrowest of gaps.

The game offers a decent challenge, but is still easier than some of its contemporaries, and would come with a recommendation even if it was just the ROM dumped onto the eShop. Thankfully, developer NCS has put in the effort you’d expect of M2. The original game is presented in all its 16-bit glory, with the features and original translation intact. On top of this they’ve added a version of the game with modern conveniences such as a rewind function, various display options, a new script translation, save states, and perhaps most importantly of all, the ability to switch between “movers” on the fly. These updates make the game far more accessible to the modern gamer, and there’s even a cheat mode available.

So, a triumph of a port, then. There’s enough here for genre fans to sink their teeth into, and the game is accessible enough for those wanting to dip their toe into the often-tough world of SCHMUPs. Hopefully there’ll be enough interest here to encourage Ratalaika to publish more shooters from the Mega Drive that haven’t already made their way to modern consoles. I for one would love to see Gynoug receive the same treatment that Gleylancer has, but for now I’m quite happy to jump back into the Gleylancer to rescue Lucia’s father again.

 

9/10