Wednesday 26 April 2023

Canon Dancer - Osman Review (Switch)


Strider has had several sequels over the years. There was Strider II, published by U.S. Gold which came out on a host of consoles and computers in 1990 and then Capcom itself released its own sequel (Strider 2), which was ported to the PS1 in 1999. Neither of these games are to be confused with the 2014 game Strider, which released across a host of digital platforms. Amongst all thess though is the true spiritual sequel to the iconic arcade game developed by the original director and released in arcades – Cannon Dancer, or Osman in the West. Sadly, this game never received a home release at the time. But now ININ games is here to bring it to modern platforms both digitally and in physical format.

Strider took its inspiration from the colder parts of the world and this design is flipped on it’s head in Cannon Dancer with a heavy Middle Eastern influence. The graphics are big, bold and colourful and full of rich reds and oranges and it certainly gives off that arcade vibe that games of the time were known for. The whole thing moves at a crazy speed as well and is much more fluid and smoother than even its inspiration.

Luckily, our hero is every bit as nimble as his more famous ninja friend with players able to launch the bell pants wearing Kirin all over the place with ease. You can also cling to and climb pretty much any surface which gives a huge range of movement once you have gotten used to how everything works.

Speed is the key to success with powering up Kirin’s attacks essential to survival. Once you have picked up a few powerups you’ll notice that when you attack, you’ll leave behind a shadow version of yourself which will stay in place and continue to strike for a few seconds before returning back to you. This is primarily how you take on bosses with players needing to dart into small spaces, leave a shadow and then dive out again so you can attack from safety. It’s difficult to master but a rewarding gameplay loop.

Unlike Strider, you’ll find the five stages almost impossible to clear with one credit. Even though your character is faster and more flexible, the levels are much more chaotic and unforgiving. This creates a strange set up as your special attacks are, in contrast, crazily powerful. You don’t have many buttons at your disposal (punch, jump and special), but pressing that special attack button pretty much obliterates everything on screen and even bosses are dealt a serious amount of damage. This does mean there is a temptation just to power through blasting the special button. Dying and then repeating.

Overall, cannon Dancer is a very welcome addition to the Switch arcade library. It’s also great that ININ have taken the game and given it a high enough profile to give it a physical release. However, the overall package could do with more content to really justify the price currently being asked. We had a whole collection of Turtles games for the same price so getting the Japanese and Western version of a single five level arcade game with few extras does seem a bit thin. That said, the game is really good fun so if you are a fan of Strider or arcade games in general then it is well worth a look.

Overall 7/10

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Monday 24 April 2023

GrimGrimoire OnceMore Review (Switch)

It’s been a long time since GrimGrimoire first appeared on the PS2. It was always seen as somewhat of a unique strategy curio and even now there is very little else out there like it. Imagine a sort of game of witchcraft-based tug of war set across a 2D, side on, plane and mixed with a touch of classic RTS’ such as Dune and you are kind of getting there.

GrimGrimoire always looked beautiful, and nothing has changed in this new version. Now in HD, the artwork and creatures look absolutely gorgeous. Individual creatures and elements of the levels are incredibly detailed and some of the best looking you’ll find. Unfortunately, the levels themselves remain somewhat bland throughout with the multi-tiered battlefields changing little from level to level aside from enemies and portal placements.

In terms of how the game operates it’s a fairly simple premise with a large amount of nuance and tinkering. It has some standard RTS elements – for instance you’ll start each round sending out creatures to gather magic from crystals much in the same way as you would have sent workers out to collect spice all those years ago in Dune. This can then be turned into different creatures or used to upgrade your portals. Portals are used to someone the various familiars under your control. These are created from runes which come in various flavours such as necromancy or glamour with each allowing different creatures to be summoned.

Once you’ve got your production line running it becomes a matter of building your defences around your portals while also sending out troops to take down your opponents. Most levels end by either holding out for a certain amount of time or eradicating your enemy and the key is working out which of your creatures are best suited to defeating your opponents. The tug of war as troops pile up together can often seem a bit like a war of attrition but the games rule set is consistent so once you understand how things work it does make sense. It’s also not the longest or toughest game of this type so non-veterans need not be too intimidated.

Something which was tricky back on the PS2 was how the game actually controlled. The lack of mouse input means you are using a controller to move the cursor around the screen in order to select things. There are shortcut combinations of buttons which allow you to select groups but the game never quite gets over its awkwardness in this respect. What is a shame is that no touch screen controls have been implanted in handheld mode which seemed like an ideal way to effectively remove the games biggest flaw. However, as unnatural as it can seem at times the controls rarely become a problem to a point that it massively effects what is happening on the battlefield and everything is manageable.

Overall, GrimGrimoire Once More remains a unique and original take on the genre. The side on view has rarely been replicated and it plays unlike pretty much anything else. We are glad that the time has been taken to bring it to a new console as it was cruelly overlooked on its PS2 release. If you are looking for something different or want to try a more original take on the RTS game then this is well worth getting into and it hasn’t aged at all since its original release.

Overall 7/10

Wednesday 19 April 2023

Commodore Amiga: A Visual Compendium Review

Written by Dan Gill

Bitmap Books have been prolific over the past few years, releasing gorgeous books that run the gamut of gaming. Anything from their collection would look great on the avid gamer’s coffee table, tempting you to have a peek at its lovingly collated artwork and gaming summaries. Having previously covered everything from RPGs to the art of game covers, the focus here shifts to possibly the biggest cult hero of computer gaming, the Commodore Amiga.

It’s easy to overlook the Amiga for those that were either raised on consoles or transitioned to them from the 8-bit computers such as the Spectrum or C64, but the Amiga was a big thing when it launched in the late 80s. With its dedicated custom chipsets to handle processing, graphics and audio (named Agnus, Denise and Paula), the Amiga was a huge step up from the C64, and it was a graphical and audio powerhouse. It was essentially an affordable and much more intuitive alternative to IBM compatible PCs of the time and bore similarities to Apple’s Mac of the era. As with most capable computers, developers – mostly bedroom coders from the early 80s – began working on the machine and legends were born. Without the Amiga the gaming landscape would be quite different today, Amiga: A Visual Compendium pays homage to the system with style.

The book opens with a foreword from Stoo Cambridge of Sensible Software and opens to a huge list of contributors from across the games industry. Soundbites from industry veterans, members of the demo scene, and even Andy Warhol accompany huge art spreads showcasing some of the Amiga’s best-looking titles. There are some interviews with developers and artists which offer an insight into how they worked with the hardware, offering an insight into how the tools allowed them to develop some classic games. While the focus is on the visuals of Amiga games, there are some features throughout that delve into the history of the brand, articles on developers and a look at the demo scene.

The focus is the art, and some 140 games are featured, ranging from stone cold classics such as The Secret of Monkey Island and Cannon Fodder, to deep cuts like Disposable Hero and Walker. The artwork is the focus and remains uncluttered bar a few quotes here and there. The inclusion of imagery from demos is also welcome as a reminder of the artists and coders that used to push the hardware to its limits. The book offers some a brief look into works by Scoopex, Angels and Lemon, and touches on the scene’s ties to game crackers – coders who would find ways around copy protection of Amiga games. It’s a welcome addition to the book, as it’s something integral to the Amiga’s success on two fronts: technical showcases from demos, and easily pirated games from crackers. Of course, your opinion as to whether easily obtainable games was a good thing depends on whether you were a developer or a kid with enough money to buy blank floppy disks, but that’s a conversation for another time.

All in all, there’s nothing bad I can say about this book. It’s as beautifully presented as you’d expect, and really scratches that nostalgic itch for those that were lucky enough to grow up during the Amiga’s heyday. From a personal point of view, I was reminded of some titles I’d read about but never played (not to mention a few vapourware titles) and has prompted me to seek out some games that have passed me by (and has led to me taking a serious look at the A500 Mini). This is essential reading for Amiga fans, retro gamers or fans of digital art in general.

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Monday 17 April 2023

Backbeat Review (Switch)

We’ve played a lot of rhythm action games in the past. Elite Beat Agents, Frequency, PaRappa the Rapper being some of the highpoints. We’ve also played action games such as Rez and P.N.03 but Backbeat is the first rhythm puzzle game we’ve come across.

The basic idea is that you (eventually), have four members of a funk band who need to be directed around objects and people to a goal area in locations such as video shops, malls and other such 90’s stalwarts. This all comes filtered through some soft and jazzy colours as well. Of course, things are never that easy and each new level adds another layer of depth and trickiness to deal with.

Each of the band mate move in a different way. The drums for instance, takes big strides, while the brass only moves a step at a time. The way the characters move creates a sort of flowing soundscape as they make their way around the levels. At points characters will be close to each other, at other points they will be moving solo or moving away, all the time mimicking the sound creation of a musical collaboration. When all the band have made it to the goal zone the level will replay showing all the members moving and playing together. Once a puzzle is finished there’s incentive to go back and try for a better score as well – though we often found we either tended to fail or complete levels in the top rank.

It all seems so simple to start but soon you’ll discover pedestrians walking their own routes that get in the way, barriers that need to be raised and lowered and even your own band mates getting in the way. All four band members move at the same time so you have to try and factor the four different ways of moving into your plan. Each character only has so many moves they can make and any crossover with other band mates stops them dead. There is a handy rewind button for each move but you’ll find most patterns have to be figured out from the start which can lead to some frustration when you get stuck on a particular level. Things such as a barrier coming down will also send you moving back and we did find it tricky to really grasp where every character was in each turn of their movement on later levels. But then that is sort of the point.

Overall, if you are up for the challenge there isn’t really anything else out there like this and when you do figure out a level you will feel like you have really worked to do it. There is a lot to deal with though so be prepared before going in. The general vibe of the game is also great with each level book ended with a gentle story. It’s innovative, fun and different and is well worth seeking out.

Overall 8/10

Monday 10 April 2023

Micro Mages Review (NES)

The indie revival has moved forward somewhat in recent years. For a long time, we have been reviewing games made to look like titles on classic systems. In the last few years though more and more indie titles are making the full jump and simply being developed and released on the original hardware. Micro Mages for the NES is one of the most high profile of these.

Micro Mages is a platformer where up to four players can help each other ascend a tower before existing the door at the top. Don’t worry though because it is perfectly playable on your own. Your little dude can jump and shoot and they also stick to walls. Some of the later levels require a few more advanced techniques such as a power jump (caused by fire a charged shot down while jumping), but it’s basically your starting skill set all the way through.

It can be tough as well as one hit kills and you aren’t exactly brimming with lives. More can be picked up along the way of course and you can also pick up a few items which protect against instant death. There are four worlds in total with a stand off against a large boss creature at the end of each. Once completed you unlock an advanced mode which remixes the levels enough to make it worth while playing through again so it will keep you occupied for a decent amount of time.

The biggest criticism is that your character and enemies are quite small on screen. It’s not such an issue on original hardware but if you are playing the rom on a handheld or the Evercade version it can be difficult to see what’s going on. That said, you are never in a position where things become impossible. 

The controls are wonderfully responsive as well and allow players to leap around the levels with the confidence that your character is going to respond in the way you think. This is handy as the game runs at an excellent pace and suffers none of the characteristic slow down or flicker often associated with NES games. 

Overall, Micro Mages is a welcome addition to the ‘original hardware’ indie scene. It’s one of the few games in this category that would have happily sat alongside the original systems releases. This new focus on simple but effective gameplay and the creativity that working with reduced memory is breeding is something we can get behind with Micro Mages being among the very best examples. If you’ve never tried any of these sorts of titles before this is certainly one to start with.

Overall 8/10

Monday 3 April 2023

Kraino Origins Review (Switch)

The releases of 8-bit styled platform games for new systems show no sign of abating with Kraino Origins the latest to join the ranks. A level based, action platformer it see’s you take control of a scythe wielding skeleton who must make his way across eight levels, defeating undead themed enemies and bosses along the way. 

Our initial impressions were that this reminded us a lot of indie darling Shovel Knight. The graphic style and look are very similar, especially the Spectre Knight story. Some of the mechanics are the same as well with players able to bounce off enemies by striking downward with the scythe and losing a percentage of gold when they die which hangs in the air waiting to be recollected. But in terms of actual level design and overall content this is more hardcore, and action based. 

It's not the longest of games with only eight levels to complete (and eight additional challenge levels), but each is fairly long and individual enough to stop repetition setting in. Levels include burning towns, sewers and an active volcano and continually introduce new obstacles and enemies to overcome. The stages are tough, but checkpoints are plentiful so most players will progress if they stick at it. Bosses are also a highlight with each starting out daunting but beatable once you learn their attack patterns. 

Controls are crisp and responsive, which is vital for a game as challenging as this, and each time you die you’ll learn something to better prepare you for the next time. There are also various upgrades to your health and magic weapons that you can find along your journey to help you out. One troupe we could have really done without though is the ‘fight all the bosses again in a row’ thing that most retro games of this type used to throw at you back on the NES. It was never good and when it reared its head in level 7 it was very much unwelcome. 

Overall, Kraino is a great looking, fun game that is worth checking out for people who can’t get enough of that retro aesthetic. It doesn’t really do anything new or innovative and it’s not as polished or epic as something like Shovel Knight but for a short platform adventure to play on the move it fits the Switch perfectly fine. There are also foundations here to build on as everything works well, it just needs a bit more of it and a few more new ideas. The developer is clearly one to keep an eye on though. 

Overall 7/10