Monday 25 September 2023

The Making of Karateka Review (Switch)

Digital Eclipse are known for their numerous retro collections and reworkings of classics and have been called upon again with this unique approach to presenting video game history. While there are games to played here this is really an interactive documentary and as such the focus is very much on research and content around that idea. It’s an interesting concept and if it takes off could provide a wealth of digital archive information for those that are interested.

There’s no getting away from the fact that this sort of thing is only appealing to a niche audience. Collections of games are one thing, but focusing on a single game relies on gamers not only wanting a more documentary like experience but also being specifically interested in that title. In that regard Karateka is a bold choice. It’s certainly a well-known game but we would argue it doesn’t have as wide an appeal as say IK+ or some of the other games of the time. Still, if you are a Karateka fan this is going to be perfect for you.

While the focus is on archives and information there are also games present here. There’s an exhaustive collection of different versions of Karateka on home computer formats (also, thanks as we now have working C64 emulation on the Switch), as well as a perfectly judged remaster. The remaster keeps the basic look and feel of the original but smooths out the scrolling and adds more colour and visual flair meaning fans will probably spend a fair amount of time with it.

Karateka itself remains remarkably playable. It’s a scrolling fighting game where you walk along the level then engage in one-on-one combat with a guard. When you defeat the guard, you can keep walking. You must be quick as the guards keep coming from the right-hand side of the screen, sent by the boss of each stage. Once you reach the boss you have a tough fight on your hands then it’s onto the next area which will add more obstacles such as birds to avoid while fighting. You have a range of attacks to use as well with high, middle and low kicks and punches which need to be used to counter your opponent so there is a decent amount of strategy involved in each fight.

There are also demos of prototypes included and another game from the development team, Deathbounce. Deathbounce, proves to be a bit of a hidden gem and something we found ourselves playing far more than Karateka itself weirdly. It’s a sort of asteroid clone but set in an enclosed arena. When each arena is cleared you move to the next with the gimmick being bullets bounce off walls and the need to ram the last boss in each stage to proceed. It’s really addictive and more people should play it.

This sort of concept was always going to live or die by its archive information, and we are happy to say you are getting just about everything you could possibly want to know about the game. There are interviews, concept drawings and documents galore and it is all presented in an easy-to-follow timeline format. As you look at each piece it ticks it off the timeline as well, so you’ll know what you have and haven’t look at. It is remarkable the number of hours that must have gone into putting all this together and it is a feat that should be commended. It is certainly something we’d love to see happen to more games as well.

Overall, how essential this is to you is really going to depend on your view of the game itself. If you are a fan or have a burning interest in retro gaming that this is pretty much essential as it’s difficult to see what else they could have done to improve things. But if the idea of multiple versions of Karateka doesn’t excite you then there isn’t going to be much here to change your mind.

Overall 8/10

Monday 18 September 2023

Trine 5: A Clockwork Conspiracy Review (Switch)

It’s no secret that we here at Retro 101 love Trine. We’ve covered the series on just about every format and the first two games provide some of the best platforming and puzzle action out there. The brief experiment in 3D that was the third game is fun enough but lightweight and the fourth game certainly had its moments but was dragged down by intrusive and restrictive combat based gauntlet sections. Trine 5 though, seems to be a real return to the core ideals of the series.

This time our three heroes are pitted against the treacherous Lady Sunny, who summons them for a celebration only to try and imprison them so she can take control of the land herself. The dastardly Sunny then starts spreading misinformation to discredit the heroes and make the people of the land believe they have turned rogue. Of course, it’s up to the good guys to stop all this and save the day.

Each Trine has always had its own unique set of enemies to battle and five is no different. With skeletons, goblins and magic wolves long vanquished, players now have the chance to bash clockwork knights who are under the control of Sunny. The mechanical menace is an interesting opponent and suitable imposing as most take several hits to down. It also allows for flying automatons and other quirky enemies to appear and harass the trio in a range of different ways.

The three heroes remain much the same. Zoya still fires arrows and swings around, Pontius is the Knight best suited for bashing things and the Wizard Amadeus fills the roll of object creator to solve the various puzzles. There’s the usual host of upgrades and additional skills that can be unlocked for each character as well with the process occurring through picking up magic potions within the levels and then turning them into experience points. It’s a system that always worked well so we are glad the developers haven’t tried to mess around with it too much.

The other thing that has remained the same is how absolutely gorgeous the game looks. Every Trine game is stunning but this one really seems to push the boundaries. Each area and stage are so full of colour and interesting design that it makes traversing through the various levels a real joy. Never will your Switch screenshot button be so overused than with this game.

It’s also very impressive that five games in the team are still finding creative puzzles to build. Trine 5 never feels over familiar and there are a few new additions, such as sections where only one character can be selected, that force the player to think in different and creative ways. You also must keep in mind that just because there is an intended way to complete a puzzle it doesn’t mean that creative players can’t figure out other solutions as well. There are also options which up the difficult of the puzzles and even change them if you are playing in co-op so that they require multiple characters working together to solve.

Overall, Trine 5 is as good a Trine game as there has been. It’s a remarkable testament to the series that is has barely changed but still manages to feel as fun and relevant as it ever did. It’s a game that will be equally liked by newcomers or those more familiar with the series. A few years ago, it seemed the Trine franchise was petering out, but this shows there is much more than can still be added into the mix. It seems inevitable now that we’ll get a Trine 6 and if it keeps up the quality it’ll be more than welcome when it arrives.

Overall 8/10

Monday 11 September 2023

Taito Milestones 2 Review (Switch)


Taito has one of the best catalogues of games in the industry, but the first Taito collection on the Switch was uncommonly stingy in terms of both content and its price point. Even though the days of the massive collections seen in the days of the PS2 are long gone there is still a balance that can be struck between offering players something decent and a company valuing its legacy. With that in mind we are pleased to say that Milestones 2 is much better in terms of the games selected.

Even in this collection of ten titles though there is some filler that will likely serve as little more than a curio to most. Dino Rex is a one-on-one fighting game in the mould of Primal Rage. That game itself isn’t the best and Dino Rex proves to be even more clunky. Solitary Fighter is another that falls into this category. A sort of better looking cross between Street Fighter and Pit Fighter, it’s not something that is strong enough to hold your attention for long.

Aside from these two games though the others all have some real merit. The NewZealand Story remains a classic arcade platformer that it’s worth playing through multiple times. The arcade version is tougher than the home releases, but the bright colours and responsive gameplay mean it’s easy to forgive its difficulty. It’s also full of iconic moments such as needing to be eaten by the whale boss to damage it – something many a gamer will remember fondly.

Metal Black is also on here and is an excellent side scrolling shoot’em up. It uses a unique dual beam power up system with players able to blast it out at set increments on an energy bar. It looks great and has all the mammoth bosses and waves of enemies you could want from the genre. At one point it was going to be an entry in the Darius series but was later turned into its own title.

Speaking of Darius, one of the big selling points of this collection is that the three screen Darius II is included here as an exclusive. It’s an amazing game and if you have access to a big screen, it will blow you away with the scale and the speed of the thing. Inevitably, three screens crammed onto the Switch in handheld mode does make things a bit small, but we still found it playable enough – especially on the OLED screen.

If you are still not convinced, you also get one of Taito’s best platform games on this collection in Liquid Kids. Like some of the others it is available separately but in our view it’s almost worth the asking price on its own. It will please many a Saturn owner who now doesn’t have to pay out the price of a small house to own a copy as well. In the game you control dog thing that chucks bubbles. These trap enemies which can then be bashed off screen. When enough bubbles build up it sends water surging around to clear away enemies and deal with basic puzzles. Imagine a sort of side scrolling Bubble Bobble.

Rounding out the package are four games that we would classify as ones you’ll likely dip into now and again. Kiki Kaikai is first in the Pocky & Rocky series and very tough but fun. In our view it’s probably the weakest of the series and Reshrined is also on the Switch so that would be the one to spend more time with. Gun Frontier is another Shoot’em up with the gimmick of needing to down the end of level boss with a single shot. Again, it’s fun but you’ll be too busy playing Darius II. The fairly well-known Legend of Kage is a platformer that works in short bursts but has no real lasting depth and Ben Nero Beh is a cool little single screen game where a fireman has to reach a damsel in distress avoiding fires and collapsing floors. You may well find yourself addicted to this for a while as once you get used to it there’s a lot of charm here.

Overall, Taito Milestones 2 is a much stronger and better value collection than the first one. There are at least three games here that are major selling points and the majority of the others are good fun and games you’ll likely return to multiple times. There is still room for improvement in terms of options and presentation but it’s all moving in the right direction. Retro fans should find more than enough here to keep them happy.

Overall 8/10

Monday 4 September 2023

Blasphemous II Review (switch)

 Written by Dan Gill

The Game Kitchen served up a gorgeous-yet-gruesome looking action-adventure in 2019’s original Blasphemous, a title with all the ingredients of a MetroidVania with the difficulty veering towards that of a Souls game. While it was a solid piece of work, it fell a little flat in some areas. The combat became a bit dull as the game went on, and the difficulty at times – especially during boss battles - felt cheap.

Blasphemous II picks up after the events of the first game’s Wounds of Eventide DLC, where the Penitent One is woken to prevent the rebirth of a curse called “The Miracle” which threatens Cvstodia. The introduction is beautifully animated and is the first indication that this is a step up from its predecessor. The game still takes its theme and visuals from Andalucian culture, Spanish architecture, the nation’s Holy Week and huge amounts of Roman Catholicism, and the creepy and surreal imagery from the original is built upon, but more on that later.

Once the player gains control, they’re presented with three weapon choices. This is the first major change to the original, where the only weapon available was the Mea Culpa. While the sword was able to be upgraded, the parry/dodge/attack routine remained throughout. This time combat is much more varied through the fast twin blades (Sarmiento and Cintella), the slow but heavy flail (Veridicto) and a balanced sword (Ruego Al Alba). The weapon you choose ultimately doesn’t matter, since you eventually claim all three during the game, but it will determine your initial progress, since each weapon’s abilities unlock certain areas. This makes progress feel more natural than in the original and feel more in line with other games in the genre. It also makes for more interesting combat. Each weapon has its own skill tree, giving the Penitent One more devastating attack combos and rewards for parrying. The variety offered goes a long way to showing how Blasphemous II betters the first game.

Other features return, such as the Fervour meter, which is depleted when using chants and prayers. Chants are lower cost powers, while prayers are more powerful and tend to deal out damage over a longer period. This can take the form of a trail of flames or a floating ball of miasma, but there are also prayers which offer other abilities, such as fast travel to the game’s hub. Alongside this you also have passive abilities which take the form of rosary beads. On top of that you now also have statues which can be equipped to offer additional buffs. These are found throughout Cvstodia or carved by the sculptor in the City of the Blessed Name (the game’s hub). There’s a lot to manage, but once you take the time to equip the Penitent One accordingly you can make the game a little easier for yourself.

Blasphemous II also retains the difficulty of the original, but the combination of items and weapons you can acquire provide some flexibility when tackling its grotesque enemies.  The Game Kitchen also seem to have adjusted encounters a little, especially regarding bosses. Blasphemous often felt unfair, with very little wriggle room during its bigger fights, but Blasphemous II somehow manages to keep the difficulty, but keeps everything fair. One boss took me multiple attempts to finish, and while initially seeming impossible, I could feel I did a little better on each attempt. The placing of Prie-Dieus (the game’s save points) is generous, and they’re normally close to boss battles meaning retrying isn’t quite the chore it could be (I’m looking at you Dark Souls). The battles range from screen-hogging monstrosities to bullet hell team-ups. They’re quite exhilarating, and there was much air punching and trash-talking (albeit to an empty room) during my playthrough.

It’s not all dishing out damage through. This is a MetroidVania, and exploration is key to progress. I found myself stumped at one point, but that was down to my man-looking at the map, leading me to miss a massive section. As mentioned, progress feels more natural than in the original, and it’s worth digging for secrets. NPCs are tucked away throughout Cvstodia which offer their own quests and/or items, and they add to the game’s lore. Blasphemous II is one of those games that you more you put in, the more you get back, and it’s grimdark world is a joy to explore. The game loop of uncovering those previously inaccessible nooks and crannies you’d expect of the genre is present here and keeps you coming back for more.

Everything looks as gorgeous as you’d expect. The silky-smooth animation, both in cut scenes and in game looks great, and the design of everything from the enemies to the backgrounds really captures that Catholic aesthetic. While nothing explicitly looks like the works of Heironymous Bosch, the design has that same feeling of his work; a surreal vision of hellish creatures and heavy religious imagery. Nothing else looks quite like it. It’s accompanied with a brilliant soundtrack filled with melancholic strings and classical guitars. The atmosphere is foreboding yet light enough as to not feel that it’s being laid on too thick.

There are a few minor gripes. The backtracking can become a little tiresome, especially as fast travel is initially restricted to specific portals, and resting at a Prie Deiu respawns any enemies you’ve defeated, leaving you trying to jump and slide your way past everything to get to where you want to go, but this is standard for the genre. There are also some sections where the camera misbehaves in the sense that it doesn’t know what it’s meant to focus on. These hiccups aren’t game breaking and seldom appear, but it’s noticeable.  This is something that’s likely to be addressed with a patch (and may even be fixed by the time you’re reading this), but really, I’m just nitpicking at this point.

The Game Kitchen stated that Blasphemous II was built from scratch without using any code from the first game, and it shows. They’ve crafted a MetroidVania with plenty of variety, a feasable challenge, a distinctive aesthetic and lots of depth. I came into the game expecting more of the same, and it seems they’ve kept the best bits and tightened up everything else, leaving something that stands among the genre’s finest. Why wait for Hollow Knight: Silksong when you can play possibly the best MetroidVania of the year right now?