Book Review: Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the SNES Library


A few years ago, Pat Contri, aka Pat the NES Punk, released his Ultimate Guide to the NES Library book (2017). It is a compendium that reviews every game in the NES library. There aren't a lot of books dedicated to this kind of content, but retro gaming has been growing in popularity and more and more offerings have appeared in recent years.  Pat utilized a Kickstarter campaign for initial funding, and produced a quality book. I reviewed it here. It was positively received, and clamors for a follow up resulted. Like the first book, I backed it immediately as I am a fan of the first book. After two years, the new book is finally here.

The normal page layout

Like the first book, the authorship of the review articles is divided up among a staff of contributors. This is reasonable, given the length, number of games covered, and amount of detail provided in each review. Following the format of the NES guide, the SNES guide has more or less the same genre descriptions, rating system, page formatting, picture quality, and attention to detail. This is fine as it worked well in the previous book. Whether the game is good or bad, the review is justified by its thoroughness, with concrete examples provided. I find the reviews fairly objective, but not devoid of flair or personality. The page format is largely the same as before, providing at least four screen shots, the man review, a personal reflection, and game data.

Game information provided in the top corner

Bonus articles cover other related topics, like Super famicom, accessories, etc

In addition to individual game reviews, there are special articles from guest personalities that cover other items of interest and ephemera. Topics of these articles span accessories, regional differences, hardware, commentary on the era, and more. These are just as, if not more enjoyable to read as the reviews themselves. The book is the same size and heft of the first book, and the art direction of the two books work well when placed side by side.

The NES guide on the left, the SNES guide on the right

Hardcore fans of retro gaming are well aware of Pat the NES Punk, and other YouTubers in the same vein. Halfway through his YouTube career, Pat started the Completely Unnecessary Podcast, available through normal podcast aggregators and on YouTube. This new production took a more casual approach towards content generation, and you see Pat as himself, not acting out a script. This reduced his normal video output from the Punk character. The Ultimate Nintendo guide books are part of his diversification. It appears to me, that as anyone of them becomes more popular, the amount of unwarranted criticism starts to increase. All of the sudden what someone's hairstyle looks like or level of success become talking points. Pat makes no qualms about offering his opinions on his podcast, and why shouldn't he, it's his podcast? I have seem people post on social media as if they are offended by his position or stance on various topics. Whatever your opinion of of Pat may be, there is no question that this book is one of if not the best offering of its kind.

Guest entries are plentiful and welcome

The production quality is fantastic, the same as that of a college textbook. At $60, this is a no brainer for any fan of the Super Nintendo. It's perfect as a coffee table book and conversation piece, as well as a research tool for those wanting to dive into the Super Nintendo library. Highly recommended. Link to purchase here.





Arcade to Home Console Ports That Improved the Game


Arcade machines in the 80's and 90's were always superior to home consoles as far as graphical prowess, memory, sound design, and overall power. Games from the arcade were often ported to home consoles so concessions had to be made in order to get the arcade game running on an underpowered piece of hardware. Some developers would change the gameplay to better suit a lesser machine, for better or worse. Examples of games that were improved were:


Rygar

Rygar arcade was a simple action platformer. Using your disk armor, you traversed the terrain from left to right, dispatching various mythologically-inspired enemies. The action was fast, and deaths were plenty. Various weapon upgrades could be collected, but vanished if you died. It was a fun, yet repetitive quarter muncher.


In the NES version, Rygar can expand his abilities and use items to open up new areas

When ported to the NES, it took on RPG-like elements to extend the gameplay into an adventure game. Gone are the one-hit deaths, you now have a hit points. Your player's attack starts out fairly weak, but as you defeat more enemies and gain experience points you become more formidable. An overhead view acts as a hub between stages, and different items that you acquire open up more areas. Backtracking is necessary as the gameplay was not linear. This has now become somewhat of a cult classic among diehard NES enthusiasts.


1943

1943 is the sequel to 1942, and it was a vast improvement over its predecessor. It offered better graphics, better sound, a life bar, more weapon variety, and better gameplay in general. I played this over and over at the comic book shop in my hometown. I remember only being able to get to stage two before having to pump in another quarter. It was difficult, as managing your item pickups involved constant strategic planning. Both your life bar and special weapon time constantly deplete, so you have to make a split second decision on which to pick up when it appears. You also have to shoot the item drop to change it into the desired pickup, all the while dodging enemy fire and collisions. It made for a thoroughly hectic and engaging game.



When it was ported to the NES, the main gameplay elements were still in place, but a few additions were thrown in. As you progress through stages, a little tipi (not sure if that's what it is) icon sometimes appears. When you fly onto it you are taken to an upgrade screen, where you allocate an upgrade point to the attribute of your choosing. This is the first shoot'em up game that I can remember that has RPG-like upgrade elements. This increases the enjoyment of the game immensely, and gives the game a psuedo adventure feel. There is also a passcode so that you can pick up where you left off. This is nice, as there are 24 stages, and they are not necessarily short. The home port also adds a charge shot, by holding down the fire button. This delivers a powerful single shot, but the down side is that you cannot fire while charging and thus are vulnerable during this time period. I find it not to be worth the risk, and just crank up the turbo fire on my NES Advantage controller. Having turbo fire is the only way to last while playing this game. I regard it as one of the best on the console.


Contra

Contra in the arcade was graphical eye candy, but the gameplay was slow and cramped. This was due to the vertically oriented screen, which worked for most arcade games up to that point, but for a horizontally scrolling run'n gun game it was unideal. Bullets would travel at slow speeds, since there was a shorter length of screen from left to right, and to give the player enough space and time to react to them this was necessary. If the bullets travelled slowly, you couldn't really have players and enemies outrunning them, so the pace was much more deliberate, and somewhat sluggish. The jump animation was a flip, and a somewhat realistically-animated one at that. The stereo music and sound effects were grand, but they weren't enough to motivate players to stay.


The NES port of Contra immediately had a wider aspect ratio, as home TVs utilized the standard 4:3 ratio. This opened up the game speed, which vastly improved the sense of action. More stages were added to extend the game. Due to the wider real estate, two-player co-op felt more natural, and it was easier to see what was going on. Up until this game, two player co-op games on the NES were uninspired. This is the game that really set the bar for what co-op gameplay could and should be on a home console. The variety of weapons, the precision platforming, the colorful graphics and catchy soundtrack all contribute to one of the best games on the NES. The rigor of the arcade was kept intact, but with enough practice and memorization, you could eventually beat the game. You could also use the Konami code (30 lives), if you just wanted to power through without practice. For some, even 30 lives aren't enough.


Ninja Gaiden


The arcade version of Ninja Gaiden is a beat'em up game with some fairly detailed graphics for the time. The joystick had a small red button at the top, used to grip and hold onto environmental structures so that you could swing and flip. It may also be notable for its gruesome continue screens, threatening to cut open your protagonist with a saw blade if you don't continue. The fighting animation was neat as your combination of kicks and punches were seamless and fluid. My favorite move was flipping over an enemy and simultaneously grabbing him by the neck and throwing him upon landing. This would become necessary to learn if you wanted to survive for any length of time. Otherwise, it was a fairly standard brawler.


The cut scenes for the NES version fo Ninja Gaiden were ground breaking

The game was changed completely when ported to the NES. No longer is the game about beating up everyone you see, it now is an action platformer. You can scale walls by jumping back and forth between them, a skill that becomes refined as you progress. Your sprite has been reduced, and a sword is now your main attack. Weapons can be picked up, and rely on magic points for their use (like hearts in Castlevania). Enemies don't offer much of a challenge themselves, but their placement and movement is where the difficulty arises from. This game can get hard, as enemy respawn more frequently than in any other game that I've seen. The boss battles start out farily easy, but the difficult ramps up considerably in later levels. It is beatable, but memorization, precision platforming, and resource management are an absolute must. The game takes on a movie-like presentation with many cut scenes between stages to carry the plot. For the time of its release, it was an impressive feat. Despite its high level of difficulty, it is a fun game that is engaging, and more memorable than its arcade origin.


Bionic Commando

The Bionic Commando arcade game was a weird and half-baked platformer with ideas that didn't really come to fruition. Instead of a jump, your avatar is equipped with a bionic arm that reaches out like a grappling hook, and allows you to swing over objects and chasms. It was notable for being original, and against the norm. In the span of time that a quarter buys you, you'll likely still have not adjusted to the mechanics of the grappling arm. This does not motivate one to keep pressing on. More likely, you would have decided a different arcade game deserved your quarter. It was a neat idea, just not one suited for quick plays in an arcade game.


Capcom realized their mistake, and changed to tone of the game into an item-based adventure game. Weapon upgrades, increasing health bar, an overhead map, and cut scenes carrying the plot were all added to slow down the pace and make the game last. The demands of the grappling mechanic are gradually ramped up as you progress, giving you time to increase your skills. The slower pace and somewhat obtuse directives given by allies over wired communications require some thought and problem solving, contributing to its sense of adventure. Various items will be needed for progressions, upgraded weapons can be found, and your life bar can be increased by collecting "pills" that enemies drop. There is a map screen, on which you direct your transport helicopter. There are main stages under enemy control, and neutral zones where you can collect items and information. These neutral zones do not allow hostilities, so you cannot fire your weapon, even if it appears that an enemy is rushing towards you! Also on the map are enemy transports, and if your transport and an enemy transport cross paths, you will engage them in battle via overhead screen, a nod to the original commando. The benefit of battling through these is to pick up continues, as the game is long, and gets rather difficult near the end. The original Japanese version had the Nazis as the enemies, led by Hitler himself. When the game was localized, direct references to the Nazis were altered, except for the sprite of Hitler at the end. What an end it is.

So, those are five of the best examples of games that were improved upon porting to a home console that I have direct experience with. What are some other examples?


Review: XenoCrisis for the Sega Genesis



XenoCrisis is a new game released for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, as well as a few other consoles like the Dreamcast, Neo Geo (later), Switch, and Steam. It is a love letter to single screen run'n gun games like Smash TV and Robotron 2084, and is very heavily inspired by the 1986 Aliens movie. These are all good things. It is developed by British independent developer Bitmap Bureau, and was funded through a Kickstarter campaign. As soon as I saw the trailer for the campaign I backed it immediately. There were several options/tiers to back it, and I went for the physical cartridge for the Genesis.



To save us all time and cut to the chase, this game is awesome. It is everything that I hoped it would be and more. Let's start with graphics. The visuals they managed to squeeze out of the Genesis are amazing. Character sprites are detailed despite being smaller. They are expertly designed, well animated, and make the most of the available color palate. When watching the trailer, you forget that this game was made for the Genesis first, and ported to all others after.

While the game takes many visual themes and character inspirations from the Aliens movie, there are of course many original designs as well, all of which work seamlessly together. The enemies are varied, the bosses are unique and interesting, and the stage design fits the concept of the game, that is to shoot everything in a single room. The rooms are randomly generated for each stage, making each play through different from the last. Have you ever heard of a 16-bit game that has randomly generated stages? This definitely increases the replay value.

You land via drop ship, not unlike a certain 1986 movie 
The gameplay is fast and addictive. You must clear the rooms one at a time, and eventually battle a stage boss. You can play alone or with a player two cooperatively. You select which protagonist to play as, noting the advantages/disadvantages of each. The male marine can carry more ammo (yes you need to keep picking up more ammo) but is a tad slower. The female marine is more nimble but can't hold as much ammo. I prefer the male marine, as I tend to bump into things when moving too quickly.

There are two main control schemes, optimized for either a standard 3-button Genesis controller or a 6-button controller. The latter utilizes a button cross pattern for weapon firing up, left, down, and right, whereas the former strafes while holding the one fire button (normally I prefer a twin stick control scheme for a game like this, but that's obviously not possible on the Genesis). I'm split on which control layout I prefer, because I like the simplicity of one-button strafing, but changing direction of fire is not as fluid as the buttons for directional firing.


Your player can roll out of danger with a button press. I keep forgetting about this, but when used correctly, it can be fairly effective is helping to survive longer as you are invulnerable during the roll animation. Speaking about surviving, this game is a serious challenge. Even on easy mode, you really have to be on your toes as you have a certain amount of hits before you die, and three continues. If you continue, you respawn in the same place and time when you died. I had my ass handed to me the first couple of playthroughs, but things settle in once you pickup on enemy spawn patterns, movements, projectile arcs, and so on. Fortunately, medical kits can be picked up to restore hit points.

Your weapon is a standard pulse rifle, which has limited ammo. This is my major gripe with the game, and it is the primary source of stress for me when playing. Perhaps that is the point, to add to the challenge, but it is very against the norm for a game like this. Ammo will appear when your bullet count gets close to zero, but you have to constantly think about how to get to the ammo if its on the far side of the room. You do have a melee attack when you are out of ammo, but that is not too effective in a crowd.

Power ups appear randomly, which have unlimited ammo but are timed. These include rocket launchers, lasers, shotguns, homing shots, spread shot, flamethrower, and others. These vary from strong but short ranged to fast but weak. You also have grenades, which need to be thrown in a specific direction as opposed to a "screen-clearing" bomb. Some rooms have barrels which are explosive, and you can strategically lure enemies to that spot and blow up the barrel to help clear the room.


There will be dog tags dropped here and there which act as a currency for the in between stage shop. Here you can increase your life bars, shot power, buy continues, and other options. I find increasing weapon power to be the most helpful, as further on in the game, enemies require more hits to dispatch them.

You will find prisoners to rescue, and they are all named after initial backers on Kickstarter who backed at a certain level. The names are random, and I think this is a fantastic way of giving back to supporters. I'm afraid that if my name pops up, I'll rescue the prisoner too quickly!

There are cut scenes before the game and in between stages to flesh out the story line. 

The game has six levels, and it will take some practice to see them all. It's a fun challenge, and one of the best Genesis games that I've played in a long time. I will probably pick up the Switch version as well, so that I can play it with twin sticks on the pro controller of 8bitdo SNES30 Pro controller. You can also buy a rom copy of it to play on emulation or on a flashcart with original hardware. To increase the fun factor, play with a friend. This is one of those games where the gameplay experience is multiplied when in co-op mode. James Cameron would be proud. Highly recommended!

Disappointing Arcade To Home Console Ports


In the 80's and 90's, the arcades were a magical place where video games were unlike anything that you could play at home. Arcade games seemed larger than life. The bright visuals, the frenetic on-screen action, the energy and excitement of people beating a stage (of facing off head to head) were all part of a scene that is now all but extinct.

At the time, the graphics on an arcade machine were bigger and better, and sounds effects and music were superior. After a visit to an arcade, there was always a sense of a letdown when returning home to 8 and 16 bit consoles that just couldn't measure up. You wished and wished for home ports to live up to their arcade brethren, but it just couldn't happen. The struggle was real.

I had spent a lot of time in arcades growing up. In junior high school we would get dropped off at one, with five bucks and spend an entire evening there. There were several to choose from. Even in high school, arcades would eventually become part of the weekend. This gave me a wide breadth of games to sample, and I became pretty familiar with many if not most of the arcades released in the late 80's and early 90's. These are some of my favorites that became shells of their former selves once ported to home consoles.

Alien Syndrome Arcade
I loved Alien Syndrome in the arcade. The overhead running and gunning with a sci fi aesthetic appealed to me as the Aliens movie had just been released. There were some not-so-subtle nods to the alien design, but graphics were not exactly high definition back then so I guess there was room for interpretation. You (and a player two) are tasked with rescuing crew members on alien infested ships. Aliens vary from blobs to worms to humanoid aliens. To increase the pressure, there is a timebomb that counts down for some reason.

Master System port
The game was ported to Sega Master System, and the game was well, 8-bit. On paper, the game describes the same way, and the same gameplay elements are in place, but there is a lot lost in translation. Character sprite designs are simplified, movement animations are missing, weapons are less impressive, aliens are stiffer, and the sound is less ominous. At least two-player co-op was preserved, which was not necessarily a given.

Shinobi arcade
Shinobi was an instant classic when released. The side-scrolling run'n gun style game featured a ninja with unlimited shuriken (throwing stars) and ninja magic. The action was tight, and the character design top-notch. All sprite animations looked realistic, from your walking, jumping, and throwing, to the enemy idle animations. The ninja magic was useful in a pinch to clear the screen of enemies and projectiles, and also did respectable damage to bosses. The game had a pace about it that was hard to imitate. You never felt like the game was impossible, or moving too fast, but it definitely moved at a quick clip.  

Master System port
When it was released for the Master System, I had to have it. I spent a good chunk of my birthday money to buy it from Toys 'R Us. Again, the basics were present in this home port. The same characters were present, the same stage design and bosses, and even the music was the same. It was all the same, yet it was not the same. The game played sluggishly. It seemed that you could only throw one shuriken on screen at a time (compared to the arcade's near rapid-fire star throwing). The jumping from lower to upper level seemed like it taxed the console, as all else stopped just for the transition to take place. The home port did feature a life bar, which made it a little easier, but you were not automatically able to use ninja magic unless a certain number of basic enemies were defeated. This also meant that you could not use ninja magic during boss battles!

Double Dragon arcade
Double Dragon was the first arcade game that I really remember co-op play vastly improving the experience (this is true with nearly all beat' em up games, its just more fun to play with a friend). Almost everyone has played some version of Double Dragon. The first time I played it was at my local comic book store, which had one arcade in the center of the room, and it rotated out every six months or so. The game had some wonky hit detection, the sound effects were delayed, and thee was massive slowdown with too many enemies onscreen, but I loved the game regardless. It was brutally difficult, especially when more than one Abobo appears, but once you learn the elbow smash, the game becomes manageable. In what may be a first for beat'em up games, you can attack your partner. This seemed wild at the time, but it makes sense once you get to the end.

NES port
When the game was ported home to the NES, I went with my neighbor and his mom to Toys 'R Us to pick up a copy on release day. Once there, seeing the stacks of them in the cage, I begged my neighbor's mom to buy me a copy and I told her I would pay her back as soon as I could (I did pay her back, it took a month of lawn mowing). We popped that game into the NES, and tried to figure out how to get two players. Once we realized that it was not happening we were distraught, betrayed. How could a game titled "Double Dragon" not have two player co-op? Once we got over it, we started playing by switching off. We played it over and over. The sprites were simplified, almost squished. The characters resembled those from the arcade, but in a more cartoonish way, almost deformed but not super-deformed. The game mechanics were altered as well to adjust to two buttons instead of three. Not all moves were accessible from the start, you had to level up to gain access to those. Disappointingly, the elbow smash was nowhere near as effective as it was in the original arcade, nor was it as cool looking. I understood all of the concessions that were made to the game to get it to run on an 8-bit system, but the grave sin was removal of 2-player.

Robocop arcade
The 1987 film Robocop was a scrappy sci fi film that did better than anyone thought it would. It was a hard-R rated film, as it was definitely the most violent film I had ever seen. I was about ten when I convinced my dad to take me to see it, and I remember him wincing in the theater during the scene where Murphy is killed. Times were different back then, and movie ratings meant nothing as most parents would take you see nearly everything. Anyway, the Data East arcade game based on the movie is a masterpiece. The graphics captured the look and essence of the movie and the characters as well as any 1988 arcade game could. Robocop's iconic gun was your primary weapon, with its rate of fire and aesthetics all on par. There were sound clips from the movie woven into the gameplay, enriching the immersion. ED-209 is featured as well. The bonus stages consisted of firing range challenges, complete with the same green cursor as seen through Robocop's visor.

NES port
The game was ported to the NES, and well, it's just about one of the crappiest conversions I've ever seen. Robocop is seafoam green in color, and walks like he's a flat board. His punch animation looks like an underhand volleyball serve, and when he does fire his gun it is just a pea shooter. For some reason every other enemy is a dog. The music is just the title theme repeated on a short loop. It is too painful to play, and so I just pretended it didn't exist. It was such a waste of a license.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, as home ports of arcade games was as commonplace as movies coming home to VHS. What are some of your favorite arcade games that got butchered for home release?




Review: The Sega Genesis Mini


September 19th finally arrived and the Genesis Mini was released to much anticipation. In what is now a trend, the mini consoles of yesterday's technology are popular due to their strong nostalgia, and the fact that the kids who grew up with the original consoles are now gainfully employed with disposable incomes. Nintendo, Neo Geo, and Sony have entered the mini console market in recent years.
Prior to this release, Sega had licensed their back catalog to At Games, who have been making plug 'n play consoles for years. The difference is, those At Games systems were meant to be budget priced, end-cap fodder. The quality of the emulation and gameplay were less than good, and so they remained budget items. This recent release is Sega's effort in earnest, at producing a mini console that matches up to the standard set by the NES Classic Edition.

The controller is just as big as the console itself

First impressions of the hardware itself are strong. The detailing of the console, its nooks and crannies, movable switches, and controller are spot on. The power switch and reset button are functional. The cartridge flap opens, but it is purely aestheitc; there's no circuitry, and same for the cd expansion slot underneath. Still, the fact that Sega actually went ahead and added these accouterments shows the love that went into making this.


Upon powering on the unit, you are first asked to select a language, which can be toggled back and forth later as well. The menu screen pops up, and the 42 games available are selectable by a slightly twitch bracket icon. Games can be sorted by name, release date, genre, and number of players. The menu music is a seamless medley of melodies and motifs from the included games, arranged by the most famous of Sega Genesis composers, Yuzo Koshiro.

The gameplay emulation was programmed by industry-leader M2, and this is exactly what hardcore followers wanted to hear. Had Sega produced this console with At Games, the reception and anticipation would probably have been lukewarm at best. After putting the games through their paces, I think the emulation is fantastic. Nearly everything runs like original hardware, except for a few little issues. On some games, there is a sound effect delay. I did not notice this myself, it was pointed out in some YouTube videos. Also, a few games have slightly different video resolution that result in a shimmering effect as the screen scrolls. 

The transparency of the lighting in the bar stage in Streets of Rage 2 is not the same
The Genesis, like all retro systems, had certain tricks to pull off more impressive graphical feats back in the day. An example is the expansion of the color palate by altering the shades of brightness for each color. Another is the transparency trick, which is designed with CRT televisions in mind. Since this console outputs 720p HD resolution, the lack of certain tricks is apparent to those who remember them.


Like the mini consoles before it, save states are available, which actually improves the experience of some older games that take way too long to complete in a single sitting (Kid Chameleon, for example). To save, just hold the start button for 5 seconds and select a slot.

The Japanese Mega Drive game select screen
Another perk is the ability to play the rom from a different region. When selecting the language from the settings screen, you are also selecting the region for the game rom. While this seems superficial, it actually can change the gameplay experience. For example, the Japanese rom for Contra Hard Corps is a lot easier than the domestic version, since the Japanese rom allows three hit points per life, instead of instant one-hit kills.


Those boxes underneath shot type represent hit points you can take before dying
As far as Game selection, 42 games are included. Two of the games, Tetris and Darius, never saw release on any version of the Genesis. Tetris was Sega's arcade version, and Darius was ported from the ground up, based on Taito's arcade. Mega Man: The Wily Wars was available in North America only on the Sega Channel, which was a game download service in the 90's. Monster World IV was also unavailable in the west. The additions are great, and offer something new to longtime collectors.

The included retail games are generally good, with some standouts like Castlevania Bloodlines, Contra Hard Corps, Shinobi III, Streets of Rage 2, and Thunder Force III. There are expected games, which are found on nearly every Sega game compilation: Sonic The Hedgehog, Golden Axe, Vectorman, Columns, Altered Beast, etc. There are also missed opportunities. I was really hoping for MUSHA. Revenge of Shinobi, Thunder Force IV, Raiden Trad, and Gaiares. I understand that licensing fees can become prohibitive, but Sega owns the Thunder Force and Shinobi franchises. Instead we got clunkers like Alex Kidd, Eternal Champions, Virtua Fighter 2, Space Harrier II, and Sonic Spinball. In some way, including these marginal games dilutes the experience. Its true that you can't please everyone, but come on. At lease load up on your own best franchises and add the rest of the Streets of Rage, Phantasy Star, Golden Axe, and Thunder Force games.


Game selection aside, bonus points are earned by being compatible with RetroBit's excellent 6 button pad (officially licensed by Sega). It makes Street Fighter 2 Champion Edition playable. I know that many people are disappointed that the domestic release of the Genesis Mini does not come with the 6 button pads, and the Asian releases do, but keep in mind that the Asian 6 button pads are smaller, and different than the ones we are used to. I find Retrobit's offering to be excellent.

Overall, the Genesis Mini is great. It is just as good if not a tad better than the SNES Classic, in my opinion. It's perfect for those who want a simple way to play the classic Genesis games of yesteryear. Hardcore fans will still like it for its attention to detail. Get one while you can.

1989 and 2019