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

Top Ten Genesis Two-Player Cooperative Games

The Sega Genesis mini is due to come out in a few weeks, and I can't wait to see one of my favorite console replicated in miniature form. I love that it is coming with two controllers, so we can hit the couch co-op right away. In the spirit of the event, I thought I'd conjure up my top ten Genesis co-op games.

Contra Hard Corps
This game is chock full of explosions

The only Contra offering on the Genesis is also one of the most hectic and difficult. The graphic design, the music, and the frame rate are all examples of the hardware's capabilities at its best, and it is a console exclusive. There are four different protagonists to choose from, each with unique weapons and abilities. New to the series are branching paths, building in more replay value, as if the character-building difficulty didn't already do that. Grab a player two, because the you'll need all the help you can get. This would have been rated higher, if not for its crushing difficulty. Incidentally, the Japanese import version of the game gives three hit points per life, greatly reducing the frustration and making the game tremendously easier.

Forgotten Worlds
Wearing jetpacks means its too hot to wear shirts

An early Capcom arcade conversion, Forgotten Worlds is a shoot' em up of the flying humanoid variety. The two players operate similarly despite being different colors. You rotate your player to shoot in all directions, and flay all over with a jet pack. Defeated enemies drop currency which can be used to purchase power ups in the shops that sporadically appear, ala Fantasy Zone. Weapon upgrades are a must, as well as body armor and life-restoring elixirs (you have hit points instead of lives). The difficulty is high, but manageable once you remember the enemy patterns. Also, the voice acting is incredible*.

Captain America and the Avengers

Pick between Captain America, The Vision, Iron Man, and Hawkeye and take on The Mandarin and his cronies in this wild quarter-munching beat'em up. Each player has their own dedicated moves, like Iron Man's repulsor beam, Cap's shield throw, Hawkeye's arrows, and Vision's laser beam. As cool as those sound, they are nominal in effectiveness, and you may just end up mashing away at the attack button. There is some stage variety in the flying shoot'em up stages, which is unusual for a beat'em up. It's a difficult, but manageable game, made easier with help from a friend. The voice sample clips are bad in a good way. The Genesis port is much more agreeable than the nearly impossible SNES port.

The Punisher

An edgy beat' em up, play as either the Punisher or Nick Fury and you punch and blast your way through an urban war zone. Anyone who has read the Punisher comics knows that he doles most of his punishment from the barrel of a gun. Even though the gameplay is mostly fisticuffs, there are plenty of opportunities to pick up guns and blast away. The arcade versions is better, as to be expected, but the Genesis rendition is no slouch.

Sunset Riders

This western-themed run'n gun evokes the ethos of Contra, and as such, is just as fun. Ported from the arcade, it is often compared against its counterpart on the SNES. You have the choice of two players, which carry different weapons (single shooter vs. shotgun). The action is quick, and boss fights are challenging, but not so challenging as Hard Corps. The game boasts plenty of humor, a great soundtrack, and great control. It's definitely one of the most fun co-op games for the Genesis.

Gunstar Heroes

One of the most heralded games on the Genesis needs no introduction. Game developer Treasure's first outing is arguably their finest. The level of on-screen action is on par with Contra Hard Corps, as explosions, enemy sprites, and bullets litter the screen. The humor embedded in enemy behavior is palpable. You have a life meter, which is pretty forgiving, and thus easier for newcomers to pick up and play. You can throw your partner across the screen to wipe out enemies, without taking damage. The weapons can be combined for a myriad of options, and your firing stance can be set to fixed-in-place or free moving. Also, it's loaded with charm. It's simply one of the best games for the system, let alone for two-player.

Gain Ground

A surprise entry on this list, Gain Ground is very much under the radar when it comes to Sega classics. Originally an arcade game, it was ported very faithfully to the Genesis. Part a run'n gun game, part strategy, this game requires on the fly decision making as well as quick reflexes. The story is absurd, essentially you need to get from point A to point B on a single screen. The sheer variety in this game is immense, from the available protagonists, weapon types, enemies, stage designs, and bosses. Co-op play brings the fun factor to new levels as the two of you try to figure out how to accomplish the seemingly simple task of crossing the screen.

Golden Axe

When Sega observed the success the Double Dragon was having in the arcades, they wanted their own brawler that people lined up to play. Changing the theme and setting so as to not appear as a direct copy, they produced Golden Axe, which I feel is the superior game. Character inspirations are clearly drawn from the Conan the Barbarian franchise. At the time there was no other game like it. Kleptomaniac dwarves, rideable beasts, magic spells, dash attacks, and a fantastic soundtrack are all part of the package.

TMNT Hyperstone Heist
TMNT Hyperstone heist is often overlooked relative to its SNES rival, TMNT IV: Turtles in Time. It's true the games are very similar, but the Genesis outing has enough differences to make it less a port and more its own game. It sports some of the best hit detection and pacing on the system. The voice samples do suffer a bit, but that's the only issue I find with the game. Grab some pizza and get ready to kick some shell.

Streets of Rage 2
What Final Fight? The premier first-party series on the Genesis peaked with this second entry. SOR2 offers variety in four selectable characters, each with strengths and weaknesses. Attack combos are now present that increase the satisfaction in dispatching thugs. The gameplay is balanced and fair, and the time flies when playing with a partner. The soundtrack is perhaps one of if not the best on the Genesis. This is a shining example of what can be done with the Genesis sound chip if programmed by the right people. If you have never played this game, you don't know what the Genesis is capable of.

So all in, the best two-player co-op games seem to fall into the vein of beat'em ups and run'n gun games, in my opinion. There are a bevy of sports titles that I left out, as those are primarily versus games, with head to head gameplay. I was surprised when I realized that although the Genesis is known for its quality shoot'em ups, almost all of the good ones are single player only! I'm sure I left off a bunch that others would argue belong on this list, but hey, it's my list.

In conclusion, if you like playing couch co-op, check these out. You won't be disappointed.

Blast-16 (the almost front end for Sega's forthcoming Genesis/Mega Drive Mini)

Ever since Sega announced their plans for a Genesis/Mega Drive Mini, fans have been eagerly anticipating its arrival. I posted about what games I would have included here. The unit was originally to be developed by notorious retro-butcherers At Games, a decision that received universal derision. Hearing how the fans reacted, Sega immediately reversed course and fired At Games. To our immense joy, it was later confirmed that renowned retro masterminds M2 would handle the port duties. With that great news, we just have to wait to see how it all comes together on September 19th.

The final list of all 42 games to be included was released, and naturally, you can't please everybody, myself included. I am particularly disappointed in the exclusion of MUSHA, Thunder Force IV,  and Revenge of Shinobi on the North American version. There are also some questionable inclusions, like Virtua Fighter 2, Space Harrier 2, and Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle. We normally assume these mini consoles will be hacked in time, and the ability to add more games is inevitable. This was the case with all of the mini consoles that came before. Something about this one feels different, as I have very high regard for the skill set of the programmers at M2, and I'm not so sure their work will be as simple to crack open. Maybe I'm wrong, time will tell.

32X and Sega CD games are playable

Recently is was discovered that an independent developer has created a frontend for the Raspberry Pi in the spirit of the Genesis mini, called "Blast 16". Rumor has it that it was submitted to Sega, and they really loved it, however due to time constraints they had to turn it down as their own production was was nearing completion. Whatever the case may be, it's presentation, menu, and simplicity channel Nintendo's interfaces on their recent classic consoles, which is a good thing. The average user is not a hardened emulation expert, so a simple, intuitive interface is welcome.

This image allows for playing games for Genesis/Mega Drive, Sega CD, 32X, Master System, and Game Gear. This is clearly a Sega-centric concept, as Nintendo already has a stellar Mini-lineup.

For those who want to try their hand at creating their own Genesis mini, this is perhaps the simplest Raspberry Pi install that I have ever seen. The website had the image available for download, as well as other extras like a thorough instruction manual, boxart and downloads. Really, its an easy install, just follow the instructions.

To help make the experience match the spirit of a Sega Genesis, the Retroflag MegaPi case is a perfect match to house your Raspberry Pi, so much so that the author of the program included their script for the safe shutdown and reset buttons on the case. Other accoutrements are the officially branded Retrobit USB Sega Genesis controllers. These are identical in build quality to Sega's original controllers, and updated with extra buttons for increased compatibility.

I have an original model-1 Sega Genesis, with RGB scart cable through an OSSC, Mega Everdrive X7, as well as Analogue's Mega SG. Even with having those superior options, there is a one primary reason why this Blast-16 build appeals to me: Visual save states. I absolutely love the ability to save a game at any point, and return to the game later and see a snapshot of where I was in the game. To me, it is the supreme convenience.

Four save slots are available per game 

Other features of note include customizable emulation settings, regions settings, the ability to delete games from the menu, and much more. I know that Retropie offers options by the truck load, but they can be somewhat nonintuitive to access for most. I find Blast-16 to have the perfect balance of options and simplicity.

The gameplay is emulation standard, with the option of Genesis Plus GX or Picodrive as provided cores. These of course allow for 32X and Sega CD gameplay, further adding to the appeal. The 32X ports of After Burner II and Space Harrier are arcade perfect, in my opinion, and must adds.

As far as emulation settings go, I recommend the integer scaling turned on, as it will prevent the "shimmering" of graphics when the screen scrolls, providing cleaner visuals. This is more noticeable is some games compared to others, but it generally looks better with the integer scale turned on. Autoload will have you pick up right where you left off when you select a game. The TV filter softens the picture to represent an old CRT. I personally am a fan of scanlines, so I have mine turned on.

This build is so aesthetically appealing, designed with the Genesis grid pattern, black and white color base, and snappy music to boot. I would be perfectly happy to have this as the official Genesis mini front end, but it wasn't meant to be I guess. Now it can be your unofficial front end for your Raspberry Pi. I highly recommend giving it a try, and building your own customized Genesis mini.