Devil World (NES/Famicom Review)

When I recently did my in-depth review of the infamous Atari 2600 disaster Pac-Man, I noted that without the chase being fun, maze chases don’t work. I then asked myself if there’s any maze chase game that isn’t true of? I couldn’t think of a single example. The only one that came close is Nintendo’s Devil World, where the chase elements eventually add to the excitement, but they take a while to get warmed-up. Devil World is the 1984 Shigeru Miyamoto classic that was his very first console-exclusive and also the only game of his that still, to this day, has never officially been released in North America. Why’s that? Well, allegedly Nintendo had a strict probation on religious symbols being used in their games, which meant no crosses or bibles. Devil World is a game based entirely around those things. It was too religious for Nintendo of America and thus it never came out stateside. Europe? They got it, because they all live in hedonism and are doomed to burn anyway, I guess. They even got it on the Wii’s Virtual Console in 2008. But, while Nintendo of America re-released many formerly Japanese exclusives, Devil World STILL was kept out of the New World. It’s funny that so many gamers make a big to-do about games that never came out in America. Often, they don’t live up to expectations. But, Devil World is one of the exceptions. Had it come out in the United States when the NES launched, it’s arguable that it would have been the second-best Black Box game behind Super Mario Bros.

I think the Devil is due for a comeback. Make a Yoga game with him! He’s used to doing the poses anyway!

Even by 1984, the maze chase genre was very tired. Nobody really had any fresh ideas and lots of games just recycled the same formula. Pac-Man begat Lock ‘n Chase, K.C. Munchkin, and others. Then someone had the idea of adding gates and turnstiles, and thus games like Super Pac-Man, Lady Bug, and Mouse Trap came along. Having played a lot of these, it’s remarkable how samey they all feel. They all sort of blend together. Then came Nintendo with this maze chase and there’s never been anything like it since. Anyone who has played Smash Bros since assist trophies became a thing will recognize the Devil and the twist in formula he brings. As you roam the level, the maze itself scrolls independently, and you’re at the mercy of it. Also you can now become crushed by the scrolling, which can lead to nail-biting close calls of nearly getting stuck between walls and the edge of the screen. The maze is only slightly bigger than the screen, so as the Devil scrolls the action from, say, left-to-right, if the last dots you need are on the edge of the right side of the screen, in a second or two they’ll pop-out the left side of the screen. It’s a BRILLIANT, one-off twist that has never been replicated and it works wonderfully (well, most of the time). In years and years of playing this genre, this is the only good maze chase where the maze itself is the highlight.

You actually only control the direction of the maze during bonus stages. I really suck at this part and it makes me grateful this isn’t part of the main game.

Mind you, the actual CHASE aspect of this maze-chase game can also be exciting, but at first, it feels like a secondary element. You start with two pursuers, both of which can be easily dispatched. Eventually one of the monsters is replaced by a mini-Devil that can’t be killed (though he’s not on every stage). Finally, after three cycles, one of the green monsters is replaced by a red one that more actively chases Tamagon, the hero of the game. Normally, I’d find the slow escalation of the pursuit to be annoying. But, Devil World’s one-of-a-kind gimmick actually needs to ease you into it. A big part of that is the game is one of the slower-paced maze chases. Tamagon sort of waddles through the stages, and while it’s never too slow, it’s a noticeably more leisurely pace than maze chase fans might be used to. You feel it right from the start too, which I think is another reason why this might never have caught-on the way it should have, and possibly the reason why Nintendo chose not to bring it out to the cocaine-filled masses of North America.

When you’ve messed up, you see it coming. And sometimes, you have to wait.. very.. slowly.. for your death by smooshing.

There’s three alternating level types in Devil World. The first is a traditional “collect the dots” challenge, but even that has a twist to the gameplay. There’s no power-pellets like in Pac-Man, but you also can’t just scoop-up the dots willy-nilly. There’s various crosses scattered around the maze. You have to get one of the crosses to begin collecting dots. While you have a cross, you can also defend yourself by spitting fireballs that turn the enemies into delicious fried eggs that you can eat for points. Eventually the crosses will wear off, but they respawn, and they’re also scattered all over so locating them isn’t really that big a deal. You have to eat all the dots to clear the stage. Despite Devil World nearly being forty years old, and the dot-collecting formula being well-over forty now, this still feels fresh because of the scrolling mechanic. Plus, the characters are loaded with charm and you can make believe like Tamagon is the dinosaur from Bubble Bobble after he goes to Hell for all the cold-blooded murders he committed in that game.

Admittedly, sometimes Devil World can be pretty frustrating. The devil shifts the scrolling at random, and sometimes the screen becomes oriented in a way where you literally can’t do anything except wait for the Devil to pick another direction. Here, I can’t get the final bible into the slot because I physically can’t fit into the gap. What you’re not seeing is the Devil kept scrolling up and down, but not side to side. I had to wait quite a while for the tide to turn even after I shot this screen cap.

The second level is a completely new take on genre. There’s four bibles that sort of just hover in the corners of the screen. You have to retrieve them and insert them into the four sides of a base that’s usually guarded by a mini-devil (they can leave the interior of the maze, but usually they stick to the base). There’s no dots or crosses in these stages, but the bibles grant you the same fireball ability as the crosses do. You can only take one bible at a time, and because you have to get to the very edges of the screen to collect them, these stages are the most exciting. There’s only three stages Devil World cycles through, and when I say the third stage of that sequence is probably the most intense maze the genre has ever seen, that’s not hyperbole. You have to pick-and-choose your spots to make your move, especially since large sections of the maze feature long straightaways and the high potential for getting squashed. This formula works so well they could have honestly skipped the dot collecting and based the entire game on this. It’s a lot of fun and it’s so satisfying every time you lock a new bible into its spot. After that, you play a bonus stage with six mystery boxes, one of which will have a free life. After you’ve cycled through the three mazes, the game loops until you game over.

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I adore Devil World. It’s everything you want from an early Nintendo Entertainment System release. It certainly does a much better job of creating a fun and exciting take on the maze chase than Clu Clu Land did. Yet, Nintendo of America wanted nothing to do with it, claiming religious symbolism was off-limits. I don’t get it. I really don’t. There’s tons of religious symbols in US Nintendo games, even ones made by Nintendo! They were all over from the start. Link’s shields on the NES Legend of Zelda have crosses on them. Castlevania has a famous cross too. It’s that thing that clears the screen of enemies. As for the Bibles, again, Legend of Zelda has a book with a cross on it that adds a flame to the end of the otherwise totally useless Magic Wand. “Okay, so it’s the Devil that got this ixnayed, right?” Then how do explain all the devils and a final boss literally named Lucifer in Ghosts ‘n Goblins being a-okay? You know what *I* think? I think Nintendo just didn’t want the NES to be seen as too Atari-like. Devil World is the most Pac-Man like game, and people would associate Pac-Man with Atari and the old guard of home gaming. The only other option is falling in line with the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Which again, would hold water if a game like Ghosts ‘n Goblins was banned in the United States. But it wasn’t, so I think my theory is accurate. I wish Nintendo would finally put out Devil World for North America. It’s long overdue. Besides, we’re all going to Hell anyway.

Devil World was developed by Nintendo

Devil World is Chick-Approved

 

Journey (1983 Arcade Review)

No, not THAT Journey. I already did that one.

This is one of my all-time favorite stories from the Golden Age of Arcades. Between 1982 to 1983, Ralph Baer, creator of the Maganox Odyssey and thus video games as we know them, more or less, was working with the famed toy maker Marvin Glass & Associates. They were the creators of such legendary playthings as Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots and board games like Operation and Mouse Trap. They had recently become a partner of Bally-Midway and created video games like Tapper. Baer had already partnered with MG&A to create the legendary electronic game Simon, and he was with them again for a new project. Baer, always the engineer, invented a relatively low-cost digital camera that could be installed in arcade games to take pictures of players who got high scores. Midway loved the idea of having actual pictures of players. It’s the perfect special attraction for a game, right? Bally-Midway installed a prototype into a game (I couldn’t find confirmation but I believe it was Marvin Glass’s Domino Man) and put it on a popular route they used for testing. As the story goes, day one, the test went great! An otherwise under-the-radar game drew an audience and the test looked to be a success.

On the second day, someone pulled up a chair and stood on it, dropped their pants, waved to the camera, and the test was over. It was the most obvious result in human history, but the contracts were already signed and they had to use the camera somehow. And, it just so happens, Bally-Midway had just made a deal with the band Journey. So, they used the camera to digitize the likeness of the band and shoehorn them into a genre Smörgåsbord that’s recognized as one of the worst games of the Golden Age of Arcades.

Full disclosure: I’m not a Journey fan. My expertise on the actual band begins and ends with the finale for the Sopranos.

Journey is one of those games that’s historically-maligned. I don’t think it’s really good, but it’s also not that bad. It’s one of those “we couldn’t figure out what kind of game this would be, so we just did every game!” situations that produced a jack of all trades, master of nothing game. In it, you select one of five levels, each of which is divided into two parts. In the first part, you must guide one of the band members to their instrument through some kind of unique gameplay mechanic. In the second part, you gain the ability to shoot and you have you have to blast a path to your spaceship. Or, sometimes you can ignore the enemies and just sprint for the literal finish line you need to reach to beat each stage. I found that was often just as effective. So, let’s look at the five mini-games.

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Neal Schon: This is one of those “lightly feather the joystick with a jetpack” games. You have to carefully navigate a cave to grab your guitar while the “song” Chain Reaction plays. Actually it’s an almost unrecognizable chiptune that neither of my parents, both of whom listen to Journey, could tell what it was supposed to be. As the stage begins, you have to begin to thrust right away, because once you start to have any speed, the gravity is too heavy to really stop you from crashing into the sides or the ground. Once you have have guitar, bugs come out of the sides of the wall and you have to navigate your way to the line at the top of the screen. Once you get the hang of how heavy the gravity is, this isn’t too bad as far as games like this goes. Plus it does give you a teeny bit of mercy, as your collision box isn’t quite as big as you head. Once you’ve run through a cycle, you have to go lower and deeper into the cave to retrieve the guitar. It’s not awful but it’s pretty bland. Actually, that really could describe all five games.

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Steve Smith: While listening to Wheel in the Sky, you must bounce off each trampoline that’s randomly floating around the screen at least once. The trampolines turn blue after you’ve done one bounce and disappear after a second bounce. After you’ve turned them all blue, you get your drums back and have to blast your way to the finish line at the bottom of the screen. I found this to be the most interesting of the five mini-games, and it gets BRUTAL on the second cycle. The thing that bugs me is Journey is such a slow game and the jumping here feels like moon physics. If I hadn’t seen gameplay footage from a real coin-op, I’d of thought my emulator wasn’t handling it good. Is it fun? Not really, but I did have to think about it this time. I mean, not too long. It’s just south of dull, but dull nonetheless.

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Steve Perry: While an alleged version of Don’t Stop Believin plays, you have to first make your way through deadly turnstiles to grab your microphone. Then, the turnstiles turn into full-scale walls that also scroll across the screen and you have to blast your way through them. They spawn really fast, and creating enough distance for your body to squeeze through is probably the toughest challenge of all the games in the first cycle. As you complete more cycles, more get added during that second wave that spin faster in the first part and respawn faster in the second part, and I never finished it. The cynic in me noted how it’s funny the lead singer’s stage is clearly the hardest. Seems like people would be more inclined to choose the singer’s level first, and what do you know? It just so happens to be the one most likely to eat lives and thus force players to drop more quarters! Fancy that.

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Ross Valroy: Probably the most original idea in the game. You start on these boxes that have.. uh.. rainbow-colored robotic dongs that launch you upwards, and you sort of have to spring up to the top of the stage to grab your guitar while listening to the MIDI version of Keep On Runnin’. Once you reach the top, the platforms spring cannons and the game becomes an almost bullet hell, but the point is the same as all the other games: shoot your way to the finish line. It took me tons and tons of tries to get past the cannons on my second cycle, and that was after missing the platforms on the way up. Journey gets teeth after you finish each round once, that’s for sure. Oh, and even though you can literally destroy the platforms the cannons sit-on with enough shots, even those begin to respawn. Okay, maybe this is a terrible game.

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Jonathan Cain: While listening to a bastardized version of Stone in Love, you play a mini-game that’s like a combination of reverse Donkey Kong meets the hurdles event in Track ‘n Field. While automatically running down a series of slopes, you have to press UP on the joystick to jump over miniature lightsabers. Once you reach your piano, you have to shoot your way through a series of balls to reach the finish line. During the second cycle, the bottom row of hurdles starts moving so comically fast that, even while cheating, I couldn’t get past it. There’s so many points during this whole game where I was like “jeez, they ran out of ideas.” Then I came to realize that, there’s only five games and yet I had to say “they were out of ideas” like six or seven times. That really says it all about Journey, huh?

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Journey certainly doesn’t belong on any WORST ARCADE GAMES list. It doesn’t play bad enough for that. It doesn’t control bad enough for that. Okay, maybe it sounds bad enough for that, which has to be embarrassing since the only reason anyone in their right mind would be interested in playing this is because of the musical ties, and it failed completely at that. Going into this, I wondered why they didn’t try to tie this more into some kind of musical gameplay, but the answer became obvious quickly: it couldn’t even if it wanted to. Not with this technology. So, instead we got a really uninspired hodgepodge of mini-games that feel like they’re deleted scenes from Bally-Midway’s Tron game. None of them are offensively bad by any stretch, which by itself is disqualifying for WORST GAME status or even consideration of it. Hell, this doesn’t even feel like a typical music act’s ego-stroking video game. It’s a stupid collection of unrelated game tropes that, together or separate, just plain ain’t fun. I don’t even really think it had potential for fun, either. This feels like a game nobody wanted to make and had no idea what to do with it. Really, the only interesting aspect is the Ralph Baer camera story. Sure, it’s a boring game, but it’s also a game that only exists because someone stood up on a chair and flashed their privates at the first digital camera they ever saw in their lives. Come on, that’s objectively hilarious!

Journey is not Chick-Approved.

Journey was developed by Marvin Glass and Associates
Published by Bally-Midway

Fire and Rescue (NES Indie Review)

Yea, it only took me to the second installment of New Arcade Mondays to wildly stretch the definition of “New Arcade” but hear me out. The launch-window NES library, AKA the thirty Black Box games, were all basically arcade games at home. If an indie developer wanted to make an authentic Black Box-type game, the only way to make it convincing is to have a tunnel-visioned arcade concept. One novel play mechanic that the whole game is based around. It’s tougher than it sounds. Actually, the most common mistake made by games that try to recreate the look and feel of Black Box releases is being too ambitious in their gameplay. The most advanced game in that series is the original Super Mario Bros. If you’re going to make a platformer, skip that Black Box malarkey, because you won’t stand out in that genre if you don’t go bonkers. For all other developers, if you want authenticity, you have to keep it simple. Of course, that also means you’re married to one gameplay mechanic, and if that mechanic isn’t very fun or exciting, you’re kind of screwed.

“Fire and Rescue? Wasn’t that one of the Fisher Price games?” Actually, no. I was thinking of Fisher-Price: Firehouse Rescue.

Fire and Rescue.. actually FIRE AND RESCUE in all-caps like you’re yelling it, but I think it’s a crime to yell “FIRE AND RESCUE” in a crowded review blog.. does authentically feel like an NES Black Box game in terms of graphics and gameplay. Well, sort of. It uses realistic 2D logic of, gasp.. having to actually walk through the threshold of the building you’re entering! So in this game universe, there’s genuine architecture to buildings. When this review is done, you’ll understand why most games toss that kind genuine logic out the window. The object is to put out all the fires and rescue people trapped inside the houses. There’s five levels that keep repeating while slightly escalating in difficulty every time you restart the cycle until you reach Level 7, at which point it just keeps going back to stage 71 until you get bored. Don’t worry, you’ll already be bored and ready for it to be over by that point.

Do you know what breaks the illusion of being an authentic lost Black Box game? Had this been a real Black Box, that would have totally been Mario fighting the fires.

While I admire the authenticity Skyboy Games achieved, Fire and Rescue is a complete snoozer. This is mostly due to the constant need to weave in and out of the building to refill your water. If you correctly line yourself up with the fires and time your release perfectly, you can stretch the water out, but you’ll still need to refill. Thankfully, you can jump out windows without dying as a shortcut. It’s the only concession the game really makes to avoid the busy-work. You can only rescue one person at a time, and when you do, you have to bring them all the way back to the start of the stage. I couldn’t believe they didn’t include more means to enter the building. Even after playing thirty levels, I was convinced I was just doing something wrong when I tried to enter through the bottom right window of levels. Apparently you can’t. Plus, these are buildings that don’t have fire escapes being fought by fireman who don’t have fire hoses or fire ladders. Maybe this was set in the 1920s?

Stage 4 and 5 on each level has the water source on the opposite side of the screen, for even more winding-around. Sigh. Also, note the the bottom of water left of the center in this pic.

Sometimes rescuing a person also gives you a water refill. But, the refill spawns where they had been in the stage, and only after you’ve dropped the person off at the ambulance. In three of the five stages, the hydrant is right there anyway. It’d be nice to leave the refill there so you can grab it as needed later, but the only stage you might want to do that, it appears right in a door frame, where there’s no means to jump over it. Only in the two stages where the hydrant is on the other side of the screen do the water refills provide any real usage. But, in those stages, they’re practically laid-out in a way where it’s impossible to miss them. You’re going to have to rescue the first guy, then it’s going to spawn the refill. It’s also possible I was just plain good at this game. So, the item is functionally useless. The whole refill system and the way it was implemented seem to have been a decision made only in service to the co-op mode that I didn’t play. Also, it’s not always a refill. Sometimes, the rescue will spawn a helmet that restores you hit point if you’ve lost it, or give you points if you haven’t. And.. that’s the whole game. As a single player experience, there’s absolutely zero excitement or tension in Fire and Rescue. None.

The closest it comes to that would be the timer. Unless you’re really taking your sweet time, it doesn’t matter early on. Eventually, as in after several cycles of the same five stages, the timer starts low enough that you’ll be tidying up the final aspects of the stage with twenty or so seconds left. Tense? Well, no. I have no problem with recycling stages, but the peril of doing so is players should be able to quickly figure out how much time it takes in each stage to get from Point A to Point B. By the point where levels had a shorter timer, I’d played the stages enough times that I knew how much time I needed, and I knew I’d be fine. And I was! Even playing extremely recklessly, I never came closer to timing-out than in the above clip. This really compounds the biggest issue: the gameplay feels like busy-work after a while. The one-at-a-time rescue situation could mean that, after you’ve put out all the fires, you have to grab one of the people, jump out a window, then return to the building, weave your way through it to the last person, and jump out the window again. It becomes less a game and more of a chore. Gremlins on Atari 5200 had the same “run out of action before you run out of objectives” issue, but at least there the gameplay was fun before the action ran out. Fire and Rescue is a game that is technically fine and works but just plain isn’t fun.

See what I mean? The fire is all out, but I still have to make my way through the whole level, going up a ladder, a room left, up a ladder, two rooms over, down two ladders, grab the guy, then jump out the window and walk the length of the screen. For god’s sake: didn’t anyone issue this firehouse a frick’n axe? We’re fire fighters dog garn it, and we’re allowed to chop through people’s houses to rescue them! It’s heroic destruction!

Fire and Rescue needed to do a lot more than it does. There’s a downward spurt move that I never even needed to use once and I still could breeze right through the levels. I don’t even know what the point of it was. For a moment I was like “oh, this is how you jump up through the window to get into the building and save time.” But that’s apparently not the case either. It’s also actually a pretty easy game. After a cycle or two, one of the fires in a stage will start spitting projectiles at you, but the spitting rate is slow enough that it just becomes a minor annoyance. The only life I lost was from not scooting backwards to give myself enough clearance from a fire after climbing up a ladder. As far as I can tell, there’s no ticking clock element with the people you’re rescuing. Sometimes they appear to be standing right in a fire, but I could still take my time getting to them. This really should have removed the “deliver the people” element and just had the homeowners vanish when you collect them. Turn Fire and Rescue into a puzzle game based on conserving resources or a more action-oriented game where the fires can kill the people and spread more aggressively. Apparently this was made mostly for score chasing in mind, but as an NES game (one that you can literally order as a physical cart) there’s no online leaderboards, so what’s the point? Besides, if a player can make it to level seven without dying, it’s unlikely their game would end at all. Don’t get me wrong: Fire and Rescue isn’t atrocious by any means. It’s just boring. How do you even make fire boring? That shouldn’t be possible!

Fire and Rescue is not Chick-Approved

Fire and Rescue was developed by Skyboy Games
Point of Sale: Itch.io, NES Cartridge
$5 died in a fire in the making of this review.

Dragon’s Lair Trilogy: The Definitive Review (Complete 3 Game Review + Rankings)

2023 marks the 40th Anniversary of Dragon’s Lair, a pioneer of “more fun to watch than play” gaming. I was born in 1989, and while Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp technically counts as “my lifetime” really, two-year-old me wasn’t playing anything besides peek-a-boo by that point. Fast forward to the 2000s, when we ended up owning Dragon’s Lair on DVD. “Have I got a game for you!” Dad said to teenage me. He threw it in and handed me the remote control (which was NOT a very good controller) and it was just about the worst thing I’d ever experienced in my life. Even Dad admitted that playing it with a DVD remote control was not the smartest idea. We tried it on a game console but it kept clicking-through to the DVD control menu. Fast forward to Christmas morning, 2010, and waiting for me under the Christmas tree, again from Dad, is Dragon’s Lair Trilogy for the Wii. The look on his face was so precious, a look that continued later in the day when I threw the disc in and proceeded to get totally demolished by the games.

Dragon’s Lair, Space Ace, and Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp are games that never stood a chance against the test of time. They’re famous for three things: being beautiful to look at, being difficult, and barely qualifying as video games. They served as little more than novelties, or “attractions” for arcades. Well, Dragon’s Lair did. In my eleven years on social media, I have never once heard a single person trade a tale of Space Ace in arcades. Not once. On the other hand, I had one reader describe Dragon’s Lair’s reign as king of arcades like a bright, beautiful shooting star. Look away for a moment and you risk missing it completely, but if you saw it, you’ll never forget it. No game that has aged as badly is remembered so fondly by the generation that experienced it in-person in arcades. Sadly, it’s a phenomena I’ll never be able to fully understand no matter how hard I try. When Dragon’s Lair 3D: Return to the Lair released in 2002, to 13-year-old me, it was just another game, and not even a good one. The excitement of actually playing Dragon’s Lair was lost on me and my generation. A “you had to be there” we can’t understand.

Or, maybe not? The only way I can know for sure is to put these games through the wringer.

This is pretty much how my reviewing appears to developers.

Dragon’s Lair Trilogy retails for $19.99 on PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox, with each individual game being sold separately on platforms like Steam for $9.99. Since that’s the sold-separately price, we’ll round it up and say a quality game in this set is worth $10 in value. I’ll round up the $19.99 price and say Dragon’s Lair Trilogy must get $20 in value to win my Seal of Approval. But, before I figure up the value of the games, I need to look at the slate of extra features in the set. Oh, before that, I have to mention the menus of Space Ace. Take a look at this screenshot from when you pause the game.

What option do you think is highlighted here? Believe it or not, “Continue” is the highlighted option, while nothing is highlighting the bright “quit” option that stands out a lot more in this screen. This is such a obviously bad choice that I’m convinced it’s an accident. That they MEANT for the brightened option to be the highlighted one, but whoever designed the menu accidentally crossed their 1s with their 0s and got it backwards. By the way, in every menu option where there is only two choices, this problem is there. Why not have an arrow? You know, that time-honored symbol you use to point at something and say THIS ONE! The other menus aren’t that much better. For Dragon’s Lair, is purple THIS ONE, or is it red? You would know from the front menu of the game since there’s more than two options to choose from and only one is a different color. But, if you weren’t paying that close of attention when you started the game, you wouldn’t know. Combined with the distinct lack of options for one of the extra features that I’ll get to and you can tell they just didn’t really care all much about presentation. I would have looked past it and just called this lazy, but then I keep going back to the gold/faded gold highlighting decision. I’ve been playing games my entire life and that’s the absolute worst menu select choice I’ve ever seen. I’m fining Dragon’s Lair Trilogy $5 in value for this. From here out, this will be the standard Definitive Review fine for bad menu design in classic game collections.

EMULATION EXTRAS

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Dragon’s Lair Trilogy provides a few options for playing the games, though the one I wanted most is notably absent. You can choose three or five lives for each game. It really sucks that there’s no option for unlimited lives and a modern-style death counter for these games. There is every possibility that such an option might have made the difference between winning and losing. The lives system only makes sense if this is trying to suck money from players in $0.50 intervals. These days, the fun is in seeing how many times you croak before reaching the ending. It’s been years since this released, but if Digital Leisure wanted to attempt to appeal to modern gamers (and why wouldn’t they? We spend money too!), you don’t have to lower the difficulty. You just have to, you know, make it fun to die.

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There’s also adjustable difficulty for the first Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace and a cabinet mode for all three games that I didn’t like one bit. Having played a lot of retro collections, there’s something about how this set handled scan lines on a TV screen that I found unconvincing. Dragon’s Lair allows you to play either the “Arcade” or “Home” versions. In the arcade version, you move to another screen if you die, whereas in the home version you have to repeat the stage until you complete it. Also included is a “Director’s Cut” option to play Dragon’s Lair II that changes the second-to-last level, making it shorter and nowhere near as memorable. I’ll talk about that more in the review of that game.

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The most important addition is the “move guide” that you can optionally add to the bottom of every game. This is not the same as the flashing-light indicators the games originally utilized to guide your actions. It’s a directional overlay that tells you the exact button press, and you simply have to be quick on the draw. The cabinet mode also has lights that tell you which direction to press located around the joystick. Unless you have the games memorized, you basically have to play with either the move guide or the cabinet mode turned-on. Especially the first Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace. Take, for example, the very first scene in the entire game. Dirk falls through the rotten wood on the drawbridge and a monster pops out of the moat. You’re supposed to swing your sword at it, but the sword doesn’t flash yellow. You’re just supposed to know to use your sword, I guess. In fact, both Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace don’t always use the yellow indicators for both the action and the movement, and sometimes you just plain have to make an educated guess. By time Time Warp came around, they had included it with every move, but even with it, I found I couldn’t make progress at all without the move guide.

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Of course, the downside is, they cover up the animation, which is the whole point of playing these. Instead of watching the whole screen, you’ll inevitably stare at the bottom of the screen waiting for the next prompt. I suppose you can think of this as a trainer to memorize which moves you do on what screen, but that’s assuming you actually want to get THAT good at forty-year-old games. Either way, the move guide is a welcome inclusion, but I’m not at all satisfied with the lack of options. Given how you can watch each scene bit by bit in the media extras, why not let people play and practice them? Why not have the option for a death-counter instead of lives? I would hope a modern re-release of a Dragon’s Lair collection (which would hopefully solve licensing issues and include more games) would do more in the future. As for this specific set, for all the emulation extras, I’m crediting no extra value to Dragon’s Lair Trilogy. If they gave you the option to replace the lives system with a death counter, I would award $5 in credit towards the set, and $2.50 for being able to practice individual scenes.

MEDIA EXTRAS

“The fish was about this big..” “That’s not how a big fish story is supposed to go, Rick!”

Dragon’s Lair Trilogy comes with a couple media extras, the highlight of which is an interview with Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and Rick Dyer. It runs a little over twenty minutes and, if you’re a fan of this stuff like I am, it’ll leave you wanting a lot more. Not because this lacks the good stuff, but because the interview is so well done. Dyer especially comes across as a cool guy. The type of guy you want to see succeed. A mad scientist who, more or less, invented the FMV format as we think of it today. For better and for worse, I suppose. The problem with this interview is that there’s no option to rewind or fast forward. There’s volume issues, and if you mishear something, you have to restart the whole video and watch it again. That really sucks and I have to cut what I would reward this feature by half as a result. I wish it had been broken into separate segments. It makes no sense why they didn’t, especially since the actual feature does have title cards for each different part of the interview.

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Dragon’s Lair Trilogy’s only other notable extra is a deleted scene for Dragon Lair II: Time Warp. It runs under a minute and is a partially voiced storyboard for a level set on a pirate ship, complete with what parts would flash yellow to indicate an action. The scene looks like it would have been dull. What’s frustrating is that the original Dragon’s Lair had many deleted scenes, including a full new “room” where one-eyed gargoyles hurl spears at Dirk. The scene is shown in the interview above, but you can’t watch it separately. Even more disheartening is the scene was apparently completed and colored by Digital Leisure, presumably with the intent of making it playable, but it’s nowhere to be found outside the interview. A quick glance at YouTube also makes it appear that there were multiple unused death animations that never made the game. It sure would have been swell to have all those. Space Ace gets no deleted scenes.

Dirk the Daring: the one hero in gaming who has irrefutable proof that he actually scootilypooped with the damsel he rescued. Of course, this leads into one of the great mysteries of video games: how the hell did Princess Daphne squirt out ten kids in what looks like a span of ten years and still maintain her figure? Clearly she messes around with the dark arts, which would explain why the forces of evil are always trying to kidnap her. They want to know her secret!

In fact, Space Ace feels pretty unloved by this set overall. Right before I finished this feature, I found out that a conversion kit for Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp was created in 1991 that could turn it into a more difficult version of Space Ace that used diagonal moves. This is not included in this set. Space Ace’s only two “special features” are also included for the other two games: the attract screen and the ability to watch the full game without having to play it. That last one is the best feature, and it really says it all about this set, doesn’t it? That the best part about Dragon’s Lair Trilogy is the ability to just watch it without playing it.

They never mentioned which drugs produced the concept for Dragon’s Lair II.

Also, they got the three main guys behind the trilogy together to do a really good interview. Why stop there? DO AN AUDIO COMMENTARY!! Like, duh, right! Angela, future Spielberg of her generation, has helped me to rediscover the greatness of a well done feature film audio commentary. Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace especially could have benefited from hearing how game designer Dyer and animation expert Bluth came together to make one of the most famous games of all time. At one point in the interview, they touch upon how Bluth would interpret Dyer’s storyboards and create animation that didn’t work from a video game perspective (suddenly I have a hunch what went wrong with Dragon’s Lair II). Which scenes? In which ways? We don’t find out, and an audio commentary could have corrected this. Maybe we’ll get one eventually. Anyway, for all the media extras, I’m crediting $2.50 in value to Dragon’s Lair Trilogy. Had they offered more flexibility with how to watch the interview, I’d of called it $5.

THE ULTIMATE VERDICT ON THE COLLECTION

For those not familiar with my way of thinking of how retro games should be reviewed, I take NO historical context into account. I don’t care how important a game was to the industry, because that doesn’t make a game worth playing today. The test of time is the cruelest test of all, but every video game must face it. I might not be here if not for Space Invaders’ success, but I wouldn’t want to play it today. Not when there’s better options. Therefore, when I review retro games, every game gets either a YES! or a NO!

YES! means the game is still fun and has actual gameplay value when played today and is worth seeking out.

NO! means the game didn’t age gracefully enough to merit playing today and is not worth seeking out, and certainly not worth spending money on.

For Dragon’s Lair Trilogy, the final score was as follows:

YES!: 1 ($10 in Value)
NO!: 2
$2.50 in Extra Value
$5.00 in Fines
TARGET VALUE: $20

TOTAL VALUE: $7.50

Dragon’s Lair Trilogy does not earn my Seal of Approval. With only one game worth playing today, and a game that you can buy separately on a few platforms, it’s not worth buying the whole set. Frankly, I’m still stunned that I could give any game in Dragon’s Lair Trilogy a YES! at all. I had previously planned to have “I HATE FMV GAMES” etched on my tombstone. But really, there’s no reason to own all three games, one of which isn’t THAT bad but not good enough and one of which is one of the worst coin-ops ever made. I suppose you can still feel free to grab this set REALLY cheap. Like, under $10 cheap. Even then, I’m sure you can get Dragon’s Lair by itself even cheaper.

GAME REVIEWS

Dragon’s Lair
Released June 19, 1983
Designed by Rick Dyer
Directed by Don Bluth

One of the problems with adapting Dragon’s Lair today, in the 2020s, is people would have a cow about a character like Princess Daphne. As if friendly but vapid airheads don’t exist anymore. Or perhaps they wouldn’t if not for portrayals in media, like this? I think that’s the argument. Frankly, I don’t care. Besides, Dirk himself is completely brain dead too. They are gaming’s most fit couple.

Man, did I ever get it wrong about Dragon’s Lair. I got fixated on the whole “it’s really just playing Simon Says with animated cues” aspect. Which, by the way, is still there. As far as elephants in the room go, this is an especially large one that’ll always be around, like a photo-bombing woolly mammoth. But, when you really stop and look at the set pieces and the timing and themes of Dragon’s Lair, you realize that, more than any FMV game ever made, Dragon’s Lair succeeds at creating the illusion of video game-like interactivity. Not only that, but it does so in a way that is practically clairvoyant. That read the tea leaves flawlessly on where video games would go eventually. It’s ironic that the sequel is called Time Warp, when really, it was the original game that saw the future. The type of boss fights and challenges in games that didn’t exist in 1983 but do now. Come to think of it, many were probably inspired by this!

I think one of the aspects that makes Dragon’s Lair stand out is literally every single character is memorable. It’s such a shame that nobody has managed to make a truly great game based on this franchise in the forty years since the original. All the pieces are certainly in place.

You can’t talk about any of these games without talking about the Don Bluth animation. Before we start, I want to qualify myself: I am NOT an expert at animation. I just watch a lot of it. People talk about Dragon’s Lair like it’s right up there with The Secret of NIMH or An American Tail or The Land Before Time. But, it’s actually not that high of quality. It’s somewhere between a really expensive Saturday morning cartoon and a feature film. Whenever a corner could be cut, chances are it probably was. There’s a lot of reused animation throughout the game. People, including myself, overlook that, but when you’re paying attention, they stand out. Space Ace is worse about it, but it’s there throughout Dragon’s Lair. On the other hand, I love the use of color and I think the backgrounds are just beautiful. I think they went a long ways towards making Dragon’s Lair work. It feels like an adventure because it looks like one.

The later Dragon’s Lair 3D tried to recreate set pieces like this to various success. Had Dragon’s Lair 3D featured the smooth controls and lightning-fast responsiveness of a game like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, for all we know, it might have gone down as one of the all-time greats. But, Dragon’s Lair 3D had sluggish controls, a problematic camera, and this RIDICULOUS recoil whenever you ran into a wall or object. AND YET, it still managed to be just a little bit alright, but nothing special. For a game with that many problems to still step across the “alright” threshold makes me wonder what if? about it. What if it had good play control and didn’t have that absolutely stupid recoil? Would it have been an unprecedented hit and reignited the franchise? We’ll never know, I suppose. I’m sure eventually they’ll re-release it, but I hope they don’t in its present state. Dragon’s Lair 3D turned twenty-years-old in November, and gaming has come a long ways. Scrap it and go again with modern technology and maybe, at long last, Dragon’s Lair will be the franchise it deserves to be.

Having said all that, I think the understated part of what makes Dragon’s Lair work, besides the beautiful use of color and the striking backgrounds, is that every room creates the illusion of an interactive video game. The last third of Space Ace and pretty-much all of Dragon’s Lair II come across like watching a movie that someone shoehorned button prompts into. That happens in Dragon’s Lair too, but it’s most rare in this game. The rooms are designed like video game challenges. Swinging left to right (or right to left if the room is mirrored) across flaming ropes. Dodging giant, rolling balls that are set to a pattern. You’re always acutely aware you’re not really controlling Dirk the Daring, but Dyer and Bluth did everything in their power to suspend your disbelief anyway. They even manage to succeed in some rooms, where the framing and directional options are unambiguous: the challenge is right, so move left. The beast is coming at you, so use your sword. It takes proper staging to pull off, but sometimes they did, and suddenly, Dragon’s Lair ain’t too bad a game at all.

The rafting sequence is one such area. The timing of when to press the prompts and the various hazards that take place during this sequence just plain work as a magic trick that makes you feel like you’re in control of an already animated cartoon. I love using the magic trick analogy with Dragon’s Lair, because you never forget what you’re doing isn’t real. It’s not immersive at all. Instead, it becomes okay to allow yourself to play along anyway. That’s what makes stage magic fun, and Dragon’s Lair is basically stage magic as a video game. We know the score, but we’ll pretend we don’t, because we want to have fun.

Dragon’s Lair has more moments like that than any FMV game I’ve ever played. But, that doesn’t always mean the results work. Some of the rooms don’t do enough visual cues to make it predictable what the move will be. Moments where, logically you would think you’re going to press one direction, but really, you’re supposed to press another. Take this moment:

Assuming you weren’t using the move guide, which tells exactly when to press a button and what to press, what way would you press in the above screen shot? The flashing thing is to the left of you, but also in front of you. Hell, in theory, it’s also lower than you, would could imply you have to jump downward towards it, right? Well, the correct answer is you’re supposed to press UP. Even though the flashing target is in the lower left hand of the screen. I can’t imagine how many quarters a person would have needed in 1983 to commit this to memory. One reoccurring story I keep hearing from people is gathering around to watch someone in an arcade who could run through the entire game effortlessly. I’d not had the patience to get that far at all. I did make a good faith effort to play without the guide, but I couldn’t figure out what moves to do, and frankly I didn’t have any fun trying to figure it out.

In some areas, there’s frankly no way to anticipate what move could possibly be the next move. You have to wait for a cue, or just watch the guide. Well, at least with Dragon’s Lair, I found I could do both.

Oddly, Dragon’s Lair is the only game in the trilogy where you can play with the guide on and still watch the cartoon too. It’s not a visually complex story. There’s not a lot of screen clutter. You don’t have dozens of moving objects, or even if you do, they’re staged correctly to not distract from the point of PLAYING the game. It’s a “clean” presentation that remembered what it’s asking of players: enjoy the show, but also do things based on what the show does. That’s why Dragon’s Lair succeeds even forty years later while Space Ace and especially Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp crash and burn. It IS an interactive movie, like few attempts at such a thing have been able to pull off. Even with the guide, you won’t miss anything with Dragon’s Lair. It’s something I didn’t appreciate until I played the other two games. How I tested this is I replayed each game a third time in three days and had my father and sister quiz me on details of the games. NOTHING unfair, and they understood what I was aiming for and went for details anyone playing the game should notice. For Dragon’s Lair, I answered six out of seven questions correct. For Dragon’s Lair II, it was two out of seven. For Space Ace, it was only one out of seven, with the one that I got right being from early in the game.

This memorable scene is an example of “this would be so cool if you could actually play it!” that certainly was NOT cool to play when you really could in Dragon’s Lair 3D. And actually, the scene is a little overrated in the arcade game. The patterns the knight taps out on the floor don’t always seem to make logical sense in terms of which button you’re expected to press.

Let me be clear: Dragon’s Lair isn’t a great game by any stretch. Besides the occasional “why would you press that direction at that moment?” issues, the game also makes you eventually repeat each room, only with the animation mirrored so every left/right move is reversed. Of course, if they didn’t do this, a game of Dragon’s Lair would only take about six minutes to complete. The biggest knock I have is against the historically terrible finale sequence. The rooms are all relatively short, which serve as logical checkpoints if you lose a life. In fact, I consider the smallness of the rooms to be a highlight of the game. It makes it feel like a real castle you’re exploring.

That’s probably the most underrated aspect of what makes Dragon’s Lair work: some rooms can be as short as one action. None of that minute-and-thirty-second short film that you have to replay over and over crap from the sequel.

Except for the final room with Singe the Dragon, which has no checkpoints, and the game grinds to halt and becomes agony. First, Singe nearly wakes from his sleep, which takes a while of just waiting around and doing nothing. AND THEN, FOR NO REASON, Princess Daphne very slowly explains that you need to retrieve a magic sword that’s in the room and use it to get the key around Singe’s neck. And she’s doing stripper poses the entire spiel. Mind you, this explanation was totally unnecessary. If it was a new and unique gameplay method, FINE, but it wasn’t, so what the hell were they thinking? You’re not doing anything different than you were doing leading up to this. You’re still just pressing buttons based on prompts. If you die.. and you probably will since the timing of this room can be brutal.. you have to watch this whole sequence again, from Singe’s nearly waking up to Daphne’s striptease-instructional video. No means to skip it. It’s torturous to sit through even once since a game about constant acton-reaction now suddenly has you just standing around waiting for the game part to start again. AND YOU HAVE TO REWATCH IT EVERY TIME YOU DIE! I get they probably wanted this room to feel climatic, but when you’re playing a game called DRAGON’S Lair and you slay a dragon and rescue the girl, that ought to be climatic enough. It’s one of the worst finales to a game I’ve ever seen. It ain’t a deal breaker, but it almost was. I had to think about it.

I actually didn’t kill Singe here. He died of old age after hearing the unskippable dialog for the three-dozenth time.

Okay, so Dragon’s Lair didn’t exactly stick the landing in its final act. But, everything up to that point is a lot better than I’ve ever given it credit for. It’s not fantastic or anything, but I enjoyed my time with it. Just think, all it took was basically creating the perfect FMV game to get me to finally say YES! to one of these things. And yet, I still wasn’t sure why the generation before me holds this up so fondly. Why they still get starry-eyed as they share tales of epic failure and sessions that lasted under a minute, or gathering around to watch that one weirdo who blew his life savings memorizing every sequence. Despite its relatively short window of fame, brutal difficulty, and all the truly-awful games in the franchise that followed, Dragon’s Lair is still is a game you want to enjoy. Why is that? I have to believe it’s for more than just the Don Bluth animation, or the hilarious yelps and squeals of Dirk the Daring, or what is just alright gameplay that is ultimately probably the best the format is capable of. So, I again asked myself: what could have possibly made those memories of Dragon’s Lair echo so loudly across the decades?

These two would go on to have ten kids.

I think I have the answer. Because the set pieces and art and characters all came together to make what players in 1983 wanted games to be like, but they weren’t. Not yet. Although it wasn’t their intention, Dragon’s Lair feels like a promise to gamers: this is where the medium is going. One day, games will look and sound this good and have action this exciting, only it will be you in control. Well, we all know what happened over the next forty years. Dragon’s Lair survives through history because it represents the promise of gaming kept.
Verdict: YES! **FLIP**

Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp
Released June 16, 1991
Designed by Rick Dyer
Directed by Don Bluth

Pictured: Cathy’s brain melting from peeling back all the layers of awfulness from Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp.

If I was too hard on Dragon’s Lair before, I wasn’t hard enough on Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp. Talk about losing the plot! This sequel forgot literally everything that made the original game (and some of Space Ace) work. Dragon’s Lair, for all of its FMV-based flaws, still does everything in its power to look like a video game adventure. Time Warp doesn’t at all. It’s a series of disconnected animated vignettes that completely fails in every imaginable way. In the annals of bad games, it’s astonishing that nobody ever brings this one up. Perhaps because it’s an FMV game and that’s too low of a low-hanging fruit. Perhaps because the Don Bluth animation is so beautiful and vibrant. Perhaps because the nine segments of the game are so memorably bonkers that you wonder if the game was co-written by cocaine. But, actually playing Dragon’s Lair II, it’s shocking how many different ways a simple FMV sequel to the FMV game of the Golden Age could be so bad. How it could get it so wrong?

Time Warp starts off with Dirk’s mother-in-law trying to murder the man who rescued her daughter in the first place and is likely the only person capable of rescuing her again. In terms of intelligence, the apple fell about two inches from the tree on that one.

The most obvious problem with Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp is that this really doesn’t make any effort at all to feel like a video game. In Dragon’s Lair, the game randomized all but the first and last levels of the game. It worked there because they were all short and they all flowed seamlessly into each-other. Time Warp’s nine levels are longer, linear, and with the exception of the first level, have no checkpoints at all. They’re also all, more or less, self-contained animated shorts that don’t fit-in with each-other. The moments where it feels like they were trying to animate some form of a video game trope in order to invoke the expectations of what a game should be like are few and far between. In Dragon’s Lair or Space Ace, whether you were swinging across ropes, timing when to move between spikes, leaping across platforms, or fighting monsters, the designers created the illusion that you were controlling Dirk and Dexter (well, until they forgot to do that in Space Ace too). Time Warp feels like a totally disconnected animated short that someone surgically grafted button prompts onto.

This is Eve. As in Adam & Eve. As in the Garden of Eden, which is the fourth stage of the game. Whereas Dragon’s Lair felt like an actual video game where a knight searches a castle looking for a damsel in distress, Time Warp feels like a series of two-minute-long Silly Symphony clips that someone attached a video game to long after the fact. Which isn’t far off from the truth. The Alice in Wonderland sequence for Dragon’s Lair II debuted on television in 1984 and the game was apparently fully completed between 1984 and 1986. It never came out until 1991 thanks to the bankruptcy of Cinematronics.

They must have realized how poorly flowing this would work as a video game, so in Time Warp, every single move does the yellow flashing prompt. You’d think that would make this the most playable game, but often the actions are too brief and the visuals so loud that you might need a couple lives to see them. Of course, every time you die on a stage, even if it’s the very last move on that level before you finish it, you have to start all the way over at the beginning. These aren’t teeny tiny rooms, like in Dragon’s Lair. These levels last over a minute of basically non-stop quick-time events where one mistake means you have to start over from the beginning. What’s especially annoying is they seem to have animated each level with moments that were clearly meant to be checkpoints. In the first level, you go from being chased by your mother-in-law into entering the castle from the original game, and if you die after the dungeon, you restart from there. Makes sense! Well, even though there’s a moment like that in each of the animated segments that follows, like a turning point in the action, it’s not utilized and you have to start over if you die.

Dragon’s Lair has lots of beautiful art, but it also remembers that players are focused on the game itself. All the stuff happening on the screen is done in service to the gameplay. Dragon’s Lair II is filled with sight-gags and small details that you will die if you watch, because you’re not focusing on the next button prompt. I’m sure this was done in service to the days where people would gather around and watch someone play the game, but it’s a game that constantly forgets it’s game.

It stinks of game has no interest in giving players value. Instead, Dragon’s Lair II is completely focused on trying to squeeze as many quarters as possible. But, if you thought the lack of checkpoints was greedy, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp gates players out of the final two levels unless they find all eleven magical items that are hidden throughout the first seven stages. It’s a sleazy move that made me feel unclean as I played it. Imagine playing through this in an arcade in 1991 and being interested in it enough that you spend enough money to GIT GUD and make it past the Ancient Egyptian level (ironically the only level in the entire game that feels remotely like the first game), and then suddenly the game just restarts from the beginning because you didn’t gather all items. In a game where you have a single second to make a decision, and ten times it will flash in two directions at once because one of the choices has the item, and you have to choose correctly, going ten for eleven, or else you.. keep going but actually will now have to replay the whole game from scratch eventually too. What a load of crap. Also, yes, ten times. For the playing card in stage three, they didn’t bother to animate the indicator that it’s one of the items you must get. Even worse: because of the Alice in Wonderland theme of that level, you wouldn’t even think that it’s THE item. It’s just right there and blended seamlessly with the rest of the design. Actually, some of the items that do flash do so in very visually-loud sections. The butterfly in the Beethoven stage is practically invisible!

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I should also note that the arcade game had a scoring system that was removed completely from the home version. I didn’t even know that until I started researching whether the arcade game actually told players anywhere that they HAD to get the treasures to finish the game. It does.. at the bottom of a three-second long instruction screen that is briefly seen during the extended attract mode that runs on an over one-minute long cycle. It’s shamefully greedy on the same level that Ghosts ‘n Goblins forced full-replay was. Even worse: logically the way to not screw players is to make them only replay the levels where they missed an item, right? Well, Dragon Lair II has contempt for its players, so you have to replay the whole game from the start. Wow. Leland Corporation’s bankruptcy was well-deserved after pulling crap like that, and good riddance.

The best scene in the entire game is the eighth level, where Mordroc actually gets the Death Ring on Princess Daphne, who turns into Ganon if Ganon were a drag queen. BUT, if you play the Director’s Cut, this never happens. It starts exactly the same, with Mordroc clearly putting the Death Ring on Daphne and Dirk throwing his sword through his arm. Then, the scene changes from the original, and suddenly Daphne is out of the shot and the Death Ring isn’t on her. In a shorter, more plodding and less fun scene, you dodge Mordroc’s attacks before knocking the ring onto his finger. The one good call this game made was going with the Monster Daphne sequence. Too bad everything leading up to it was an unprecedented disaster.

So, that’s Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp. I have nothing positive to say about it as a game. Dragon’s Lair wanted you to feel like you were in control of Dirk. Dragon’s Lair II feels like it wants you to appreciate the amazing art of Don Bluth while it shakes you down for quarters. We can do that without this button prompt stuff or the schoolyard bully robbing you of your lunch money routine this game pulls. The on-screen action feels completely disconnected from the controller. The item collecting system and lack of checkpoints practically makes Dragon’s Lair II a mugging. It’s astonishing to me that the same people who crapped all over the Sega CD’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers game for having absolutely nothing to do with the on-screen prompts rewarded Dragon’s Lair II with raving reviews when it did the exact same thing. If you want to know whether a game critic is shallow or not, see if they did a review of Dragon’s Lair II, and if they did, see how much they focused on the incredible art work and not on how it factors into video game logic. Because this is BAD. As in I literally can’t believe nobody brought this stuff up in 1991. Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp should be listed among the worst arcade games ever made. Sure is pretty, though.
Verdict: NO!

Space Ace
Released December 21, 1983
Designed by Rick Dyer
Directed by Don Bluth

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I spent the last three days going back and forth on whether Space Ace would get a YES! or a NO! On one hand, I think it’s the most beautiful game in the trilogy, with a fun theme, an awesome concept, and a white-knuckle pace. On the other hand, like Dragon’s Lair II, it forgets it’s a video game and not an animated short about two-thirds of the way through it. It’s also the most frustrating from a technical point of view, as with-or-without the move guide, the timing of Space Ace in certain aspects feels like it genuinely isn’t lined-up properly with the on-screen action. This game was rushed through production, and it shows.

Fun Fact: Don Bluth himself provides the voice of both the villainous Borf and Dark Dexter, while animator Will Finn (who later worked for Disney during the 90s on basically every one of their good movies from that time period) provides the voice of Ace. I’ve been playing video games my entire life and, trust me, I know how bad things can be when developers grab whoever is handy, be it Sally in Accounting or John from Human Resources to do voice work. For someone who is NOT a professional voice actor by trade, Finn does a dang good job voicing Dexter. I’d genuinely never guessed this wasn’t his actual profession.

As always, the animation is jaw-dropping gorgeous, and the characters are memorable. The story and gameplay also have a tiny bit more going for them. The heroic dude-bro Dexter, aka Space Ace, is emasculated by the villainous Borf and turned into a pathetic weakling. Borf then kidnaps Kimberly and you must go on a daring adventure to rescue her. The twist is that sometimes you can “energize” and turn back into the big, buff, cocky Ace. There are times where, if you don’t do this, you die. But, most of the time, energizing branches the game into different types of sequences. There’s also a lot more “choose a random direction” moments, but since you’ll have to play out every scene anyway, there’s no point in having these. It only creates the illusion of unseen areas. It’s fine, but the problem is that Space Ace doesn’t put it all together properly and sort of ruins the whole experience in the process.

When Space Ace tries to invoke video game tropes like patterns and timing, it might actually be better than Dragon’s Lair. Take this scene in the first “level.” I mean.. look at that! That looks exactly like something you would see in a video game, right? A 2D timing challenge. If you’re going to do a fully-animated FMV video game that aspires to create the illusion that you’re actually controlling the character, yep, that’s the way to do it. But, at some point, it forgot to do these parts.

Like Dragon’s Lair, you have to repeat every major set piece and room once. But, unlike Dragon’s Lair, instead of mixing up the order, in Space Ace (at least on the highest difficulty setting), every sequence that repeats is done back-to-back. You play a room once, and then the screen goes black for a split-second and then it just repeats, only mirrored. It’s so lazy and jarring and it takes the wind right out of Space Ace’s sails. I cringed every single time it happened. Honestly, in Dragon’s Lair, I came to appreciate the mirrored levels. “Alright, I’ve done this room! What was the order?” I’d ask myself. That excitement wasn’t there for Space Ace because I literally just did this section. And, unlike Dragon’s Lair, which is set in a castle that would have many rooms, in Space Ace the narrative doesn’t lend itself at all to the repeating rooms. Not one bit. It’s Dexter running down an identical corridor, begin caught in an identical plastic bag, energizing at the exact same moment with the exact same pose.. it’s just so badly done. Not even comically bad, but just sadly bad.

The flashing that was used in Dragon’s Lair and especially Dragon’s Lair II occasionally happens in Space Ace, but sometimes it doesn’t. Like right here, it doesn’t at all. I can’t imagine playing without the move guide, where the timing is totally guess work. In fact, I’ve heard Space Ace machines had the joysticks wear out a lot from people slamming them in the direction repeatedly. If you were wondering, here you would press LEFT.

And then you get to the areas where the on-screen action stops feeling like a video game and starts feeling like an animated short that someone just super-glued button prompts onto. This is the game I could make the least progress on without the guide. The game just plain quits helping sometimes, and guessing which direction was the correct direction, or WHEN to press the buttons for that matter, was purely luck-based. But, even when the indicator lights do flash, at some point a clear disconnect between controller actions and story narrative happens. The motorcycle sequence and the battle with Borf feel like just an ordinary cartoon that you have to press a button every couple seconds to make play. It’s no longer directed like a video game. It’s just a cartoon by that point. Which.. I guess that’s what all three of these games are, but what I mean is that it no longer feels like you’re playing Space Ace. You’re just advancing it.

The end sequence sealed the NO! for this one. As an animated short, it’s satisfying, but as a video game, it’s a bit of a nonsensical disaster.

To Space Ace’s credit, it provided one final gaming highlight for me in 2022. I’d partially written these reviews for an abandoned article in 2021, and I needed to replay the games just to make sure I could. With my reaction time fading, it was basically now-or-never for this feature. While playing Space Ace, I game overed fairly quickly. Well, it turned out to be my only game over. To my absolute shock, I ran the table from there, losing a couple lives but still beating the game without needing another continue. What the fudge? ME? Are you kidding me? That felt really amazing. No joke. The lives I lost were of the “something about the button timing and the animation doesn’t seem to match-up at all” variety, but I didn’t mess-up after that. It felt great!

By the way, there’s both a Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace animated series by Ruby-Spears. In the Space Ace cartoon, which unlike Dragon’s Lair was done as part of the Saturday Supercade lineup, Kimberly is voiced by Nancy “Bart Simpson” Cartwright. I tried to watch these cartoons but I found them to be poison for the brain.

On the other hand, I pulled this monster final score off by not even watching the cartoon at all and instead focusing completely on the move guide. That’s what ulimately made the difference with these two games. With Dragon’s Lair, you can both enjoy the spectacle and play the game at the same time. It’s not a visually busy game. Space Ace always has a LOT going on, and if you take even a microsecond to appreciate that, you might find yourself losing a life. And now, it makes sense why nobody trades tales of Space Ace despite looking every bit as visually impressive as Dragon’s Lair. The fact that the first game proves you can get away with a visually nice animated game guided by a series of quick time events means I can’t excuse it for Space Ace. It needed to take a less-is-more approach, and it didn’t. Most telling of all: while I thought Dragon’s Lair II was more distracting, I actually scored lower on Space Ace in my quiz test. This was the game where Dyer and Booth lost their way.
Verdict: NO!

FINAL RANKINGS

How I determined the rankings is simple: I took the full list of games, then I said “I’m forced to play one game. Pick the one I could play the most and not get bored with.” That goes on top of the list. Then I repeat the question again with the remaining games over and over until the list is complete. Based on that simple criteria, here are the final rankings. Games above the Terminator Line received a YES! Games below it received a NO!

  1. Dragon’s Lair
    **TERMINATOR LINE**
  2. Space Ace
  3. Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp

I seriously can’t believe I did that score though.

LCD Games VIII: LCDs Take Manhattan

INDIE GAMER CHICK’S LCD GUIDE: PART I – PART II – PART IIIPART IVPART VPART VIPART VII

Who would have thunk it? My four LCD features were some of my most-viewed in 2022. It turns out, I didn’t QUITE tap myself out, as there was a handful that I skipped. So, as one final thank you for making 2022 my biggest year in almost a decade, here’s one last plunge into your childhoods with eight more LCD games. Suddenly, I wish I had my Game Boy Color here to kiss it and say “thank you for not being these.”

PENGO!!
Bandai (1983)
Gameplay Type: Action-Arcade

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I figured there was no way that an LCD could recreate the block-shoving, enemy crushing gameplay of Pengo and I was.. absolutely correct. Oddly, it’s not the lack of animation that makes this fail. In fact, they solved any potential issue that could cause by having enemies be frozen in place the moment you shove a block. If they’re lined-up with the block when you press the button, it’s a kill. That was a wise choice. The problem is the playfield is just not big enough for the game to work. There’s only a couple blocks you can actually shove, with the rest being stuck against the wall. With a playfield only seven columns across, that’s just not enough. Miss even a single time and you’ll probably lose. This is made worse by the fact that enemies can destroy the blocks too. It’s not worth getting the hang of because the game feels too cramped and low-energy. This was a bad idea to attempt.

ASTRO COMMAND!!
Epoch (1982)
Gameplay Type: Shmup

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A typical LCD shmup with the twist being one extra type of enemy and a weapon to deal with it. You shoot enemies on the right side of the screen while also dropping bombs on the enemies who will strut underneath you in the bottom row. The issue is the enemies positively spam the screen with gunfire, but when you fire any of your ammo, you’re locked in-place until the bullet hits, which makes it impractical to weave through their barrage of bullets. Also, this is one of those games that absolutely required animation that the format isn’t capable of. The timing of when you can and can’t dodge out of the way never felt consistent, as sometimes I pulled off a skin-of-my-teeth evasion, and sometimes it felt like I was practically instakilled by a bullet. It’s not a total wash. Picking off the enemies has a satisfying blink/ping, but this needed more fine-tuning to get the timing more intuitive.

APOLLO 13!!
Tiger Electronics (1995)
Gameplay Type: Quickdraw-Dodger

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Houston, we have a problem. We sat around trying to figure out how to play this game for an hour. Or, rather, Dad did. I quit after like five minutes. Finally, we (well, he, but hey, we’re a team, right Daddio?) figured out that, to beat the first level, you have to line up the LEM and with the crosshairs and press the capture button five times in a minute. If the movement controls or thrust controls do anything here, we couldn’t notice it. In the second level, you have dodge rocks, but here we kept gaming over in just seconds. We were colliding with rocks so quickly that we didn’t even have time to figure out if we were supposed to be using the directional pad or the left/right thrust controls. The problem with the Archive is it didn’t include the instructions. I tried to track down the instructions, but go figure, this is one of the very few games that has no listing at the comprehensive Handheld Museum. They certainly were ambitious here, but the resulting game isn’t remotely intuitive, and honestly, the first two stages aren’t fun. Presumably there’s a third stage where you deploy a parachute but we couldn’t survive ten seconds on the second stage to find out. If you’re going to make a complicated game that requires instructions, make sure it’s fun. Apollo 13 appears to be just run-of-the-mill LCD gameplay, only overly cluttered and rendered unintuitive.

VINDICATORS!!
Tiger Electronics (1989)
Gameplay Type: Shooter

Based on the 1988 Atari Games coin-op, it’s a three-channel shooter where you can move left and right while aiming your gun three different ways separately. It’s a nice twist and it actually works. Once the enemies start firing upon you, you have to quickly bob and weave your way around. Some enemies can be picked-off from multiple angles, while others you to position yourself under them AND aim your turret correctly. You can only move forward (with extremely poor scrolling.. seriously this is motion-free) in the center channel, and sometimes I found it better to just ignore enemies. Tiger added some elements to make it feel true to the arcade game, like having to get a key to exit through the gate. I always appreciate it when they make that extra effort, even if it’s a teeny tiny thing that ultimately doesn’t affect gameplay that much. Vindicators isn’t mind-blowing or anything, but it’s a nice little time waster.

NEBULA MASK MACHINEMAN: LIGHTNING STRIKER!!
aka Machine Man

Bandai (1984)
Gameplay Type: Dodger/Shooting Gallery

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I was worried at first this was just a rehash of Ultraman. It almost was. The gameplay is split into two parts. In part one, you’re a car that has to dodge bullets fired from a factory. To the game’s credit, it’s yet another LCD (or in this case, VFD) that proves that I was wrong: this format absolutely can create a sense of speed. It just needs the right “animation” and sound effects. So, Machine Man has that going for it, and it’s one of the most convincing illusions of movement I’ve seen yet in over one-hundred LCDs. Unfortunately, the gameplay isn’t any good. You have to make your way to the factory, with the speed increasing the further right you move on the screen. While you do this, the factory lobs bullets at you that you have to dodge. It’s really dull. Once you get to the factory, you transform into a robot and the game becomes a simple five-channel gallery shooter that doesn’t nothing original. According to the Handheld Museum, this is one of the rarest LCD/VFDs out there, and knowing what goes into making these emulated versions, I’m heartbroken I didn’t like this at all. It’s really boring. Great sense of speed, though! Can’t stress that enough.

ZACKMAN!!
Bandai (1982)
Gameplay Type: Action-Arcade

Zackman, which is apparently based on an arcade game called The Pit, is sort like Dig Dug. You have to burrow through blocks to reach a purple canister and return it to your ship. The Dig Dug aspect comes from the various rocks scattered throughout the level that you can use to crush enemies. There’s also a gun hidden on the stages, but in a dozen or so sessions, most of which I went several levels deep, I only found it once. It’s bizarre how many obscure coin-ops got the LCD/VFD treatment. Maybe it came with the contract when you sign-up to make arcade games. “Sign here to acknowledge your game will eventually be trashed forty years later by a silver-spoon licking California girl. And sign here to have your game completely bastardized and made into an LCD or VDF that’s barely recognizable for all the hard work you’ll be putting into your arcade game. And please initial underneath that to assure that also will also be trashed forty years later by some silver-spoon licking California girl, possibly the same girl but that’s subject to availability. Congratulations, you’re now officially an arcade game maker and OH look at that, the arcade market crashed. Sorry for all the paperwork.” Anyway, it’s nice that Zackman’s playfield is actually scrolls. I wish that Pengo did that too. But the game is just not fun.

HOOK!!
Tiger Electronics (1991)
Gameplay Type: Combative

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Based on the Steven Spielberg movie that he hates but I’ve always kind of adored, this is a game played in three parts. In part one, the Lost Boys launch garbage at pirates, and.. I’m not even sure you can lose this section. You just hit the fire button and they come at you in a straight line and just keep pressing fire. Eventually, Captain Hook will show up and raise his sword up and down, but if this is an attempt to block your projectiles, it never worked for me. Even when it seemed like I might have mistimed things, I still got the pirates and never took damage in this section. This whole “level one” goes on forever, with only one part of your soul escaping to continue playing to the next level. The rest of my soul is stuck just pressing one button with no challenge for all eternity. The bit of my soul that moved onto part two had to swing back and forth on a rope and kick pirates in the face while avoiding their sword attacks. You need to collect two keys to begin the section where you battle Captain Hook as Peter Pan. Here you cross swords, dodging and attacking and trying to knock Hook’s health down. In multiple attempts, I never got a single hit in. I would have kept trying to but the sheer agony of having to play to that part is like being stuck with an unstoppable cut scene. It seriously is a couple minutes, and it’s misery. What were they thinking? You earned no BANGARANG on this one, Tiger!

SKELETON WARRIORS!!
Tiger Electronics (1994)
Gameplay Type: Combative

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The total inconsistency of Tiger’s ambition is so weird. Hook, a movie based on a grown-up Peter Pan? Three unique levels that all play differently. Skeleton Warriors? Just press the button when something is next to you to kill them. I suppose you do have to walk right too, and they try to have LCD debris scattered around to create that illusion, but it fails badly. There’s almost no ambition here, like their mandate was to just dump something out using Game Template #2B so that this reaches the market in time for the cartoon’s premiere. There’s a sword to pick up, but it doesn’t seem to do anything besides change what weapon you stick out when you kill things. If it does more, I didn’t need it. There’s no ammo, and in fact, I only needed two gameplay sessions to be able to play this without taking any damage. Hell, the only reason I took damage the first time was attempting to capture screenshots. It feels like it was aimed at really young and possibly brain damaged children. When Tiger Electronics phoned-in a license, they REALLY phoned it in. This is just lazy and shameful.

Atari 50: The Games They Couldn’t Include – The Definitive Review (Part One)

I wanted to post a Christmas treat for everybody since my readers made 2022 my biggest year since 2013. What can I do?

Well, I wanted to do something really special. For the last month, I’ve been making my way through Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, and writing a review using my Definitive Review format (see my reviews of Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Cowabunga Collection). With over one-hundred games to play and review in the set, it’s been a monster undertaking, and I’m not close to done yet. I have to inspect the PC version of it and test different control schemes for it. I’ve also accepted an invite from Atari to do a feature for their blog on finding the most comfortable control settings on the console versions of Atari 50 for the games that have analog control, such as trackball games or dial games. It’s the first time I’ve ever accepted an invite from a developer or publisher to go onto THEIR turf and contribute something for them. It’s something I normally feel, as a critic, I should not be involved in. But, given the fact that Atari has been such good sports about what have been some brutally frank critiques, I feel like this is a project I can do without violating any ethical standard of separation of church and state, or rather, critic and game maker. Besides, it’s my way to contribute directly towards the discussion of improving and expanding these control options. I want EVERY set from here out to offer as much flexibility as Atari 50 offers, and also as simply as they offer it. All of this has been contributing to my Atari 50 project taking a little longer than I expected, so my plans to post this review on Christmas Day have been pushed back a week, and honestly, I wouldn’t be stunned if the review isn’t up until mid-January. So, Christmas is cancelled, right?

“Have you played your Atari today?” Yes. Yes I have. And the day before. And the day before that. And the day before the day before that..

But, with Atari 50, I’ve been doing a little more than people realize. Only a couple friends knew what I was up to. In secret, I’ve been working on this supplemental feature of the games Atari couldn’t include in their collection. Iconic games made by Atari that they simply can’t use because they don’t have the rights to them. The stuff you would expect: E.T., Star Wars, and Space Invaders, etc. I had intended to post this a couple days after the Atari 50 review, but, when I realized this feature was closer to being done than the Atari 50 review was properly, I decided “hell, why not post this Christmas day?” Except, even that feature wasn’t done. It’s basically doubling the games I’ve already reviewed. I sat down to start editing these reviews on on Friday, and then being absolute deranged, I wasn’t happy with most of them. So, I ended up just rewriting them. Which means the other ones, some of which were incomplete and some of which (like E.T.) I haven’t even started yet. So, I’m breaking this up into parts. This part will have the thirty reviews that are complete-complete. Meaning I’ve probably rewrote them a third or fourth time by now.

RULES: Most of the games featured here were made by Atari but for IPs they don’t own or can’t just re-release, many of which are unlikely to ever get ported anywhere ever again. I didn’t include Activision games. I didn’t include any games that Atari could just release without having to worry about doing any licensing. Most releases tied to Atari Games, the company created by the Warner Bros. sale of Atari, are not included. However, while I’m not including any Activision games, I am including some games that Atari didn’t develop themselves. Just for fun. It’s my feature! I will fully confess that I didn’t put as much time into all these as I did Atari 50. Well, so much for that. This had around fifty total gameplay hours for just the thirty games featured here. Well, thirty-one, depending on how you view what comes up in the Space Invaders review.

There’s three sites who I want to thank for all their contributions to gaming, for whom I owe a LOT of this project to, even if they have no clue who I am. Atari Age, AtariMania, and AtariProtos. Their hard work has provided me with lots of wonderful stories and anecdotes and made this such a blast for me to do. Without them, this wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good as it is.. or at least I hope it is. Thank you! Seriously, go browse their sites. Well, maybe not AtariProtos, which can be downright depressing. I mean, it’s not THEIR fault, but it’s like a graveyard for games, many of which were 100% completed but never released anyway. Some of which actually weren’t half-bad, especially for the Atari 5200. Spoiler: you’ll be reading about a few of them in a few minutes.

GAME REVIEWS

For those not familiar with my way of thinking of how retro games should be reviewed, I take NO historical context into account. I don’t care how important a game was to the industry, because that doesn’t make a game worth playing today. The test of time is the cruelest test of all, but every video game must face it. I might not be here if not for Pong’s success, but I wouldn’t want to play it today. Not when there’s better options. Therefore, when I review retro games, every game gets either a YES! or a NO!

YES! means the game is still fun and has actual gameplay value when played today and is worth seeking out.

NO! means the game didn’t age gracefully and is not worth seeking out, and certainly not worth spending money on.

Atari Video Cube
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1982
Designed by Josh Littlefield

The famous story with this game goes as such: Steven Race ran the international wing of Atari’s consumer division. He was the man who would later go on to drop the famous “$299” bombshell for PlayStation at the first E3. Someone asked him what he thought about distributing Atari Video Cube across Europe, which Atari avoided a lawsuit over by taking an official license from the Rubik’s people. “Absolutely not” he said without a hint of hesitation. He was asked how he could come to the decision so quickly, to which he offered the following curt response: “Well, you’re going to have to help me understand why a $40 electronic rendition of this product is better than the $3.98 rendition that is more portable and that I can take anywhere I want.” The man had a good point, but nobody listened. Video Cube was, of course, a major money loser for Atari and an unsung contributor to their role in the Great Video Game Crash. BUT, hand over heart, the game isn’t bad. It fact, it’s the best puzzle game I’ve played on any Atari platform. Swear to God. Cross my heart and hope to die! Stick a need in my eye.

A big misnomer about Atari Video Cube is that it’s just a straight port of a Rubik’s Cube. It’s not, and rather it’s a logic puzzler with a goal that’s the same as the popular novelty toy/puzzler: turn all the colors of a cube the same way on all sides. However, it’s impossible to play this as anything but a video game.. at least without an unscrupulous contractor and a generous amount of liability insurance. You don’t rotate different wedges of the Cube to solve it. Instead, you’re a dude who walks on the cube and you must pick up one color (or, more accurately, begin the process of swapping colors) until you finish the cube. There’s a rule to make this work as a puzzle: you can’t walk on top of the same color you’re currently carrying (which you become that color). That’s it. That’s the only real rule. And it works WONDERFULLY! This is actually a very clever take on a handheld toy that I frankly think is one of the most boring things to sit and fidget with.

I’m not sure why they made the character look that way. Just make a stick figure. It looks like a plump Robin Hood who lost a leg in a bear trap.

I can’t believe Atari caved-in and took a license. Which they did, re-releasing it as Rubik’s Cube in even more limited quantities than the original game got, which wasn’t a lot. According to Atari Age, both games are very, very rare, but the officially-licensed one that carries the Rubik’s name is the slightly rarer one. Also, apparently they were working on an actual translation of a Rubik’s Cube, presumably to smooth-over the angry owners who felt Atari was riding coattails. Those oh so valuable Rubik’s Cube coattails (while editing this, Angela discovered there was a Rubik’s Cube cartoon in the 80s. What? No.. that can’t possibly be true. Not even the 80s could be that shallow. Oh for F’s sake, it’s true!). Also, Cathy, it’s tangents like this that cause these things to take so long to write. Granted, I have a right to be POed. This should not be buried. They shouldn’t have to license this. It has almost nothing to do with the source material. The precedent set by the Data East/Epyx lawsuit should cover this, shouldn’t it?

First game in and the first shocking result: Atari Video Cube is actually a solidly good and original puzzler. Heck, even the rotation between sides is satisfying to watch.

History has maligned Atari Video Cube. In actuality, it ain’t a bad little game at all. Once I got the hang of the movement rule and realized there were actually 10 of the blue squares (like.. duh, Cathy! Of course there would be! The game would be unsolvable if one of the colors didn’t have an even number, you dumb ass!) I started to make progress and it actually felt good solving it. I enjoyed my time solving it too! I don’t think every mode is a winner. There’s one where you can’t see any of the squares without making a move, which allows you to briefly see the playfield. Like, what’s the point? High score chasing for one of the most stupid ideas? WHAT IS WITH Atari games and invisibility as a way to pad the mode count? Space Invaders. Breakout. Etc. Ugh. Anyway, yea, was Atari Video Cube a dumb idea? Probably. Is it a bad game? Not at all. Honestly, this is one of those games Atari should check and make sure they can’t just re-release. There’s no way the Rubik’s people can claim they were ripped off, even if Atari was riding the fad. This is an original concept that deserves to be compete in a free market. Or, in this case, be included in a set that celebrates the history of the company that was nearly killed by making dumb moves, like licensing $40 video games based on $4 toys and then barely manufacturing the damn thing when this brain-dead licensing idea somehow turns out a very good puzzle game. Man, we’re off to a good start. This was originally a one-paragraph review.
Verdict: YES!

Battlezone:
Platform: Arcade
Year: 1980
Designed by Ed Rotberg

I’ve made a ton of friends out of legendary game developers. As a little girl who grew up loving video games, it’s absolutely surreal for me to be friends with so many legends of gaming. One of my favorites is Ed Rotberg, who is an absolute sweetheart. It was a thrill just having him talk to me the first time, let alone when we started talking regularly. I’m such a huge Battlezone fan, and I don’t think people appreciate just what an achievement he pulled off with it.

While not all vector graphics games in Atari 50 are hits, most of the best arcade games in the set use vector graphics. Yet, one game is conspicuous by its absence. That would be Battlezone, the 1980 Ed Rotberg classic that absolutely blasts the test of time. This shouldn’t hold up at all. You’re placed in an abstract arena and must fight a continuous stream of spawning tanks. When you score a hit, holy smokes, is it ever satisfying. Also satisfying is seeing a torpedo coming straight at you and just BARELY managing to dodge out of the way. It’s not always a game that plays fairly. Sometimes the game will spawn a tank right in front of you that can get a shot off before you can react. Even more frustrating is when you die and respawn right in crosshairs of a tank. Dirty pool, Edward. Dirty pool. Of course, those frustrations are muffled by one of the most thrilling and immersive Golden Age games. The granddaddy of all 3D games, and a game that aged beautifully.

I would LOVE to actually get to play the Bradley Trainer. Wouldn’t that be something if they could release that publicly?

So, why isn’t it in Atari 50? Well, because Battlezone.. specifically Battlezone.. was purchased by a company called Rebellion Games when Atari went out of bankrupt in 2013. So, I want to make an appeal directly to Rebellion Games: license this to Atari (and let them include the Atari 2600 port AND the unreleased Atari 5200 prototype) for $1 and no royalties and let them just include it in Atari 50. It’s not too late. While I’m sure you’re proud that you own one of the all-time great games, it’s not worth anything without the historic clout. Atari 50 didn’t need Battlezone to still be Atari. But, YOU actually do need people to be nostalgic for Battlezone for it to be worth ANYTHING as a franchise, and not having your game in these sets is going to hurt its potential. BADLY! As much as I love it, from a historical perspective, Battlezone is a B-Lister. It’s not Pong. It’s not Space Invaders. It’s not Pac-Man. It’s not Donkey Kong. It’s a really great game that really isn’t anywhere near the forefront of arcade nostalgia. Nobody is going to buy Atari 50 just because it has Battlezone in it. It’s not happening. You make the deal, and you make it for $1, so that people of all generations can look at it and appreciate it. You can do a press release saying you made the deal on the cheap, out of respect to gaming history. THAT is fan service, and the best publicity $1 will ever buy you. Or, you can just sit on your dead franchise. It’s YOUR franchise now, after all, to do with as you see fit.
Verdict: YES!

Battlezone:
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1983
Designed by Michael Feinstein

For my money, Battlezone might be the best looking first-party game ever on the Atari 2600. For what they were limited to at the time, it’s gorgeous, plus it has smooth scrolling AND one of the most stylish and impressive death animations ever, for any era.

A lot of Atari 2600 games that are based on vector graphics titles are completely stripped of their charm. Battlezone 2600 designer Michael Feinstein wisely decided to not attempt an exact one-to-one translation from the coin-op and instead tried to capture the spirit of the arcade game. He succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation and made what might be the 2600’s best arcade translation. Pulling the camera back to a third-person perspective works wonderfully here. The thrills of near misses from enemy fire are retained, and very little satisfaction is lost from the combat itself. My biggest knock is that dodging bullets is a lot harder, to the point that if the enemy gets a shot off from mid-range, you’ll almost certainly die. There’s just not enough time to dodge out of the way. It’s relatively rare, but it happens.

Good draw distance too. This really is a remarkable achievement for the Atari 2600.

To counter that, Battlezone 2600 actually plays faster than the arcade game, which means the quick-draw aspect is more intense. Yea, dodging enemies who are within range is a little tough, so, just blow them away before then. When you get on a roll and start to tag one enemy after another as soon as they spawn, it’s a thrill. Thus, this becomes the rarest of the rare on the Atari 2600: a home port that, in some aspects, exceeds the arcade original. That I even had to think, even for a second, as to whether this was better than the arcade game speaks volumes. It’s not, but I did have to ask myself that. Despite the changed angle, this feels like an incredibly close approximation of the arcade game, so much so that it’s one of those games where I actually feel happy for kids who owned an Atari in the early 80s. Had Battlezone 2600 been included in Atari 50, it would have had a very good chance of being the #1 ranked Atari 2600 game.
Verdict: YES!

Battlezone
Platform: Atari 5200
Unreleased Prototype

This is the most nitpicky thing in this whole feature, but wow! That’s some extraordinarily ugly, unpleasant color scheming they went with for the menu.

If you want proof that Atari learned their lesson from Pac-Man 2600 and E.T., look no further than Battlezone 5200. When I found out a completed (or “complete enough” depending on the source) prototype existed, I was thrilled! I loves me some Battlezone. It was slated for release in December, 1983, but then Atari pulled the plug on it. Weird, right? Especially with the Atari 5200 hurting for software. It even looks like it has actual vector graphics, too, a first for Atari’s home games. But then I played it, and it took only seconds to realize why Atari put the kibosh on its release. It’s a TERRIBLE effort. Sluggish and unresponsive, with the smoothness of a high-grit sandpaper. The thrilling combat of the arcade is completely muffled behind a game engine that feels like it could collapse at any time. You’ll marvel at enemies getting stuck behind the various scattered debris on the field. I could see how people playing this could think this was incomplete, but no, apparently this was after polishing and buffing up the gameplay. Yipes! So, when people say Atari didn’t care about quality games, maybe that was true once, but by 1983, it clearly wasn’t anymore. Had Battlezone 5200 come out, it would barely be a step above Pac-Man 2600 in the all-time awful arcade ports pantheon.
Verdict: NO!

Berzerk
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1982
Designed by Dan Hitchens

A fun quirk of the Atari 2600 is that many games use flickering to have more moving characters than the console is capable of animating. So, for example, here both the player character and the infamous villain Evil Otto (which is, frankly, just an emoji.. albeit before those were actually a thing) aren’t on screen at the same time, and the frame simply switches really quick. It makes taking screenshots a pain in the ass. So, I cheated and spliced Evil Otto into this screen.

Berzerk in arcades is famous for being the first video game to kill one of its players. It didn’t. The person in question was 18 and had scarring on their heart and was fated to have a massive heart attack at any moment anyway. But hey, what else would it be famous for if not for being credited with a body count? The gameplay actually translated relatively well to the Atari 2600. In arcades, it talked. The Atari 2600 version doesn’t have that, so it has to survive on its endless robot-murder and the tension of Evil Otto. Oddly enough, he doesn’t show up in the first game mode. Even weirder: he can be killed in the second mode. This is a character known for being unkillable in arcades. I had to consult the instruction book to figure out which mode was the closest to the arcade version, which is very annoying. Doesn’t it make more sense for the first mode to be the closest to the arcade’s gameplay? Isn’t that why anyone would buy this in the first place?

Sometimes it spawns you practically right on top of the enemies. Sometimes Evil Otto spawns right on top of you. Why, it’s enough to give a person a heart attack! OH BOO YOURSELVES! What, too soon?

Regardless, Berzerk is a shocking shallow game. Weirdly, I have played it and I do remember it being better. But, actually putting it through the wringer, there’s just no stakes to it. The enemy robots are dumb as rocks and will walk right into walls, which kills them. Which sort of feels like balancing the cosmic scales to make up for the constant cheap spawns the game does to you. Meanwhile, there’s exits in the rooms, but it doesn’t matter which door you run to. You’re not trying to get anywhere. Berzerk just keeps going indefinitely, and that makes the door concept feel lame as hell. Why not just keep you in the room until you kill the last enemy? Berzerk doesn’t play badly by any means, but it’s just dull, repetitive, pointless, and lacks the sense of catharsis that would absolve it of those first three problems.
Verdict: NO!

Berzerk
Platform: Atari 5200
Year: 1984
Designed by Carlos Smith

I actually think the enemies are dumber in the 5200 version. I once saw four die from, I think, walking into each-other at the exact same moment.

I could take the lazy way out and say Berzerk for the Atari 5200 is the same game I just wrote about above, only with a few limited voice samples, but that’s not entirely accurate. Berzerk 5200 is slower, for one thing. A lot slower, in fact. Movement has a sluggishness that wasn’t part of the 2600 game. To make up for this, Evil Otto spawns more fairly. Multiple times on the 2600, he spawned literally on the space I was standing. Pack your bags in your penis-shaped luggage because that’s a DICK MOVE! Well, that doesn’t happen on the 5200. However, sometimes it does seem to spawn YOU in with enemies placed in a way where I’m not even sure the situation is survivable. Unless the enemies all just clear each-other out with their own bullets or walking into each-other. That happens. I do like how the enemies practically shatter when you shoot them in this version. It’s much more satisfying, but otherwise, Berzerk is still a very overrated game. The best thing I can say about it is that you can only shoot in the direction you’re walking. That’s not a good thing here, but it’s a great thing for gaming history. Eugene Jarvis found that system so unsatisfactory that he created the twin stick shooter with Robotron as a response. So, you’re overrated and kind of boring, but hey, thanks for inspiring one of the all-time greats, Berzerk!
Verdict: NO!

Bugs Bunny
Platform: Atari 2600
Unreleased Prototype
Designed by Bob Polaro and Alan Murphy

Who the hell are you winking at, Bub?

Game production at Atari was a haphazard process. A lot of games, even licensed games, started production and never actually came out despite being 100% finished. As the story goes, after Atari took a pasting at the end of 1982 and Warner Bros.’s stock cratered almost entirely because of Atari, they suddenly had to pay attention to the costs of manufacturing and distributing games, since their budget was being slashed. They had two action games aimed at a younger audience in development that were supposed to be staked in small part by the Sesame Street people and published under their new Children’s Computer Workshop label. The two games were Bugs Bunny and Snoopy and the Red Baron. Well, the Sesame Street money dried up, and now that Atari was bottoming out, it was decided they would only release one of the two games. They used focus testing to determine the winner, and Snoopy was the nearly unanimous choice among all demographics, and Bugs Bunny was never released. Never mind all the bad stuff I’m about to say about it: can you imagine working hard on a game, completing it, and then watching it get shelved FOREVER? It’s rare these days, but it was practically standard operating procedure at Atari at this point.

It’s a reverse gallery shooter where you’re the target. And it sucks.

Having said all that, it’s not at all hard to see why the focus tested children chose Snoopy and the Red Baron to such a degree that it probably caused hurt feelings. While Snoopy’s not exactly the deepest game, it’s, you know, alright and even fun. Meanwhile, Bugs Bunny is one of the dumbest ideas for a game I’ve ever played. It’s so stupid that I think even little kids who were huge Looney Tunes fans would be annoyed by it. You pick one of three channels, and a dog yanks you out of a hole and the object is to jump back into it. And it’s right there. I mean, like, RIGHT THERE! Not exactly next to you, but close enough that you shouldn’t need more than a second or two to jump back in. That’s it! That’s the whole game. I guess the challenge is supposed to come from the fact that you jump at an angle that you don’t actually aim yourself, but I grew up in the post-Mario era. It ain’t that hard to judge a jump. You can also jump through the edge of the screen and come out the other side to avoid Elmer’s gunfire, which does increase to absurd degrees as you go along. But, there’s really nothing to collect in the middle and bottom channels. In the top channel, you can grab Elmer’s ammo from under his house, which temporarily stops him from shooting at you. Otherwise, this is such a nothing game. You really can’t know if something will work until you try it, but this should have been killed early in production. If this had been a Mario Party mini-game it would STILL have been pitiful. There’s a lot of horror stories with focus testing in gaming, but this is one that got it absolutely right.
Verdict: NO!

Circus Atari
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1980
Designed by Mike Lorenzen

Circus Atari (Japan, USA)-221224-123204

WEEEEEEEEEEE OW OW OW THE PAIN! THE PAIN! OW! WEEEEEEE!

UPDATE: Circus Atari is on Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, but only on the Atari VCS as an unlockable. BOOOOOO!

One of the more interesting takes on the Breakout formula, and probably one of Atari’s better paddle games, you have to launch acrobats up to pop what are balloons in the arcade game. Oh and yes, there’s an arcade game, only it’s not by Atari. Exidy, who did games like Venture and Mouse Trap (both of which I’ll be looking at in part two despite being done by Coleco), made the arcade release. Exidy isn’t credited in any documentation on Circus Atari, which makes one wonder if this was authorized or not. I can’t get a clear answer on that, but Circus Atari hasn’t shown up in one of these collections in a long time, so maybe not. Shame, because it’s actually a really solid game. It’s not great. Sometimes it’s tough to build up the momentum for your character to actually launch high enough to hit the blocks. At one point, I did probably in the neighborhood of a dozen passes in a row with the character not so much as hitting the bottom row, which had me screaming and cussing. But, once you get the hang of Circus Atari, it’s actually really satisfying for your character to bounce around the blocks, clearing out multiple before they come back down. Honestly, this is probably the VCS’s best brick breaker. It’s also a game that makes me hope somebody puts together an Exidy collection.
Verdict: YES!

Choplifter!
Platform: Atari 5200
Year: 1984
Designed by Dan Gorlin

Do you know what I realized about the Atari 5200 during my run through Atari 50 and all these left-out games? While it’s not always true, it has some truly ugly use of color. Some games are fine looking, but they also lack the charm or personality the Atari 2600 had. The games for it just look drab and low-tech. I mean, look at this! That’s as sad looking as any game I’ve seen. It barely looks better than an Atari 2600 game.

I keep encountering Choplifter! in these retro runs. I always wince when it comes up. It’s probably the game with the least flaws that I just plain don’t like. You fly around, shoot tanks and jets, and then land and load over a dozen people into a tiny helicopter. Is it a TARDIS? For the Atari 5200 version, I mostly just cruised around with the helicopter facing the screen and rained bullets down on the tanks, turning only to shoot down the jets and satellites. As a game, Choplifter! doesn’t really do anything major wrong. It is fickle about where you have to land to drop off the people you rescue. If you park right next to the building, they won’t get off. Choplifter has been around forever. On the 5200, ugly as it, it’s a fine port of the game, I guess. I just never liked Choplifter. I appreciate the attempt to twist the Defender formula. But, Choplifter replaces the intensity of Defender’s skin-of-your-teeth rescues with the agony of stop-and-go gameplay as you watch humans with absolutely no survival instinct slowly load into the chopper. An act which apparently causes tanks suddenly gain super speed because they’ll always just zoom right into the frame while the morons load in, and that’s assuming the jets don’t fly in and blow clusters of them to smithereens. Choplifter isn’t crappy or anything, but I prefer my shooters to not grind to a halt as often as it does. Full disclosure: at around twenty minutes, this is the game I played the least in this feature, and also the one I wanted to write the least. Be honest: you can tell, can’t you?
Verdict: NO!

Defender
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1982
Designed by Bob Polaro

This is one of those games that relies on flicker to function so much that any one screenshot doesn’t really show anything. EVERYTHING is blinking, at all times. Your ship and all the enemies on screen and most of the enemies on the radar completely disappear whenever you fire. It’s that bad. It completely nullifies any potential satisfaction to the combat, because really you just aim, fire, and then reality itself ends and when it phases back into existence the thing you were shooting at doesn’t phase back in with you. Sigh.

Oh, my precious Defender. What have they done to you? Look, I appreciate the effort to bring my all-time favorite coin-op to the Atari 2600, but maybe in this one case they should have just said “we can’t possibly do it justice” and taken a mulligan. The combat lacks the satisfactory OOMPH that I adore so much about the coin-op. The enemy designs are now abstract and dull to battle. It’s almost to the point of being a deal breaker by itself. But, actually, where it really, really goes bad is the defending part. You know, that part of the game that entire goshdarned game is named after! The humans are replaced with tiny rainbow-flashy dots, and the 2600 version does manage to somewhat capture the thrill of shooting down a ship that has a human in its grasp before they can merge into a mutant. But, then you actually have to catch the humans on the way down, and the 2600 version of the game has too sluggish of controls, and especially too poor of an ability to make tight turns, to successfully make the save most of the time. Honestly, this was a truly admirable attempt. It really was. I mean, it failed as completely in every imaginable way, but hey, A for effort!

Ahem.

YOU BASTARDS! HOW COULD DO THIS TO ONE OF THE ALL-TIME GREATS?! AAHHHHH!!

Sorry for that. I’m fine. I’m perfectly fine. I don’t take this too seriously. I swear!
Verdict: NO!

Defender
Platform: Atari 5200
Year: 1982
Designed by Steve A. Baker

Combat on the 5200 version of Defender looks like it takes place on an Etch-a-Sketch. Or possibly an old monitor with pixels bleeding-out.

Now this a decent port. I can’t possibly imagine trying to play it with an analog joystick that doesn’t self-center, but hey, I don’t have to deal with crap. I get to just enjoy the game that feels like the unsung star of the 5200 launch window. Sure, it’s a bit sluggish, but Defender is one of the most fast and intense coin-ops of its time and the Atari 5200 feels like a console that never got a hug. I wasn’t expecting a one-to-one translation over here. Which is really great because this sure as hell isn’t one. But, in some ways it’s kind of better. Like a person who buys a sports car because they have a tiny penis, Defender 5200 really goes overboard with the particle effects of your cannon fire. When you blow up enemies, YOU BLOW UP ENEMIES and make it rain pixels all over the screen. I LOVE THAT! That part is actually more satisfying than the combat in the arcade game because it just kind of lingers on the screen like you covered the world in your foe’s guts. Also I might be a high-functioning psychopath.

Like the 2600 version, the vertical movement isn’t well done and it makes rescuing a slight pain the butt, but it plays MUCH better here.

Defender 5200 was probably the best game early adopters could get, at least from what I could tell. It also served as a dire warning of what to expect from the console. One consistent theme from all the games I’ve played so far is that the 5200 doesn’t handle speed all that well. The best game I’ve played for the 5200 so far, Gremlins (coming right up), is also remarkable low-urgency. So, when you’re translating a game as white-knuckle as Defender, you’re going to take a hit. In fact, this feels like Defender if Defender was set underwater. Hey wait.. that actually happened, and it played fine! Okay so that wasn’t the insult I was aiming for, but hey, it’s Christmas Day and it’s the thought that counts! The biggest issue is movement really lacks the precision of the coin-op, which itself has a problem or two. In the arcade, you can overcome it with time. I don’t think you’ll be able to totally on the 5200 without completely changing your fight-or-flee strategy. See, while you’re moving sluggishly, the enemies don’t lack for their arcade attack patterns, which is naturally going to make for an unhappy union when you encounter a wall of enemies and tight squeezes. Defender on the Atari 5200 has so many problems that TMZ has its own hashtag for it. But, it’s still pretty dang fun. And I loves me those laser booms! Good laser booms this has.
Verdict: YES!

Gremlins
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1984
Designed by Scott Smith

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I promise a good Atari Gremlins game is coming up in just a paragraph when I look at the 5200 version. Comparatively, Atari 2600 owners got hosed (well, heh, actually 5200 owners certainly got hosed on Gremlins too for completely different reasons). They got a two-screen game that rips off Activision’s Kaboom! and bastardizes their own port of Space Invaders. In the first screen, Mogwais come flying off the roof of a building trying to dive onto food, which will turn them into Gremlins. You have to catch them to prevent this. They will turn into Gremlins regardless, because Billy Peltzer was an objectively careless pet owner. After just a couple stages, they come in faster than anyone would rationally expect. In the second screen, the cocoons hatch and you must pick off the Gremlins one at a time. It’s such a bore of a game. It controls far too loosely and just has no joy to it. I get the feeling Scott Smith must not have wanted this assignment. It’s one of the worst games Atari published to the Atari 2600 because I have nothing positive to say about it. There’s no way to spin it: Gremlins is a monster that should blown up in the microwave.
Verdict: Gizmo Gaga! (That would be NO!)

Gremlins
Platform: 5200
Year: 1986
Designed by John Seghers

If you were to make a game about the first Gremlins movie, where do you begin? In that sense, Gremlins the 5200 game might actually be the best movie-to-game adaption of its era because it takes a hard-to-adapt concept and setting and makes it work it a way that it truly believable as a movie tie-in. There’s nothing cynical about this game. It helps that the game is awesome.

Gremlins 5200, a completely different type of game than its 2600 cousin, actually has quite the story to go with it. It’s the final release for the Atari 5200 and, like so many 100% fully-developed Atari 5200 games from this time frame, it almost never came out at all. Despite the fact that games like Super Pac-Man were completed before it, Gremlins was the only one of the late-stage 5200 games that was sent to manufacturing, on literally the day before Jack Tramiel took over Atari. By this point, Atari had already axed the 5200, and Tramiel ordered all production on cartridges for it cease immediately. But, it was too late to stop manufacturing Gremlins. It wasn’t even made in limited quantities, either. According to the experts at Atari Age, it’s fairly scarce, but by no means a rarity. So, they might as well have sold it right then, while the movie was still red-hot, right? Nope. It sat in a warehouse for two years, much to the dismay of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg loved both the Atari 5200 and the 5200 version of Gremlins and offered to personally purchase the inventory to release himself. Jack Tramiel, ever the savvy businessman, refused. After Nintendo created a resurgence in the video game market, Tramiel restarted production of Atari carts and ordered the distribution of all previously warehoused carts. Among them was Gremlins, making it the final new game for the Atari 5200 during its “natural lifecycle.” In this case, the definition of “natural lifecycle” has a bit of an asterisk.

It’s hard to think of a game that Gremlins 5200 is like, because really, I’ve never played anything like it. The closest to it is probably Robotron: 2084, especially as you make progress. After a relatively slow start (which you can bypass, as the game usually starts on Level 3, with levels 1 and 2 especially being a tutorial), levels will start with you stuck somewhere in the center of a very cramped screen with action all around you. I wish the intensity would remain, but as you clear levels out, sometimes the gameplay grinds to a screeching halt.

Gremlins’ role as the Atari 5200’s endling is tragic, because it might actually be the best game for the entire platform. Not only that, but it’s one of the most clever movie-to-game adaptions I’ve ever played. A one-off unlike any game I’ve played before. A single-screen action game where you have to collect the wandering Mogwais one at a time and place them in a pen in the corner of the screen. There’s puddles of water and food all over the screen. If one of the Mogwais touch the water, it will become two Mogwais. If they touch the food, they become Gremlins and you must kill them with your sword. If the Gremlins get to the pen, they’ll open the door and release all the Mogwai you’ve already rescued and you’ll have to round them up again. There’s various malfunctioning appliances that shoot food onto the playfield, like a popcorn machine. If one of its projectiles hits the Mogwai, they turn into a Gremlin. The level ends when you clear the screen of all Gremlins and/or round up all the Mogwai. Oh, and there’s a clock and you have to do all this before the sun comes up and fries everything. It’s a truly inspired idea that works wonderfully, so much so that I can’t believe they didn’t turn this into a full-fledged arcade game. It would have been so good as an arcade game.

Screens can be positively spammed with enemies, and the start of stages especially can be breathtaking. You know, part of me wonders if this game had guardian angels at Atari who realized Tramiel was going to shut down production of all 5200 games, and recognized that Gremlins was easily the best original game for the platform and pushed to save it at the literal eleventh hour by pushing it into manufacturing. God bless them if that’s the case, and I suspect it is.

It’s not perfect by any means. Some stages can have agonizingly slow ending sequences where you have to slowly make your way around barriers carrying the Mogwai. Movement is moderately slow, and after the initial opening mayhem of a packed stage, the pace becomes what I’ll generously call “deliberate.” Also, the game loads the dice against being able to rescue all the Mogwai in each stage, as some start the level practically on top of food or the water. Finally, I kind of wish the combat was more satisfying. You kill the Gremlins with a sword, but there’s no OOMPH to it, and the collision detection feels a bit spotty. On the other hand, you’re not just swinging a sword. Even if you’re carrying a Mogwai, you can pick-up the food to make the level safer. You can also freeze everything by using a flashbulb, and Mogwais who walk in front of a TV will stop wandering and watch the idiot box. If not for those (relatively rare) instances where gathering the final Mogwai requires you to walk the full circumference of the level and back (especially annoying when there’s an entire cluster of the damn things), I’d say Gremlins never gets boring. It’ll have to settle for being really fun and mostly not boring. I don’t know what’s the biggest tragedy: that Atari 5200 fans didn’t get this in 1984, or that it’s unlikely to ever get a wide release again.
Verdict: YES!

Jr. Pac-Man
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1986
Designed by Ava-Robin Cohen

This is one of those “follow the spirit of the original” ports that doesn’t try to accurately copy the original. I wish they had done more of those during this era.

Atari’s home ports of Jr. Pac-Man for both the Atari 2600 and 5200 were done and finished in 1984 and ready to ship. Then Jack Tramiel took over the company and put the screws to all new releases. Fast forward two years: Atari’s home computers aren’t profitable and Nintendo has helped video games to recover from the Great Video Game Crash. Although the 5200 port would never see the light of day since barely a million units of the Atari 5200 existed, there were still thirty million Atari 2600 owners, with over three-quarters of them not yet having upgraded to the NES. And, what do you know, there were a handful of completely finished games ready to ship to those hungry owners! Suddenly, Jack Tramiel loved video games, and Jr. Pac-Man was released to the masses. Well, at least the Atari 2600 version. It’s a stripped down port of the “lost” standard maze-based Pac-Man. Whereas the arcade version scrolled horizontally, Jr. Pac-Man 2600’s mazes scale vertically.  It’s also a much faster feeling game. The “mega dots” from the arcade version also carried over. I don’t think this is a great port by any means. The mazes just aren’t as intense or exciting as the incredible arcade game and its sublime 5200 version that never saw the light of day. But, I’m happy hungry VCS owners in 1986 got one last Pac-Man game, and one that carries over many aspects of the game, like the mega-dots. I think Ms. Pac-Man 2600 was the best Pac-Man on the 2600, but this wasn’t that bad at all.
Verdict: YES!

Jr. Pac-Man
Platform: Atari 5200
Unreleased Prototype
Designed by Mike Horowitz

I really wish whoever the hell owns the rights to this.. I think it’s AtGames these days.. would stop letting Jr. Pac-Man wallow in obscurity. How in the hell do we live in a world where Nintendo’s 1983 Baseball game has gotten over a dozen re-releases but Jr. Pac-Man hasn’t seen the light of day except, apparently, one Jakks Pacific plug and play that wasn’t even one of their more famous ones. God, it’s such a frustrating situation.

The Atari 5200 got two Pac-Man-based releases that were mediocre at best and two ports that were remarkably arcade accurate. Well, it’s the Atari 5200 we’re talking about, so guess which two games were the ones that never actually got released? While Super Pac-Man can feel free to eat poison, Jr. Pac-Man never coming out is an absolute gaming tragedy. It was completed 100%, and had it actually released, it almost certainly would have been the best game for the Atari 5200 that was based on an arcade game. Jr. Pac-Man is already a historically-underrated title that added multiple layers to the concept that actually worked wonderfully. This time around, the maze is bigger than the screen. The exits are gone, so you actually have to use the maze layouts to outwit the ghost monsters. It doesn’t seem like a massive change. Hell, if anything, it was the logical progression of the series when you really think about it. I mean, duh! Make the maze bigger than the screen! What else could they do? Add a terrible physical pinball machine to it and have the action jump from a terrible video game to a terrible pinball machine? Why would they do that? That’d be a stupid idea! Cough.

The seven mazes of Jr. Pac-Man are, frankly, the best in the series. Some of them are absolutely bonkers, like this one. Look at the area around the power pellets. That’s an intense squeeze right there. But, unlike the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man, it works here because there’s other places to scratch-out enough distance to make a play for those sections. Plus, they always have power pellets in the more nail-biting, multiple-out areas.

Pac-Man’s formula only works if the chase is fun. For the chase to be fun, the mazes have to be oriented for close calls and nail-biting races. General Computer already proved they understood this a lot better than even Namco did with Ms. Pac-Man, but they absolutely crushed it with Jr. Pac-Man. The franchise has never had better playgrounds for zigging and zagging around the maze trying to just scratch-out enough clearance between you and the ghosts! And there’s SEVEN mazes this time! That by itself would have been enough, but then Jr. Pac-Man found yet another method of adding tension: the bonus fruit. It hops around the maze, like in Ms. Pac-Man, but with a twist: it converts any normal dot it passes over into a mega-dot that scores more points. BUT, it takes longer to eat the mega-dots, as you pause ever so slightly when you pass over them, which can lead to incredibly tense moments if you have ghosts right on you and all that’s left to eat are those type of dots.

Namco’s treatment of Pac-Man in the wake of the original reminds me of George Lucas with Star Wars, where he later showed that his understanding of why people loved the franchise was completely wrong. In Namco’s case, they really thought the eating and collecting aspect was the appeal. It wasn’t. It’s primarily the chase, with the turning the tables aspect with the power pellets being secondary to that. That’s why their official sequels in the early-to-mid 80s all sucked, while General Computer, who fundamentally understood the appeal, created two stellar sequels that hold up to repeat play even four decades later. It wasn’t until Pac-Mania that Namco finally figured out what makes Pac-Man tick.

Oh, and there’s one final twist: you can’t just let the bonus fruit (or toys in this game’s case) bounce around, converting dots. You HAVE to eat them, because they’re actually weaving their way towards the power pellets, which they destroy if they touch. It leads to situations where you end up rushing towards the toy, eyes wide open in terror, hoping it doesn’t make it to the pellet before you do, and it’s so good. It’s genuinely heartbreaking that nothing is being done with Jr. Pac-Man. It has not clout. It gets no re-releases. Why? Who knows. All I do know is that the 5200 port of Jr. Pac-Man is damn near perfect. It controls like a dream. The ghost AI is the best on the console. It got the timing of the mega-dots perfectly. It doesn’t even feel like they made any concessions at all. Really, as a port, the only knock I have is that the 5200 port doesn’t have the positively adorable cut-scenes of Junior becoming besties with a shy ghost monster toddler and the two crushing on each-other. Seriously, that shouldn’t have warmed my heart as much as it did, but they were just so damn cute! Not so cute is that this, probably the best arcade port on a console with a library comprised mostly of arcade ports, has not seen the light of day. Will someone fix this, please?
Verdict: YES!

Ms. Pac-Man
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1983
Designed by Mike Horowitz, Josh Littlefield

I wouldn’t even be born for another six years when this came out, and yet I feel retroactively happy for those huge fans of Pac-Man who only owned an Atari 2600. I sure hope they got their hands on this.

Ms. Pac-Man 2600 isn’t a direct port of the arcade game. The mazes aren’t arcade accurate at all. In comparing them, I realized what they don’t do that the arcade version does: cross sections to walls. So, there’s no barriers shaped like Ts, Hs, or +s. Bummer, right? Well, the thing is, they all still feel like a close cousin of their arcade counterparts, created in spirit of the original levels. They’re spiritually accurate. Of course, the difference maker is this port was done by the same people who did the actual Ms. Pac-Man coin-op. While it does have an unshakable feel of someone finally saying “eh, that’s close enough!” it’s still a game that makes feel all warm inside. Like, this was the best possible make-good that could have been made in the wake of the Atari 2600 Pac-Man. While this sold nowhere near as many copies as the original game, almost two-and-a-half million people bought this version, and it’s solid. Great play control. Good mazes. The thrill of the chase is present and awesome. There is something about this specific port that feels like it has a soul. That the people who made it played the Tod Frye Pac-Man and had a wrong to right. This port is a labor of love, and a game that feels worthy of wearing the title of Ms. Pac-Man, one of the all-time great arcaders.
Verdict: YES!

Ms. Pac-Man
Platform: Atari 5200
Year: 1983
Designed by Allen Wells and Steve Szymanski

It looks the part, right? Well, just read. This was notable in a way I’m honestly floored by.

I’ve been playing video games now for over a quarter of a century, and I’ve never experienced anything like what I’m about to describe to you. When I booted-up Ms. Pac-Man, I found it to be a visually accurate but quite slow and sluggish approximation of the Ms. Pac-Man arcade game. In fact, while playing the first maze, I found it SO skippy and laggy and badly animated that I shook my head and said “wow, the 2600 version plays better than this. And Pac-Man 5200 was certainly a better translation from a gameplay perspective.” I just wanted to be done with it and decided I would run through every maze and then just do a single-paragraph review noting that it feels like a rough, rushed port that feels like the 5200 can barely sustain without catching fire.

I’ll take this time to note that the ghosts are actually not slouches. I figure that’s worth mentioning. Also worth mentioning is the mazes aren’t a 100% accurate take, but they’re so close that it’s negligible.

AND THEN.. on the fifth maze.. it happened. I noticed the ghosts just dashed out of the starting gates at a reasonable speed. Then I realized I, too, was moving at a reasonable speed. What.. the.. fudge? Yea, the sluggishness, out of nowhere, just goes away and the game becomes a reasonable pace from there out. Well, except when one of the fruits starts dancing around the maze, at which point the performance takes a slight dip, though it’s still much faster than the first four levels, where the arrival of the fruit makes you fear that your Atari 5200 is going to pass away of natural causes. Now, to make sure that it wasn’t some PC-related performance, I started over. I rebooted the computer. I tried this on an entirely different emulator on a different computer. It happened every time. It’s not the emulator. This is a thing the game does. Did nobody at Atari notice this?

This was supposed to be one of the easy reviews. I need to stop assuming this. It always comes back to bite me in the ass. Like when I bought the unicorn coloring book game with the intent of doing a joke review and it ended up being so putrid I had to do a real, actual review of a goddanged children’s coloring book game. When I assume, I make an ass out of me, and u get to read the results. That’s not how that saying goes but screw it, it’s 9:23PM on Christmas and I’m still editing this damn thing.

Twenty-six years of gaming and this is a problem I’ve never before encountered. Those opening levels aren’t just a little teeny tiny bit sluggish. They’re sluggish to the point that its jarring. What’s especially weird is that this doesn’t end when you switch to a different maze. It’s the third (and final) level in the second maze that suddenly it pops the gear and actually becomes a decent version of Ms. Pac-Man. Before that? It’s not an enjoyable at all. So, how the hell do I evaluate this? It feels weird that you actually have to make an effort just for the game to run at its fullest potential. I don’t like the idea of that one bit. I initially suspected Ms. Pac-Man was rushed to the market to beat the 1983 holiday season, but that’s apparently not the case. Either way, yea, in my opinion, those first four stages were a deal breaker. A historically one-off problem I hope to never encounter again.
Verdict: NO!

Pac Man
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1982
Designed by Tod Frye

Let me preface this by saying that NO ONE GAME is responsible for the Great Video Game Crash. It was a long, drawn-out series of events culminating in Atari head Ray Kassar selling 5,000 shares of his Warner Bros. stock literally 23 minutes before Warner announced that Atari had a much less successful fiscal quarter than they had publicly projected. If any one thing crashed the game industry, it was that stunt which, frankly, should have landed him in prison. Of course, nobody wants to talk about that because it’s more fun to blame E.T. 2600. But, if I were to pretend one game crashed the game industry, well, the clear choice is Pac-Man 2600. It’s the best selling game on the VCS, and I think it shook consumer confidence. Imagine you saw your child play the arcade Pac-Man and then you got them this abomination and it’s awful and they don’t want to play it. Would you trust any other arcade port that came after? Or any game at all for that matter? Atari carts were expensive. Game rentals weren’t a big thing back then. There weren’t a lot of ways to try a game out. Pac-Man 2600, more than any other game, made each new game a risk. So, yea, blame Pac-Man. But, really, blame Kassar. Adjusted for inflation, Martha Stewart went to federal pokey and then had to wear a stylish ankle monitor for five months over less money. “Hmmm, what’s the difference between her and Kassar?” said Cathy as her gaze slowly stared to pan down to the space between her own legs. “Oh, right.”

One of gaming’s most oft-told urban legends is that Pac-Man 2600 was barely out of the alpha phase when Ray Kassar ordered it straight into manufacturing as-is. Even I’ve repeated it, even though it’s likely not true. Designer Tod Frye insists that nobody within the bullpen at Atari told him the game sucked, and Atari developers did have a reputation of telling each-other when something was crap or not (which works, by the way. That practice turned a boring Space Invaders knock-off played from a different camera angle into Tempest). Yet, the “Pac-Man 2600 was a prototype” legend is totally believable. This is a TERRIBLE port. The stuff of nightmares. How did this happen? Pac-Man 2600’s badness is so multi-faceted that I can’t believe it’s not studied in game design school. The most obvious flaw is the maze isn’t oriented for exciting chasing, which is what Pac-Man absolutely needs to work. In fact, I think it has the single worst maze of the entire franchise, and I can show why. First, what makes a good Pac-Man maze? You need straightaways, bends, and “elbows” with enough areas that are closed-off by walls to be able to scratch-out enough distance between you and the ghosts to either make progress on the side of the maze you’re on OR to lure the ghosts to one side of the maze, then go through the exit and safely work on the other side the screen.

None of that works in the 2600 version because of the shape, size, and rules of the exits. The walls are too small and have too many gaps, which creates shortcuts for the ghosts. Why can’t they be shortcuts for YOU, too? Because the ghosts outnumber you and you’re always within spitting distance of enough pathways to accommodate them. No matter where you go to clear the distance, they can always just cut you off at the pass because there’s not enough straightaways and the areas along the sides have too many gaps. In the above picture, count the amount of gaps in the two circles I’ve made, and then remember that there’s four ghosts, with two sets of behavior. You’re left without any room to dodge out of the way because you’re always dodging into an area that has multiple points of entrance that are right on top of you. Plus, the maze is just too small in general, so getting distance AT ALL is a chore.

Finally, the exit just doesn’t work because Frye didn’t seem to understand the point of it. The exit (or “warp tunnel”, whatever) is done vertically instead of horizontally and there’s seriously no walls between the two except one teeny-tiny corner “door” in front of each side that’s so small and so quick to get past that it doesn’t even qualify as an inconvenience. The only two straightaways are two full-screen ones laid out in the center of the maze? When the exits are vertical? What the ever loving hell? When I played and tried to use the exit, the ghosts didn’t bother following me. They just took the literal straight path with no resistance up to the other side. The size of the maze being too short is further made worse because there’s a large delay when using the exit. The time it takes you to pop out the other side means that, by time you do, the ghosts are basically as close to you now as they were on the other side. It takes so long to come out the other side it completely undoes any advantage of using it, especially when the ghosts never take it themselves (hell, I don’t even know if they CAN use it!). Why even bother having them? They’re functionally useless! Hell, they might as well have just stuck a cot there and let the poor guy take a nap.

And why the hell does Pac-Man have eyes? The original was a circle with a wedge removed from it. HOW HARD IS IT TO DO THAT? This is like Atari played the telephone game with Pac-Man. They formed a daisy-chain of twenty people. The first on the left side played Pac-Man for sixty seconds then described what it was like to the next person, who described it to the next person, who described it to the next person, and so forth, and so forth, until the worst video game ever made came out the other side. Because, having forced myself to play this for a lot longer than my previous five minute sessions, yea, this is the very worst video game ever made. It’s not just the gameplay but the cost to the industry.

Everything that made the arcade game work is gone here. This is Pac-Man that doesn’t understand Pac-Man at all. Plus, the charm is completely gone. The sound effects are my idea of what Hell must sound like. The infamous flicker makes it look like your monitor is going out. Hell, even the collision feels like it’s too loaded for ghosts, where they practically can get you despite being catty-corner from you. It’s a game that makes you want to believe prototype story. Because, if it’s not true, it means nobody gave a crap. I hear Tod Frye is a nice guy, but this is NOT the Pac-Man that people would have ever wanted. It’s not even in the ballpark, which makes me wonder if they bothered to buy a cabinet and place it near his office. Pac-Man 2600 feels like a bootleg! The exact kind of knock-off that Atari vigorously sued other game companies to stop from being made. And don’t say that it was the best they could do at the time. I get that Pac-Man was a very complicated game that used technology far ahead of the Atari 2600. I’m not blaming Frye. This should have been a company-wide project. Don’t put it on one guy to get it right. What the heck is that, even? Why did they do games that way? Oh sure, sometimes they’d have separate graphics and sound people. But really, a license this big, at this time, should have been a “drop what you’re doing and work on Pac-Man NOW” situation. Frye made over a million bucks from his royalties on this, and good for him on that because this wasn’t his fault. Nothing short of a morning-after pill would have helped with this one.
Verdict: NO!

Pac Man
Platform: Atari 5200
Year: 1982
Designed by James Andreasen

It looks like Pac-Man if Pac-Man, maze and all, was run over by a steamroller.

In 1982, the Atari 5200 cost about $600 in today’s dollars, and its marketing mostly centered around Pac-Man. If you owned the Atari 2600 version of that game and then saw THIS, which has the iconic blue-and-black maze that’s MOSTLY the right shape, the right-shape for character, a lack of flicker, the correct orientation of the exits, and distinct items, that would be the best advertising for the 5200 imaginable. Of course, $600 is a LOT of money to spend on a game that, frankly, gets old fast. Now, I played this with a PlayStation 5 controller (these days, it’s my default emulation controllers. Comfy controller is the PS5 pad), so I didn’t have to experience what is reported to be the misery of playing Pac-Man with a joystick that doesn’t self-center. I’ve heard from a lot of 5200 owners that Pac-Man was nearly unplayable because of that. But, I don’t think the issue was JUST the Atari 5200 controller. Playing this with a modern top-of-the-line controller that worked just fine in every other game, I still couldn’t take corners accurately. To make sure my timing wasn’t just way off, I tried the arcade Pac-Man. Worked fine. So, actually, The Atari 5200 version is problematic beyond the hardware. Also, it has some of the dumbest ghosts in the entire franchise. Pac-Man 5200 is a big improvement over the Atari 2600 version, but then again, that’s a game that’s improved by a firing barrel, a gasoline canister, and a match.
Verdict: NO!

Pigs in Space starring Miss Piggy
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1983
Designed by Michael Sierchio

Make sure to say it right: PIGSSSSS IN SPAAAAAAACEEEEE! Hell, I was born in 1989 and even I knew to say it that way. Anyway, this is the best Space Invaders game on the 2600. Yes, for real.

Pigs in Space is kind of like Gorf run through a Muppets filter. Actually, it’s genuinely the first mass-market video game satire. I think. 1983. Was the medium old enough for someone to release a winking tongue-in-cheek parody of games like this before? It’s three completely unrelated classic arcade tropes thrown into one cart. It doesn’t even feel like it’s optimized for children, either, like you’d expect it to be. It’s true to the satirical nature of the source material, the Muppet Show, making this one of the most accurate licensed games too. It’s also one of the strongest games based on a movie/TV property on the Atari 2600. Weirdly.. and seriously, I can’t stress enough how surprising this is.. it might have the smoothest and best take on Space Invaders in the entire VCS library. And it’s genuinely fun, controls great, and has a charming facade covering up the tired, old gameplay. After the first wave, things get pretty intense. The humor, by the way, is spot on. This might be the first home console game aiming for deliberate comedy, and it absolutely scores. You get turned into a chicken if one of the chickens successfully poops on you. Chickens are funny. It’s a default thing, mostly because we disassemble them, batter them, fry them, and eat them. And there’s nothing they can do about it.

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The other two games aren’t as strong. Especially Miss Piggy’s game, which is a send-up of crossing-the-road games like Frogger, only it’s completely toothless. Which.. yea, so are the Muppets, come to think of it, but I meant it’s not a hard game to win. In it, you don’t lose a life if you collide with any of the objects, and instead you only fail if you can’t reach the ship before it leaves the screen. Not that it’s bad or anything, but I had runs of it that only lasted a couple seconds before I won. The final segment features the Swinetrek and satirizes shmups, and it has a truly weird attack method. When you shoot, your bullet hooks to the left or right, depending on which direction you last pushed. Getting the hang for the physics of this was actually neat, and there’s another slapstick twist worthy of the source material: if you miss, your own bullet could come back down and could kill you. This part had the most potential, but it crawls along at a snail’s pace and only has one type of enemy (plus you die if you touch the walls, which you will). So, how do I rate a game like this? While it was intended as a joke, you know what? It ain’t boring, that’s for sure. There’s some good gameplay in here, especially the first segment. You can take the games in any order too, and if you only want to play one of the games, just don’t choose the others! Do you love Space Invaders? This is the best Space Invaders-like on the console. So yea, Pigs in Space ain’t bad at all. Who’d of thunk it?
Verdict: YES!

Red Baron
Platform: Arcade
Year: 1981

Red Baron: excellent video game, inedible frozen cardboard pizza.

Okay, okay, I’m cheating here. Atari absolutely COULD release Red Baron, but I wanted to include it in this feature anyway. For me, the most shocking missing game from Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration was Red Baron. It previously was in Atari Flashback Classics and was one of only six arcade games I gave a YES! to for that set. Using the same technology as Battlezone (which Atari has permanently lost the rights to), I actually think Red Baron is the stronger game. It has more variety and satisfying combat. I don’t know what it is about aviation dog fights that capture my imagination, but I really wish there were more games like this. I played a TON of Crimson Skies on Xbox Live in my teens. Maybe I was a fighter pilot in a past life? It’s remarkable how much this holds up. My one knock on it is that being able to tell what bullets are going to score a hit on you can sometimes be hard to judge. Plus, the enemy fire gets positively spammy after five minutes. But, Red Baron feels like it’s really ahead of its time and still manages to be a joy to play even forty years later. It’s a shame that it slipped through the pages of history to such a degree that even Atari left it out of its prestigious collection. Had to make room for Evolution Dino Dudes, I guess.
Verdict: YES!

Snoopy and the Red Baron
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1983
Designed by Nick Turner

For a game aimed at kids, Snoopy and the Red Baron is actually a little more intense with its main villain than you’d expect.

How in the heck are there not one.. not two.. but THREE games based on the running gag from the Peanuts comic strip where Snoopy imagines himself as a fighting the Red Baron in World War I? Do you know what’s even weirder? All three of them were actually somewhere between decent and genuinely very good. I liked Snoopy vs. The Red Baron for PlayStation and Snoopy’s Flying Aces on Xbox Live. This is the OG Snoopy flying game, and it’s simple and shallow but, actually, not a bad little game at all. As I stated in the Bugs Bunny section, Snoopy was the surviving child in Atari’s version of Sophie’s Choice. Actually, Snoopy and the Red Baron is so obviously better that I can’t believe they wasted the time and money with focus testing to decide its fate. You’re Snoopy flying on his dog house and you have to shoot down the infamous Red Baron in a never-ending series of dog fights. I mean the kind between airplanes, not the Michael Vick kind.

Occasionally, the Baron will fly up into the clouds and drop items for you to collect, which actually does work at breaking-up the repetitive gameplay.

Surprisingly, this actually does successfully feel like dog fighting. This is owed to the fact that the Red Baron isn’t just cannon fodder. He uses strategy and evasive moves as he tries to position himself to be able to fire onto you. He has advantages over Snoopy as well. You can’t fly up into the clouds, so he’ll spend a LOT of time just above your line of sight. I thought maybe it was too much time at first, but then I realized you have to be a little manipulative and not always just tail right behind him. Because the Baron actually feels like it has some intelligence, it’s pretty satisfying to shoot him down. This is a game that survives on charm too. Snoopy’s scarf vibrates in wind, and the Baron’s shots register as bullet holes in your dog house, straight out of the comics and cartoons. Hell, the game even gets teeth after you complete two waves of four Barons, with him becoming a lot faster and more aggressive. It’s not a deep game by any means. With the exception of the brief one-second sections where he drops points you have to catch, the entire game is fighting this one enemy over and over again. I wouldn’t want to be stuck with it for hours, but if it were to ever be part of a collection like Atari 50, it wouldn’t be an unwelcome addition at all.
Verdict: YES!

Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1983
Designed by Peter C. Niday

The mountain scene. You shoot the fireworks with magic and catch stars. And yes, a stripped-down, Atarified version of Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas plays during the game.

This was yet another in the series of licensed Atari 2600 games aimed at young children that isn’t that bad. Based on the famous Mickey Mouse scene from Fantasia, Sorcerer’s Apprentice is kind of like a spinning-plate game that’s divided into two screens. The first one is sort of like a retro demake of the PlayStation 2 launch title Fantavision. You use magic to shoot what looks like fireworks out of the sky while also catching falling stars. Any stars you don’t catch turn into brooms that contribute to the flood happening in the basement. Shooting the fireworks in the first screen creates empty buckets that helps bail out the water that’s flooding the basement in the second screen. Here, you only have to touch the brooms to stop them, and any buckets you’ve made will lower the water level. The game keeps going until the basement fully floods. It’s an incredibly simple and shallow game that’s clearly made for younger children. Well, yeah, obviously. Remember, this came out in 1983, back when Disney was DISNEY dagnabit!

The basement scene. You just touch the brooms to stop them. If you give this a shot, don’t bother with the first mode. Go to Game 2. I think Game 3 is comically fast and Game 1 is comically slow. Game 2 is just right. Oh and there’s a children’s mode in game 4. Seriously, how young is THAT mode aimed at? Fetuses? Because this isn’t the hardest game, except maybe on the third mode.

But, I actually did enjoy the unique concept. Which took me by surprise because I’m not the biggest spinning-plate fan in the world. It’s doubly surprising because Sorcerer’s Apprentice takes far too long to build up a sense of urgency that makes spinning-plate games work to begin with. Even on the higher difficulties (I found Game 3, the highest difficulty, shot the moon and was too fast) you don’t feel any pressure. Once the tension finally kicks-in, I started to be wooed by the unique concept, the charming graphics, and cathartic nature of the gameplay. I wish it had more going for it, and I wish the targets in the shooting gallery were more clear and less abstract, but as far as games made for small children go, this ain’t too shabby. It feels like the basis for a Game & Watch release that got stretched into a full-sized Atari cart.
Verdict: YES!

Space Invaders
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1980
Designed by Richard Maurer

I think the second one from the top is kind of adorable. And also, it looks like you’re shooting the invaders with a Douglas Fir.

This was it. This was the game that blew-up the Atari 2600. I hate when older people exaggerate tales of Space Invaders. No, the Japanese didn’t have to mint more 100-yen coins. Think of how stupid the logic of that myth is. So many coins in these machines.. the most profitable machines in the world.. that they had to make more coins. Do these people think the machine owners just held onto the coins? Because, like, isn’t that the only way that would possibly cause such a shortage? Another myth is that there’s never been a response to a game like Space Invaders, either in arcades or the 2600 version. Were that true.. and it’s not.. it’s like saying the last episode of M*A*S*H* will never be beaten in the ratings. Well.. yea. It had to compete against like three other channels, not hundreds of cable TV channels and the internet on top of that. Space Invaders was maybe the first big deal for a cart-based console, but.. like.. someone was going to be, right? Had it not been Space Invaders, it would have been Pac-Man, which outsold it by nearly two million units despite being terrible game.

While I was doing Space Invaders, I just had to give the legendary Pepsi Invaders a try. 125 copies of this were made for the workers of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Atlanta, GA. It’s Space Invaders, set on a three minute timer, where you shoot the the letters in PEPSI along with one of the aliens. It’s the holy of holies of Atari collectors. If you live in Atlanta, I’d be checking out garage sales. Oh, and when time runs out, the words COKE WINS appear on screen. Oh, I’m confident coke won when they came up with commissioning this idea.

No, do you know what I think is the REAL story with Space Invaders? Not that it was the first killer app, but rather the standard it set to what a killer app SHOULD be. Atari had a lot of arcade translations by this point, but Space Invaders came with a much higher degree of difficulty than any of those games had to get the home version right. With Pac-Man, we’ve seen how that could go disastrously wrong. In the case of Space Invaders 2600, they nailed it. It’s a very good translation of the most popular game in the world, at least at the time. Would I want to play it in the 2020s? Oh, god no. Hell, I wouldn’t have wanted to play it by time I started gaming in the 1990s. Gaming has come so far and this formula has been done better so many times. I don’t even like Galaga, but I’d hook an IV to my arm and mainline Galaga before I was forced to play Space Invaders.. or so I thought.

Not so good were the invisible modes, which I think are lame as hell. And I just found out these are actually kind of popular in retro circles. I don’t get it. Maybe because they’re all on the cusp of being senior citizens and can’t see anymore, anyway?

Being a prime-era Atari 2600 cart, they threw in some nice twists to Space Invaders 2600. I like the modes where the shields move back and forth. I like the modes where the Invaders’ bullets come at you from diagonal angles. I really like that there’s an option for doing both those things at the same time. Is it enough to save Space Invaders from the NO! Pile? Actually.. YES! I’m as surprised as you are, but it was just enough to keep my eyes glued to the screen. Like so many games during this run I’m on, I intended to play this for fifteen, twenty minutes and I ended up going an hour. But, of all the games I’ve done that with, none surprised me more than Space Invaders. I thought “there’s no way!” Oh, there was a way. That’s one thing I admire about the Atari 2600 during this period: they sure loaded the carts with every imaginable variation on the game to give people their money’s worth. These days, you’d get nickled-and-dimed for all those extra modes as paid DLC. Hey, I never said EVERY aspect of gaming is better today!
Verdict: YES!
And hell, throw in a YES! for Pepsi Invaders too because I like competitive modes set to a timer.

Space Invaders
Platform: Atari 5200
Year: 1982
Designed by Eric Manghise

The aliens actually change shape in this one every couple rounds. Well, at least it breaks up the monotony, I guess.

Oddly enough, Space Invaders for the 5200 is not a straight conversion of the arcade game. Same basic principle: aliens march at you and you shoot them. There is a couple twist this time though. The most noticeable.. and it’s a weird decision.. is having the aliens march-in from outside the left side of the screen. So, when a round begins, you have wait for them to actually enter the screen. I don’t get why they did that. It certainly doesn’t make the game better. If anything, it detracts from the purity of the game by forcing the player to move left and start pinging them aliens. The other twist is having mutating invaders begin to show up in the forth wave. As far as I can tell, they don’t actually behave differently, but if you kill them when they’re in their in the middle of morphing, they score no points. Space Invaders 5200 uses a color-coated scoring system, and if you care about that stuff, the morphing enemies fails completely because, again, the way they march from out of the screen forces you to shoot and shoot quickly. You don’t have enough time to time it, because this version of Space Invaders has an emphasis on the automatic game over from the aliens reaching the bottom. This is because the aliens are physically too big while the playfield is too small.

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Trying to change the formula was nice, I guess, but this is not a good port of Space Invaders. The bizarre choice to have the enemies appear from outside the screen all but eliminates the ability for players to come up with their own strategies for playing. That’s one of the aspects of Golden Age games I put the highest premium on, because you need that flexibility to be immersed in the gameplay. It’s also not a well-balanced Space Invaders take, either. Right from the start, the faster-paced aliens and their low proximity to the ground means you have to shoot very accurately to assure they don’t reach the bottom. It’s too cramped. I was stunned at how fast things escalated in the first couple stages. My father’s theory is that they had the aliens start off-screen so that it would educate players to take out full columns instead of pinging them off row-by-row. It would be a sound theory, except that only makes sense for the first level. My theory is that they made the aliens too big and the playfield too small and the game over would have happened even faster if they hadn’t waddled in from the outside. What a disaster. Space Invaders was the Atari 2600’s killer app and I’m sure Atari figured everyone buying a 5200 probably owned it already, so they wanted to change things up. That’s not the worst idea, but how they went about the changes might have been.
Verdict: NO!

Star Wars
Platform: Arcade
Year: 1983
Designed by Mike Hally

Today I learned that the “TIE” in TIE Fighter stands for “twin ion engines.” I’m almost certain I heard this before, but for whatever reason, my brain has said “screw Star Wars” and started deleting all trivia for it. Now, I have no control over what completely useless crap sticks in my head cheese. I can tell you off the top of my head who was the leading scorer of the NBA during the 1972-73 season (it was Tiny Archibald at 34ppg for Kansas City-Omaha Kings. He also led the league in assists at 11apg that season, the only time that’s ever been done) or who invented Lucky Charms (John Holahan, who ripped a few Circus Peanut marshmallows into chunks and sprinkled them over a bowl of Cheerios) but my brain is opting-out of Star Wars trivia. I blame Disney. And drugs. It was probably the drugs.

If you were to only own one Arcade1Up cabinet, Star Wars would probably be the one to own. This is thanks to that being the only way to have the immersive yoke controller that, despite the wireframe vector graphics, still makes you feel like you’re genuinely piloting a X-Wing and fighting the Empire. A 1983 arcade game should not feel this immersive, nor should it be this accurate to the movie. Star Wars is a historically remarkable achievement. But, assuming Atari could work out a deal to bring this to Atari 50 as a DLC release, that ain’t going to be an option. You’ll be stuck using a normal game controller. Without the yoke, is Star Wars any good? The answer is still yes, only with significantly less immersion and a complete loss of charm.

Functionally, Star Wars is a sequel to Atari’s 1981 vector graphics sky fighter Red Baron. It is remarkable that not one but TWO Atari first-person vector graphics aerial dogfight games held-up to the test of time. Star Wars does manage to successfully recreate the look of the film to such a degree that you can tell yourself you’re actually looking at the targeting computer from the film. The TIE Fighters and the Death Star look great, and it’s so satisfying to shoot them down. The issue is that the gameplay basically only lasts maybe three minutes at most before everything starts looping over and over again. Shoot down a few TIEs, shoot the bullets they fire at you, then go in for the trench run, where you shoot all the projectiles coming at you and various wall targets. Hit the correct spot to blow up the Death Star, then start over with more difficulty. Oh and a new buffer sequence where you fly along the surface of the Dearth Star is added between the first and last phases where you have to take out turrets.

That’s no moon.

Your first run from the time you load your quarter until the moment you destroy the Death Star will barely take three minutes. In a way, I kind of admire that Atari didn’t make the game too difficult, so that every arcade-going child could experience being the hero of the Rebel Alliance. At the same time, despite the fun and energetic combat, there’s sure not a lot of meat on these bones. Does it get old fast? Oh yea. Star Wars is unique in that it’s both timeless, and yet, not something that holds up to repeat play. It relies heavily on the novelty factor. But, it’s still an unforgettable experience while it lasts. I’ve witnessed a twelve-year-old Star Wars fan positively lose his mind, overjoyed playing this nearly forty-year-old arcade game, and that’s something you don’t get a lot of with many Golden Age coin-ops. Would that happen without the full arcade experience? Probably not to that degree. Lots of games suffer from lack of authentic controllers, but none would suffer more while still getting a YES! than Star Wars.
Verdict: YES!

Star Wars: The Arcade Game
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1984
Designed by Bradley G. Stewart, Bob Smith, and Neil McKenzie
Developed by Parker Bros

For the Atari 2600 version, you play all three scenes in sequential order. It’s still barely a three minute to see everything experience, and this time the controls are genuinely miserable.

I would LOVE to know the story on this one. Atari makes the arcade game, but Parker Bros. owns the rights to Star Wars on consoles and gets to create their own version of Atari’s arcade game AND place it on Colecovision in addition to Atari’s platforms. I can’t find anything on whether they owed Atari royalties on it or not, but I’m giggling sadistically at the thought of how awkward that phone call between Manny Gerard and Ray Kassar must have been. Gerard and Warner Bros. head Steve Ross blew a gasket on Kassar when they found out Atari didn’t take the home video license for Donkey Kong, so just imagine how peeved they must have been when they found out Atari didn’t own the rights to the single hottest film franchise in history up to that point. Of course, by this point, Atari had the vastly superior (not to mention more appropriate for home consoles) Star Raiders on their platforms. Star Wars, despite coming to the 2600 barely a year after the arcade port, feels old and fuddy duddy already. Some people think this port is a remarkable effort for the lowly 2600, but I think the controls are sluggish and miserable. You also have inverted controls, which is fine for an arcade game but don’t work at all here. I actually do believe this is probably the best they could do for the console, but the combat doesn’t satisfy anywhere near as much as the arcade, and the Death Star trench run lacks the spectacle. The Force was not with this port.
Verdict: NO!

Star Wars: The Arcade Game
Platform: Atari 5200
Year: 1984
Designed by Bradley G. Stewart, Bob Smith, and Neil McKenzie
Developed by Parker Bros

When you look at the graphics for the Atari 5200, it really makes you go “what were they thinking?” By this point, Colecovision wasn’t too far off, and it made the 5200 look so old already.

The Atari 5200’s disastrous run wasn’t on account of its game library. While I guess it sounds like owners did struggle to actually find places that sold games, if they could find them, they’d find plenty of quality arcade ports. For all the console’s weaknesses, the Atari 5200’s version of Star Wars: The Arcade Game is perfectly fine, I guess. While it could never hope to recreate the immersive charm of the coin-op, it does a lot better at recreating the gameplay than the 2600 port. The more accurate graphics make the combat somewhat satisfying, although the game does still manage to lose the pizazz of the trench run sequence. Again, the elephant in the room is that Star Wars is an experience best suited for arcades. The Atari 5200 had the excellent Star Raiders at launch. A similar premise, only optimized for home consoles and made deeper and more rewarding. If you were absolutely gaga for the Star Wars coin-op, I suppose this would have satisfied you. I would think a kid would get very bored, very quickly with this, but I also wasn’t even alive in 1984, so what do I know?
Verdict: YES!

Superman
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1983
Designed by John Dunn

Superman, seen here carrying Lois Lane by the throat. DA NUNUNUNU NA NA NA!

Being a game critic with a reputation for psychopathy, many of my Twitter followers are always floored to find out that I love Superman. Not the game. Oh no. No no no no. Superman the character. Actually, no.. Superman the concept. I’m totally fine with the big blue boy scout. There’s plenty of nuanced, deep comic characters with complex problems. Shouldn’t it be okay for just one of them to be the boring goody-good that rescues cats out of trees? A hero who will always make people aspire to their better angels? Let Superman be the one thing in pop culture that we agree is okay to be boring and predictable. Because, by God, the poor guy has earned it at this point. Especially with his video game legacy. Superman was actually one of the first Atari 2600 games, and the proud owner of many historic firsts. It’s the first licensed home console game not based on a game property and the world’s first superhero game. It actually uses the same engine that was built for Adventure, yet it beat Adventure to the market by several years. And, in my opinion, it’s the better game. All these years later and it’s arguably the best game starring the Man of Steel. Really!

Yes, that is supposed to be Lex Luthor wearing a helicopter belt. It was a different time.

This isn’t some lazy action game. There’s stuff to do. You start by seeing the Metropolis bridge destroyed as Clark Kent. You have to hop into a phone booth.. kids, ask your parents what those were.. and turn into Superman. You have to capture Lex Luthor and all his minions and take them to jail, and you also have to find the three parts of the damaged bridge and put them back. This is the part that took me the longest to figure out how to do and I actually had to watch a YouTube video to figure out what I was doing wrong. It turns out, they don’t “lock into place” like you’d expect. You just sort of pile them up next to the gap on the correct screen and they’ll turn into the bridge. Once I understood this, the biggest issue was navigating Metropolis. You can use super vision to see the screens around you (it’s supposed to be his X-Ray vision, but like.. what is he seeing through? This is almost entirely taking place outside!), but even with that, finding the actual screen with the bridge section was the biggest pain in the ass.

It’s really not much to look at, which is why this is yet another game I’d love to see remade. Like.. seriously, Warner Bros., just copy this formula. Or hell, hire Atari to remake it and expand it.

There’s some WEIRD rules for this one. Like, for example, if you take damage from the “Kryptonite satellites” you have to cop a feel on Lois Lane to get your flying powers back.. how does that even make sense?.. and if she gets in the way, you can drop her back off at the Daily Planet. Know your place, Ms. Lane! Also, whenever you take damage, Lois automatically appears on the screen. I suppose the idea is that it puts her back in danger, since you can’t win if she’s not secured (at least I don’t think so. The instruction book wasn’t very helpful). Finally, there’s visibility issues with the things that harm you. I often could barely see the little spark that grounds you. But, you know what? Once you understand the rules, this isn’t a bad little adventure game. I certainly appreciate the ambition for this era. They could have done a half-assed shooter using his heat ray or something. They didn’t do that. They set out to make a game where you feel like a Silver Age version of Supes and I honestly think they did the very best they were capable of in 1978. So, hey, Superman got off to a good start in gaming, but I can think of, oh, sixty-four reasons why he should have quit while he was ahead.
Verdict: YES!

Super Pac-Man
Platform: Atari 5200
Unreleased Prototype
Designed by Landon Dyer

This stinks of “we were plum out of ideas.” On the plus side, it’s not as bad as Pac & Pal.

I’m not a fan at all of Super Pac-Man, so playing this fully completed but never released prototype wasn’t going to be a highlight for me. Having said that, I’m genuinely shocked they never went forward with releasing this. I mean, this isn’t exactly a non-entity of a game and it seems like would be good for a quick infusion of cash. It’s pathetic that both this and Jr. Pac-Man are much more arcade-accurate than Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man but 5200 owners never got a chance to buy them. Of course, being arcade-accurate isn’t a positive thing when you’re an arcade-accurate port of a terrible game. I think the gate concept of Super Pac-Man could have worked, but not with this maze. Oh no. Yea, this is the worst maze in any Pac-Man game besides the 2600 version, though all the problems with that one are sort of present to a lesser degree here. For Super Pac-Man, not only is it a bad layout, but it’s the only level, and one that doesn’t remotely lend itself to the chase-aspect Pac-Man needs to work for the excitement. The gates are further compromised by the Super Pac concept itself, where you can just, you know, eat the gates. On one hand, I feel bad for 5200 owners that they never got a chance to decide for themselves, because this is a remarkable effort compared to most Atari 5200 games. On the other hand, it’s a remarkable effort for a game even Pac-Man’s creator has said is boring.
Verdict: NO!

I’m just getting started, folks. Part Two will happen after I post the review for Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration!

Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum (Review)

I didn’t grow-up with Garbage Pail Kids. I was born in 1989, and the final set of stickers during the original 80s fad was set to release that year, but it got cancelled. After looking at the archives at the excellent resource site GeePeeKay, yea, good call that was. I mean, Christ! That’s some sick shit in those cards. It feels like, by the end, Garbage Pail Kids became more about being mean-spirited, like they were trying to deliberately bait controversy because that grew the franchise in the first place. Having said that, I wasn’t unfamiliar with the brand. When my Godfather’s son gave me his comic book collection when I was six, the boxes they came in were covered in GPK stickers. Plus Topps occasionally revived them for brief comebacks starting in the 2000s. Hell, for a while, my LaserDisc collecting father had the god awful Garbage Pail Kids movie listed on his “treasure hunt” list of discs he hadn’t added to his collection (in turns out it never even released on LD, maybe. There’s still debate on if it came out in Japan, I think). It’s one of those brands that an outsider looking-in can’t believe was as big as it was at its height. It was easily bigger in the 80s than the 90s fads of MY childhood like Tamagotchi or Furbies. I’m telling you, I would have made a much better child of the 80s than I was as a 90s kid. I mean, have you seen how shitty our Transformers looked? And don’t even get me started on our Voltron!

MIND BLOWN!!

Of course, the one thing missing from Garbage Pail Kids was a video game. 1984 was too late to end up on the Atari 2600, and it never would have been on Colecovision for.. uh.. obvious reasons. Nintendo would never have allowed the brand on the NES because they used to think bodily fluids were the devil’s brew, and Sega didn’t get cool until 1991. Garbage Pail Kids just had shitty timing all around to transition to gaming, really. And that’s why the real story behind Retrotrainment’s Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum literally, no joke, brought tears to my eyes. Because kids of the 80s used to spread rumors that they heard a Garbage Pail Kids game was FOR SURE coming to the NES, even claiming they’d seen it listed in game magazines. It never actually happened, because no such game was ever in development. Since kids knew it had to be coming because their friend said their uncle worked at Nintendo and told them it was happening, they assumed Nintendo had put the screws to it. Well, it took 35 years, but someone did something about it! Retrotainment teamed with The Goldbergs writer Adam F. Goldberg and Topps Trading Cards to make that mid-80s elementary school recess fantasy come true. They even created an elaborate meta story behind the game that it WAS developed in the mid-80s, then cancelled and buried until the ROM was unearthed in 2022. The trailer for this was so convincing that my friend Ryan was open to the possibility it was actually true. It’s absolutely criminal this video only has 11K views as of this writing. This just did not find its audience, and that’s heartbreaking.

That’s why I hadn’t even heard of this new Garbage Pail Kids game leading up to this week. Somehow, it just didn’t spread through social media. So, for those who don’t know, this is a 2022 NES game that you can actually pre-order now on cartridge. OR you can buy it right now for all modern platforms, where it plays on the same excellent NES emulator by Digital Eclipse used in collections like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Cowabunga Collection or SNK 40th Anniversary. If you buy this on Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PlayStation, or Steam, it comes with a boatload of extras. On the emulation side of things, you get a fully-loaded “Infinity Gauntlet of Emulation” which is my term for the six key “Gems” of emulation: save states, rewind, flicker removal, screen filters, button mapping, and a full tool-assisted play-through video that lets you take control of the action any time you want. Media extras include the soundtrack, two short films (including the above trailer), concept art, and more. My favorite feature was the side-by-side comparisons of the real GPK cards and their in-game 8-bit counterparts (48 total characters from the cards are used somewhere in the game). I got a kick out of seeing how close some of the game sprites came to the real cards, while others weren’t even in the ballpark.

And now I want a sequel more than I want to live to be 60.

Of course, if the game itself was no good, all these extras would be downright obnoxious. Which would be fitting for Garbage Pail Kids, and then I could crack jokes like “it belongs in the trash.” But alas, it’s one of the best original NES games of the homebrew era. Seriously, no joke, this is a phenomenal platformer. The meta concept of “lost 1986 – 88 licensed NES game” had me worried. Let’s face it: most licensed games on the NES from that era sucked, with rare exceptions like Goonies II or Capcom’s work on Disney properties. A developer aspiring to pay a mostly-accurate homage to both Garbage Pail Kids and 80s licensed games could have turned in a barely playable LJN-like effort and said “GET IT?” But, instead, Retrotainment gave us a game that feels genuinely true to the GPK license while also serving as a proper tribute to the best licensed 8-bit efforts from companies like Konami and Capcom. Nice graphics. Really good play control. Feels like they weren’t just stuck with the brand as part of a cash grab and they’d rather be doing anything else. No, this is a labor of love, and you feel it every single second of gameplay.

The humongous bosses feature some really impressive graphics. YES, you can sometimes “see the seams” of how they’re really not that big (this one here is a good example, the arms never move) but it feels so gosh-darn true to the time period that you can’t help but be charmed. Most importantly, all six bosses are fun.

You have four player characters, six decently-sized levels, six very fun boss fights, and extras to collect. I’ll start with the one and only major complaint: Garbage Pail Kids is let down by very mediocre sound design. I’ve never been a sound or music person, as I have legitimate physical issues that muck up music for me. But just the sound effects alone really take the punch out of GPK. It’s a really light, overly-conservative set of sound effects that just didn’t work for me, and in fact, it took away greatly from the OOMPH of the combat. In eleven years of doing game reviews, I can count on one hand the amount of times sound effects were so poorly done that they stood out to me, and I’m not happy they happened here, because most everything else is really nice.

Enemies comically fly off-screen when you kill them. That part works, but I just hate how little pizzazz there is to the sound effects. This is one of those games that I hope other developers study, where the whole game is incredibly fun and polished to the point that it makes you wonder how they got the sound so wrong?

There’s also some inconsistencies with collision boxes, especially when using the main Mad Mike character. It’s never a deal breaker, and the collision issues almost universally favor the player, but it also combines with the poor catalog of sound effects (and I don’t think the music is very good either, but again, that I can’t claim expertise in) to take away from the action feeling like it has real-world weight, velocity, and inertia to it. Imagine if you played Super Mario 1 and you went to stop a Goomba, and the stomp happened with visible distance between you and it, AND that famous Mario “WOO BOOP” sound when you do the stomp was instead a subdued “pff.” I’ve always said gameplay is king, but GPK is a prime example of how skimping on sound becomes distracting. In a game as good as this, that one area being really bad sticks out like a sore thumb. Which is probably a GPK card, come to think of it.

Garbage Pail Kids were “Trading Card Stickers” and the “trading” part is worked into the game with a fairly good system. Each stage has a guide character that you’ll encounter throughout the level who offers you tips and then offers to trade cards with you. There’s 39 cards total to collect. 4 of them actually can be used for special abilities in the game, the most valuable of which brings a character you’ve run out of health with back to life. 35 of the cards are for decoration only and can either be acquired via trading or by finding them randomly in garbage cans placed around the stage. When you trade, each card is assigned a 1 – 10 value, and you must trade cards equal to the value (or within one point) to get a trade to happen. Do you know what part of GPK lore they didn’t use? STICKERS! Gotta save something for the sequel, I suppose. (Shakes Fist) AND THERE BETTER BE A SEQUEL!! So help me God, I can’t be responsible for actions if there isn’t one!

Now, let’s get to the great stuff: if Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum had really come out in 1988, it would be remembered as a legend of the NES era. The six levels are all incredibly fun to explore, especially so with how they designed the player characters. You swap between the four on the fly with the SELECT button. Each of the four characters has unique abilities, and three of the four are so different that they fundamentally change the sub-genre of the game. Use Mad Mike and GPK feels like a 2D sword game, something like Rastan or Wizards & Warriors where you have to attack enemies directly (the bonus to this is he does the most damage). Use Leaky Lindsay to essentially turn GPK into a gun-based platformer like Mega Man or Contra as she fires snot projectiles at enemies. I used her the most. Use Patty Putty and the gameplay feels really different, as GPK becomes a Mario-like hop ‘n bop style game. The only of the four who feels like he’s not world-altering is Luke Puke, who can vomit out puddles which are effective on enemies below you. I used him the least, BUT, I did find plenty of uses for him. The level design feels like it’s well-suited for all four characters and has sections designed with specific characters in mind. It’s like a very gross, lower-budget Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, only with just as much vampires.

Hiroshi Yamauchi is doing backflips in his grave.

Each of the six levels (sorry, no finale level or ultimate boss), which can be taken in any order, feel completely unique from each-other and there’s not a stinker in the bunch. None really stand-out, either, but I mean that in a good way. Garbage Pail Kids is that rare game where the level design is consistently fun from start to finish. There’s no weak-links and plenty of surprises. A stage themed around dinosaurs suddenly has a summer camp area. A stage themed around hell suddenly has a cafeteria. The team behind this really stretched their imaginations on this one and created a dazzling variety of settings that you want to see more of. My only real complaint is the rare blind jump, and even then, you actually can sort of circumvent them (or peek at the jump by holding down). There’s a nice assortment of enemies, only one of which I was annoyed by (a girl being struck by lightning, which caused a screen flashing. I don’t have seizures as badly as I used to but that stuff can still make me pretty sick). If I had to complain, I wish they did more with locating buttons to open doors, as I liked the exploration elements most of all. Plus, the difficulty felt just right for me. There’s four adjustable difficulty levels, and you can make your own challenge.

Some “fans” are actually demanding that Retrotainment and Digital Eclipse remove the multiple difficulty settings and emulation options and make GPK “Nintendo Hard.” I’m really not kidding. Can you imagine how full of yourself you have to be to demand a developer not try to make a game for as many people as possible? First off, how fucking insecure must you be in your own ability to just not use those options if you don’t want them? It’d be like an alcoholic going into a bar and demanding they stop selling drinks. So, Mr. MAKE IT NINTENDO HARD, is it that you have no self-control, or is that your way of trying to brag to the world you’re some kind of master player on the down low, because either way is laughable. Also, if you ever used a guide or a cheat code back in the day, or a Game Genie, bitch, you ain’t no more Nintendo Hard than anyone who uses rewind on an emulator. I wonder how many of these people who cry about rewind or save states can recite the Konami Code by heart. Seems like people who demand Nintendo Hard shouldn’t be able to do that, right?

Garbage Pail Kids also never strays from platforming, but given that it can often be disastrous when platformers veer too far off course, that might have been the right call. Instead, there are two mini-games, one of each hidden in every stage. Outhouses take you to a button mashing mini-game that I hated. I can’t mash buttons these days. I even had to have my Dad beat one for me, which is pretty sad. I’m 33, he’s 73, and he got it on his first try. The better mini-game is Buggy Betty’s. She’s hidden in every stage and offers a usable card if you can complete an electric maze without hitting the walls in three tries or less. There’s no bonus for collecting all 39 cards, but I wanted to anyway. It wasn’t that hard to get them all. I figured out that if you enter and exit a stage over and over, you’ll get a chance to trade for different cards every time. I finished the game with 35 cards and only needed maybe two post-credits minutes to get the remaining four.

The controls for the fly girl mazes were perfect, as was the collision detection. There were some tight squeezes too, like the one seen here. Yet, it was never unfair. Side Note: Buggy Betty is also one of the four super-power cards in the game. Pause the game and activate her card and you turn into her for ten seconds. There was only one section in the entire game I needed to use her, and another where I used Adam Bomb’s clear-all-the-enemies power.

Garbage Pail Kids for the NES (and by virtue of emulation, all modern consoles) is maybe the biggest surprise I’ve come across in years at Indie Gamer Chick. I’m stunned by how much I loved my time with it (which was only about two hours of total playtime, maybe). I was NOT this game’s target audience. I’m NOT nostalgic for Garbage Pail Kids. I think Garbage Pail Kids are stupid and gross and I don’t get the appeal in them at all. Transformers I get. G.I. Joe I get. Garbage Pail Kids? What the hell, 80s kids? Garbage Pail Kids are fucking disgusting! Yuck! So, being immune to GPK memberberries, this had to stand entirely on its gameplay merits. Boy, does it. It’s one of 2022’s best games, indie or otherwise. It’s a genuinely great game. Ignoring the sound design issues, everything about this works. As I neared the end of the final level, I didn’t want my time with GPK to be over! The entire time, my enthusiasm to see what came next never dipped even a little bit. The bosses, especially, were both fun to battle and felt like amazing rewards, like proper boss fights should feel. With no a smidge of love for the source material, I walked away from Garbage Pail Kids thinking “you heartless bastards better support this because I WANT MORE! I need a sequel and I need it like five minutes ago!”

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Garbage Pail Kids as an IP means nothing to me. BUT, it meant something to the people who came together to make Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum. I’m always mindful when I review games at IGC that whether I love them or hate them, they could very well be something that the developers had in mind from the time they were little kids. My job here is to play and review those dreams. But, it’s rare that the dream in question actually gets to use the actual dream license from the designer’s childhood. Usually, they have to “file the serial number off” it and do their own creation. This is one of those very rare instances where the dream came completely true: working with the license, and making the game they always dreamed of. Imagine how hard it would be to say THAT game sucked. Thankfully, I’m off the hook. Garbage Pail Kids is a wonderful game by an elite indie developer, one of 2022’s best video games, and one of the best indies I’ve ever played. It feels true to the license, true to the time frame it was supposed to have been “lost” from, and most importantly, true to the dream. And it’s a dream come true. How can you not admire that? And now, by virtue of making this game, some kids that talked about how they heard a Garbage Pail Kids game was coming to the NES on a playground at school in the 80s have now become part of that very franchise’s lore.. forever. If that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you have no heart. Hell, I bet they even made a GPK card of that, too.

Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum is Chick-Approved
Leaderboard Ranking: #16 of 305 Indie Gamer Chick-Approved Indie Games*
Top 97.5 Percentile of All 639 IGC-Reviewed Indie Games
Top 94.8 Percentile of All 305 IGC-Approved Indie Games
*Rankings based on time of publication. Check the Leaderboard for updated standings.

Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum was developed by Retrotainment
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PlayStation, Steam, NES Cart (Limited Edition)

$9.99 said “there’s only one Cathy with a C card in the history of GPK? OH COME ON TOPPS YOU BUTTHOLES” in the making of this review. I will not stand for this discrimination of Cathys with Cs. Everyone knows the Kathy with a Ks are objectively awful people!

The Mod Complex: Episode III- Gyromite: Special Edition, Castlevania III: Gold Edition, and Goonies II: Revised Edition

Some ROM hackers are capable of absolutely amazing things. Sure, some are content to just draw dicks on Punch-Out!! fighters, or change Mario to Wario in the original Super Mario Bros. It makes wadding through the literal thousands of ROM hacks out there tedious. It’s exhausting trying to find the good stuff. So, from here out, I’m going to help y’all find those must play games. The ones that use the original game as a base for an entirely new adventure.

EPISODE III: GRAB BAG

Yea, no theme this time. Look, I was sick as fuck and praying I didn’t end up on a respirator. But, today’s games are based on the stuff I played while hospitalized a couple weeks ago with viral pneumonia. Hope that helps.

Gyromite: Special Edition

It’s incredibly unlikely we’ll ever see a new Gyromite game. It’s one of two games designed for the Nintendo R.O.B. and I’m in the lucky position to have played the real deal once. The amount of set-up it took, which included hooking up an old picture-tube TV, was not worth the actual experience. Once you get over the novelty of this clanky, loud toy robot slowly moving its arms and picking up these tops (or gyros) that spun so fast you could cut meat with them, it wasn’t fun to play. But, it seemed like there was a decent maze-chase/puzzler buried behind the maddening slog of R.O.B. Unlike its evil twin Stack Up (a game so haphazardly conceived that it required players to use the honor system to keep score) Gyromite is a real game with real potential. Most of my older readers who played it back in the day know it not as a single-player game played with a toy robot, but as co-op game where R.O.B.’s duties raising and lowering the pillars for Hector are handled by a second player. But now, thanks to ROM hacking, you don’t need to hold two controllers to play this solo.

Professor Hector and the Smicks have legs as characters. If StarTropics being dead as a franchise is Nintendo’s greatest tragedy, Gyromite is the second greatest.

The Jabu’s Gyromite: Special Edition has all functionality mapped to a single controller. It’s slightly awkward because, while the pillars are logically mapped to A and B, picking up the radishes that bait the Smicks is now mapped to start and pausing is mapped to select. There’s no “R.O.B. Pause” where the screen would turn blue for you to signal instructions to R.O.B. Otherwise, this is the exact same game, with the exact same levels. The only remaining difference is the 999 second timer of the original game is now shrank to a more logical 300 seconds. So, now you can appreciate the artistry of a pretty underrated game. Weirdly, Nintendo had a thing for maze chase/puzzle hybrids. The only “true” maze chase, Devil World, never came out in the America. Wrecking Crew leans more specifically on puzzling, and Clu Clu Land.. well.. Clu Clu Land is absolutely trash. Gyromite isn’t exactly spectacular, but once you remove R.O.B. from the equation, it might the best of the four.

While Gyromite’s A Mode is saved by this ROM Hack, the B mode is just no good. In it, Hector is sleepwalking to the right and you have to move the pillars to make sure he avoids the Smicks and reaches the goal. It’s a mode that makes sense when you have the tension of a slow-moving toy that makes grinding sounds so terrifying that it sounds like it could catch fire at any moment. But it’s just TOO easy without that. At least the A mode still has the puzzle element of getting the dynamite in the correct order.

Gyromite is hardly perfect. It has NO difficulty scaling. And I mean none whatsoever. It’s almost remarkable how, even dozens of levels in, you’ll be given a level that has one specific path that must plotted, and the next could be a cakewalk where no strategy or finesse is required. I’m guessing that’s somehow related to making the level design easier on R.O.B. Maybe. I mean, there’s levels where I literally can’t imagine using that thing given how delicate the movement required is. Don’t get me wrong: Gyromite’s challenge is almost entirely based around the assumption that you’re using that accessory, and once removed, it’s a fairly easy game. And yet, there’s something here that’s charming and really engaging to play. Baiting a Smick to eat a radish right under a pillar and than crushing it allows you to unleash your inner disturbed child. We’ll almost certainly never see Gyromite again, and that’s a shame because when you actually sit and play it, you can see that Nintendo’s Trojan Horse strategy yielded one better-than-decent game. Get it here!

Castlevania III: Gold Edition

More like Castlevania III: Bronze Edition.

Most ROM hacks seem like their creativity begins and ends with “how sadistically difficult can I make the levels?” I don’t think Castlevania III: Gold Edition by LevelEngine goes quite that far, but it does render an incredible game (seriously, Dracula’s Curse might be the best overall NES game) into a frustrating exercise of agony. This isn’t simply a hard mode. It’s a scream mode. I think the designer was aiming for a Legend of Zelda second quest (the one where you enter the name ZELDA to access), but you know.. I didn’t think that was all that fun, either. I don’t have a lot to say about Gold Edition. Same levels, different layouts, but no true creativity shown. I did finish it, and I found it too often either forced players into taking damage, or had last-pixel jumps, or just took stellar level design and made it feel generic and bland. If Castlevania released a commercial Mario Maker type of game, this is what 99% of the top rated content would end up looking like. But, hard as it is, there’s nothing offensive, and if you’re starved for Castlevania III content, you can get it here. It might hit the spot, but it’s also a reminder the pros got it nearly perfect the first time.

Goonies II: Revised Edition

The only major flaw in Goonies II is that, assuming you take the intended order of rescuing the kidnapped Goonies, some of the final enemies are just too damn spongy. I think this was done to signify to players that they’ve entered an area of the game they’re not meant to be in until near the end. (1) that makes absolutely no sense in a non-linear game, where all enemies should be balanced and (2) THEY’RE JUST TOO DAMN SPONGY and it kills the pace terribly. If NES Rocks does one last update, the only thing on my wishlist would be to rebalance the dragons and the stone angels.

The Vice Household has nearly gone to civil war over The Goonies. Dad and Angela love it, while Mom and me are bored silly by it. Really, I can only tolerate the cornucopia of lazy 80s film child stereotypes (you know, the normal one who is the main kid alongside the tough one, the fat one, the nerd, the girl, etc) if they’re fighting Dracula. So, the Goonies isn’t my cup of tea, but let it be said, Goonies II might be the first truly great licensed video game AND the most underrated game on the NES. A Metroidvania before that term existed that has two distinct maps you must switch between, non-linear gameplay, and some of the most outstanding level design of any game from the 1980s. Plus, you use a Yo-Yo as a weapon, and that’s always fun.

I checked, and there is, in fact, no frozen wasteland where evil Eskimos swing axes at you underneath the Oregon coastline. Anyway, the camera for Goonies II is also revised so that you don’t need to be so close to the screen to scroll it.

This Quality of Life ROM hack by master 8-bit chef NESRocks leaves the design alone and simply smooths out some of the “we made this in 1986/1987 and had no fucking clue what we were doing” clunkiness. The built-in map is altered to alert you of the presence of hidden items instead of just your location, which helps greatly with navigation. Once you acquire the two different pairs of shoes in the game (one lets you jump higher, the other lets you run faster), you no longer have to pause to swap between them. You can press select to switch them, which makes the backtracking go faster and takes away any potential for sloginess. Most importantly, the confusing and somewhat tedious navigation through the point-and-click first-person rooms has had the point-and-click removed. You can navigate them entirely through menus now, which keeps the pace consistent and just plain makes the overall experience more fun. These seemingly small changes make the already ahead-of-its-time Goonies II feel like a modern adventure game. Like, seriously, this isn’t too far removed from 2018 indie sleeper Chasm.

For Revised Edition, if there’s a hidden wall that you need to take the hammer to, you just select hammer from the menu. You don’t need to actually move around the hammer to get to it. Select it from the menu, then press the button to confirm it a second time and if there’s something hidden, it’ll be revealed. Oh, and in the original game, you have to beat a candle out of an old bald lady by slugging her five times. In the Revised Edition, one knuckle sandwich is enough. You’re not a monster!

Goonies II does so many smart things on its own. It reuses settings like caves, houses, sewers, etc. This could make navigation hard, EXCEPT it changes the color schemes for each different set. Not just subtly, either. It becomes clear you’re in a different location. Besides the sponginess of a few enemies, the act of exploring is always fun because the levels are incredibly well designed. The combat, unlike the original Goonies (which never came out on the NES in the US, though it did see limited distribution in arcades for both Nintendo’s Vs. System and PlayChoice 10 coin-ops), is satisfying and the variety of extra items are nice. I just adore this game and it sucks so much that it’s unlikely to ever see release again. OR IS IT?

Best licensed game on the NES is another category Goonies II contends for. Seriously, why does nobody talk about this game? It’s really something special.

Nostalgia is hot right now, and if Microsoft and Nintendo can set aside their differences to secure the James Bond license, surely the current chucklefucks running Warner Bros. can reach out to Konami and get these games re-released for the fans. I might not love the movie, but the Goonies games deserve to be played by modern audiences. The first one is solid if obtuse and unspectacular (here’s my review thread on Twitter), but the sequel is one of those games where I’m driven crazy by the fact that nobody talks about it. It never makes NES Top 10 lists. It never even makes best licensed NES game lists, or best Konami lists. God, that breaks my heart. Goonies II is SO fun. When you hear about a movie-based game on the NES, your gut tells you that there’s no way it could be historically amazing. But, Goonies II really is. Yet, it has completely slipped past the history books and now exists as little more than a curio that’s unlikely to officially see the light of day ever again, thus driving people to emulators. What a shame. Anyway, get Goonies II Revised here.

Short Subject Saturdays: Böbl (NES Indie Review)

As I said in my review of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Cowabunga Collection, I’d rather have thirty minutes of playtime with a perfect game over hours spent with a great game. Perfection is so much rarer. With that in mind, here’s thirty minutes of a perfect Metroidvania. And it even has replay value beyond speed-running! If the length of games isn’t factored in, Böbl by Morphcat Games is the single most perfect Metroidvania ever made. For the time it lasts, which is roughly the length of an episode of Cobra Kai (can you tell what I had on TV while I played this?), it’s one of the most joyous, creative, downright amazing adventure games I’ve ever played. You take the role of a sentient bubble that’s trying to ascend to the heavens. Literally just a bubble. No face or fantasy personality or anything, yet this bubble has more charm than 99% of all gaming characters.

It’s 2022 and nobody should give a shit about graphics anymore, but let it be said, Böbl looks great!

You don’t expect an aquatic physics adventure on the NES, but that’s exactly what Böbl is. At the start of the game, the bubble can briefly submerge, though it can’t sink very far underwater. This is the key mechanic, and when you let go of the button, you’ll launch upwards and out of the water. You have to work your way through a beautiful ruined palace and discover upgrades that increase your submersion time, or give you other abilities to navigate. There’s no map to help you out, but that’s fine. It’s a very small game, and if you get lost once, it’s unlikely to happen a second time. It also helps that the actual level design and overall map area are simply delightful to explore. There’s no pressure, either. There’s no enemies to kill you, or to be killed. Instead, you die if your bubble touches any surface. The controls feel spot-on for the bubble, and while you will die a lot, the game was extremely generous with checkpoints. Böbl’s not a particularly difficult game, but the latest build of the ROM (ver 1.2) allows you to turn off checkpoints, which would mean every time you die, you have to return to the starting room. What would normally be a maddening mode not for the faint of heart actually works wonderfully here. Yea, you lose progress, but not that much progress.

There’s eight hidden rubber duckies in the game. This is where the replay value comes into play. In my first two play-throughs, I only found three. When I actually played again to seek them out, I got a couple hours out of Böbl. Oh, and the latest build actually can randomize their locations, further extending the play value. Hell, I don’t think any NES homebrew lends itself to speed-running quite like Böbl does. Morphcat seems to agree, because they added a time trial ghost to Ver 1.2.

The only question is, could this be further extended into a larger game? I don’t know. I’m not a particularly creative person and I really can’t imagine what possible gimmicks could be added to lengthen this. Honestly, with the level design seemingly utilizing every form that works within the logic of the physics, I sort of feel like this might not be able to be added onto without completely betraying the concept by doing something like adding enemies. Böbl was made for an NES development competition in 2019, which explains the length. Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect Morphcat Games squeezed the fullest potential out of this concept. That, or they recognized that they’d actually made the rarest of the rare: a perfect game that there’s literally nothing to criticize, where it’s just euphoric to play, and decided to walk away with their masterpiece. Because that’s what Böbl is. It’s the NES equivalent of Portal. A sequel that builds on this idea and lengthens it might not be as good, but of course it won’t be, because the first game was perfect. Expanding this concept will almost certainly be fun, but it’ll be hard to top the original. Böbl is perfect. One of few games I have zero complaints about. Besides, guys who complain about length might want to look in their pants first and make absolute certain that going off length of all things is the hill they want to die on.

Böbl is Chick-Approved
Leaderboard Ranking: #26 of 303 Ranked Games
Top 96 Percentile of All IGC Reviews
Top 91.5 Percentile of All IGC-Approved Indie Games
*Rankings based on time of publication. Check the Leaderboard for updated standings.

Böbl was developed by Morphcat Games
Point of Sale: Evercade (included in the Morphcat Games Collection 1) or
Choose your Own Price at Itch.io

$19.99 (Evercade) böbbed when I should have wēāved in the making of this review.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection – The Definitive Review (Complete 13 Game Review + Ranking)

Well, everyone liked the Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium review, and the “definitive review” format has been getting praised. At long last, I finally got the retro collection review style correct. I’ve tried a few styles, but this one seems to be catching on. And what do you know? The perfect collection to test the format out just released.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection is a set of thirteen games released between 1989 and 1993. Well, actually, it’s nine different games. You get both the 1989 Konami coin-op Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the NES conversion Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game. Turtles in Time includes both the SNES and Coin-Op versions, and then there’s THREE versions of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (NES, SNES, and Genesis). So, nine “base” games with four variations are part of this set, right? Actually, it’s even more complicated than that. Hyperstone Heist for the Sega Genesis is really more of a shortened remix of the two arcade games that eliminates the most satisfying attack (throwing the enemies at the screen) from Turtles in Time. And the three Tournament Fighters games are all made by different development teams and aren’t merely variations of one game. While the base concept, a Street Fighter type of game with Ninja Turtles characters remains the same, each of the three games were made by different teams at Konami. They use different engines. They have different rosters. It’s three completely different games that merit their own separate review. Thus, there’s really only two games that are truly variations of the same exact game, and that’s Turtles II for the NES and Turtles IV for the SNES. Like I said, this is a great game to test the Definitive Review format.

Look, Ma! No hands!

The set retails for $39.99. I feel that $4.99 is a fair price for a good retro game from this set, so the target is to score eight YES! verdicts, right? Well, not so fast. Unlike Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium, The Cowabunga Collection features a wealth of bonus material. I don’t mean like instructions on how to play the games or a couple common emulation features. In my opinion, retro sets have no excuse to not have detailed instructions on how to play the games along with the ability to use save states or rewind. But, Cowabunga Collection goes above and beyond what you’d expect in this type of retro game collection, and thus, I have to put a value on the extras.

EMULATION EXTRAS

Cowabunga Collection features save states and rewind, which are such must-haves that I’m just as likely to penalize a retro collection these days for not including them. That alone would have been enough to satisfy me, even if you can only rewind 30 seconds of gameplay. In my opinion, a minute or longer is optimal. But, they did what they needed to do, and that should have been enough. But the masters of retro gaming, Digital Eclipse, took it a step further with the greatest feature in the history of emulation. Those who remember me drooling over SNK 40th Anniversary Collection’s “watch a full gameplay video that you can stop at any time and join the game at that exact moment” will be happy to hear that feature returns for Cowabunga Collection. I know that it’s actually not that big a deal because of how emulation works, but it’s not as common a feature as I wish it was. To me, it’s practically witchcraft.

Watch the video, which is a perfect no-hit run no matter which game you play. Hit the PLAY GAME button at any time and you take control from there. It’s awesome. I love it.

It came in handy when I played the 1989 NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and went to upload media right before I started the infamous underwater sequence. After I finished uploading, I was horrified to see that the game didn’t pause from me using the system guide button. Seriously, I was actually close to penalizing the set for that. Dear game makers: whenever the guide button on any console is hit, pausing the game should be a gimmie. Anyway, I put myself in a position where there wasn’t enough time left for me to beat the stage. But, I was able to use the video to return to that exact spot, like nothing happened. Actually, I was in better shape because the video is a perfect run of the game, with no damage taken. All thirteen games include the video play-through with jump-in ability, and that alone is worthy of a bonus, but we’re just getting started.

While the removal of flicker and slowdown doesn’t save the NES version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from the NO! pile, I’ll note that I played the Technodrome battle with the slowdown/flicker turned on and it was unplayable. I’m VERY happy Digital Eclipse did the right thing and gave people the ability to turn them off. Hell, in my opinion, THAT should have been the default setting and turning them back on should have been the thing that was optional.

In addition to having both the Japanese and US ROMs, all thirteen games have optional “enhancements” of various quality. They’re usually based around cheat codes that required button inputs, and how useful they are isn’t consistent. The NES TMNT offers flicker reduction and slowdown reduction. Neither are 100% perfect, but playing with them turned off, you can easily notice the difference. Turtles 1 is a game that spams the screen with enemies, and bosses like the Technodrome basically have slowdown going non-stop, which also makes the controls less responsive. You can eliminate those issues now in the first TMNT plus the other two NES games. Turtles 2 and 3 on the NES offer other options too, like extra or infinite lives and easier menu navigation. The arcade games offer both “God Mode” (invincibility and one-hit kills) and “Nightmare Mode” (lots more enemies). Turning both God Mode and Nightmare mode on DO make for quite the satisfying brawling experience. The Game Boy games are the least consistent. The first one offers only the ability to practice the bonus game. The second gives you the option for infinite lives and to change which level you start on. The third one offers you only the ability to turn-on a better map. Sure, I wish they had really amazing options for every game, but there’s something helpful that improves the overall quality of every game at least a little bit. Oh, and there’s online play for the two arcade games, Hyperstone Heist on the Genesis, and the SNES version of Tournament Fighters. For all the added emulation extras, I’m crediting $10 to Cowabunga Collection.

EXTRA MEDIA FEATURES

Any licensed game that’s not TMNT-related that appeared alongside a Ninja Turtles game in advertisements is treated like it’s in the witness protection program. Oh and since the LCD games are shown here, WHY DIDN’T WE GET THOSE AS A SUPER DUPER SPECIAL THROWN-IN BONUS? Would have been nice. I did a seven part LCD review series, 100+ games, but apparently nobody emulated the TMNT ones.

There’s a lot of extras in Cowabunga Collection. Hell, there’s so many that Digital Eclipse included the ability to search them in the menu. Dang. There’s boxes and manuals for all the home games from North America and Japan. Regardless of what console you’re on, you’ll see the Nintendo branding and seal of quality in all its glory, along with Sega’s branding on the Genesis game. They even have the arcade schematics too. There’s tons of ads from magazines and catalogs. Those can be weird, because if a Ninja Turtles game shared the space with another game from another IP, the other IP’s game is removed by blacking it out. Also included is every single cover for six different eras of Ninja Turtles comic books and still shots from four different Ninja Turtles TV shows (no Power Rangers crossover, sadly). There’s complete soundtracks and strategy guides for the games, and I actually did use it to help me finish the first NES game. There’s behind-the-scenes documents, and this is where the really good stuff is. Included in this section is stuff the IP’s “style guide” which is what IP holders send to licensees to show them how the characters MUST be drawn. Finally, there’s design documents for seven of the home games that show you concept art, portraits, sprites, storyboards, etc. If you can’t read Japanese, you’ll need to turn on the captions, and I’m not sure why translations weren’t set as a default but I’m happy they’re there. I spent over an hour sorting through the extras and never got bored. For all the media extra features, I’m crediting $10 to Cowabunga Collection.

THE ULTIMATE VERDICT ON THE COLLECTION

Really, only three of the games NEED the built-in strategy guide: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES), Radical Rescue (Game Boy, map shown in pic) and the SNES Tournament Fighters (to learn the special moves). But, I’m happy the maps were there. They really went all-out on this set.

Even though I’ve played most of the games in this set before, and in some cases, had already given my complete thoughts on them, I gave all thirteen games a fully clean slate. Only the Cowabunga Collection version of the included games counts for this feature. For those not familiar with my way of thinking of how retro games should be reviewed, I take NO historical context into account. I don’t care how important a game was to the industry, because that doesn’t make a game worth playing today. The test of time is the cruelest test of all, but every video game must face it. I might not be here if not for Space Invaders’ success, but I wouldn’t want to play it today. Not when there’s better options. Therefore, when I review retro games, every game gets either a YES! or a NO!

YES! means the game is still fun and has actual gameplay value when played today and is worth seeking out.

NO! means the game didn’t age gracefully and is not worth seeking out, and certainly not worth spending money on.

With $20 in credit earned and the value of a good retro Ninja Turtles game fixed at $4.99, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection needs to score four YES! votes to win my seal of approval.

YES!: 5
NO!: 8

indie-gamer-chick-approvedTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection is Chick-Approved. Having an official re-release of Turtles in Time for the SNES is a pretty amazing thing, but this collection has a few surprises as well. I didn’t expect to like the original arcade game, and in fact, I enjoyed my time with it a lot. I didn’t expect to like any of the Game Boy games, but two of them were acceptable time wasters. I certainly didn’t expect to enjoy the two hours I spent with Manhattan Project for the NES, yet here we are. Five totally solid Turtles games, emulated to perfection, plus a whole lot of bonus material, makes this a set worthy of purchase.

FINAL RANKINGS

How I determined the rankings is simple: I took the full list of games, then I said “I’m forced to play one game. Pick the one I could play the most and not get bored with.” That goes on top of the list. Then I repeat the question again with the remaining games over and over until the list is complete. Based on that simple criteria, here are the final rankings. Games above the Terminator Line received a YES! Games below it received a NO!

  1. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time (SNES)
  2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project (NES)
  3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Arcade)
  4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Radical Rescue (Game Boy)
  5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan (Game Boy)
    **TERMINATOR LINE**
  6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (SNES)
  7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game (NES)
  8. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time (Arcade)
  9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist (Genesis)
  10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)
  11. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (NES)
  12. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back from the Sewers (Game Boy)
  13. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (Genesis)

GAME REVIEWS

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
for Nintendo Entertainment System
Released June 25, 1989

One of my major annoyances with TMNT-NES is how enemies spawn. In this screen, you can see the playfield is spammed with enemies to such a degree that there’s basically no way you won’t take damage. Enemies respawn if you walk off the screen too, which is common on the NES, but TMNT-NES is really weird about how scrolling works, so backing up to have room to fight might scroll the screen more and cause the enemy to respawn before you’ve even killed the original.

By far the most interesting game in Cowabunga Collection is the very first Ninja Turtles game. Don’t mistake that for being “good.” It’s not. TMNT-NES is a complete disaster. But, it’s a compelling disaster. I’ll give it that. Basically, everything that can go wrong does go wrong here. The most important thing is that it feels nothing at all like a Ninja Turtles game. Even with the Turtles and their signature weapons. Even with Bebop, Rocksteady, the Technodrome, and Shredder. I first played Ninja Turtles a couple years ago when I ran through almost the entire NES library, and I walked away with a niggling suspicion that this started development as a completely different game that was converted into TMNT as soon as Konami got the license so they could strike while the IP was red-hot. Apparently, it’s not true. There was no asset flipping or sprites from unused games. They just rushed this through and came up with enemies as fast as possible on the assumption that the Ninja Turtles fad could burn out at any moment. The hurried development shows. The complete lack of polish and unrelenting swarms of enemies that would normally make the NES chug like a freshman at homecoming are things that should never have made it to the final product. The Cowabunga Collection version of TMNT can muffle the slowdown and non-stop flicker (there IS still a bit of both, but nowhere near as noticeable now) but that only makes the terrible design choices of TMNT stand out more.

The Giant Mouser and the Technodrome are the only two boss fights that feel “epic.” The rest feel like fights against normal enemies. If anything, the Mouser fight feels like it’s straight out of Contra.

What annoys me most about TMNT-NES is that there’s a great game buried within this dumpster fire. Not MISSING from the game, but already in the game. Well, actually, this could have used a lot better level design in general, but the basic concept of how the levels work is very solid. I like the idea of traversing an overworld and searching sewers and buildings for the correct pathway to the end of each stage. New York City is maze-like, after all, so why not take advantage of that? I like that part. It’s the only good idea the game had, and even then they bungled it by having too many dead-ends and “red herring” buildings. Sure, there’s pizzas or items in them, but the way enemies respawn often isn’t designed with moving forward and backwards through the levels in mind. Often, you’re better off just running for it and not engaging the enemies at all. If not for the abysmal collision detection.. which is seriously among the worst in the history of video games.. the combat would be pretty satisfying. At least when you use Donatello. His staff is slow but has the most reach and causes the most damage. That’s right: getting poked with a large wooden stick is more lethal in the world of Ninja Turtles than being stabbed or sliced with sharp, pointy metal. If you think of this as Donatello: The Video Game, it works a lot better. With practice, you can even use his unique striking style to damage enemies behind you. Donatello is the man, and I only used the other Turtles if I had acquired a subweapon using them or if I didn’t want to take damage with Donatello. Hell, unless you have the other three Turtles loaded down with sub-weapons, the second-to-last boss, the Technodrome, is pretty much impossible to beat without him. You can’t disable the electric fork in the front with anyone else’s weapon. They don’t have enough range. What was Konami thinking when they green-lit this?

Oh you bastard. You bastard. There’s nothing I can say that others haven’t already said about the infamous underwater sequence. It’s every bit as bad as its reputation suggests. For my money, it’s the worst level in the history of video games. Not even the Speed Bike stage on Battletoads is this bad, because at least there the controls and collision aren’t awful. When you finish this review, go watch this video that explains how the awful collision ruins this stage. It’s truly jaw-dropping how badly coded this game is. You didn’t expect that from Konami games of this era. They were only months away from releasing Castlevania III in Japan when this came out, a contender for the best game on the NES.

For a set that’s loaded with extras, I’m a little more than ticked off that it was never explained anywhere in the game (the original instruction manual or Cowabunga Collection’s built-in strategy guide) that each turtle actually has unique special attributes. Leonardo does the least damage, unless his health falls below four bars, at which point it doubles. Because that’s how swords would work, or something. Raphael has the fastest weapons in the game but can’t do a down-thrust. Michelangelo can’t attack downward either and he has poor range, but like Leonardo, his attack power doubles when he’s under four bars of health. I feel like this is one of the great missed opportunities of the NES era. This isn’t a side-scrolling beat-em-up. It’s a full-fledged platforming adventure with labyrinthine levels. Assigning more unique abilities to each Turtle could have made for a more strategic, enticing game. But that’s not what Konami did. There’s really never a point when you’ll want to use a Turtle besides Donny, and that’s especially damning. Honestly, it feels like everything was put into making level one good, so that kids would rent it and pester their parents to buy it. Pretty much the whole game from level two onward becomes so unfair that I actively wonder why Ghosts ‘n Goblins became the poster child for mean-spirited game design when TMNT outsold it 3 to 1 and is nearly as unfair. For all the crap the dam level gets, that final stretch before you get to Shredder is straight-up bullshit. Then again, most TMNT owners never made it past level three from what I can gather, and 99.9% certainly never made it past the Technodrome.

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After level one, there’s just nothing really enjoyable left to do because TMNT-NES loses all semblance of balance. The enemies can be spongy, cheap, and too quick to respawn. Most of them have literally nothing to do with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise and feel like they’re unused character sprites from horror games or sci-fi games. Not badly designed or ugly character models, but I can’t imagine a child in 1989 understood at all why their TMNT game felt almost nothing like the show or movie or comic they fell in love with. I’m not even a Turtles fan myself, as it had already kind of dried out by time I was the right age for it, and even I’m like “what the hell are all these monsters from?” The answer is not from THE Ninja Turtles franchise. Hell, the Giant Mouser feels like a Contra boss. Speaking of bosses: after a couple hours worth of cheap enemy placement, swarming bosses, and unavoidable damage, I entered the final room with Shredder and beat him without cheating in ten seconds without taking a single hit of damage. If there had been someone in the room with me who had a trumpet, they would have played WOMP WOMP at that moment. Despite all the problems I have with Ninja Turtles, I feel like there really is a potentially great game here. While it never feels like a TMNT game, it always feels distinctly NES Konami-like. If you altered some jumps, tightened the collision detection, eliminated the time limit and changed how swimming works in the underwater area, adjusted the respawning, and gave the empty buildings an actual purpose besides being a wild goose chase for players, TMNT could have been one of THE greats on NES. Of course, what I just said is basically “if you change the whole game, it could have been a masterpiece!” By the way, this was the best-selling 3rd Party NES game of all-time. Go figure, right?
Verdict: NO!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #10 of 13

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
for Arcades
Released October 11, 1989

This came out exactly two months after I was born. There’s actually no value to that useless fact, but I figured I would share it.

Being a weirdo, I played the NES port before playing the arcade game. I’m famously not a fan of the Simpsons arcade game, and I thought I wasn’t of the TMNT arcade game. It makes sense, right? Same development team. Same engine. Same sense that the game was rushed to the market to strike while the iron was hot. Now, I’m racking my brain trying to figure out if I ever played the arcade game before. I’m not entirely sure I have, because I had a pretty good time with it. In stark contrast to the slow, plodding, extremely stripped-down NES game that somehow earned a reputation as a really good port, I actually really enjoyed my time playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game. A big part of that is that it breezes right on by at an astonishingly fast pace. Compared with the NES port, where after about twenty minutes, I felt like I was going to burst into tears every time I realized I wasn’t on the last level.

Yea yea, you’re supposed to play this multiplayer. Well, my family enjoyed doing the recent indie Shredder’s Revenge with me (yes, it’s an indie) getting them to play retro games is like pulling teeth.

The arcade game has only two major flaws. The first is that the handful of flying enemies feel like they have inaccurate collision boxes compared to the plane of existence you stand on. Lining yourself up to damage them is extremely frustrating. The fight with Baxter Stockman is particularly annoying, and after throwing drop kicks from every angle and hitting around one out of six times, the game gave me a mercy ruling and he just flew away. Wow. Thankfully, the issue with flyers isn’t a deal breaker. The bigger problem with TMNT Arcade is there’s very limited OOMPH! to the fight. Your attacks feel kind of weightless, and that drops this out of the realm of “best brawlers” because you need that sense of violence for immersion. So, it’s remarkable that I still had a good time.

The only truly putrid element of TMNT Arcade is the Baxter Stockman fight. It’s not just lining up to score a hit that’s a pain in the ass. He drops too many mousers, which require you to button mash to escape. It’s a terrible arena for the battle too. I hated everything about this fight. The only thing the NES port did better was this part.

But, I never got bored with the gameplay. Konami stretched a lot satisfying combat out of two button gameplay. Satisfying enough, in fact, that I opted not to simply spam the special attack that kills foot soldiers in one hit. This is before those type of attacks came at the price of a sliver of health, but I enjoyed using my basic attacks, and often did. That’s something that’s completely gone from the NES game. The moments where the bad guys attack from every angle don’t even frustrate, because it feels true to the spirit of the property. As far as licensed games from this era go, the original arcade TMNT has to be among the best at making the game feel like the IP. The bosses, especially early ones, aren’t the total sponges. TMNT Arcade’s bosses are basically the prototype for the “Konami Style Brawler Boss” that I adore. The last couple do get borderline spongy, but it feels climatic. Shredder’s one-hit instakill felt a bit “quick! Wring every last quarter out of the little bastards” cynical, but otherwise, I had a lot of fun with the 1989 TMNT arcade game, and I didn’t expect to at all.
Verdict: YES!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #3 of 13

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game
for the Nintendo Entertainment System
Released December 14, 1990

The Shredder fight is especially tedious. He clones himself, and you can only tell which is the real one by knocking his helmet off. At this point, the fake one usually hangs out close by the real one so that you accidently kill it, at which point another spawns. Oh and the instakill death ray is bullshit. At least here, it’s doesn’t feel like it’s trying to squeeze as many last-second quarters out of players as possible, I guess. Oh, and play the JP version if you insist on playing this, where the dropkick causes as much damage as the special attack, and the SP attack is easier to do.

Calling the NES port of the arcade Ninja Turtles “boring” is sacrilege to an entire generation that came before me, but I’ll proudly wear the blasphemer tag before I say anything nice about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game. It’s boring. Like, really boring. This is NOT a good port of the arcade game. I was stunned when I played the arcade game after playing this and saw how many more moves just hitting the attack button could do. In addition to the normal attack, Donatello could lift enemies up over his head and throw them, a fairly satisfying move. That’s gone here. In fact, I didn’t want to use basic attacks at all because the enemies tended to counter attack them too quickly. That left only two other options: the lone type of drop kick you get (the arcade version gives multiple) and the power attack that kills all the foot soldiers in one hit. Levels take a lot longer to slog through, and to really add insult to injury, they added two more levels that have some fairly cheap GOTCHA! type of hits. They also changed the fight against both Bebop & Rocksteady to a fight against the fly version of Baxter. Okay, fine, there IS one positive thing I can say: it’s easier to kill flying enemies in this version, but that’s on account of some very generous collision with them. TMNT 2-NES has overall bad collision detection, spongier bosses, and levels so long they could be called eras. You kids from generations before were far too easy to impress, because they turned a fun, fast-paced romp into a slow, plodding, padded slog.
Verdict: NO!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #7 of 13

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan
for the Game Boy
Released August, 1990

I genuinely go into all these games with as open a mind as humanly possible. Having said that, I’m floored I gave a YES! to Fall of the Foot Clan. I figured the second and third Game Boy TMNT games had a shot, but that there was no way in hell a first-gen GB game that was likely rushed through development as fast as possible to cash-in on the Ninja Turtle craze before it stopped being profitable had any chance of being fun.

Fall of the Foot Clan is a pleasant surprise on the same level as when you put your pants on and find a dollar bill in one of the pockets that you didn’t know was there. It’s not exactly cause for celebration but it’ll put a smile on your face. This early Game Boy release is one of the stronger third party GB titles from that early period, easily out-classing Konami’s first attempt at a Castlevania for Game Boy. It’s not exactly the most ambitious title. In fact, it’s so generic that they could have made this any IP and it would have felt the same. The Turtles have no variation between them besides how their weapons look, at least from what I can tell, and it’s not like the Game Boy can show the different colored masks. The gameplay is as basic as it gets. You walk right and enemies jump onto the screen and you whack them with your weapon. Occasionally you have to jump, but mostly, you just walk right. There’s no power-ups besides life-restoring pizzas. There’s an awful lack of variety in both enemies and the way they attack. Fall of the Foot Clan’s gameplay is as shallow as a mud puddle. Honestly, the levels often feel like LCD type action games with better animation.

What gave me the LCD vibe is how the enemies tend to attack in the exact same way. Foot soldiers jump in from the left and the right, slightly out of sync, so that you can smack one, then turn around and smack the other. This attack pattern is repeated almost non-stop throughout the game. Little robot enemies will buzz across the top before lowering down so you can smack them. You’re moving right. You’re jumping over gaps. You’re changing levels. But, the same attack pattern with the same enemies repeats over and over. I’ve never seen a non-LCD action game that mimics the LCD spinning-plate-style like this before.

But, I never got bored with it! It helps that the action is pretty much non-stop, plus this became the first TMNT home game with accurate collision detection. Enemies drop pizza slices in regular intervals, and if you want a little variety, you have an unlimited supply of ninja stars to throw at enemies when you duck, though they do less damage than your sword and I never really needed them. Fall of the Foot Clan is super easy and goes by quick, barely taking thirty minutes to complete the five-level quest on your first play-through. I was stunned that I even lost one life, which happened when I fought Shredder at the end of level four, which was the literally the only part of the game that felt like there was any type of nuanced challenge besides just full-speed-ahead attack. Has Fall of the Foot Clan aged well? Oh god, no. Is it still somewhat fun? Yea. This might be the worst retro game I’ve ever given a YES! to, but I never got bored and wanted to finish it. That counts for something.
Verdict: YES!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #5 of 13

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time
for Arcades
Released March, 1991

A major, game-defining aspect of Turtles in Time on the SNES is how easy it is to pull off the two special moves (throw at the camera and the repeating slam). The arcade game feels like it picks random times to work. Even the “hit both buttons to do a special attack that takes a tick of life off” move is SIGNIFICANTLY harder to do in the arcade version. It’s just not a fun game.

Before playing Cowabunga Collection, I’d already had plenty of experience with Turtles in Time. I had it when it was given a terrible facelift and called Re-Shelled back in the day. Years later, I ran through the SNES game during #IGCvSNES. There was this interesting phenomena while I did the SNES game: a lot of people noted that it far out-classed the arcade counterpart. Now, there’s people who insist the NES port of the original arcade game is better because it has (checks notes) two extra levels. Allow me to wave my hands around my head while saying OOOOOOH sarcastically. They couldn’t have been more wrong, of course. TMNT II: The Arcade Game on NES is terrible. But, when I started Cowabunga Collection, I once again started catching word that Turtles in Time was inferior in arcades. This time around, the buzz was spot-on. If anything, people understated just how bad Turtles in Time arcade is. It has better animation than the SNES game, and it’s also absolutely horrible.

When it comes to arcade games, there’s a difference between “fair hard” and “borderline scam hard.” Turtles in Time has so many cheap shots or enemies that interrupt your attacks that it feels like a scam. Yea, that’s the accurate term. If one of those redemption games that spits out ticket is rigged specifically to make players think they have a better chance to win than they really have, we call that a scam, right? Why not do the same for arcade video games, since the ultimate goal (trick players into paying real money to play) is the same? Turtles in Time has one goal and one only: suck quarters. The faster players die, the better. When you don’t have to put quarters into the game anymore, all it has left is to suck.

This might be Konami’s worst arcade game of the 90s. Talk about a major downgrade from the previous game. The play control often feels unresponsive. As a result, there’s NO oomph. Seriously, this might be the least OOMPHful 90s brawler. The violence feels like feathers doing karate moves on cotton balls. Pulling off the cool special moves is nearly impossible to clock. The swarming enemies interrupt your combos like it ain’t no thing. There is a slightly better variety in enemies in the arcade (and the annoying shield-wielding foot soldiers aren’t that bad here) but with combat that isn’t satisfying at all, what’s the point? The same issues with airborne enemies from the first arcade game return here, along with other issues with what plane you’re on. The out-of-sync enemy attacks that often don’t let you get-up was the final straw for me. Actually, it was the final straw twice, which shouldn’t even be possible! Cowabunga Collection’s “Nightmare Mode” stacked with “God Mode” made Turtles in Time fun. For a while. Then I got to the Neo Night Riders stage and the flying foot soldiers used their guns out of sync, so not only could I not fight back, but I couldn’t even get up. It’s amazing that they turned this piece of crap into what might be the best brawler on the SNES, but this feels like a prototype that wasn’t finished. It does have value as a case study for OOMPH, because the SNES version actually has it.
Verdict: NO!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #8 of 13

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back from the Sewers
for Game Boy
Released December 1, 1991

Apologists for the game note that the perfect no-hits run in the video shows you don’t have to heel-toe it. I am so sick of the speed run argument when I complain about a game with pacing issues. The argument is essentially “if you spend enough time to become an expert at a game that already bores you, you can beat it faster.” Well, yeah. That’s usually how it works. But why would anyone want to become an expert at a game they find boring in the first place? There’s like a million games out there. I have better options than a 1991 Game Boy product tie-in that zero effort was put into to actually be fun.

They had more than a year of extra time to work on Back from the Sewers. So, how is it so similar to Fall of the Foot Clan? Actually, change that. How come it’s worse than Fall of the Foot Clan? I’m not going to call Back from the Sewers unplayable. It’s even worse than that. You CAN beat it, but in order to do so, you’re forced to play the game in the most cautionary, plodding, opposite of fun manner I’ve ever seen in any “action” game. Take the same basic enemy attack patterns from the first Game Boy game.. and I mean the EXACT SAME ATTACK PATTERNS, only with different character sprites. Now, have that sequence of attacks happen every time you scroll the screen a half step forward. On “normal” difficulty, the game spawns an absolutely comical amount of enemies that you have to whack with your comically short weapon, then take a step forward and repeat the process. The first game felt like an LCD game that with the limited amount of attack patterns that repeated throughout the game. Well, if that was a Game & Watch, this would be the B mode. The same game, only with the patterns happening at a faster rate. More ambitious level design based on zig-zagging through buildings or aircraft is undermined by enemies or turrets that fire so fast you’re basically forced to take damage. Who on earth wants to play a game where the only way to play well is to essentially crawl your way through it? Back from the Sewers? I think not. This belongs back IN the sewers, because it’s crap.
Verdict: NO!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #12 of 13

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project
for the Nintendo Entertainment System
Released February 1, 1992

I’ll get my only knock with Manhattan Project’s controls out of the way: it’s too easy to do the life-draining special move. I know that in previous games I complained that it’s too hard, but here I often went to jump to do a drop kick and ended up doing my special move instead. If I hadn’t had infinite lives on, I’d of game-overed just from accidental special move usage alone.

Dinosaurs do not show up at any point at all in this game. Absolutely shameful cover art. Reprehensible, really. If this was a new release, I’d give this a NO! on principle.

To say that I was completely taken by surprise by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III on the NES is an understatement. Here’s what I knew going into it. (1) It used a modified version of the Turtles II: The Arcade Game’s engine, and I hated that game. (2) It’s still the NES, so gameplay is limited to two buttons and stuff that can be done with 8 bits of horsepower. (3) The full-length gameplay video included was nearly two hours long. I could barely keep my eyes from glazing-over playing TMNT II: The Arcade Game and this was over twenty minutes longer. (4) It had a reputation for being insanely difficult. The most frequent thing I heard from players was that it starts fun but finishes with a thud because of prohibitive difficulty. Granted, they likely didn’t have access to the infinite lives that Cowabunga Collection allows you to apply. (5) Konami opted to save a few bucks by not going with the same special chip they used to make Dracula’s Curse possible. Of course, this set allows you to turn off flicker/slowdown inherit to the NES, but the point is TMNT 3 didn’t aspire to max-out the NES’s 1991/92 potential. That’s five completely valid red flags. For those reasons, I’d been dreading the time I’d have to spend with the Manhattan Project more than any other game in the set.

Given the limitations of the fighting engine and the 8-bit console, they kind of got the bosses perfect. This was especially surprising given how boring the bosses in TMNT II were. A big part of that is none of the bosses in Manhattan Project are too spongy. Just when you think they’re about to get boring, the blinking starts, meaning they’re almost dead. Each has a unique style and twist. Most importantly, they’re all fun to battle. Every single one, which is a feat no Turtles game, NOT EVEN SHREDDER’S REVENGE, has pulled off. Only this late-stage NES game. Well done! Outstanding! And one of the most unexpected, delightful surprises of my now five-year-long retro gaming adventures.

My fears were unfounded. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project was pretty awesome. It cleans up most of the things that killed TMNT II on the NES. Collision detection, first and foremost, is completely fixed. There was a couple weird instances involving Michelangelo where his weapon actually had more range than the graphics let on (specifically the “lift over head” move) but those were limited to him. Beyond that, this has some of the best combat collision of any game of this type on the NES. The controls are much more responsive too, and it makes the combat a lot more satisfactory. Plus, this time around, each turtle has their own unique special move. Raphael, who I usually avoid because of his teeny tiny weapons, actually has the best special move by far, a torpedo-like headbutt, and thus he became my primary character. Michelangelo, another turtle I usually avoid using, has a neat handspring kick that, with proper timing, can cause two hits for the price of one. Of course, they fixed the issue with the power moves coming at no cost. This time, whether you hit the move or not, using the special moves takes a tick of health off, and the game is ultra-stingy with the life-refilling pizza so you’ll want to space the special moves out. But, once you get down to your final sliver health, you get unlimited special moves, and with Raph especially, I was spamming them like crazy.

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Manhattan Project feels like it squeezes as much content out of the formula as two button gameplay on an eight bit console allows. Right up to the eighth and final level, it’s still introducing new enemies. The variety of foot soldiers rivals Shredder’s Revenge, a game released 30 years later. This is a seriously impressive effort. There’s even some unique stage ideas, like an area taking place on a conveyor belt where you have to brawl while jumping over lasers (or not jumping sometimes). I think it went a bit too long. Six levels that had mid-bosses would have worked a lot better, and in fact, the best levels were the ones that had mid-bosses. Two hours is a lot of time to spend with a beat ’em up this limited, though it never becomes fully boring. That’s probably because, unlike Turtles II, TMNT III feels like a labor of love. As for the notorious difficulty, well, some people say that you’re not really beating a game if you cheat and use infinite lives or save states or rewinding. I say, if that’s the only way a game can be enjoyable, so be it. Besides, it’s a brawler and even with one added basic move and unique super moves, it’s still gameplay as shallow as your mother in law’s contempt for you. It’s supposed to be cathartic. Yea, I’m happy I can beat Double Dragon NES if I really put my heart in it, but that also kind of nullifies the fun. You have to buckle down and play efficiently, even if it’s not as fun that way. Without the pressure of playing the game well, I could enjoy TMNT 3 just fine. I could use the basic moves, which are actually FUN to use this time, something the first arcade adaption on the NES completely failed at. Seriously, it’s a chore using the basic moves in TMNT 2, and they don’t feel rewarding when they land. That’s fixed. It’s all fixed. This is as good as an arcade brawler on the NES can be, and kudos to them for pulling it off. Surprise: TMNT 3 is quite fun.
Verdict: YES!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #2 of 13
Winner: Biggest Surprise of the Set

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time
for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Released August 15, 1992

I think this is my favorite boss in any side-scrolling brawler ever made. Someone at Konami must have realized it was just so satisfying to throw foot soldiers at the screen, so they made it a lot easier to pull off on the SNES, then built a boss fight around it. It’ll take something spectacular to top this battle.

Now this is more like it. Despite the arcade game having more fluid animation and sharper graphics, the Super NES version is better in every imaginable way. It controls better. It sounds better (well, okay fine, it doesn’t have most of the arcade’s voice samples or the Pizza Power rap during the attract screen). It plays better. It’s a kinder, gentler lover, like I imagine Shredder really is deep down♥. Turtles in Time on the SNES is a nearly non-stop joy to experience. The feathery, weightless combat of the arcade is replaced with weighty crunches, bone-breaking slams, and weapons that feel like they would actually hurt to get struck by. Whereas the added levels were not to the benefit of the NES game, which was already thin on gameplay and terminally slow, the added content here is welcome. There’s four new bosses and all of them fun to battle. Levels have either been added or heavily altered, including turning the two “surfing” levels into bonus stages, but ones that still have bosses. The Super NES has a lot of great arcade ports, but few actually improve on the coin-op. Turtles in Time MURDERS its arcade counterpart and was likely the best home-to-arcade port until SoulCalibur in 1999.

A bizarre extra feature exclusive to this port is the time trial mode. There’s three “courses” that take bite-sized segments from the main game, called “laps” here and times how long you take to beat all the enemies. It’s weirdly slow, as you spend as much time waiting for the next lap to finally load as you do actually “racing” the timer. It’s not the worst idea but the execution is frustrating because of the agonizing wait between laps.

Do you know what my only semi-real problem with Turtles in Time is? I object to the name. Really, the “time travel” aspect barely works. Going back to fight foot soldiers in the dinosaur era? Nice. But the train you’re on could be a train from any time period. Same with the pirate ship. Same with the Technodrome, for that matter. Hell, you have to finish about a third of the game before you even start “traveling through time.” So, yea, the time travel stuff outside of the dinosaur stage and the hoverboard stage is weak sauce. Everything else is superb. A big part of that is the OOMPH (my pet term for violence in a video game feeling like it has real, impactful weight to it) is wonderful. When you hit a strike in Turtles in Time, it feels like it inflicts pain. Which it probably doesn’t because you’re mostly fighting robots but my point still stands. In the arcades, it’s like paper dolls fighting. On the SNES, when you grab an enemy by the limb and start slamming them back and forth on the concrete like Hulk does to Loki in Avengers, it might be my favorite brawling game move EVER. It’s just so damn cathartic, especially when you clear out a screen full of enemies while doing it.

Turning Neo Night Riders into a Mode 7 showcase was another smart move. You’ve already done one “Sewer Surfing” stage. In arcades, it’s just more of the same, and futuristic facade feels paper-thin. On the Super NES, the Mode 7 graphics make it feel fresh and kind of novel. The weird thing about Mode 7 is it shouldn’t impress at all in 2022, but it always makes me sit up and take notice whenever I’m playing any SNES game.

The sound design factors into it, but the controls being a lot more responsive than they are in arcades is the real difference maker. That fluid animation that does look so good in arcades seems to also be why doing combos, getting attacks interrupted, and general unresponsiveness is present. On the SNES, it feels like when you give the command to crush an enemy, it’s done. I could almost do the “slam on the concrete” move at will (which really helps in the time trial mode) and when I needed throw enemies at the screen, I could always do so with minimal effort. Of course, unlike the NES arcade game, just using basic attacks is actually satisfying as well. So is the running shoulder block that makes for the perfect set-up for the concrete slamming. Turtles in Time’s move-set is relatively limited, but what moves you have are very satisfying. My wish list would only include more satisfying/effective aerial attacks.

The OOMPH isn’t quite as good against bosses, but hell, even the best Capcom brawlers where you could practically feel the bones shatter also struggled with that too. Boss OOMPH is a tricky balancing act because if you get it wrong, you make the enemy look weak and it takes the stakes out of the fight. One thing Turtles does get right is having all the bosses feel like they’re different. They require different patterns to defeat. You can’t just spam attacks. I like that.

Well, if I’m going to get nit-picky, I guess I wish there was a bigger variety of enemies. It’s mostly just foot soldiers of various colors/weapons. The second most common enemies are these stone guys that aren’t as fun to fight, as when you try to slam them, you just sort of toss them like a sack of potatoes. Rarely, mousers or these giant alien-looking things show up. My hunch is the dev team focused all their energy on the bosses, which was probably wise. The variety of bosses is spectacular and they all feel different, but I’m bummed becuase Turtles in Time was maybe five or six basic enemies away from being the undisputed best brawler of its era. Of course, everything I feel is missing was actually done with the recent Shredder’s Revenge, and probably the best thing I can say about Turtles in Time on the SNES is it set the bar that game had to clear very high indeed. Turtles in Time might not be the best Ninja Turtles game anymore, but that it held that title for twenty years and barely showed any wear from the test of time is a testament to what Konami accomplished here. The SNES port is a truly amazing piece of software and I’m so happy I got to play through it a second time. Let’s leave it here and not re-re-remake it, please. I’d rather have Shredder’s Revenge 2.
Verdict: YES!
Ranking: #1 of 13 **BEST IN SET**

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist
for Sega Genesis
Released December 11, 1992

They took the Krang Fight from Neo Night Riders in Turtles in Time, same attack patterns, and made him a boss without the cool futuristic facade or the hoverboards. Like so many things with Hyperstone Heist, it feels stripped-down.

I legitimately can’t believe there’s any debate on which is the superior 16-bit home TMNT arcade game. A lot of people seem to really like Hyperstone Heist. I’ve never seen a game this terrible that has so many people falling over to apologize or make excuses for it, or even call it good. I mean legitimate PASSION from fans who stand by Hyperstone Heist as one of the best, if not THE best, TMNT games ever made. YIKES! I’m not just talking fanboys either, but professional game critics! Hyperstone Heist has made lists like “The 20 Best Genesis Games.” I checked, there’s at least twenty-one Genesis games, which means they’re not awarding this by default. They’ll say “the graphics and sound are better!” Who cares? Turtles in Time in the arcade looks a LOT better than the SNES game, especially the fluid, cartoony animation. But, the gameplay is worse, so the SNES game is better. That’s just how it is. If you value a game having better animation or sound at the cost of gameplay, my reviews are not for you. And while we’re at it, what people consider “better” with Hyperstone Heist is very debatable.

I was already miserable playing Hyperstone Heist for reasons I’m going to get into right about now, but at least I wasn’t completely demoralized. Then a boss showed up I already beat, and I was only on the fourth stage. “Uh oh” I thought, a chill coming over me. Then, after beating Leatherhead for the second time, Rocksteady showed up, and I just felt completely dejected. A goddamned boss rush. And since there had only been three bosses up to that point, it was one of the most pathetic boss rushes I’ve ever seen. Unbelievable. Then it ended with the Baxter Stockman fight from the original TMNT arcade game. Hey, wait.. Rocksteady is in the game but Bebop isn’t? That’s like Simon without Garfunkel! ♫GENESIS DOES! YOU CAN’T DO THIS ON NINTENDO (unless it involves a mutant warthog)!♫

A lot of people lead off with “the music is better!” I’ve never understood why anyone would go to music before gameplay, but fine, let’s start with the music. The Wikipedia page describes Hyperstone Heist as having the same music as other TMNT games, only faster. The faster part I’m not entirely sure was deliberate. It has the same music tracks from previous Turtles arcade games, only they’re sped-up. The thing is, the voices of the Turtles when they die (“ohh, shell-shocked!”) sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks, because they’re ALSO sped up. Then you realize the various bonks and baps from the combat also sound kinda similar, but weirdly so, and it’s because they’re the same sound effects sped-up too. Why would you speed up the sound effects too? That makes no sense at all, unless they just screwed up the soundtrack and sound effects and decided to call it a feature instead of a bug. It must work because people cite the soundtrack as a reason this is better than the SNES counterpart that has more levels, more bosses, more moves, more set-pieces, better play control that makes pulling off advanced moves easier, and has heroes that don’t sound like they’re on an all-helium diet.

The Sega Genesis version of TMNT has only five levels and six bosses, three of which you have to fight twice, BUT HEY, it has one boss.. ONE SINGLE, SOLITARY BOSS.. that’s not in any other Turtles game. You can practically see the Genesis fanboys showering themselves with confetti while singing “GENESIS DOES WHAT NINTENDON’T!”

But, it’s the claim that Hyperstone Heist has “more aggressive AI” that I object to the most. Apparently it was Konami’s “selling point” for the game. “More aggressive AI” in this case is the most meaningless buzzword on the Genesis since “Blast Processing™©™®™.” But, people fell for it. Reviewers at the time noted the AI was “more aggressive.” The Wikipedia page notes it. People telling me I’m wrong about Hyperstone Heist have said it to me. I don’t know where this “more aggressive” shit comes from, because when *I* played Hyperstone Heist on Normal Difficulty, the enemies kept backing away from me when I walked towards them. They would back all the way to the far-far-far edge of the screen, so much they often weren’t on the screen at all, before they finally stood still long enough for me to kill them. Of course, that means when I hit my strikes, I could only hear that I was doing it and didn’t get the satisfaction of seeing the enemies die. This was consistent from the start of the game until the end. One of my biggest issues with the beat ’em up genre in general is the action too often migrates to the edges of the playfield, but Hyperstone takes it to a new extreme. “Well Cathy, enemies in a real fight WOULD back away from you!” OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, IT’S A VIDEO GAME! In real life, a fire breathing, princess-kidnapping turtle dragon wouldn’t choose to make its final stand on a bridge with an axe that the hero could use to drop it into a lake of fire, either, but in the make-believe world of video games, it’d be weird if it didn’t! And it’s weird that so much action in Hyperstone Heist is against enemies you can’t see!

Might as well have put a giant Pizza Hut advertisement in the the center of the screen. It wouldn’t have blocked the action at all.

I think by “aggressive” fans of the game mean the enemies are complete back-fighting, sucker-punching cowards. The overwhelming majority of enemies don’t swarm you. They sort of fall back, and they only move in to attack when your back is turned to them and you start swinging your weapon to the other side. They also have pitch-perfect timing on counter-attacks. But, combat mostly consists of chasing enemies to the edge of the screen for the kill. Many of the enemies are straight-up programmed to just sit on those edges and throw their projectiles in preset intervals. For a game that’s allegedly “faster-paced”, you sure do take FOREVER to get up when you get knocked down. The dramatic knockdown-rolling-sit-up animation is agonizing every time it happens, and most of the time, the enemies begin their attack animation with perfect timing so that you’re going to get hit again at the very nanosecond you make it to your feet. I don’t care how much fans of this game regurgitate Konami’s 1992 marketing of Hyperstone Heist as “more aggressive” and “faster-paced” because the actual gameplay unfolds a lot slower. It’s stop-and-go gameplay on steroids, and thanks to Cowabunga Collection, you can play this side-by-side with Turtles in Time on the SNES and see that it’s actually the SNES game that’s “fast paced” and has more aggressive enemies, because they don’t run away from you like complete lilly-livered yellow-bellied scaredy-cats. Isn’t the point of a brawler being fed an army of cannon fodder to punch?

The only nice thing I can say about Hyperstone Heist is it had the most playable version of this Baxter Stockman battle. So hey, +1 for having the best version of my least favorite boss from the original arcade game.

While I’m at it, where is all this other “better gameplay” at? You can’t throw the enemies at the screen, which is one of the most satisfying moves from Turtles in Time. It’s much harder to pull off the “slam enemies into concrete” move, and the other foot soldiers you hit doing it take less damage. Your own life bar can be drained too quickly, as the amount of damage caused by environmental traps or even by random hits from bosses or foot soldiers often is several of your health points. The OOMPH isn’t as good as the SNES game. It has less than half the bosses the SNES game does at 13 to 6. If you object to me counting the fights against Bebop & Rocksteady as two different bosses, and the same for Tokka & Rahzar, the tally is still 11 to 6, a not unsubstantial gap, and the SNES game didn’t make you replay bosses you already beat. “The stages are longer!” Yea, but they don’t do anything. They’re not fun set-pieces at all. I was excited for a “haunted ship” because those can be cool, but it had nothing haunted about it. It was just decrepit. Going off this game’s definition of haunted, my Mom is becoming haunted. So, where’s this better game play? Oh, because the dash button is separate? Well dip me in shit and roll me in bread crumbs, Genesis wins! ♫GENESIS DOES! YOU CAN’T DO THIS ON NINTENDO! GENESIS DOES!♫

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When presented side-by-side against the SNES Turtles in Time, I can’t understand why anyone would say Hyperstone Heist is the better game, unless they NEED Hyperstone Heist to be better because they still base their self-esteem on the fact that, thirty years ago, Sega successfully marketed their console to them better than Nintendo did (or their parents saved some money buying a Genesis instead of an SNES and then gaslit the kid into believing they really wanted a Genesis all along). Well, sorry Genny fans. The Genesis library beat the SNES library in many ways, but Hyperstone Heist isn’t just bad compared to Turtles in Time. In fact, on its own, compared to no other game, Hyperstone Heist is just boring. An already short game that feels very heavily padded, with bad enemy AI, a limited moveset, and dull set-pieces. But hey, you were told thirty years ago it was faster-paced than other Turtles games and had “more aggressive” AI, even though the AI clearly spends much of the time backing away from the fighting, and who are you going to believe? The best marketing teams money can buy or your lying eyes?
Verdict: NO!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #9 of 13

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Radical Rescue
for Game Boy
Released November 25, 1993

Each of the Turtles has a super power that lets you access a previously unacceptable area. For some reason, Leonardo’s is turning into a drill.

Metroidvanias are my favorite genre, and I’m one of those people that has very little problem with short games. The next IGC review will be an indie NES Metroidvania that takes only a few minutes to complete, and I consider it a perfect game in the sense that the only complaint about it is its ultra-short length, which isn’t really a complaint. I’d rather play twenty to thirty minutes of absolute perfection than two hours of great or six hours of good. Perfection is so much rarer. So, I have no problem with the smallish map and brief runtime of Radical Rescue. Even if you get lost, it probably should only take you under two hours to finish, but that’s fine. I wouldn’t want to be stuck with this game longer. It’s a pretty decent, if basic, Metroidvania that has a major issue with enemy placement and boss fights. This is one of those games where the developers fine-tuned the enemy placement specifically for cheap-shots and unavoidable damage. It happens non-stop throughout the runtime, and it’s such a shame because otherwise Radical Rescue might have become my go-to game for baby’s first Metroidvania.

I have a big problem with the bosses. They don’t quite telegraph their moves enough to give you time to dodge, and man, do they blink a LONG time when you hit them.

The game only has a couple environments that are as bland and flavorless as it gets, and it doesn’t really do a great job of teasing “you’re in a place that you can’t access.. yet, hint hint” that Metroidvanias are ideally built around. But, they actually did a good job of building around starting with Michelangelo and needing to rescue the other turtles. The concept of beating bosses for keys to jail cells works wonderfully. Each of the Turtles has a unique ability required for exploration, which is exactly what I wanted TMNT-NES to do, and I’m gratified that I was right to say it needed it. The boss fights are super annoying. I’ve never seen a game of this type that had the bosses blink with invincibility after taking damage as painfully long as Radical Rescue does. Thankfully, with the glory of save states, you can replay them with no penalty (use the save states over rewinding. Each boss takes a minute or two to beat). Ultimately, the #1 thing I want from a Metroidvania is a good map, and Radical Rescue has a very good map with a nice path to victory that requires the exact right amount of backtracking (or lack thereof) that never becomes annoying. I just wish this had been on a platform like the NES, Genesis, or SNES instead.
Verdict: YES!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #4 of 13

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters
for Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and Game Boy
Released September 4, 1993 (SNES/Genesis) February 1994 (NES)

They all have such boring rosters. Oh, and the Genesis version (pictured here) is the only game in all of TMNT Cowabunga Collection that features Casey Jones. That’s an absolute travesty.

I don’t really have a ton to say about the three TMNT Tournament Fighter games. I’ll start by noting the Genesis game is basically unplayable. Of the three buttons they had available, one is used for taunting, which is just stupid. The fighting mechanics are extremely bland and even on the lowest setting, I couldn’t beat the enemy AI. It’s easily the worst game in Cowabunga Collection. If I gave a hypothetical “so bad that it occupies multiple spots in the rankings” for the Genesis version, Back from the Sewers on the Game Boy would be #12, then there would be five to six gaps and the Genesis Tournament Fighters would be #17 or #18. Absolutely abysmal. And you know that Digital Eclipse must have agreed. This is literally the only game in the entire collection that doesn’t have a section in the set’s built-in strategy guide.

It looks like Raph is kneeing Leo in his nardos here.

The NES game is actually better, but still not fun at all. It feels exactly like one of those modern “demakes” that you’ll see indie developers come up with as a cutesy novelty. You can only choose to use the Turtles in the one player mode, and once again, the AI is just too dang good. The big difference in this one is a dodgeball will occasionally be dropped onto the playfield for the players to use. The only nice thing I can say about the NES game is that I’d rather play it than Back from the Sewers on Game Boy.

I don’t understand the whole “Cyber Shredder” thing. That’s what he’s called in Radical Rescue too. Does he have online sex or something. Because I’d totally cyber with him. Damnit, I can change him!

Really, the SNES game is the only one of interest. Four button gameplay for heavy and light punches and kicks, so at least the action has substance and nuance to it besides button mashing. The OOMPH! is decent, there’s a nice variety of special moves, and the super move meter that penalizes usage of the block was ahead of its time and inspired. So, why didn’t I like it? Honestly, this felt to me like one of the more bland entries in SNK’s fighting game franchise. Besides Shredder and the Turtles, I didn’t recognize any of the characters, and the only fun character to play as is Shredder. The weird game show-like theme between stages threw me off, and frankly, I didn’t think the fighting was all that. It felt like they aimed for competent more than spectacular. I think a modern Turtles fighting game with cel-shaded graphics could be interesting, but for its time, this was just a wannabe Street Fighter that might have worked for kids in 1993 who recognized the characters. For a non-TMNT fan in 2022, this wasn’t for me.
Verdict: NO!, NO!, and NO!
Cowabunga Collection Rankings
SNES: #6 of 13 **BEST OF THE WORST**
NES: #11 of 13
Genesis: #13 of 13

A review copy for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection was provided by Konami for this feature.

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