Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the Sega Saturn. 2d platformer. Everything they say about this game is true. I’m not a huge fan of the Castlevania series (blasphemy!), though I can understand the greatness. THIS is the Castlevania game to own if you had to buy just one. So… uh, that’s why I own it. Just the one. I will probably fork some dough over for Rondo of Blood at some point, so I can play through this game’s nearly-as-good prequel. Still pics might make it look like ‘just a platform game’ but that doesn’t begin to describe all the cool items, amazing music, dark atmosphere, and intimidating boss battles. It’s the usual ‘versus Dracula and his minions’ plot, but its pulled off about as well as it ever has been and maybe ever will be.
Mars Matrix for the Sega Dreamcast. 2d vertical shooter. Your go-to game if you want an STG that is so difficult you will want to throw yourself off a building. Perhaps only exceeded by Gigawing 2, Dodonpachi Daioujou, and Mushihimesama Futari. Graphics are pre-rendered sprites that simulate 3d objects but are kind of crude-looking, thought they move and animate smoothly. The more you play the more ships, credits, and power you can earn, but if you are a nutter for getting the 1CC you better be prepared to put an inordinate amount of time in on this. A manic shooter with unholy amounts of enemy fire, the gameplay system centers around a shield used to deflect whatever bullets you cannot (or don’t wish to for scoring purposes) dodge. With proper memorization, there is a rhythm to using the shield, and getting the enemies to drop the most ‘gold’ to max out your firepower and bonuses. This game is very fun, but the tenacity to keep playing enough to learn this rhythm… ehn, I probably don’t have that in me. This is one I will just have to admire superplayers on and never try to get the 1CC. I find Cave shooters (generally speaking) to be more involving, so my manic shooter mastery practice will mostly go there.
Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master. 2d platformer on the Genesis/Mega Drive. Wow, is this a good game. I’d kind of forgot how good the Shinobi games could get. Much of the gameplay, the controls, Joe Mushashi’s abilities, etc. have all been done a million times, but they all just come together really well here. Joe controls so well and so intuitively that you will be negotiating even the most complex screens with ease. The only tricky part, and I was brutally reminded of this at the first boss during a recent go, is that to use the double jump you have to time the second press of the jump button right at the apex… and this can be hella-tough when you are being pressured. However, if someone wants straight up ninja action without all the sneaky complexity of Tenchu or the frustrating difficulty of (old) Ninja Gaiden, this is your game.
Chu Chu Rocket for the Sega Dreamcast. 2d action puzzle game. You must lead your mice onto an escape ship while avoiding the cats. This incredibly addictive game has two major modes. One is a frantic move-or-lose action game similar in intensity and speed to the Bomberman games. The other is more akin to the Adventures of Lolo on the NES where you have a pre-set board with cats and other obstacles already placed. You must use the tools given, then activate the board to see if the mice escape safely. Graphically very simple, but distinctive. This game is a really good example of Sega’s vision for a cute and family-friendly party game, as distinct from the many examples we have from Nintendo. Sega really did have some great innovative games, even if that seems to have fallen away from the company in recent years. Segagaga, Space Channel Five, Virtual On… they weren’t just Sonic and Shinobi. Chu Chu Rocket really worked well online too, years before all the online console stuff we get from the Virtual Console and Xbox Live Arcade.
Alien Front Online
Alien Front Online for the Sega Dreamcast, 3d third person polygonal shooter. A vehicle based shooter really from a third person perspective behind your tank or walker. An arcade game ported to the DC, this thing was a real showpiece for the Dreamcast’s graphics and it is still pretty impressive today. The objects themselves aren’t incredibly detailed, but the action is so fast, and so BIG. Tons of vehicles driving around, shit blowing up everywhere, and all kinds of cool weapons both human and alien. They even have an honest-to-goodness usable nuke in the game, and I can’t say there are many more satisfying video game moments than when you get to pop one of these off effectively. The gameplay, as is typical with arcade games, is kinda shallow, at least for home video game expectations. But the arenas are varied and interesting, and you can choose to play either as the invading aliens or the defending humans. This game also had online play. For the most part it worked pretty well, especially considering the pioneering role the Dreamcast had in actually forging this concept for consoles. Remember, the standard at this time was dialup. DIAL-UP. And I still remember decent lag-free games. The game also came with a microphone that allowed you a short segment of voice input every time you activated it. There was one evening of play I will never forget. Everyone on my team was saying the usual stuff, ‘go here’, ‘get that guy’, ‘don’t shoot at me’, etc. But one guy used his voice interval to just babble or shout incoherent stuff into the microphone. He was so weird, and he made some really hilarious noises, but he knew it was funny, and he’d keep doing it. That made most of the voices that followed him nothing but laughter. I could barely see what I was doing half the time from laughing so much. I hope that guy is still out there having a good time.
Guardian Heroes for the Sega Saturn. 2d beat ‘em up. You don’t have to play this game to see how incredibly over-the-top it is. Just dig up a YouTube video and gape in awe at the madness. It is this kind of game that has fomented Treasure’s reputation for good play mechanics buried under impossible visuals. At base level, this game is akin to Double Dragon, Final Fight, or even Golden Axe. You walk along sidescrolling screens (generally headed right) beating up enemies as they appear. Most beat ‘em ups let you work in a few throws or combos to break up the monotony of just hitting the punch button. This genre has all but disappeared nowadays, but in its heyday it was huge. Mostly owing to their popularity in arcades. They are a great cooperative play experience, rather like playing a fighting game where you are partners with someone as opposed to being their enemy. In Guardian Heroes, the setting is a medieval fantasy (with some technology) world. The game has command-motion inputs like many fighting games, and multiplane movement like Fatal Fury, but these things weren’t unheard of in beat ‘em ups. Not being an actual arcade game with their hustle-the-quarters-quickly time constraints, Treasure also added in extensive dialogue scenes, choosable branching story paths, and RPG-like leveling up and character management. Now the game starts to look pretty ambitious next to a typical beat ‘em up, but where Guardian Heroes really sets itself apart is in the execution. The sprites for the characters and enemies are simply-colored anime drawings. But this simplicity allows for dozens of them to be onscreen at once, and for some really huge shapes to move quickly about the screen wreaking havoc. It is common in the game for you (and your buddies) to frequently be attacked by six or ten henchmen, one ‘captain’ with special abilities, and some giant robot with a screen-filling laser ALL AT THE SAME TIME. The chaos is unbelievable. With all of this, of course some visibility, and therefore control, is going to be sacrificed. You can’t always see where your character is and what they are doing underneath all the layers of explosions, bodies, and mayhem. But that’s part of learning the game. You have to learn to deal with it. And positioning yourself so that you can do what you need to is half the game. Simply awesome.
Elemental Master for the Genesis/Mega Drive. 2d vertical STG. A really unique vertical shooter from Technosoft, the folks behind the Thunder Force games. Although your ship is actually a little sorcerer dude walking through the backgrounds, the scrolling is still forced and constant. So the game looks something like Gain Ground in still pictures but is really more akin to the plane/spaceship/flying person sort of shmup. You have a button that fires forward and back, along with a weapon change button akin to Thunder Force. Unlike most of that series’ chapters you don’t lose whatever weapon you have equipped when you get hit. In fact, you have a lifebar as opposed to three lives. This game just rocks. It is perhaps a bit too easy, but it has cool weapons, decent visuals for the 16-bit era, and an awesome soundtrack. In fact, the soundtrack is part of what elevates this game, for me, into the favorites tier. There are good tunes all the way ‘round, but when you first get to the bosses that transform from human to monstrous, the music and sound effects will raise the hair on your neck.
Cyberbots for the Sega Saturn. 2d fighting game. A flashy, if somewhat simple mech fighter from Capcom. Gameplay is a variant of Capcom’s standard six-button system, like Street Fighter or Darkstalkers. The robots are varied, and the artwork is decent… again pretty reminiscent of Capcom’s other fighting games. Although more serious than Darkstalkers, the robots can pull off the same sort of ‘impossible’ special moves, blasting or slicing with weapons their mechanical bodies couldn’t possibly contain. But it is all done very well, with lots of trash talking between the rounds. Looking at this, I’m guessing it was kind of the blueprint for higher profile mech fighters that came along like the Gundam Battle Assault series. The way damage, weapons, and movement are represented all look very similar. The hero/Ryu character in the game made his way to being an unlockable in the later polygonal fighter Techromancer (Kikaioh). A decent game, but it probably doesn’t compel anyone but Capcom fighting game completists or fans of mech-on-mech violence.
Zero Wing for the Genesis/Mega Drive. 2d horizontal STG. This game is kind of odd compared to most shooters, but pretty typical of games from the developer, Toaplan. Famous for the bad Engrish that gave us, ‘All your base are belong to us’, this game plays in a slow-paced (R-type speed as opposed to Thunder Force speed) fashion with a conventional power up system. But like most Toaplan games it is solidly designed with a gradually ramping difficulty level, widely varying levels and enemies, and an weird, rough art style that makes for some strange and memorable bosses. The music is actually really good too. I kind of got hooked on this in an arcade, in some town I was visiting. I never got to play it to completion. So when I saw there was a Genesis version I jumped on it. The port is pretty good. It isn’t as detailed as the arcade version and it doesn’t have as many layers of background scrolling, but all the enemies and timing seem right (compared to what I remember), and the soundtrack is actually better… same tunes but less tinny arrangement and ‘instruments’. This game won’t win any awards for originality (apart from the ‘Weird Boss Award’) but it is a good example of an almost relaxing STG experience. Not easy per se… but not stressful either, even in the difficult sections of the later levels.
(as usual images stolen from HG101 and a few other sources)