Review: Volgarr the Viking (PC, 2013)


And so begins your journey through Crazy Viking Studios’ 2D tribute to the difficult 16-bit titles of old, Volgarr the Viking. If you’re looking for a game with copious checkpoints, an Easy setting, or something more passive, I suggest you look elsewhere. Volgarr is a difficult game that may seem unfairly cruel at times, but once you master its perfect controls and understand how to properly approach its many obstacles and enemies, it will reward you with a gameplay experience like no other.


Its origins trace back to a small Kickstarter campaign launched in 2012 by just two guys: Kris Durrschmidt and Taron Millet. It successfully funded at the end of August, raising nearly $22,000 above and beyond the original $18,000 goal. There was definitely interest in making this game a success. One of my own biggest regrets was not knowing about this Kickstarter while it was happening. Had I known just how good this game was going to be, I would have sprung for the $150 tier, because the physical Sega Genesis box and cartridge would have simply been way too epic to pass up.

Fast-forward a little over a year to September 13, 2013 when Volgarr saw its public release. By then, I knew full well about it based on the buzz I’d been seeing online. Without a doubt, this looked like my kind of game. Tough, 2D, and meticulously constructed. I bought it, but as is the case with many of my purchases, it sat there unplayed while I focused my energy on Mario, Joel and Ellie, and the Nintendo Wii U.

So why did I choose this month to start? Well, when it comes to gaming, I fall into patterns and genres, and this summer has been all about retro games and platformers. Aban Hawkins & the 1001 Spikes, NES Remix, Electronic Super Joy, and Shovel Knight — which is another Kickstarter success story — are among the games that led up to my inevitable, true face-to-face with Volgarr

…and I’m sorry I waited so long.

Before diving in, I have to quickly mention the manual. It’s fantastic! Styled just like a Sega Genesis manual from the ’90s, it’s full of great information, tips, lots of screenshots, and fun artwork. Again, I wish I could have this in physical form, but even digitally, it’s a thing of beauty.


Volgarr‘s gameplay will be familiar to those raised on the 8-bit and 16-bit games of the ’80s and ’90s. It owes a lot Taito’s 1987 arcade game Rastan, and even its opening scene will give fans of Taito’s game deja vu, but it pulls its influences from other classic games as well, including Magic Sword, Castlevania, and one of my all-time favorites, Ghouls’n Ghosts, which I did proudly beat back in the day.

Each area of the game is wonderfully and creatively constructed to not only challenge the player on an environmental level, but you’ll also have to contend with a myriad of cunning enemies, whose attacks are varied and extremely deadly.

And you will die. Over, and over, and over again. When I first began playing Volgarr, there was a moment early on where I was tempted to give up. I thought to myself, “Ugh, all this time I’m putting in, and I’m barely getting anywhere!” But then I realized that this was exactly the kind of experience that shaped me at a young age. Playing all of those tough games and beating them, no matter how impossible they might have seemed at the time.

That “one more try” quality is what makes Volgarr such a definitive experience for me. Mastery of the game’s techniques will turn you into an agile, bearded, loincloth-donning bad-ass. And you will take those skills with you — perhaps even arrogantly — through to see its three different endings.


To get you there, Volgarr had a wide assortment of moves and tools at his disposal. Most interestingly, his jumps have a single, predetermined arc. There are no low, mid, and high jumps, and if you jump in a direction, the only way to change which way you’re going is to initiate a double-jump. This is very similar to Super Ghouls’n Ghosts on the Super Nintendo. He also has throwing spears, swords, shields, and additional aides to help him through each world. Double-jumping will make Volgarr do a spin-attack, he can roll past enemies, and bring death from above with a downward thrust.

The entire gameplay experience is fantastic, complemented with its trademark controls, which are responsive and predictable. Crazy Viking Studios has also made a number of significant tweaks to the game to make it especially friendly to the speedrunners, which shows just how much they care about making this game appeal to serious players, completionists, and the competitive community.

Graphically, Volgarr get most things right. The character and enemy animation is simply out of this world, and the game itself moves along at a fluid and rock-solid 60fps. Volgarr himself possesses a ton of animation frames, including one of my favorite oldschool touches: idle animations. It always disappoints me when I play a game that lacks these.

The playfield can be either left in its default mode, or you can click a button to zoom out for a much wider view of your surroundings. The zoom effect itself is nice, and the feature itself is extremely functional and helpful.


The background and world art is also good, but isn’t a highlight of Volgarr‘s presentation. They have good color and are full of nice layers of parallax, but the level art isn’t as refined as the characters. When I think about the look of Sega Genesis games, I remember developers really extracting the most out of its limited color palette, blending and dithering together combinations that gave those titles their signature look. I am reminded less of those 16-bit console games here, and instead see early ’90s PC VGA games, which utilized fuller palettes, smoother gradients, and soft blurring.

As a result, I don’t think that the two different styles marry up quite as nicely as they could, but at the same time, the entire presentation does have a distinct, handcrafted look that gives Volgarr its uniqueness.

The audio, on the other hand, is across-the-board impressive, and it’s the one area of the game that belies its 16-bit exterior. That’s not a bad thing, however, as Volgarr is full of crisp, clear voice samples, vibrantly realistic sound effects, and a blood-pumping orchestral soundtrack, courtesy of composer Kochun Hu. While a more traditional Z80-based soundtrack might have been the preferred way to go, I think the music in Volgarr is great, and in my opinion, elevates the experience instead of it just being retro for the sake of it.

Volgarr was introduced for just $10 last year, and recently it saw a staggering sale price of $4 on, but even at its full $12 asking price, this represents one of the best values in 2D side-scrolling action. There are six main worlds in the game, each broken into two long stages plus a boss battle. The main game gives the player unlimited lives, but sparse checkpoints. This is where players will hone their skills, learn enemy patterns, and master the game’s other various intricacies.

Beyond this, however, is a completely separate branch called the Path of the Valkyrie. This mode is comprised of remixed and redesigned worlds, plus a bonus seventh world and true final boss. It also features limited lives, which makes it a challenging, authentic, and super-fun arcade experience. Depending on how you do in this mode will determine which of the other two remaining endings you will get.

Speaking of the endings, they are all worth seeking out. Not only are they funny and entertaining to read, but they feature additional artwork not seen in the main game, plus a memorable credit sequence that is the icing on the cake.


In closing, Volgarr the Viking is so far my favorite game of 2014 that wasn’t released in 2014. It’s a game that truly respects the player’s patience, understanding, and perseverance, and it comes with my highest recommendation.

And now I shall pray to the Allfather Odin that Crazy Viking Studios will produce a sequel. The world existing with only one Volgarr game would be criminal.

  • Graphics & Presentation: A-
    Beautifully drawn and animated sprites, environmental effects, parallax scrolling, scaling, rotation, transparencies, and nice use of color. Some backgrounds and art appear muddy and are not as nicely detailed as the brilliant sprite work.
  • Music & Sound Effects: A
    An excellent orchestral soundtrack brings the world of Volgarr to life. Bone-crunching sound effects, atmospheric ambient textures, and crystal-clear voice samples round out the very impressive audio experience.
  • Gameplay & Controls: A+
    Perfect, ultra-responsive controls make this one of the most intuitive games I’ve played in recent memory. Branching paths, lots of secrets, and diabolical enemy and platforming challenges will put the most seasoned players to the test. Super-tough, but not unfair.
  • Value: A+
    It took me nearly the entire month of August to get all three of the game’s endings. For $12 or less — it’s currently part of Humble’s Adult Swim bundle! — Volgarr represents outstanding bang for your buck.

Overall: A+

For more, including Volgarr playthrough videos with commentary, please check out my YouTube channel HERE.


Where are the updates?

Remember when I said I’d treat this like a job and post something here every day? Yeah, I wrote a little bit about that here, and for several months, I did exactly that. It’s fun, and some of my most memorable updates were written over the course of the past few weeks.

But so far, I haven’t written anything this week, and I only had a couple updates before that. “So Mike, what gives?” Well, a couple things:

First of all, I’ve been applying and interviewing for a day job. As much as I love writing this blog and the “videogame vacation” I’ve been on this year, it doesn’t put food on the table. My wife works full-time, but I’d love to help ease those responsibilities and get myself back into the workforce as well.

It’s been an admittedly tiring and frustrating process. Being out of the videogame industry for nearly two years has been a huge Achilles’ heel as I’ve missed out on most of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One cycle, and I’m quickly finding out that my lack of development experience is another major strike against me. For those who don’t know, I’ve spent most of my career working for publishers or developer/publisher hybrids, but never at a discrete studio.

The intangibles of why I’m a good employee don’t translate well without the context to back them up, and it’s not only underscored just how fast the industry is changing, but how specific I am in terms of fit. Or at least that’s how employers have viewed me.

Times like these I feel pretty darn close to just finding something, anything, and focusing most of my energy on banding together with some of my former colleagues to create an indie game of our own.

Secondly, I’ve realized just how time-consuming producing content is. I’m also finding that I enjoy creating videos for YouTube quite a bit, and I’ve been formulating how to construct my first video review. I’ve become pretty comfortable talking over videos of me playing games — basically just winging it — but in terms of following a script, editing video to complement what I’m talking about, and making it all look and sound professional? That’s a bigger undertaking, and it, well, kinda stresses me out.

My first video review will be for Volgarr the Viking, and if I’m lucky, I’ll have it done before the weekend, but more than likely it will drop after the holiday break. Speaking of breaks, we’ll be out of town this weekend. Seattle’s our destination, and we plan on doing all things touristy, getting away from the dry heat and constant fire dangers of The Dalles.

Anyway, thanks for your continued readership, support, and understanding. This has been a great creative outlet for me, and I appreciate the interactions I’ve had with you along the way!

Oh, and I’m totally serious about that indie game thing. Contact me if you want in.


Review: Microsoft Xbox One Wireless Controller (PC)

Although I don’t own an actual Xbox One (XBO), I’ve been hearing great things about its controller since it launched nine months ago. My go-to controller for the PC has always been a wired Xbox 360 one, and aside from its terrible d-pad — and it is truly terrible, despite Microsoft trying to fix it a few times — is probably my all-time favorite controller. It has a great button layout, is comfortable to hold, and I’ve always preferred its asymmetrical and concave thumbsticks over the convex designs found on the PS3 and Wii.

It’s also one of the most durable controllers I’ve ever owned, and I’ve never had one fail… until now. Not bad considering I’ve been using this original white and gray one for what has to be close to a decade now, and it’s been put through the paces, most recently surviving Shovel Knight, Electronic Super Joy and all three of the Arkham games on PC, as well as being a reliable partner in getting me all the way through Super Meat Boy on the 360 back in 2012.


Last week, I started Volgarr the Viking with it, and while it was doing OK for a while, the left thumbstick started to get unresponsive, and that’s not good, especially for a game like Volgarr. Plus, it’s very well-worn, with the raised bumps on its rubber surface barely intact, an ever-increasingly loose dead zone, and an unattractive yellow-greenish discoloration that makes me question my own hygiene. I also didn’t like having to swap controllers for retro gaming due to its DOA-pad, as I so affectionately called it.

“Baby, we had a good run, but I’m afraid it’s time to say good-bye.”

It took me a while to finally pull the trigger on the XBO controller, though. While 360 controllers can be had for a street price of about $30-35, the Xbox One controller costs a whopping $55-60. Sony DualShock 4 controllers are similarly priced, with the Wii U Pro Controller being about $10 cheaper. Controllers are important, however, so if you’re not using a good one, the experience suffers as well.

With my 360 controller not pulling its weight anymore, I clicked the “Place your order” button on Amazon and eagerly awaited its arrival.


I was surprised when the big box arrived. I was half-expecting a padded mailer with the controller sealed in a blister pack, but I’m glad my $55 and change got me a nice box, complete with glossy finish over the controller images. I’m not being sarcastic here; I really do appreciate nice packaging, especially in this day and age where you’re lucky if you get anything resembling a manual at all with your $60 game.

But I digress.


Getting back to the packaging, the box itself is nice and sturdy, with the only included plastic of any significance being the retail shelf hanger (which is recyclable) and the wrapper around the two AA batteries.

Yes, I said batteries. I’m guessing Microsoft had a good reason to stick with them, but it kind of blows my mind that their brand-new console still uses AAs. Sony ditched them last generation, and even Nintendo switched to rechargeable packs in both their Wii U GamePad and Pro Controller.


Anyway, also included inside the box is, of course, the controller itself, a quick start guide, health/warranty information, and a 2-day Xbox Live Gold trial. I ditched Gold a long time ago, but Microsoft’s Games with Gold program makes it more enticing, especially for those used to the perks of PlayStation Plus.

I noticed that the hard internal cardboard that surrounds the XBO controller left light scuff marks on the back of its black housing. They’re minor, but I think Microsoft should include a protective wrap around it to prevent any damage if or when they revise the packaging.

Also, it’s important to note that if you plan on using this as a wired controller — which is how I’m reviewing it — you will need a Micro USB cable such as this one, since no cable is included. Thankfully, they’re dirt-cheap.


The controller itself is quite similar to its 360 older brother, with a near-identical face button layout. On the back? No screw holes! Very nice design. Sometimes those recesses can dig into your fingers during heated, extended gaming sessions, so their removal is a very welcome update.

The Back and Start buttons now have symbols on them that represent View and Menu, which is just bizarre to me. Thankfully — at least on the PC — they behave just like the 360 buttons. The large, circular Guide/Xbox button has been moved up and away from the Back/Start cluster, which I think is great.

What isn’t great is that it now emits a constant white glow whenever the controller is plugged in. My SteelSeries mouse emits a similar glow, but I can turn it off if I want. As of this writing, there doesn’t seem to be any way to turn it off or reduce its intensity, which is unfortunate.

Another slightly annoying bit of behavior is that when you turn your PC on or your plug the controller into a USB port, the controller will vibrate for about 3 seconds. The first time this happened, I had the controller sitting on top of my PC case, which is made out of metal. The loud noise that resulted made me think one of my hard drives had died!

Hopefully both of these issues will be addressed in a future driver update, but to be honest, they’re very minor. The drivers themselves are still very new for the PC, having only been released about two months ago. You can download them HERE. Installation couldn’t be simpler, and you’ll be up and running within a couple of minutes.


Grips feel meatier and more comfortable than they did on the 360 controller, and the triggers and bumpers have been redesigned as well.

The analog triggers are silky-smooth and are more or less silent when you press them. They have individual vibration motors in them, which I haven’t experienced firsthand yet. Microsoft calls them Impulse Triggers, but I believe this first PC driver simply emulates 360 controller support, so time will tell if this gets added in and PC game developers support them.

The bumpers are a little bigger on the XBO controller, but are otherwise similar to the 360 ones. My right bumper clicks significantly louder than the left one, though. Not sure if that is intended or not, but a cursory look around the internet shows that other users have observed this as well. In-game responsiveness is fine, however.


What’s particularly nice about the XBO controller are both the new d-pad and analog thumbsticks.

The d-pad is by far the biggest and best improvement on the controller, with a nice concave shape, and satisfyingly tactile clicks with each directional press. Moving your thumb across it is smooth, diagonals are effortless, and it’s wonderfully responsive. If you like the feel of the 3DS XL or Wii U Pro Controller d-pads, you’ll absolutely love this.

The thumbsticks have been similarly revised, with thick, smaller diameter tops covered in a grippy material. I love these. As you can see on my 360 controller, any grip that was there to begin with is now gone. These have excellent feel, don’t slip at all, and are better-suited for multiple styles of play.


The colored face buttons curve around the right side of the XBO controller more than they do on the 360’s. They are also slightly larger in diameter, sit more flush with the controller’s housing, and are less resistant, which yields great responsiveness. They are easier to read now too, with each colored letter set against a black background.

As with the 360 controller, there is an expansion port on the bottom for headsets and other future peripherals.


So yeah, that darn battery compartment. The good thing is that it’s been designed to sit flush with the back of the controller. 360 owners know how bulky and intrusive the battery pack compartment is on the wireless controller, so it’s nice to see Microsoft improve the design significantly, to the point where you won’t notice it.

I do like the “Hello from Seattle” there on the inside label, too. Nice touch.

But again, why traditional batteries? Yes, I get that if a built-in rechargeable battery fails, you’re basically left with a dead controller, but through multiple generations, I have yet to have that happen. The sold-separately Play & Charge Kit will run you an additional $20, so you’re looking at $75-80 for just one controller, which is borderline absurd.

A brilliant aspect of its design, however, is the fact that the XBO controller doubles as a traditional wired one if you use a Micro USB cable with it. You don’t need any batteries at all if you choose to go this route, and it works beautifully. For PC, I believe this is the only option available, so it makes that decision an easy one.

Most importantly, gaming with this controller is a dream. It got me through the second stage of Volgarr the Viking this week, and the video above shows me playing through the first stage of Irem’s R-Type III: The Third Lightning on the Super Nintendo. Whether it’s classic side-scrolling action or frantic shoot-’em-ups, it gets the job done.

I haven’t played through R-Type III since the ’90s, and it’s crazy how advanced it was at the time! Some of those Mode 7 effects are still so impressive today.


In any event, this is a great controller. It’s everything that made the 360 controller one of the all-time best, with improvements and refinements that make it even better. It’s not as radical a departure as, say, the Nintendo Wii controller was, but when your predecessor is so good, you don’t want to mess with it too much. You risk really screwing it up.

Although not without its faults and with room for improvement, this is a fantastic addition to anyone’s PC controller arsenal, providing seamless support for current and retro games alike. If you can play it with a 360 pad, you can play it with this. Highly recommended.

Overall: A-


Gaming with my sister Cheryl (1978-2002)


I’ll never forget the night my dad called to say that my younger sister had passed away. I had just returned to Los Angeles from a business trip to Outrage Games in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Actually, I don’t remember most of the details of that night, as I was simply in a state of shock, sadness, and helplessness.

I remember telling myself that I had to stay strong for my family’s sake, especially my mom, who had just the year prior lost her mother. So much of the days and weeks that followed were a blur, and before I knew it, I was back at work, doing my best to, as they say, pick up the pieces and move on. It’s always easier to give this advice than to take it.

The year prior in 2001, Cheryl had gotten really sick with encephalitis, and was in a coma for about two days. When she came out of it, it seemed like everything was OK, but then she began suffering from major seizures several times a day. Although she would eventually recover to the point where she was able to go home, she would continue to struggle with occasional seizures and other day-to-day limitations.

It changed her personality as well, where she would lose her patience and get frustrated with things almost instantly, and after experiencing it several times, I would make sure to approach things with her more carefully from then on. After hosting a holiday party for her friends in December of 2002, she passed away in her sleep that night. It was concluded that she suffered another seizure.

A lot of people knew my sister Cheryl, her love for the Los Angeles Clippers, the Denver Broncos, teaching, and anything that had to do with monkeys, but few of them likely knew that she also loved videogames, or that she was better than me at many of them. Maybe it was because we were only 4 years apart, and games were such an integral part of my own life, that it became a shared hobby — and source of competition — between us.

20140818_digdugAs early as 1983, when our family was living in Spring, Texas, and Cheryl was still in kindergarten, I remember the Atari 2600 being central to our home life when the weather didn’t permit us to be outside riding our bikes, swimming, and hurting ourselves in every which way as kids do.

Even back then, she was good at games like Dig Dug and Ms. Pac-Man, which when you think about it, require you to pay attention to multiple enemies on the screen and plan out a good strategy to beat them. That’s pretty advanced stuff for a 5-year-old that everyone expected to be playing with Barbie dolls. For the record, she never liked ’em.

20140818_mastertypeWhile we were still living in Texas, my dad bought the family an Apple IIe. He loved the business applications such as the precursor to today’s ubiquitous Microsoft Excel: VisiCalc, but my sister and I were all about the games.

Although she was getting cool software like Spinnaker’s Kindercomp — which is still very good for its age and target audience — she was always more interested in what I was playing. MasterType was one of those educational titles wrapped up in a game, and it taught both of us to type well at an early age. In fact, it wasn’t long before she was a better typist than me!

20140818_safarihuntAs the 8-bit console era came around and we got our Sega Master System, her favorite games on it were the Light Phaser gun games, such as Safari Hunt, Marksman Shooting, and Trap Shooting.

At one point she was so good at Trap Shooting that she would essentially “break” the game. As you would progress through it, the hit box on the traps would get smaller and smaller. She would get so far into it that the hit boxes would cease to even exist. A bug on Sega’s part, perhaps, but she would always be proud of her achievement.

20140818_sf2tThe 16-bit era is when everything came to a head. All those years of playing on the Atari, Apple, and Master System had honed her hand-eye coordination to needle-like levels of sharpness. No other game proved just how terrible at fighting games I was — or rather, how good she was — than Street Fighter II Turbo for the Super Nintendo.

I thought I was pretty good at it. I mean, I had lots of practice from arcades and the regular Street Fighter II SNES cartridge, but Cheryl was a natural. In fact, she was so adept at it that she would regularly perform a “round-robin” in V.S. Battle mode where she would fight me using each character once — beat me with all of them — and after doing so, look at me, say “You suck!”, drop the controller on the floor, and leave the room. Oh, how that made my blood boil!

20140818_bamIt didn’t stop there. In college, I bought Taito’s Bust-a-Move (aka Puzzle Bobble), which I also thought I was good at after having played a ton of the Neo Geo game in arcades.

Oh, no. Once again, after playing it for just a few short days, Cheryl was like Bobby Fischer with it, hitting impossible shots and rarely making mistakes bouncing the bubbles off the side walls. I would go on to hear her trademark “You suck!” more than I’d care to admit. It was a lot.

The thing is, even though she kicked my butt six ways from Sunday competitively, those remain some of my best memories. Her taunting would evolve from simple verbal jabs to her strategically eating dried squid before a game and then burping it in my face at the most opportune times to mess me up. It worked. A little too well. I can still smell it!

20140818_sbbI think her absolute favorite game, though, was Super Buster Bros. on the Super Nintendo. She even bought her own system so that she could play it after she moved to San Diego for college. Her favorite mode was Panic, where you’d just work your way through progressively more difficult waves of bouncing bubbles and hexagons, and watching her play this was amazing.

Again, all those years of gaming made it easy for her to focus on so many on-screen objects at once. It was actually pretty inspiring to watch, so this also went on to became a favorite game of mine, and I’ll still dust it off from time to time to see how far I can get. Never as far as her, of course.

Unsurprisingly, she was really good at another game that had spherical objects in it as well: pinball.

20140818_pfPorted from the Amiga to the PC in the early ’90s, Digital Illusions’ Pinball Fantasies was one of the best arcade pinball simulators at the time, and the both of us played it nonstop.

Cheryl got really good at saving the ball via the game’s nudge feature. With good timing, you can bounce it out of the bottom at the last second and bring it back into play. It wasn’t very realistic, but it was always impressive when you could get it to happen regularly.

She was also the first one to get over a billion points on the Billion Dollar Gameshow table, and to this day, I haven’t been able to catch and beat her score. I still have her MS-DOS high score files from this game on 3.5″ floppy disk in storage.

The 32-bit generation arrived in the mid-’90s, and by then I was seeing less and less of my sister as not only was I beginning my full-time career at Interplay, but she was nearing the end of high school, working part-time at the Sanrio store, and was highly involved in sports, clubs, and other activities.

20140818_ridgeracerHowever, we would always find time to get in a game or two here and there, and her favorite on the PlayStation was Namco’s Ridge Racer. While we were at the point in our lives where we weren’t all that competitive anymore, it was still a lot of fun to take turns and play.

Her favorite music track in the game was “Rotterdam Nation”, and she would bob her head to it with a serious look on her face as she gracefully drifted around all of the game’s sweeping curves and hairpins.

She would yell at the A.I. cars if they bumped into her, affectionately referring to the Dig Dug car as the “multicolored piece of crap” or the pink 31 flavors-like Mappy car as the “Bastard Robbins”. Seems silly now, but we used to crack each other up with our cheesy jokes.

And that’s what life is all about, right? Making memories that can bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye, no matter how insignificant they might seem to everyone else. That’s why I get very defensive when people dismissively talk about this hobby with me, saying things like, “Videogames are for kids,” or “You play too many games,” etc.

What these folks don’t understand is that games have the power to not only challenge us on an individual level, but they can bring people together, creating lifelong memories that shape who we are.

Perhaps I haven’t said this until now, but a big reason why I still play games is that they remind me of exactly what I wrote about above: my sister and all the great experiences we shared with controllers in our hands, sitting in front of a TV, yelling, laughing, and bonding.

Happy Birthday, Cheryl. I miss you, and sorry about bringing up the dried squid burps. I couldn’t help myself!


Volgarr the Viking: My 16-bit Obsession


Volgarr the Viking for the PC is a special game. It’s also tough as nails. I’ve been playing it all week, and I can’t even get past the second world yet.

It’s the kind that you play, get utterly frustrated with, but start thinking about immediately after you turn it off. You’ll convince yourself that just one change in your approach will get you through a level unscathed, and then there you are, turning it back on to try again. When you close your eyes at night to go to sleep, all you can see is yourself playing through the game from beginning to end in exacting detail.

That’s precisely what’s happening to me at the moment. This was commonplace for me back in the 8-bit and 16-bit days. I would only get maybe one game per month, if that, so I would play and master every game I received, whether they were good or bad.

20140813_mm2Although I have played some difficult games in recent years, they bring with them modern conveniences, such as save slots or generous checkpoints that reduce the amount of times you have to replay levels. They keep you moving forward, and in many cases have bite-sized level design, which I think are good things, especially as gaming continues to broaden its appeal.

Bravely, though, Volgarr lacks any of that. The most you get is a mid-level checkpoint and the ability to skip stages you’ve already beaten. Respawning at a checkpoint, however, means you have to collect all your gear again and miss out on treasure. Skipping stages means you can’t get the game’s best ending. As such, the few bits of help the game offers come with trade-offs that give even these simple decisions consequence. For all intents and purposes, this game behaves like a cartridge with no passwords or battery back-up.

20140813_sgngAs I said, this approach reminds me of my youth, sitting in front of my Genesis and Super Nintendo getting absolutely destroyed by games like Super Ghouls’n Ghosts, Target Earth, and Contra III: The Alien Wars. And yet I beat them all and I was very, very good at them at the time. Why? Because I had no choice. I didn’t have any other new games to play, so I dedicated myself to what I had, and I loved every minute of it. I’m not someone who likes to show off, but I did enjoy showing my friends how to “easily” get through my games that they were struggling with.

Nowadays? In my Steam library, I have nearly 300 games. My console backlog is so deep that there’s no way there are enough years in a lifetime to play them all. For a system criticized for having “no games”, I have at least 5 on the Wii U that I haven’t even started yet. It’s no wonder then that I find myself moving away from the time-consuming genres I once loved, like 80-hour RPG epics, and prefer blasting through a 15-hour retro platformer, quickly moving on to the next one.

20140812_rosVolgarr, though, has shaken me to my core, and I’m thankful for that. It’s a reminder of why I can still remember the exact level layouts of The Revenge of Shinobi, but not be able to recall what the first level of Super Meat Boy looked like. That’s not a reflection on game quality, but I find that my memory of games is more generalized nowadays vs. how intimately specific they are from past gaming generations.

Feeling that way again this week has been awesome. I don’t know if I’d have this level of dedication with every game, but since it is an innate part of Volgarr‘s vision and design — in a day and age where ease and forgiveness are the norm — I’ll happily bite.


Review: Aban Hawkins & the 1001 Spikes (Wii U, 2014)

I love the Indiana Jones films. I’ve probably seen Raiders of the Lost Ark over 200 times, and if you have a couple spare hours, there’s a good chance I could recite the entire movie back to you. Temple of Doom gets a bad rap, perhaps for its lack of locales, Kate Capshaw’s often over-the-top performance, and a violently dark story. Last Crusade is like a love letter to fans, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Let’s just say that film’s like drinking the blood of Kali. I’m still trying to wake up from that nightmare.


Anyway, Atari’s own Temple of Doom arcade game from 1985 was also a favorite of mine. Remember the nice cabinets for machines like this, Star Wars, and Road Runner? Oh, I loved them. Atari arcade games were among my favorites, and there were just so many! A quick look on Wikipedia shows how prolific they were. 8-bit consoles like the NES were brand-spanking new, and with most folks still playing on aging Ataris, Commodores, and Apples, arcades were simply unbeatable.

And now, nearly 30 years later, it’s interesting to me that the game I’m reviewing today is not only inspired by one of my favorite movie franchises, but is also a throwback to 8-bit home console games of that era. There are a lot of games like this nowadays, most notably the recent Kickstarter success story Shovel Knight, which like 1001 Spikes, taps into the collective nostalgia of the ’80s, and delivers a gaming experience that is as good as — if not better than — the titles that influenced them.


1001 Spikes began as the Xbox Live indie game 1000 Spikes back in 2011. I’ve admittedly never played that version, and I didn’t even know of its existence before 1001 Spikes was announced. Developed by 8bits Fanatics, I’m glad it has now received a wider release via Nicalis, who has become one of my favorite publishers in recent years.

For those who don’t know anything about this game, in a nutshell, it’s a puzzle-platformer, where you guide your character through short stages full of traps, enemies, and other environmental hazards. You can jump either 1 or 2 blocks high using two separate buttons, and you can throw or slice with your knife. That’s it. The dual-jumping mechanic sounds bizarre on paper, but it’s a great idea that works beautifully during play.


In screenshots, 1001 Spikes doesn’t look like anything special, but I found it to be quite beautiful in motion. Animation is smooth, there is a a good deal of parallax scrolling, and background/foreground separation is very clear. Characters and enemies are comprised of very few pixels, but they possess a ton of character, with funny idle animations that further the game’s charm.

Music is also very good, but the Wii U version that I played is chock-full of annoying audio glitches. Sometimes the soundtrack will exhibit intermittent popping, and at others it will skip like a badly scratched CD (which you can hear at the 3:06 mark in the video below). A few times, the music stopped completely altogether! It’s very buggy audio code that really detracts from the overall polish of the game, and I’m surprised it was released in this bad a shape.

Thankfully, 1001 Spikes really shines in the gameplay department. Controls are ultra-smooth and responsive, and there was rarely — if ever — a point during my playthrough where I felt the controls failed me.

While I would sit there and curse the game at how cheap I thought it was at times, it always came down to me making a mistake or failing to remember the location of a particularly well-placed trap. You have very little time to react to most of them, so while I thought that 1001 Spikes had a tendency to rely on memorization more than pure skill as I went through it, it turned out to be a rewarding trial & error system in hindsight. One that I really appreciated the more I thought about it.


However, it can’t be stated enough: You will die. A lot. More than you’d like, perhaps! It’s funny that they give you 1001 lives to start, but you’ll come to appreciate them as you lose your first hundred, and then your second, and so on and so forth.

Fear not, though, as you are given 100-256 extra lives at the end of each set of levels, so you should be OK. Again, the game is rewarding in the same way that other tough games are. Think of the temples in Donkey Kong Country Returns, or the I Wanna Be The Guy levels from Super Meat Boy. They take many tries to get right, and the rush you feel once you get through them is hard to put into words. It’s highly rewarding, and will keep you coming back for more.


There are also a slew of unlockable characters, each with their own particular attributes and skills. They really change up the way each level is played, and as a result, they’re very distinctive and unique.

Like many indie games, there is cross-pollination going on here, and you’ll find all sorts of familiar faces from other titles. I won’t spoil the surprise for those who haven’t played this yet, but they bring with them their own stories, which adds a lot of incentive to play through the game multiple times.


Additional unlockables, including single and multiplayer modes beyond the main campaign also add a ton of value to what’s an already inexpensive $15 package.

These are a lot of fun, and feel easier than the main campaign, so they provide a nice break between some of the intense challenges that await in the game world of Ukampa and beyond.


Like many retro-styled games of this type, there is a speedrunning element — including an in-game displayable clock — so you can go for the lowest times possible for each level. Curiously, though, there are no leaderboards to be found and zero Miiverse integration, so you have to manually scour the internet to see how good you’re doing.  The best you can do is post screenshots and your times, but a built-in system would have been much better.

While we’re on the topic of oddly missing features, 1001 Spikes cannot be enjoyed via off-TV play on the Wii U. The GamePad only displays the world map during gameplay and remains completely black when you’re in menus. This is the sort of bite-sized game that is perfect for the GamePad, so its omission is surprising. Nicalis has said that a patch is forthcoming that will address numerous bugs and add this feature in, but as of this writing (over two months post-release), there has been no update.


In closing, Aban Hawkins & the 1001 Spikes is a very fun game, with surprisingly good presentation, multiple endings, and lots of different modes to play. Although some of it feels half-baked at this point on the Wii U, it is still a robust game at its core that delivers a ton of bang for the buck, and is one of the most challenging titles I’ve played in 2014 so far. Recommended.

  • Graphics & Presentation: B+
    Fluidly animated 8-bit sprites, sharp backgrounds, parallax scrolling, and gorgeous cutscenes give 1001 Spikes a wonderfully nostalgic look. No off-TV play is a big miss, however, especially when the game doesn’t require any GamePad-specific functionality.
  • Music & Sound Effects: B-
    A solid chiptune soundtrack and good sound effects convey the protagonist’s dire situation. Unfortunately, the Wii U version is plagued by a myriad of sound bugs that really hurt the audio presentation.
  • Gameplay & Controls: A
    Responsive, perfect controls make this a joy to play, with tons of different game modes, unlockables, and secrets. Ultra-challenging platforming with a focus on puzzle-solving is a nice change from many modern action games.
  • Value: A
    It took me about 15 hours to get through just the main campaign, and with a wide range of unique characters and storylines to experience, plus discrete arcade modes to play, 1001 Spikes represents an excellent value.

Overall: A-

For more impressions of 1001 Spikes, please check out my YouTube channel HERE.


The NES & Master System: Inevitable Comparisons

Back in May, I talked a little bit about my first exposure to the NES. As someone who didn’t have one, and who was instead gaming on the rival Sega Master System, the NES was not only something I had limited access to, but it was a console I greatly desired. I would try to fool myself into thinking that I didn’t really want one, and that my Master System was better, but absurdity has its limits.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved the Master System. As evidenced by my post about the classic RPG Phantasy Star, it played host to a good number of excellent 8-bit titles. It just couldn’t hold a candle to Nintendo’s marketing, third-party policies, and resulting massive library of games. Even the console-specific print magazines were hilariously mismatched: Nintendo Power was this thick, robust magazine full of features, maps, letters, art, hints, reviews, and cool game advertisements. Meanwhile, Sega Challenge was a tiny, low-budget pamphlet that was maybe 16 pages long. I thought it was cool, but you wouldn’t want to bring it to school. You’d get laughed at, and get laughed at I did.

And so, for the three years that I had my Master System, I quietly enjoyed its games while playing a lot of NES games at my friends’ houses. However, even when I was there playing those games, I’d wind up comparing what I was playing to what I had on the Master System. Usually, what I was seeing on the NES was better.

One that really stands out in my mind is Sega’s Pro Wrestling vs. Nintendo’s Pro Wrestling.


In screenshots, you could argue that in some ways, the Master System version above looks a little better. It’s more colorful, its gameplay is tag-team style, players have energy meters, and the ring itself has some 3D perspective. However, that’s where its so-called advantages end.


The NES version, on the other hand, was just a revelation when I first played it. It not only had a really catchy title screen tune, but it was followed by large, beautiful portraits of each of the game’s wrestlers, with stats and other bits of information that made them feel much more human than the generic cast of the Master System game. It was all the little touches that elevated it as well: The ringside commentators, the cameraman filming the action, the fact that you could go outside the ring, the more realistic wrestler animations and interactions, etc. The list goes on and on.

After playing the NES game, I was embarrassed to even show anyone the Master System title! It had its charms with its super-deformed and very Japanese graphics, but it would never appeal to western audiences the way Nintendo’s game would. It truly was a night and day difference, and it remains one of my all-time favorite wrestling games.

Another pair of titles that showed the stark difference between the consoles was Sega’s own arcade conversion of Out Run and little-known (at the time) Square’s Rad Racer.


Again, upon first glance, the Sega game looks pretty good. The Ferrari Testarossa, the track layouts, and the visuals are a decent approximation of the arcade version, which is still a looker to this day. I remember being quite impressed with the screenshots, and when it finally came out as a 2 megabit (256 KB) cartridge in 1987, I couldn’t wait to play it.

And when I did? Man, was I let down. The graphics were so choppy, and even though I knew it wasn’t going to be as smooth as the arcade due to lack of hardware sprite scaling, it just felt way under-cooked. Most disappointingly, the music barely did the arcade soundtrack justice, which is one of its highlights.


Released the same year on the NES, Rad Racer is basically an Out Run clone right down to the Ferrari and opening beach setting, but without the branching paths. I tried to write it off in my mind as just a cheap copy until I actually played it. Wow, I was blown away yet again! Rad Racer moves along at a brisk 60 frames-per-second compared to the choppy mess that is Out Run on the Master System.

Roadside obstacles and scenery scroll past your vehicle smoothly, and while the graphics themselves aren’t as detailed as they are in Out Run, the smooth framerate, convincingly undulating roadways, and responsive gameplay give it a polished, high-quality feel.

Rad Racer also one-ups its competition by letting the player change the music station from within the game instead of being stuck with one song the entire time. Additionally, it has on-the-fly anaglyph 3D mode, which lets you use the included blue & red 3D glasses for a gaming experience that was very cool and unique at the time.

Being such a popular game, Space Harrier wasn’t immune to this either, with Square once again “paying homage” to it that same year with their own run & gunner, The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner.

Although vastly inferior to the arcade original, I loved the Master System version of Space Harrier. For the hardware it’s on, it looks great, has gigantic, screen-filling bosses, bonus content, and good versions of the game’s iconic music.

It’s somewhat choppy, though, and the techniques used to create such large visuals means there are flat, square-like edges around everything, and that detracts from the overall effect.


By contrast, 3-D WorldRunner is cartoon-like and not very interesting to look at in screenshots, but much like Rad Racer, it’s something entirely different in motion, moving smoothly at a near-constant 60 FPS. It has fun backgrounds like Sega’s own Fantasy Zone, and a similarly lighthearted tone.

While I remember it being criticized for just being a Space Harrier clone, I thought it was unique enough. Sure, it’s set in a very similar world with creatures and obstacles that bear more than a passing resemblance to Sega’s creations, but the run & jump gameplay sets it apart, as does the 3D feature, similar to that found in Rad Racer.

It’s one of those examples where I would say they are as unique as they are alike. I enjoy both games for different reasons, even though one was obviously influenced by the other. As they said in 1996’s Swingers, “Everybody steals from everybody; that’s Hollywood.”

Similarly, we see this — and will continue to see this — all the time in the videogame industry. How many “match three” games are there on Google Play and the Apple App Store? By today’s standards, Space Harrier and 3-D World Runner are very different games.

As an aside, I wish Square would go back and make more games like this again, or at least work with the Japanese developer M2 to make good 3D conversions of them for systems like the Nintendo 3DS.

These are just a few of the many examples of genre and style crossover between the competing consoles. Sega would also bring out games that were déjà vu familiar to what was already on the NES, like Compile’s Golvellius: Valley of Doom. This is what Sega owners got instead of The Legend of Zelda.


Golvellius had great music, and side and vertically scrolling action sequences replaced the dungeons found in Zelda, but the bulk of the game was spent in a very similar overworld, complete with hidden caves, vague hints, shopkeepers, and other near-homologous design elements.

It’s hard to deny that both of the opening landscapes had quite a lot in common, but as a Master System owner used to a slow trickle of quality games, Golvellius went down as one of my favorites back in 1988.


The Legend of Zelda would, of course, go on to become one of the most memorable and timeless classics on any console.

Content is king, as they say, and the NES — despite the many stinkers that called it their home — had so many more great games that victory was a foregone conclusion.

Then there were those times where neither game was all that good. Rambo: First Blood Part II (SMS) and Ikari Warriors (NES) come to mind, which were both part of the popular vertically scrolling military shooters at the time.


Rambo had decent visuals, and the gameplay was rather smooth, but it was slow. Painfully slow.

The thing about both of these games is that they are based on controls that were impossible at home at the time: a joystick that could simultaneously control the on-screen character and independently aim their gun in any of 8 different directions. This meant that at home, whichever way you were facing, that’s where you were firing, making strafing impossible. That was a huge part of Ikari Warriors‘ appeal, and would thankfully be addressed in its follow-up, Victory Road.


And speaking of Ikari Warriors, what a mess. Choppy, simplistic graphics and a pace that felt even slower and more punishing than Rambo. I played this around the same time as Capcom’s 1942 on the NES and remember thinking, “Man, this console absolutely sucks for arcade ports!”, but as I discussed back in May, Rush’n Attack changed my opinion on that completely.

As the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and there were a lot of games that seemed strikingly similar to one another.  It’s interesting to think back on the fact that it was pretty rare for the same game to be on competing consoles, even through the 16-bit era. A few come to mind, like Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, and Earthworm Jim, but it seemed like the exception, rather than the norm.

Each individual system played host to a slew of exclusives you couldn’t play anywhere else, despite their similarities. It’s a very different landscape today, and while it is apples and oranges to this discussion, it’s not so much about having the exclusive title anymore, but more about who has the exclusive content or lead release window.

I wouldn’t mind a return to the basics. Speaking of which, I think I’ll play a little Rad Racer right now.


Backlog Blitz: The Games of July 2014


After a huge drop in June, I nearly got myself back to May levels in July. I only bought one game, thanks to lackluster or nonexistent sales and a dry month at retail. I finished seven games, netting me a +6 total for last month. Anyway, the format, as with previous updates, is Game Title (Platform, Purchase Price, Play Time).

Games purchased (-1, $15.00 spent):

  1. Shovel Knight (PC, $15.00)
    Yacht Club Games’ Kickstarter success story looked terrific from the start, and the final product was met with tons of positive impressions. This was the only must-buy for me in July.

Games finished (+7, $113.00 value):

  1. 20140801_ghg_skShovel Knight (PC, $15.00, 10 hrs.)
    One of my favorite games of the year. Fantastic graphics, gameplay, and music to die for. Overall: A+

  2. Electronic Super Joy (PC, $8.00, 5 hrs.)
    A tough platformer in the tradition of Super Meat Boy, this game has awesome style, one of the best techno/trance soundtracks of any game I’ve played, and lots of humor. Short, but great. Overall: A-

  3. DuckTales Remastered (PC, $15.00, 3 hrs.)
    I enjoyed the NES game back in June, so I finally got around to playing WayForward’s remake. It has wonderful animation and Jake Kaufman’s soundtrack — who is the guy who also scored Shovel Knight — does a terrific job here. Too much story and some weird design choices hurt it. Overall: B-

  4. Eights (Android, Free, 10 hrs.)
    Recommended by a friend, this game is all about creating the number 8 and multiples of said number. Simple in concept, but difficult to master. I got over 5,000 points, so I considered myself “done” with it after that. I normally get around 1,500-3,000. Fun, but some bad control bugs hold it back. Overall: C+

  5. Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (Sega Master System, $5.00, 3 hrs.)
    Very different from the Genesis classic, but a very high-quality game for the old Sega console. Slippery controls and inexact platforming make certain sequences very frustrating. Beautiful graphics, improved bosses, and non-linear levels round it out. Overall: B

  6. 20140801_ghg_nr2NES Remix 2 (Wii U, $15.00, 43 hrs.)
    A sequel that improves upon the original in every way. Great challenges, better game selection, wonderful Miiverse intergration, and additional challenges make this one of the best games available on the Wii U eShop. Overall: A

  7. Mario Kart 8 (Wii U, $60.00, 20 hrs.)
    My favorite Mario Kart game since the Super Nintendo days. Amazing graphics, buttery smooth controls, fun courses, and memorable music make this one of the year’s best. I would love to see more goal/challenge-based single-player modes similar to Diddy Kong Racing on the Nintendo 64 to really elevate the experience when you’re not online. Overall: A

Only five months remain in 2014. Summer’s usually slow for releases, so this was expected. If release dates stick, the holiday season could be rough. Very rough.

Anyway, here’s to staying in positive territory, and I hope you all have a great weekend!