Review: Bayonetta 2 (Wii U, 2014)

I’m just going to get this out of the way right now: Bayonetta 2 is my Game of the Year for 2014. No other title in recent memory has captivated and entertained me as much as this one has, and that’s saying a lot since (a) I only started playing the Bayonetta series about a month ago, and (b) I usually don’t care for third-person brawlers like God of War and Ninja Gaiden.

Not only that, but I didn’t really love the first Bayonetta, either. Yes, I gave it a B+ in my review, and I enjoyed its style and deep combat system, but there were a number of things I didn’t like, including the lengthy on-rails shooter stages, boring mini-games, flat colors, and endlessly wordy cinematics. While some of those things have carried over to its sequel, they’ve been stripped down and polished to a brilliant shine, resulting in a game that delivers a perfectly paced experience from the heavens. Or hell, if you prefer.


The fact that we even have Bayonetta 2 in our hands is a bit of a small miracle. With Sega not able to take care of publishing duties this time around, Nintendo was the only company willing to step in and take a chance on it. Announced as a Wii U exclusive back in September of 2012, it immediately angered Xbox and PlayStation supporters. I remember being floored by the announcement, at first confused by the Wii U being its one and only home, but then excited that Nintendo did something that surprised so many people. As a company known for publishing mostly their own E-rated games, having the sultry Bayonetta grace their new system definitely made a big impact. Most importantly, though, it gave the Wii U a serious action exclusive that can’t be played anywhere else.

Over two years have passed, and the wait was so worth it. From its opening moments, Bayonetta 2 exudes quality. The first thing that jumps out at you is the new, brightly vibrant color palette, replacing the dark, muted tones of the original. Everything pops and shines beautifully, with stylish cinematic sequences and an in-game framerate that does its best to maintain 60fps. It drops regularly due to the sheer amount of on-screen detail and chaos, but in my opinion, it’s not bad enough to be a detriment to gameplay.


There is no screen tearing or v-sync issues to be found here, which was one of my biggest gripes with the first game’s graphical presentation, even with the superior Xbox 360 build. As a result, each frame of Bayonetta 2 is complete and an absolute treat for the eyes. The same qualities carry over to the free version of Bayonetta that comes packed in with its sequel.

Speaking of that pack-in, it’s not just a simple port, and includes extras like the Japanese language track, Nintendo-themed costumes, faster load times, easier difficulty settings, and better performance. By all accounts, it’s the definitive version of Bayonetta until a possible remaster is ever developed. The inclusion of the original game not only adds value, but is also helpful for Wii U owners who have never played the first one, giving them an opportunity to see how it all started, and provides a baseline on which to compare its sequel.


And make no mistake, Bayonetta 2 is superior to its predecessor in every conceivable way.

Gameplay is sublime and feels even better than the first game. It’s the core of what the series is known for, and Platinum Games has taken what worked so well nearly five years ago, and has made it feel even more responsive, exciting, and fluid. New features such as the Umbran Climax, which takes Bayonetta’s attacks and powers them up like a string of fighting game super moves, gives encounters an even more impactful and visceral feel than before. They’re so crazy that they can sometimes obscure the action, so be careful: They can be a double-edged sword if you are playing to achieve perfect playthrough status.


Controls are intuitive and responsive, with a heavy focus on dodging enemy strikes. Well-timed dodges will make the player enter what is known as Witch Time, which will slow down the action, temporarily make Bayonetta invincible, and allow her to build up her score and combos. The Dodge Offset technique also makes a return, which allows you to continue a combo string even after you dodge, as long as you’re holding down an attack button. Additional moves, weapons, items, costumes, and accessories can be purchased from your pal Rodin, found, or alchemized to further deepen your already robust arsenal.

The Angel Attack minigame has been completely removed, and the drawn-out driving and flying stages have been replaced by shorter, more focused sequences, one of which conceals Bayonetta 2‘s most famous Nintendo easter egg.


Long-time fans of Platinum Games will be right at home with the scoring and ranking system here. Most of the game’s Chapters are broken down into multiple Verses, and each Verse is given a rank based on your combo, time, and damage results. Achieving a full combo, fast time, and zero damage in a Verse will result in a Pure Platinum ranking, the game’s highest award. For hardcore players, getting Pure Platinum across all of the game’s difficulties — including the highest Infinite Climax setting where Witch Time is disabled — will be the ultimate goal.

For many other players, experiencing the game’s story, characters, enemies, and environments will provide more than enough entertainment. While the story itself will give continuity error and plot hole seekers a lot to sink their teeth into, it does a decent job of building characters relationships and motive. Unfortunately, like Bayonetta 1, many of the cinematic cutscenes are still overly wordy, and more often than not, I found myself rolling my eyes at the awkward dialogue and unnecessary exposition, complete with forced cursing.


On the flipside, the action cutscenes are stylishly executed and a lot of fun to watch. They are all done in-engine, with the more highly detailed models rendered in 30fps, and gameplay versions output in 60fps. Quick Time Events (QTEs) are still a part of these sections, but they have definitely been toned down from the first game, and feel less intrusive as a result.

As before, sound effects play a big part in Bayonetta 2‘s gameplay, and in conjunction with bright visual indicators, cue the player in on when an enemy attack is being delivered, prompting you to dodge. Some of these attacks are easy to avoid, while others require near-superhuman reaction times. Focusing on these is key to Pure Platinum rankings, and your survival in general. One of the most rewarding feelings in this game is focusing through all of the insanity around you, and in a zen-like way, successfully finishing a Verse perfectly.


The music in Bayonetta 2 is as atmospheric and kinetic as the game itself, and like its predecessor, delivers a memorable selection of tunes that span a number of different styles. One of the highlights is a great upbeat version of “Moon River”, which is simply a perfect song selections for Bayonetta. Unlike “Fly Me To The Moon” from Bayonetta 1, “Moon River” is sparsely used, having a greater impact when you do hear it.

In closing, I had a blast with Bayonetta 2, and continue to do so, weeks after finishing it. There is just so much to do, find, collect, and conquer here, and it will keep action fans busy for a long, long time. It’s not only one of the best action games to be found on the Wii U, but is without a doubt one of the best action games ever made.

  • Graphics & Presentation: A-
    Vibrantly beautiful colors are a major improvement over the first game. Animation and special effects are big and impressive, including the new Umbran Climax and returning Climax finishers. No screen tearing, but performance overall is a bit worse than before. Story is OK, but like Bayonetta 1, it won’t be winning any writing awards.
  • Music & Sound Effects: A
    An excellent soundtrack brings the world of Bayonetta 2 to life, with lots of variety and different styles. Sound effects are helpful and impactful, and both English and Japanese voiceover tracks are included, even though the dialogue itself can be very long-winded.
  • Gameplay & Controls: A+
    Perfect, responsive, and refined controls make this one of the most exciting and intuitive games I’ve ever played. Lots of secrets, collectibles, post-game challenges, and online play will put the most experienced players to the test.
  • Value: A+
    The first game is included for free, and not only completing, but mastering all the game’s difficulty settings will take any player a very long time to achieve.

Overall: A+



Review: Bayonetta (Xbox 360, 2010)

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I don’t have the strongest history with the works of Hideki Kamiya, the director and creator of Bayonetta. Whether it’s Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe, or Okami, these are all games that I have bought and played over the years, but oddly enough, I’ve never finished a single one of them.

That all changed recently when Bayonetta 2’s impending release on the Wii U inspired me to fire up the original on the Xbox 360. It’s a game that is adored by fans, and its sequel became one of the most talked about and controversial exclusives on Nintendo’s newest console. Bayonetta is often described as the perfect action game, so I had to see for myself what it was all about.


Now that I’ve played through it, I understand why it has such passionate fans. I can also see why it not being on Sony and Microsoft consoles this time around has angered so many players.

At its core, Bayonetta is a case study in deep, accessible gameplay. It’s a game that can be enjoyed both by those who just want to experience its story and spectacle, but perhaps more importantly, by those who want to take the time and effort to master its intricate combat system.


And what a combat system it is! Different combos can be performed effortlessly through a seemingly endless string of punch, kick, and firing combinations, and buttons can be long-pressed to maximize combo output. A feature called Witch Time can be activated while dodging enemy attacks at the last second to slow things down and give the player an opportunity to further build up their combos and score, and without taking any damage.

Combos can also be interrupted and continued through the game’s innovative Dodge Offset system, which can dramatically increase a player’s performance once its timing and use have been mastered. The game doesn’t do a good job explaining this, and while I’m not there yet in terms of fully grasping its depth, it’s one of the more addictive aspects of Bayonetta’s advanced gameplay techniques.


The game takes place over the course of 18 Chapters, including the Prologue and Epilogue. Each one is broken down into a group of Verses; some Chapters only have a few Verses, while others can have many. Not all of them are along the critical path, however, and the player must explore each Chapter to find them. It took me approximately 15 hours to complete, and I missed a lot of those Verses.

Much time will be spent in the game’s numerous cutscenes, which are long-winded and could have greatly benefited from a more aggressive story editor. Speaking of Bayonetta’s story, I found most of it to be nonsensical, but I suppose it did a serviceable job of giving the cast motives to keep moving forward.


The characters themselves are excellent, however, possessing strong personalities and energetic voice work. The only character I did not care for was the Chapter 16 boss, who simply will not shut up. For those who have played Bayonetta 2, they actually poke fun at this in the game’s opening Chapter. I guess even Platinum thought they went overboard!

Visually, Bayonetta looks good, with a game engine that does its best to run at 60 frames-per-second. It slows down quite a bit throughout, but not enough to be a detriment to gameplay. Cutscenes run at half the framerate — possibly for cinematic purposes — but it can be distracting seeing the performance change so frequently. Don’t ignore those cutscenes, though. You have to stay on your toes, since quick time events often occur during what are otherwise non-interactive cinematics.


The game also exhibits an excessive amount of screen tearing, which is an unfortunate blow to its visual presentation. It should be noted that this does not occur in the 2014 Wii U port of Bayonetta.

Animation is superb, however, and although some of the character models show their age, they convey realistic emotion through their facial expressions, movement, and dialogue. Bayonetta herself is fluidly animated, with beautiful and sexy attacks that flow together seamlessly. Her hair-based Wicked Weaves and Climax finishers are particularly noteworthy, as they are huge, screen-filling creations that bring to mind the memorable Summons from the Final Fantasy series.


The color palette of the game tends to be dark, with lots of grays, browns, reds, and greens. It suits the story and mood of the game, but I thought they were much more drab than they needed to be. Environments exhibit a good variety throughout — with some truly memorable ones — although you will find yourself running down boring, barren hallways more often than you’d like, as well as solving rudimentary, slow, and sometimes vague puzzles. These all feel like holdovers from the PlayStation 2 era, and can slow the game down to a crawl.

On the audio side, Bayonetta is an absolute stunner. The soundtrack is an energetic mixture of vocal pop, smooth jazz, and grandiose choral and classical arrangements. They give the game its texture and atmosphere, are all of extremely high quality, and elevate the game’s action to the next level.


Not only that, but with Platinum’s partnership with Sega — and Kamiya’s love of old Sega games — Bayonetta is graced with arranged music from classic games such as Space Harrier, After Burner, and Out Run.

Sound effects are not only well done, but are essential to performing well in combat. Enemies have subtle visual and audio cues that will telegraph an incoming attack. With so much action and chaos going on around you, sometimes you will have to let your ears do the seeing for you.


Minigames and platforming are also a part of Bayonetta’s gameplay, but they can slow the game down, be completely frustrating, or are so long as to overstay their welcome. It’s unfortunate that Platinum drew the driving/flying stages out the way they did. These would have been better served as a medley of the different game styles combined into a single chapter. As it is, they end up feeling out of place due to their vastly different gameplay, and overindulgent due to their excessive length. Platforming is often vague, with Bayonetta falling to her injury or death frequently. Thankfully, it doesn’t occur too many times throughout.

Boss encounters, on the other hand, are intimidating and exciting. Most of them have an intuitive feel that makes fighting them very fun and satisfying. Couple this with Bayonetta’s finishing moves and these become some of the game’s most enjoyably visceral sequences.


In terms of replay value, Bayonetta brings it. Not only are there a wealth of items and secret battles to buy and discover, but there are also challenging hidden stages that will test your skills and mastery of the game’s techniques.

Its ranking system will also have perfectionists coming back over and over again to attain all of the game’s Pure Platinum awards, which essentially requires the player to get through each Chapter with a high combo score, low time, and zero damage. Not an easy feat, and definitely not for the faint of heart at the game’s highest difficulty of Non-Stop Infinite Climax, where Witch Time is disabled and enemies are stronger. Accessories can help out tremendously, but button mashers will not get far beyond Normal mode. Bayonetta requires dedication, concentration, and mastery to extract everything that it has to offer.


In closing, Bayonetta is one of the best pure action games I’ve played in a long time. Its combat system is highly satisfying and possesses splendid depth. Although there are frustrating aspects, including gimmicky minigames, instant-death quick time events, performance issues, and a glut of unnecessary cutscenes, the foundation is rock-solid, and is a game that action fans should not miss.

  • Graphics & Presentation: B
    Nice animation, effects, and mostly 60fps action. Performance often takes a hit, and screen tearing is prevalent. Worlds are constructed well, but colors are dark and bland. Cutscenes can be painfully long, but some of them are exhilarating and extremely stylish.
  • Music & Sound Effects: A+
    One of the best action game soundtracks I’ve ever heard. A wonderful mix of vocal pop, jazz, and classical, you’ll be singing “Fly Me To The Moon” long after you finish the game. Great sound effects that actually matter during gameplay.
  • Gameplay & Controls: B+
    A combat system that puts most to shame; it’s fast, fluid, deep, and intuitive. Upgrades, new moves, techniques, and accessories add to the game’s wonderful variety and complexity. Significant filler muddles Bayonetta‘s focus, though, with the non-fighting levels, shooting galleries, puzzles, and half-baked platforming.
  • Value: A
    Pure Platinum chasers will have their hands full for weeks, if not months, with a system that rewards perseverance and dedication. Lots of hidden items, battles, and challenges to discover will keep completionists coming back for more.

Overall: B+


Unboxing Bayonetta 2 (Wii U, 2014)

As someone who was never that into third-person action games, Platinum Games’ Bayonetta flew right past me, as did the studio’s other games such as MadWorld, Vanquish, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. However, it only took a few minutes with Bayonetta 2‘s demo on the Wii U to make me realize what a big mistake I had made.

I’ve played it several times since its release, slowly improving upon my previous runs. In that sense, it feels like a true arcade experience, similar to how I felt with Volgarr the Viking, one of the best games I’ve played all year.

Upon playing Bayonetta 2‘s demo, I immediately preordered it on Amazon. Since I had just finished LEGO City Undercover, I decided to fire up my Xbox 360 copy of the first Bayonetta. I haven’t finished it yet — and finishing it once is really only scratching the game’s surface — but you can check out my highlights and hear what I have to say about the game so far on YouTube HERE.

Bayonetta 2 arrived late this past Friday, and even with the first game unfinished, I couldn’t help myself; I just had to tear into my copy!

Below is a series of photos showing what’s included. Nothing earth-shattering, but I do hope you enjoy them.


Full shot of the front cover. Standard Wii U blue box. Bayonetta 1 is included on its own separate disc.


Another shot of the front cover, with a more detailed look at the logo and artwork.


Additional detail of first Bayonetta logo. I like that it’s relatively small and up in the corner instead of being plastered somewhere else over the main artwork.


Full shot of the back cover. Hard to tell what’s going on in any of the tiny screenshots, but it does show some of the alternate outfits now available in the Wii U version of the first Bayonetta, including Samus (Metroid), Peach (Super Mario Bros.), and Link (The Legend of Zelda)


Close-up detail of the back cover’s screenshots. For some reason, Bayonetta’s pose on the left looks a little strange to me.


Sega and Platinum Games logos, as well as supported controllers: Wii Classic Controller Pro, Wii U Pro Controller, and Wii U GamePad. I will be using the Wii U Pro Controller.


Game case spine and thumbnail, which is from the same piece of art from the back cover.


Inside of case, a black & white safety/e-manual pamphlet and game discs. Those come in their own separate trays, which is always nice. Case itself is a standard eco type, which I know saves on plastic, but they just feel super-flimsy. No actual game manual of any kind, which isn’t surprising, but is still disappointing.


Bayonetta 1 game disc. Artwork is from the back cover of the 360 version. Screening is nice and of high quality.


Bayonetta 2 game disc. Artwork is from the front cover, and looks great.


Club Nintendo information and registration code are now printed on the back of the game case insert, which makes getting to it a little more difficult. Nearly impossible to miss, though, due to the eco case cutouts.

Be on the lookout for my Bayonetta review and Bayonetta 2 playthrough on YouTube soon. Have a great week!


Backlog Blitz: The games of May 2014


I stopped the bleeding (somewhat) in May. I bought 7 games and finished 6, so I was pretty happy about that. June is not looking pretty by any stretch of the imagination though — 9 bought and 2 finished with only 3 days left this month! — but I’ll hopefully be able to squeeze in one or two more before the year’s half over. Do or do not, there is no try, right? Anyway, the format, like before, is Game Title (Platform, Purchase Price, Play Time).

Games purchased (-7, $108.25 spent):

  1. 20140627_ghg_child_of_light_wallpaperChild of Light (PC, $12.00)
    Developed with the UbiArt Framework engine, I’ve been looking forward to this RPG ever since I first saw it. Getting around to actually playing it is proving to be a bit challenging, but it’s one of those games I know will be a wonderful experience, and wanted to make sure I bought it at launch.
  2. Tales of Symphonia Chronicles (PS3, $10.00)
    Sony had a good 50% off sale on PSN this month, and since I read that the original Tales of Symphonia was one of the better ones in the series, I picked this up. I haven’t played or finished a Tales game since Tales of Destiny on the original PlayStation, so I’m sure I’m in for a surprise!
  3. Sonic Hits Collection (PC, $7.50)
    Normally $30, I couldn’t pass up this nice discount on the Humble Store. It includes more Sonic games than you can shake a stick at: Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, Sonic 3 and Knuckles, Sonic 3D Blast, Sonic Adventure 2, Sonic Adventure 2: Battle,  Sonic Adventure DX, Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed: Metal Sonic & Outrun DLC, Sonic CD, Sonic Generations, Sonic Generations – Casino Nights DLC, Sonic Spinball, Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 – Episode 1, and Sonic the Hedgehog 4 – Episode 2. Whew!
  4. Saints Row IV (PC, $10.00)
    Another 75% off title during May’s Humble Store sale. I never did get around to picking this up when it first came out — perhaps I was still feeling bitter about THQ’s demise — but I still have friends at Volition, so this one’s for them. If I remember right, IV was originally supposed to be DLC for Saints Row: The Third, so I’m curious to see how it holds up as a standalone product.
  5. 20140627_ghg_rogue_legacyRogue Legacy (PC, $3.75)
    75% off seems to be the sweet spot for me and most digital PC games. I remember my friends talking about this one last year, and I finally got around to buying it. It looks like just the kind of game I’m going to love and sink many, many hours into. Crazy-good animation and good, tight controls.
  6. The Humble Bundle: PC & Android 10 (PC/Android, $5.00)
    Another solid bundle to help build up my Steam and mobile gaming library. Good games, good cause. This one includes: Breach & Clear, Draw a Stickman: EPIC, Fieldrunners, Fieldrunners 2, Frozen Synapse, Galcon Fusion, Galcon Legends, Ittle Dew, METAL SLUG 3, Skulls of the Shogun, and Symphony.
  7. Mario Kart 8 (Wii U, $60.00)
    I don’t buy too many games full-price at retail, but in this case, I couldn’t help it. I started playing it immediately, and it’s easily the best Mario Kart game since the original SNES version, particularly after my disappointment with Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS. I still have a lot to do and unlock in the game, but it’s been so much fun, and getting the free game (I selected Pikmin 3) was a very generous 2-for-1 gesture by Nintendo.

Games finished (+6, $83.00 value):

  1. Persona 4 Golden (Vita, $40.00, 60 hrs.)
    This was the main reason — perhaps the only reason — why I originally wanted a Vita. I loved
    Persona 3 Portable on the PSP, and wanted to play its sequel in handheld form. I had some problems with it, even starting over on the easiest difficulty, and it still took a very long time to finish. I think these games are just a bit too long for their own good, but they’re still a lot of fun with great style, music, and gameplay. Overall: B+ (Review Link)
  2. 20140627_ghg_tearaway_wallpaperTearaway (Vita, $40.00, 10 hrs.)
    I’m about to throw in the towel for the second time on
    LittleBigPlanet because of its awful controls, but Media Molecule got that part right with Tearaway. The camera isn’t very good when it needs to be, but the total experience is just beautiful and very original. It’s my favorite game on the Vita. Overall: A (Review Link)
  3. Monument Valley (Android, Free, 2 hrs.)
    Criminally short, but a totally essential game on mobile. Wonderful use of color, an atmosphere that will remind you of
    Journey on the PS3, and mind-bending design all combine to deliver one of the best games I’ve played this year on Android. Overall: A- (Review Link)
  4. The Room Two (Android, $3.00, 5 hrs.)
    The Room was a fantastic game, and its sequel is at least its equal, doing some things better and some things worse. I liked that it’s bigger, scarier, and of the same high quality that made the first game so memorable. However, making the game bigger means you have to move around more and get out of that zen-like dive into these puzzles that was so darn cool in the original. This makes puzzles more elaborate, but in a way, less intimate. Overall: A- (Review Link)
  5. 20140627_ghg_castle_of_illusion_1990Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse 1990 (PS3, Free, 3 hrs.)
    Just as good as I remember from the Sega Genesis days. Inspired animation, a classic soundtrack, and lots of gameplay variety. The game is short, and the controls feel a little too rigid, but at least they’re accurate. Overall: B+ (Review Link)
  6. Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse 2013 (PS3, Free, 3 hrs.)
    They had the right idea with this one, and I think in the hands of a better developer, it could have been something truly special, proudly standing next to the original. It has nice art, music, and level design, but the atrocious controls, lousy hit detection, and mediocre performance make it an average experience at best. Overall: C (Review Link)

A -1 finish overall for the month, and I ended up $25.25 in the hole, which isn’t too bad. If I just had to pick one or two games to recommend to my readers, it’d be Tearaway and Monument Valley, two very unique gaming experiences that you won’t soon forget.


My influences: Space Harrier

20140602_space_harrierI’ll never forget the first time I saw Space Harrier. It was at Disneyland’s Starcade in the mid-’80s. They were fortunate enough to have the deluxe sit-down version, too. The entire cabinet would tilt as you moved the flight stick around, a popular feature in a number of arcade games at the time, like Sega’s own Out Run and After Burner. I never would see that version in any other arcade after that, so looking back, I feel fortunate that I was able to play and experience it. More so than the cabinet, however, was the game itself.

The title screen alone was enough to capture my imagination with its huge spinning logo, one-eyed woolly mammoth, and beautiful-looking mecha. I was a huge Robotech nut as a kid, so how could I resist? I couldn’t. Even the sound the game made when you inserted a quarter or token was cool. That’s a small, but important detail that I really miss from modern gaming.

And then I pressed Start. Oh my goodness, those graphics! It absolutely blew my mind. Hardware sprite scaling wasn’t something we would see in home consoles until the Super Nintendo and Neo Geo in the early ’90s, and it was still a relatively new technology in arcade games. Using Sega’s Super Scaler technology, they took the concept of 3D gaming using 2D sprites to a whole new level. It represented a paradigm shift for me, establishing a very clear graphics capability line between arcade and home consoles, and altering my expectations from then on.

That was one of those moments where I figured playing an arcade-perfect port at home would never be possible. And I would be mostly correct for the better part of the next decade, until 32X and Saturn ports would finally make the impossible possible. It really shows just how advanced Sega’s arcade technology was back then.

However, that didn’t stop me from wanting the home Space Harrier experience ASAP. Back in junior high, several of my friends all generously chipped in and bought me the Sega Master System version for my birthday. I knew there was no way it would be as good as the arcade, but then again, I’m the one who thought Cobra Command was possible on it, so my hopes were still unrealistically high. After containing my excitement, I opened it up and turned it on…

20140602_shI was actually quite impressed with the title screen! It approximated the look of the arcade version, right down to the light glinting off the mecha’s gun, which was always one of my favorite details. It also had a new, majestic-sounding title screen song, which the arcade game lacked. So far, so good.

Then I started playing it, and that’s when disappointment set in. I mean, it wasn’t bad and I still played it endlessly for weeks on end, but when so much of Space Harrier‘s appeal is in its visuals, it’s easy to be let down. When you stop and think about what they achieved, however, on hardware that was never designed to do this, Sega pulled off a small miracle. It might not be as fast or pretty as the arcade original, but it still plays, looks, and sounds good in its own right.

One of the things that made the Master System version stand out was the exclusive final boss, Haya Oh. The first time I got to it, I was so surprised, because I was expecting the lackluster “The End” from the arcade game. In addition to it having an intense and memorable music track, it provided a good challenge and was a nice example of developers adding extras to the home versions. It also had a surprisingly lengthy epilogue hinting at a sequel, so that obviously got my attention. That sequel came in the form of 1988’s Space Harrier 3-D, but I never did play it because I didn’t have the SegaScope 3-D Glasses. I remember wanting them bad — real bad — but I think it was the limited game library for it that never made me ask for them.

As the Sega Genesis’ release date drew near in late-’89, so did that of Space Harrier II. With the Genesis being a 16-bit videogame console, and early signs looking terrific with strong entries like Ghouls’n Ghosts and Thunder Force II, I wondered if this would be the era for my beloved Space Harrier to come home in all its glory. Even though the review of it in EGM was very average, I still wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt.

20140602_sh2_titleOh, how wrong I was. Not only did it have an absolutely awful and generic title screen — seriously, what is that? — but the music was a complete downgrade except for the main theme, which was OK, but hardly came close to the classic original. Most disappointingly, the visuals seemed even choppier than the Master System version. The sprites were nice and big, and the scrolling playfield now shifted perspective, but the objects scaled poorly, and the artwork overall was very generic.

This was not what I was expecting out of Sega’s brand-new console, and it goes down as one of the most disappointing games on the Genesis for me. It would be another 6 years before I would reunite with the series, this time on the infamous Genesis 32X add-on.

20140602_sh_32xDespite its lackluster software lineup and hideous design, I bought a used 32X in late-’95, and it came with the only two games I would ever play on it: Space Harrier and After Burner.

Although the 32X version of Space Harrier suffers from some frame drops when there’s a lot going on, it’s one of the better ports. It controls well, and for all intents and purposes, looks and sounds exactly like the arcade version. I just couldn’t stand the 32X itself, and after only a few weeks with it, I sold it.

As I mentioned earlier, an even better version of Space Harrier would be released shortly thereafter in ’96 for the Sega Saturn under their Sega Ages label, and that’s the one I still have. At long last, what I consider to be an arcade-perfect version of one of my favorite arcade games now exists, looking and playing beautifully at home. I would spend additional money to buy the Saturn Mission Stick for an even closer approximation of the arcade experience. It was glorious, taking me back to that fateful day at Disneyland.

When I think about it, the reasons why Space Harrier was such a big influence on me seem superficial. It first and foremost came down to the graphics. For a game that’s pushing nearly 30 years in age, it still looks fantastic to me. It was really unique at the time to be playing a shooting game where you were flying forward, with enemies and obstacles coming at you at breakneck speeds. It has a terrific sense of style, with bright colors, individual stage names, amazing sound, a wide variety of enemies and bosses, and rewarding twitch gameplay. Successfully navigating one of its accelerated stages is still a tremendous rush.

It might be a one-trick pony, but it does that one trick exceptionally well. Perhaps one day I will own that elusive sit-down cabinet, too.


The Sega Master System, Part 1: Odd man out

20140523_smsYou’ll never believe the reason why I wanted a Sega Master System so badly back in 1986. I had seen a Toys R Us ad for it not too long before Christmas that year, and sure, the system itself looked pretty cool. However, it was the game I saw plugged into it that grabbed my attention: Cobra Command. Yeah, the LaserDisc arcade game.

As a young, impressionable 7th grader who didn’t have a modem yet, I didn’t possess much knowledge about technical limitations, data storage, etc., so I surmised that sure, they could fit an entire LaserDisc game onto a cartridge. I mean, why not? Or better yet, use one of those nifty little Sega Cards! I later learned that Master System cartridges started out at 128KB (1 megabit) and those Sega Cards only held a fourth of that at 32KB.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t be playing stuff like Space Ace on the Master System anytime soon, even though I was convinced that it would happen. It didn’t.

While today’s consoles cost $400-500+ and only come with one controller and no games, the 8-bit era was more generous. For $200 at launch, you got the Master System console, 2 controllers, the Light Phaser gun, and two games: Hang-On & Safari Hunt. Nintendo offered a great value for the same asking price, sweetening the deal with R.O.B. No matter what you thought of that robot — or how poorly he “worked” — he was one of many strokes of genius in marketing the NES.

Anyway, Christmas Morning arrived, and even though I wouldn’t be fighting Borf, saving Daphne from the clutches of an evil dragon, or even stomping on Goombas, I was still in gaming bliss. Not counting our Apple //e, the only other gaming device in our household was an old Atari 2600, so going from that to the Master System kinda blew my mind.


The first game I powered up was The Ninja, based on Sega’s similarly titled arcade game. I remember the opening like it was yesterday, with the stylish, scrolling text reminiscent of Broderbund’s Karateka, except now with catchy background music and drums! Percussion in console games was still new to me, and hearing that snare along with clear, multi-channel melodies was amazing.

I loved that game so much, and it’s one of my all-time favorites on the Master System. It was very challenging, with good level design, diverse enemy types, hidden secrets, tight controls, and lots of style. It was similar to other vertically scrolling “run & gun” titles like Ikari Warriors, but I liked the pacing and variety of The Ninja better.

20140523_transbotTransbot, one of only a handful of Sega Card games I would ever own, was another I received that Christmas. Sega got me with their marketing when I saw a clip of it in one of their TV commercials. When I saw the Star Wars-like AT-ST, I knew I had to have it. The game itself controls well, has several different weapon types, decent graphics, and a few interesting enemy patterns, but it’s an otherwise boring and repetitive game that I tired of quickly. Compared to The Ninja, or even the pack-in games, this one was disappointing.

Its quality would be consistent with the few other Sega Card games I would risk asking my parents for, like My Hero and Ghost House. I actually liked My Hero better than the arcade version, but it too was repetitive. I seem to remember Ghost House having a little more challenge and variety, but the fact that I barely recall any details about it speaks for itself. That was it for me and Sega Cards.


Ahh, but then there’s Alex Kidd in Miracle World. This was, in my opinion, the “must have” Master System game. Before playing it, I really had no idea what it was about. Sega’s cartridge boxes are infamous for their atrociously terrible art, but something about the name still intrigued me. From the moment I turned it on, I knew this was going to be great. The title screen was so colorful, the music was extremely upbeat and catchy, and the world map inspired a great sense of adventure.

The platforming gameplay was also lots of fun, with sprawling levels going in every direction, different vehicles to drive, shops to buy items, and one of the more unique (and frustrating) features: playing rock-paper-scissors against the game’s bosses. It was all very unique, and I enjoyed it as much as Super Mario Bros., perhaps even a little more due to its more varied styles of gameplay. This was Sega’s attempt to eat into Nintendo’s success, but there was just no way. Still, this is a classic and one of my favorites of the 8-bit era.

Meanwhile, my neighbor across the street also got a Master System that year, which in hindsight was miraculous, since he would end up being only one of two people I knew at school who had one! We’d trade games every now and then, which was fun. I miss that about childhood: bartering in the playground bazaar.

20140523_blackbeltI remember borrowing Black Belt from him, which I would later find out was re-skinned from the Japanese Fist of the North Star original. It was a pretty straightforward and short side-scrolling beat-’em-up with mid-bosses and power-ups that you had to be quick about grabbing out of the air. My friends and I would laugh at the way defeated enemies would “explode” into a spray of square tiles.

The highlight, however, was definitely the one-on-one boss fights. Some of them were tough, and looking back, they were pretty impressive for still being part of the pre-Street Fighter II era. The characters were large, their movements were smooth, and when you would finally defeat them, they’d be on the receiving end of a satisfying flurry of punches and kicks. The only thing missing was Kenshiro’s trademark, “Atatatatatata!”


Finally, another early favorite of mine was Fantasy Zone. A port of the Japanese arcade game, I would not play the original until years later on the Sega Saturn and in MAME. That wouldn’t matter, though, because the Master System version was terrific. In fact, after having played both, I like the Master System version better.

Graphically, the game was lush, detailed, and it certainly captured my imagination. The player’s ship — Opa-Opa — was also unique with its different wings, weapons, and one of my favorite touches: little feet that would come out and touch the ground, letting you stroll around the bottom of each level. You can tell that Sega’s artists had a blast visualizing the world and its inhabitants.

Fantasy Zone‘s soundtrack deserves special mention. In addition to each level having its own unique look, they all had their own distinct musical themes. This was pretty amazing in the day and age where many games used the same music over and over throughout, and this helped make these alien worlds memorable. Well-designed bosses provided a good level of challenge, all leading to the game’s surprisingly touching ending.

As much as I loved that first wave of Master System games, the best games were yet to come. Specifically, a $70 RPG that would blow away my expectations and change the course of my life: Phantasy Star.

See you next time in Part 2!


The Nintendo Entertainment System, Part 1: The cool kids

Whenever I see forum threads to the tune of “What are your most shocking gaming secrets?”, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that I never owned a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). No, I instead chose to ask for a Sega Master System for Christmas back in 1986. In a lot of ways, owning a Master System was similar to what it feels like to own a Wii U today: a trickle of good first-party support, but that’s about it.


But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. While I have a lot to say about the Master System, I want to talk about the NES. Out of the group of friends I hung out with back in junior high, at least half of them had one.

While almost all of us had an Apple // computer of some kind, the NES was different. Its primary killer app was Nintendo’s own Super Mario Bros., which for all intents and purposes, was a pixel-perfect translation of its arcade counterpart. Full of variety, tight gameplay, colorful graphics, and a catchy soundtrack, owning this game — and knowing all of its numerous secrets — immediately put you in the “cool” category among your peers.

20140521_kung_fuI’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous of my friends. It’s not like I could simply ask my parents, “I know you just bought me a Sega, but how about that Nintendo too?” Out of the question, and I would never build up the courage to ask. That left me with the obvious alternative: play them all at my friends’ houses!

And play I did. A lot. The NES simply had the better games, and so many more of them. The difference between the two libraries was ridiculously comical, and it’s no wonder Sega moved quickly to release the 16-bit Genesis in 1989, a mere 3 years into the Master System’s short existence.

20140521_excitebikeThe first couple years for the NES were amazing. While many genres were still in their infancy, the quality on display even at that early stage was incredible.

Take Excitebike, for example, which was already a fun game to play with great pseudo-3D graphics, but they upped the ante by including a track designer. Although its save/load functionality was far from ideal, building that in as a feature added value, while being a fun way for friends to show off to one another.

20140521gngMeanwhile, Capcom had been releasing a number of arcade-to-home conversions at that time as well. I was a big fan of their arcade games like 1942, Ghosts’n Goblins, and Commando, but their NES conversions didn’t impress me. Their graphics were really choppy and the music was hollow and tinny.

I played them to death, of course — and they did play good, which is important to note — but it was disappointing that Nintendo’s home console wasn’t able to do justice to many of my favorite arcade games.

20140521rushnattackThat would all change when my friend received Konami’s Rush’n Attack for his birthday in 1987. Although I was already a fan of Konami’s games like Castlevania and Gradius, it was Rush’n Attack that for the very first time made me realize that home versions of arcade games could be better than the originals.

While the NES version’s color palette and animation weren’t as detailed, it ran more smoothly, felt better control-wise, and it blew my mind with one of the best soundtracks of that era, which still sounds great today.

It was from that point forward that Konami became synonymous with quality for me. They would really falter in later generations, but back then, it was rare for them to put out a complete dud.

The years that followed would further solidify the NES as arguably the all-time best videogame console. It would play host to many games that are to this day considered the greatest ever made.


The Apple //e, Part 2: More Influential Games

I had a great time last week reminiscing about some of the Apple //e games that influenced me at a young age, so what the heck — here are several more that I loved from my gaming formative years.


The game that I constantly heard about back in the early ’80s was this one, Dan Gorlin’s Choplifter from Broderbund. The Apple wasn’t a fast computer, so to finally see and play an arcade-style game that was as smooth and responsive as this was really special. Like many Broderbund games back then, it was all about the details. I thought the design of the helicopter was great. It displayed convincing flight dynamics, and the way it would subtly “bounce” when you touched down created a nice visual marriage that added to the game’s realism.

Controls were easy to learn, and understanding how yaw affected your weaponry was key to success. More nice touches included the perspective/parallax effect on your home base’s barrier and the way rescued hostages would wave in thanks as you dropped them off to safety. A lesser game wouldn’t even bother with such details, but Choplifter was no ordinary game.


Several years later, I would play Choplifter again on the fledgling Sega Master System. It was a good arcade-to-home port in its own right, but I’ve always preferred the Apple original. There’s a purity to its straightforward, distilled design and fun, tight controls, and it still plays brilliantly today, 32 years after its release.

Speaking of helicopters, another game that my friends and I just loved was Sabotage. Its concept was simple: defend your single turret from bombs and falling paratroopers with a stream of artillery. What made this game memorable — for better or for worse — was the violence. Even though the paratroopers were only constructed of a handful of pixels, they would meet their doom in any number of ways, accompanied by “watery” sound effects that were strangely satisfying. My favorite was hitting a parachute with a well-placed bullet, sending the paratrooper falling to and splattering on the ground. If you were lucky, they would fall on someone who already landed, eliminating both of them.

20140502_sabotageFor a game with such simple controls, it was surprisingly deep. You could also select steerable shells, giving you the power to sweep the screen with a spray of bullets. It did nothing to help your score since bullets ate away at your point total, but boy was it fun!

Games like this and the more well-known title The Bilestoad were some of the earliest examples of games where violence was a big part of their gameplay. The Bilestoad in particular was extremely violent for its time, where pools of blood and body parts would be strewn across the game’s arena, accompanied by nasty sound effects and an ominous soundtrack. Sabotage was tame by comparison. It wouldn’t be until Midway’s Mortal Kombat in the early ’90s that videogame violence would become such a controversial issue.

20140507bruceleeOne of my favorite genres is the run & jump platformer, like Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Meat Boy, and Rayman. While I credit early arcade games like the perennial classic Donkey Kong for sparking my love for them, I spent way more time at home with Datasoft’s Conan and Bruce Lee. Both games consisted of challenging screens to conquer, with good controls, nice graphics, and swift gameplay. Bruce Lee was particularly fast, which made it a thrill to play. Having a ninja and sumo wrestler constantly chasing you around added to the tension and pacing, and remains one of my all-time favorite games. It was also unique for boasting a nice 16-color title screen in double high-resolution, a rarity back in 1984. Two-voice music also helped set it apart from the single, linear sounds so common at the time.

20140507drolFinally, for this installment, one more from Broderbund: Aik Beng’s Drol. Like many kids, I loved cartoons, so games that had cartoon-like graphics really appealed to me. Drol was one of those, possessing superb visuals and nice animation. When we would later get a composite color monitor around 1986, it was one of the first games I played on it, just to see what it looked like in something other than green. Another game had a similar style — Tony & Benny Ngo’s Bandits (Sirius Software) — and looking back, these two games had a notable influence on my art style over the next few years, especially when it came to fonts. They both still look super-clean to me, fueling my belief that good art, no matter what the medium, never gets old.

That’s it for now. Thanks for putting up with the green screenshots, by the way. Although I would soon go on to play all of these games in color, my fondest memories of them are from that old, 12″ monochrome monitor.