Monday, December 21, 2009

Wii = Fun!

My wife and I went into Toys R Us over the weekend to buy some presents for an adopt-a-family program, and of course, also walked out with a present for ourselves -- a new Wii! We promptly returned home and spent the rest of the weekend playing it, basically stopping only to eat. We had a blast, and at least for the foreseeable future, I see us spending our nights together not watching Netflix, but playing the Wii.

Among the current crop of game consoles, the Wii stands alone. Its small and nondescript presence under our TV belies the amount of fun to be had upon turning it on. Not only are Wii Sports, Wii Play, Super Mario Galaxy and New Super Mario Bros. Wii totally unique and ridiculously fun games unavailable for any other system, but the Wii Virtual Console contains a stunning amount of old-school games from a variety of classic game consoles like the NES, Super NES, Turbo Grafx-16, Sega Genesis and Commodore 64. And that's not all. Nintendo somehow managed to squeeze four GameCube controller ports and two memory-card slots into the side of the Wii, so now I can play all the great GameCube titles I missed out on. Funny how Nintendo could do such a thing for the Wii, while I still can't play PlayStation and PlayStation2 games on my PlayStation3, which is about three-times the size of the Wii. Good job, Sony.

Granted, I wasn't impressed with the selection of Wii games currently on store shelves. Much of Wii's game library seems like kiddie stuff to me, and right now the only other game I really want to buy is The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which came out about three years ago (and I'll probably end up opting for the GameCube version if I can find it). So I guess I understand why hardcore gamers have been dismissive of the Wii, but I also understand why so many people have embraced it. As long as it's taken me to get on the Wii bandwagon, there's one thing I can't deny: Nintendo has made video games fun again.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Lightening Force: Quest For The Darkstar (Thunder Force IV)

Developer: Technosoft
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Sega Genesis
Released: 1992

First of all, this game should have been called Thunder Force IV as it was in every other part of the world. The lame jackasses in marketing at Sega of America are responsible for this travesty of a title. Let's do a brief analysis ...

Lightening Force: Quest For The Darkstar. For the love of Christ, that's not even the proper spelling of lightning -- at least not anymore! I think people stopped using that spelling just after Chaucer died. According to, "lightening" now has something to do with the uterus descending into the pelvic cavity in the late stages of pregnancy, so maybe these morons at Sega had something else in mind for this game.

And "Quest For The Darkstar?" What is that about? The game's cheap, black-and-white instruction manual actually elaborates on this unfortunate premise with an utterly laughable story that I won't give further attention by regurgitating here. This is what infuriates me about the executive and marketing side of the game industry. These people actually think they can do it better than the creative people responsible for making the game. What justification did these simpletons at Sega have in rewriting the storyline in Technosoft's prized action franchise? Thunder Force III was a huge hit on the Genesis two years prior. They had to think the sequel would sell at least as much, so they try to change the story? Granted, Technosoft's original story was hardly high literature. In fact, Thunder Force III was famous for its poorly translated in-game narrative, but it was 90 million-times better than this "Darkstar" garbage. So in retaliation for one of the many blunders in Sega of America's long, storied history, the game will be known as Thunder Force IV from here on out.

Thunder Force IV is one of the best action games for the Sega Genesis -- a platform loaded with great action games. However, it is not a better game than its great predecessor. It really wants to be. It really tries to be. It's surely one of the best-looking games ever released for the Genesis, and its production quality across the board is top-notch. It's in its over-reaching design choices that the game falls short of greatness.

You can't really fault Technosoft for trying new things with this game. Fans of the series were expecting something new with this installment, but how do you improve upon near perfection? For one, you can move your ship a full screens-length up and down while the action scrolls along horizontally. In theory, this would give you more room to maneuver, but there's no indication of where objects are off-screen, so this actually makes it easier to miss power-ups and crash into enemies. This was fixed in the sequel, Thunder Force V, which implemented a heads-up display that highlighted off-screen objects.

More problematic was the decision to mess with the weapons system. I loved all of the weapons in Thunder Force III -- not only for the way they looked, but for their usefulness. In Thunder Force IV, the Sabre, Lancer, Fire and Wave weapons have been replaced with Blade, Rail Gun, Snake and Freeway respectively. These new weapons still look cool for the most part but aren't as practical as their fore bearers. The Lancer-Rail Gun and Fire-Snake changes are mostly even swaps. However, Blade doesn't come close to the awesome destruction of the Sabre, and the Freeway weapon is just a pain in the ass to use.

It's easy to see why these changes were made. The addition of the wider playing area demanded new weapons to cover all of that open space. This was certainly the reason for the Freeway, though I don't think it works very well. I'm sure the Sabre was scrapped to accommodate the Thunder Sword -- a powerful, charge weapon you acquire in the game's later stages. The Thunder Sword is so strong that they probably needed to tone down the effectiveness of the main weapon to balance things out. Even so, I think the weapon changes hurt more than help overall, but at least the kept they Hunter -- a weapon which has became a staple in the series.

Honestly, these are my only real problems with the game. My only other gripe -- and this is minor -- is that Thunder Force IV is not quite as accessible to as wide an audience as Thunder Force III was. Indeed, Thunder Force IV is relentlessly difficult, especially in the game's later stages. Make no mistake, this game was made with hardcore gamers in mind, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. However, I still can't beat this game without using the 99-lives cheat in the option menu. The game's last two stages are just merciless, especially in "Maniac" mode. Much respect goes to those of you who can beat the game in this mode on a single credit.

Thunder Force IV is still a high-quality action game -- one of the best of the 16-bit era. This game couldn't have been ported to the Super NES and remained intact due to that platform's difficultly handling high-powered action games. It was tried by Seika with Thunder Force III, in the form of Thunder Spirits, and the result was less than pleasing. It's evident that Technosoft wanted to make the ultimate Genesis shooter with Thunder Force IV, and they damn-near pulled it off. You have to give them props for that.

Relevant Links

Thunder Force on Wikipedia

Play Thunder Force IV on

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Great Games: Thunder Force III (Sega Genesis)

Developer: Technosoft
Publisher: Technosoft
Platform: Sega Genesis
Released: 1990

One of the frustrating things about video games for me is the utterly lame way we define certain genres within the industry. First-Person Shooter. Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. Then there's my favorite genre: Unfortunately known as the horizontally or vertically scrolling shooter; the side-view or top-down shoot 'em up or more simply, the "schmup." That's right ... schmup. You could mix and match any of those words, and it would still make sense to any gamer as to what you're talking about, but I prefer to put them all in the category of Action Game. It's less specific to be sure, but much easier on the tongue and far less nerdy.

In any case, the genre is almost as old as video games are. Famous examples include Williams Electronics' Defender, Namco's Xevious and Konami's Gradius. Later games such Irem's R-Type and Seibu Kaihatsu's Raiden II upped the ante in terms of firepower and graphics, but the basic formula was the same: Guide your little starfighter through a variety of space-themed levels, blasting the holy hell out of anything and everything in your path.

I could write a whole story on the genre -- its evolution, the best games, the worst games -- in fact, I think I'll do just that in the very near future. For now, I want to focus on one of my all-time favorites, Technosoft's Thunder Force III.

Hardcore Sega supporters will remember Thunder Force III as one of the seminal games for the Sega Genesis. I remember I was in junior high when a neighborhood friend raided his parents' Christmas-present stash weeks before Christmas, found the game, opened it and played it in secret for days. He called me and told me I had to come over and play this awesome new game. He was right. Thunder Force III was the game that made me want a Genesis. Don't ask me how he managed to return the game back to its pre-Christmas hidey hole -- shrink-wrapped and all -- without his parents finding out.

Thunder Force III is the perfectly balanced action game. Good graphics, well-weighted gameplay, an excellent soundtrack, and a high tempo throughout. It doesn't have the visual flash of some similar games released a couple years later, but those games were in turn not as fun as Thunder Force III.

The game's story is pretty standard stuff as action games go, and is hilariously narrated in the game's conclusion in the form of scrolling text with one of the more famous examples of Engrish usage in recent memory. Basically, an evil computer is trying to take over the galaxy, and you and your little spaceship are the only ones who can stop it.

Thunder Force III does a pretty cool thing right at the start by allowing you to choose which level -- or in this case, planet -- you'd like to attack first. You're treated to a map of the galaxy which displays a group of planets with names like Hydra, Ellis and Gorgon (I've gotta say, I love those names). Of course, in typical video game fashion, each planet is dominated by extreme elemental conditions -- you've got the fire planet, the water planet, the ice planet and so on.

While practically every action title of the era had similarly themed stages, Thunder Force III makes inventive use of these scenarios in its level design -- they're not just backdrops for the action; they're part of the action. For instance, in Haides -- a rocky, cave-like environment -- frequent earthquakes shape and shift the surrounding rock formations as you progress through, and if you're not paying attention, you'll fly right into a cavern wall or rock. In Seiren, the water level, rising currents can push your ship into an enemy or other obstacle, while in Ellis, the ice planet, you have to constantly be aware of falling ice shards.

The weapons system in Thunder Force III is perhaps its most notable achievement. The way in which you acquire weapons is certainly nothing new. Just as in countless other games of this ilk, you simply have to shoot a tiny, fast-moving red ship to release a weapon icon, and pick it up. However, unlike a lot of other old-school shooters, once you've collected a weapon, it stays in your arsenal so you can select it anytime you need it. Also, the weapons themselves are unique and spectacular in their design and execution. Each one not only has a specific use depending on the situation, but they also look great. The game's most fun weapon to use, the Hunter, sprays shots that track and destroy in a very satisfying way, but it's not the best weapon to use against a level boss, as it doesn't inflict a great deal of damage. There's also the Wave, which penetrates through otherwise impenetrable environment objects; the Sabre, an extremely powerful weapon that cuts a clean path of destruction ahead of you; Fire, which is useful in tight spaces as it hits enemies above and below; and the Lancer, a deadly weapon which covers your rear. There's also the CLAW, a pair of small satellites that orbit your ship and essentially double your firepower, as well as absorb enemy fire; and the Shield, a force field which can take three hits before disappearing. I like how a voice, presumably the co-pilot's, announces each weapon when you acquire it.

Another gameplay feature that separates Thunder Force III from its counterparts is the ability to adjust the speed of your ship on the fly. Games in the Gradius and R-Type series forced you look for powerups to increase your ship's speed, while never allowing you to decrease it. Thunder Force III takes a more sensible approach in allowing you to adjust your speed from very slow to very fast (and two points in-between) as the situation demands.

When I play Thunder Force III, however, I don't think much about its technical and design achievements. In fact, one aspect of the game that's disappointing is the lack of spectacular, or even decent, explosions -- usually a basic requirement of action games. The meager explosive effects in Thunder Force III were probably a necessity to keep the game moving along without the slowdown that plagued most console action games of the late 80s and early 90s, but even so, they leave something to be desired.

Also, the game isn't that difficult, even in "Mania" mode. I don't think that hurts it at all, however. Whenever I play it, it's always set to "Mania," and it's always about finishing the game by losing the fewest amount of lives and gaining as many extra lives as possible, because your points total at the end is determined by such achievements. I like games that encourage high scores, and in this case, more tension and excitement is created in pursuit of the ultimate high score.

With Thunder Force III, it's all about the genuine feeling of excitement you get while playing through the game -- a sustained adrenaline rush few games achieve. This is helped greatly by, dare I say, one of the best soundtracks in any action game, period. A good musical score can go a long way in helping an action game achieve critical mass, and the music accompanying the mayhem in Thunder Force III is just about perfect -- especially through the game's first five stages. In fact, I would so far as to state no other game depends on its soundtrack more to carry it through some of its weaker moments.

Not surprisingly, Thunder Force III is just one game in a legacy that includes 12 releases across a variety of game platforms. Some of them have never been released in North America, and as such, I've never played the original Thunder Force, which came out in the early 80s on Japanese computers, nor the latest, Thunder Force VI, released last year for the Sony PlayStation2. I do own several games in the series however, including Thunder Force II, the first release of the series on the Sega Genesis; Lightening Force (known as Thunder Force IV outside of North America); and Thunder Force V, a Sega Saturn import which was released in North America on the Sony PlayStation as Thunder Force V: Perfect System. I also have Thunder Spirits for the Super NES, a sub-par translation of Thunder Force III that doesn't do the Genesis version justice.

All of these other episodes in the series only highlight why the third installment is so great. The sequel, Lightening Force, went all out in the visual department and ratcheted up the difficultly to insane levels, but in the process lost the balance that made Thunder Force III so playable and fun. Rare is the game that sacrifices excellence in one area of its production for the sake of maintaining an overall excellence.Thunder Force III finds a perfect blend of good ideas, good visuals, good gameplay and good sound, and the result is a Great Game.

Gameplay footage of Thunder Force III from YouTube:

Thunder Force III end sequence, including scrolling Engrish narrative:

Relevant Links

Thunder Force series on Wikipedia

Play Thunder Force III at

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Great Games: Super Dodge Ball (NES)

Developer: Technos Japan Corp.
Publisher: CSG Imagesoft Inc.
Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
Released: 1988

I grew up in Buffalo, NY and attended a small, Catholic elementary school in the working-class neighborhood of South Buffalo, just a couple of blocks from our house. Apart from the crazy nuns who ruled with iron fists and the epic snowball fights that would erupt as we walked home after school, my most memorable times at the school were playing dodge ball during gym class and at Boy's Club on Friday nights.

The funny thing about dodge ball at the time was how many variations the game had -- rarely being the free-for-all scenario you commonly see nowadays. When I played in school, it was always two teams separated by a line that neither could cross. Hit an opposing player, and they're out. The team with the last man standing wins.

Sometimes the rules allowed players to be brought back into the match when their team caught an opponent's throw. Sometimes we played "Army Dodge" in which getting hit on a limb could force you to play hopping on one leg or playing with both arms behind your back. In another variation, "Doctor Dodge," a "doctor" would stand in a safe zone behind each team. When his or her teammates were hit, they were forced to lay down on the spot and wait for their doctor to run out and drag them back into the safe zone, after which they would be revived and could ran back out into the match. Hit the other team's doctor while he's performing this emergency service, and you win the game (this version of dodge ball was my favorite).

Dodge ball has since been mostly banned in schools because, I guess, of the "violent" act of throwing a ball at another human being, but the game has also enjoyed a renassiance of sorts as grown-ups and hipsters now play dodge ball in organized, adult leagues.

While I do still sometimes get a kick out of throwing things at people, I have no desire to play in one of these leagues. Besides, I've long had a game in my possesion that not only captures what made dodge ball so much fun as a kid, but also might be one of the most original and fun two-player games of the past 20 years.

Super Dodge Ball first hit North American shores in the arcades, but the version released on the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1988 is the one that everyone remembers. I've met a couple of snobby gamers who dismiss this game as silly and point out all the slowdown and visual flicker that occurs when too many character sprites are on-screen at once, but make no mistake, Super Dodge Ball is a Great Game. 

Super Dodge Ball presents dodge ball not as the school-yard game we're all used to, but as a hardcore international sport on par with soccer. Although the every-man-for-himself Bean Ball mode does in fact pay tribute to dodge ball's roots by taking place in a school yard, the main one and two-player modes feature nine international teams competing in a World Cup-style format. The one-player story mode puts you in control of Team USA as they fly across the globe and play teams from nations such England, Iceland, India, Kenya, China and Japan, starting with a match in front of the Statue of Liberty against their American rivals, the Team All-Stars.

The various locales in Team USA's travels are great in capturing the flavor of each country. In England, you play on a cobblestone street in front of London's iconic skyline. Iceland's court, of course, is a sheet of ice which has players hilariously sliding all over the place, while in Kenya, the muddy ground makes running around difficult. The final match is against the USSR (it was the 80s after all), and in the fine Technos tradition of Double Dragon and River City Ransom eventually gives way to a battle against Team USA's dark, evil twins.

The two-player versus mode is more straight forward. The setting is more like that of an international friendly in soccer, in a neutral stadium, and even allows for each player to play as the same team, which is sometimes the best option for a totally fair match between experienced players. The great thing about Super Dodge Ball is that each team has various strengths and weaknesses, and every character in the game is rated among seven statistical categories, such as "Throwing Power" and "Damage Capacity." For instance, Team USA is a very well-rounded team, whose mercurial captain Sam possesses punishing power throws. India's players, on the other hand, all have very low numbers in the "Energy" category, but all can withstand a tremendous amount of damage before losing a health point -- especially the character Swami, who is almost always the last man standing and is damn-near impossible to kill.

The version of dodge ball played in Super Dodge Ball is a six-against-six affair in which the two opposing teams play on a court divided by a center line. Each team consists of three players on each side, along with three additional players who occupy the out-of-bounds space surrounding the opposing team's side. This is an important detail, as this setup allows for some really fun gameplay dynamics. Not only can you fake out your opponent by passing to these guys and attacking from behind, but you can also senselessly nail the ones surrounding your team from point-black range as they stand there defenseless.

Of course, there are other differences between this game and its real-life counterpart -- the most obvious being that every character in Super Dodge Ball possesses two signature power throws -- one while running on the ground and one while in midair. These throws are embued with snazzy special effects and inflict heavy damage on the other team, but can also be caught and nullified like any other throw. Another obvious departure from the dodge ball of your childhood: These characters actually DIE when their energy is depleted -- becoming little angels that float up to, well, heaven I suppose.

There are other fun gameplay touches, like when a character with low energy will stop for a few seconds to catch his breath after taking a hit or running around too much, which leaves him mouth-wateringly wide open to an attack. I also love how characters will sometimes sneakily step over a line to snatch the ball before an opposing player can pick it up, and how a computer-controlled teammate will also frantically ask for the ball if you look in his direction.

I also like the basic arsenal of moves the player is given. You can run, jump, dodge, catch, pass and throw -- that's quite a bit for a controller with a d-pad and two buttons.

The game does have a few flaws, chief among them is the inability to play as any team in the one-player mode. Guiding Team USA to the world title is fun, but it wouldn't have been difficult for Technos to give the player the freedom to choose between all the teams. Also, the Japanese version of Super Dodge Ball supported the NES four-player adapter, called the Satellite in the US. Apparently the game was released in North America before the Satellite was, hence that support being removed for its release here. That's too bad, because while the Bean Ball mode is fun with two players, it would have been an absolute blast with four (though I do wonder if that would have worsened the already bad sprite flickering and slowdown that sometimes plagues this mode).

I also have to mention Super Dodge Ball's soundtrack -- it's utterly brilliant. Whomever composed the music for Technos' games has to be considered a genius in how he or she got such memorable and imaginative tunes out of the NES hardware. Each stage in Super Dodge Ball has its own unique score, and while some people can't stand the MIDI format, somehow each track evokes the setting and action in a really fun and light-hearted way. You'll find the same kind of brilliance in all of Technos' other NES games, from Double Dragon II: The Revenge to the great River City Ransom.

While Super Dodge Ball was something of a cult hit in North America, in Japan it was merely one title in a popular series of related sports and action games by the developer Technos. Of the sports games, only the soccer game made to our shores -- published by Nintendo as Nintendo World Cup. The classic Technos game, River City Ransom, featured the familiar school-yard setting, as well as Technos' signature character design, but was actually more of a parody of Technos' own arcade hit Double Dragon.

Even though smart gamers have been championing Super Dodge Ball as a classic since it was released, it has finally become recognized as such after languishing in obscurity for many years. While Japanese gamers have had more than their share of dodge ball-related videogames, it wasn't until recently that sequels began appearing in North America.

Super Dodge Ball Advance was an early title for the Game Boy Advance, and while it was developed by former members of the original team and had fantastic graphics, it was severely lacking the playability and fun of the original.

Another new portable game, Super Dodgeball Brawlers, was released last year for the Nintendo DS, but again, while the visuals were excellent, somehow it failed to capture what made Super Dodge Ball so fun.

Luckily, fans of the original can now find it on Nintendo's Wii Virtual Console.

Gameplay footage of Super Dodge Ball from YouTube:

Relevant Links

Super Dodge Ball on Wikipedia

Play it on your PC at

Internet at home is out!

Wouldn't you know it, I start this blog and my Comcast modem craps out! Now I have to wait until Friday to get my Internet at home up and running. If I have the time after work, I might stick around and post it from my office computer.

Thanks for your patience ...

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Thanks for stopping by! I created this blog to post reviews and generate intelligent discussion of my extensive collection of videogames -- mostly old-school console titles. The consoles in my collection include: Atari 2600, Nintendo Entertainment System, Super NES, Sega Genesis/Sega CD, Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation, Sony PlayStation2, Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast and Sony PS3. I also have Sega Game Gear and Nintendo Game Boy Advance in the portable realm, and a MAME arcade emulator on my PC -- which will allow me to revisit the great arcade scene of the late 80s and early 90s.

My reason for wanting to write about these consoles and their game libraries is mostly because I find most modern games to be quite boring and uninspired. Having grown up in the days of the Atari, Coleco, Intellivision and Commodore game systems, I remember when games had real imagination behind their development and witnessed their creative growth as the technology grew more sophisticated.

I'll ocassionally want to discuss the new games out there, but most of the in-depth discussions will revolve around the games from the 1980s and 1990s -- when games were fun! I'll do this in no particular order, and some games will even get a "Great Games" designation -- a tribute to Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" section on his website.

The first game will be one of my all-time favorites: Super Dodge Ball for the NES. Look for it tomorrow.