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Sonic Mania!

Sonic Mania Header

I guess I’m a fairly big classic Sonic fan going back to the games on Genesis.  It’s hard to say that because the series hasn’t been on a good trajectory since then, but I still think highly of those old games.  However, after a long wait, I’ve finally found a reason to be excited about Sega’s old mascot again.  Sonic Mania has basically beat all reasonable expectations and finally delivered something we’ve all wanted for a while: a classic Sonic game that not just evokes our memories of those old games, but builds on them in a meaningful way to move the series forward.

Sonic Mania bills itself as the true sequel to Sonic and Knuckles, ignoring the existence of Sonic the Hedgehog 4 that was released a little while back.  In practice, it’s not entirely a full sequel.  The game possesses a combination of remixes of old zones collected from the best of the Genesis games to brand new zones crafted specifically for Mania.   I will say the mix leans more toward revisiting older zones rather than newer zones.  I found that rather unfortunate as I hate it when game series start focusing more on trying to relive older content rather than moving forward with brand new stuff to experience.  (Final Fantasy has become an egregious offender of this.)  But, on the other hand, Sonic Mania does a good job at picking the best of those old levels to bring back with favorites such as Chemical Plant Zone, Oil Ocean Zone, and Hydrocity Zone.  Probably my least favorite zone is the one they start off with, Green Hill, which I just honestly think has become perfunctory and played out.

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To be honest, though, as I played the game more and more, the fact that they brought back so many old zones started to bother me far less.  The levels in Sonic Mania aren’t mere facsimiles or even remixes of their Genesis counterparts.  They are entirely new interpretations of those levels which just copy the aesthetic design and some of the iconic elements of those levels.  Otherwise, the level layouts are almost entirely new and even feature new gameplay elements that were absent before, but still manage to mesh will with the theme of each zone.  For instance, Chemical Plant Zone now features pools of a gelatinous colored substance that bounce the player around based on their color.  Sonic can hit switches that drops chemicals in these pools and changes the color of the substance and the height of the bounce.  Really, I thought they just did a good job with breathing new life into these levels and not just overly relying on nostalgia to make them appealing.  And of course, the new zones turn out to be excellent additions, themselves.

One thing that really stood out to me in this game were the boss battles.  I think the old Sonic games always did a really good job at having exciting boss battles, and Sonic Mania continues the tradition.  It’s actually one of the few things that I think Sonic had over Mario at the time.  To be honest, I don’t think any of the 2D Mario games have had particularly interesting boss fight.  I think the Koopa Kids are cool as characters, but when you fight them, they’re always really simplistic.  Meanwhile, Robotnik always had really interesting and memorable contraptions to go up against.  Another thing is that I’ve always found that those boss fights made me appreciate how Sonic games used the collectible rings as a health system.  There is a ton of tension in those Robotnik fights when you find yourself down to one last ring and every time you take a hit you have to scramble to get that final ring/safety net back.

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The music in Sonic Mania is really bang on.  Those old games always had great music, and Sonic Mania takes that legacy and just really steps it up.  It has great remixes for the old zones they’ve brought back, but also the new zones have amazing new tracks specifically composed for them.  Personally, I think the theme to Chemical Plant Zone is probably one of the top 5 video game tracks of all time, and the remix they put together for its appearance in this game is also amazing, although perhaps not my favorite remix of that specific track.  They’ve also brought back Sky Battery Zone from Sonic and Knuckles and I’m a huge fan of its background sound and the Mania remix, as well.  Of the new zones, Studiopolis probably has my favorite track.  The original soundtrack is something that I’ve been listening to separate from the game, and that is something I rarely do these days.  Unfortunately, they haven’t released the soundtrack for download or on Spotify, something I really wished they’d do.  Right now, I’m stuck listening to a SoundCloud playlist because that’s the only place I can find it.

(Just before I posted this, I found out that they had added the OST to the major digital music stores this week.  Unfortunately, Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone were removed due to presumable rights issues.  The lack of CP Zone is a huge bummer.)

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Sonic Mania is now probably my favorite Sonic game.  That’s saying a lot since I grew up with the Genesis games, and this newcomer must contend with the nostalgia of those fond gaming memories.  But to be honest, there are just parts of Sonic 1, 2, and 3+K that I just really don’t like.  There are specific zones and sections that I find I just really hate having to play through.  Like in the first game, I really hate those slow-moving platforms you must ride across the lava in Marble Zone.  I also really hate those elevator blocks in Spring Yard Zone that will kill you if you try to jump through them too soon.  Sonic and Knuckles has the tedious Sandopolis Zone, the only zone in the entire series where I consistently run out of time in, and Sonic 3 has those awful bouncy cylinders in Carnival Night Zone that I could never figure out when I was young. (I would literally spend minutes just mashing randomly on the buttons until I finally lucked out and got through those things).  Sonic 2 is probably the Genesis game I have the least complaints with.  In the case of Sonic Mania, however, I really think I enjoyed all the zones and acts the game had to offer.  It was a great experience from start to finish.

 

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Night Trap!

Night Trap

Halloween has come and gone, but I’m not done yet, and here’s the epilogue to Halloween Gaming 2017.  Night Trap is a sort of interactive movie released for Sega CD way back in 1992.  It’s kind of a legendary game, not because a lot of people played it, but because it was one of the focal points of the 1993 congressional hearings on video game violence that directly led to the formation of the ESRB.  I missed out on the Sega CD, but fortunately, Night Trap finally saw re-release this year for its 25th anniversary.

In Night Trap, you take the role of an unseen systems controller for the Special Control and Attack Team who have been investigating mysterious disappearances occurring around the lakeside winery of the Martin family.  An unnamed SCAT operative managed to hack into the house’s video security system to discover footage of guests being unwittingly captured by a complex series of traps laid throughout the home.  To make a short story shorter, the Martins are essentially vampires and constructed the various traps in the winery to capture victims for eventual exsanguination.  

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As the game starts, SCAT is preparing to catch the Martin’s red-handed as they welcome a new set of victims, six high school girls and one tag-along little brother, for a weekend stay at the lake.  As the control operative, your job is to watch the hacked video feeds coming from the house and use your override of the traps to protect the guests if necessary.  Things get complicated as the augers, mysterious men clad in black from head to toe, begin to invade the house and attempt to capture and drain the guests’ blood for themselves.

The goal of the game is to essentially capture augers and protect house guests.  The player has eight video feeds spying on different rooms of the house and must look out for auger activity by switching between these feeds.  When an auger on the screen comes near a trap, a blinking bar at the bottom of feed changes from green to yellow to red.  When it lights red, the player can set off one of the house’s traps and eliminate the auger as a threat.  Eventually, you begin to memorize where the traps are, and don’t need the assistance of the indicator as much.  

In the early parts of the game, the augers merely move from room to room searching for the Martins’ secret passages.  They stay away from the guests and don’t threaten them directly.  However, if the player lets too many of them escape out of sight, the SCAT commander will interrupt the connection and explain that the mission has failed.  Later in the game, Augers begin attacking guests directly using a strange device that they hook to the victim’s neck to draw out blood.  The player must closely watch for these confrontations and use the traps to save the victim.  If any house guest is killed by the augers, the game ends.  In addition, sometimes the Martins will change the color access code to their security system, so the player must pay close attention to them as well, and change the access code when the Martins attempt to break the connection.

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In parallel to the action with the augers, there are several scenes with the house guests and the Martins which advance the plot.  The game’s storyline is not particularly serious or complex.  It’s a fairly cheesy affair that to me just screams that it’s a product of the late eighties/early nighties.  Nonetheless, I did find it amusing and wanted to keep up with what the cast of characters were doing.

The problem with Night Trap is really that there is the way you want to play Night Trap, but then there is also the way you have to play Night Trap.  I really enjoyed following the plot involving the actual characters, but my ability to focus on these scenes was continually being interrupted by the need to switch to other rooms so that I didn’t miss any opportunities to trap augers. So you’re left in the position of choosing between whether you will watch the story threads play out and hit a point where you can’t progress further in that playthrough because you missed something important, or your ignore the plot development and simply focus on the stuff that is required to move forward, such as capturing the roaming augers or listening for changes to the code.

Really, Night Trap is a game that the player is probably meant to replay multiple times, and probably fail on most attempts.  When played this way, there would obviously be more opportunity to see all of the scenes in the game.  In a way, that makes sense for the time Night Trap was released.  People bought fewer games on average back then and games tended to be shorter, and so each game had to offer a lot of replay value to keep gamers occupied for longer periods of time.

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There is another reason that Night Trap requires so much replay: Night Trap is hard.  Particularly, the second half of the game gets quite hectic, and there are a lot of do-or-die moments that are easy to miss.  This leads to frequent abrupt game-overs.  You have to play the game quite a few times to correctly get down the sequence of where and when you need to set off traps.  From start the finish, the whole thing takes roughly 26 minutes, but there is only a single save spot at the halfway point (at around the 13 minute mark).  I’m not sure if this checkpoint existed in the original version, so it may have been even harder then.  I’m glad there’s not frequent checkpoints, because that would make it harder to see all of the scenes.  But I think at least one more checkpoint toward the end of the game before the final confrontation with the Martins would have been appreciated.

Night Trap isn’t a particularly scary game.  I think the game was originally intended to have the atmosphere of a horror movie, but this didn’t pan out for various reasons.  The My Life in Gaming Youtube channel did an excellent documentary on the game which revealed a lot of interesting facts about its production.  Originally, the set was intended to be darker and more grim, but it seems like they had to make things brighter and more colorful so the image wouldn’t become excessively pixelated during the digitization process.  And despite its place in video game history, it’s not particularly violent.  It’s crazy to think that this game was held up at one point alongside Mortal Kombat as an example of video games corrupting American youth.  Compared to the over-the-top gore of Mortal Kombat, Night Trap is incredibly tame.

Overall, I enjoyed Night Trap.  But to enjoy it, one has to have a lot of patience with it.  I doubt it’s for everyone.  The people who made this game were trying to do something completely new with the use of live action video, which I can certainly appreciate.  But it’s definitely good to have an easily accessible version available now so that everyone has the option of trying out this important piece of video game history.

Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed: Toot Toot Sega Warrior

 

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is the sequel to Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing, which was released a few years prior.  (I have a feeling these titles are going to make for a confusing post.)  I liked the original Sega All-Stars Racing a lot.  It was actually a pretty good kart racer for the Xbox and Playstation platforms, which have rarely put up much competition to the Mario Kart juggernaut.  However, All-Stars Racing Transformed just completely stomps all over its predecessor.  It outperforms it in nearly every aspect, and I feel it’s gone somewhat underappreciated.  Not only is it an excellent racing game, it’s an incredible tour of Sega nostalgia that I think will excite and delight any fan of the company’s long and remarkable creative history.

Honestly, I hesitate to call All-Stars Racing Transformed a kart racing game.  The series was obviously meant to combine Sega nostalgia with the Mario Kart formula, and I would easily consider the original All-Stars Racing a Mario Kart clone.  But I would argue that Transformed is more of an arcade racer.  The main reason is that the speed of the races are way higher than I think any Mario Kart has reached, not counting the 200cc DLC for Mario Kart 8.  And to go along with the faster racers, the tracks often feel massive in scale.  The game of course includes weapon pickups as well as a heavy emphasis on drifting around turns to gain speed boosts, and these features I think clearly tie it to the Mario Kart series.  But otherwise, I feel like Transformed manages to break out of the template of Mario Kart that its predecessor was firmly crafted in.

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As implied by the title, the big gimmick for All-Star Racing Transformed is transforming vehicles.  In addition to land-based racing, the racers’ vehicles will transform to take to the water (like a jet ski) or to the sky (like a little airplane) during certain segments of each track.  This initially draws similarities to the hang glider and submarine transformations that were introduced in Mario Kart 7.  However, All-Stars Racing Transformed makes far more effective use of these alternative racing methods.  While I felt like Mario Kart 7 and 8 only made very light, gimmicky use of the hang glider and submarine concepts, All-Stars Racing Transformed devotes substantial sections of each track to racing that doesn’t take place on land.  And most importantly, aerial vehicles and watercraft are fun parts of the racing experience.  Each of these modes are different enough to require reasonably different strategies for racing, but not so different that they feel confusing or bothersome to control.

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My favorite aspect of All-Stars Racing Transformed is that it does an impressive job of creating tracks that cover the breadth of the Sega-verse.  Tracks are themed around games pulled from the Genesis era up through the post-Dreamcast era.  There are a few obligatory courses themed around Sega’s headliner Sonic, but otherwise the game culls from a diverse arrangement of classic titles such as Skies of Arcadia, Burning Rangers, Jet Set Radio, House of the Dead, Shinobi, etc.  Each track feels giant and epic in scale, and they work well at evoking their namesake series.  The size, scope, and variety of tracks is probably the biggest improvement that All-Star Racing Transformed makes over the original All-Stars Racing, which reused a lot of assets between courses and the tracks had settings that were heavily repeated.  In the first game, for instance, there were three tracks based on the Casino Night zone from the Sonic series, three tracks that took place in Curien Mansion from House of the Dead, three tracks themed around Samba de Amigo, etc.  Transformed, on the other hand, has no repeated settings, and each course feels distinct and exciting in its own way.

I will say that while the tracks do serve as an impressively broad tribute to Sega’s history, the racer selection is not quite as varied as I would have liked it to be.  Several racers return from the original, like B.D. Joe, Beat, Amigo, Ulala, and the obligatory Sonic cast members.  There are also a few absolutely excellent inclusions to Transformed that weren’t in its predecessor, like Vyse from Skies of Arcadia and Joe Musashi from Shinobi (I’m a big Shinobi fan).  But there are some unfortunate absences that don’t make a return.  The original All-Stars Racing included some off-beat characters like the Bonanza Bros., Opa-Opa (Fantasy Zone), and Zobio and Zobiko (House of the Dead EX).  I know these aren’t super popular character in Sega fandom (well, maybe Opa-Opa is), but I really enjoyed geeking out over these obscure inclusions.  In addition, the coolest characters in the original were Akira & Jackie (Virtua Fighter) who raced together in a red sports car that resembled the Ferrari in OutRun.  What a badass idea that was!  Unfortunately, they don’t make a return for Transformed.  Ultimately, this game does have a good selection of characters, but I just felt that the original game really amazed me in that regard.

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I also thought the game’s soundtrack was a great collection of uptempo remixes of classic Sega themes that played well at pumping me up for some high-speed racing.  Particular standouts, I felt, were the remixes from Burning Rangers and Golden Axe.  There’s also a good remix of “You Can Do Anything” from the Japanese and European Sonic CD soundtrack.  (It is my great shame as a patriotic red-blooded American that I prefer this song to Sonic Boom.  Please, no one reveal this dark secret to my family or Obama!)  One big disappointment, however, was the lack of the iconic Samba de Janeiro from Samba de Amigo.  It was present in the original All-Stars Racing, but in the sequel it’s been replaced with a more generic latin electronic track.  I guess they just didn’t want to pay the royalties for that one.20160507212103_1.jpg

All-Stars Racing Transformed is a lot of fun, but it’s one tinged with sadness and regret.  The heyday of Sega and its creative prime have long since past.  Things like this and the Sega 3D Classics Collection on 3DS always serve as a bittersweet reminder to me of that.  They were always a restlessly creative company.  Nintendo may be innovative and produce games of immense polish and attention to detail, but they were never quite as off-the-wall as Sega.  Nintendo reached a point during the time of the SNES where it was mainly focused on evolving and refining its core series like Mario and Zelda, and they always relied on their well-established franchises to introduce new ideas and innovations.  Meanwhile, even into the Dreamcast-era, Sega was constantly going out on a limb to deliver characters and games that were created entirely from a blank slate.  They may never have been the best game designers out there, but there was just a coolness to Sega that I don’t think anyone else has quite been able to replicate.  All-Stars Racing Transformed is a good reminder of those things.  It’s a great game in its own right, but for a Sega fan, the full-on nostalgia blast is vindication of enthusiasm for a company that was always the underdog.

 

I bought a Dreamcast.

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Every now and then, about once a year or so, a little monkey jumps on my back and compels me to splurge a little bit on retro gaming stuff.  This year it happened that I finally bought a Dreamcast after having wanted one since the glorious date of 9/9/99.  I don’t really know what finally made me decide to go in on one.  Part of it was the excitement everyone seems to have over Shenmue 3.  Part of it was also that I was perusing Gamestop’s new “vintage” gaming selection out of curiosity, and I came to the realization that secondhand Dreamcast stuff wasn’t that expensive.  Oddly enough, I’m not getting into Shenmue yet (it’s too expensive right now), and I didn’t buy from Gamestop (I used ebay).

Sega was always gaming’s greatest underdog, always defiantly standing against titans like Nintendo and Playstation.  It’s amazing that they stayed in the hardware business for as long as they did.  Their machines were never able to achieve the worldwide mindshare that their competitors had.  Genesis was probably the most successful thing they ever had, managing to run neck-and-neck with the Super Nintendo outside of Japan.  It’s impressive to me that they were able to stay in hardware for as long as they did.  Sega was known for its bold but spuriously logical business decisions that usually turned into embarrassing failures (32x, Saturn launch, etc.).  I suspect that their long stubbornness to go third party was actually just another decision born out of bad business acumen, but one that actually ended up being great for gamers.

Dreamcast always strikes me as a deeply beloved machine.  Dreamcast was the Sega underdog’s swan song, and I think that’s what contributes to its mystique.  I find that even those who are consummate Playstation or Nintendo fans often express a fairly high respect for the platform, something they don’t show for the Genesis, Saturn, or Game Gear (and certainly not Master System).  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it was just a way more competently managed product than Saturn.

In North America, it graced us for little over a year before discontinuation.  But that was surprisingly enough time to amass a fairly respectable library, both in quantity and quality.  That can partly be thanked to being out a year earlier in Japan, but it still amuses me to compare it to modern consoles which were relatively light on releases in their launch year.  Getting a game out the door and onto shelves was very different back then, I suppose.  It does mean, though, that despite its short lifespan, it’s worthwhile to go back to for retro-game fans.

And now, here is my shame: until this recent purchase, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Dreamcast in person, much less played one.  I really wanted to get into Dreamcast at its launch, but I was just shy of the age where I could start earning income for myself.  And with the PSX library still being so hot, I didn’t even bother trying to justify such a purchase to my parents.  Nonetheless, I hung onto every bit of preview and review coverage I could find online for the Dreamcast and am left with this weird vicarious nostalgia for the system.  The Dreamcast and its games just struck me as intensely cool in a way that Playstation wasn’t, even though I loved the PSX and its amazing library to death.

So fast forward nearly 16 years later, I now have a taste of that for which I so long pined.  The system itself is relatively simple.  The front-end user interface for managing save files, settings, and audio CDs is very sleek and functional with its simple sky blue background.  To be honest, I never liked the PS2’s front end with the dark, abstract environments that it used as a background decoration.  It just seemed depressing and desolate to me.  The springy Dreamcast logo is way better than the weird cubes jutting up from beneath the dark blue cloud that the PS2 greeted gamers with.  But this is all merely cosmetic, and unlike modern gaming machines, no one’s really going to spend a lot of time using the front-end.

The controller is another thing.  I don’t really feel strong emotions for it one way or the other.  I find it interesting that it has fewer buttons than either the PSX or N64 pads.  Fewer buttons means its more difficult to pull off complex game systems, but, so far, I haven’t run into any games where I feel that more buttons would help.  Honestly, (console) game design at the time probably didn’t favor overly-complex control schemes.  Meanwhile, most modern games seem to map an action to every button on the controller and map further actions beyond that to specific button combinations.

Honestly, its difficult to analyze the controller, because I feel that I’m spoiled by modern gamepads which have become highly evolved.  I’m quite fond of the Dual Shock 4 for its ergonomics and the tactility and precision of its buttons/sticks.  I use it not just for PS4, but also extensively on the PC.  The Dreamcast controller feels like a cheap third-party controller, in contrast.  Of course to be fair, I should be comparing it to its contemporaries, but it’s been so long since I’ve used the PSX controller that I don’t remember it that well.  And I wasn’t really an N64 gamer.  The analog stick feels okay to me, tight enough for the games that were coming out at the time, but it probably would be terrible for modern games where more precision is needed.  Also, there’s only one stick!  The PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube all had 2, and 2 is really necessary for advanced 3D gaming (one to control movement, one to control camera).  Assuming it didn’t die so early, I’ve always wondered how Dreamcast would have stacked up against the competition in terms of multiplatform releases for the rest of the generation.  I can’t imagine it would have ever been the preferred machine for multiplatform games.

The VMU is a neat addition, but I find that it’s used by hardly anything.  It’s been great for Code Veronica, though, where it displays your health without the need to go into the menu.  As far as I can tell, the battery is dead in mine, so I haven’t been able to try it out as a portable game machine yet.

The d-pad is a bit of a point of contention for me.  It’s an okay d-pad, I guess.  Not as abysmal as the 360 pad.  Again, it’s been so long since I’ve played on an original PSX pad, so I’m not sure how it compares, but the DC pad has the problem that a lot of lower quality d-pads have where it registers diagonals way too easily.  You can have your thumb touching only the up-direction, but if you’re pressing it off center, then it will register a diagonal.  I think it’s given me an appreciation of why people hate tank controls in old survival horror games.  I played RE1-3 on PSP and never had trouble with these controls.  But the PSP has an excellent d-pad.  In Code Veronica, on the other hand, I’ve often had the problem of veering off-course (usually straight into a zombie’s face) when I’m trying to run in a straight line.

Here are the games I’ve gotten so far on Dreamcast:

Code Veronica:  I’ve given all the mainline Resident Evil games a go except for Code Veronica and Zero, so this is a big hole in my gaming experience.  At first I thought it was going for something a little different than the standard Resident Evil formula, but it’s really the same formula just expanded over what feels like a much larger area than the mansion or the police station.  In some ways it’s a better sequel to 1 and 2 than 3 is, but I don’t think it does anything as innovative as what 3 did with Nemesis.  I’ll maybe write more on this game after I’ve beaten it.

Time Stalkers:  This is a cool dungeon crawler that caught my eye while browsing ebay.  Doesn’t seem like it’s one of those games that a lot of people talk about while remembering the Dreamcast, for whatever reason.

Hydro Thunder:  I am a glutton for arcade racers and a huge fan of Hydro Thunder Hurricane on XBLA.  Honestly, I didn’t realize that Hurricane hewed so close to being a more advanced remake of this game than a sequel.  It’s kind of hard to play, consequently, as Hurricane just does what this game is doing so much better.  All it does is make me want to break out the 360 to play Hurricane again.

Vigilante 8: Second Offense:  I’m a huge fan of Twisted Metal, but I’ve never really tried the Vigilante 8 series.  I thought this would be a good opportunity to do that.

Zombie Revenge:  As I mentioned, for someone with no Dreamcast experience, I’m oddly aware of most of its library due to the preview coverage I read at the time.  But I don’t remember Zombie Revenge at all, and only heard about it after recently listening to the Dreamcast episode of Retronauts.  I was looking at House of the Dead 2 originally, but realized the light gun wouldn’t work on my HDTV, so I went with this spin-off instead.

Blue Stinger:  This is a very unusual survival horror game that was recommended by one of my favorite YouTubers, Derek Alexander.  Seems like a bit of an odd game, from the same team that made the infamous IllBleed.  Looking forward to playing it.

Noticeably, there’s no Sonic Adventure on this list.  I’ve played the Steam version of SA a bit and realize that, while it was amazing at the time, it’s aged incredibly poorly.  SA 1 and 2 still seem like quintessential Dreamcast games though, so I may give them a go sometime later.  I hope to write a few more posts about the above games as soon as I’ve played through them.

Underrated Gems from the Steam Summer Sale: 2015 Edition! Part 1

The Steam Summer Sale is here at last!  This time it appears to be running until the 1:00 EST on the 22nd.  (That will be when all the deals will be taken down.)  I always find this a great time to take advantage of the low prices to try games that I might not usually be inclined toward.  It’s a great way to expand and develop your tastes!  Last year, I wrote up 10 games that I thought were underappreciated gems and were also steals during the sale, and here I am again with another list of recommendations.  Of course, the 2014 list is still just as valid during this year’s sale.  This is going to be a long post, so I’m splitting it in half.  The second half will be available very soon.

All games on this list meet the following criteria: 1) They must be under $10 (USD), 2) they must be at least 50% off, and 3) they are lesser known titles (or at least I perceives them as such).  I’ve played through all of these, so they are based on my personal recommendations, and, consequently, they all favor my own idiosyncrasies a little bit.  I’ve tried to keep the prices for the list as low as possible to inspire people to maybe take a chance on games that are out of their comfort zone and try something new.  For the same reason, I’ve tried to keep it to titles that are lesser known, so you won’t see anything like FTL or Rogue Legacy on here.  (Not that those aren’t great games that you should check out if you haven’t already.)  The pricing criteria apply to the games’ regular sale price.  Many of them may go lower during a flash or daily deal.  As always, follow the Steam Sale flow chart to maximize savings.


Rise of the Triad (2013 Reboot)

Regular Sale Price: $3.74 (-75%)

Rise of the Triad is a rebooting of Rise of the Triad: Dark War which was a somewhat forgotten FPS in the era immediately post-Doom.  You really don’t need to have played that game to enjoy this one, but you do need to have an appreciation of the early styling of PC FPS.  The story is that you are an agent of HUNT, an elite, multinational anti-terrorist organization that is launching an assault against the fortified hidden headquarters of a Nazi secret society.  And that’s basically all there is to that.  It is a game that is intensely action-driven.  And this game is fast.  Like really fast.  While the game has controller support, I think most prefer the precision of KB+M for a game this quick-natured.  I almost always play action games with a controller nowadays, but KB+M just felt way more natural for this game.

There are a lot of games that claim to capture the feel of old-school FPS, but this is probably the one that actually lives up to that ideal the most.  I think anyone who might have fond memories of adrenaline-charged, run-and-gun action games should not pass this one up.


Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed

Regular Sale Price: $9.99 (-50%) (will go lower on daily or flash)

I’ll say this upfront, I’m pretty sure this game will go down to $5 during a flash or daily deal at some point.  It’s been that low before, so I would wait for that price.  This is actually the second Sega-themed racer put out by Sumo Digital.  The first game, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing was actually a fairly decent kart racer, but Racing Transformed really just completely stomps all over it in quality, design, content, and ambition.  While its predecessor was a kart racer, Racing Transformed is really more an arcade racer with a fantastical and whimsical bent.  The track are far more creative and grandiose than what had been seen in the first game.  Racing Transformed borrows the Mario Kart 7 idea of having transforming vehicles (as the name implies), so you’ll be racing on wheels, water, and through the air.  In addition, it’s not just the vehicles that transform, but most of the tracks will transform in some way between laps.

Really this game leans heavily on Sega nostalgia with characters and tracks built around themes from not just popular Sega series like Sonic and Jet Set Radio, but also deep cuts like Skies of Arcadia, Golden Axe, and Space Channel 5.  I think one of the strengths of the sequel is that it avoids relying so heavily on Sonic themes and more evenly uses Sega’s massive catalog of brands and characters.

I think any Sega fan will probably get a kick out of it for just for how well it makes use of the many Sega worlds it dives into.  And even if you’re not a long time Sega-fan, it’s still a fundamentally good racer that focuses more on “arcadey-ness,” which makes it pretty unique considering how serious racers have become over recent years.


Ys: The Oath in Felghana

Regular Sale Price: $7.49 (-50%) (will probably go lower on daily or flash*)

Do you like to hack?  Do you like to slash (preferably while hacking)?  If either of these things sound appealing to you, then Ys: The Oath in Felghana might be up your alley.  For those who don’t know, Ys is a long running action RPG series from Japanese developer Nihon Falcom, and Oath in Felghana is widely regarded as one of the series’ finest chapters.  Ys follows the travels of Adol Christin and his bro Dogi as they perpetually stumble into conflict with long-dormant ancient evil entities  It’s not so much an action RPG in the vein of Diablo, which focuses on loot, grinding levels, and randomized dungeons, rather its more like if Zelda became entirely combat-focused and got rid of all its puzzles to have something that’s focused just on tearing through hordes of enemies.  Like I said, it’s for those seeking a fast-paced, hack+slash experience.

I will admit that I haven’t played through the Steam version, but I’ve beaten the game on PSP, and the Steam user reviews are “Overwhelmingly Positive,” so I’m confident it’s a good PC port.  I will say, though, that if you’re looking for a  traditional JRPG, Ys might not be it (which might be a relief to many of you).  It’s not a very story heavy game, but concision works to its advantage.  Falcom works with an anime artstyle, but it’s a rather tame anime artstyle that avoids becoming the over-embellished mess that most anime artists lose control to.  In addition, the story and characters are rather heartfelt and mature.  The writers of the game expertly avoided the anime tropes that most people find obnoxious.  But then again, there story is not really all that elaborate.

*Often Ys has a series sales as part of a daily/flash deal, so I would keep a look out for that.


Gateways

Regular Sale Price: $1.49 (-70%)

Gateways is a small, but fun little 2D puzzle platformer that I think went entirely unnoticed when it was released.  It’s basically Portal in 2D.  Here, you play as a mad scientist who has lost control of his lab and must use his inventions to regain power.  That’s really all there is to it.  Your primary ability to tackle the obstacles you face is your portal gun, but it goes a step beyond what Portal does with its mechanic and allows the portal gun to be upgraded with a number of offbeat functionalities that cause the puzzles to reach far more mind-bending states than what you see in Valve’s series.  In addition to just point to point teleportation, there are portals that shrink or gigantify the protagonist, portals that shift gravity, and, by far the most impressive, portals that allow for time travel.

The time travel in this game is by far its most mind-blowing aspect.  Many video games, like P.B. Winterbottom, make use of “time travel” by allowing you to “record” a time clone of yourself that will repeat your actions, but Gateways actually has portals that connect two points in recorded time.  That is, the portals connect both a recorded “past” and the (constantly moving forward) “present” state.  I have a hard time fully articulating how it works in words, but it is a mechanic that is utterly unique in a world of puzzle platformers who often derive their mechanics from a handful of commonly recurring archetypes.


Binary Domain

Regular Sale Price: $7.49 (-50%) (will probably go lower on daily or flash*)

Binary Domain is a bit of a peculiar title from the 360 generation.  From an era during which action shooter games pave-rolled over the Japanese domination over consoles, Binary Domain is a fairly earnest attempt by Sega’s Yakuza team to not only try to crack into the genre but also inject some new ideas into the saturated field.  I think it’s a fairly good action game.  It doesn’t reach the same peak as Vanquish, but it doesn’t fall into an abyss like other Japanese shooters of the time like Quantum Theory and MindJack.

The game features an international team of peacekeepers who have been sent into Japan to arrest the leader of the Amada Corporation who has been creating illegal human-like robots.  Of course, the mission doesn’t go that easy, and you end up fighting his vast army of robots through the streets of cyberpunk Japan.  The game’s main gimmick beyond the gunplay is that the team members have a dynamic interaction system, and you can respond in various ways to their conversations using the d-pad (I strongly recommend a controller for this game).  Depending on your responses, each team member will either grow to like or hate you, which will influence their actions in the heat of battle.

The story gets a bit…ummm… anime weird, for lack of a better word.  It’s an okay story I think, but I have a hard time following the characters’ motivations sometimes.  When the villain finally revealed his ultimate evil plan to the protagonist, I really didn’t understand why it was such a bad thing.  It seemed really innocuous, maybe actually good for the world.  Still, I enjoyed my time with the game.  The gunplay is merely competent, but still fun.  And even though the story turns into a poor imitation of a Philip K. Dick novel, I really enjoyed fighting alongside the cool characters that made up my team.  After all, one of your partners is a  French karate robot who might as well be voiced by Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast.

*Since this game comes from a major publisher, I fully expect it to go lower on a featured deal at some point.


Well that’s all for Part 1, make sure to keep an eye out for Part 2 coming soon!

Sega 3D Classics: 3D Is More Than Just a Gimmick

Galaxy Force II

Galaxy Force II

Lately I’ve gotten into the Sega 3D Classics released on the 3DS eshop around Thanksgivings last year. These are a collection of games from both the arcade and Genesis that have been ported to the 3DS with added 3D effects. So far, I’ve bought into Galaxy Force II and Shinobi III, and I have to say, I really like what I’m seeing. Galaxy Force II is a superscaler rail shooter from the arcade, kind of like Afterburner in a spaceship, but with levels that have a little more imagination than what you would find in the latter. So basically think of it as Star Fox made in the mindset of a late ‘80s Sega arcade game. As a game that generates 3D environments with the use of sprite scaling, it’s incredibly impressive on the 3DS, with visuals far more gorgeous and intricate than you may have come to expect from a superscaler game. Shinobi III on the other hand is a port of the well-known Genesis action game, but with depth added to the various background layers and some of the foreground animations. As a sidescroller, the 3D effect is not as striking as that of Galaxy Force, but it does manage to add something extra to the visual charisma of the game.

I actually didn’t know what to expect from these Sega 3D classics, done by known emulation powerhouse M2. At first I was just interested in being able to play these games on the 3DS. Nintendo had earlier experiment with NES games remade in 3D for the system, but this initiative seems to have fallen flat. I think it failed for two reasons. One, the NES is not such a great system for which to do 3D upgrades. Unlike Genesis games which support multiple background layers and parallax scrolling, the NES basically only has a foreground and a background layer. The resultant image in 3D is just that these two layers are slightly displaced in depth. Of the NES classics released, I’ve only tried Kirby, and the effect really did not leave much of an impression on me. The second reason I think Nintendo’s efforts fizzled was that they simply did not choose games that people want or that really benefitted from 3D. Only six games were released, and while Kirby and Excitebike are good games to be sure, other selections were just confounding. No one has ever gotten excited for a rerelease of Urban Champion, and I’m not sure Xevious and Twinbee have huge amounts of enthusiasm in their court. Kid Icarus, on the other hand, definitely has a vocal fanbase, but with most of the backgrounds in the game being either black or monochrome, I can’t imagine it really benefits very much from the 3D effect.

Shinobi3

But where Nintendo has failed, Sega and M2 are showing them how it’s done (on their own hardware nonetheless). The Sega 3D Classics are a selection of six great games (well almost, I’m not so sure about Altered Beast), with a second set currently in the works. To be sure, these games are completely playable without the 3D effect, but they’ve made me come to a realization. I like 3D. I play all my games with 3D turned on, and playing these old, originally 2D games has made me realize just how much I enjoy it.

Although it has a good selection of software, I don’t care so much for the 3DS as a piece of hardware. The screens are low-res and pixelated (an issue exacerbated on the XL), the battery life is not so good, the screen hinge needs to more firmly click into place (screen wobbling drives me crazy), and it’s not especially ergonomic. But one thing I really like about the 3DS is the 3D. Sometimes I turn the 3D off, perhaps because the screen has become dirty, and I immediately feel a little dissatisfied. 3D is certainly not an indispensable feature, but it does add a certain enchanting immersive quality to the image. There is a liveliness there that just doesn’t exist in 2D mode. Some have branded the 3DS screen as a gimmick, but a gimmick is something that exists only for a novelty, and once the novelty wears off it becomes completely disposable. Zooming through the alien worlds of Galaxy Force II just isn’t as exciting when the image is flattened out.

The second set of Sega 3D Classics are currently coming out in Japan. I hope the first set has sold well enough in the U.S. to warrant we get this new round. It seems this time they are focusing a little more on the arcade superscaler games, with three of the games revealed so far being Afterburner II and OutRun. I think the arcade focus benefits them. As I mentioned above, the pseudo-3D environments of these superscaler games benefit more from the treatment than the Genesis sidescrollers. Also, unlike most of Sega’s Genesis games, their arcade games have not been ported and rereleased on a hundred different platforms already.

I come to a sad realization when I write this post in that, although I like 3D, it’s a technology that is probably not going to stick around. 3D TVs were a big push in years past, but now seem to have died out. With the fad over, I’m left with doubts that Nintendo’s next handle will sport the feature. Perhaps there is hope though. If the new high profile VR headsets gain traction, we might actually see a lasting future for 3D entertainment.

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