Nintendo Wii Micro-Reviews, Part One

The spectacular NHL Slapshot on Nintendo Wii

For the past several years, I have been collecting videogame for the Nintendo Wii. I’ve long been a fan of the console since its 2006 release, and despite its controversy among the hardcore videogame crowd, I embraced its innovative motion controls and focus on classic arcade play. Early this year, I finally replaced the broken disc drive on my console, allowing me to finally back in and catch up on old times.

Here are a collection of micro-reviews for Wii games in my library. Some of these I have played before, but most are new discoveries to me. Enjoy:

Zack & Wiki: Everybody has been praising Capcom’s action-puzzler as the best thing since sliced bread and one of Wii’s greatest hits. Everybody is right. Nothing else needs to be said. Get it if you don’t have it, play it, love it.

Monster 4X4 World Circuit: This 2006 Ubisoft launch title is one of my favorite surprises. You race a wide variety of monster trucks across small closed circuits while collecting power-ups and smash flaming oil cans into rival cars. Imagine RC Pro-Am on Sega Dreamcast and you’ve got the idea. I found the motion controls to be excellent, the course designs suitably varied and curvy, the ramps and stuns enjoyable. My only beef is that the game is very easy, but multiplayer seems to be the real attraction.

GT Pro Series: Another 2006 Ubisoft launch title, this time created by Japanese studio MTO, who also created the GT Advance series on Gameboy Advance. The cel-shaded graphics are clean and stylish and looks just like Sega Dreamcast. For me, that’s a great thing. The motion controls are also excellent, but there’s a slight learning curve. Gameplay is a fusion of arcade and sim, closest to Sega GT and Tokyo Extreme Racer. Once again, the computer cars are a cakewalk and the game is far too easy, but 4P mulitplayer delivers the goods. This game was savaged by reviewers who clearly had rocks in their heads.

Dirt 2: I only played a little with the Wiimote controls, which proved to be far too loose. The cars also handle like they weigh five pounds and are made out of helium, bouncing and floating and flipping around at the slightest touch. It’s annoying as hell. Classic Controller is a dramatic improvement, but you’re still dealing with the obnoxious physics. Graphics are detailed but the frame rate is all over the place.

Need For Speed Carbon: Vehicle steering sucks. I kept bouncing around like a pinball just like Dirt 2. Graphics are all dark with glossy lighting that was in vogue during the Gen 6/7 eras. Again, I need more time to play around, but I’m not a big fan of this series and this title probably played better on the other consoles.

NHL Slapshot: Fantastic fun, really does play like the classic Genesis NHL games with a touch of Nintendo 64 Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey. It’s all about liquid smooth controls, fast action, brutal violence and endless one-timer goals. The 3-on-3 pee wee and bantam youth leagues are worth the price of admission alone, and you can also play Canadian leagues as well as NHL. This feels like the second coming of the legendary NHL 94 on Sega Genesis and nothing more really needs to be said.

Da Blob: I loved this game since I bought it back in 2009. I still enjoy its freewheeling nature and originality that reminds me of Sega Dreamcast. There are also many things that frustrate the hell out of me, such as the wonky camera, the floaty jumps and sometimes just getting lost and not knowing where to go. It drives me angry but in that classic videogame sort of way. I’d definitely get the Switch release.

De Blob 2: A much more polished, refined and structured sequel, looks terrific, maps “jump” to the A button, which is a very welcome improvement, and offers many 2D platforming segments. The structure is a little more linear but at least you aren’t sent on a dozen fetch quests all at once. Saving still sucks and I can’t understand why Blue Tongue, the software developers, never figured that one out.

FIFA 11: It looks fine, in that Two-Gamecubes-Taped-Together sort of way. Controls are good if a bit sluggish, the computer players just run circles around me. I have no idea why your shots on goal can be powered up so they just fly into the stands. It’s FIFA in all its forced “simulation” banality, and makes me pine for Worldwide Soccer 97/98 on Sega Saturn instead.

PES 2013: This seems like a very solid soccer sim. Pity the controls feel more complicated than high school calculus. I might try again but I just came away deeply frustrated. I should probably try with the classic controller.

Madden NFL 2009 All-Play: Same as FIFA, my beefs are mostly with the franchise itself. It’s pretty good but the controls are a bit of a pain. Might get better with practice. But I’d rather play NFL 2K1/2K2 on Sega Dreamcast in a heartbeat. And so would you.

Tatsunoko Vs Capcom: Fantastic 2D fighter from Capcom and Eighting, the child of Toaplan that gave us Battle Garegga and Soukyugurentai. The glossy cel-shaded polygon look is glorious, the Tatsunoko players are superb (we’ll never see their likes again), gameplay is fantastic. The simplified Wiimote controls are a godsend for those of us who don’t have joysticks and can’t pull off endless joystick combos.

NHL 2K10: For some reason, 2K hockey just never found its groove like NFL and NBA. It’s tolerable but less polished, fluid and responsive than NHL Slapshot. Again, things may improve with practice, but this is the same debate we were having during the Genesis days. If I already have NHLPA 93 & NHL 94, why should I care about ESPN or Brett Hull 95?

Shaun White Snowboarding: World Stage: Very polished and very different sequel from Road Trip, going from a Tony Hawk collect-a-thon to a professional circuit setting. The 60 fps visuals are sure nice, controls are still easy. I don’t think anybody knows this videogame exists. Whatever. Their loss. Go to the retro game store and pick this up for three bucks.

Furu Furu Park: Taito minigame collection based on their classic arcade catalog. It has a polished Dreamcast style and it’s fun to play around with a little. Not sure if the replay value holds, but these party games only work in certain settings (translation: drunk). It’s not terrible but feels like a cruel tease to show me glimpses of all these classic Taito arcade hits I’d rather be playing.

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: The longer I play, the more I’m reminded of all the little frustrations that irritate me about Aonuma Zelda: the linear structure, the obsession with puzzles over adventure, the endless fetch quests, the annoying characters, the need to tell insipid “stories” or recreate tired movie cliches. Money is useless because there’s nothing to buy. The weapons have all been seen before. On the bright side, the wolf is pretty fun and I enjoy the twilight segments. I’m only 1/4 through so take with a grain of salt, but I’m already feeling bored and listless. Playing this game feels like homework.

The Munchables: Pac-Man meets Katamari Damacy. It’s terrific fun, looks wonderful with bright, vibrant colors that just pop, paired with cartoon sound effects ripped straight out of the Hanna-Barbara vaults. Cute and quirky and just original enough to stay in your head for days.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End: Sharp graphics, detailed texture work, 60 fps action. I’m really digging this one. You can see a clear difference in Wii games when software studio actually bothered to put in the effort, and it’s clear that Disney was one of Wii’s strongest publishers.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer: One of a hundred overhead 3D beat-em-ups on the system, this game looks extremely sloppy with simple, washed-out textures that looked second-rate on Playstation 2. Action becomes intense yet the motions are choppy and motion controls are needlessly tacked on.

Go Vacation: Namco brought this gem to the Switch, where I hope it became a hit. It’s a terrific minigame collection with an enormous hub world, tons of collectables, secrets, surprises. Definitely a genre highlight. Be warned that it takes up an enormous amount of save data, which might require you to move your digital Wii games to an SD card.

Scooby Doo: First Frights: This charming hit plays out just like the classic Scooby cartoons, complete with corny dialog, silly mystery plots and canned laughter in the soundtrack. It’s a beat-em-up with some platforming elements, which seems a bit odd at first, but since everything is so nicely polished you are quickly won over.

Geometry Wars Galaxies: Fantastic retro-styled arcade game in the Robotron mold that serves psychedelic wire-frame graphics, endless waves of enemy spaceships to destroy and enormous explosions that fill the screen. Gameplay reveals considerable depths in strategy and the variety of control options is very welcome. Jeff Minter should sue for royalties.

Brave: Based on the Pixar movie, this fantasy adventure looks like a 3D platformer but is actually an intense arcade shooter. Imagine Robotron or Smash TV but set at the Renaissance Fair and you’ll have a good idea what to expect. Visuals are detailed but a touch fuzzier than I would like, but the controls are solid and action is suitably fast.

Major Minor’s Majestic March: This highly unique children’s game by the creators of Parappa the Rapper puts you in the role of marching band leader. You wave the Wii Remote in time to keep your bandmates in tune, adding new members and collecting treats along the way. Savaged by most reviewers, but they simply never bothered to learn the proper controls (swing your arm at the elbow, up-down).

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (1996, Quest and Riverhillsoft for Saturn)

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

When you look at the sheer number of quality 2D videogames on Sega Saturn that would remain in Japan, your heart breaks. The obsession with 3D polygons at a time when 2D pixel art was reaching its apex feels all too shortsighted, cruel, foolish. And while it’s true that the videogame-playing public was responsible for much of this shift, they were relentlessly conditioned and prodded by software publishers and marketing executives all the way.

In a more sane world, Tactics Ogre would be scooped up for an immediate release and hailed as a classic by fans of strategy and adventure games. It certainly looks gorgeous with its wonderful art and color design, its brilliant world layouts, its vast cast of intriguing characters, and its immensely deep and involving gameplay system? The Tactical-RPG was coming into its own and Saturn was leading the charge with such classics as Dragon Force, Sakura Wars, Terra Phantastica, Wachenroeder, Soldnerschild, and, of course, Shining Force III. Yet, sadly, the genre was almost entirely ignored, aside from the valiant efforts of Working Designs, for whom we shall always remain grateful.

Tactics Ogre was eventually released in the US on Sony Playstation, the console that sparked the whole 3D polygon obsession in the first place. There’s no small dose of irony in that, but also reflects how the decisions of a single executive, Bernie Stolar (first with Sony, then Sega) could greatly impact the videogame industry. Imagine if his self-imposed policy of “No 2D, No RPG, No Anime” games never existed.

In any case, Tactics Ogre is a hallmark for Tactical-RPG videogames. It’s the direct successor to Ogre Battle and directed by Yasumi Matsuno, who would later create Final Fantasy Tactics and Vandal Hearts at Square. Both titles first appeared on the Super Famicom and would later appear on PSX and PSP.

Tactics Ogre always felt a little more involving and challenging than many other strategy games, with its focus on classes, nonlinear story branching and moral alignments of Lawful, Neutral or Chaos. The story can take many twists and turns depending on choices made by the players that result in multiple endings. The political intrigue and complex plotting were inspired by the brutal civil war in the former Yugoslavia and reflected Matsuno’s commentary on such events as the Bosnian Genocide.

If you’re looking for an English-language version of Tactics Ogre, the Playstation is your best choice, although a fan translation of the Super Famicom version is also available. A Sega Saturn fan translation would be near the top of my wish list, but no such plans are in the works. This is precisely why I wish Sega would implement their own version of Virtual Console and finally give these classic games a second lease on life.

In a 2006 Famitsu reader poll of the 100 greatest videogames ever made, Tactics Ogre was ranked seventh. Very high praise, indeed.

Baroque on Sega Saturn

Baroque (1998, Sting for Sega Saturn)

Here are some new screenshots from Sting’s 1998 cult classic Baroque, which has become one of my all-time favorite Sega Saturn videogames. As always, I recommend playing this game in the dark so that its unsettling atmosphere and jump scares rattle your bones.

At its heart, Baroque is a Roguelike adventure that plays like a combination of Quake, Resident Evil, Caravaggio paintings and 1990s Tool videos. Its world is deeply unsettling and filled with a sense of dread. It’s genuinely scarier than anything in the survival horror genre, and I think that’s because it manages to tap into those childhood primal fears of monsters and demons lurking under your bed or walking through your house at all hours of the night. Nothing in this world makes any sense, and the narrative avoids any direct explanation, only revealing in tiny fragments and pieces. Everybody speaks in tortured poetry, and there are allusions to nuclear holocaust, cannibalism, sex and religion. There are allusions to sin, redemption, punishment, angels and God. All of this adds to a sense of bewilderment, vertigo, confusion.

It really doesn’t matter if the story makes no sense. That is the whole point, after all. Even if you are fluent in Japanese or are familiar with the Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii remake (both released in the USA), Baroque is an incomprehensible nightmare horror show.. The goal of the game is never to save a world or conquer a foe, but to scare you and leave you feeling unnerved. The goal is to make you sleep with the lights on, paranoid that some demonic entity will perch themselves on the corner of your bed and whisper horrible threats.*

It’s fun to explore the various towers and dungeons in this world, underground industrial buildings that feel abandoned, eerie, cautiously waiting for the next surreal monster to attack, the next surprise jump scare to zap me out of my seat. Your movements are responsive but slightly slow, just enough to induce panic when overwhelmed by monsters. The music, provided by veteran videogame composer Masaharu Iwata, combines ambient sounds, howling animals, traditional synth melodies and dissonant noise to great effect.

Visually, this game looks spectacular, and the more I play, the more I can appreciate its masterful use of mood, color and lighting. Textures are sharply detailed and varied, the architecture of the world littered with pipes, beams, ventilators, broken platforms, metal plates, crates and boxes. One creature farts toxic gas that makes you half-blind, covered in darkness, while another monster poisons you with a lashing tongue, tinting everything dark green. Underground boiler rooms are bathed in red light, while other rooms are bathed in cold, bright light and deep shadow. Corridors are drawn in grey and brown with shafts of light adding shadows to the walls. And through it all, you will never find polygon clipping, warping, shimmering or distortion, only the slight pop-in as the background fades into black. Surely, this is one of Saturn’s finest achievements in 3D — Dreisbach is getting a serious run for his money.

Everybody needs to be playing Baroque. This game is too obscure among Saturn fans and that needs to change. I’d also like to see the fan translators create an English language patch one of these years.

(*That actually happened to me once long ago. Long story short: don’t touch ouija boards or bring them into your home.)

Update: I wanted to share a few bits about the minds behind Baroque. The producer was Takeshi Santo, a programmer and musical composer for Compile who founded his own studio, Sting. His credits include Golvellius (MSX, Sega Master System) and The Guardian Legend (NES). The director was Kazunari Yonemitsu, Sting co-founder and the creator of Puyo Puyo. The music and sound effects were created by Masaharu Iwata and Yoshiaki Sakoda (Devil’s Crush and MUSHA). Visual designer Eisaku Kitou worked on figure modeling for Wachenroeder and Elemental Gimmick Gear (Dreamcast). The main programmers were Shinichi Abe and Mitsugi Tanaka. The full credits are available on the Baroque Sega Retro page.

Baroque was released to Saturn on May 21, 1998 and ported to Playstation with additional features on October 28, 1999. The game was later remade with a third-person perspective on Playstation 2 on June 28, 2007 (JP) and Nintendo Wii on March 13, 2008 (JP). Atlus published both versions in the US on April 8, 2008. The Nintendo Wii version includes an optional first-person view, I don’t know if the PS2 version supports this as well. The game was also ported to Apple iOS on August 22, 2008 under the title Baroque: The Dark Twisted Fantasy, but is no longer active on the App Store.

In Japan, Sting also released a promotional disc on Saturn called Baroque Report: CD Data FIle, features movies and art assets from the full game. In 2000, a visual novel prequel called Baroque Syndrome was released on Playstation and is currently available on iOS in Japan. In addition, a vertically-scrolling shoot-em-up called Baroque Shooting was released on Windows, and Baroque Typing followed in 2002. Both are exclusive to Japan but can be seen on YouTube. Finally, the game was retrofitted into a first-person shooter for the 2011 iOS release Baroque: FPS (no longer available – I really hate how iOS loses everything).

Thoughts on Sega Dreamcast Day 2019

Sega Dreamcast Day 2019 has arrived this week, and it’s a special milestone as it marks 20 years since the launch of the celebrated, yet short-lived videogame system.

On 9-9-99, I was kinda-sorta taking night classes at the University of Minnesota and working part time as a waiter at the Dinkytown Pizza Hut, which was a larger, sports bar-themed restaurant on the campus. I was working that night and decided to drive down to the nearest Target to buy a Dreamcast, a second controller, and a VMU. The games I picked up were Soul CaliburReady 2 RumbleNFL 2K and Trickstyle. Trickstyle was quickly returned soon after and replaced with Sonic Adventure.

The Dreamcast was an instant hit at the Pizza Hut with the employees, all young 20-somethings who were also massive videogame and Star Wars fans (they loved the hell out of Phantom Menace, btw). NFL 2K/2K1 were easily the most played games, with endless matches and tournaments that lasted until dawn on most Saturday nights. Ready 2 Rumble also extremely popular, thanks to its easy controls and those funny taunts. Crazy Taxi was the most popular racing game by far, thanks to its freewheeling sense of destruction and short runs. Virtua Tennis was also a big hit with 4P doubles matches, and Chu Chu Rocket was terrific fun with 4P battle mode. The stunt mode in San Francisco Rush: 2049 was constantly getting played, even though everyone only really played the first obstacle course. And, of course, Tony Hawk Pro Skater was a big hit from the guys who played it to death on Sony Playstation.

Weirdly enough, Soul Calibur didn’t really click with anyone, nor did any of the other fighting games. Ready 2 Rumble was the only big hit of the bunch, which kinda makes sense when you realize that most gamers back then (especially college students) were casual players who just wanted to mash buttons. They were the ones who’d play Tekken 3 just for Eddie Gorgo’s breakdance combo.

When I was playing solo, Soul Calibur’s epic mission mode kept me up late many nights, including at least one all-nighter (wow, you can’t do those anymore after ya turn 40). Tony Hawk 1 & 2 was endlessly addictive, to the point where the joypad’s shoulder buttons began hurting my fingers. I absolutely loved Street Fighter 3: Third Strike and thought it was the greatest Street Fighter ever, and I’ll probably stick to that claim today…if only I could find a good arcade joystick.

Much like the Saturn, Dreamcast was exciting but also very frustrating at times. The joypad was a mess. Simplifying the buttons was good, the VMU was a clever idea, but the d-pad just sucked eggs, the shoulder buttons were set too low (resting on your finger joints) and the back fins were far too thin. Saturn’s 3D Controller was far better in every respect, and far more comfortable. Sega tried to trim that design down but they cut too much.

Software support in 1999 was fantastic, but once the year 2000 arrived, third parties suddenly got cold feet. Instead of new videogames that took advantage of the hardware, ala Soul Calibur, we were given a lot of PSX and N64 ports. The ports that improved upon the originals, such as Soul Reaver, Shadowman, Rayman 2, Tony Hawk and Star Wars Episode One Racer, were highly welcome, but too many games were just lazy dumps. You caught on pretty quickly that Dreamcast wasn’t being taken seriously as anything more than a stopgap until the massively overhyped Playstation 2 arrived. Say what you will about Sony, those guys were masters of bullshit.

Of course, the videogame fans were also suddenly holding off, waiting for this massive “super computer” that could render “88 million polygons” and might not even be allowed in the United States because “it technically qualifies as a supercomputer,” and, besides, Saddam Hussein might “steal the technology for use in his secret WMD programs.” Hook, meet mouth.

The combination of media hype and lazy shovelware gave the impression that Dreamcast was only a little more powerful than PSX and N64. Many kids could rest easy and wait for the real next-gen consoles to arrive. Most kids were content to just keep playing Goldeneye and Spyro and Madden, none of which were on Sega’s shiny new machine.

Another key factor for Dreamcast’s demise that gets forgotten today: piracy. I remember one night in 2000 when one student told me about this hot new computer program called Napster, which allowed you to download literally anything off the internet for free. Music, videogames, computer software, everything. It swept through the campus like wildfire, and within weeks, the local used CD stores were overwhelmed with stacks and stacks of CDs. All the kids were turning their PCs into jukeboxes and packing the hard drives with MP3s. And guess which new videogame system didn’t have any copy protection what-so-fucking-ever? That’s right? Sega Dreamcast! So long, dental plan!

And, oh, yes, I almost forgot: E-Fucking-A. Those bastards probably did more damage to Dreamcast than anything. Years later, it was revealed that they were holding out because they demanded a monopoly on sports games, all but ordering Sega to cancel NFL and NBA 2K. If you’re wondering why sports videogames took a massive flaming dive into the crash pit, here’s where it all started. This is the moment where EA joins the dark side and becomes evil.

Meanwhile, the DC fans were enjoying some really terrific videogames and enjoying the exciting new frontier of online gaming. It’s almost impossible to play Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament today due to the choppy frame rate (the Lobotomy Trilogy on Saturn looks better than any FPS on Saturn bar Outrigger), but it was a terrific thrill to play online matches with a 56K modem. Quake was probably my most-played game in the final months of 2000, second only to NFL 2K1, of course.

Thankfully, Dreamcast fans refused to let the legend die, keeping the console alive for many years, first with classic system emulators (this is where I first discovered emulation) and later with original software titles. We still see new Dreamcast games being made to this day, and while it’s true that none of them are remotely close to pushing the hardware, it’s also true that they’re great fun, especially if you’re a fan of arcade spaceship shooters.

Some quick pros and cons:

+ Sega’s creative explosion from the Saturn era continued in full bloom. Sonic Team was especially on a tear, especially with Phantasy Star Online. Even playing offline, that game is magnificent. BTW, you can still play online.

+ Sega’s policy of non-centralized online servers proved to be a masterstroke in the long run, allowing us to play DC games online today. Some of the old websites have also been preserved and resurrected.

+ The last stand for arcade games, especially fighting games, racers and shoot-em-ups. The gaming public just turned their back on 2D games and arcade games in the mid-90s, and they were completely, totally, absolutely wrong.

+ Sega buying Visual Concepts was a genius move. They should also have purchased Radical Entertainment who created NHL Powerplay 96 & NHL All-Star Hockey 98. And that goes triple for Lobotomy!

– It must be said, the VMU did not work out. The batteries die in less than a week, leaving you with that annoying BEEEEEP sound everytime you turn on your DC. Also, the screen resolution was too low and the mini-games just weren’t very good.

– The JP launch was a disaster. Hardly any RPGs, glitchy software, an over-reliance on Virtua Fighter to save things. That’s probably what killed the system, as US sales weren’t enough to balance things out.

– The US software library started out strong but quickly lost steam. Far too many sequels in too few genres. You know what Dreamcast really needed? Powerslave. Dragon Force. Panzer Dragoon Trilogy. Shining Force 3 Trilogy. Wachenroeder. Burning Rangers.

– What happened to the JP sports games? Worldwide Soccer, World Series Baseball, Decathlete, Winter Heat & Steep Slope Sliders were Saturn classics, but completely disappeared on Dreamcast. They were sorely missed. Once again, Sega forgot what made Genesis and Playstation succeed: sports games.

Shining the Holy Ark (Sega Saturn)

Shining the Holy Ark (1997, Sonic Software Planning for Sega Saturn)

Now we come to one of Sega Saturn’s marquee titles, and one of the great fantasy role-playing games of its era. Yes, Final Fantasy 7 stole all the thunder and Panzer Dragoon Saga has the most devout fans, but Shining in the Holy Ark offers a rich and enchanting experience that is the equal of any of its peers, and long enough to keep players engaged for a very long time.

Sonic Software Planning began with Shining in the Darkness in 1993, a Sega Genesis “dungeon crawler” that incorporated many elements common to Japanese RPGs, and thus helped to raise its stature above the genre (I write this as someone who has never been fond of first-person dungeon crawlers). They followed up with the seminal Shining Force series, which moved into the realm of Strategy-RPG, a genre that plays out more like a chess match than the traditional dungeons-and-dice fantasy games. In 1995, the studio created Shining Wisdom, an overhead adventure game ala The Legend of Zelda that was rather cooly received (It began as a Sega Genesis project and was moved to Saturn late in development). In 1997, the series returned to its roots while continuing the continuity of the overall world, as well as serving as a prequel to the Shining Force 3 trilogy that soon followed.

Shining the Holy Ark begins with a trio of mercenaries hired by the king of Enrich to capture a rogue ninja for unknown reasons. They meet at the mouth of a mountainside, and proceed to explore the mines inside. After the confrontation with the ninja, the roof suddenly collapses and all the parties are either knocked unconscious or killed. A group of strange alien beings revive all four, inhabiting their bodies. One of the characters, however, is taken by an evil spirit and vanishes into the darkness. The remaining spirits implore the remaining three to join together to defeat a malevolent force before it revives a lost thousand-year kingdom and plunges the world into darkness. As the story progresses, allegiances and loyalties are questioned, the true state of the kingdom is revealed, and many new characters are brought together for the quest.

All in all, this is standard fare, but I enjoy the characters and the pacing of the writing, which is brisk and engaging without becoming overly complicated or self-absorbed, thankfully avoiding the bloat that was already consuming the Final Fantasy series.

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Hyper Duel (Sega Saturn)

Hyper Duel for Sega Saturn

Hyper Duel (1996, Technosoft for Sega Saturn)

As a lifelong fan of Sega Genesis, I have always held a special place in my heart for Technosoft, the masterminds behind Herzog Zwei and the Thunder Force series. These were genre-defining masterworks pushed the 16-bit generation forward and raised the bar for everything that followed. When the 32-bit era ushered in the age of 3D polygon graphics, the studio attempted to adapt with the times but continued to stick with the arcade shoot-em-ups that made them famous. Thank Heaven they stuck to their guns.

Hyper Duel first appeared in the arcades in 1993. It was Technosoft’s second coin-op title after Thunder Force AC, but failed to become a hit and quickly disappeared into obscurity, known only to diehard fans. I played it many years later on MAME and came away slightly disappointed. The legendary science fiction designs were still there, but the stages too short, the pacing too streamlined, the challenge too light. Worst of all, the graphic design had an abnormal obsession with lime greens and tomato reds, which just seemed out of place. I blasted my through to the end in less than an hour and never returned again.

In this game, one or two players fly a spaceship that also transforms into a robot at the touch of a button. You can also choose between three different spacecraft that have their own unique weapons and abilities. Power-up icons can increase your firepower, but the most valuable upgrades are additional ships or robots that join in the battle. They don’t follow after you as in Gradius, but fight on their own like the soldiers in Herzog Zwei. You battle over eight stages through space stations, colonies and alien worlds before reaching the enemy’s home base and win the war.

There are many examples of classic videogames that required multiple drafts before they could fully blossom into greatness. Contra, Tecmo Bowl and Ninja Gaiden on NES are three examples. Here lies another.

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Thunder Force 5 (Sega Saturn)

Thunder Force 5 on Sega Saturn

Thunder Force 5 (1997, Technosoft for Saturn)

What a sensational thrill ride! I can’t think of a better or more exciting roller coaster ride for the Fifth Generation than Thunder Force 5. Like a great rock band at the peak of their powers, Technosoft demonstrates a true mastery of their craft while making it look easy, leaving everyone else in their dust. This is probably my favorite arcade shoot-em-up on Sega Saturn.

As with the previous entries in the series, you fly a futuristic spaceship that can be equipped with a variety of weapons that can be switched on the fly. You also have rotating orbs called “craws” that add to your firepower. In TF5, the craws also enable a second-level attack for each weapon, at the expense of draining their power. The ever-reliable hunter cannon returns once again, along with a forward shot and reverse shot. New to this series is the free range gun, which locks lasers onto any targets that fall within its sensor range, as well as an updated wave shot that functions like an infrared ray.

The story is presented in a stylized, fragmented opening sequence, involving a captured alien technology called Vasteel and an artificial intelligence called Guardian’s Heart that achieves consciousness and rebels against humanity. Most of the details are cryptic, emerging in bits and pieces during boss fights, and are almost deliberately mistranslated “Engrish” that only adds to the charm. In layman’s terms, you fly a spaceship and shoot everything that moves.

Now here’s what I think Technosoft does better than anyone: they are masters of the set-piece. Their stage designs are not built around endless waves of identical enemy spaceships or flowery bullet patterns, but in constructing dramatic showdowns against enemies of varying sizes and strengths, threats that come from every conceivable direction, and even environmental obstacles. Sometimes there is a slight break in the action before the next frantic assault, a momentary pause before you are hurled into the next attack.

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Madden NFL 98 (Sega Saturn)

Madden NFL 98 for Sega Saturn

That Madden 98 is the best American football game for Sega Saturn goes without saying; it wins the contest by default. The real question for gamers today: how well does Madden NFL 98 play two decades later? The answer: surprisingly well.

We really shouldn’t be surprised by this. The dirty little secret about sports videogames is that all of the major franchises have perfected their gameplay formulas years ago. Want to play a full season, own a franchise and enable player trades? Perhaps you’d like to play classic Super Bowl teams? How about offensive and defensive plays taken from real NFL teams? Do official league and players’ association endorsements interest you? Motion-captured player animations? Authentic recreations of all team stadiums? Fantasy draft? “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game,” as the saying goes.

Madden 98 feels like a culmination of everything the series had built to that point since it the Sega Genesis glory days (Madden 92 is still my series’ favorite). The controls are still somewhat simple and are still based on that old A-B-C control scheme. Players can sprint, spin, jump and dive with a single button press. Plays are selected by formation and grouped in thirds. Audibles can be selected on the fly. Kicks and punts are performed with the classic dual-bar system. Tackles play out like car crashes where knockdowns are instant. And, yes, you can perform late hits for cheap thrills, one of those silly guilty pleasures that never gets old.

The graphics feature 3D polygons that faithfully recreate all NFL stadiums, while all players are rendered as 2D sprites — “dynamically loaded, light sourced super-sprites” to quote the back cover. This would be the final year before EA finally caved in and switched to polygon players, but let’s be honest to ourselves and admit that polygon football players didn’t begin to look great until NFL2K exploded onto Sega Dreamcast. The super-sprites in Madden 98 can hold their own against their peers, and perhaps they have aged more gracefully. The animation is more natural and captures more exciting moments like toe-dragging catches or one-handed grabs.

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Virtua Cop 2 (Saturn)

Virtua Cop 2 (1996, Sega AM2 for Sega Saturn)
Virtua Cop 2 on Sega Saturn

Virtua Cop 2 (1996,Sega AM2 for Sega Saturn)

I had a terrific amount of fun with Virtua Cop, both in the arcades and on Saturn. The home version was released as part of the Holiday 1995 trilogy (including Virtua Fighter 2 and Sega Rally Championship) that rescued the console from an early collapse. It’s a fantastic lightgun game that pushed the genre forward, offering new possibilities for realism and immersion beyond simple target practice. The game was always popular with friends and at parties, always great fun with pizza and soda and beers.

For the sequel, Sega AM2 once again raised the bar, determined to raise the bar and really wow the gamers. And, boy, did they ever succeed.

Here’s something you should do. Before playing Virtua Cop 2, put on the original disc and play the first stage until it becomes familiar. Now turn on the sequel and start at the first stage, the downtown jewel heist, and be astonished at the improvements. Yes, you are still playing “on rails,” as Goldeneye fans would gladly point out, but it is the best roller coaster ride yet seen, a fully immersive and highly interactive city with streets, buildings, highways and cars. You begin by intercepting a jewel store robbery, shooting down armed terrorists in the street and inside the building, smashing the glass, knocking down the chandeliers. After the robbery, a highway chase gives way that twists and turns across streets, over hills and through the highways, ending at the gang’s hideout outside an office building.

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The House of the Dead (Sega Saturn)

The House of the Dead on Sega Saturn

The House of the Dead (1998, Tantalus for Sega Saturn)

You just have to love the sheer rush of adrenaline and fear from The House of the Dead. Terrors and thrills abound at every corner, gruesome monsters leap at you from every direction, and the roller coaster never stops. This game never gives you a moment to catch your breath before the next plunge. That this arcade smash hit became a successful and long-running franchise comes as no surprise. It is one of Sega’s most notable achievements in the 1990s.

One thing I should admit about this game is that it’s freakishly hard and I find myself beaten and kicked into submission rather quickly. Even with considerable practice and knowing where the enemies are about to strike, I find myself easily overwhelmed. Virtua Cop 1 & 2 were only the warmup, the training exercises for the real test. Were you one of those gamers who became bored with Duck Hunt in the first sixty seconds? Well, my friend, your prayers have been answered in spades. Hoo boy, have they ever.

The House of the Dead follows the theme of Capcom’s Resident Evil series and places you in the hands of police officers who must investigate a large mansion whose scientists are being relentlessly murdered by zombies, mutant animals and strange bio-mechanical creatures. As soon as you exit your car, you must rescue several scientists from a mob of zombies who prove difficult to kill. You have to shoot them several times to bring them down, unless you are lucky to score a head shot, something that is more difficult to do than you’ll expect. These monsters bob and weave, dart and dance as they march towards you with blood in their eyes. Outside the mansion, there are a series of zombie dogs that always kill me because they’re always dodging my gunshots. Perhaps my reflexes are just fading with age.

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Battle Garegga (1997, Sega Saturn)

Battle Garegga on Sega Saturn

Battle Garegga (1997, Raizing/Eighting for Sega Saturn)

There are hardcore videogames, and then there are hardcore videogames, the ones that break down all but the most stubborn and defiant of players. Ninja Gaiden on NES is one example, Battletoads is another. Raizing’s Battle Garegga easily belongs in this club.

For the last 15 years, the Shmups.System11 forums have conducted an annual poll to rank the 25 greatest arcade shooters ever made; Battle Garegga nearly always finishes in first or second, losing only to Cave’s DoDonPachi. This game has become a holy grail for the genre thanks to a combination of brilliant audiovisuals, a deep and richly complex gameplay system, and absolutely crushing difficulty that rewards patience and practice. It inspires and frustrates in equal measure, and I’m not just speaking for myself. Even if you find yourself overwhelmed and pulling the hair out of your head, you have to enjoy the ride and respect the effort.

Battle Garegga is a vertically-scrolling military shooter that reminds you of the classic Toaplan classics like Twin Cobra as well as Capcom’s 194x series. You fly an assortment of fighter planes across skies, mountains, forests, oceans and industrial bases. The game’s design feels like a 1940s version of steampunk, World War II mashed up with futuristic anime machines. Each of the four main fighter planes have their own unique attacks as well as “option” fighters who accompany you in a number of aerial formations. Sneaking through the options menu reveals four extra fighters who originally appeared in the 1993 fantasy-themed arcade shooter Mahou Daisakusen, as well as a host of customizable options that will keep everybody happy for a long time. Believe me, you’ll need some of ’em.

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Radiant Silvergun (Sega Saturn)

Radiant Silvergun on Sega Saturn

Radiant Silvergun (1998, Treasure for Sega Saturn)

Question: Was 1998 the greatest year in the history of videogames? It certainly stands among the top five dates, for sure. Consider only a handful of candidates: Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time; Tony Hawk Pro Skater; Starcraft; Half-Life; Grim Fandango; Dance Dance Revolution; Panzer Dragoon Saga; Radiant Silvergun. What a year.

For many years, Radiant Silvergun was known as the Great Lost Sega Saturn Game, a genre-bending audiovisual masterpiece that overturned all expectations of Sega’s troubled 32-bit system, but left in Japan to obscurity and fiendishly high import prices. This was probably the console’s first $100 software title on the import scene, and has always remained in high demand. The rise of emulation and internet downloads only added oxygen to the legend. Today, you can download the game in vintage and remastered form for Xbox Live Arcade for the price of a couple movie tickets, a true bargain. Yet the Saturn original remains in very high demand, a holy grail for the devout fans and collectors.

Today, I believe the game’s reputation has lessened somewhat; some of the shine and polish of the legend has faded in the wake of experience, tempered by more realistic assesements. Two decades ago, Silvergun was universally hailed as a masterpiece, a living legend, the greatest shoot-em-up ever made. Today, well…the game is greatly respected, but its place in history has become more debated, which only adds to the legend.

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Panzer Dragoon (1995, Team Andromeda for Sega Saturn)

Panzer Dragoon on Sega Saturn

Panzer Dragoon (1995, Team Andromeda for Sega Saturn)

When I think of Panzer Dragoon, one word comes to mind: atmosphere. It presents a world that is vast, teeming with lost civilizations and buried histories and countless life forms that struggle for survival. Its visual and art design owes much to French comics artist Moebius as well as Frank Herbert’s Dune sagas and endlessly hints at boundless tales and adventures that lie just beyond the next horizon, cave or forest. You feel as though you are experiencing an epic adventure and only wish to see more, more, more.

Sega’s Team Andromeda created a masterwork of production design, an extremely ambitious and expensive undertaking for 1995. I always believed that the five-minute CG movie that opens the game is Oscar-worthy and comparable to any movie studio in the world (only Pixar’s Toy Story, released that same year, was more sophisticated advanced). When I first saw the opening at a Toys ‘R Us, I was overwhelmed and immediately scrambled the money to purchase a Sega Saturn. This movie describes a post-apocalyptic world where humans struggle to survive in a world populated by mutated creatures of tissue and bone. Feuding empires unearth lost ancient technologies in their quest for greater power, culminating in gigantic engineered flying beings, dragons.

You are introduced to the main character, a tribal nomad who becomes separated from his hunting party, attacked by a giant stoney insect, then rescued by a blue dragon. This dragon is then pursued by a larger and more powerful dragon. The two continue their fight in the air, where the first dragon’s pilot is fatally wounded. Landing on the surface of a cliff, the pilot communicates to you telepathically, imploring you to complete his quest to reach a mysterious tower before his rival. You take your place on the back of the blue dragon and take pursuit.

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Dragon Force (1996, J-Force, Sega and Working Designs for Sega Saturn)

Dragon Force on Sega Saturn

Dragon Force (1996, J-Force, Sega and Working Designs for Sega Saturn)

Whenever I play Dragon Force, I am easily overwhelmed by the scale of this world and the challenge in leading armies against eight kingdoms composed of dozens of generals, thousands of soldiers and a dozen military classes, all while managing domestic politics, rogue elements, random invasions and desertions. I sometimes feel like the dog wearing a neck tie while sitting in front of a computer: “I have no idea what I’m doing.”

For fans of role-playing, strategy and war games, Dragon Force is just about the greatest thing that has ever happened. It plays out like a mashup of Tolkein novels, anime movies and Avalon Hill military simulations, with a dash of the board game Risk for flavor. There is enough depth to keep players happy for years and years. That it took 20 years for the sequel to receive a proper English translation is fitting, because 20 years is just about how long it will take for you to finally wear yourself out on the original.

In this adventure, you play as one of the eight feudal rulers in the realm of Legendra, who must conquer the lands and unite the realm to defeat an ancient and powerful evil force that threatens the world. You choose your kingdom, select your generals and begin your conquest of the rival armies.

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Virtua Fighter 2 (Sega Saturn)

Virtua Fighter 2 on Sega Saturn

Virtua Fighter 2 (1995, Sega AM2 for Sega Saturn)

Virtua Fighter 2 is the greatest videogame ever made for Sega Saturn. It is the system’s greatest critical and commercial success, especially in Japan, where Sega was most successful, competing evenly against Sony for several years and even beating Nintendo. The arcade game was an enormous success that defined a standard in 3D martial arts games, and is probably Sega’s most successful franchise in its home country. This is their Led Zeppelin IV.

In the West, the Virtua Fighter series was less successful and never achieved more than cult status. Gamers were more accustomed to Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat, which were far easier for beginners and casual players. Here’s the dirty little secret: most kids play fighting games by mashing buttons. If you mash buttons enough, the character on screen does something cool and interesting, and if you win and you’ll win. If you mash buttons and nothing interesting happens, then the game sucks and play something else. Tekken 3 was a huge hit because you could play Eddie Gordo and perform his amazing gymnastics routine by just mashing the kick buttons. Why do you think wrestling videogames have always been so popular? Because all you do is smash the controller with one hand while holding pizza with the other.

The Virtua Fighter series actively punishes button mashers. Instead, it introduces a new world of martial arts theory, including movement, timing, offense and defense. It has a steep learning curve. The game should probably come packaged with a textbook for studying movelists, frame data and flow charts. At its core, the game is rock-paper-scissors played at five times normal speed. Block beats Attack. Attack beats Throw. Throw beats Block. Added to this mix is something called “recovery time,” which is the time it takes your fighter to recover from a move. Now the eternal question: what will happen if my attack is blocked? Can my opponent attack or throw me during my recovery phase?

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Virtua Cop (Sega Saturn)

Virtua Cop for Sega Saturn

Virtua Cop (1995, Sega AM2 for Sega Saturn)

Virtua Cop is the third of Sega’s blockbuster trilogy that revitalized the Sega Saturn in Christmas 1995, giving the troubled system a second chance at life. Such an idea must sound strange, considering the machine was launched in May that year, but Sega found themselves reeling from Sony Playstation’s successful launch in September, as well as a solid year of negative press and foul rumors. Saturn was widely seen as a mistake, if not an outright failure, before it even arrived on store shelves. They needed a miracle to win back the public. Here is one of those three miracles.

AM2 was Sega’s marquee arcade game division, responsible for the company’s most beloved classics including Outrun, Space Harrier, Afterburner, Virtua Racing, Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA. Virtua Cop was released to arcades in 1994 and became another smash success. The Saturn conversion began the following year, utilizing the studio’s internally-developed Saturn Graphics Library to take full advantage of the hardware. The result is a practically flawless translation that far exceeded anybody’s expectations.

Shooting games have been a staple of arcades and amusement parks for decades, even before the arrival of the computer age. I remember seeing several very large and very old target-practice games at the Minnesota State Fair as a child, such as Keeney Air Raider, a gun game created in 1940 where you shoot down enemy aircraft. With the arrival of videogames, we saw many classic video target games such as Duck Hunt, Operation Wolf and Terminator 2. The technology was becoming ever more advanced, but the basic gameplay had never changed. A target moves along a screen, you shoot it and score points.

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Choro Q Park (Sega Saturn)

Choro Q Park for Sega Saturn

Choro Q Park (1998, Nextech for Sega Saturn)

Choro Q Park is a charming little kart-style racing game that is based on those adorable little Penny Racer cars that were a fixture in my childhood. They were called “penny racers” because you could attach a penny to the trunk of the tiny cars and when you wind them up, they would spin around and zoom and do tricks. It was an easy gimmick but extremely popular with kids around the world. I know the kids here in the States would really have enjoyed playing this videogame adaptation.

It’s very easy to look at this game as another copy of Super Mario Kart, with its cartoony visual designs, boxy vehicles and looping, winding track designs. Choro Q Park isn’t on the same level as Nintendo’s classic series, and doesn’t really compete directly. Instead, it’s perfectly happy to play in its own little sandbox. The game takes place on a large island that features a number of stops, including racing arenas, a shop to purchase more vehicles, a garage and paint shop to store and customize your cars, a daily weather report, and a test track where you must first earn your driving license. The goal is to win races where you can earn money and new cars and trucks. Dozens of vehicles are available, each with their own unique handling and performance stats.

That is the thrust of the game. You play to collect penny racers and race with friends. There are a large number of race tracks spread across multiple locations, but there is no circuit mode where you compete for trophies ala Mario Kart. What makes these races novel is that you can change racers at various points along a race track. You select which car to use at each checkpoint, and you must choose wisely depending on the terrain, whether you’re racing on pavement or dirt, across straight paths or winding curves.

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Bokan to Ippatsu: Doronbo Kanpekiban (Sega Saturn)

Bokan to Ippatsu: Doronbo Kanpekiban for Sega Saturn

Bokan to Ippatsu: Doronbo Kanpekiban (1997, Banpresto and Tatsunoko for Sega Saturn)

Bokan to Ippatsu: Doronbo Kanpekiban (translated as “Time Bokan: Doronbo Perfect Version) is a member of a videogame sub-genre known as “cute-em-ups,” which were popular in the 1990s on home systems such as the PC Engine/Turbografx-16 and Super NES. If you have ever seen Konami’s Parodious or Red Entertainment’s Air Zonk, you’ll have an idea of what to expect. These games are arcade shoot-em-ups that feature extremely colorful, cartoony graphics and a generally silly style that play out like a semi-parody of videogames.

Time Bokan is based on the 1977 Yatterman anime series from Tatsunoko in Japan, in which a bumbling villainous trio known as the Doronbo Gang are regularly thwarted by an assortment of comic book superheroes. Its tone is much closer to Hanna-Barbera cartoons than anything, and harkens back to a more innocent age of Japanese animation. This game puts you in the hands of the gang in their quest to defeat the Yatterman heroes and, well, shoot at a lot of cartoon pigs and robot contraptions. Before each stage, you are given a choice of zany vehicles that resemble Flintstone drag cars, camels, snails and birds, each with their own unique stats for firepower, mobility and shields. There’s a fair variety between them; it’s fun to play around to find a personal favorite, especially once you’ve collected a couple power-up icons that give you some impressive (and funny) weapons such as flying attack cats. Or are those supposed to be mice or bears? Whatever.

The action plays out in vertical-scrolling style that also pans sideways when you move. It also fills the entire screen, which is a very welcome change of pace from all the vertically-oriented shooters on Sega Saturn (you won’t have to lie down on the couch to play “tate” mode this time). Each stage is quite varied in their environments, from tropical green valleys to arctic glaciers, underwater oceans to futuristic city highways. There are also many obstacles in your way that you can shoot, such as trees and park benches and all those goofy pigs. It probably makes sense to fans of the cartoon show.

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Fighters Megamix (Sega Saturn)

Fighters Megamix for Sega Saturn

Fighters Megamix (1997, Sega AM2 for Sega Saturn)

Question: Is Fighters Megamix the definitive Sega Saturn fighting game? Does it surpass the mighty Virtua Fighter 2? Let the debates begin.

Fighters Megamix is a perfect summary of everything I love about Sega: a bright and bold visual design, accessible gameplay that contains boundless depths, and a sense of humor that shows they never take themselves so seriously. They were always the renegades, the upstarts, the punks who crashed the party and spiked the punch. They were the risk-takers and casino gamblers whose debts eventually came to bury them alive. But what a wild crazy ride. Start another match, I’ll order pizza.

Most Saturn fans are very familiar with this game, which became a fan favorite among casual and diehard players alike and enjoys cult status to this day. It was only released on one other platform, the doomed handheld, and has never reappeared on any future console. Whenever Sega asks the fans which of their classic titles should be revived, my first answer is nearly always, “Megamix. Bring back Megamix.”

Fighters Megamix is a superb mashup of Virtua Fighter and Fighting Vipers that quickly morphs into a grand celebration of Sega AM2’s greatest hits. Players begin by playing the characters from the two major series, and as they progress, the bonus characters are revealed and quickly crash the party, each one zanier and more ridiculous than the last, each one more fun and exciting. Have you ever been to one of those college house parties that ends with the cops busting up the place? You can barely find your way to the door, your ears are ringing from the house band making noise, you’re hoping you don’t get nabbed by the fuzz…all in all, a great time is had by all. This videogame has that same sense of electricity and fun.

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Guardian Heroes (Sega Saturn)

Guardian Heroes on Sega Saturn

Guardian Heroes (1996, Treasure for Sega Saturn)

By nearly all accounts, Treasure’s Guardian Heroes is just about the greatest thing to happen to Sega Saturn, a 2D spectacular dazzles the eyes, ears and itchy trigger fingers of all players. Nearly all modern polls of Saturn’s finest games ranks this title among the very top, a defining classic for the system’s library. If you are a fan of arcade beat-em-ups like Double Dragon, Final Fight and Streets of Rage, you’re going to love this game.

Back in 1996, however, the mood of the gaming public was very different. 2D videogames were as dead as leisure suits in the 1980s or synth pop in the 1990s. The entire art form was massively out of fashion, killed by new technologies such as pre-rendered CG and texture-mapped polygons. For gamers always hungry for the “next big thing,” sprite graphics were the kiss of death.

Sony successfully rode the new wave of 3D graphics to legendary success with their Playstation system, and Nintendo successfully established a new paradigm for 3D videogames with Super Mario 64, but Sega was hit hardest by this sea change. Their Saturn was envisioned as the best of both worlds, a continuation of the 2D arcade games of the Sega Genesis and an exploration of the new 3D frontier of arcade hits like Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA. Two decades later, this feels like a reasonable, almost cautious strategy, and if the winds of fashion had not blown so harshly, the Fifth Generation may have ended differently.

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