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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 Game.com 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.
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.
Sega Saturn is blessed with a thousand great shoot-em-ups. Shienryu (“Purple Flame Dragon”) is one of the genre’s best titles and a personal favorite of mine. It boasts excellent graphics, superb weapons, endless waves of enemies and boss battles that are challenging yet never overwhelming. It delivers everything you expect from a quality shooter, and if it never offers any new ideas, you’re more than happy to buy the ticket and take the ride.
This game will probably remind you of Seibu Kaihatsu’s classic Raiden, especially in the visual design that includes enemy ships that shatter into tiny fragments when destroyed, and the slow rolling fireballs left in their wake. Your spaceship is also very similar to the ships in Raiden with its red coat of paint. Even the architectural designs are very similar in many respects, as you battle on land, sea, air and outer space, as you take the fight to the aliens’ home worlds.
I am most reminded of Toaplan’s classic shoot-em-ups such as Fire Shark and Truxton and their perfectly balanced sense of pacing, timing and layout designs. Shienryu has a late-1980s groove and could have easily been a product of the 16-bit era. By 1997, it’s positively retro in is pacing and structure, which is more laid back than the frantic, over-the-top danmaku (“bullet hell”) titles that consumed the genre. The challenge lies not in avoiding impossible waves of bullets, but in navigating the ballet of spaceships, tanks, turrets, giant mechs, starships, and massive bosses that are quite the challenge to defeat. This game is far more accessible to most players, not just the diehard experts, which is very welcome. I can play this disc at any time and blast through a few stages without breaking much of a sweat.
Super Tempo (1998, Red Entertainment and Aspect for Sega Saturn)
Thank God for Red Entertainment and their madcap stubbornness. I have no idea what inspired them to create a wildly goofy, genre-hopping 2D videogame, a style all but extinct in the year of groundbreaking 3D hits like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half-Life and Tony Hawk Pro Skater. I am very thankful that this team of artists stuck to their guns, defied the winds of popular trends and crafted this wickedly inspired little gem.
Super Tempo puts you in the roles of the Tempo and his girlfriend Katy on a quest to rescue the Prince of Music World from Planet Technotch (according to Hardcore Gaming 101, at least). It’s visual design is wildly colorful and cartoonish, with wonderfully fluid animation drawn on 1’s and 2’s. The character designs are wonderfully surreal and zany, like an anime cousin to Ren & Stimpy or Animaniacs. The music and audio incorporates cartoon sound effects that were ripped right out of the Hanna-Barbera vaults.
Red is best known as the creators of Bonk’s Adventure on the Turbografx-16, which spawned five sequels on that system and multiple appearances on NES, Super NES and arcades. The games are known for their skillful, inventive level designs and a wicked, irreverent sense of humor that extended to the terrific cartoon character designs and animations. In 1995, they teamed up with Sega for the excellent mascot title Tempo for the ill-fated 32X; a Game Gear sequel, Tempo, Jr. was developed by Sega offshoot studio SIMS. For Sega Saturn, the studio teamed up with software studio Aspect and pulled out all the stops on Saturn, creating the finest genre title for the system.
Batsugun (1996, Toaplan and Gazelle for Sega Saturn)
In the 1980s, Japanese arcade developers Toaplan established themselves as the masters of the shoot-em-up, unleashing one genre masterpiece after another: Twin Cobra, Fire Shark, Hellfire, Zero Wing, Truxton. By the end of the decade and with the arrival of the 16-bit generation, they were at the peak of their powers.
In the early 1990s, however, spaceship shoot-em-ups were eclipsed by the Street Fighter 2 craze, and Toaplan’s finances faded. The company declared bankruptcy in 1994, and its many skilled programmers and designers carried on the tradition with their own studios: Cave, Takumi, Gazelle, Raizing/8ing. Before splitting up, they created one last masterpiece in 1993 called Batsugun, and it would define nearly every scrolling arcade shooter that followed.
Batsugun marks the birth of the danmaku or “bullet hell” shooter; its name comes from the curtains of enemy bullets that fill the screen and overwhelm players. Personally, I’m not a fan of the genre, which would bog down in programmers’ obsessions with elaborate floral bullet patterns at the expense of speed or excitement. The thrilling roller coaster rides became bogged down in traffic jams, intended only for the most diehard of fans.
Magic Carpet (1996, Bullfrog and Krisalis Software for Sega Saturn)
When I was a child, our family would receive stacks of computer floppy discs from the local Atari 8-bit users group containing new games that came without any instructions whatsoever. We had to learn how to play the games entirely on our own, often by just pressing buttons on the keyboard to see what would happen. This made for a serious challenge, and some games remained completely inscrutable to me (Quest For the Space Beagle and Alternate Reality are two excellent examples). Whenever we learned and mastered any computer games, there was a great sense of satisfaction at our patience and perseverance.
Bullfrog’s Magic Carpet reminds me very much of these experiences. I will not lie to you, this is not an easy game to learn. You cannot just pick up a controller and start mashing buttons and expect to get anywhere. There is a very steep learning curve and this world will not help you or provide any easy clues. Of course, you could just sit down and read the instruction manual, but who in the history of videogames has ever done that? Nobody, that’s who. A number of reviewers on websites and YouTube channels have walked away in complete frustration and confusion. Sorry, Timmy, you’re not at the video arcades this time. You can’t bluff your way through this.
Magic Carpet may seem overwhelming at first, but it is actually one of the best videogames of its era, a brilliant fusion of shoot-em-up and real-time strategy, Doom-Meets-Populous in an Arabian settting. It requires patience and practice to understand its play mechanics and control system, but once you have mastered the first couple stages, you’ll be running at full steam and ready for the real action that lies ahead.