Dead or Alive (Sega Saturn)

Dead or Alive on Sega Saturn

Dead or Alive (1997, Tecmo and Team Ninja for Saturn)

Every Sega Saturn fan knows about Dead or Alive. We were absolutely thrilled by the 1996 arcade game, which used Sega’s Model 2 hardware board, and were doubly thrilled to learn it was coming home the following year. Then we were left hanging by Sega of America, as newly-installed CEO Bernie Stolar notoriously declared “Saturn is not our future.” Then he grabbed a shovel and began digging, and Saturn tried to crack a smile beneath another shovel load.

Why the bloody hell was this game not released? Yes, the Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64 had thoroughly dominated the US videogame market by 1997, thanks to Super Mario 64, Goldeneye, Crash Bandicoot and Final Fantasy 7. But the Saturn wasn’t dead yet, and if it was dying, the cause was starvation. Gamers were left high and dry waiting for quality software that delivered on the early promises offered by that spectacular Christmas 1995 lineup of Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop and Sega Rally Championship. We had many great games in ’96 and ’97, but nothing could really match that peak, which was beginning to look insurmountable.

Then Team Ninja arrived and conquered that mountain with ease. They not only created an arcade fighting game that could equal Virtua Fighter 2’s “480/60” high resolution graphics, they may have surpassed it. And if you thought Dead or Alive was a one-time fluke, Go Go Goal was waiting in the wings to slap you upside the head a second time. These guys could make the Saturn sing and it was glorious.

Today, two decades later, this game still looks glorious. The opening CG movie, the character menu screen, the stages, the character design, every moment glows with pride. This game knows how to strut with its feathers held high. The animation is wonderfully fluid and natural, and can easily stand alongside its more sequels. Indeed, even though DOA 2 and 3 are vastly more advanced from a technology point of view, the core gameplay of the original is so solid, so focused, that it has hardly aged a day. There’s a reason why Tecmo included Saturn DOA 1 on the Xbox for Dead or Alive Ultimate.

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Baroque (Sega Saturn)

Baroque (1998, Sting Entertainment)

Baroque is a magnificent work of dark surrealism, horror and existential dread. It’s scarier than Resident Evil, more gothic than Quake. This game is like peering into a long nightmare from the depths of the unconscious, like peering into Purgatory or something worse. I dare you to play at night, sitting right in front of the couch, lights out, and no distractions. Play for an hour and then try to walk to bed without turning on all the lights. I dare you.

The game opens with an impressive CG sequence that raises mysteries and answers nothing. The setting appears to involve an apocalypse, a devastated wasteland, a hoard of disfigured mutants, friendly and hostile, dreamlike images of men in white lab coats, steampunk machinery. A face lies hidden inside a steel vat. Images of two lovers in embrace are twisted, distorted. On the horizon, an enormous towering mass of ball and steel, wire and rust beckons. You awaken in the ruins of a dead city, a desolation of metal, red lights and sand dunes. A large robed figure forbids entry into a building. Another creature with an enormously long neck cackles uncontrollably. A ghostly angel figure asks cryptic questions and hands you a weapon, invoking you to explore the depths of that great Neuro Tower in search of answers.

None of this makes sense, and that’s part of the design. Even if you understand Japanese, the dialog is darkly poetic, an endless series of suffering and lamentations. This place is probably where bad people go when they die. Everything is shrouded in dark shadow, illuminated only be occasional lighting, accompanied by the howling of winds and lost souls. Baroque is incomprehensible and very deliberately so. You are left feeling disoriented, confused, almost lost in a fog of amnesia. That sense of uncertainly will only accelerate once you enter the tower.

When you enter the tower, your goal is to descend over twenty levels in search of…what, exactly? Answers? Adventure? Cheap thrills? Have you ever felt tempted to explore an abandoned building that was supposedly haunted? That feeling in the pit of your stomach…that’s what this game is about, and never let anyone tell you otherwise.

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Savaki (Sega Saturn)

Savaki for Sega Saturn

Savaki (1998, Cygnus for Saturn)

Savaki appeared in the final months of the Sega Saturn in Japan in April of 1998, and it’s a highly polished title that demonstrates a great mastery of the hardware. It is a 3D polygon fighting game that leans heavily towards “simulation,” focusing on real-world martial arts while avoiding anything flashy or unrealistic. This focus on realism helps give this game a unique, original style that is very welcome. And for a system overloaded with so many fighting games, it becomes extremely challenging to stand out from the crowd. But Savaki stands out very nicely, even if it’s not for everyone.

This game revolves around specialized martial artists in an underground fighting circuit, probably taking place in some dingy mafia-run warehouse basement. The characters don’t have names; instead, they are designated by their fighting styles, including karate, boxing, muy thai, jeet kun do, tai kwon do and “freestyle,” which is the style employed by the extremely challenging and relentless final boss, a towering masked man in wrestler’s garb. I wonder if he’s related to the final boss from Pit Fighter?

Attacks are simple to learn, consisting of various punches and kicks that can be chained together in short combos. There are no throws or grapple techniques. Your defensive moves include blocking, “feint” moves that attempt to trick your opponent, and a move called “savaki” that can deflect an attack if timed properly. This was something that Virtua Fighter 3 dabbled with, and this game elevates it to a significant importance.

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All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua (Sega Saturn)

All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua for Sega Saturn

All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua (1997, Sega for Saturn)

Let’s take a look at another excellent fighting game from Japan that deserved to be released in the USA. Indeed, this is the only 3D wrestling videogame for the Sega Saturn, and it’s a terrific showpiece that deserves a place in your library alongside Fighting Vipers and Fighters Megamix. All Japan Pro Wrestling is very affordable (as little as $10), highly playable, richly rewarding and guaranteed to add excitement to any social gathering.

While most wrestling games of the era seemed to rely on mashing buttons in hopes that something good will happen, this title is far more intelligent, complex and strategic. It plays like a cousin to Virtua Fighter, while incorporating the styles and techniques of the sport. Your moves consist of attacks, grabs and throws, with the ability to perform hold reversals and throw escapes. The controls are easy to grasp, and you can learn to chain attacks together, such as grabbing an opponent, changing the position, throwing him to the ground, picking him back up, then throwing him again, all to roaring crowds. You can even perform moves when close to the ropes, or perform flying turnbuckle moves, or even escape the ring, which is always a lot of fun.

There are a number of gameplay innovations in this game: Reversals, Damage Levels, Broken Bones and Crowd Approval. Reversals enable you to escape nearly any grapple maneuver or throw, performed when an icon appears on-screen. Even the reversals themselves can be reversed (I’m reminded of the “hold” moves in Dead or Alive). As attacks can be strung together, you can disrupt your opponent’s rhythm if you know what you’re doing. Damage levels work like “special” meters in fighting games, in that it builds up as you successfully perform attacks. When you reach DM level 50 and 80, you can perform your most devastating and crowd-pleasing attacks. Broken Bones occur when you take too much damage in a specific region, such as your head, neck, back, arms or legs. A warning icon will occur when you’re in danger, and subsequent hits will result in broken bones. When two bones are broken, the referee will intervene and end the match. Finally, the crowd approval rewards showmanship and pizazz. It’s not enough to merely knock down your opponent and get a quick three-count. You have to win the crowd over with variety and style. As the excitement grows, the crowd will roar and chant your name, which is not only very cool, it makes it easier for you to pin your opponent (and harder to become pinned yourself).

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World Series Baseball 98 (Sega Saturn)

World Series Baseball 98 (1997, Sega)

When you buy a Sega Saturn, the first videogame to get is the “3-in-1” package featuring Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop and Daytona. Then you get Sega Rally Championship. Then you get World Series Baseball 98.

I wrote about World Series Baseball 98 on one of my blogs three years ago, and more recently appeared in my book Pop Life. It stands as the finest baseball videogame ever created. I believed that two decades ago, and I still believe that today. Despite the advances in computer hardware and graphics powers, this title has never been surpassed, and still dominates the sport just like NHL 94 still dominates hockey games.

The genius to this game lies in its pitcher/batter duel. For the sport, this is the heart and soul of the game, but most videogame adaptations have reduced it to simple target practice. For the pitcher, you would simply press a button to throw the ball, and then waggle the joystick to move it in midair en route to the catcher’s mitt. For the batter, you simply press a button to swing the bat and try to hit the physics-defying ball. Nearly every single video baseball game going back to the Atari 2600 has copied this formula. In later years, software designers took away mid-air ball control in the name of “realism,” but the basics of the duel remained just that. Basic. Lacking all drama. Boring.

World Series Baseball 98 changes all of that. The pitcher chooses from his arsenal, aims the pitch during the windup, and lets it go. Available pitches are based on the real-life players’ skills, making their curveballs, sliders and sinkers very unique, and lose their effectiveness as the pitcher tires. One pitcher may have a monster slider that drops two feet at the last second, where another pitcher can barely make a wobble. Some curveballs hook, others slice. And as the pitcher’s arm tires, the more those pitches begin to straighten out and decay into a very modest “slowball” down the middle.

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Astra Superstars (Sega Saturn)

Astra Superstars for Sega Saturn

Astra Superstars (1998, Sunsoft and Santa Claus)

Wow! What a sensational videogame. I’m probably going to have brain seizures after playing this for more than an hour, but it’s totally worth it. I’ll be sent to the madhouse for sure, but I will have no regrets.

Sega Saturn has always been hailed as a behemoth for 2D videogames, but there were precious few examples in the USA to back up such boasts. We had Galactic Attack and Darius Gaiden and Street Fighter Alpha 2, all of which looked terrific and kept us glued to our television screens, but they weren’t exactly groundbreaking. They were the bigger and bolder cousins of what we played on Sega Genesis. We didn’t really see an example of a Saturn game that pushed its 2D powers the way games like Virtua Fighter 2, Burning Rangers and Quake were pushing the system’s 3D powers. But Astra Superstars delivers.

These are the best 2D graphics on the Sega Saturn. It’s certainly the loudest, the most brash, the most extreme, the most visually overwhelming. It doesn’t dazzle your senses, it assaults you from every direction, spins you like mad, knocks you to the ground, grabs your wallet and keys, then raids your fridge just for kicks. I’m not kidding when I bring up seizures. Marvel Super Heroes vs Street Fighter is probably its closest rival, in terms of animation quality and visual pizazz. But Capcom plays it straight, while Sunsoft and Santa Claus, the Astra software team, went completely gonzo. This is one videogame that truly deserves a Ralph Stedman cover illustration.

Astra Superstars is a 2D arcade fighting game featuring a very colorful cast of cartoonish characters with zany names like Lettuce, Maron, Coco, Rouge, Fooly. Their designs are completely, wonderfully ridiculous, either playing off or drowning in anime stereotypes. You have the spiky-haired hero, the stone-faced samurai warrior, a hulking giant with Charlie Brown hair, a small girl dressed as Santa, and two “hot chicks” whose wardrobes come straight from the Yandy summer catalog. Because, why not? We’re already overwhelming your teenage male hormones enough as it is.

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Zero Divide: The Final Conflict (Saturn)

Zero Divide: The Final Conflict for Sega Saturn

Zero Divide: The Final Conflict (1997, Zoom)

Continuing our look at Sega Saturn games, here is another outstanding 3D polygon fighter that pushes the hardware very well. This is the third title in the Zero Divide series, which began on the Sony Playstation. I really enjoyed the first game in 1995, much more than Toshinden and Tekken 1, both of which were, IMHO, massively overrated. Zero Divide had better gameplay and cool robot designs. As Mark Bussler would say, all that’s needed now are flamethrowers.

Zero Divide 3 takes advantage of the Saturn hardware, using both SH-2 CPUs (“SH-2” is prominently featured on the title screen), and it has also been reported that this games also uses the SCU DSP to crunch extra polygons, which was only used in a few titles late in the system’s life (Burning Rangers, Panzer Dragoon Saga and Shining Force 3 are other examples). Graphics are presented in 480/60 “high res” mode, and everything is very sharp and cleanly detailed. Many of the arenas also feature polygon walls and there are also some polygon objects in the background. The robot fighters are very interesting. They have very subtle lighting effects when they move. In addition, the robots’ armor shells can be broken apart, revealing the inner skin that is gauraud shaded. It’s all very impressive.

The animations are very fluid, controls are swift and responsive. Gameplay is another copy of Sega’s Virtua Fighter, which is a Saturn standard (if you’re a VF freak, this is the greatest console ever made). You have buttons for guard, punk, kick and evade, with the usual set of canned combos and opportunities for “rolled” combos when you knock an opponent into the air. There are also throw reversals, which is always very welcome. Finally, you can be knocked off the edge of the stage platform, hanging on the ledge by one hand.

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Sokko Seitokai: Sonic Council (Sega Saturn)

Sokko Seitokai: Sonic Council for Sega Saturn

Sokko Seitokai: Sonic Council (1998, Banpresto and SIMS)

Here we come to another one of my favorite fighting videogames for Sega Saturn, the highly skillful and polished Sokko Seitokai. The name translates as “Hasty Student Council” (“Sonic Council” is a bit of a pun) and features the usual assortment of anime high school students and teachers who battle one another in school gymnasiums, playgrounds, video arcades and city streets. According to a Japanese fan site, this game was intended as a spoof or satire of manga comics, as well as similarly-themed games like Asuka 120%. It was developed by SIMS Co, a very successful Sega subsidiary that was formed to bolster the Master System library in Europe, and was extremely prolific through the Dreamcast era before becoming independent in 2004. In the last decade, they are known for creating fishing games. Lots of fishing games. This certainly explains “Sonic Council,” if nothing else.

Sonic Council is extremely polished title, with its sizable character roster, large collection of special moves and super attacks that can result in massive 15-hit combos. The rhythm and flow is far closer to SNK than Capcom, and I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that SIMS was responsible for the Saturn translations of Fatal Fury 3 and Samurai Shodown 3, both of which were released previously. In order to create a good brawler, a software team usually needs a couple titles under their belt. First-time efforts usually fall flat. Kasumi Ninja, anyone?

The character designs are very impressive, pencil thin and scrawny but animated with extremely fluid motion. Their standing animations seem to be drawn on “ones”, which is highly impressive for the Saturn era. According to the GDRI database, a company named Digimotion was responsible for these designs, and I’ve also managed to find at least a couple comic books featuring these characters that were published in the following years. In addition, Gamest Magazine also played a role in the making of this game. One source cited their role as “supervisor,” but it has never been revealed exactly what that means. It may have been nothing more than a glorified celebrity endorsement/tie-in. We would have to dig up some 1998 issues of the magazine to search for clues.

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Saturn Bomberman Fight! (1997, Sega Saturn)

Saturn Bomberman Fight! for Sega Saturn

Saturn Bomberman Fight! (1997, Hudson Soft)

If Saturn Bomberman is Blood on the Tracks, then Saturn Bomberman Fight is Desire: swift, bold, adventurous, wholly unique, and the last great triumph before it all goes south. This game dramatically reinvents its classic formula for the polygon age by stripping down to the very core of what makes the series so great. It’s all about frenetic action, surprise kills, massive explosions, and screwing over your friends.

Gone are the sprawling single-player worlds; multiplayer is the sole focus in this game. The single-player mode is really just a practice space for the battle and survival modes, a way to learn a new host of moves and techniques. The arenas, likewise, are a collection of 3D stages with hills, valleys, and bridges, each offering different opportunities to gang up on one another. Graphics are an impressive mix of polygons for the stages and players, with bitmap sprites used for powerups, bombs, explosions and backgrounds. There are also some nice cartoon clips at the beginning and end, which is always welcome.

When you play, expect to hit the ground running. Your player-characters have the ability to pick up, throw or kick bombs right at the start. In addition, a double-jump becomes an essential tool for dodging explosions great and small. A number of mystery cards can be discovered during the match which can either boost or hurt your abilities. You might be able to stack three bombs in a stack, or you might lose the ability to jump, or your controls might be reversed.

One nice addition is the horse, who replaces the dinosaurs from previous episodes. He’s a lot closer to Yoshi, as he can eat bombs and runs off in a panic when hit. And just like Super Mario World, if you get hit, you can just hop back on top. To be honest, this little horse is probably too overpowered, which is probably why Hudson only allows one on the playing field. The idea is that everyone will fight tooth and nail to steal that animal and win the match. He who controls the horse will win the war.

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Steep Slope Sliders (Sega Saturn)

Steep Slope Sliders for Sega Saturn

Steep Slope Sliders (1997, Cave for Saturn)

Steep Slope Sliders is one of my absolute favorite videogames for Sega Saturn, and easily my favorite snowboarding game. It just feels authentic. This is how the perfect snowy winter day feels, in its earth tones and blocky textures and puffy snow. And the board feels just right, as you twist and turn and dance down the side of a mountain. I have always had the impression that Cave’s programmers felt this sport in their bones, too. They understood the sub-culture, with its fusion of 1960s surf, 1970s skatepunk, 1980s techno, 1990s rave and trip-hop. They understood the teenage rebellion, the reckless thrill-seeking, the freedom of expression, the art. You’re Jackson Pollack riding the paintbrush down a mile-long canvas. All of these, they felt in their bones.

Best of all, Cave’s team understood the solitude of the sport. This game was always criticized for lacking a two-player mode where you could battle against a friend, or career mode where you compete for status, endorsements and your face on a Wheaties box. But that’s not the idea. In snowboarding, your only true friend and rival are the mountains themselves. It’s just you and nature and silence, and maybe that cassette tape copy of Bocanada playing in your Walkman.

Why are you here? What’s the point? You’re not here to compete in some professional circuit. You’re not here to compete for the Olympics. You’re not here to win competitions and endorsements and fame and glory. You’re here to live in the moment — “the felt presence of immediate experience.” You are here to surf the mountains, hills, forests and farms. You’re here to better yourself, to find that one perfect spot to make that perfect jump and score the perfect trick. There is always room for improvement, always another hill or rock that you can use to perform that stunt. That is why you exist.

Steep Slope Sliders is a videogame where you are dropped out of a moving helicopter onto mountains and are left to your own devices. Conratulations, kid, welcome to the world. Now do something with yourself before the trip ends.

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J-League Go Go Goal! (Sega Saturn)

J-League Go Go Goal! for Sega Saturn

J-League Go Go Goal! (1997, Tecmo)

J-League Go Go Goal is a sports videogame released by Tecmo for the Sega Saturn in Japan in 1997. This was the developer’s second title for the system, soon to be followed by the legendary Dead or Alive. This title arrived during a golden age for soccer games, and in its best moments can rival the genre’s best efforts.

Sega Saturn has an almost limitless supply of hidden gems. I don’t think anybody knows that this videogame even exists, which is crazy. Here lies a spectacular visual showcase for the system that surely boasts some of the finest graphics of the 32-bit era. Everything is presented in 704 x 480 “high resolution” mode, with a rock-solid 60 frames-per-second, large wonderfully animated polygon characters, and an overdose of 1980s “Sega Rock” that is both cheesy and awesome. The presentation is extremely polished, from team logos to the menus to the stadiums, without a hint of slowdown or polygon glitching anywhere to be seen.

There are 17 soccer teams from Japan’s J-League, complete with logos and team colors. You have substitutions, a host of strategies and formations, and a variety of kicks and maneuvers. You can play in four different stadiums that look more or less the same (less variety than Worldwide Soccer 97/98). There are exhibition and season modes, options for four players, and the Saturn 3D controller is used very nicely.

Gameplay is extremely solid. This is very much an “arcade” style soccer game, with endless air kicks and tackles and shots that always hit the goal pipe and then bounce back. The computer is a ruthless opponent, and you will quickly learn that few penalties are handed out, so you can play rough. The gameplay lacks the strategy and subtlety of Worldwide Soccer 97/98, which to my mind stands as the gold standard of Saturn sports games. Tecmo doesn’t quite reach those heights, but they come close, and if you play a couple matches with friends over pints of beer, well, this could become your new favorite. Anything is possible.

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Asuka 120% Burning Festival Limited (Sega Saturn)

Asuka 120% Burning Fest. Limited for Sega Saturn

Asuka 120% Burning Fest. Limited (1997, Fill-In-Cafe)

Now we come to one of my all-time favorite Sega Saturn videogames. Asuka 120% is a series that began on FM Towns and SharpX68000 and later migrated to PC Engine CD-ROM, Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn. The Saturn edition is widely considered the series’ best. This is an intensely fast and furious fighting game that rivals the best from Capcom and SNK. There are a dozen characters with their own unique moves (representing different high school clubs such as chemistry, ballet, tennis, cheerleading and wrestling), lots of furious attacks, reversals, crazy multi-hit combos and miraculous come-from-behind victories.

The character designs and animations are absolutely gorgeous. The lines curve and flow gracefully, and look terrific in motion. The fighters are just the right size, filled with color and move just like buttah. I had a lot of fun taking screenshots for this game (using the “2P watch” mode).

The fighting engine is simple but carries a lot of depth, allowing easy counters and reversals, and it’s easy to cancel combos into specials with ease. In fact, you can do pretty well just by mashing buttons, which is good for novice players. Experts will learn the proper skills and master the art of those 20-hit air combos. Battles are always intense and victory is never assured for anyone.

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Dinosaur Island (Sega Saturn)

Dinosaur Island for Sega Saturn

Dinosaur Island (1997, Game Arts for Sega Saturn)

Game Arts was one of the most successful software developers for Saturn, with Grandia, Lunar and Gun Griffon to their credit. Here is another brilliant gem, but sadly very obscure and unknown. Dino Island is an “interactive cartoon” that plays out like those “choose your own adventure” books from the 1980s. It’s not a traditional videogame in the sense that there are no goals or objectives or challenges. You’re really just watching a very entertaining and funny anime program.

Why should any of this matter? Because everything you see has been created using the Saturn graphics hardware, not FMV or MPEG. Because of this, the visuals are sharp, crisp and very colorful. Game Arts previously experimented with this technique with Yumimi Mix on Sega CD, which was later ported to the Saturn largely as-is. On Sega CD, the visuals were mostly still-shots; on Saturn, the animation is as lush and fluid as any television production. It looks nearly indistinguishable from cels.

The story takes place on an island that is populated by humans and a host of friendly dinosaurs. The people have learned to tame the animals by playing music, either using them for work or pets, kinda like The Flintstones. The main characters are a trio of high school students who attend a musical school for training dinos, and largely involve their various comical hijinks. The tone is always upbeat, cheerful and benign, layered with a lot of goofy Japanese anime humor.

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Street Fighter 2 Turbo (Super NES)

Street Fighter 2 Turbo
Capcom for Super NES – Fighting – 1993 – Rating: 10/10

A perfect ten out of ten, small surprise here.

I recently read that Street Fighter 2 on the Super NES was Capcom’s best-selling game of all time, over six million copies. That would include, at the time, just about every Super NES owner in 1992, plus a metric ton of new fans, eager just to play the arcade sensation at home. Street Fighter 2 Turbo was released a year later and brought home the latest coin-op versions, Champion Edition and Turbo Champion Edition. Likewise, this was a great success, continuing the momentum of the original craze.

The first three variations on SF2 are now all considered one videogame, since the later sequels and spin-offs made so many changes as to be unrecognizable. As for me, I hold Champion Edition as my personal favorite of the series. It’s as balanced and nuanced as the game gets, and after that, things just get out of control. Capcom falls victim to its chronic sequel-itis, and the need to always tinker with formulas to keep the kids coming back.

Whatever. Here is the best home version you’re likely to ever see on the Virtual Console service. Street Fighter Alpha 2, Alpha 3 and Street Fighter 3: Third Strike (the definitive versions on Sega Saturn and Dreamcast, respectively) won’t be arriving anytime in the near future. Totally unfair, but, again, whatever. This version is so perfectly playable that I can’t imagine anyone really minding. If you could never buy another home version of any Street Fighter game, you’ll be happy with this one.

If you bought the first SF2 when it was released, you’re likely wondering if you should pay again for the new cart. The answer is yes. There are quite a lot of graphics changes, especially in the character designs, which are older, sleeker, and slightly more brutish-looking. Background stages are the same, apart from some minor variations such as day-to-night. And Ryu put away those signs on his roof that were always getting smashed during fights.

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World Class Baseball (Turbografx-16)

World Class Baseball for Turbografx-16

World Class Baseball
Hudson Soft for Turbografx-16 – Sports – 1989 – Rating: 5/10

World Class Baseball was released as part of the Turbografx-16 launch lineup in August of 1989. NEC and Hudson Soft chose wisely to attract buyers at the dawn of the 16-bit era. Sports titles have always been consistent sellers for home videogames, and baseball is immensely popular in Japan. As it so happens, Sega offered their own baseball entry for their Genesis launch, also in August, dubbed Tommy Lasorda Baseball; both titles are strikingly similar, and fans of either system will enjoy defending team over its heated rival.

Unfortunately….yeah, you saw this coming, didn’t you? There always has to be a downside when we’re talking about sports games “B.E,” which, of course, means “Before Electronic Arts.” It’s no real surprise to gamers that EA muscled in and dominated every sport practically from day one. The dirty little secret for this is quite simple: most sports videogames before 1990 were not very good.

You would expect baseball to be the one sport done right, since its popularity in Japan and America would mean no shortage of titles. The growing pains, as well as the technological limitations, that hampered other sports like football, soccer, basketball, and hockey, could be overcome here. Also, baseball has always just been easier to render on the classic games systems, going back to the early days of Atari and Intellivision. Software developers should have more experience with this sport by the end of the 1980s.

Which brings us to World Class Baseball on the Turbografx. To its credit, this was a decent, presentable little game for 1989, and the bright colors and catchy synth music proved an attractive draw for the new system. But it ultimately suffers from the same problems that hurt all video baseball games of the period. Maybe that’s why I’m just as fine with the ancient Home Run on Atari 2600 as anything else. Home Run captured only the abstract, bare essence of the sport, but it was fast, competitive and extremely playable. World Class Baseball does not possess those qualities. It runs sluggishly, painfully slow. S-L-O-W.

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Altered Beast (Sega Genesis)

Altered Beast for Sega Genesis

Altered Beast
Sega for Genesis – Action – 1989 – Rating: 3/10

Altered Beast was actually a good arcade game, one of a whole pack of great Sega arcade hits during the mid- to late-1980s. Its angle was slightly unique: you play as a pair of dead soldiers resurrected by Zeus, who commands you to rescue his kidnapped daughter (because every videogame in the ’80s involved rescuing kidnapped girls). In your quest, you are empowered with glowing spheres that mutate you from Scrawny Zombie Loser to Steroid Freak to Mutant Animal Superhero. This is very screwy theology, but it resulted in a very enjoyable experience on afternoons after school.

This was one of Sega’s very first Mega Drive titles, released in 1988 in Japan, and released in 1989 as the pack-in titles for Sega Genesis. It was practically the textbook definition of a lazy pack-in videogame: barely serviceable, lazily executed, short and basic and all too simple. It’s a decent showcase for the new system’s powers, with large character sprites and digitized speech samples. But not really. Its only real function was to force you out to the mall in search of more videogames.

What’s wrong with Genesis Altered Beast? It’s a lousy, half-hearted conversion of the arcade. The graphics kinda look right, except the colors are flat and overly dithered, the animation is lacking, the difficulty severely clipped. Beyond that, the gameplay is extremely basic, with auto-scrolling, two-tiered landscapes that somehow manage to move too slowly, yet end far too soon. I swear these levels are less than two minutes long. When your character changes into his animal form, you sit up and notice because, hey, now this game is gonna be really cool. But then the stage ends five or ten seconds later and the boss appears, a complete pushover who is dispatched in mere seconds. The main villain appears, steals your steroid spheres, and you’re back to playing as the scrawny stringbean again. What a rip.

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The Legend of Zelda (NES)

The Legend of Zelda for NES

The Legend of Zelda
Nintendo for NES – Adventure – 1986 – Rating: 10/10

I.

Back in 2009, when I was finally successful in scoring a Nintendo Wii, one of the first videogames I purchased was The Legend of Zelda on Virtual Console. I hadn’t played it extensively since my early college days, thanks to my then-girlfriend who was a massively devoted fan. Since then, I skipped out on Nintendo’s reissue cartridge on Gameboy Advance, and only dabbled on rare occasions on FCE Ultra, the homebrew computer emulator.

I began playing, expecting only an hour or so of light, nostalgic fun. A couple days later, I had to pry myself away from my Wii Remote. I don’t remember if I ate or slept that weekend, one of those sort of weekends. I came away with two surprising insights: the original Legend of Zelda still rocked, and Nintendo really let their series fall into mediocrity over the years. This I did not expect.

For the longest time, I was convinced there was something wrong with me because I stopped enjoying the Zelda series. The Wind Waker struck me as needlessly cartoonish and dumb. Twilight Princess struck me as too bloated and drawn out (although it was clearly reaching back to Ocarina of Time after the Gamecube fan backlash had kicked in the doors). Phantom Hourglass felt infantile and endlessly boring. Heck, even Majora’s Mask, a quirky title I ought to champion, bored me to tears. Spirit Tracks and Skyward Sword were, frankly, enormously stupid.

Surely, something had to be wrong. I loved the early Zelda’s up to 1998’s Ocarina, which is just about the greatest videogame ever made. The games weren’t bad, and Nintendo at least continued to try new ideas within its increasingly stale formula. Something was off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. But once I reconnected with the original 1986 Zelda, everything snapped into focus. I understood exactly where Nintendo went wrong.

The Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo’s most iconic videogames. It is nearly as influential as Super Mario Brothers, and can be thought of as its cousin. Both games inhabit a similar obsession with parallel worlds, one on the surface, the other hidden away in the corners of the screen and packed with surprises. Both built upon the genre innovations of recent years to create something new. And their feet were equally grounded in classic arcade games.

So what happened to the Zelda franchise? Nintendo took the “Action” out of “Action-RPG.” Like most videogame developers, they became obsessed with being perceived as “artists,” “rock stars” or “movie directors.” They became obsessed with mainstream cultural acceptance, apart from the negative stereotype of computer programming nerds. They became obsessed with predictable, simple “puzzles” at the expense of action. They became obsessed with “stories” and “characters,” even though hardly anyone possessed any talent or skill for it (mostly aping bad Hollywood blockbuster movie cliches). “Arcade videogames” became associated with everything these creators sought to avoid.

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Super Metroid (Super NES)

Super Metroid for Super NES

Super Metroid
Nintendo for Super NES – Adventure – 1994 – Rating: 10/10

Name the best videogame ever made for the Super NES. For some, it’s Super Mario World or The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Others, Super Mario Kart or Sim City. A number will point to Street Fighter 2 Turbo, Final Fantasy 3 or Chrono Trigger. And a lot of you will insist that it’s really Super Metroid.

The Metroid fans are probably correct. This might very well be the Super Nintendo’s finest hour.

I think some part of the mystique about Super Metroid is the fact that the game remained alone, without any sequels or follow-ups, for so many years. While Mario and Zelda and the rest continued with newer games on the Super NES and Nintendo 64, Metroid held back, alone in its own little world. It really wasn’t until 2002, eight years later, that a new installment finally arrived, and even then, gamers were surprised to discover a 3D shooter that was closer to Quake or Powerslave then their beloved Metroid.

In the meantime, Konami completely reinvents its old Castlevania franchise by aping the gameplay structure of Super Metroid. Nintendo’s forgotten classic was becoming a legend, influencing others. Goodness knows Konami sure loved that game, enough to shamelessly steal from it for every 2D Castlevania game ever since.

Oh, yeah, sure, Nintendo eventually figured things out, and returned to their roots with a pair of Metroid titles on the Game Boy Advance. But let’s be honest here: those games weren’t as good. The first one, Metroid Fusion, made a mess of everything with a virus infestation that turns Samus Aran into a mutant. The second, Metroid: Zero Mission was better, but, again, it just felt like a dumbed-down kiddie version of the 1994 masterpiece. Remember those Atari 2600 games that had the child-friendly mode with the teddy bear icon? Yeah, that’s exactly what Zero Mission was all about, a Metroid that coddles you and holds you by the hand, when not stumbling into Hayao Miyazaki’s Ohmus.

Words that come to mind when I think of Super Metroid: dark, moody, mysterious. This is just about the heaviest game Nintendo ever made — “heavy” in that late 1960s, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple sense. The whole enterprise just breathes in a thick, misty atmosphere, this strange alien landscape, this mishmash of different cultures. This world that Samus Aran finds herself in, this is a world with a history. You can almost trace that history as you progress through the game, spotting the places where some poor fool vainly tried to civilize the place. You can see the corpses for yourself to see how that turned out.

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Baseball Stars 2 (Neo-Geo)

Baseball Stars 2 for Neo-Geo

Baseball Stars 2
SNK for Neo-Geo – Sports – 1992 – Rating: 8/10

Baseball Stars 2 is one of the signature Neo-Geo titles. It perfectly captures the rebel vibe SNK was going after when they launched their arcade/home system: flashy, brash, over-confident, and irreverent. It also happens to play a very good game of baseball.

There have been a million baseball videogames during the 1980s and 1990s, and to be perfectly honest, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between any of ’em. Most are serviceable, some are quite good, and they’re nearly all identical. The batter-pitcher view is always the same, as is the control scheme and play mechanics. Aside from a small handful of exceptions — the masterpiece that is World Series Baseball 98 on Sega Saturn always comes to mind — video baseball is a predictable, safe, and slightly stale genre of electronic games.

What Baseball Stars 2 has in spades is attitude. All of the baseball players are mutated steroid freaks, carrying powered-up bats that may as well be tree trunks. Pumping fists, breaking the bat over the knee, aggressive machismo, dramatic diving for the ball — this is almost like a cartoon spoof of sports games. What’s interesting is that SNK’s previous games in the series (two previous Baseball Stars titles appeared on the NES and Neo-Geo) were playing it straight. Isn’t that weird? Perhaps they just needed an over-the-top sports game on Neo-Geo. The system mascot was a rabid pit bull, after all.

My favorite moment in the game is when you bean the batter with a fast pitch. He gets knocked down, then rushes the mound, and punches the pitcher clean on the jaw. I don’t know why I always laugh when that happens. The closeup shot makes me laugh. I only wish the pitcher could fight back, instead of taking it on the jaw. The best part is that your pitcher becomes crippled after getting punched out; his pitches become slow and wobbly. Hah!

Other than all that, what is there to say? It’s arcade baseball. The gameplay is the same as nearly every other baseball videogame, the controls are fast and fluid, the graphics are vivid, brash, supremely detailed in that early ’90s arcade style. There are no leagues or seasons or playoffs, just a single match between two teams of rage-fueled steroid freaks. This game is best for short bursts of dumb fun, and especially good for showing off the 16-bit graphics of the Neo-Geo. I don’t know if that sort of thing can impress teenagers in the 21st Century, but if they have any sense, it should. It was really awesome back in 1991. Everything was awesome in 1991.

Bonk’s Adventure (Turbografx-16)

Bonk’s Adventure for Turbografx-16

Bonk’s Adventure
Red Entertainment, A.I and Atlus for Turbografx-16 – Action – 1990 – Rating: 7/10

Let’s just get this out of the way:
Bonk’s Adventure isn’t in the same league as Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog. Those are the giants, the premier “A” list. Bonk is a very solid and entertaining side-scrolling videogame. It inhabits a lot of charm and humor. It’s certainly a must-have for Turbografx fans. But it belongs squarely on the “B” list.

I think you’ll get into trouble if you expect Bonk to perform as a “killer app” mascot title. You can become overwhelmed by the hype, just as so many cartoon mascots were overwhelmed. You expect perfection from Bonk, Acro, Zero, Ristar, Socket, Sparkster, Mr. Nutz, Jazz Jackrabbit, Boogerman, or any number of characters who crowded the 16-bit scene. And when they reveal themselves to be less than perfect, flawed, or the dreaded “good, not great,” all hell breaks loose. The gamers throw fits, the prozines stick up their noses, and, well, this is how we end up in a world where the only viable videogame hero is an armored, steroid-fueled space marine.

So there’s a strong case to be made for the virtue of “good but not great.”

Bonk’s Adventure has a number of qualities I enjoy. First and foremost are the character designs, which are inventive, crazy, zany, irreverent, and just plain goofy. When you beat the final boss, King Drool (a lumbering green dinosaur with a big shiny crown on his head), you are rewarded with a complete character roll call, and it’s a trip. A dinosaur with glasses? A swaying green cactus with google eyes? A hatchet-wielding dino with a round bone head..or is that a mask? I’m never sure. He looks like one of the Pac-Man ghosts. Whatever. He’s fun, whoever he is.

Bonk himself is quite the character, a cave boy with an enormous Charlie Brown head that he uses as a weapon. He climbs walls and trees by chomping with his enormous teeth. And he has a junkie’s addiction to meat, which drives him into a rage, smashing through everything in sight. His many facial expressions are a hoot. He’s definitely having a lot of fun.

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