Date archives for December, 2008

December 31st, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 10 – Shining Force II

SFIIEasily one of the all-time great RPGs, Shining Force II on the Mega Drive took a great original and improved it tenfold. The decision to ditch the chapter system in favour of freely roaming the map granted the player much greater scope to explore and discover – I remember finding an academy of monks and thinking “I shouldn’t be here!” because it was a secret!

The battle system is always the core of a Shining game, and although SFII introduces fewer new features than the series’ third instalment it’s hard to complain when it’s so close to perfection. Each character has a clear role to play, and even if you don’t like them there are plenty of others waiting to take their place, from the seemingly useless lizard (whom I named Verol after the NiGHTS enemy!) to an endless array of centaurs, archers and birdmen. There’s also opportunity to access a limited number of extra promotions for your characters such as Pegasus Knight, meaning there’s always something to come back for. The battle scenarios themselves are imaginatively designed – keeping your Force out of the sightlines of the Prism Flowers, fighting the huge Kraken (an SF staple) and felling Taros with Bowie’s Achilles Sword all stand out almost ten years since I first played it.

The music also deserves special mention for providing a wide range of rousing, chilling and relaxing pieces as high quality as any other RPG. Working on a number of themes, yet each distinctive enough to stand out, the music excels at drawing you into Granseal.  Princess Ellis, in particular, is one of the all-time great pieces of RPG music. It’s almost a shame Motoaki Takenouchi was replaced by the rather less subtle (in my eyes) Motoi Sakuraba for the third instalment, but to be honest he would have struggled to beat this stunning soundtrack.

Following the traditional RPG route of a young group of friends gaining strength to vanquish a great evil, Shining Force II does little new over the first one, but does it so brilliantly it doesn’t really matter. A truly great game and, with the exception of Shining Force III, better than any Shining game since.

December 30th, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 11 – Rez

Rez If Team Andromeda had intended for Panzer Dragoon to be played in nightclubs, they would have created Rez. Tetsuya Mizuguchi changed the rhythm genre with Space Channel 5 and the puzzle genre with Lumines, but neither approaches the beauty and ingenuity of Rez.

Essentially, Rez is an on-rails shooter in the classic mould of AfterBurner, Space Harrier, Panzer Dragoon and more. There are no bullets, just lock-on lasers, of which you can fire up to eight at a time. Each level is divided into ten areas with a final boss, and to pass each area you must simply find and destroy a small box. It doesn’t sound hugely innovative, but every aspect of the game exudes style, elevating it far beyond its simple concept.

Graphically speaking, Rez is the most unexpectedly beautiful game you’re likely to encounter. Made up of simple wireframe models against a black void, it’s like being back in a 1980s Atari arcade game, but this simplicity is deceiving; the beauty is in the execution of such minimalism, with no need to introduce huge explosions or cluttered backgrounds. There’s a wonderful sense of fluidity and inertia to the game, and you can feel yourself gaining momentum as you approach each of the five stunning bosses.

stg3_05bPart of that sense of acceleration is down to the astonishing soundtrack, which does the impossible by making me like dance music. Each level begins extremely sparsely, with perhaps a simple drumline and some bass, but grows with each area, swelling into some of the most exciting and adrenaline-boosting music I’ve heard in a game. I could tell it was good when I found my heart beating faster and my foot tapping halfway through the first level of my first play. Couple that with the now infamous "trance vibrator" and you’re left with a completely euphoric experience that leaves you sweating every bit as much as any Wii game.

There’s just something revelatory about playing Rez that I can’t define. In spite of its simplicity, it’s not a casual game by any means, and I’ve found it requires quite a level of preparation to enjoy it properly. Such preparation will be familiar to any gamer – curtains closed, lights down, music up – but the idea of creating atmosphere for the game is a huge part of its appeal. It doesn’t work in daylight; it’s an intimate, sometimes demanding experience that reciprocates your input tenfold.

stg4_08bRez is a classic Sega game because I can’t imagine it coming from any other publisher. It’s a testament to the freedom and expression they afford to their most talented staff that such a game got made when it would perhaps have been easier for Sega to push Mr Mizuguchi back towards more lucrative arcade driving games. Such integrity is a classic Sega characteristic.

Rez‘s rarity on Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 places a high price barrier in front of many people after the original dance-on-a-disc game, but with Rez HD one of the best-selling games on Xbox Live (which must please Mr Mizuguchi after Lumines Live‘s poor performance!) there’s never been a better time to access this true classic in Sega’s history.

December 29th, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 12 – Panzer Dragoon Zwei

Panzer Dragoon Zwei One thing unites the games in this top fifteen: they all have class. They might be flawed, they might not be universally agreed on as the greatest Sega games ever, but they are all undeniably wonderful games with tremendous class, and nowhere is this more evident than Panzer Dragoon Zwei.

The original Panzer Dragoon in 1995 introduced us to the series’ bizarre world, but Zwei (or PDZ) threw us deeper into its military struggles from the point of view of a young boy named Lundi and his Khouriat, Lagi. We soon discover that Lagi has the power to fire laser blasts, and so when Lundi’s village is attacked the two do their best to defend their settlement, and from then on a huge adventure is set into motion.

The action itself is very similar to the on-rails original, but different paths are available at certain points which bring replay value to the levels. As you progress through the game your dragon gains strength and changes shape depending on your score, evolving into the most powerful dragon only if you achieve 100% shot-down ratio on each level, a task to test even the most skilled players. The evolution system went onto influence Panzer Dragoon Saga and Panzer Dragoon Orta extremely heavily.

Panzer games are always an aesthetic treat, and PDZ was arguably one of the greatest-looking games of its time, at least until Panzer Dragoon Saga. The tremendous and coherent design shines through with incredible architecture and enemies, with several highlights including the enormous Alien-like creature in Episode 3 and the classic waterway chase in Episode 4. Each time it manages to make the scripted events seem surprising and spontaneous, and with the addition of Pandora’s Box makes each playthrough different.

All in all, Panzer Dragoon Zwei is a stunning achievement that stands up even now as a wonderful shoot ’em up that succeeds by making the Panzer world one of the most alive and amazing ever created, and sits perfectly as one of the dozen best Sega classics.

December 28th, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 13 – Sonic CD

Sonic CDI never fully understood Sonic CD‘s quality until I bought it for the Mega CD this year (best year EVER). I’d dabbled in the PC and Sonic Gems Collection releases, but when I got the original edition I sat down to play it as it was first intended, and it completely blew me away.

One of my favourite aspects of Sonic CD is Sonic’s animation – just before Sonic 3 made him a more rounded character (in more ways than one), Sonic CD gives us a lean, lithe Sonic, who manages to combine grace and menace in his movements. The level backdrops all feature trademark Sonic touches, from swaying trees to running water, and the bosses stride and stamp on anything in their way.

Speaking of animation, the introductory movie stands as the greatest moving depiction of Sonic ever, as he races through the green fields, the sun racing through the blue sky filled with clouds (and so on…). He breaks boulders, runs on water and even leaves a rainbow when he splashes water behind him. It’s exhilarating and is one of very, very few animations to demonstrate it actually “gets” Sonic. The ending is every bit as good too, of course.

sonic_cd24 The biggest innovation seen in Sonic CD was the introduction of time travel to the mix, and its success is a big raspberry to anyone who claims Sonic was only ever about speed. Within each level lies a number of time posts, which when activated let you travel back or forwards through time when you reach the right speed (88mph, perhaps?). It’s not just a gimmick, with new routes available in each time period, and destroying Dr Robotnik’s factory in each Act’s past creates an amazingly joyful future, full of blue skies and free animals. Even the music changes, with the Good Future Palmtree Panic being one of my favourite Sonic tunes ever.

One thing that came to mind whilst writing this article was how good a brand new 2D Sonic would have been on the Sega Saturn. It was such a powerful 2D machine that a new game designed to take advantage of all its features would have been absolutely amazing, especially when the Sonic Xtreme videos show what was being achieved in 3D. I suppose I’ll have to add that to the bottom of my list of Sonic regrets.

Sandwiched between Sonic 2 and Sonic 3, Sonic CD bridges the gap beautifully, combining Sonic 2‘s style with Sonic 3‘s heavy exploration, creating an adventure that still amazes over fifteen years after its release.

Thanks to UK:Resistance for providing the screenshots!

December 27th, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 14 – Streets of Rage 2

Streets of Rage 2Following on from the superb first game, Streets of Rage 2 goes bigger and better, with more characters, chunkier graphics and even more dance classics from Yuzo Koshiro.

The bazooka support attacks from the first game are replaced by life bar-sapping special moves like Axel’s Fire Punch, and keeping the fights at this close-range works in the game’s favour immensely. Two-player mode ramps the intensity up further, and teaming up with a friend to take down the scores of thugs is as satisfying as games get. New characters Max and Skate occupy opposite ends of the speed-power spectrum, keeping all four fighters different enough to mean everyone’s favourite is good enough to take down Mr Big.

One last word on the game’s music, which just like Headhunter raises the game’s quality significantly, but in this case the quality is already stunningly high. Yuzo Koshiro’s dance beats keep the blood pumping through each level, and every piece is something close to nirvana. It’s hard to believe this is the same Yuzo Koshiro who went on to craft such subtle piano tracks for Shenmue, but in the early 90s it was all about dance, and nobody did it better.

Streets of Rage-style games seem to have gone out of fashion over the past few generations, which is a real shame as there’s huge possibilities for four-player combat and online play. Sega tried to keep the genre going with Die Hard Arcade in 1997 and later Spikeout, both of which are decent games just missing a certain spark. Streets of Rage II has sparks in abundance, and even some fifteen years on, it’s still the pinnacle of the scrolling beat ’em up genre.

December 26th, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 15 – Metropolis Street Racer

MSR Originally hyped up as the Dreamcast’s Gran Turismo beater, when Metropolis Street Racer eventually surfaced it became clear it was nothing of the sort, and is all the better for it: you won’t find Sega GT on this list.

To use the game’s slightly cheesy tagline, it’s not about how fast you drive, it’s about how you drive fast, and as the first game to measure performance outside laptimes and race rankings it deserves its praise. Its Kudos system, where players are rewarded not only for winning races but doing so in style with power slides and slick overtakes, was a true step forward. More importantly, however, you’re only as good as your last race – if you return to a previously completed circuit and perform worse, your Kudos diminishes. You can even set higher goals for yourself – want to give your opponent a thirty-second headstart? Think you can win in an underpowered car, or keep your average speed above 100mph? This kind of player-led gameplay is a true innovation and extends the gameplay almost infinitely – you determine how you want to be challenged and then measure up to your own standards.

On top of this, MSR is accurately modelled on real-life cities – you’ll recognise the landmarks in San Francisco, Tokyo and London as you race along the three different districts in each city in hundreds of course variants. The game also uses real time to calculate the appropriate timezone, so Tokyo’s in full swing as the sun sets in San Francisco, and there’s mist, rain and downpours to contend with, both features Bizarre Creations have only just put back into Project Gotham Racing 4.

MSR 2 Equally important to MSR‘s brilliance is the soundtrack, all created by serial Sega Top 50 namedrop Richard Jacques (did I mention I met him once?). Each city has three radio stations playing distinctly different styles, from country to MOR rock and J-pop to jazz. Real-life presenters announce the songs, give “shout outs” and read sponsored links, adverts for real products (Tango’s being the best) feature and there’s even interference if you drive under a tunnel. That’s to say nothing of the quality of the songs themselves, which hit all the right marks in each genre whilst being highly enjoyable in their own right. Hearing I Can Still Believe at GameCity in 2006 was a highlight, and in its original form here it’s still a wonderful pop song.

I’m not a racing fan at all, but all it takes is a few laps with the Dreamcast wheel to realise it’s as fresh, enjoyable and important as when it was released those years ago. With Project Gotham now out of Bizarre’s hands, I wonder if we could see the MSR name resurrected.

December 25th, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 16 – Sonic the Hedgehog

sonicThat iconic title screen; the refreshing emphasis on pace, not precision; smashing through walls. There are so many hundreds of reasons why Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the greatest games of all time by any company, but you simply cannot extricate him from the modern day Sega we all know and love.

As fondly as we all think of Alex Kidd, he was never going to be a more recognisable mascot than Mario, particularly as his games were nowhere near as good (sorry, Alex – I appreciate you coming out of retirement for Sega Superstars Tennis, though). Enter Sonic and Sega’s whole position changed from under siege to undefeatable, creating a phenomenon that blew Europe and America away.

I could give a rich analysis of Sonic and everything he started in 1991, but it wouldn’t be anything you hadn’t read before, so here’s my account of why he’s so important to me.

The first time I saw Sonic the Hedgehog was at my brother’s new flat. As a family we’d always had computers – Atari STs, VIC 20s and so on – and this was my very first time playing on a video games console. I couldn’t believe it looked so advanced, with all the parallax scrolling and background animation, not to mention the speed. I don’t think I was very good at it, but my brother showed me the now-famous level select cheat and warped to the Final Zone. I was a mixture of jealous and terrified, I think.Sonic

After that I really, really wanted a Mega Drive, but at the time they were still quite expensive, so my parents compromised and bought me a Master System. I didn’t mind at all, as long as I got to play Sonic, and I have to say it’s a tough call for me to decide between the Mega Drive and Master System versions of the first game. The Master System holds so many good memories for me, and I spent hours and hours finding Chaos Emeralds and special stages, and the music and design still warms my heart. Having defeated the boss of Jungle Zone once, I leapt across a gap to finish the level and actually died, probably the only time someone has completed a level and then snuffed it. “Doing a Jungle Zone” is still a popular insult with my brother.

Sonic copyIt goes without saying that Sonic is a fantastic game, and it is here on merit, but to me it’s so much more: it is a memory of times I can’t enjoy any more. I really fell in love with Sonic the Hedgehog, more so on Master System than Mega Drive. To me it was the start of a new passion without limits, and if my parents hadn’t bought me that Master System with Sonic the Hedgehog built in, I’m certain I would have turned out completely differently, which sounds dramatic but I’m convinced is true. I’m sure when most people look back at branching moments in their lives they think of jobs they didn’t get, lovers who left them and so on, but in my young life I can trace this James Newton all the way back to that day I first played Sonic the Hedgehog. I wouldn’t change that for anything.

Merry Christmas!

December 24th, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 17 – ChuChu Rocket

ChuChu RocketPossibly the King of puzzle games. ChuChu Rocket combines reactions and strategy to create the ultimate game of cat and mouse. Like every great puzzle game, its simplicity is its strength – use arrows to guide your mice into rockets, avoiding the cats and holes.

It was also the first ever online console game in Europe (Sega having already been first in America and Japan with the Saturn!) with frantic four-player arrow-placing aplenty. Even offline there’s much skulduggery to be had, with Kapu Kapu terrorising your opponents’ rockets and devouring whole strings of mice headed towards the safety of the Moon. Refreshingly there’s also a co-operative mode that lets you rebuild some of that broken trust.

The GameBoy Advance version was perfectly suited to the format, despite the loss of online play. Compensating for it however were 5,000 puzzles created by players from all over the world, although to solve them all would need a MENSA-level IQ and a life sentence. There’s also a cat and mouse sprite editor that lets you create your own characters, which I’m sure led to many ChuChu Rockets around the world becoming KnobKnob Rocket. I used mine to lead Sonics away from Robotniks, of course.

When the DS was announced, Sega revealed that Nintendo had specifically requested a touch screen version of ChuChu Rocket, which is why I’m so amazed it hasn’t happened yet, nearly four years down the line. It’s perfectly suited to the handheld – online play, a touch screen interface to place arrows and with double screens you could even do two-player on a single machine. If not a DS version, surely Xbox Live Arcade would give these little mice a good home? I know you’re reading, Sega!

December 23rd, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 18 – Christmas NiGHTS

Christmas NiGHTS What? A novelty demo ranking in above OutRun, Crazy Taxi and any one of a hundred Sega classics? Yes, actually. I know it’s short, but considering it’s more NiGHTS, it’s a wonder it isn’t positioned higher.

The joy of Christmas NiGHTS is revealed slowly over the course of a few months. It uses the Saturn’s internal clock to initiate different events – on April 1st you can play as Reala instead of NiGHTS, for example. The real beauty, however, starts in November: the title screen reads “Winter NiGHTS”, and there’s a soft covering of snow on Spring Valley. From December, all the characters start to dress in Christmas-themed outfits (see the image above right), and wreaths, bells, Christmas trees and more all appear in the game’s levels. It’s odd to draw a comparison between NiGHTS and Animal Crossing, but it’s always good to point out that Sega came up with an idea first. After finishing the boss, you get to play a card-matching game that reveals presents, from rendered artwork to sound tests and more. Some games offer these as standard now of course, but for a game as beautifully crafted as NiGHTS to show itself off is always a joy. There are some less welcome presents, mind – I’d be happy never seeing the promotional videos again.

I could list all the presents and why they’re so great – Sonic fights a Puffy Robotnik! Dreams Dreams Karaoke! – but really, if I could be slightly cheesy a second, the whole game is a present. Yuji Naka was inspired to make it when he saw the extra content Christmas Lemmings offered, and his gift was given away in various forms – pack-in deals, send-off promotions, and in the UK a covermount on Sega Saturn Magazine. Obviously serving a dual purpose as a reward for fans and an introduction for NiGHTS virgins, it was a good piece of marketing all around, and the sort of treat we don’t see enough of.

I’m disappointed there wasn’t more use of the Wii’s internal clock in NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams, which you might be surprised to discover hasn’t made it into this countdown. For a long while Christmas NiGHTS was as much a part of my Christmas preparation as presents and carols; I remember the first time I played on Christmas Eve and kept noticing a strange object whizzing around in the background. After evading me several times I managed to pause the game and saw a miniature Santa Claus and reindeer dashing around Nightopia. You cannot imagine how much this made me grin, and for that alone it’s worthy of a place in my top twenty.

December 22nd, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 19 – Columns

ColumnsI could easily have used Columns 3, with its vicious 5-player modes, or Columns Crown for its Flash Columns puzzles, but the original ate more of my hours than is perhaps wise to admit, so gets my nod of shame.

Columns’ greatest quality is its hypnotism. The ancient-sounding music combines with the glowing gems to create an atmosphere that switches between relaxing and frantic. Play long enough and you get “Columns Eye”, where it becomes possible to see through the screen and move the gems as if with the power of your mind. It lingers too – if I worked in a jewellers, all you’d have to do is whistle Atropos and it would be carnage. I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen three similar items – three grooves in a wooden bathroom panel spring to mind -and thought "they’d disappear if I lined them up."

I can’t write too much about Columns, because surely everybody knows what it is by now. Sega seem more interested in pushing Puyo Pop on us these days, when really they have far greater puzzle games in their history, Columns and ChuChu Rocket in particular. Columns might be thought of as the poor man’s Tetris, but it’s every bit as rich.

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