Date archives for December, 2008

December 13th, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 27 – OutRun 2006: Coast to Coast

OutRun 2006 copySega have always been very good at sequels, with Virtua Fighter and House of the Dead growing bigger and better with each addition, but OutRun 2006: Coast to Coast is a very rare find: a follow-up to a follow-up that still manages to feel completely fresh.

Drifting around corners, gliding between traffic and reaching the next stage with seconds to spare feels every bit as good as its 1984 brother. Coast to Coast improves on OutRun 2 by adding routes across America to the classic courses, and the horrible-sounding “Heart Attack” mode, combined with the “OutRun miles” system of unlocking extras, keeps this an engaging single player experience.

I’ve intentionally included this much higher than the original OutRun, even though I said in my first post that only the top twenty are in sequential order. OutRun 2006: Coast to Coast takes all the best elements of the original and updates them; from the cars’ handling to the classic European-flavoured routes, it’s an extremely faithful sequel. The new music isn’t quite so consistent in its quality, but Shiny World stands out as an extremely strong track with a brilliant bassline and a lead guitar line to make your ears explode. That’s to say nothing of the stellar remixes by Richard Jacques, which take the Latino essence of the originals and infuse them with a Euro dance-stroke-carnival euphoria that’s infectious enough to start a conga at a moment’s notice. If you’ve ever seen Mr Jacques play Magical Sound Shower live, you’ll appreciate the dexterity and complexity of these reworkings.

Did I already mention there are rumours of OutRun Online in development by Sega and THQ? Let’s hope Sumo can muscle in there as well!

December 12th, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 28 – Comix Zone

Comix Zone One of the most distinctive of Sega’s many Mega Drive beat ‘em ups, Comix Zone  follows struggling comic artist Sketch Turner as he’s somehow sucked into his own comic book world. It’s all a bit Last Action Hero, but it’s a classic idea brilliantly realised.

Each level in Comix Zone is based on an issue of Sketch’s comic, divided into frames along the way. Not just a gimmick, it serves as the game’s strongest asset, as enemies are drawn, erased and smashed through paper boundaries along the way. It almost goes without saying that the game has a great art style, with long-limbed characters and nicely drawn backgrounds, but it’s worth noting that it perfectly suits the game’s style and all moves beautifully.

The fighting itself is better than your average scrolling fighter, with plenty of moves at Sketch’s disposal, from spin kicks to uppercuts, and there’s also a wide range of inventory items, including a page-shredding superhero and Sketch’s pet rat, Roadkill. The little rodent proves invaluable when it comes to revealing secrets hidden within frames and has a nice little electricity attack when called on.

I can’t think of much bad to say about Comix Zone. The music is a little on the rough side – the Mega Drive just wasn’t supposed to do rock – and a two-player mode would have gone down well, but ultimately it’s a great fusion of graphics and gameplay to create a truly unique fighter.

December 11th, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 29 – AfterBurner

AfterburnerThe epitome of the 1980s arcade game – instant action, bold sights and sounds and, with the hydraulic cabinet, an overwhelming experience impossible to replicate in the home. That said, Sega have had a lot of practice over the years, porting it to everything from the Atari ST to the Sega Saturn, which naturally receives an arcade-perfect port. The recent sequels, AfterBurner Climax and AfterBurner Black Falcon, are both graphically stunning, full of Sonic blue skies and Super Sonic yellow suns, not to mention the sheer amount of enemies to blow up every second.

If you’ve never played AfterBurner, it essentially set the template for huge numbers of shoot ‘em ups that followed – the Panzer Dragoon series in particular borrows heavily. Piloting your F-14 Tomcats, you obliterate all approaching enemies with your vulcans and lock-on missiles. It’s completely gratifying, and the evading enemy fire with a barrel roll is one of the most satisfying shoot ‘em up moments. AM2’s output in the 1980s produced some of the arcade’s finest titles, and AfterBurner sits proudly with the best.

December 10th, 2008
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No. 30 – Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games

Mario and SonicAlmost single-handedly responsible for Sega’s most successful financial year since 1992, it’s easy to forget that for all its success Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games could have ended up a terrible game, an anomaly in the rivalries between the two heroes. 

It seems like a recipe for surefire commercial (if not critical) success – take the world’s best-selling consoles, mix it with the game world’s most recognisable characters, the Olympic licence and release it around Christmas. Luckily it was also a huge word-of-mouth success, as its accessible take on track and field entertained everyone who played it, and it sold out countless times in the run-up to Christmas. It’s had long-standing sales though, rarely (if ever – I forget!) dipping out of the all-formats top ten, and with the real Olympics I’m sure its sales will see another boost pretty soon.

MandSEnough of its success though – it is actually a good game, at its best in the multiplayer events that combine plenty of frantic Remote shaking with skilful timing. There’s plenty to unlock as well, from extra standard events to the “Dream Events” that mix athletics with game elements such as Green Shells and Super Sneakers. For such a casual game there’s plenty of depth to it, and even if you haven’t got three friends you can still get plenty of life by challenging the scores on the online leaderboards.

There are rumours of a second Mario and Sonic Olympics to be released around this Christmas, and in all honesty I can’t think of too much they could introduce to improve it. Online multiplayer, more characters and events and Wii Balance Board support would be welcome additions, but the original is a truly classic sports game that will still be as enjoyable ten years on.

December 9th, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 31 – Crazy Taxi

Crazy Taxi Probably one of Sega’s most widely-enjoyed arcade games of its time, and it’s not hard to see why – Crazy Taxi is pure cool, from its wild characters to its sunny take on San Francisco, it drips with style. The core gameplay mechanic is as accessible as they come, as you ferry passengers between landmarks, giving them as many thrills on the way as possible.

Crazy Taxi’s impact diminished somewhat with each sequel, but that’s likely because the original is as close to playability perfection as can be. The sheer joy of leaping over those first three hills is on a par with any arcade moment you could mention, and the sheer scale of the map gives you endless choice with routes and customers in search of that elusive Crazy ranking.

The second game in the series adds a Crazy Jump that, while fun, maybe makes the game a little easy. Having said that, the Mini Golf-based Crazy Box game is absolutely stupendous – you speed up to a giant golf ball, fling your cab into the air and try to send the ball as far as possible. Like all the best Crazy Box games, it’s simple, built around a few skills and is unbelievably addictive.

The home versions have added various minigames, and the PSP’s Fare Wars even adds two-player gameplay, but for sheer fun you can’t beat those solo three minutes in San Francisco.

December 8th, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 32 – Sonic Adventure

Sonic AdventureSome Sonic fans would rather this was excluded altogether, whereas some would cry out it wasn’t placed higher. In my eyes, Sonic Adventure is a wonderful game with enough small flaws to stop it placing higher.

When I saw Sonic Adventure as a Dreamcast launch title, it blew me away. I’ll always remember staring open-mouthed as the helicopter flew through Station Square, and all the lighting effects and reflections made my spine tingle, and still do. I could recount a hundred moments that stand out in my memory – the Orca chase, Speed Highway’s corkscrews, snowboarding, the Lost World – but Sonic Adventure makes it onto this list for more than sentimental reasons.

SAThe first proper attempt to get Sonic into 3D was always going to be difficult, and Adventure’s control and camera problems are notorious. The Gamecube remake DX: Director’s Cut actually exacerbates these, but in their original form they’re still obstacles to be overcome in order to prevent many an accidental death. When the problems behave, the gameplay is slick, fast and beautifully paced as you tear through ancient temples and enormous airships. It’s classic Sonic fare, or rather, it is when you play as Sonic or Tails.

As an attempt to vary the gameplay, and to flesh out the main narrative, you play through six character stories, each with distinct gameplay styles, from Knuckles’ treasure hunt to Gamma’s Panzer Dragoon-style shooter. Most notorious, and rightly so, are Big the Cat’s fishing levels, which while briefly enjoyable become abominably frustrating all too quickly. Unfortunately you have to sit through his levels to reach the game’s proper conclusion, a big black mark on Sonic Adventure’s name. 

sonic_adventure_003That’s not to say Sonic’s levels are the only reason to play. I got extremely involved in the Chao-raising minigame, rearing all kinds of freaks and sending them off to the Daycare. I used to love receiving their little emails, telling me how they were getting along, and like Sega Rally’s online leaderboards – and the Dreamcast itself – it was years and years ahead of its time.

With all the talk of Sonic Unleashed being a “proper” 3D Sonic game, I think we could have got there many years ago if Sonic Adventure had ditched a few characters and worked on its camera system. It has all Sonic’s best bits – speed, attitude, imagination, amazing music – it just introduced a few new flaws we hadn’t seen before. It isn’t perfect, but as Sonic’s first baby steps into 3D it’s an extremely impressive game.

December 7th, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 33 – Ristar

If you were asked to think of a Sonic Team-developed Mega Drive platform game with a spiky hero, you’d be forgiven not to answer "Ristar" immediately. That’s a shame really, because his only appearance is a wonderful adventure full of vibrancy and innovation.

ristar_consola_virtual_wiiIt’s hard to imagine now, but there was once a time when seemingly every other game released was a cutesy platform game (I’m currently playing Wonderdog on Mega CD, a prime example!), but Ristar mixed in some innovation with all the bright colours and big eyes. His key difference lies in his stretchy arms, which can be used to grab hard-to-reach items, ledges and enemies, which he bashes against his head in an extremely satisfying manner. They’re not as flexible as, say, the Bionic Commando‘s arms, but they bring a great sense of freedom to the game’s levels, as you swing between vines and generate speed on hand-cranks. It’s an extremely versatile concept that deserved far greater exploration than Ristar‘s solitary 16-bit adventure suggests – zipping around Angel Island Zone with extending arms would be revelatory.

Released pretty late in the Mega Drive’s life, Ristar is a forgotten gem in Sega’s back catalogue, but having recently got a welcome second lease of life in Sega Mega Drive Collection he’s now making the fans he deserves.

December 6th, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 34 – Golden Axe

The arcade equivalent of Conan the Barbarian, Golden Axe isn’t about finesse or subtlety, it’s just about clobbering. As one of three warriors, you set out to kill the evil Death Adder, a quest that involves killing practically everybody you see with sword, axe or the help of a huge fire-breathing dragon.

goldenaxeAs a single-player game it’s not really got much to it, but like so many similar games it becomes a riot once a second player joins in, as you cooperate to eliminate the enemies and compete for the potions that open up new magic attacks. Beating each other up is naturally more fun than attacking the proper targets, a fact that should have made arcade fighter Golden Axe: The Duel more fun than it actually was.

With a main character appearing as a secret in Sega Superstars Tennis, and Golden Axe: Beast Rider released earlier this year, the series’ stock is its highest in over fifteen years. Whether Beast Rider is a worthy addition to the series is a debate for another time, but with the original games available for download on various consoles we’ll always have Death Adder.

I think I’ll close on an interesting fact: in the European series, the axe in question isn’t actually golden.

December 5th, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 35 – OutRun

Samba de Amigo may have mastered the art of making sunshine, but OutRun is undeniably its blue skies ancestor. Outrun

Obligatory music paragraph now: the music in OutRun ranks as some of the greatest tunes ever composed for a game. That’s all I’ll say, because later in this countdown is a game that improves on perfection.

I usually find the talk of music overshadows OutRun’s importance as an out-and-out racing game. Taking the driving genre off the circuit and onto the roads of America was a brave decision that could easily have backfired – look at any one of the Cruisin’ games for proof – but the variety of routes and scenery keep it fresh each time, and the pure bliss of drifting around a corner will never, ever die.

There’s no more optimistic game in the top 50 than OutRun, and for a driving game to epitomise any kind of emotion really is a triumph. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a racing game as concerned with giving the player such intense joy, and although these days its primary colours and worrying gender stereotypes might seem a little dated, it’s what’s under the bonnet that counts, and OutRun is blessed with what other driving games lack: a heart.

Bright, bold and brave, OutRun is the quintessential Sega experience, and the rumours of OutRun 3 are enough to send any Sega fan into cardiac arrest. A PS3-powered Ferrari may not be far away.

December 4th, 2008
Blog Entry

No. 36 – Samba de Amigo

Now familiar to a whole new audience, everyone’s favourite maraca-shaking monkey made his debut in the arcades, and later appeared on Dreamcast in a notoriously rare and expensive home version that used sensors and motion detection years before the Gamecube, let alone the Wii. Eat that, Nintendo!

Samba smallThe Wii version doesn’t boast complete accuracy or fidelity to the original control scheme – it’s based on angles rather than height, so you point your Remote up instead of shaking it above your head. It’s not absolutely perfect, and can get quite frustrating on the more difficult stages, but it’s still a whole lot of fun, especially the brilliant Love mode, which repeatedly told Hannah and me that our relationship keyword was "volleyball". Then we played the volleyball minigame, which I lost, nearly ending our relationship right there. I sense foul play.

Few games sum up the Sega experience as perfectly as Samba de Amigo. Brilliant characters shine within an amazing graphical carnival that throws bright colours and bold textures around like streamers. If heat magazine reviewed the soundtrack they would no doubt call it “the most infectious soundtrack of the summer”, and with the new Wii version making new songs available for download there’s now an endless stream of sunshine from your TV, perfect for brightening up those dingy winter nights (although for that there’s also Winter NiGHTS, but more on that later!)

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