Saturday, March 15, 2014

Duke Nukem

Action platformers were nothing new in 1991. By then there had been several Mega Man games, a pair of Metroid titles, and numerous other examples to flesh out the genre. While these games had varying levels of success, and resulted in varying levels of actual enjoyment, there is one thing that was missing from all of them: a badass in a spandex pink vest.

Enter Duke Nukem.

Real men wear pink.And of course, the fine folks at Apogee Software misspelled his name on the title screen. Apparently they became aware of a Captain Planet villain also named Duke Nukem, and got worried they would be sued for infringing copyright. Nevermind the fact that nobody even bothered to check if the name was copyrighted; they just changed the spelling of their own hero's name and prayed to avoid litigation. Only after the game was distributed did someone decide to, you know, actually see if the name was available. Naturally, it was, so "Nukem" remained the official spelling from then on.

The plot of the game is basically just a lazy rip-off of Mega Man. The villainous cyborg Dr. Proton has assembled an army of "techbots" to take over the world. He's already leveled Los Angeles, so you know he means business. Duke Nukem is the only one who can stop him, I guess because nobody else was man enough to try. So in Episode 1 of the game, Duke pursues Dr. Proton across the city ruins and dispatches Proton's techbots along the way. These include little wheelie drones, some hovering laser bots, frog hoppers with cannons, and the occasional automated military helicopter.

Eats robotic carrots.And oh yeah, why not? Magenta bunnies. For a company so deathly afraid of copyright lawsuits you'd think they'd be a little less obvious about ripping off Dr. Wily's magenta rabbit affinity. And all they do is sprint at you and then pirouette with glee on your face if they reach you. There are also little green radioactive things that crawl on the walls. I don't have a clue what they are supposed to be, but I think they're explained by the frequent appearances of nuclear waste being dumped in the background. The environment? Dr. Proton is not interested.

The game also probably inspired some of the games in the soon-to-emerge First-Person Shooter genre in that most of the levels are really glorified key hunts. There's a locked door in one place that leads to the exit, so you have to explore the entire rest of the level to find the key. Once you do, you're pretty much home free. While in shooters these can get tedious as they feel like a way to just add length to the thing, for some reason it works a bit better in Duke Nukem. Maybe it's the 2D gameplay or maybe it's the fact that the levels were designed with these in mind so they don't feel like cheap throw-ins. Whatever the case, just accept that you'll be searching for a lot of keys and roll with it.

Dangle danger.That said, spikes. Well, not spikes per se...these are more like jagged broken PVC pipes more than anything else. They don't make you instantly explode, at least. Touching them will drop one bar of health, as will being damaged by any other hazard or enemy. The game is pretty generous with how much health you get and how much it provides, so even though the maps get more dangerous and the challenge increases, the game never begins to feel unfair. There are only two things in the game that can't be hurt by your little squiggle shooter, and both of those are easily avoided. When the rest of the game feels appropriately difficult, you find yourself not particularly minding the occasional spike-like surface.

As is the case with most all episodic games of this era, you begin each episode from scratch, with none of the abilities you gained (most notably, high jump boots) in the previous episode carrying over. This is inane from a story perspective, but it's tolerable from a gameplay perspective, especially because Duke Nukem does a good job designing the levels to help you feel more empowered as you progress anyway. For example, weapon powerups are provided more frequently to allow you to ramp up your firepower more quickly. You'll also find that many later levels are very short in terms of when you find the exit, but you have the ability to explore the entire area for extra bonuses. If you want to just blow through quickly though, you have that choice. In addition, you have the ability to save your game between every single level (though not mid-level), so there's very little pressure to get things right the first time through.

Lunar leaping.Episode 2 sends you to Dr. Proton's moon base. This is where I start having some issues with what's happening on the screen. First off, how the hell are you alive?! You're not in a shelter or anything; that moon base is open air. Or perhaps more appropriately, open nothing. In Doom at least we could make an assumption that the marine was wearing a helmet with an oxygen supply. But all you've got here is a pink vest and some jeans. Don't act like you're capable of surviving that. Second, why do you need to find high jump boots here? If you really are just on the naked surface of the moon, you should already have massive hops. Instead the gravity appears completely normal. Third, while this game is supposed to take place in the future, keep in mind the game came out in 1991. You know what year "the future" is according to the story? 1997. Come on! This is why every science fiction story worth its salt goes into the distant future - so that six years later when we haven't actually built a massive lunar facility run by robots, you don't look like a bunch of idiots.

While on the subject of the odd goings on, why does Duke do a sustained pelvic thrust every time he jumps? The only exception is after he gets those high jump boots - then he'll occasionally do an aerial cartwheel for no good reason. Maybe he's just showing off. Maybe that explains the pelvic thrusting too, but it's not like there's anyone out there to impress. You've got robots, radioactive junk, and the crazy cyborg trying to kill you. Not exactly the best audience for flaunting your manhood, you know?

Coke Nukem.Perhaps the most charming thing about this game is that it has a conscious disinterest in taking itself seriously. This is most obvious in the various pickups you can collect, which either give you health or points. Chosen seemingly at random, they consist of cans of Coke, footballs, purple pennants, turkey legs that turn into entire turkeys when you shoot them, joysticks, and copies of the Duke Nukem game itself. It's a bit meta but that's what makes it great. When you shoot a can of Coke it will actually launch in a fizzy explosion. Where else can you find programming that specific in this era?

Duke Nukem also goes out of its way to be helpful to the player. Most noticeably there's the constant invitation at the bottom of the screen to press F1 for help, which is pleasant if not entirely useful - it actually just opens the game menu. Also, between every level (in the "save corridor") there's a little sign that gives you tips for the next level. They're less "here's where to find a secret" and more "here's what to expect," but either way that sign is doing you a solid. Which is nice, because the one thing the game does not do well is allow you to see. The graphic design of the backgrounds leaves a lot to be desired, but after a while you realize it's gone from lackluster effort to intentional trolling of your sense of sight. When you see the level with a background comprised of a camo pattern while the actual platforms are a slightly different camo pattern, you'll understand. The sight issues get progressively worse until the final boss, who you fight against a flashing red background that makes it virtually impossible to tell anything you're doing.

Hawkingesque.As for that final boss, well. It's Dr. Proton, as you might have expected. As you might not have expected, this maniacal cyborg is actually stuck in a hoverchair - 1997's super futuristic version of a wheelchair. We've been down the last-boss-is-handicapped road before, and it was troublesome then, too. After you defeat Proton in each of the first two episodes, he uses his time machine (!) to warp to the future and escape. Granted, this means the future from 1997, so we're talking what, present day at best? When you kill him in the future, he's "permanently defeated," and you return to the past. Where, presumably, he still exists because you haven't killed him yet. Way to end your plot on a time paradox, game.

Overall there's a lot to like about Duke Nukem - challenging gameplay that doesn't get too repetitive or too unfair, tight controls, and a good sense of humor. It's a shame then that issues like decreasing visibility are so prominent. It's enough that it makes it tough to give this game as high a score as I'd otherwise like to. For what it's worth though, most of the levels are littered with No Smoking signs. Duke Nukem cares. Maybe that's all we really need.

Bottom Line: 13/20

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Super Street Fighter II Turbo

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Innovation's dead
More Street Fighter II

A mere five months - five months! - after Super Street Fighter II came out, Capcom milked their cash cow one more time. Taking a cue from the home versions of earlier games in the Street Fighter II series, they slapped "Turbo" at the end of the name and made arcade owners pony up the big bucks for the latest iteration of the franchise. And by making several significant changes to the game, they ensured they'd make like Balrog and get paid. So what are these changes?

From the land of the rising sun.The first and most obvious change is that for the first time a game with "Super" in the title actually had "super moves." Each fighter has a meter at the bottom of the screen that fills as the character strikes with a basic attack, is struck with a basic attack, uses a special move, or is hit by a special move. The supers themselves, without exception, consist of enhanced versions of special moves. For example, Ken's super is the Shoryureppa, translating to "repeating Shoryuken." Which is good, since that's an accurate description of the move. Likewise, Dhalsim's super "Yoga Inferno" is just a bigger and longer version of his Yoga Flame. This probably was done to enable Capcom to, you know, make the game in five months. So there's not a whole lot of visual impressiveness about the super moves, but from a gameplay standpoint they're a nice touch.

Though with that said, you'll basically never even use them as you play. Bear in mind that you only gain meter as you use your basic attacks or specials. Know what that doesn't include? Throws. Know what will result in a huge portion of the damage dealt in this game? Throws. Not only do you not get meter for throwing someone, but you also don't gain it for getting thrown. When a throw takes off 40% of your life, how will you ever have time to fill a super meter?

Two other gripes here before I get to the game's only other two truly new additions. First, the costume colors. Super Turbo gives each character a choice of seven colors. That's awesome. The original color for that character is not one of the seven. That's not. Look, Ken's sported a red gi since Street Fighter 1. You took away its default status inexplicably in Hyper Fighting, but at least there it was still selectable. Why now can I choose basically anything but red? I can't think of a good justification for it at all.

Second, the game speed. Knowing that different people preferred to play the game at different speeds, Capcom made the game speed configurable as a built-in option for arcade owners. This would be great, if not for the fact that they then defaulted the game to lock the speed on "Turbo 2." Yes, that's right - beyond normal speed, beyond even "Turbo 1," this game runs on "Turbo 2." It's at least as bad as Hyper Fighting's speed was in terms of how the CPU can abuse you. An arcade owner who didn't hate his clients could set up the machine to let the players choose their own speeds (preposterous!), but why not make that the factory default setting?

Satsui no-Hado.Finally, the other new additions are basically both ideas stolen from Mortal Kombat: juggle combos and a secret character. Now it is possible to strike an airborne enemy before they hit the ground to continue a combo, which allows for a lot of extra strategy and execution. But then there's this guy. In Japan he's known as Gouki, though elsewhere he's Akuma - the name basically means "demon" either way. It's an apt one, since he's essentially impossible to beat. To even get to him you have to clear all battles in under 25 minutes without using a continue. When you do, and you show up on screen about to fight M. Bison, Akuma drops down, grabs Bison, and murders him. You kidding?

It will only take a couple seconds of fighting Akuma for you to die realize the odds are stacked insanely against you. First off, he moves at essentially one game speed level higher than you do. Even if you're on Turbo 2, Akuma will move at Turbo 3. This also lets him abuse the new juggle system more than anyone else in the game. He's got the same basic moveset as Ryu and Ken, with two notable additions. First, Akuma can phase teleport through anything. Second, he can shoot a double fireball while in mid-air. These angle down and are basically unavoidable. And of course, his damage is easily the highest in the game. And the entire time, M. Bison's broken body lies there, reminding you of your inevitable fate.

The changes introduced in Turbo would all be important foundations to build on in the future, but they didn't really offer too much this first time around. When coupled with the "Turbo 2" nonsense and the decision to remove basic colors from everyone, it's hard to really give a firm recommendation to this game. It's a nudge better than Hyper Fighting, but otherwise this is the worst version of the Street Fighter II franchise. Hopefully Super Ultra Street Fighter II Mega Titanium Hyper Turbo Arcade Premium Homicide Edition improves on the experience.

Bottom Line: 12/20

Sunday, March 2, 2014


In 1991, a little show called Taz-Mania hit the airwaves. A charming cartoon in the same vein as Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs, the show followed the Tasmanian Devil (Taz) and his antics on the island of Taz-Mania, based of course on the Australian island of Tasmania. The cartoon would last for a solid four years of modernized Looney Tunes action. When the show became a hit, a licensed game also called Taz-Mania came out for the Sega Genesis system. This game was a bestseller, tied in well with the source cartoon, and by almost all accounts was a pretty solid way to spend an afternoon.

This is not that game.

A couple years later, near the end of the series' run, someone decided to license the rights to the show to Sunsoft, otherwise known as "that one developer where licensed material goes to die." This is what resulted.

Devil thumbs.The problems with Taz-Mania begin on the opening menu itself. Once you get past the initial three selections of Start Game, Enter Password, and Game Options, your controls on the menu are reversed. Up becomes down, left becomes right, and vice versa. There's a good omen. Why would you do that? Is it because the toilets flush the opposite way in Australia? Do Australian games naturally reverse your controls? I'm not sure, but I know that when you actually start the game things don't get much better.

Each level of Taz-Mania opens with Taz cranking a movie reel to announce the name of the level as though it were some sort of film. Which would be fine, except the reels all say "Taz-Mania in...[level name]." The game is referring to its own main character as Taz-Mania! But that's the name of the island! If Sunsoft can't even get that right, you know we're in trouble. And sure enough, the very first thing you do in the game is make a difficult long jump onto a tiny platform. Which immediately falls away as you touch it. Boom, instant death. That's pretty much how Taz-Mania goes. There's no real way to tell what will and won't be a moving/falling platform until you step on it and die.

Pre-typhoon.And you know what you quickly find out as you play Taz-Mania? This game is a stereotypical platformer. That's not a condemnation in itself, but let's take a step back and think about what we're working with. What's the first image that pops into your mind when you think of Taz? Is it him spinning and making crazy noises, or is it him jumping around collecting diamonds and floating numbers for points? Probably the former, right? Well great, because this game will give you almost exclusively the latter. Look, I'm no game designer, and far be it from me to make a radical suggestion like this to the pros, but why not base a Taz game around, I don't know, SPINNING AT STUFF?

Instead, though you do get a limited number of "spins" per life, spinning just sends you completely out of control. Yes, you're invincible, and yes, you can wipe out enemies as you spin through them, but you have so little control over what you're doing that you're more likely to spin into a pit and fall to your death than anything else. So what's the point? The only time you can really get your spin on is on two little mini-levels that consist of what you see above - some random hunter forces you off a dock into the ocean (read - water level) and you have to spin rapidly to stay afloat. By "spin rapidly" I mean mash the A button as fast as you can. You'll have a power meter to show you how close you are to inhaling salt water, but even that is broken. The meter has 6 bars, but you can only ever reach 4. And the second time you encounter this level it lasts about twice as long. The only conclusion is that the game is actually trying to exhaust your thumb/finger stamina. God help you if you actually die partway through and have to do the whole thing again.

Ham slide.One actual positive about the game is its variety. While most levels find you jumping around generic platforms and over pits until you find an unmarked exit, there are a few other level types that find their way in. There's the aforementioned water-skidding button mash, of course, but there is also a whole world set in an amusement park. The levels there consist of Taz riding in a roller coaster car, jumping from track to track, and using springs to launch to still higher tracks. It's exceptionally dangerous, such that I can't imagine an amusement park actually constructing anything like it, but it manages to be one of the few saving graces of this game. Also in that world is the barbershop pole slide. At least, I think it's supposed to be a slide. You don't actually appear to slide down, so much as the background rotates nauseatingly and random junk flies up toward you. This includes, so far as I can tell, hambones.

There is, sadly, one level type that keeps reappearing despite your prayers for it to die in a fire. These levels consist of a sunny two lane road, ostensibly in whatever location the rest of the overarching stage takes place. This is naturally ludicrous when considering that the stages are things like Easter Island, an amusement park, and the inside of a cave. But that aside, the levels revolve around Taz running away into the distance while the road twists and turns and stuff appears in front of you. This "stuff" can be health, diamonds, or, most likely, hurdles. They can appear in the left lane, the right lane, or right smack on the dashed line between lanes. I'm not going to ask why there are roads littered with hurdles, because there is obviously no acceptable explanation, but the real problem is the utter lack of reaction time the game allows you. Unless you jump at the exact instant the hurdle appears on screen, you will hit it and lose health. But of course, since they want to pretend perspective matters, the hurdles start out small, such that you can't tell if it's a hurdle or a power-up of some kind. So you just run down the road jumping constantly like a moron and missing all the power-ups along the way.

Onixameldos.Like any good (or not-so-good) platformer, each world ends with a boss fight, and of course they are all immune to your spins. Why is this a Taz game again? Now, my memory of the cartoon is admittedly hazy, so I can't really speak to whether the bosses are related in any way to the show, but regardless: these are some stupid creatures. One boss looks like a bobcat, but it attacks by standing still and judging you while random boulders fall from the sky. Another is some kind of viking wizard that tries to kill you with fireballs until you dodge enough that it gets mad, sprouts tiny wings, and flies around grimacing. One is an apatosaurus that attacks you by trying to crush you with its chin. No, not biting. Chinning.

Even the final boss is just some zookeeper in a helicopter that you attack with see-saws. And he's the easiest boss by far! When you beat him the game says "WELL DONE YOU HAVE DEFEATED THE ZOO KEEPER" as Taz grins like an idiot. At first I thought this meant that beating the zookeeper was the actual objective of the game until I realized it was probably more accurate to assume the game had no real objective whatsoever and the developers just felt that was as good a spot as any to give up. Even the music stops playing halfway through the end credits, as though the game's composer realized partway through recording that he was the only guy still at the office. "Well, F this," he said as he took off for the weekend.

Roast devil.Once you get past the relatively enjoyable amusement park, you're stuck in a stage called "Dark Drip Island" and the rudeness factor really starts to rise. First off, this is where spikes decide to make their first unwelcome appearance. I know, I know. "For all this game's flaws, at least I haven't heard anything of spikes yet," you thought optimistically. Tough luck, bub. But that's not even the worst of it. Look at the right. There is no indication anywhere that the floor is going to kill you on contact until you're actually fried. And you know what? While mildly annoying, I'd be totally okay with that. But on the very next level there is another electrified rail and THAT one has a warning sign posted to let you know that it will kill you if you touch it. They wait until after you already know it's a deathtrap to tell you! And then the signs are EVERYWHERE. The entire level is littered with them! Come on!

But that's still not the biggest issue with the picture above. The real problem is that little unicycle cart. You have to ride around on them to get past the electrified rails, which wouldn't be a problem if not for the fact that they make a constant loud CLINK CLINK CLINK CLINK sound for as long as you're on them. And, to guarantee maximum exposure to this unholy din, they made sure the carts move like molasses. Which becomes a compounded problem when you realize that every level runs on a short timer. They scatter little clocks around as pickups to increase your chance of making it through, but by the time you get to Dark Drip Island, they have begun sticking them in spike traps.

Devil indeed.The rudeness culminates in a level involving ladders. You will never see a ladder before or after this level, but the entire level itself is practically nothing but the things. But see, Taz-Mania has a big issue across the board with detecting where you are in relation to things - power-ups, enemies, objects, etc. So this means that to actually climb a ladder, you must be exactly centered on its base. If you are the slightest bit off, the ladder is totally non-functional. Worse, when you reach the top of the ladder you can't directional jump. The moment you hit left or right you fall all the way down (and have to recenter yourself perfectly to try again). You have to jump straight up then finagle your way over in mid-air so you can proceed. And of course this level, where your forward progress is continuously stunted by bad programming, is the one they chose to be impossible to complete in the allotted time. You have to take side paths and find hidden time bonuses to be able to complete it. Again, I say: RUDE.

Overall, there are enough things that prevent Taz-Mania from falling so completely into the bad game abyss that it warrants a middling score instead of a terrible one. The amusement park stuff is legitimately fun for what it is. The different level types, though almost all are flawed, at least prevent you from getting bored. And the music is...tolerable. But there are problems aplenty with this game, and I didn't even get to the nit-picky stuff (like, why does Taz balance on one foot any time he's on anything that moves? Why can you jump on a ghost to kill it if cartoon logic is in effect?). Ultimately, the moral of the review is this: the best way to make a gem of a game is not to force the player to collect them while jumping on parrots. Because when it comes right down to it, that's really all Taz-Mania is. Give it a skip and then pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

Bottom Line: 9/20