Star Wars: Dark Forces

Star Wars: Dark Forces has been called a Doom clone by those who don’t know any better.

The honest to God’s truth is, if you like Doom, you’d love Dark Forces even more: especially if you’re a Star Wars fan.

It’s hard to imagine this, but back in 1995 Sony’s PlayStation was just released in the United States and one of its first titles, is a port of what would become a cult video game.

Also in 1995, Star Wars didn’t have new content. Aside from the main trilogy, it would still be several years until the series was expanded in cinema with The Phantom Menace. Therefore, Dark Forces enters what was referred to the “Expanded Universe”, creating a new storyline and characters aside from the original movies – which content-starved Star Wars fans were clamoring for at the time. (The Power of the Force action figure line re-released around this same time, which pushed the rebirth of Star Wars in general.)

The game’s story bookends being before and after A New Hope, following Kyle Katarn who is a mercenary working for the Rebel Alliance. Katarn stumbles upon the Empire’s Dark Trooper Project, which are overpowered Stormtroopers.

The game itself is a first-person shooter (FPS), borrowing common elements from the mega popular Doom series. The comparisons might end there, as Dark Forces is much more than a Doom clone with Star Wars painted over top of it.

For starters, its one of, if not the first FPS to include jumping and crouching, which creates some platforming elements that were missing in Doom, such as crawling through ventilation ducts years before it became cool in the N64 classic Goldeneye 007.

It’s also possible to look up and down, helping to aim and shoot those enemies that are on higher platforms. Again, this seems trivial, but back in 1995 it was groundbreaking.

Looking back, the graphics obviously do not age well, but the game play is outstanding save for getting lost in levels (usually due to the graphics and not being able to see what it is you need to do next!)

When adding Star Wars to the mix, you now get some FMV cutscenes and voice work, including famous one-liners from Imperial officers and Stormtroopers. Guns have the familiar shooting and blasting sounds from the movies, and overall, anyone who is a Star Wars fan should have this on their must-play list. In fact, it’s one of the best FPS titles ever made, if you’re capable of dealing with the dated graphics and the PlayStation’s D-Pad controls.

(I do not wish to share anymore, because there’s a few really cool spots in the story that will make any fan smile! Enjoy!)

Madden NFL 97

What a fun game this is! Especially for nostalgia buffs.

The first 32-bit generation Madden dropped on 3DO, missing both Sony’s PlayStation and Sega’s Saturn for the 1996 edition. This opened the door to competitors, such as NFL GameDay, but EA Sports would make a triumphant return with Madden 97.

The first release on the mainstream next generation consoles totally blows you away from the opening sequence, which shows computer generated players and sequences from Super Bowl XXX (Cowboys vs. Steelers) interspersed with an NFL logo and panning through the streets of New Orleans all the way to the Louisiana Superdome.

Compared with even the powerful 3DO version a year earlier, this PSX release is awesome. The marriage of the NFL, NFLPA (players), and STATS Inc. licensing makes for the first game that truly felt like a TV presentation. Pat Summerall, John Madden’s longtime broadcast partner, joins the booth – the play-by-play and Maddenisms (which you can actually turn off in the settings) are still one-hitters as opposed to true commentary, but it’s progress nonetheless.

Settings, menus, controls and play calling are all much closer to the present-day games in Madden 97 as well. The level of detail is incredible, as we now have player names on the field, jersey numbers (somewhat), and yes, fully rendered home stadiums – as opposed to a paintjob in the endzones from the 16-bit era.

This version of Madden is the first to have the newly christened Baltimore Ravens, plus features real rosters for the Panthers and Jaguars, who joined the league in 1995. (They were in previous games but had fake rosters at one point.)

A full list of real free agents, as well as a salary cap are introduced. No more super teams… maybe.

The other traditional modes are here, such as exhibition or season.

So how does it play?

Much faster – mostly – than what became the painful pace of the 16-bit games. While breaking free on a run still doesn’t have the “he can go all the way” feel that’s coming later, huddles and play call screens load quickly and seamless.

Penalties get a bit more annoying, with the on-screen referee now asking if you choose to accept or decline the calls. (Which can be turned off also – and you may prefer, due to the frequency of them!)

The controls are almost identical to the modern-day games – sprint, dive, hurdle, spin… and of course, easier to pass with the shoulder buttons. The only thing missing here is the lack of using an analog stick with the original PSX d-pad, but I’ll let that slide.

In summation, Madden 97 for PlayStation is a great trip down memory lane. If you’ve followed my path from the Genesis and SNES editions, the improvements from those games to the first PSX entry are astonishing. But don’t take my word for it: try it yourself!

NFL GameDay

Sony’s PlayStation took the world by storm and in 1995, it’s best-selling game was one that got the jump on EA’s Madden franchise.

NFL GameDay launched on the PSX heralding a new era of what could be done with CD-based games. While John Madden Football struck first on EA’s 3DO platform a year earlier, the expensive console had difficulty penetrating the market whereas Sony’s first foray into video games came in at half of the price, with game titles often selling for nearly half of what kids and parents paid for cartridges with the previous generation.

With EA scrapping their first Madden game for the PlayStation, NFL GameDay had free reign for a year. While it did a lot of the same things that Madden for 3DO got right, it also had its success and shortcomings.

Loading time… loading… loading…

Ah yes, everyone’s biggest complaint with disc-based games actually wasn’t too bad here. The initial startup menus are preceded by animated full-motion video (FMV) of NFL logos and helmets, along with a catchy tune that would play interspersed throughout the game, along with a riff ripped off of Queen’s We Will Rock You in-game. (Which, actually gets a little annoying, but can also be turned off in the options menu!)

Oh yes… the options menu.

Whoever designed this menu likely designed prisons for a living at some time. Rather than logically scroll throughout the options with the D-pad and use the X button to confirm, as has become standard, nearly every freaking button on the controller is used just to get the game set the way you want.

You choose a visiting team with the L1 and L2 buttons, home team with R1/R2, and the D-Pad scrolls up/down the main menu.

But beware: it’s almost indecipherable to attempt to change your default in-game controls. Ditto for setting up time for quarters and weather situations as well. (For example, you need to use the left arrow of the D-pad to get over to the menu to change quarter length.)

Once the NFL stopwatch let’s you know the game has stopped loading, you’re treated to a team-themed screen that changes to a primary color of your selected squad once you move the player left or right. This jumps right into the coin toss as to not waste anymore loading time – another nicely optimized and well thought out decision by the developers.

You then move into the kickoff mode, which moves a bit faster than Madden players may be accustomed to. It’s at this time you realize the stadiums don’t bare any resemblance to their real-life counterparts, other than teams who played in dome stadiums getting a generic indoors building immune from the four weather conditions you can set: sunshine, rain, snow, and windy.

The outdoor stadiums all look the same as well, with an NFL logo in the center of the field.

The differential of the home team’s stadium places team logos around the 30-yard line on each side, and of course, custom endzones. Some fan banners also hang around the place, but unlike Madden’s sidelines, these ones are absent of detailed touches such as referees with yard markers, teammates on the bench or even referees.

Instant Replay exists, as does an option lifted from Sega’s Sports Talk series where you can change the view from a slightly overhead, behind the quarterback look we’re all used to, to one that zooms in closer behind the action. You can also swap in an isometric look from the days of Play Action Football on the NES or go completely sidelines in style with a Tecmo Bowl look as well. Play also zooms in on an active runner with the ball, which is a nice touch.

Most of these are rather distracting, especially with the cool addition of the highlighted blocks beneath your selected player, which states their last name – as the game has a full NFL license in addition to the NFL Player’s Association.

However, the NFLPA addition is a bit misused with the lack of menu options in-game. You will get a notice of names and short stats, such as “so and so ran for X yards”. The presentation here gets closer and closer to watching a real game on TV, but playing the game can be a struggle.

The playbook lacks any real diversity. There are a few basic formations which offer around 6-8 plays, if that, for each. You also have no clue as to what the computer is sending into the huddle, so you may pick a 3-4 defense up against a three wide receiver set – a mess to defend against, if the game wasn’t so awful at passing the ball!

This is likely one of the worst games to get used to throwing the ball and its anyone’s guess as to when and where it might go. The learning curve is so much I nearly broke a controller. (I’d much rather play Play Action Football on the GameBoy for what it’s worth.) It’s so bad, the computer rarely completes passes either.

Running the ball is effortless but you often run into your own blockers and defenders always pancake your back, on his back, with every tackle.

You can “feel” the tackles in this way, but it gets to be an old trick quick.

Another big gripe is not seeing down and distance on the screen’s HUD, unless you’re choosing plays. You can’t get a feel for how far you need to go to get a first down, because only the game and play clocks are displayed. A really shortsighted idea for a game that otherwise has strong features for its time.

Overall, the game is leaps and bounds above its competitors of this era in the graphics and audio departments, sans the 3DO Madden – of which it still holds up in several areas too.

For those who bought this game, they likely didn’t see the same flaws I’m seeing playing it years later. It was likely understood this was an entry into football games sort of title and as such, it was still state-of-the-art for its time.

As for nostalgia, a lack of any play-by-play or any audio bytes, lack of any B-roll or still photography to support the menus or in-game experience, and the looping Queen riff, added to the frustrating passing mechanics and paltry playbook make this a game to revisit if you owned it, but one to pass until later iterations catchup with the promise of the 32-bit generation.

Dead or Alive

We are all well aware of the significance of this game and how it launched into a money-making series: bouncing boobs.

In a nutshell, a nearly bankrupt Tecmo went to the drawing board and used sex and violence to get eyes on a video game which is actually much deeper than what you see on the surface. Sure, some top-heavy gals have been heavily featured throughout the years, but when the game was initially started, it drew inspiration from Virtua Fighter, even running on Sega’s hardware – and far surpassing it’s predecessor in almost every way.

The first DOA game came to us in the arcade with Japanese gamers getting a truer port on the Sega Saturn. However, the Saturn version never landed in the US, leaving American gamers to wait nearly two years for a revamped version of the original game on the PlayStation.

Did I mention the significance of this title earlier? Not only was it one of the first non-Sega developed games to use their hardware in the arcade, but it also became the first game from that hardware to arrive on the rival Sony platform.

Oh, and the bouncing boobs ended up saving Tecmo from certain doom too.

But why else did this game succeed?

When comparing the 3-D fighters of the era, DOA was just smooth as butter. It didn’t have the “blocky” or “jagged” appearance of its competitors. The game ran fast, as in Street Fighter II type speed with each move transitioning into the next animation effortlessly. And crazy enough, each of the fighters motions were taken from motion-captured actors as well.

Counter maneuvers were added, which replaced the boring “blocking” of other fighting games. Counters came in the flavor of offensive and defensive “holds”, adding another dynamic which made the game feel tighter control-wise and gave new gamers as much of an edge against seasoned foes.

The plot is almost non-existent, save for playing as Kasumi. The game promptly ends on credits for each of the fighters. The levels can also get repetitive, reusing some of the same effects between stages and simply palette swapping day for night – however, removing “ring outs” for explosive damage is yet another reason DOA feels superior for its time.

The PlayStation version also adds two more playable characters, with Bass Armstrong heavily drawing inspiration from Hulk Hogan in his appearance and stature. The boss, Raidou, is also an unlockable player.

It’s about what you’d expect from a fighting game released in the mid-90’s and may not come off as especially groundbreaking to today’s audiences, but DOA was massively successful and critically acclaimed for its gameplay and audiovisuals.

I would challenge anyone who enjoys retro fighters to put this up against others of the same era: and then realize for yourself just how ahead of its time this first entry into the DOA series was.

Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors

When Darkstalkers first dropped in arcades around 1994, I was mesmerized. In 1996, it would get a proper port to Sony’s PlayStation.

Originally, I was a huge fan of Street Fighter II, so imagine when I saw Capcom taking the same engine and beefing up the game ten-fold.

Darkstalkers introduced quite a few firsts within Capcom’s fighting games. While I always liked its cartoonish style, I had never realized just how much the individual frames stood in their originality. The game looks original and plays like you’re watching something on TV. The characters can do some bizarre things as well, since they’re not rooted in the same “realism” of the Street Fighter series.

This levels the playing field for larger than life characters like Ankaris or the smaller statured Sasquatch. Just like it’s cousin, you actually want to play and attempt to master each of these characters – each inspired by different monsters. From a vampire to Frankenstein, everyone is represented.

Of course, another draw for teenage boys (such as myself at the time) were the scantily clad female fighters, Felicia and Morrigan too.

The learning curve is identical to Street Fighter, a bonus for those players who were already familiar with that system.

Some of the cooler things to note are the special moves bar which fills as you fight and background items which can also be broken. Air blocking and crouch walking were also introduced, but creating combos, and seeing it listed as such on-screen, as also a major draw to this game.

The controls are incredibly tight, and the final two bosses are incredibly cheap – everything you’d expect in a Capcom fighter.

The menu options are also identical to Street Fighter and Darkstalkers also includes three turbo modes from the beginning.

The game is truthfully tuned to any skill level, which makes this PSX port even more accessible. It literally hasn’t aged one bit and is as good as it was 25 years ago. Fighting fans should definitely check out this trailblazer from the Capcom library.

Primal Rage

A friend recently reminded me of another Atari fighting game after reviewing Pit Fighter and I wish I could say my rosy memories of this one held up.

Primal Rage was Atari’s answer to the fighting game boom of the early-to-mid 90’s. The story revolved around prehistoric creatures doing battle in a and attempting to reign supreme over a post-apocalypitc Earth called “Urth”.

There are seven characters to choose from, with fire and ice, fast and slow, being among the common themes lifted from similar fighters.

Like other in its genre, it was a 1-v-1 arcade game, which was a better fit for the way it was developed. When it was ported to consoles, the main mechanic of the game was to hold buttons and then move the joystick in certain directions to perform special moves.

This was later changed to include the traditional method of movement then buttons, but regardless, the game used some convoluted sequences, such as holding 3-4 buttons at the same time, in order to achieve those moves.

Doing this with an arcade joystick and buttons was far easier than on a console, but a PITA regardless!

As with most PSX games, this one suffers from extremely long load times. Beyond that, it’s a nice recreation of the arcade down to the graphics and sounds – if you recall, stop-motion models of the dinosaurs were used in place of motion-captured humans, which upped the realism of games like Mortal Kombat.

Primal Rage also capitalized on the violence and gore factor of its era, maybe even more so than Mortal Kombat – likely its intention in order to gain attention. It must’ve worked, as the game was ported to every console known to man at that time, including handhelds, 16-bit consoles, and next-gen systems like the PlayStation (which this review is based on). The game even appeared on Sega’s Saturn, and the ill-fated 3DO as well as Atari’s own entry into the “64-bit” realm, the Jaguar.

Also, like Mortal Kombat, the game borrowed fatalities, again upping the ante for gore. The finishing moves are incredibly difficult to pull off, not only from the button and joystick sequences required, but the stupid short timer window to complete them. Using save states and cheats, I found Chaos’ famous “golden shower” fatality to be especially problematic and eventually gave up:

Hold 1+3 and move joystick D, D; then hold 1+2+3+4 and move joystick A, T, A, T

I couldn’t imagine being the kid who doesn’t know the proper sequence let alone being a full-grown adult that does and still can’t pull off the maneuvers.

Regardless, the blood flies everywhere in this game. Health bars and a brain stem bar show both organs on-screen, with the heart exploding following being “conquered”. Caveman-like humans scurry onto the screen at random times – they can be eaten for health, but those who support you will hurt your cause as your opponent can eat them and deplete your health too.

It’s a gimmicky addition to a game that’s already riddled with poor controls and difficult game play. It seems as though any basic attacks you throw at the CPU are instantly blocked and rendering enough damage within the 99-second time limit proves to be frustrating.

In fact, the final battle sees you fight everyone that’s in the game, in what might be the most annoying endurance round ever created – at least Atari left the time to “infinite” for this level (and some cool death animations as you defeat each opponent).

Yet, it’s not enough to save my opinion of this game.

Cheats and save states didn’t help relive my enjoyment of what likely ate my quarters quickly when I was younger.

While the game has some cool concepts and is worth seeing to believe, its holds up horribly as a viable fighting game with little replay value.

NBA Jam: Tournament Edition

You’re not seeing double, I swear!

Following the review of the Sega 32X version of this very title, I had forgotten that it was also ported to the original PlayStation in 1995 for its launch as well.

Like other CD-based games of its time, NBA Jam T.E. was an arcade-accurate translation of its source material.

Unlike other CD-based games, this one doesn’t suffer from long load times, something highlighted in the book Arcade Perfect: How Pac-Man, Mortal Kombat, and Other Coin-Op Classics Invaded the Living Room by David L. Craddock with an interview with game developer Chris Kirby:

PlayStation’s CD-based storage medium forced Kirby to carefully consider how to read and write data. As the game ran, data was unpacked from the disc and sent to VRAM. To minimize load times, a natural consequence of disc-based media, he arranged the data linearly so the PlayStation’s laser eye that read contents from the disc wouldn’t need to jump around to gather assets and code.

I had also noted many of the updates and changes from the original NBA Jam to Tournament Edition in my 32X review, and still consider the 32X version the definitive one among consoles despite the strong PlayStation showing. That’s due to the many notes in the article above, which any hardcore NBA Jam player would notice between the two versions.

However, the PSX port is so strong of a title on its own, it deserved a separate entry due to the technical achievements of the hardware it ran on and the way the development team handled the translation to the home screen. Unlike its Mortal Kombat cousins on the same system, NBA Jam T.E. is almost always a pleasure to play and really sold how strong the PlayStation hardware was upon its arrival.

Check it out and let me know what you think of the various console ports and their differences! (Note: don’t forget NBA Jam T.E. also released for the Atari Jaguar – I may cover that as well, since its one of the most mainstream titles in a limited library of an obscure console!)

Mega Man 8

Sometimes my retro gaming adventures seem to feel mundane, as if my queue is filled with only one series or genre of game.

Aside from Super Mario Bros., which spans so many different spinoffs, only one other series fits the bill of having a vast amount of titles to play: Mega Man.

With six NES and five Game Boy titles linked to the main series, Mega Man only saw one “main series” sequel on the SNES and some rehashed (though excellent) Sega ports through the 16-bit era life cycle.

Then Sony’s PlayStation ushered in a new era of console gaming and vastly upgraded the only main series Mega Man title that would appear on the system: Mega Man 8.

By this time, you would expect these games to become so run of the mill and boring, but MM8 breaks down some barriers with the PSX’s new technology.

Mega Man 8 is a huge (and I mean HUGE) update to the series.

This iteration continues the traditional boss fights, Wily stages, et al, but changes the graphics style to almost like a Saturday morning cartoon. It’s not quite anime, but the included full motion video cutscenes (which seem corny at first) give you that impression.

They go from corny to commonplace and really add to the game as you play it. Literally, it felt like I was playing a cartoon version of Mega Man… and that’s a good thing!

The boards are colorful, well-detailed, and most of all, they found several ways to bridge tradition with new creative direction.

Now the bad news: the folks at Capcom haven’t lost their sense of dickery: this game is as hard as any of them! They included some midway checkpoints and all of the usual items are there to help: Rush, extra energy tanks, charge beam, sliding, and other non-boss weapon upgrades are just a part of the overall package.

With how many of the Mega Man games were made, this one felt like a true successor to their 16-bit brothers and more so an upgrade to the entire series heading into 3-D polygon era of gaming.

I highly recommend it, even if the other Mega Mans gave you grief!

Soul Blade

Way back when fighting games were all the rage. As consoles moved from the 2-D realm to the 3-D world with the introduction of a new generation of hardware, these fighting games evolved with them.

Such is the story of Soul Edge, which was an arcade game that was ported to Sony’s PlayStation under the name “Soul Blade”.

Often forgotten as the predecessor to the immensely popular Soul series, which saw a follow-up with the blockbuster Soulcalibur, Soul Blade tells the story of a sword which offers unlimited power. Nine characters try to find who has it; some for personal gain and others to destroy it before it gets in the wrong hands.

Centered around this story are gorgeous graphics and cutscenes for this era of games. Keep in mind, CD quality audio, full motion video, and voice acting were relatively new to games in the mid-90’s.

The game starts with what I’d like to call a ridiculous introduction: I say this as a compliment too!

The introduction video lasts around a full two minutes, with a custom theme song and cuts between different spots featuring each of the characters interacting within their world before finishing with the start screen: “Welcome to the stage of history,” is how the game welcomes you.

After selecting a character, you enter your first battle and its clear this game is different than what you’re used to. Characters somewhat move in three dimensions as the camera pans around the stage. Some stages have a tilt or other motion to them too, which was a new concept.

Each fighter wields a weapon, with each move appearing to seamlessly string together. For example, Li Long uses nunchucks and looks like a Bruce Lee film doing so. Swords and other weapons look just as fluid in their motions.

While the stages look blocky and haven’t aged well, their details are high quality if you were in 1997 playing this. Other small details such as sparks from weapons and a play-by-play announcer add to the feel. Instant replays following each round show the biggest hits and was also something not regularly seen in fighting games to date.

There’s a lot more that could be said about this game, which shares “ring outs”, round systems, health and special meter bars, and more with others from the genre; but there’s no need to go through all of that. I also don’t want to spoil the final battle for anyone who hasn’t played this and is interested: let’s just say that if you can win, you will be treated to a lengthy ending video based on your character that rivals that of the opening sequence.

And in Lord of the Rings movie fashion, it doesn’t end there, as a long end credits scene rolls too.

These tweaks to an already solid fighting game foundation set this as a benchmark for other games to reach. However, it’s usually Soulcalibur that gets recognized as being revolutionary and the more memorable game, despite being a sequel to Soul Blade.

If you enjoy fighting games or the Soul series, this game is highly recommended to play. Just keep in mind, you will have to master the controls and moves for your character, as the game progressively gets more challenging, and rewarding, up until the end.

Street Fighter: The Movie

Oh yeah… this is the video game version of the flaming pile of monkey poo known as “Street Fighter the Movie”!

Now, let me be fair about this game: it may have worked if the source material (the movie) wasn’t so horrible. Capcom, in an attempt to mimic the digitized actor style of Mortal Kombat, mixed actors and game footage from the movie release of Street Fighter… into a game… based on the movie.

That’s where the downfall of this title rests. The movie is, in a word, bad. Jean Claude Van Damme is a legitimate bad ass martial artist but gets cast in the wrong role. Instead of being cast as Ryu or Ken, the French man is instead cast as American military brawler Guile.

It all goes south from there, with poor casting and more.

The failure of the film is what brings the game down to a thumb “in the middle” for me. I actually like this game. The result may be as corny as the film itself, but it’s a unique “what if” scenario for the Street Fighter series, and one of few games to lift source material from a feature film into a game.

There’s also a great amount of “fun facts” between this game and its arcade counterpart: namely that this game isn’t a port and was developed by Capcom to be a lot closer to that of Street Fighter II Turbo. That move, along with a few interesting additions/alterations to the roster and game play (which you can read more about here) salvage this title from the usual movie-based game trying to make a buck into something worth playing.

Honestly, this isn’t that bad of a game. Sure, it has its faults (the cut scenes are just, well look haha) but I’d definitely say it’s worth checking out if you’re a Street Fighter fan.