Cruis’n USA

Anyone who grew up as arcades were all the rage can attest to the buzz surrounding the jump from Nintendo’s 16-bit SNES to the next generation.

The promotional hype began in those very arcades as Nintendo worked with Midway to release a few titles under the “Ultra 64” name, which was the operating codename for the company’s Super Nintendo successor.

Of those games, a racing game named Cruis’n USA was born.

The arcade version was incredible at the time. You could race through loosely-based “real life” locations with a number of other generic versions of vehicles also rooted in reality. According to Wikipedia:

The four vehicles featured in the game are generic vehicles based on their real life counter parts which consists of a 1963 Chevrolet Corvette labeled as a 1963 Muscle Car, a 1991 Ferrari Testarossa labeled as the Italia P69, a 1940 Ford V-8 De Luxe labeled as “La Bomba”, and a Hyundai HCD-Epoch II labeled as “Devastator IV”. Bonus cars consist of a 1991 Chevrolet Caprice police car, a school bus, and a Jeep Wrangler labeled as an All Terrain Vehicle.

The graphics and sound were ahead of its time, competing mostly with Sega’s racing games of the era, complete with a booth that had a racing wheel, gears and pedals.

Unfortunately, the hardware that Cruis’n USA was based on did not become the hardware that transitioned to the N64. (That would actually be the case with another Ultra 64 arcade game, Killer Instinct, however.) Therefore, the N64 port, which arrived over two years later from the arcade release, would appear dated and was also pared down in areas.

I still found the game to be fun, and it was financially successful too.

You’d have to play it in order to see the faults, but it was a brave new world playing a racing game with the “trident” N64 controller’s analog stick. The digitized models who raise the checkered flag were cutting edge – believe it or not – and the graphics were great, though jerky at times depending on what all was on the screen at once.

In summation, Cruis’n USA was Nintendo’s next-gen answer to Sega’s OutRun. While you may have been compelled to avoid it for $60-70 way back when, its something worth revisiting for at least a historical perspective.

Madden NFL 97

Well, this is a disappointing entry into the annals of football video games. What sucks about typing this is, the 1997 edition of the John Madden Football series would’ve been dandy, if you didn’t know anything else.

By this point in time, the Madden series showed us what was possible with next generation hardware, first a year earlier on the 3DO, and then appearing on the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn for this first time with Madden 97.

The PSX version is so breathtaking, that going back to the SNES edition feels inferior.

While the CD-based PlayStation version has same load time waiting, the cartridge-based Super Nintendo edition, which dropped two months later, makes you suffer with slow loading menus, prior to the game and within it. Even going between plays, selecting them and watching the players break the huddle, feels like an eternity – it’s something I loathed about the 16-bit era Madden games, but it feels like 97 is the worst.

There’s also very little in terms of upgrading from 96 to 97. I’d say 90% of the game is identical to the previous year’s, other than rosters and a few dabs of fresh paint on some menus. Yes, there’s a still of Pat Summerall, John Madden’s broadcasting partner, and I guess that makes it “better” in a sense – but it’s not as if there’s any real voiceover stuff that’s earthshattering when compared to its predecessors.

In fact, 97 just feels like more of the same – except for the computer opponents, with AI that is still universally panned to this day (no matter the difficulty setting).

Madden 97 reeks of squeezing a buck out of a rebadged Madden 96, perhaps for the sake of EA not wanting to waste too many resources on the aging 16-bit market. But what 97 does instead, is warns the consumer that the yearly franchise upgrade may be anything but that: an upgrade.

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!

Sonic Blast

Nearly all of the Sonic The Hedgehog games on Sega’s Game Gear were subpar efforts.

However, aside from the first one (which plays like a through and through 8-bit platformer and not really “Sonic”) Sonic Blast is the only other game worth anyone’s time.

At that, it wasn’t the bee’s knees compared to the Genesis counterparts.

The game play was far better than the previous Sonic iterations. (Which wasn’t hard seeing as two of them were downright unplayable.)

This game was short and sweet, and carried over concepts from the Genesis releases – but for some odd reason Sega’s developers chose to use faux 3-D sprites for Sonic and the enemies, on 8-bit tech.

It looks fugly at best and really distracts from the core game.

Sonic fans will no doubt want to re-live this, but for the common retro gamer you’ll be alright sitting this one out.

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.

Mortal Kombat Trilogy

The definitive versions of the MK series came in a few forms with the next-gen consoles. First, the 32X version of MK2 was a near perfect arcade translation. PlayStation and N64 both saw a release of MK Trilogy, which included every character, board, etc. from the four 2D fighters: each of those versions varied with strengths and weaknesses of their own.

The biggest takeaway from the two Trilogy games is a hidden ninja fighter called Chameleon or Khameleon. Depending on which console you are playing, it is a male or female ninja. The characters would “flicker” in and out of all of the playable male/female characters during battle, allowing you to use whichever moves of the characters displayed. (Which is both cool and annoying.)

If you read my review on MK3, I didn’t think that game was all that great. UMK3 improved on that, but still had limitations. (Such as removing Sheeva as a playable character in the SNES version due to cartridge space.)

Trilogy combined all of the things those two sequels should’ve had and is a great wrap-up for anyone who hasn’t played the series and wants to “do it all”. In fact, you can even swap versions of characters between the different titles, such as using the MK1 or MK2 versions of Rayden. Every single version of the “Pit” levels is included, almost to a degree where you may play three or four of them in a row!

The N64 version was a bit funky with the “trident” controller, so the PSX version is the one you might want to play if you’re a control freak. However, Sony’s version is hampered by disc loading times between rounds which may damper your enjoyment over the (much) faster loading cartridge from Nintendo.

This felt like an overload of Mortal Kombat which kept the 2D fighter as a money maker well into the next-generation of consoles.