Sunday, 25 August 2019

The Saturn HDMI Cable From LevelHike: Impressions & Footage

The box.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the growing number of direct-to-HDMI video cables cropping up for retro consoles recently. This Sega Saturn HDMI cable – from the new retro peripheral manufacturer LevelHike  is one of those.

The pitch is simple: it’s a single, inexpensive HDMI cable that aims to rout a serviceable RGB signal via HDMI as a convenient, no-fuss option for making our retro game consoles look less like dog shit on HDTVs. No more, no less.

Some quick disclaimer stuff: This post includes a rundown of some of my impressions of the LevelHike HDMI cable for the Sega Saturn. They sent us an early version of the cable for free ahead of distributing it and future versions will likely include some revisions. I may update this post with my thoughts based on any revisions later on, as needed. I’ve spent about a dozen hours playing various games with the LevelHike cable so far.

And some product notes: LevelHike’s Saturn cable is available on Amazon (US) and Ebay for $30. Note that LevelHike also makes cables for a variety of other platforms, including the Dreamcast, PSP, Neo Geo AES/CD, and (most interestingly), the Turbografx-16. I haven’t yet tried any of those other ones, though.

Before I get too much further, it’s also important to knock expectations down a few pegs. When it comes to connecting your Sega Saturn to an HDTV, if you’re looking for a video solution that all at once 1) has the convenience of a single, direct-to-HDMI cable, is 2) is cheap (three Alexander Hamiltons or less), and 3) rivals the quality of expensive, higher-end offerings of a (properly shielded) RGB SCART cable via a pricey upscaler like Framemeister/OSSC or an $80 (with Genesis-to-Saturn adapter) HD Retrovision component cable via a $100 RetroTINK device…there just isn’t a $30 HDMI cable that can compete with those higher-end solutions. It’s not a fair comparison. They’re not in the same ballpark, let alone playing the same sport.

As someone who cares more about #1 and #2 and doesn’t generally obsess over having the best possible video output for my retro games, I might be the kind of person these cables are geared toward. Not that great video quality isn’t nice to have but there are diminishing returns after a point. I’ve always subscribed to the idea that the best video option is anything that gets out of the way. As long as the output looks decent enough and isn’t distracting with excessive blur, color loss, or lag – and especially if I don’t have to spend much of time or money on it – sometimes good enough is good enough.

So what about the LevelHike cable? Is it good enough?

Apart from the Engrish text adorning the product’s packaging, I can’t help but be intrigued by the promise it makes as such a simple device. As a no-frills HDMI cable that aims to be cheap, convenient, and good enough, I think it largely succeeds though not without some quirks.

As much as I like my TV, it doesn’t force a 4:3 aspect ratio so I’m SOL when it comes to many retro HDMI cables and SCART-to-HDMI converters. The nifty thing about LevelHike’s cable is it has a switch to force 4:3 in case your TV can’t do the job. Alternatively, you can also set the image to 16:9 for the occasional anamorphic widescreen mode in games like NiGHTS or Panzer Dragoon Zwei. it’s a simple, albeit greatly welcome feature.

The LevelHike box handles conversion duties and is powered via a USB power cable (included). You can see the aspect ratio switch in the top-right of the unit.
Overall, the LevelHike cable’s image quality looks considerably better than I’d expect for its price point. It retains most of the clarity and color of the original RGB signal, without much noticeable input lag. In motion, there is some slight blur and occasional artifacts, which I noticed more in 2D games – and especially shmups like DoDonPachi and Shienryu – which feature constantly-scrolling backgrounds and a bevy of moving sprites and particles. That said, I don’t think these issues are overly distracting and I didn’t notice them as much with the 3D games I tried with it. Is it perfect? No. Does it look as good as the pricier video solutions? No. But it does stay out of the way.

Below is a video compilation of footage from a smattering of games I felt like playing this week. I captured it all with the LevelHike cable and aimed for a variety of genres and number of dimensions. At the very least, this footage should give you an idea of what to expect. Honestly, I feel like it might look slightly better in person than what my Elgato was able to capture but you’ll get the gist.

Capturing all of this footage was actually a lot of fun. I forgot how addicting Kyuutenkai Fantastic Pinball was. I suck at Astal but it sure looks purdy.

There are downsides, to be sure. For several games, I’ve noticed the LevelHike cable shrinks the image to varying degrees depending on the game. You may have noticed it in my footage compilation above. It seems a bit random and I’m wondering if it has to do with the cable struggling to retain divisibility with the original 240p resolution in certain games.

The most nagging flaw is with the cable’s audio. Now, the sound quality itself is solid; I’ve noticed no distortion and the full richness and range of the audio seems in tact. Unfortunately, the LevelHike cable actually swaps the right and left stereo audio channels. This is a more glaring issue in 3D games where directional audio is crucial for reinforcing the player's spatial positioning relative to everything else in the environment. The severity of this ranges. In Sega Rally, it’s only mildly distracting – if even a bit amusing – when careening into a wall elicits a satisfying crunch from the opposite side of the car. However, this issue is compounded in 3D shooters like Power Slave, where I rely on the stereo audio cues to determine which direction enemies are coming from.

Digging into the issue a bit further, it seems this channel-swap issue is likely carried over from an error in the most widely-available Saturn A/V port schematics floating around online. The schematics incorrectly flip their depictions of the audio pins so many would-be cable manufacturers who reference it are also duplicating the error in their own products. I suppose this underscores the importance of the timeless adage: don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

To LevelHike’s credit, they’ve acknowledged the issue and are updating subsequent batches of cables to correct the audio channel issue. If this is a deal breaker for you, I’d recommend waiting a bit. In the meantime, I’ve reverted to playing most games with mono audio, which works fine for now.

And that’s about all I have to say about the LevelHike HDMI cable for now. Given the device’s emphasis on simplicity, convenience and affordability, the video quality is surprising solid, all things considered. Not that it’s an apples-to-apples comparison but I do see the LevelHike as a noticeable step up from similar direct-to-HDMI cables I’ve used on other platforms from established manufacturers like Pound and Hyperkin, which often take a larger hit in color quality and can run noticeably darker or more saturated.

As a simple and affordable solution for connecting your Saturn to an HDTV, I’m mostly impressed by LevelHike’s first Saturn offering and I look forward to seeing how it improves going forward. It’s obviously not in the same league as higher-end video solutions but for what it is, it’s plenty good enough.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Tomb Raider - A Tale of Two Laras

Still arguably one of the greatest early 3D action/adventure games in history! Tomb Raider needs no introduction, but in case you are mistaking it for that laughable new series, here is one anyway. Tomb Raider features a billionaire woman named Lara Croft who takes a job because she finds it interesting. The whole plot hinges on her flare for adventure and her love for the great unknown. She uses her money and power to go on frequent trips all over the globe to collect artifacts and dodge breath-taking dangers in ruins and temples.

That’s right, folks, this is not the Lara Croft we are introduced to in the remake series. She didn’t have to make a big deal out of her first kill, nor did she have to do all of those monotonous sneak missions to get food and survive in the wilderness. We actually knew very little about her in the beginning, and that worked in her favor. The original game is not complicated in its mechanics and it doesn’t take a great deal of time to get use to the controls. In fact, the controls are more than intuitive, they are amazingly easy.

The biggest challenge you have in this game is the direction and free roaming exploring that can get you lost. Anyone who played the original game can tell you all about the tiger cave. You shoot the tiger with your twin pistols, and then after that you spend four hours trying to find the way out. The puzzles can also be a little challenging to figure out, it can take some brain power and a little more than common sense.

The game just feels good to play, and getting lost in the experience is very easy to do. The only thing that may pull you out of it nowadays is the graphics. The game itself is no spring chicken, and the graphics aged just about as well as you would expect. Still, that doesn’t really matter. The graphics still function properly and the best part about it is they look the part while also not dragging down any framerates.

This, my friends, is a game that should have been studied much more before they went and made their own Lara Croft for this generation of games. It didn’t take three whole games for her to be “The Tomb Raider.” She started out as the Tomb Raider, and she was badass! Lara Croft became something of a sex symbol (even given her triangular chest) and has been hailed as one of the best game characters ever created. That was this Lara, not the new one. Then there’s the fact that it is still the most successful game in the entire franchise.

You can go into everything that spawned from this game. It was so successful that it took only five years for them to come out with a film. Despite the movie’s quality, it was still very impressive for a brand new franchise and showcases just how well this one video game did. It was a marvel of its time and just about everything it did screamed “genius!”

It really goes to show you how enginuity can outweigh the benefits of having a big budget. Creative minds think a lot better than cash does, for sure. Gaming today doesn’t seem to understand that sort of thing. You can have your so-called “new Lara Croft” but as for us retro gamers, we’ll stick to polygon mammaries, blocky caves and superior gameplay. Accept no substitutes. Virtua Dive!

Friday, 26 July 2019

Top/Bottom 3 Virtua Superhero Games - How's my Cape Look?

The superhero genre has always been celebrated ever since Siegel and Shuster created one of the most iconic caped wonders back in the late 1930’s. Over the years, changing tones and changing times have brought them back and forth from fame to shame and back again. Well, now superheroes are back in action after over a decade of success. Unfortunately, the system we celebrate here on Planet Virtua was not created during one of the comic book haydays. It took a while after the system was discontinued for masked heroes to climb to the new heights they have today. So, sadly, there was not a huge push for the genre.

That doesn’t mean it was a barren concept, though. In fact, this was when the Fighting Franchise vs Fighting Franchise idea really took off. Marvel vs DC was so well received that Capcom looked at their licenses and went “We can do this!” God bless them for this! Thanks to Capcom’s gusto, we have a large line of fighting games that incorporate many of our favorite characters from our favorite comics! There were, sadly, some duds along the way too.

Top 3 Superhero Games!

3. X-men: Children of Atom

This was the first superhero game released for the Sega Saturn and they got it right! Once again, the system shows off its capabilities by showcasing arcade-style graphics with minimal slowdown. The real gripe for this game is a limited roster, however, with so few characters, they chose the right ones. Other than the sentinel character, you can pick and choose among some favorites. In top Capcom fashion, the fighting is satisfying as hell.

2. Marvel vs Street Fighter

Now, we have one of the front runners of its time. This game was a gigantic hit in arcades and the fact that Saturn could simulate that experience to a high degree made it a very strong title. It is still played today, even with Marvel vs Capcom games coming out with strangulated regularity, people still gravitate toward the classics. Of course, it features your favorites: Spider-man, Wolverine, Captain America and the main cast of Street Fighter. However, there were also some very odd choices. Shuman-Gorath hasn’t exactly been well known through the Marvel universe but he makes his debut video game appearance here, much to the puzzlement of the vast populace. Why did they need a tentacle monster in a game with anime style cha--- You know what, never mind. NEXT!

1. Marvel Super Heroes

What’s this? A Marvel game that came out in 1997 and is somehow even more relevant today? Be still, my beating heart! A game based on the storyline behind the “Infinity Gauntlet” arc in the comics is something of a novelty to begin with, let alone the fact that two blockbuster hits came out based on the same thing. By some grace and miracle, Thanos is an unlockable character in this amazing title. Add him on top of all of the Marvel favorites and you’ve got arguably the best superhero fighting game on the Saturn! Not to mention the return of Shuman-G--OH CRAP! HE’S BACK AGA--

Bottom 3 Superhero Games!

3. Batman Forever: The Arcade Game

Don’t panic, this is not the SNES Acclaim reject that should have never been. This is just a 2D beat’em up featuring Batman, Robin, Two-Face and the Riddler. Finding this title is rather easy and it is fairly cheap by comparison to other Saturn games. There’s a reason for this. While many arcade games made a nice, smooth transaction to the system, this one did not. Not at all. With missing frames, cheap looking graphics added to the repetitive nature of the Beat’em Up, you pretty much have a forgettable title. There’s really not much else that can be said about this one. It’s really just mediocre and bland. In fact, with the SNES tie-in game, you at least have some complaining you can do to entertain yourself. Not that I… complain about games… to entertain… alright, moving on.

2. The Incredible Hulk: The Pantheon Saga

Not to be confused with a good Hulk game… if there is such a thing. The Hulk has to traverse through buildings that he can literally crumble with one smash. Now he has to take his time, hit levers and smash glass cases to figure out puzzles. The fighting is so mediocre and boring, and so is the game as a whole. Worst of all, the Hulk is weak and can apparently be taken down with very little fire or a couple of bullets. He’s not so much the Hulk as he is an Ulk… or maybe just an Lk.

1. The Crow City of Angels

Yes, you’re right, bit of a Virtua Retread, but this game really can’t be bad talked enough. When your game’s best quality is its backgrounds and horrific voice acting of joy, you screwed up big time. Whether there was any other dialogue other than “Hey, clown face!” I really cannot say because that seemed to be all the thugs said when you approached them. The graphics on every single character look like someone held them over a fire for a few minutes and threw them into the game. They didn’t even make a video game for The Crow’s original movie. Why in the hell did they go for the ridiculously terrible sequel?! It’s really no wonder no one remembers him as a Superhero at all, more just a cult classic movie starring Brandon Lee. Let’s just remember that movie and act like nothing else came out of the franchise.

Due to the Sega Saturn's somewhat limited number of popular licenses, there really were very few games to choose from. Capcom more or less cornered the market when it came to playable comic book crusaders. Unfortunately, that means that it’s relegated down to simple fighting games. It took a long time for the comic book industry to recover from the hard hit it took during the 80’s and 90’s in popularity. As it turns out, film was where the superheroes belonged, it just took the right vision to put them there.

Take that as you will. With less Superhero games than we all would like, the Saturn struggled with the genre. However, what we had was entertaining as hell. If you can get ahold of any of these titles, be sure to do so. Even the terrible ones are fun to poke fun at. Especially when you feel slimy tentacles wriggling over your arms and neck and cutting off your air ways so you can’t brea---AAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!!

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Virtual Hydlide - Virtua Vomit!

Ah, yon traveler! Far have you journeyed in your quest to find the princess who was changed into the three fairies by the dragon! Long have you fought the trees and the bees and faced off against the long, twisting and turning halls of the cave! Your journey has come this far, but hark unto me! You forgot to look in the 4th room of the 2nd cave and you forgot an item! Good luck back tracking!

Who can forget the wondrous feel of those awesome fantasy games of old? Those classic knights and dragon games where you had to use a lot of imagination while you played were a staple of old RPG's. That awesome feeling of destroying your enemy and gaining those sweet levels on your way to destroy the master of evil. Toss all of that aside for the one known as Jim! That’s right, you are now Jim and you’re rummaging through random crap to face the evil overlord.

The first thing you may notice, when you pop this into your Saturn for some ungodly reason, is that the character looks extremely plain and very bland. Sure, starting with a blank slate is a good thing, but this? He doesn’t even look like a product of the middle ages, he looks far too much like every single white guy with dark hair ever! He is so generic that putting armor on him makes him look like a guy with an armor overlayer. It’s like they found the perfect mismatch character and they were none the wiser.

Then there's the item system. Using items in any capacity is a hassle no matter how you slice it. Bringing up the interface for any reason forces you to stop what you're doing and concentrate on it. This was fine back in the 8-bit era when we were first working out the mechanics of a game, but now? They should know better. There are so many items you have to dig through, it slows the game's pace which didn't need any more hindering to begin with.

Add that to some of the worst landscapes brought to 32-bits and you have a craptacular journey ahead of you. You travel around forests and caves with a straight back point of view, this makes hit detection almost impossible because the vantage has no depth perception. You could be swinging your club at a monster from two feet away instead of two inches and you wouldn’t be able to tell.

The quests you go on can all equate to “Go to this place and get this thing.” Fetch quests are aplenty and they’re only made harder through their monotony. If you are not lulled into a passive sense of blandness, then you are frustrated that every single enemy you face can kill you in just one or two hits. The abrupt and tedious deaths are common place here. You could finally feel like you’re getting somewhere, but then you run into a tree that contains a patch of bees and it’s over. They kill you almost instantly and don’t apologize. They don’t even buy you a drink!

After you die, the load times become ridiculous! Between levels and continue screens, the load times are around 50% of the game! It gets so boring! The worst thing you could do to a game is make it boring and unplayable. This game is playable, but just barely.

The castle setting is probably the best you’ll find in this game, as they do look quite nice and actually reflect well with the game’s “tone.” The caves, however, are just black walls, black floor and some dark gray bones. You will run into the wall constantly if you do not keep a close eye on the map. They become a problem, especially when you’re forced to platform! Yes! Platforming from a back point of view in a game where you did not have to platform anywhere else. Well, there’s a platforming cave and good luck getting everything you need out of it!

While this is popularly known as the worst game on the Saturn, it’s honestly playable enough to stay away from the top of the list. However, it has made so many worst game lists, it’s comical at this point. If you don’t suffer from motion sickness as the POV and the framerate, it may be worth your time to try. Some people actually like it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, if you troll someone into buying it, lying to their faces, we shall fire our Virtua Beam Cannons into your face! Virtua DIE!!!!

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Life on Saturn

Thoughts from someone who, until recently, had never owned or played a Saturn.

I love racing games. It's one of those genres, along with tower defence, which I just keep coming back to. I get a buzz from starting a race and then realising that I know the track from a completely different game (or indeed system.)

It's one of my gaming regrets that my family do not really enjoy racing games. There's no one who will go head to head with me in anything other than Mario Kart. And whilst MK has its place and is huge fun, races which aren't decided by a well placed banana hold more appeal to me.

Which brings me onto...

Image result for daytona saturn

The only other Daytona game I've played is a Dreamcast one which I remember being extremely twitchy. So I was interested to see how its predecessor played.

The first thing that hit me about the game was the music. I'm sure there's been loads written about it so I'm not going to say much other than: it seems incredibly positive. The sort of thing which might be played at a funeral as people are leaving. So musically, it's a big thumbs up.

The other aspect about the sound which I found interesting was the voice. It's everywhere! I wondered if SEGA (or AM2?) were trying to prove a point back in the day. My favourite instance was when I inputted my initials. Especially when it said all 3 back to me like it was trying to read.

As I started the game my 14 year old daughter glanced up from her book, "Why does it say 'Gentlemen start your engines?"
Image result for daytona saturn crash
Just in case you didn't hear it.


Whilst racing, my 16 year old son wanders in to ask if I'd like a go at Tetris 99. He looks at the tv and adds, "but I can see you're playing this graphical masterpiece!"
Honestly, the youth of today.

But, in truth, I didn't really try to defend the graphics. I found them difficult to enjoy. I prefer the handling to the Dreamcast version but I find the game as a whole rather headache inducing.

As with all driving games, I'm not very good when I first start. It is easy to overtake a few cars but then I started to bump into the walls and lose a lot of speed. I liked the skid animation and the crashes were impressive. There's always something satisfying about smashing cars up. I liked the way the car took damage and the suspension started to rapidly rock up and down as if there were a couple of bunnies inside doing what bunnies do best.

The ultimate test of a whether a driving game is enjoyable in our house is how long it takes someone to start driving backwards round the course. I knew the game was not going to be a winner when my 9 year old, who wanted a turn, began to do this after just a few laps.

I enjoyed Daytona but, sadly, I won't be coming back to it very often. The graphics and frame rate just hold it back for me.

Now, where's that banana?

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

WWF In Your House - WTF RAW!!!

That’s right, you heard me! This ain’t no WWE crap! This is raw, unbridled wrestling back when WCW and WWF were competing for the top spot in the cable charts. Back when Hulk Hogan was a bad guy in NWO and McMahan didn’t talk like he had a bottle brush shoved down his throat. This point in time had many legendary match-ups happening within months of each other and the internet was just starting to give away all of the secrets before they happened. Wrestling was at a great peak in popularity.

Now the real question this review asks: Why in the hell would you make something like this? Not only were there better wrestling titles out at the time, but there were better titles out for past consoles. It really made no sense. There was some charm to the idea, having them use super human powers that went along with their wrestling personas. The execution, however, was less than stellar. Acclaim shows off their usual real person avatars, but they are without polish. They didn’t blend in with the background and to see random stuff bouncing out of their mouths when they’re slammed was off-putting to say the least.

The roster, while actually somewhat good, is still a problem. Some of these guys are WWF legends and now this game is more or less making them into a joke! Their moves are cartoony, their catchphrases rake against the ear and the worst part about it is none of their signature moves are on display as they were in games past. 

So, now you have real life people spitting up bizarre things and blasting each other with comic book superhero abilities. Not, in itself, a deal breaker because you seem to get use to it over time. Then you start with the actual gameplay and there’s where this game goes off the sidelines once again. You have wrestling moves, yes, but the action is just run and gun beat’em up. Again, not terrible by itself, but then it sinks in.

It’s a fighting game, mindless and fast paced, then the pinning system is literally nonexistent. You pin them as they run out of hitpoints and they cannot get back up. There is no endurance meter and beyond that, there is no gameplay system. It’s a non-gory Mortal Kombat where you pin someone at the end. The fighting system is about as shallow as it can get. The combos are not worth learning as the game is laughably easy.

These alone make the game somewhat below average in the grand scope, but then it has to speak. Yes, the technology of sound cards in live action videos and speech were somewhat new, but this was just awful. PS1 did not get the wrestler catch phrases, the Sega Saturn did. You get these awkward, terribly misplaced sound clips of the wrestlers (especially Golddust) saying some trivial nonsense at the end of every fight. Then there’s the announcers. They’re there to make the game seem more like a wrestling game, but they only succeed in saying pointless phrases such as “This is insanity!” or “That’s not a good idea!” or something to that effect. They make playing every match a minor annoyance that only builds in severity as you keep playing.

As a wrestling fan of the time, this was a sore misuse of the WWF property. The gameplay is uninspired, the Saturn graphics are better than the PS1 but that’s not saying much, and it just gets repetitive to the point of monotony very quickly. This game is far from horrific, though. The hit detection is up to par, the action can be fun in small doses, and now we have the nostalgia goggles on because not all of these wrestlers are still alive today, and many of them have since retired. If you’re a fan of these characters, you could do worse. It can be fun if you dull your senses down to its level. Whether that’s a good thing or not is up to you. VIRTUA SLAM!!!!

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

The Crow City of Angels - Crow for Help!

Even if you have never seen the Brandon Lee movie, even if you have never heard of the comic series or anything even remotely related to the Crow; it is universally believed that you will still hate this game. Game? Did I say game? I meant void. This is devoid of any quality, fun, coherence, story, or pleasure of any sort. Calling this a trainwreck would be giving it entirely too much credit. How could Acclaim look at this and just say “Wow, this is something we can release! For sure!”

Whatever their reason, they released it, and this is what we have. The first thing we see when we put this into our Sega Saturn (as a means to punish it, borderline abusing it) is the background. The background is literally the only slightly endearing quality about this whole game. That’s right, it’s got a pretty good gothic quality about it, and would have been suited for a much BETTER game. That’s it, that’s all of the good nature I have right now. Time to take off the gloves and put on the CHAINSAW RRRRUUUMMMRUUMMRUMMRUMM!!!!

The very first scene is nice to look at for three seconds, then you realize that your character does not move the camera. It’s a fixed position camera, much like Resident Evil, only very poorly done (if that had not been obvious already). Your character will be at the most awkward angles imaginable, and you will be expected to fight random deadbeats. These guys have the worst sound clips with some of the most repetitive dialogue that will cause you to regret having eardrums!

Not only can you usually not see the action as it’s happening because of the camera, you also have to be in the most perfect spot in order to have any sort of hit detection. Sometimes you’ll hit them, but most of the time, you’ll get pummeled. The graphics do not help in the very least. Your character looks blocky as hell (moreso than normal) so measuring his arm’s length like a normal human being is useless. Your arm can punch straight through your enemy, but it’ll be read as a glitch 99.9% of the time. The enemy will be unharmed and then beat you senseless, making you die.

Weapons are, like the game itself, useless. The camera angles constantly hide these improvised street fighting weapons from sight. Even if you pick them up, you will soon drop them when your opponent knocks you on your ass for the millionth time. It doesn’t matter if you are close to the camera, or a single blocky pixel in the background, your hit detection is nonexistent. Your movement speed and direction are literally all over the place.

Hit detection is awful, but the bad guys’ detection is A-Okay! Their hits smack you in the face and some of them have guns! Yeah! They have guns and throwing knives. So while you’re getting pummeled up front, some guy in the background will blast your ass and make you die. Don’t bother getting the gun, you will only shoot air.

Alright, so if you’re not convinced this is one of the worst games on the Sega Saturn, then by all means, find a worse one. Then don’t play the worse one and play something with Spawn in it instead. This has been on more than one "Worst Saturn Games" lists, and even some worst games of all time lists. There is literally no excuse for this. Much like all of the movies with lazy directors that should never have been made, one QA expert should have looked at this from one single angle and put a stamp of “not ready” or “dump at Chernobyl” directly on it. As said in the Saturn’s 10 Least Favorite Virtua Insanity, this game is literally unplayable. It is not worth getting use to the delayed, clunky controls and any effort to get good at the game is effort better spent playing E.T. on the Atari 2600. Yeah, I said it. Virtua Fight me.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Nights Into Dreams: Virtua Dreams Speak to Me

Love at first sight is a concept many do not believe. Well, in this case, it was true. I loved this game the moment I saw the Saturn trailer it was featured in. I wanted the game for well over half a year before I finally received it. That love was never misplaced. Case and point, Nights is flight!

The game is not afraid to throw you directly into the world, and after a brief menu screen, you are transported directly into the dream world. With the choice of two levels, either the boy, Elliot or the girl, Claris. Both of these children are caught within the nightmare world, ruled by Wizeman the Wicked, which is threatening their dreams by turning them into a very dangerous place. One of the Nightmarens shows pity on the children and decides to help them by inhabiting their dreams willingly, which gives them the power to fight back.

Nights is about as surrealistic a game can be without being straight up incoherent. The game, itself, has been accused of being such, but it really only takes a short amount of time to figure the game out. Not only does the game drop you many, many hints on how to play it, but it also becomes quite easily played on basic intuition and instinct. The method of spin attack and whirling around enemies to create whirling attacks to defeat them is reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog’s gameplay, only in flight (not to mention the game was developed by Sonic Team).

With its wondrous look and artistic value in dreamscapes and bosses. You must figure out how to defeat the main enemies. At some points, the learning curve can be somewhat steep, but with just a bit of experimentation, you will find this a satisfying fighting style. The free flight capability was cutting edge for its time. While the paths are somewhat linear with the normal controller. With the 3D Controller Pad, you can free flight through the whole level without bounds other than what is set for the whole level itself.

Aside from a few scenes and pictures of Nights, we honestly never get a whole lot of character with her in ways of personality. The game itself is more a “show don’t tell” aspect, as she is seen smiling. She was never given a speaking role in the game, but was in the sequel “Journey into Dreams.” Even though the character was given an English accented female voice, the character herself is actually genderless and “completely up to the player (hence why I go with she, just because).

The story is quite deep for what little they show in the actual game. Though, we are introduced to the children in the beginning cut scenes, the rest of the story is more or less included in the narrative outside of the game itself. This is probably for the best, as too much story could overload the real object of the game. Nights was created to test the limitations of a new system of the time.

The game was met with critical and public success, though the financial success it reached is something of an unclear subject. It is still hailed today as arguably the greatest game on the Saturn. It is universally loved and even acknowledged by gamers who have never played the Saturn. If you have Steam, a PS3 or Xbox 360, then you can get the game rather easily and for cheap. Try it out and experience it for yourself. Virtua Nightmares Realized...

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Battle Arena Toshinden Remix - Crack that Whip!

It’s no secret that the Sega Saturn’s collection is ripe with fighting games. Anywhere from mainstream to more obscure titles can be seen. Not all of them are perfect, but Battle Arena Toshinden Remix is definitely no slouch when it comes to two siblings competing for who can perform the most special flashy moves. A far cry different than Virtua Fighter, you not only use a vast array of weapons, but you also have very fast moving and powerful energy projectiles. This game is nothing if not somewhat pretty to look at.

It's interesting to note that this was originally going to be a Playstation exclusive. Why it was later ported onto the Saturn as "Remix", it's not exactly clear. However, ported it was and it stood up on its own legs, sporting new features in the game. This made its original intent of derailing Virtua Fighter  completely null and void, and created quite the puzzling turn of events.

Though the graphics have not aged well, they're still better than that swampfest of an anime movie compliments of 90’s cliches (Not kidding, do not watch the movie). It still works just fine with its controls, and the glitches are somewhat few and far in between so long as you don’t whip the camera around too fast too many times. The Sega Saturn’s framerates can get somewhat testy, especially with games that show this amount of scenery along with their polygon figures known as characters.

The characters of Battle Arena Toshinden are quite diverse, and their fighting styles are fun to play around with, however if you play with one such as Gaia, do not expect a fair challenge. Once you unlock the big brute in the appendaged armor, your chances of winning increase around ten fold. He was definitely not meant to appeal to the competitive nature within us all. Beyond him, there are the normal chaps. We have our Ryu and Ken clones that do have an impressively broad backstory to them. The game pinpointed every fighting game archetype and it’s fun to meet them all and see what they can do.

That’s not to say the story is all that interesting, though. Once you’ve passed through the story mode, you get the idea that these people honestly don’t want to be there for the most part. Those who do want to be there are on the wrong side of crazy. However, further down the line for this franchise, after a bit of reading, you’ll find that to be par for the course. After the installments wrap up storylines, the producers kept wanting them to further it more, and it was clear that their writers ran out of ideas. It more or less ends up going nowhere.

The ending drives this point home pretty hard. There is no ending, this is what we nerds call the “Empire Strikes Back” of Toshinden games, as we are left on a very poorly planned cliffhanger. I say poorly planned in that the Sega Saturn’s version of the sequel took a very very bad turn. While Playstation got one version of the sequel that met with critical acclaim, the Saturn got Battle Arena Toshinden URA, which was dragged through the mud before being drooled onto a CD.

If you would like a happy ending to this story, there is one. We not only got URA, but there was also Fighters Megamix, which pit these characters against those of the Virtua Fighter. Again, giving question as to how this was once a PS1 Exclusive. Megamix is immensely better and exclusive to the Sega Saturn. Total win.

The gameplay is not greatly balanced, and the fighting is not especially deep, as you would find in the Virtua Fighters 1 and 2. It’s far more reliant on the aspect of having pretty moves that do brunt force damage or standing still and letting the laser light show take control. If you were looking for a solid fighting game, this one is hit or miss with people. It’s quirky and fun for all of its entertainment value. However, when you start talking official sanctions with competitions, that may be a bit of a stretch. Characters can do endless strings of cheap moves that made you want to turn around and punch the other player in the arm. With no real challenge when it comes to skill, and no real complicated move system, it’s fun to look at.

As said, the graphics ain’t great, but the voice acting is a far cry worse. Despite there being a good number of decent voice actors in the anime, the English dub for the game sounded like they found the janitor, his three cousins along with a couple of their other roommates and had them talk into a mic to say words in funny accents. If there was a proper accent within it, it’s almost impossible to tell with the cartoonish way they talk, it’s honestly hilarious. Surprisingly, though, from footage I've seen from the MS-DOS version, it was surprisingly ported well by the devs at Digital Dialect.

Pop it in and beat the story mode within about ten minutes, and feel good about unlocking a few character. Beyond that, it’s just fun to wail on some friends and make fun of the squeaky voices they make when they fall. This title is another one that should never be taken seriously. Nor should you ever look into the later sequels. The Playstation port game after this one was a superior game, as well as the Saturn’s Megamix. Trek that far with it, and then move on to Soul Calibur. Virtua Slice!

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Panzer Dragoon II Zwei - How You've Grown!

When you want the high flying action and excitement of the ages, and the Saturn is calling your name, what game do you turn to? Nights: Into Dreams comes to mind, but you’re not feeling quite that kid friendly at the moment. You need guns, explosions, bombs, and a dragon! Make that a dragoon! Featuring some of the most gothic, rustic graphics this side of the 5th Generation, far intensified from its former title.

Panzer Dragoon Zwei features a young man who saved the reptilian creature from certain death at the hands of his captors. He takes the winged thing away and begins a very long journey which includes ample amounts of soaring. With a small but powerful blaster in his hands, he fights off legions of enemies, able to turn 360 degrees and fire at all angles.

These legions of enemies rank from about the size of a horse, to the size of a battleship! Whether they be flying next to you or firing at you from the ground, you need to know how to target enemies and utilize your dragoon’s energy attack that he fires off as a natural means of defense. It is one of the most useful weapons in the young man’s arsenal as it clears out the more plentiful, smaller enemies. However, the blaster is by far more solid when it comes to inflicting damage to a single target. Its firing rate is very fluid and quick with the flick of your thumb.

The controls are intuitive and the learning curve eases you in slowly. However, as the game goes on, that learning is put to the test as you are put through more and more peril that accumulates before you know it. The difficulty is something to behold with this game.

The dragoon you ride not only has the autolock attack, but he also has an ultimate attack! Once your meter next to your life is full, you fire off a multiple energy projectiles and kill many, many enemies, or drain the boss’s life in a major way. After many of the levels throughout the game, you will notice that your dragoon sheds its skin and glows to a radiant glisten! This is how the dragoon evolves and becomes stronger! You’ll notice that not only can he lock onto more targets over time, but he will also do more damage with more HP. However, do not think of this as getting too good for the likes of the enemies. Oh, no. Never think that.

If it was not clear already, this game is an absolute masterpiece. It is not without flaws, of course. The challenge can register in the "not fair" category in randomly occurring cases. However, with some trial and error, the challenges do not register as impossible. Some of the environments, while pretty, can lack in the graphics department, even for back then. None of these problems take away from the overall enjoyment, not until you get to the later, more frustrating levels.

Some of us older folk love the graphics because we became accustomed to them, but none of that matters, because they are so outlandish and strange that it makes them quite timeless. The more saturated brownish tinge of the color pallet do wonders to preserve its rusty charm. While some levels lack in the graphics, there are some that are also very beautiful, even going so far as to say "surrealistic."

As gameplay goes, this has been said to out do its predecessor. We here on Planet Virtua agree. The challenge is real, many of the levels are beautiful to look at and the musical score is very good, doing nothing to distract from the game. Do not miss out on this classic Saturn title and be sure to check out Panzer Dragoon. Do not forget to lead your Dragoon to water.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Virtua Sonic #2: Rough Virtua Life

Whenever we talk about Sonic, here on the Saturn Junkyard, I get the feeling that, perhaps, we have become a bit disconnected with the public. This shouldn’t be such a big thing, but at the same time, there are some very good reasons why Saturn and Sonic have a very shaky relationship at best. The mere fact that it is our favorite system goes to show a lot, because anyone who loves Sega normally loves the Blue Blur. However, with 2 stink bomb ports that make the bottom 20 lists on a regular basis, it’s understandable.

Note that I am not counting Sonic Jam as a Saturn port. Yes, Jam had its place on the system because it brought a wonderful bunch of Sega games you guys will remember to the greatest system ever! Not only that, but it did it very well! That port of Sonic the Hedgehog from the Dreamcast was so over stuffed with other games that it couldn't possibly be anything short of awful. This is the Sonic Quartet of great games. Should I count Sonic and Knuckles as an actual game? Probably not, but I'm going to anyway. To tell an old secret, my favorite Sonic game has always been the game packaged with my first Sega Genesis, Sonic the Hedgehog 2. With the first three games and the expansion pack included in this one disc, it is most certainly worth adding to your collection. It beats the alternative by far...

Sonic R sported mediocre graphics, terrible controls, questionable map decisions, game-breaking glitches, floundering frame rates and just all around subpar gameplay, especially when it comes to some of the difficulty spikes. Sounds terrible, right? Well, truth is, it kind of was. However, there was a fanbase behind this game that fully admitted its flaws but still would not give it up. 

Apart from its flaws, one part that it excels in is the music. Pay attention to whom you mention that music to, because they will break down DDR style and start singing to a beat in their heads. The gameplay is awful, but it’s very addictive once you find your own way around the bad controls. The frame rates get back here and there, but after you’ve numbed your brain to the point of not caring, you come to expect it.

The only real hardship of Sonic Racing is collecting all of the chaos emeralds and the unlockable characters. These unlockables are a staple of the Sonic franchise for many reasons, as they not only feature Metal Sonic, Metal Knuckles and Super Sonic, but also a very strange doll of tails. It looks like nothing more than a floating plush toy with an antenna on top. It’s so creepy, it’s amazing. Even when it floats above water, though, it’s not fast enough to really win any races unless you really cut some serious, glitchy corners.

Anyway! With five courses to go through and some very fun extra gameplay, this Sonic rendition is actually one to at least give a try. That’s much more than I can say for the other Sonic game in the library though…

Sonic 3D Blast is well known throughout fans of the old Sega Library (makes me think we play games on tomes and scrolls while we light the screen with torches) as one of the worst ideas for Sonic at the time. While there have been several other, much worse ideas, this one stood out because of the route they took with it.

This was in a period where 3D was glowing in all of its glory, and the same year it was released was the same year the Sega Saturn was released in America. The term 2.5D has been thrown around in the gaming community, and even that sounds generous. The isometric angle with which the game was made slows the pace down to an absolute crawl. The game is a boring, miserable experience, and worst of all, it was slow. 

The Gamegear version was obviously riddled with problems (but, then again, so was the Gamegear), the Genesis version was only slightly better and the Saturn port fixed some of the problems they had, but there’s always the depth perception problem! If you don’t know what depth perception is, pretty much how your two eyes perceive the space in front of you and measure it out for you so that you can know where to move. It’s simple physio/anatomy sciencey mumbo jumbo crap! Sonic 3D Blast does not care what kind of depth perception you have in your arsenal. They have their platforms laid out the way they want, at the angle they want, and how you jump on top of them is your problem, not theirs!

That one problem with the depth perception screws up your running, your jumping on platforms, and jumping on enemies. So now you’re missing targets, falling off high tops and getting run over by little critters. If you hadn’t gathered, it more or less screws up a lot of the game.

This is a real shame, because otherwise, the colors are bright and cheery, the graphics look crisp and clean in the Saturn port and it’s obvious the devs put a lot more into this version. However, you can’t patch together a game with such an enormous flaw as to screw up every part of the gameplay in some way. The mere fact that this was the first representation of Sonic for the Saturn in the US is an abysmal thought.

It was not all bad, but let’s face it, Sonic was severely shafted on this deal. Now, for the want of a happy ending, there is a nice big silver lining all over it! You see, the Sega Saturn did not maintain its greatness all its own. A hero is only a good as his buddy sometimes, and where the Saturn fell short, the Dreamcast picked up the slack. So Sonic still got a pretty decent send off, all things considered, from the Sega consoles. We can be grateful for that. Drink Virtua Water!

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

The Saturn Tri-Force - Virtua for Beginners

If you were an American who got their Sega Saturn in 1996, you were quite fortunate, indeed. You more than likely were surprised to see that on the box, it holds three distinct, free Saturn titles! Not only does it have three games, but it also comes with a Demo CD that plays the first level of some Saturn games and trailers for many others. The value of this to a child in the 90’s is insurmountable, as it meant they weren’t forced to go to the store to find something actually play it with! They could open it up, pop one in and indulge. Not only were they free games, but they were actually some of the better titles for the console and even went so far as to showcase some of its better capabilities!

First off, we have one of the best early 3D fighting games, Virtua Fighter 2! Far superior in graphics and gameplay to its predecessor, Virtua Fighter 2 brought about game mechanics very seldom seen in fighting games. Although the physics are akin to moon jumping, all of the quirks in the controls are easily overcome. No matter your fighting style, you’ll find someone you can play within the roster. 

The greatest thing about this game is that you can definitely win the first three matches as long as you have some skill in gaming. If you’re around the recommended age of eight or nine, you’ll enjoy your first playthrough, so long as this is your thing. Virtua Fighter 2 has been said to have some very deep mechanics within the fighting styles and the cast is a distinct array of characters, making us wonder how the Saturn could include it as a free game along with two others.

Among gamers, a common complaint is overpowered moves. Wolf has a move where he flings the opponent across the ring. With the ring out mechanic, this pretty much means 90% of the time, he would win. Paichan had a few moves where, if you did not block her oncoming attack, she would perform ridiculous combination moves entirely too fast to defend against. Balance issues aside, there’s not much else to complain about aside from nitpicks. 

Next title in the box is Virtua Cop! A rail shooter featuring two cops who take down criminals doing their dastardly deeds. While definitely not the only arcade style rail shooter, nor is it the best, it is definitely a very fun and entertaining experience playing this title. The graphics are not great, and sometimes the hit detection can be rather buggy. Not to mention, if you are playing with a normal Saturn controller, you will have a distinct disadvantage to those with the VIRTUA GUN! (Dramatically cool 90’s music)

So, not only was this a great game that you can still play first day, but it’s also a very intelligent marketing tactic. Without shoving an ad in your face (they are in the box, mind you) they encourage you to enhance your gaming experience with this piece of hardware. The gun was worth it, because as said before, this is far from the only time you get to use it. Virtua Cop 2 was much harder of a game, and definitely would benefit from this firearm of plastic orange and blue magic.

The point in Virtua Cop’s (and the Saturn’s) favor is that you definitely did not require the gun. You can play and beat the game just fine with the first day controller. The game is simple and obvious in its content. The voice acting is laughable, but part of me thinks that part of the point, and the boss fights are beyond easy, even with a handheld controller. All in all, the flaws are background material, the forefront is a badass, gristle chewing pow pow fest. It’s free with your Saturn, what more did you want?

Last, and most certainly not least, is a game that has befuddled many, and delighted many more. This game is the most unique of the three games because it has no combat, nor is it really even what some gamers would consider as a genre befitting “real gamers.” The generic race car games of the past fit into the status quo of superfluous and a waste of time. I mean, who really wants to sit there and make left turns all day?

The people who play Daytona USA, that’s who! What you are instantly met with after the Sega Saturn logo and the dev companies is some of the catchiest and flamboyant tunes you will ever hear in your life coming from a video game. This game and Sonic R are two of the most memorable soundtracks on the Saturn, and if you have not heard these tunes before, you need it in your life, if only just once.

Gushing about the music is not a normal thing for normal video game reviews, so as soon as we dig deeper, we see that it is a racing game through and through. However, the simplicity of this game made it so easy to just jump in and drive that you really have no other choice but to do so. Two options, Manual and Automatic transmission, choose a color for your car, and then ROLLING STAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAART!

On the beginner stage, it’s making left turns. However, if you’re playing on the hard levels, it is a struggle to stay in first if this is your first playthrough (not that I would recommend it on the first try). The fact of the matter is, though, that you are holding down one button and steering with your D-pad. If you have manual, you change gears. That’s it! That is literally the gameplay. Beyond that, you have three stages to explore. It’s a good twenty minutes to finish all three courses, and that’s if you’re taking your time.

It is literally the only Nascar-type racing game in my game library. Story time: I found it as a digital download on Xbox 360, and I bought it immediately. As I begin playing it, a friend of mine was flabbergasted that I would be playing something so strange as a car racing game. I very quickly explained that this was not just any car racing game. This was THE Sega Saturn racing game. No other racing games compared.

Am I geeking out and getting overly subjective, of course I am, it’s the Saturn and I don’t have a degree in journalism. Fight me. So, with the soundtrack made from the highest level of angels, Sega goodness in every pixel, simple, tight and extremely manageable controls along with somewhat challenging gameplay, Daytona USA has the charm to make it last through the ages in any Sega Saturn library.

The mere fact that Daytona USA was one of the 3 Free Games of one of the Saturn’s US releases only goes to push the fact that we had a friend and more when it came to the good folks at Sega America. Every single one of these games showcases different capabilities of the Saturn, along with completely different gameplay. What made this better, was that none of these games were really as well advertised as games such as Nights Into Dreams or any of the Capcom titles. So, you had these three games to whet your appetite and then pounce on the next game you had your sights set on.

All three games stand by themselves proudly in any of their respective genres. Putting all three of them along with such a system is far more than anyone could ask for. The greatest thing about them is that all of them stand the test of time as gracefully as the day they were released. If you were wanting three games to begin your collection, look no further. They are still commonly sold together in any of your common retail sites, and if you’re lucky you can find them in any local retro gaming store. Be sure to support your local gaming retail stores, and always remember to drink water.