Sonic The Hedgehog (Master System) Review

Developer: Ancient
Publisher: Sega

Text Review


Sonic the Hedgehog is one of gaming's greatest icons. Created in 1991 to compete with Mario, it put Sega on the map and helped popularize the Mega Drive / Genesis in the west. Yes, Sonic has been rather hit or miss lately, but he still has millions of fans and it's hard to overstate the series' impact in gaming.

The blue blur's debut was a strong one and a Master System port was launched only a few months after the release of its 16-bit older brother, though this time, it would be developed by Ancient instead of Sega.

Sonic follows the same basic plot and gameplay mechanics as its 16-bit counterpart, though several concessions had to be made to account for the weaker hardware, levels feature fewer enemies, destroying badnicks doesn't liberate cute forest animals and you can't recover any rings when hit. The latter drastically alters how the game flows, by not being able to recover lost rings, the difficulty spikes considerably when compared to other entries in the series. 

Worse still, even with all these features scaled back, the game still suffers greatly from slowdown issues. The framerate is in a near-constant state of flux, making precision jumping particularly difficult in some spots as controls quickly shift from responsive to sluggish. 

Sonic's trademark speed is also missing in this game, there are no loop de loops and the game seems intent on halting your progress through several artificial means. For example, Bridge Zone 2 is a forced scrolling stage, so speed simply isn't an option here while Jungle Zone 2 has the player slowly climb the level. Even when you do reach top speeds the game can purposely force Sonic to a halt in certain segments.

However, the game's greatest issue might just be its level design. One criticism I hear with the Game Gear ports of Sonic the Hedgehog, is that the view area is too small, giving the player little reaction time to dodge obstacles and hiding death pits from view. It's true the Master System's larger view screen minimized such issues, but this problem persists even with the larger resolution on the Master System. it seems every spring on path that boosts your speed is met with an obstacle that immediately grinds you to a halt, if not outright kill you, while other times you're required to take leaps of faith and hope Sonic lands on the correct spot.

Even the game's own rules aren't always consistent, on the aforementioned Jungle Zone 2, Sonic will die if he touches the screen's bottom edge, however, on every other level, the game would just scroll up or down accordingly. As a result, this is actually one of the toughest stages, as you're given no margin of error and any mistake means instant death.

As a rule of thumb, when playing this 8-bit port, the player simply has to forget that Sonic is about speed, and must instead either memorize levels or progress at a cautious pace. In fact, it seems the player was never intended to hit top speed in the first place; there's a spot in the first level where this is possible, but when it happens Sonic goes so fast that the game can't keep up and is unable to create enemies, rings or stage hazards in time, so you essentially spend the rest of level walking in a straight line until you reach the ending. Oddly enough, there seems to be some hit detection issues, especially with springs as they don't always register and sometimes Sonic will just go through them.

Now, I realize I'm being harsh on this game and truth be told, there are positives here, the graphics are bright and colorful and the music by Yuzo Koshiro of Streets of Rage 2 and Revenge of Shinobi fame is outstanding. So outstanding in fact that there are at least two theories of musicians stealing melodies from this game, the first being that Janet Jackson may or may not have stolen Bridge Zone's melody for Together Again, and the theory setting its sights on Australian group, Frente! who may or may not have sampled Jungle Zone's theme into their Accidentally Kelly Street song.

I also have to say Master System Sonic has more level variety than the Genesis / Mega Drive version. Not only do you have regular water stages like in the 16-bit version, but this port also features the aforementioned forced scrolling and climbing levels. Of note, is the fact that there are no mini-games to collect emeralds, instead they are scattered across the game's stages encouraging players to fully explore each level.

But worry not, there are still bonus stages for whenever you cross a goalpost with 50 rings collected. Here, the rotation effects are replaced with short spring-loaded levels where Sonic has to gather as many rings, lives and continues before time runs out. On some stages even flippers are added, reminiscent of the Casino Night Zone from Sonic 2, though this game predates it by a year.

In fact, it seems several ideas from this game would be later used in 16-bit Sonic games, such as Robotnik's final boss fight and Flying Fortress levels which seem eerily similar to their Sonic 2 incarnations, though the Flying Fortress stage also bears a striking resemblance to Bowser's Flying Airship in Super Mario 3.

Speaking of boss fights, most encounters with Robotnik are fairly basic and easy to overcome. However, questionable level design once again comes into play here as there are no rings to collect during these encounters. Again, it's not that the boss fights are difficult, the issue is that much like the Jungle Zone climbing stage, the player can't make any mistakes. At least you can minimize the issue by bringing a shield with you from the previous stage as the power-up carries over from previous levels, but even then this only grants you an extra hit.

I'm sad to say Sonic the Hedgehog for the Master System isn't up to standard with other series entries of the time. Seeing many of the classic stages recreated for a weaker system makes for a neat little curiosity which is helped further by the attractive graphics and great music. However, the constant slowdown, inconsistent world rules, increased difficulty and punishing level design drags the experience down. The sad part is, there was real potential here, many of these issues could have been fixed with light stage tweaking, but as it is, Sonic the Hedgehog may be a great 16-bit title, but only makes for an average 8-bit experience.

Trivia: There's a rumor that Janet Jackson's 'Together Again' uses Bridge Zone's theme. 

Trivia 2: An Australian group called Frente! is also often accused of sampling music from this game, though in this case it was Jungle Zone's theme which may or may not have been used in 'Accidentally Kelly Street'.


Video Review:



Pros:
- Bright, colorful graphics
- Amazing soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro
 
Cons:
- The change in the ring mechanics completely changes the game's mechanics
- Lots of slowdown
- Questionable level design which needlessly punishes the player
- It's a Sonic game where speed is a liability



Final Score: C

Packaging Review:


I have to say, I like this cover much better than the Mega Drive one. Having some background color makes all the difference, something which is missing in the Euro version of Sonic the Hedgehog for the Mega Drive.

The manual is surprisingly decent as well. As always, this is a VCR-style booklet which shares only the faintest hints of a backstory, but at least we're treated to some nice concept art of most enemies. It's a shame all the screenshots and art are in blue and white, a full color manual would really have brought these designs to life.

Packaging Score: B-

Collecting for the Master System info and Game Recommendations


If you're thinking of collecting for the Master System, here's some pointers about the console and a handful of game recommendations to point you in the right direction.


The Bouncer

Developer: Squaresoft / DreamFactory
Publisher: Squaresoft / Sony Computer Entertainment

Text Review

Developing titles for a system that hasn't even launched is a challenge most developers tend to avoid, as often times the final specs aren't known yet and development software tends to be buggy or incomplete. Yet, often times, studios that take the risk receive their own reward in the form of a promotional boost and sales. With that said, launch titles tend to be hit-or-miss, with the latter being quickly forgotten as tight release schedules, new hardware and other complications often hamper what could have been a quality release.

Indeed, The Bouncer was a game which carried a lot of hype, the graphics looked stunning and it was being jointly developed by Squaresoft and DreamFactory, two developers with proven track records. However, when the game launched, it was quickly forgotten and hardly anyone mentions it today. I'm assuming the challenge of developing a launch title for the PS2 simply proved too great, because simply put, The Bouncer is not a good game.

The Bouncer is a 3D beat'em up, a genre which typically struggles when moving from sprite-based gameplay to a polygonal one. You control one of three bouncers rescuing a girl who was kidnapped by a multinational corporation.

All three characters feature different stats and moves, moreover, defeating enemies nets experience points which can be spent towards upgrading your health, attack, defense or learning new moves. The game even rewards players with multipliers for defeating several enemies in a quick succession. You can even save your upgrades onto a memory card for your next playthrough. 

Unfortunately, all of this is undone by one major flaw; The Bouncer is incredibly easy. Yes, you can learn new moves, but there's no point, you can defeat every enemy by spamming a three-punch combo. Even bosses are complete pushovers. Granted, the final boss requires you to at least defend yourself and occasionally dodge, but outside of a few defensive maneuvers, you can easily beat the game with all three characters by repeating the same attacks ad nauseam.

To make things worse, the game is incredibly slow-paced. Your characters move and run slowly, all of your attacks, basic or advanced, carry a build-up which drags the pace down even further. This issue affects all three fighters but it's downright unbearable when controlling Volt, who has the strongest attack, but somehow manages to control even more sluggishly than his peers.

One odd design flaw I came across is the low number of characters in any given area. Most levels feature a paltry three enemies to defeat before loading another long cutscene, fully healing you and bringing you to the menu screen. Not only that, but throughout most of the adventure, you have two friendly AI characters helping you out, and they're surprisingly useful at dispatching enemies and damaging bosses including the final boss. This means that at times, The Bouncer feels more like a one-on-one beat'em up rather than what you expect from a Streets of Rage, Final Fight or Golden Axe game.

I should also point out that whatever upgrades you add to your characters are persistent for both you and your A.I. controlled colleagues. So in essence, The Bouncer somehow manages to become even easier with each playthrough, it gets to a point where you don't even have to do anything as your team is so strong that they can handle most threats, including bosses by themselves. Technically, you can can perform special attacks using all three characters, but as mentioned before, you'll never need to actually use this and some bosses will even counterattack when performing said moves.

Now, one doesn't typically expect beat'em ups to heavily focus on the story or feature long cutscene, but this one does, but unfortunately, the plot and dialog is terrible. The narrative most likely stemmed from RPG-centric developer, Squaresoft, but for a studio so focused on storytelling, they really dropped the ball. 

The narrative idea is a solid one, depending on which character you choose between stages, the plot will alter slightly, some plot arcs for example can be left unresolved or may be properly addressed if you pick the right combination. The problem is that this interactivity can't save a poor story filled with stilted dialog, voice-acting that received little to no direction and characters whose intelligence is questionable.

Then of course, there's the fact that The Bouncer's constant barrage of cutscenes keep interrupting gameplay. As previously mentioned, most stages only have three enemies, which can take less than a minute to defeat, but upon doing so, you're then prompted to another 10 minute cutscene only to then fight another trio of foes. 

Even the game's graphics leave a lot to be desired. For some reason, the developers added several bloom and blur filters to gameplay portions. Perhaps this was done in an attempt to hide jagged edges, but all it does is make The Bouncer a visual blurry mess. 

I'm sad to say that The Bouncer is a mess. It carries a misguided focus on storytelling for a genre that is typically better without one. The action is slow, easy and does not require the player to master any moves. The graphics are dark and blurry often making it hard to see where you or your enemies and what little enjoyment there is to be had in its gameplay is constantly being interrupted by more cutscenes. If there is one silver lining in all of this, is that the game is mercifully short.

Trivia: The main character, Sion looks remarkable similar to Sora from Kingdom Hearts while Volt and Kou share similar traits to Zell from Final Fantasy 8. This is because all of these games featured the same character deisgner, Tetsuya Nomura.

Video Review



Pros:
- Story branch idea is interesting
- The cutscenes look nice at least
 
Cons:
- Gameplay is shallow, slow and easy
- The long cutscenes keep interrupting the gameplay
- Excessively blurry visuals

Final Score: D-

Packaging Review: 

I quite like the box art here, Sion is detailed and the use of colors does a good job at drawing in your eye. I will say the collar and necklace he's wearing look a little goofy, but that's just one of Tetsuya Nomura's tropes.

Although the manual feature the same cover art, the disc contains an entirely different image. This time, the blue background creates a nice juxtaposition with the manual's dark-red color scheme.

The manual though short in length is printed on a surprisingly high quality paper, not to mention it's in full color. Sadly, the manual barely has any content other than information on how to boot up the game and basic combos.

In a way, this packaging contains many similar faults to that of the game; all flash and no substance. But I can't deny that shiny packaging works better as a Playstation 2 box than it does as a game.

Packaging Score: B+

Colony Wars


Text review

Developer: Psygnosis
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertaintment

Space simulation games are often associated with computer gaming, a trend which began in part due to the success of games like the Wing Commander and Star Wars series, but also because 16-bit consoles didn't have the power to run 3D titles.

However, when the 32-bit generation rolled around, there was a big push to bring the genre to consoles. The Playstation and 3DO got Wing Commander, the N64 received brand new Star Wars games, and Sony threw their own hat into the ring by having the newly acquired Psygnosis Studios develop Colony Wars.

Although this series was well received at the time, it seems to have been mostly forgotten, though there are still some diehard who fondly remember the games.

Colony Wars is a mission-based space sim, you play as a nameless pilot in a Star Wars inspired rebel organization known as the League of Free Worlds, and fight against the Earth Colonial Navy. Right off the bat, Colony wars handles differently from the space sims that came before it, controls are easy, quick, responsive. The action is much more arcade-like as well, you can crash into enemy fighters or capital ships and fly off with inconsequential damage.

Despite the game being loaded with cutscenes, there is no story to speak of, rather you hear the narrator explain how the war is progressing. What makes this interesting is the fact that depending on which missions you succeed or fail the tides will turn and lead you to different branching paths. There are a total of six different endings which can range from total defeat, a truce between both sides or the unconditional surrender of the Colonial Navy. The branching mission nature of the game manages to provide a quality replay value in what is an otherwise short game.

Before each mission, you're given a long briefing detailing the objectives and the current war status. Assignments will range from your garden variety such as escort, defend and bombing runs while others are more unique like one where prisoners escaped from a ship and you have to hunt down their escape pods. While there are many different ships you can play as, they are all pre-selected for you, forcing the player to adapt to each craft's strengths and weaknesses. This also means that sometimes you'll be given a slow and heavy bomber when all you really want is a fast and nimble craft or vice-versa.

The missions carry a nice sense of scale, featuring several fighters and capital ships from both sides fighting for control at any given. Sadly, your allies tend to be more a hindrance, League capital ships are about half as resistant as the Colonial Navy's and I was often the target of friendly fire when I got too close to an enemy fighter. The problem here is that you need to be near fast moving enemy ships because the aiming reticule only tells you where your target currently is and not where he's going. Needless to say, I was a victim of friendly fire more often than I should have.

Your weapons are also selected for you, though the ones you'll be using the most are the anti-shield laser followed by the regular laser. Homing missiles can be used to target fighters, and torpedos are suited against large capital ships. One issue I have with this game is that in most missions, whenever you take out an enemy fighter, a new one will immediately spawn in its place, making escort missions harder than they need to be.

With that in mind, I eventually came up with two exploits; the first is to camp near their spawn point and shoot them down as they come. The second and more effective method was to disable their ships with EMP weapons and leave them there, if I don't kill them, their replacements won't spawn. In fact, the EMP is easily the best weapon in the game, fighters are fully disabled with just three hits and capital ships will be at your mercy in under one minute.

Another problem I found is that you can't dodge attacks from capital ships; you have no way of knowing if they locked on to you and when they do, there is no way to avoid being hit. When you take down a capital vessel or space station, it breaks into pieces and blows into a spectacle of colors, however, if you were too close to your target, your ship will crash against every piece and lose control, though you take minimal damage from this.

Speaking of the capital ships, all of the Colonial Navy's larger craft seem ripped straight out of Star Trek. The rest of the ship designs look fine, though the same can't be said for Colony Wars' early 3D graphics. Later entries into the series would improve their visuals, but the low resolution and polygon count haven't aged well at all. Moreover, texture warping is an issue, especially when zooming close to large craft which sometimes causes entire segments of the vessel to become transparent.

Colony Wars' audio isn't bad and its soundtrack does a good job at setting up the mood and its main theme is pretty memorable. Then of course we have the voice acting which incredibly so over-the-top and cheesy; it seems every pilot in the League of Free Worlds has the most exaggerated accent you can imagine.

One of the criticisms I often hear with this series is its difficulty, but I generally found this entry accessible. Some missions were tougher than others, but after one or two repeats it's easy to learn what you should focus on to successfully complete it.

The game comes on two discs, mostly due to all the FMVs. This means if you want to replay a mission from either half of the campaign or if you turned off your Playstation with the second disc inside, you will have to change them manually. Despite that, Colony Wars is a short game, I managed to finish it with the best ending in under three hours and having to get up and change the disc each time I wanted to replay a different chapter became annoying quickly.

Colony Wars is definitely showing its age, the mission variety is fine and the missions feel epic, but its gameplay feels basic, which is further hindered by poor AI and early 3D graphics. Having to change discs often is also an issue, especially for a game this short. With that said, the gameplay despite basic is still entertaining and the branching paths encourage replay value. It may not be the classic it once was, but you could do a lot worse.

Trivia: According to the game's own lore, of the five original prototypes for a Destroyer class vessel, two had faulty wiring, one was sabotaged, one was ransacked by crew suffering from 'face scab madness' fever and the last one crashed, wiping out a field of children. Someone at Psygnosis had a dark sense of humor.

Video Review





Pros:
- Good mission variety
- Good sense of scale for each
- Branching paths provide plenty of replay value
 
Cons:
Short
- Graphics have aged poorly
- Expect to switch discs quite a bit by the game's mid-point
- Poor A.I. 

Final Score: C+

The Boxart is catchy, but way too cluttered, I have trouble understanding just what I'm supposed to be looking at and the cropped 'colony' in the background doesn't help either, if you have OCD you'll probably hate this cover.

Inside you'll find two discs and the manual, who's cover art is much cleaner, as for its contents, they're not bad, they don't really bother to tell you any backstory, though to be fair, they already do that on the disc but has all of the game's basic information.

Overall, it's an okay packaging, nothing really stands out, other than the boxart being a bit too cluttered for my taste.



Packaging Score: C

Ghostbusters

Developer: Compile/Sega/Activision
Publisher: Sega

Text review

Early Sega Genesis / Mega Drive games often tend to be ignored or forgotten. This may be due to the console struggling to find an audience during its pre-Sonic years and as result, nostalgia for such initial offerings is low. Furthermore, early Genesis games did not make great use of the system's graphical or sound capabilities which emphasizes the titles' relative lack of popularity. However, those willing to explore the console's early years might be surprised by how enjoyable some of these games can be.

Ghostbusters is one such case, what it lacked in comparative audio or visual fidelity is made up by its arcade gameplay. Co-developed by Sega and Compile, this is a side scroller run n' gun platformer. Oddly enough, the game states it was originally developed by Activison and later reprogramed by Sega. However, this version is entirely different from Activision's NES, Master System and Commodore 64 game, so it's possible Sega's license required them to legally credit Activision as the original developer. 

Taking place after the events of the first movie, players take control of either Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz or Egon Spengler, Winston is mysteriously absent with no in-game or manual explanation to be found.

The three remaining characters differ in their walking/jumping speed and damage resistance, with Ray being slow but resilient, Egon fast and fragile and Venkman as the in-between character. While this may sound sensible in theory, the level design and enemy placement seems to heavily favor Ray's increased damage resistance. 

Out of the game's six stages, only the Woody House, which acts as Ghostbusters' fire level, required any sort of precision platforming. While the rest will still have you jump over spikes, foes and platforms, I never felt there would be any benefit to an increased walking of jumping speed. On the other hand, Egon's fragility provides a definite difficulty spike as enemy hits can cause up to four times as much damage as they do on other characters. It should also be noted that you cannot change characters between stages, whoever you pick will stay with you until the player completes or resets the game. Simply put, Ray is without a doubt the easiest choice, Egon is a good pick for anyone trying to speedrun Ghostbusters and Venkman serves no purpose other than to graduate players from Ray to Egon.

Though levels aren't particularly large, they can be confusing to navigate. I would also argue the enemy placement occasionally seems sloppy, spawning foes in areas where you have no choice but to take damage. Players must traverse each stage searching for mini-bosses to defeat before they can challenge the main adversary of each level. This requires your character to explore every nook and cranny of a level, often coming across one-way doors or paths which require backtracking. Thankfully, a map can be accessed at any time by entering the pause menu, once there, you can also change your arsenal or use any items your character is currently carrying.

Upon finding a mini-boss, you have to engage in battle by learning their patterns, move sets and shooting their weak spots. Most small enemies and platforming segments tend to provide little challenge, with the real exhilaration coming from the boss fights as they have more interesting designs and require a higher level of skill. With that said, there were a few boss encounters where I felt their movement patterns were randomized. In one particular example, you're supposed to walk under a crystal monster to avoid being pinned against the wall, but this action never took place forcing me to take damage with no hope of defense.

After defeating a mini-boss, a ghost will appear which the player must then capture with a proton pack and lead towards a trap. If successful, you recover part of your health and energy, a short cutscene will appear and a greater reward is reaped at the end of the level. However, if a player takes too long or fails too many attempts at capturing a ghost it can escape, nullifying any rewards.

Once all mini-bosses are cleared, a blinking spot will appear on the map indicating the location of the level's main foe. Reaching this enemy will trigger another cutscene with the ghost explaining his or her motivation before attacking. Unlike previous encounters however, they do not require you to capture them upon defeat.

Generally speaking, I was less than impressed with the enemy designs for most enemies as they often amount to flying cutlery, sheets, pans, blobs, and other fairly generic designs. Thankfully there are exceptions to this rule, namely the boss fights. Slimer making an appearance, shooting him allows you to recover your health or energy. Other appearances include Stay Puft Marshmellow Man and even a Little Shop of Horrors reference in the form of Audrey Jr. 

Dispatching foes, shooting chests, capturing ghosts and completing levels will reward the player with money. Any currency you find can be spent on the item and weapon shops which are available between missions or can be visited by walking left at the start of each level. The item shop carries health recovering items, screen-clearing bombs and night-goggles which are only really useful for one specific stage. The weapon shop includes four weapons to purchase, energy tank upgrades and even shield items. 

Using any item from the weapon shop will deplete your character's energy tank. Moreover, weapons have a limited strategic use, with each being seemingly designed to take out a specific sub-set of enemies and bosses. Needless to say, discovering the best time to shift between your arsenal is the key to success.  

However, even then I found most weapons to be overly expensive for their potential usefulness, as your starting gun already does a well-enough job at eliminating enemies. In the end, a combination of the shield upgrade, spread gun and additional energy tanks seemed to be enough to offset any challenge the game could provide. Although completed levels can't be revisited, a patient player could grind a stage for enemies and treasure chests as every time you leave a level to visit a shop, all items and foes respawn.

Ghostbusters' art style is an interesting one. During cutscenes, our main cast are represented in a realistic manner, however, when traversing through stages, they feature disproportionately large heads. This bobblehead look can be a bit a jarring, but it helps give the game its own graphical identity. 

Sadly, outside of this and the interesting boss design, this is where graphical positives end. The animations for example are jerky, using only one or two frames for each action. Considering this applies to all characters and enemies, it eventually adds up. Moreover, there is a distinct lack of graphical effects here, you'd expect to at least see some parallax scrolling, a heat wave during the fire level or some water effects during swimming segments, but there are none here. The screen also seems overly zoomed in, giving you little time to react to threats that are just ahead of you.

On the sound department things do fare slightly better as the music is generally pleasing. Some levels like the High-Rise Building stage feature tunes that are catchy, but also generic as nothing about the soundtrack inherently screams Ghosbusters. The only exception is of course the Ghostbusters theme though sadly, it's poorly represented on Sega's 16-bit console, lacking any excitement. The real guilty party however are the sound effects which can quickly grate on you due to how harsh they sound, this is especially true for explosions.

Interestingly, the game features plenty of cutscenes which are handled through a still image and dialog. There are cutscenes at the start of the game and each mission, between stages, upon catching a ghost and after completing a level, some of which have a fairly large amount of text for a game of this nature. It almost feels as if at one point Sega had higher aspirations for this title, either through a lengthy story or even RPG or adventure mechanics. Sadly, if those were Sega's intentions, they had to be scaled back considerably and what we got instead were long sections of text which only serve to break the flow.

Overall, Ghosbusters for the Sega Genesis / Mega Drive leaves a lot to be desired in audiovisual department. The graphics are subpar, as even other early Genesis games such as Altered Beast or Revenge of Shinobi featured at least a layer of parallax scrolling and interesting graphical effects. The music while generally catchy, is offset by irritating sound effects. Thankfully, the gameplay is where Ghostbusters excels; exploring a level, shooting down bad guys and earning money is genuinely satisfying. More importantly, the amount of boss fights do a nice job at introducing variety and add just the right amount of challenge, serving as the game's main strength. It may not by the best game on the system, but if you can find a reasonably priced copy, it's certainly worth tracking down.

Pros:
- Fun run n' gun platformer
- Great, varied, boss fights
- Cool Little Shop of Horrors reference
- Music is pretty catchy


Cons:

- Supbar graphics and
- Grating sound effects
- Short
- Winston is mysteriously absent


Final Grade: B

Video packaging review




Text packaging review


I can't say I'm a big fan of the cover. Yes, it draws in the eye, but it's a little too simple for its own good. I know this is the movie's iconic logo, but I'd go so far as to say this seems a bit lazy. The game comes with a cartridge and manual, both sporting the same cover art.

The manual begins with a little backstory, stating that Ghostbusters takes place after the events of the first game. Sadly, the story is short and poorly written. The characters have none of the personality from the movies and instead are little more than cardboard cutouts. From here on, we go into fairly detailed instructions on how to play the game, complete with hints and tips for boss fights. I did like how the final page was dedicated to adding in your high scores. Later Sega releases eventually lost this extra.

Overall, the packaging is mediocre. Not even the cover managed to impress me.

Packaging Grade: C-

Wild Arms

Developer: Media.Vision
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Video review


 Text review

It's no secret that Sony's original Playstation console was something of a landmark system for JRPGs. While it's true the NES and Super Nintendo had a healthy library of the genre which was one of the contributing factors for their massive success in Japan, it wasn't until Final Fantasy VII launched on Sony's grey box that the genre became popular in western shores. The attractive CGI visuals, well developed turn-based combat and plot-oriented adventure was a runaway hit, create a sudden influx of imitators and competitors.

Yet, there was a time before Final Fantasy took the world by storm. In fact, there were even a handful of JRPGs released worldwide during the brief two-year period between the Playstation launch and the release of Final Fantasy VII. For this reason I was looking forward to Wild Arms, as I assumed it would be a window of what would happen had the tale of Cloud and Sephiroth been unknown. However, much to my surprise, I quickly discovered Wild Arms shares so many similarities with Final Fantasy VI, it could almost be considered an unofficial sequel or spin-off.

Now this isn't a stab at Wild Arms, much to the contrary. Seeing a game that is visually and thematically so similar to my favorite entry into Squaresoft's flagship franchise was an unexpected but welcome surprise.

Equally welcome are the strong first impressions, as the game begins with a nicely rendered Anime cutscene created by Madhouse, the same animation studio behind shows like Hunter X Hunter and Card Captor Sakura. Sadly, as attractive as the intro it is, there are no other cutscenes similar to this throughout the entire adventure. Bait and switch aside, it does a wonderful job at setting Wild Arms' mood and the visuals are complemented beautifully by a western-themed song. In fact, the game's soundtrack is easily one of Wild Arms' high-points, employing a full blown orchestra with renditions taking classical fantasy tunes and adding a western flavor, not unlike the previously mentioned Final Fantasy VI.

Oddly enough, Wild Arms tries to surpass its inspiration by combining elements of fantasy, sci-fi and western into one package as the world of Filgaia features guns, lasers, space stations, demons made of metal, magic, swords and much more. 

Yet, there seems to be a disparity between what we're told narratively and what we see. Both the soundtrack and plot would have you believe the world is made to resemble that of a steampunk spaghetti shooter, however, every town and city looks like your typical fantasy JRPG. The visuals, for as beautiful as they are, rarely seem to fit with the world we're supposed to be exploring. If it weren't for the music or side characters like Calamity Jane, I could easily assume this is a land of myth and magic. In that regard, it seems Final Fantasy VI did a much better job at visually conveying its own world by making steampunk vehicles and houses a common sight. 

I know I keep returning to this topic, but both games are surprisingly similar in visuals, themes, music and even gameplay. Anyone who played Squaresoft's classic RPG franchise will feel right at home with Wild Arms' random encounters and turn-based combat system. You only control a maximum of three characters, each taking a clear role. Rudy is a tank, dealing decent damage and taking the largest amount of punishment. Towards the later stages he even acquires the ability to guard allies. Jack is a damage dealer, featuring a high speed and physical damage output, but is low on armor. Lastly we have Cecilia, the group's mage whose abilities ranging from healing and buffing to damage dealing though I found little use for the latter.

The party formation is definitely a little too safe, leaving no ground for experimentation as level and skill progression follows a strictly linear path save for the order in which Cecilia learns magic spells. Moreover, these are the only playable characters, no guests ever join the party and little is ever done to spice-up combat despite Wild Arms' relatively lengthy campaign. 

I would even go so far as to argue the battle system seems poorly thought out. For starters the game is simply too easy. Random monsters rarely pose a threat and boss fights are too easy and unsatisfying. It wasn't until I ran into an optional arena towards the endgame that I finally met my match, though even those challenges were doable with enough tactical reasoning. Characters can also summon guardians, a feature that is once again reminiscent of Squaresoft's Final Fantasy series, and though they play a pivotal role in the narrative, I generally found them underpowered, verging on the useless.
Even Rudy's titular wild ARMs weapons paled in comparison to Jack's sword skills or Cecilia's healing and buffing skills, but I suppose calling the game Sword & Sorcery would be too on the nose.

I may sound like I'm being harsh on Wild Arms' combat system, it's not that the fighting is bad, it actually verges on being good, but it lacks any challenge or personality and is bloated with features that you'll rarely use.

It also doesn't help that Wild Arms' simple, but attractive 2D visuals are replaced by rudimentary 3D polygonal graphics during combat. To say the game's polygonal showings have aged poorly is an understatement, featuring crude figures, poor animations and texture warping.  Even the sound effects are often oddly placed, with fierce creatures releasing cat sounds when hit, other times, they are mysteriously absent or cut off.

Final Fantasy isn't the only source of inspiration in Wild Arms, a few hints of The Legend of Zelda can also be detected. As you progress through the game, characters will acquire tools which are used to solve puzzles. Some are original creations like wands that allow you to speak to animals or glove to push objects away while others are clearly mimicked after Link's arsenal, such as bombs or Wild Arms' interpretation of the hookshot.

I generally enjoyed these puzzles as they added variety to dungeon crawling segments, however, the random encounters would often get in the way, making things especially frustrating when I was having trouble finding the correct progression method. Perhaps most egregious is the fact Wild Arms doesn't always make it clear what you have to do or where you have to go. For example, one puzzle requires you to put an item back into the treasure chest you picked it up from, however, no clear indication was given, nor did I even know the game allowed you to do that. Other times I was forced to wander the world map aimlessly simply because I had no idea what I was supposed to trigger the next story event.

Speaking of the story, I generally enjoyed it and its themes. It began with everyone having clear goals and motivations on who they are and why the demons seek to take over the world. However, as the plot progresses the demons' tactics become more extreme and their reasoning murkier. Towards the end of the game I had lost all emotional connection with them and viewed them as little more than cartoon villains.

Thankfully, the same cannot be said for our main characters, their backstories, interactions and character growth arcs are easily the highlight of Wild Arms' story. All three characters come from a background of sadness and loss and how they deal with their inner demons is intriguing and often genuinely heartwarming. However, the developers made the odd decision of making one of the characters, Rudy, a silent protagonist. This means that while we fully understand Jack and Cecilia's reasoning as they grow, we're often left to guess Rudy's. Moreover, having a silent protagonist among two talkative and likeable characters creates an odd clash. I understand the idea was to make Rudy a blank canvas for the player, but considering we later learn his intricate backstory, the whole idea of a silent protagonist backfires, damaging any conflict resolution.

I'm quite glad to have played Wild Arms, while the game isn't the departure from the Final Fantasy-based formula I was hoping for, it more than makes up for it with graceful 2D visuals, a beautiful soundtrack, and a likeable main cast. The 3D graphics have definitely aged poorly, especially when compared to the 2D's segments more inspired moments of beauty. The combat is entertaining if a bit simple and the main plot starts to meander a bit towards the end, however, Wild Arms is a worthy acquisition and still worth a playthrough today.

Pros:
- Graceful 2D visuals that manage to surprise you when you least expect
- Beautiful orchestral soundtrack with a wild west twang to it
- Likeable main cast with engaging and heartwarming character arcs
- Legend of Zelda-like puzzles are generally fun and add variety
- Combat is easy to get into and a great choice newcomers to the genre


Cons:

- The combat is easy to get into, but rarely provides any real challenge
- Polygonal graphics during combat segments aged terribly
- Occasionally obscure puzzles made worse by random encounters
- The story and villains' motivations become somewhat murky towards the final acts
- The mix of fantasy, sci-fi and wild west isn't always seamless with the latter being forgotten in the visuals

Final Grade: B

Trivia: Perhaps as a nod to the two franchises that inspired it, Wild Arms features two subtle references to the Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy VI. A doll dressed in a green garb that looks suspiciously like Link can be found in Cecilia's bedroom.

Trivia 2: When exploring the world of Filgaia, you might also come across an arena which resembles Final Fantasy VI's Colosseum. Inside, you'll find a female spectator with green hair and ponytail, reminiscent of Terra from Final Fantasy VI.

Video packaging review


 Text packaging review

(excuse the condition, this game is becoming harder to find and sometimes we have to make due with what we got.)

I have to say, I'm not a fan of this cover. Not only do the characters lack the detail and colors found in the opening, but the poorly rendered mid-90s CG background clashes against the 2D design. If I had to guess, I'd say the developers took concept art and simply placed a bland, boring background.

Inside, we find a manual and the game disc. Note the disc uses different art from that found in the cover, little touches like these go a long way.

The manual is light on story, giving only a few paragraphs of background information on the world and our characters. Thankfully, this is offset by how in-depth it goes to teach you how to play Wild Arms. More importantly, much of the information here is actually useful, as they include descriptions for each status ailment and even give away some of the tools you'll have at your disposal for puzzle solving. There's even a few concept art images thrown in for good measure though sadly they're in black and white like the manual itself.

Unappealing cover art aside, this is a good packaging for a standard release, I wish the manual were in color and featured more concept art images, but few games did that in Europe.

Packaging Grade: A-

Rogue Stormers Review


I reviewed Rogue Stormers over at Tech-Gaming.Com. It was okay. It tries to be Contra with roguelike elements, but the two didn't mix that well.  Click here for the full review.