- Buy Video Games for Consoles and PC - From Japan, Korea and other Regions!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Review - F1 (by Domark)

I said in my last review that games from 1993 - one of the last years of the SMS - tended to show great development in design and programming from the basic games of earlier years. This is the major exception to the rule ...

The Master System does colour and detail very well, but its major stumbling block is processing speed, which meant that even technically inferior 8-bit systems such as the C64 and NES had the edge over it in driving games. Its best efforts are the respectable (but very simplified) version of "Out Run" and the surprisingly impressive 8-bit version of "Road Rash", which both manage to squeeze some interesting track layouts and fair speed out of the hardware. By and large, however, driving games on the SMS tend to be very compromised affairs. "World Grand Prix", "Chase HQ", and "Hang On" all have flat, rather featureless tracks with limited scenery and no topography, while "Out Run Europa" has plenty of scenery but a poor frame rate and an unrealistic control system, with the car not being centred on the screen, so all sense of a driving simulator is lost.

Domark's "F1" also compromises, and then some .... It has the limited scenery, the flat tracks (with very occasionally a poorly-depicted hill or bridge), and the unrealistic uncentred control system, which makes it feel far less convincing a driving experience than the far earlier games I mentioned. The fact that it markets itself as a serious F1 driving simulator is ludicrous: it seems more like a belated attempt for the Master System to emulate "Pitstop 2" for the C64, though this had already been done by 1993, with the Master System version of "Super Monaco GP". Playing it without looking at the date of production, it would seem more like a contemporary of "Pole Position" than "Virtua Racing" ... though even "Pole Position" had a much better control and sense of motion, and was, in any case, far more competently emulated on the SMS by "World Grand Prix".

Sound is nothing to write home about at all. There is a typical engine hum and undistinguished sound effects during the race, and music on the presentation screens, but nothing to rival the excellent soundtracks for contemporary SMS racers such as "Out Run Europa" and "Road Rash", or, come to that, the music tracks for "Out Run".

Gameplay is seriously harmed by the dull-looking tracks and detached, third-person control system, which I could accept in a spy-themed arcade racer like "Out Run Europa", but seems hopelessly out of place in a supposed F1 sim. However, some points should be awarded for the head-to-head two player option, although "Super Monaco" had shown that this could be achieved with a more realistic control system. There are also a good number of options to choose from: difficulty levels, two modes of play (arcade and grand prix), car configurations, and qualifying stages. If these were attached to a less antiquated-looking game, however, they would be worthy of more credit.


Conclusion - Good presentation, but the game itself would have looked dated in 1986 never mind in 1993, and completely fails to capture any of the atmosphere, excitement, or realism of motorsport racing. A better experience along those lines could be had by taking out the cartridge, turning on your Master System without it, and by just playing "Hang On" ... unless you have the MK2, of course, in which case I would suggest buying (or downloading) "Out Run" or "Road Rash".

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Review: Chuck Rock II – Son of Chuck

This is my first new purchase for my faithful old SMS for a long time. Given that the last new game I played was the execrable “Batman Returns” (as reviewed and slated earlier on these pages), my expectations were distinctly guarded, though thankfully the experience was much pleasanter …
I should say at once that I have never, shock and horror, played the first “Chuck Rock game” on any system, so I shan’t be judging this game’s value as a sequel. I am coming at it solely on its worth as an SMS platform game.


This game dates from 1993, which was pretty much the final year of mainstream commercial game production for the SMS. Though it was not always the case, late SMS games tended to show a good deal of flair in the visual department, and this game in particular makes it hard to believe that we are looking at the same system that produced “Ghost House” and “F16 Fighter” (shudders). The detail, shading, and animation on the sprites approaches cartoon levels of quality, and there is an excellent variety of enemies and environments. But for the lack of parallax scrolling, this could easily be mistaken for a 16-bit game. The only other telling limitations are the techniques used to make up the guardians: as in many SMS games, they are mainly made up of background chars, with just a few moving sprites (and even those are subject to a small amount of flicker, though nothing that detracts seriously from the gameplay). This memory-saving tactic works just as well here as it did in “Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts”, allowing for some huge guardians with superior levels of graphical detail, including a dinosaur with a background body and a swaying, multi-sprite head and neck; and a H P Lovecraft-style sea demon with sprite hands and a static but superbly drawn body.

The environments are fairly standard fare: jungles, snowfields, water levels, lava levels etc, but all rendered with astonishing levels of detail and organic designs that really minimise the building-block look of many 8-bit platform games. There are also plenty of animated touches, such as waterfalls, birds, and random eyes peering out of holes.

The one letdown is the end sequence: an adequate presentation, but sadly lacking in animation for a game that has been so graphically lavish during gameplay. Since it is safe to assume the programmers were saving the graphics memory for the game, that is easily forgivable, though the lack of an impressive closure always feels like a missed opportunity.



A few tunes alternate throughout this game, and do eventually become somewhat repetitive, though given the large number of levels it would be asking a bit much to have a new composition for each stage. There is also a boss tune, which is pleasingly tense and atmospheric. The SFX, as in most Master System games, serve their purpose without being especially notable, and the tunes are at any rate well composed. Not a classic SMS soundtrack, but there are far worse.



This game will be instantly familiar to fans of “Castle of Illusion”, “Asterix”, “Psycho Fox” … Perhaps, if anything, rather too familiar. The mix of platform-jumping, club-swinging, and bonus-collecting is very easy to get into, but could never be accused of innovation. On the plus side, the level environments change frequently, and the action is varied at regular intervals with boss battles and a bonus “river race” stage, which works in a “Track and Field” button-mashing fashion.

Also, lest I seem too negative about the generic platform style, it is certainly a style that had been developed and refined over the years, and this late game shows the benefit of experience and play-testing. You have a choice between speeding through the levels and avoiding the more dangerous areas, or taking risks to collect bonuses (which you may well be grateful for in the boss stages). The attack waves are simple to begin with, but trickier enemies soon come along. There are small puzzles, generally related to getting past dangerous areas of the background by moving rocks, flicking switches, or offering bananas to monkeys (?). On the con side, there are no power-ups to speak of (apart from extra energy and lives), and in its easiest mode the game is almost ridiculously easy (although one must remember it was targeted at children rather than nerdy thirty-something reviewers …).

All in all, pleasantly varied and constructed, if not quite in the top grade of SMS platformers.



A visual, cartoon-esque feast of a game, with some excellent boss battles and beautifully detailed levels. They look somewhat better than they play, but they don’t play at all badly. This game is not dissimilar to “Rastan”, only a lot better-looking and with more of a feeling of control. Core Design certainly did not skimp on the programming of this title, and it’s only a pity they didn’t put a shade more imagination into the design. However, if your SMS collection can bear another rock-smashing, rope-swinging, arcade platformer (with occasional trampolining and competitive rowing), this is one well worth considering. I definitely recommend playing on the harder settings, though, or the replay value is seriously low …


Friday, February 20, 2009

Review: Ghouls 'n Ghosts

The second, and possibly the best-known title in a serious of infamously difficult platform shoot-em-up games by Capcom, with a comically medieval aesthetic. Considering that the NES received a conversion of the original, 8-bit Ghosts and Goblins, it is curious that Sega chose for their own 8-bit system its sequel: a game programmed on the same high-powered hardware as MERCS and Strider, and patently not one that the humble SMS could hope to convert 100% accurately. Was this ambition worth it?

Ghouls 'n Ghosts SMS CoverGraphics:

Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was converted to many home systems, and even in the 16-bit conversions, such as those for the Genesis and Amiga, the lush graphics of the arcade – especially the detailed backdrops – were the most obvious casualty. That applies even more for the 8-bit conversions, and of these the Master System is easily the best-looking.

That said, there are negative points: limitations of memory resources show in the use of some unmasked, black-outlined sprites; some glaringly blocky backdrop design (especially in the first two levels, though it improves considerably from level 3 onwards); and stiff animation even in comparison to the C64 version. Some enemies, such as the “mud knights” and “goblin hands” (it’s a weird world out there …), don’t animate at all in this version, and nor do some of the bosses. The sprite limits are pushed too far on occasion, leading to a good deal of flicker and even to disappearing sprites. Some complex, multi-sprite enemies are absent altogether, although this is a blessing in disguise, as it makes the relevant sections of the game (such as level 1’s hill, riddled with random tentacle attacks in the arcade) a good deal fairer. Finally, the presentation (including the end sequence) is on the minimal side.

On the plus side, however, there is a good deal to praise: the sprites are large, colourful, detailed, and all very recognisable from their arcade originals. All but a few of the enemies have survived the conversion. Even the multi-sprite bone dragons from level 5 have made it across, albeit a little shortened to keep them within the sprite limits.

As for the backgrounds, after a somewhat disappointing beginning (especially a very poor rainstorm effect in level 1, and flat windmills in level 2 that looked better even on the Amstrad CPC) the level graphics start to improve dramatically, with impressive renditions of the burning, earthquake-stricken town; the “gargoyle tongue bridges” level (I said it was weird); and levels 4 and 5 (crystal caves and Lucifer’s castle), which look almost 16-bit-quality. Best of all, however, are the huge bosses, which are depicted using the same trick as in MERCS: to draw them as movable backdrops rather than attempting to expand or join together sprites. Whilst this limits their mobility and animation, and in consequence necessitates changes in their original attack patterns, it allows them to be huge and detailed in high-resolution, even to the point of looking almost arcade-quality.

This is also the only 8-bit version of the game to include the final boss, Lucifer … known here as Loki, perhaps to avert criticism that the game had Satanic themes (though I’m not sure that hurling fireballs in Satan’s face counts as a pro-Satanic activity). As he was a very static boss even on the arcade, he comes across very impressively on the SMS; better even than his Amiga depiction. He is however, a laughably easy kill, but that is a gameplay issue.


Ghouls Ghosts Sega Master SystemSound:

The first version of this game I owned was on the C64, which had a recomposed, prog-rock influenced soundtrack by Tim Follin, generally held to be one of the classic video game soundtracks. The SMS version has the standard arcade tunes, which were, I must admit, rather disappointing on first hearing: alright enough, but not as atmospheric as the C64 and Amiga remixes.

Compared to the actual arcade soundtrack, however, the Master System does manage to hold its own. The medieval-style ditties are well suited to the limited instrumentation of the Z80 chip, and actively help to preserve the atmosphere of the game. Even the sound effects, rarely a feature of much note on the SMS, show some creative flair here: the guillotines in level 1 descend with a metallic “clang”, level 2’s rock turtles bounce crashingly along, the earthquake rumbles as the screen shakes, and bats come swooping down with a very cartoon-like descending note effect. Unfortunately, every so often you may hear a sound effect cause one of the music channels to cut out. However, in all fairness the C64 version could only run either music or sound effects – not both simultaneously – so in spite of the renowned C64 soundtrack, the SMS still has the edge even in this department (which is hardly its strongest, as a rule).



Basically the same running, shooting, ducking, and ladder-climbing action as in the arcade version, but with significant alternations, some of which are due to the limitations of the SMS and the rest of which are deliberate changes. In most cases, these work to the game’s advantage, and actually make it my favourite version.

As in MERCS – another Capcom 16-bit conversion – the sprite and memory limits mean that attack waves have been simplified. Enemy numbers are reduced, some enemy types are missing, and some attack patterns that were random in the arcade are consistent in this version, making it possible to memorise one’s way through levels and reducing the reaction-based nature of the gameplay. Although this makes for a less adrenal experience, it is a lot less frustrating than the arcade, in which even level 1 required split-second responses to randomly spawning enemies.

Similarly, the boss attacks are simplified, and far easier to deal with. A notable exception is the level 4 boss, which is extremely impressively rendered (bearing in mind that its arcade attack pattern was also very simple). However, all of the bosses can be very easily dealt with by using magic.

Magic spells are selectable from a menu in this version, rather than only one being available at a time depending on which weapon you are carrying. More spells are gained by choosing better “helmets” from the upgrade screen (which is accessed through certain treasure chests, and is the main deliberate alteration to this version). Although your spell-casting power is limited (albeit rechargeable), the powers it gives you – lightning bolts, fireballs, temporarily doubling your firepower, temporary invincibility, smart bombs, and healing – make the game significantly easier in its later stages, and make the final boss in particular ludicrously easy. This particular aspect of gameplay could have been better thought out, although on the whole the upgrade system works to make the game more user-friendly than its insanely difficult arcade counterpart.

Other upgrades include stronger armour which can stand more hits, although enough strikes will still leave your knight in only his underpants (almost the trademark of this series); and faster boots which must be collected before the armour, as heavier armour without matching boots will seriously impede your jumping ability. Also, the weapons system has been changed from the arcade, in which the six weapons were randomly acquired bonuses, although three of them – the axe, torch, and sword – were next to useless and could ruin the whole game if you were luckless enough to collect them. The useless weapons have been altered and / or removed from this version, and increasingly powerful weapons are collected in sequential order at the upgrade points, just like the armour. The different stages are javelin (standard, adequate weapon), dagger (rapid fire), axe (stronger), discus (strong, and can follow the terrain), and fireball (strong and very rapid fire). The final weapon of all, required for the last boss, is the psycho cannon, which is a full-range weapon in this version, unlike its short-range arcade equivalent. Although it was somewhat of a deliberate challenge in the arcade, forcing the player to accept a short-range weapon in order to win, it is certainly a lot less frustrating in this version to only suffer a small downgrade: the SMS psycho cannon fires less rapidly than the fireball weapon, although that does at least mean it causes less sprite flicker.

Finally, it ought to be noted that although the infinite continue and upgrade options make this game winnable without actual cheating, you are still likely to expend many lives (and continues) in the process. It essentially offers the player the choice of how long they wish to go on, which is no different from the arcade (except for the small advantage that you don’t have to put more money in your Master System).



Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if Sega were being deliberately cheeky in upstaging the NES conversion of Ghosts and Goblins with a surprisingly impressive version of its 16-bit sequel on their own 8-bit machine. In fact, most home versions of this game, with the exception of the slightly disappointing Amiga version and the Amstrad version (which suffers from dodgy scrolling), manage to retain much of the original game’s surreal charm (it helps that it has a basically simple game style, albeit complemented with cutting edge – for the time – 16-bit graphics). The Master System version has additional advantages, being the only version to specifically tailor its gameplay with user-friendly features and make it less frustrating than the arcade. Granted, some of these changes actually make the game too easy in places, but it is still a respectable challenge if one limits one’s continue-plays (but if you want to play through to the end, the option is there). Furthermore, it is an excellent showcase of the system’s graphical power, even outshining the Amiga version in places and spectacularly upstaging NES Ghosts and Goblins.

This game is a superb example of what the Master System could achieve in the hands of dedicated programmers who played to its strengths, worked creatively within its limitations, and did not attempt to take their lead from conversions on other systems. For the ignominious results of that sort of approach, see Strider, SMS version of … then play Ghouls ‘n Ghosts again to take away the taste.


Friday, February 13, 2009

A bit of PD Master System Picross

It's an unfortunate and sad truth, but a truth nonetheless: the SMS homebrew community is far from vibrant. Or blooming. Or -of course- booming. And that's what makes the version of Picross pictured above all the more impressive. That and the fact that it's a brilliantly adapted for the Master System puzzle game complete with nice graphics and deeply addictive gameplay. You can download it from this place. For free obviously.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Master of Darkness

Still reeling from the horror of SMS Batman Returns, I now turn my attention eagerly to a platformer that shows the Master System could indeed pull off an atmospheric gothic adventure with a dramatic and well-presented storyline woven in …

Master of DarknessJust for the record, I have never played Castlevania, though I am aware that this game is often accused of ripping off that illustrious title. However, while Castlevania, as far as I understand, is based in a medieval setting and draws its inspiration from classic horror films, Master of Darkness is a much more Victorian offering, with a dash of Jules Verne-type Steampunk, but mainly inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the novel rather than the film, which had its own – far inferior – SMS game), pulp penny-dreadful fiction, and Spiritism. In-game enemies include Jack the Ripper, poltergeists, evil waxworks in Madame Tussaud’s, a child medium possessed by an evil spirit, and Count Dracula, who is actually depicted as he is described in the novel (in the close-up shot you will see of him if you fight through to the end) in contrast to the monstrous, demonic figure he cuts in Castlevania.

No-one thought to include Sweeney Todd, alas, but we can’t have it all. ;)


With a view to getting the bad news out of the way first … Level 1 contains some railings and animated trees which haven’t been masked properly, and have ugly black outlines, which is a shame as the backgrounds are generally of very high quality for an 8-bit game. Also, some of the animation on the sprites is a tad stiff, but no worse than in the 16-bit Revenge of Shinobi.

Now for the good: with few exceptions, both sprites and backgrounds are of excellent quality. The level settings are distinct, even from one “act” to another, and really enhance the sense of a journey. For example, for the first set of three levels (first “zone”, so to speak) you begin in the vicinity of London Bridge, traverse the river Thames, and finally fight your way through seedy East End docklands to a showdown with Jack the Ripper. All of the levels continue this sense of progression, and are linked with well-drawn and annotated cut-scenes that really help to set this game apart from the average action platformer (As a side note, SMS Strider also had cutscenes, but no amount of icing could redeem that particular cake). There are several animated elements in the backdrops, the highlight of which comes in the “Epitaph” church clock tower level, with swinging, 16-bit Sonic-style pendulums on multi-sprite chains, and intricate patterns of gears and wheels in the background.

An enlightening video of Master of Darkness in all its Victorian glory.

There are many enemy types, and no confusion over what they are meant to represent: the zombies look thoroughly rancid, the skeleton soldiers as menacing than their relatives in Golden Axe, not to mention attack dogs, bats (with annoyingly erratic attack patterns, but they do keep you on your toes), eagles, flying vampiresses (who either patrol or act like homing missiles, so eager are they for a bite), poltergeist-haunted furniture, knife-throwing dwarfs in robes (possibly Victorian Jawas … definitely the silliest-looking of the game’s enemies), haunted waxworks, gun-toting ruffians, and bosses after every third level. These guardians are rather small, but they give you a good fight until you have worked out their patterns, whereupon they are easily trounced … which seems quite fair to me, as I prefer a game with a learning factor.

There are several weapons available – 4 melee weapons (knife, sword, stake, and axe) and 4 limited long-range weapons (pistol, grenades, boomerangs, throwing stakes) – all of which are clearly animated. There is only one generic white explosion for everything (except your own death sequence), which does get a bit tiresome, but we can assume it is saving sprite memory, bearing in mind the quality and variety of the graphics.

The end sequence isn’t much to write home about, though I have seen many worse.

90% (Good, detailed graphics throughout, and on occasion apt to be mistaken for 16-bit quality.)


Never the strongest link with the Master System, but Master of Darkness does a commendable job of squeezing some pleasantly spooky and well-instrumented tunes out of the old Z80, including incidentals riffs, boss music, cutscene music, and a different theme for each set of levels. Some are better than others (level 3 is excellent, level 2 is simply grating) and all could benefit from being longer, but the musical variety certainly adds to the gaming experience. One need only contrast the interminable, unvarying music that plays through all of the levels of Strider, and the effect it has on a game already gravely in want of atmosphere.

Sound effects serve their purpose, though there is nothing particularly of note. One wishes, for example, that Dracula might manage a digitised scream when you finally dispatch him. Nothing disgraceful, though.

75% (Surprisingly good music, serviceable SFX.)


The awkwardness of climbing up stairs and trying to hit the very pesky and unpredictable bats may put you off at first, but this is a game that rewards persistence. The rules are the same each time you play, so careful progress and observation will enable you to evade and destroy enemies who may have wiped the floor with you previously. There are a few annoying, unannounced pitfalls (Recommendation: do not take a fall unless there is no other way to go) spikes wipe out a very harsh amount of energy compared to baddies, and dying deprives you of your long-range weapons, but it is definitely a winnable game, even without the built-in cheat mode (that would be telling … ;) ).

The different melee weapons all have their appropriate uses (except the knife, which is rubbish and should be replaced forthwith). The sword has great range, but its poor damage can be a risk when fighting bosses, who go down much more quickly with blows from the short-range axe. This adds a small but welcome strategic element to combat. With the long-range weapons, the best choices are the grenades (especially for the last boss, hint, hint) and the throwing stakes. The boomerang is a bit pointless, though it does animate quite nicely.

Power-ups are liberally spaced, but beware of picking up unwanted weapons, as replacement is automatic. Enemies respawn instantly if you backtrack, so never forget to clear an area thoroughly (always with an eye on the time limit). As mentioned before, the bosses tend to be tough at first, but careful observation of their patterns will pay off. The last two-stage boss is quite a challenge (unless you took that previous hint). Not the most difficult of games, but not a patronisingly easy one either. Apart from one or two slight annoyances, very well-balanced.

80% (Unoriginal, Shinobi-esque stuff right enough, but why not try an old and successful game formula in a new setting? The selectable weapon system and occasional simple puzzles add a little variety, but the combination of solid platforming action in an atmospheric, well-presented setting is what really makes this game work for me. Nor does it hurt that it is fair and winnable.)



Frustrating to begin with, but one that I keep coming back to, with some of the best presentation on the Master System and a gripping gothic atmosphere. A rewarding and dramatic game that might not quite hit the top rank of 8-bit platformers, but still puts a good few to shame.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Master System Online Emulator

Master System emulationThere are apparently quite a few people that shockingly do not have access to a Master System console and, that's the worse bit, there are even more misguided souls that simply haven't downloaded the excellent MEKA SMS emulator just yet. Baffling, really. You shouldn't be working that much, you know. Anyway. Better click yourselves to the fantastic online emulator site-thingy that is It's absolutely free, ridiculously simple to use, works fine and sports a selection of some of the more iconic SMS games such as the 8-bit version of Sonic, Phantasy Star, Golden Axe Warrior, Alex Kidd in Miracle World and Strider.

Monday, January 26, 2009


MERCS is a Commando-style “run and gun” shoot-em-up from 1990, released in the arcades on Capcom’s CPS-1 hardware: the hardware behind some slightly better-known arcade hits such as Strider and Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts. It has a thoroughly ridiculous premise: a band of African terrorists (who, bizarrely, are all white, and have heavier weapons than most regular armies) have captured the former US president and are holding him hostage to facilitate their takeover of the fictional African nation of Zutula (which has a strange amount of medieval European style houses). This is a plain and simple excuse for you to wade in with your lone mercenary gunman and mount a very bloodthirsty rescue mission …

MERCS Sega Master System
MERCS was ported to many platforms, including an arcade perfect version for the Sega Saturn. Here is what the site Hardcore Gaming 101 (viewed 26/01/09) has to say of the Master System version:

“The Sega Master System version isn't bad, but it's most certainly inferior to the arcade game. The gameplay is reasonably close to accurate, but it looks pretty poor.”


Here, I feel a need to contradict …


As someone who has played through an arcade-perfect version and the SMS version, I can honestly (and obviously) state that the SMS version is significantly cut down. The highly organic and detailed backdrops have been simplified in order to fit all the levels into the reduced memory, sprite animation has been cut (the main sprite, for example, now shuffles rather than runs), and very complex and large sprite effects (such as level 4’s tank ride) are missing altogether.

Judging these as 8-bit graphics, however, and comparing them to other 8-bit versions of MERCS as well as other games in the genre (such as any version of Commando), they are still very good indeed, and preserve the original settings. Large background elements, such as the houses, planes in the airfield, and the static (but intimidating) tanks, are impressively detailed.

mercs sms 8-bitThe huge bosses are particularly impressive, and comparable in terms of graphic detail to the arcade versions, though their attacks have been simplified. This is a necessity, as they are rendered as large movable backdrops with sprites only used to represent their moving parts and weak points (A resource-saving technique also used to great effect in the SMS version of Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts). Even so, though they are easier than their arcade counterparts, they still provide a dramatic and satisfying conclusion to each level. Level 5’s “battle train”, though of questionable military value (how hard would it be to blow up the track in front of it?), is probably the highlight: an enormous, multi-screen boss that no-one would have thought possible on a 8-bit system, and with its arcade attacks very accurately depicted.

The intro and end sequences from the arcade are also present, with only small amounts of animation (and parallax effects) cut out. The detail on the cliffs at the end sequence is almost photographic, albeit repetitive (but so it was on the arcade).

In spite of the in-game animation cuts, and some rather weedy explosions, there are also some neat animation effects such as the enemy flamethrower death, the wading in the swamp, level 4’s waterfalls, the jeep and boat rides, the missile shadows in the battle with the warship, and the (slightly blocky but still satisfying) smart bomb explosion.

95% (It may seem a little extreme to some, but I can find very little fault with these, judged as 8-bit graphics. They are a triumph of resource-management, capture the essence of the arcade game, and do in fact provide some jaw-dropping moments.)


No in-game music except for a short riff before the bosses, which is an annoyance. There is title screen music, end sequence music, and a between-level fanfare. These are passable imitations of the arcade tunes, but during the game you will only get functional sound effects (and the “pop” of your standard gun is nothing special).

A few points are won back, however, for the boss sequences, which try to provide appropriate noises including a jet engine whine for the harrier and the clatter of wheels on the track for the train. Unfortunately, the tank and warship both get an undistinguished low rumble. There is also a nice (if unamazing) rushing water sound effect for the waterfalls in level 4.

50% (Definitely the weakest aspect.)


The game is fast-paced, driven by a tight (but fair) time limit and with a constant stream of enemies that gives you limited time to stop and think. Even so, if you know the arcade game you will inevitably notice that many of the enemy types are missing from this version, including the motorbikes, enemy jeeps, sniper towers, rocket launcher soldiers, frogmen, and the soldiers who slide down the slopes in level 4. That still leaves the tanks and APCs, (they don’t move, but it makes little difference as they weren’t very mobile in the arcade version); gun emplacements; torpedo boats; mines; force fields; planes; and all of the bosses; but the bulk of attacking duties are handled by the standard enemy soldier. However, they do at least retain their grenade-throwing abilities.

Variety has, however, been preserved by sticking to the essential level designs (minus level 5’s tank ride, which would probably not have worked too well). The jeep ride and boat ride sequences provide nice distractions, and dodging artillery fire, navigating the deadly force fields (in level 6), and fighting the bosses, means that in spite of being an easier game than the arcade, it is not possible to wade through it without occasionally considering your strategy.

The arcade game, in fact, was extremely difficult, throwing so much flak at the player that it required vast amounts of continues in order to have a realistic chance of seeing the end. There are no continues in the Master System version, but it is eminently possible to finish the game on the one life given: perhaps a little too possible, but it is rather pleasing to have a version of this game that is winnable without “cheating”, and in which a single stray rocket or electrical blast does not mean instant (and very frustrating) death.

There is, sadly, no two-player mode, though this would probably have worked the game beyond the sprite capabilities of the SMS and led to unacceptable slowdown and flicker (not that this stopped Double Dragon or Bubble Bobble … ). There is, however, the full selection of weapons from the arcade, and all have their different merits (though I would recommend the green spread shot, as it takes a lot of stress out of aiming). The fact that the game is easier also means you can consider just upgrading the power of your normal rifle rather than replacing it with the flashier alternatives: not a risk worth taking in the arcade version (in which the best hope of survival was to get the flamethrower and hold onto it like grim death).

This is also one of the few versions of MERCS to use the whole of the playing area, rather than cluttering it up with score panels and displays. Your time, energy, and smart bombs are unobtrusively shown at the edges of the screen. Your score isn’t shown at all, for some reason (but if you should get a high-score, you’ll find out at victory or death).

80% (Very noticeable cuts, but still manages to be among the most adventurous and impressive run-and-gun games for an 8-bit system, easily beating its C64 counterpart or the much-loved but horribly frustrating Ikari Warriors. All criticisms aside, I actually quite like the fact that this game doesn’t make you sweat too hard to see the end sequence, while still managing to feel pretty tense and exciting. All in all, it doesn't compromise much more than the Amiga version does, and even does a few things - such as the jeep ride - rather better.)



Points off for having too few enemy types (if C64 Commando could handle a few motorcycles, surely this could have done) and no in-game music. But this is still an impressive conversion to 8-bit, and shows – along with Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts – how the Master System could handle these seemingly impossible ports from the CPS-1 hardware. I only wish the same conversion team had been given the task of making the SMS version of Strider …

Friday, January 23, 2009

Batman Returns

I recently picked up two new games for my Master System – MERCS and Batman Returns – and have decided to get the bad news out of the way first …

The Master System has many excellent platform games: a fact that drew me to the system in the first place, as they are my favourite genre, and the likes of Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Sonic the Hedgehog, Asterix, and Master of Darkness were ideal fare to satisfy my cravings … which is just as well, as Batman Returns is well below their high standard.


I’ve seen worse, but there is nothing that really stands out. Especially given the 1992 copyright date. The sprites are small and lacking in character, though adequately animated. The backgrounds have a reasonable amount of detail, but the colours are garish, and the generic city settings do little to recreate the gothic atmosphere of the film. They feel more like levels from a mediocre Shinobi spin-off than Gotham City. There are a few nice effects, such as the animated waterfall in a later level, and the girders in the foreground that Batman can walk behind, but nothing to rival similar (and better) graphics in such games as 8-bit Sonic. Presentation is minimal: there are no comic book style panels (as in Spiderman for the Master System) or cut-scenes. There is a branching level selection screen, as in Asterix, but more on that later, as it’s really a gameplay issue (and a nasty one at that). Bosses are, on the whole, very so-so. Some of them are fought against a black backdrop, which I wouldn’t mind if they were as big and impressive as the bosses in Altered Beast and R-Type (but they aren’t). Possibly the worst aspect, though, is the Batarang weapon you use throughout the game: a plain, white, vaguely boomerang-shaped sprite with a mere two frames of animation. Compare that to the fully-animated boomerang in Master of Darkness … and that was only a bonus weapon.



Generic tunes that, again, would not sound out of place in a Shinobi game. On the plus side, they vary from level to level, and are not irritating (Not compared to the gameplay, anyway). Sound effects are undistinguished, but no worse than in most Master System games. Nothing terrible here (with the exception of the title screen music) but nothing to write home about.



The game works like a sort of poor man’s Bionic Commando, being a basic walk-and-kill platform game with the aim to reach the end of the level, and the ability to use an extendable grappling hook to reach high platforms, swing to otherwise unreachable ones, and swing over hazards and pitfalls. It is awkward to use, and the cause of many cheap deaths. Cheap deaths, in fact, are this game’s speciality, as it uses a one-hit-kill policy (which, incidentally, the SMS version of Shinobi very wisely removed in favour of an energy bar). Extra lives are fairly plentiful, and restart points are mercifully-arranged, but it remains a frustrating experience. Especially when the deaths occur for stupid reasons, such as a chandelier dropping from the ceiling and spreading lava everywhere (???), or when you walk into a static streetcar (which, for some mysterious reason, proves fatal to the touch). You can also glide (fall at a reduced rate) with your cape, although this is not advisable until you know the levels well, as you will tend to glide straight into some unseen pitfall or enemy. There are no weapons other than your Batarang, though it can be upgraded for speed and distance of throw. Forget about the Batmobile, the Batboat (which would come in very handy in the especially annoying pitfall-ridden sewer levels), or the hand-to-hand combat of the film. The levels make some effort to liven up the dull, repetitive gameplay, with such hazards as conveyor belts, opening doors (for enemies to ambush you), crumbling platforms, and descending platforms, but nothing that hasn’t been seen elsewhere, or done better. Sonic has all of those (and considerably more besides).

There is, as I mentioned, a branching level system that allows you to choose from an easy or hard route, with even more cheap deaths, if that is your thing …




If you want a comic-book style game with multiple routes, pick Asterix. If you want a grim, gothic, atmospheric platform game, pick Master of Darkness. Just leave this one well alone …

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Review: Strider

I wrote before about being impressed with the quality of SMS arcade conversions when I first discovered the system, having been accustomed to some truly lousy arcade conversions on the C64. I should, perhaps, have added that SMS owners had a right to expect better quality conversions than were found on home computer versions, as they were paying considerably more for their games than a C64 or Spectrum owner were paying for even full price games (Often over £20 more). This explains why I have a particular bone to pick with this game …

Sega Strider SMS boxThe title screen of this game states that it was reprogrammed for the system by Sega themselves, though curiously it bears little resemblance to the great Genesis version, even though other Capcom ports (Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts, MERCS, Forgotten Worlds) seemed to be scaled-down from the Genesis version rather than copied directly from the arcade. Would that Sega had taken the same approach with Strider. If you want to know where the true inspiration for SMS Strider came from, load up any home computer version from C64 to Amiga, and prepare to be less than impressed …

The infamous Tiertex home computer versions of Strider drastically altered the game for the worse, focusing their efforts on copying the arcade’s graphics, but giving up when it came to gameplay, removing all of the best moments (such as the snow hill, shuttle ride, gravity switching, and – shockingly – the final guardian), and cutting down the many musical themes to one tune that played throughout, completely ruining what atmosphere or tension even such a hacked-down version might have had.

The worst offender was the laughably poor C64 version, and the SMS version is at least nowhere near that wretched. It does, at least, retain the huge arcade guardians, although they are rendered as animated backdrops rather than sprites. This technique works well in many SMS games, but not so well here, as they are not shown against a plain screen (as in Fantasy World, MERCS, Shinobi, etc) and thus they have very limited movement: in some cases, none at all. On the other hand, the SMS does at least throw in the final boss (the Master), making it the only Tiertex-style version of Strider to actually include the arcade’s main villain. Even the Amiga version skimps on that …

Strider Master SystemUnfortunately, it also includes the cheating Tiertex end sequence, which tells you the whole game was a “training simulator” and sends you back to level 1 (and don’t bother playing through again, as you’ll get the same “reward” for your pains).

The sound is dreadful: the same constant, repetitive tune as in all of the home computer versions (minus the Spectrum, which is mercifully silent), but rendered even more vile by the limited instrumentation of the Z80 chip. The sound effects are sparse, and nothing to write home about.

The gameplay is nothing like the arcade or Genesis versions: the collision detection is merciless, the control sluggish, and the harsh time limit literally forces you, on occasion, to march right into harm’s way in order to get through an area. Enemies are pared down to the minimum: the standard soldier is all you will be seeing for much of the game. The final level, absurdly, is the easiest, having been simplified to the extent that it roughly mirrors the arcade map, but with vast empty sections you can walk through without encountering any opposition.

Finally, I should address the obvious objection: could an 8-bit machine have handled a better version of Strider? For the answer, I would point to the 8-bit wonder that is the Game Gear version of Shinobi: on a system almost equivalent to the SMS, there is a ninja game that includes huge (and mobile) guardians, multi-stage levels with interactive music, smooth and fast action (including spinning jumps and climbing), and dramatic set-pieces around every corner. It is a shame that game never actually made it to SMS, but at least it gives some idea of what might have been achieved with the hardware, had Sega’s programmers bothered to design their own 8-bit Strider rather than drawing inspiration from the dismal Tiertex version.

I would also point to the 8-bit version of Sonic the Hedgehog, which blatantly, amusingly, and very adeptly rips off levels 2 and 3 of Strider in the Sky Base Zone: the sparking electrodes, shuttle rides, and Robotnik’s airship are all inspired by / stolen from Capcom’s game. 8-bit Sonic also shows the Sega 8-bit to be perfectly capable of a fast, smooth, detailed, and atmospheric platform game, as 8-bit Strider ought to have been, but that matter is best left for another, happier review.

50% (Marginally better than the home computer versions that inspired it, nowhere near as good as it ought to have been.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

SMS Golden Axe - A defence

I am writing this in response to the mini-review of this game on the Hardcore Gaming 101 site, which is less than complimentary …

The Sega Master System version is more or less a tragedy. You can only play as Ax Battler, renamed here as Tarik. The only reminder of the other two heroes is that you can choose to use their magic attacks during the game. Pretty much everything is pathetic - it has ugly graphics, terribly choppy animation, and awful control. It does have a new intro and ending not found in any other version, at least. It also removes the two player option.

( as of 10/01/09)

Golden Axe SMS cover
The most bizarre thing I considered about this review was that the author had also seen the other 8-bit versions of this game – the Spectrum and Amstrad, with severely compromised graphics, and the Commodore 64, with well-designed graphics but butchered gameplay (as I shall refer to presently) – and thus must have realised that, as an 8-bit game, the Master System version fares very well in comparison. Perhaps in this age of high-powered consoles that can bring arcade quality games to the home we have become less forgiving of the valiant efforts of earlier programmers to squeeze coin-op experiences onto home consoles with a tiny fraction of the power … which is exactly what the SMS version of Golden Axe amounts to, and should be judged on those grounds. However successful it is or is not, I think it would be hard to deny that it was a sincere effort to bring as much of the arcade game onto the Sega 8-bit as it could possibly cope with. So how well did it cope?


There is good and bad, but mainly good. 8-bit machines, from the Atari 7800 to the ZX Spectrum, C64, and NES, are not the ideal platform for large, colourful, or high-resolution sprites. A compromise generally has to be made: large and blocky, monochrome, or small and detailed, in order to get the game to run. The SMS programmers of Golden Axe ignored those rules: the sprites are not arcade perfect, but all are clearly recognisable, detailed, shaded, and generally well animated. There is a price to pay, in that they don’t run too smoothly: the game always seems either too fast or too slow, and invariably choppy (though that is more of a gameplay issue). The backgrounds are simplified from the arcade, but still pretty well detailed for an 8-bit game, and recognisable as the arcade locations. Some incidental animations have been left out (fleeing villagers, snakes, etc), but the arcade map interlude screens have been recreated very well indeed, and the magic effects – give or take a few frames of animations – are all present, correct, and very spectacular. The new presentation graphics – the intro and end screens – are a very stylish bonus: not animated, but beautifully detailed. I fail to see how this could have looked better without actually sticking a new graphics chip in the cart …



The limitations on the Z80 chip are far more severe than the SMS’s graphics limitations, and the sound effects in Golden Axe are, alas, merely functional. No sampled cries of pain: just generic crunches and bleeps. The music fares better, in spite of the PC-speaker quality sound: a testimony to the greatness of the original tunes (and I base my score on the fact that the programmers managed to make them recognisable on such inferior hardware).



The biggest gameplay issue is the choppiness caused by the over-ambitious graphics, which makes precise control awkward (which matters quite a bit, when there are two or more enemies on your case). Smaller, less detailed sprites (such as in Double Dragon or Renegade) might have improved this, although it would have meant the loss of some of the best-looking graphics ever seen on the system, IMO. Other negatives include the loss of the two-player mode (though, given the performance as it is, it could hardly have coped with that) and the fact that only the barbarian character is selectable. Many have questioned that choice, although he is the logical one to retain (as he is the mid-range fighter). All three magic options from the arcade remain selectable, so the actual difference is slight.

I turn briefly to the C64 version: also only one-player, but it did keep all three characters. On the other hand, it made no attempt to copy the arcade attack waves, with only one type of enemy per level, not including the boss. Not that this mattered as such, since all of the enemies on the C64 (bosses included) shared the same attack pattern, none of them could jump, dash, ride the beasts (which were useless, in any case, and best ignored), and they could only appear on screen one at a time, making a thorough mockery of the dual boss attacks and turning the whole game into a yawn-fest of identical (and painfully easy) one-on-one battles.

The Master System – a machine very close in power to the C64 – delivers attack waves very close to the arcade version, enemies that can attack in groups, jump, dash, ride the beasts (some of them, anyway), beasts that were actually useful, and nearly a full range of moves (only missing out the sword-pommel attack). Even Death Adder (the final boss) is well depicted, and retains his magical attack. The between level “camping” stages (in which you attack elves for extra magic) are included, and magic itself is an important factor in gameplay (unlike in the C64 version, where it was basically eye candy).

In short, not a perfect copy of the arcade gameplay, but a highly commendable effort (and by no means the worst seen on an 8-bit machine).



If you assume this should be arcade perfect, or as good even as the Genesis version, you will be disappointed (albeit rather deluded in your expectations). However, bearing in mind the quality of 8-bit arcade conversions at the time – many of which bore hardly any resemblance to their coin-op parent (Cisco Heat, anyone? Or any 8-bit version of Strider you care to name … ) – it would be grossly unfair to label this game as anything other than a top-drawer effort, and a mostly successful one at that.

90% (not an average)

The Growing Junkyard

Yes, the Sega Master System Junkyard hasn't been the liveliest of places lately. I know, Father Krishna knows, you know, we all know. Hopefully though, that will soon change, no less because Anthony, an eloquent and wise Sega connoisseur, has just joined us. Welcome Anthony!