Retro Corner: Comix Zone

Comix Zone

Oh yes indeed, gals and guys. This is many of our childhood dreams come true, right here. Buckle up.

In the mid-nineties, before MC Hammer went bankrupt and we realised just how crap Will Smith’s fluorescent Fresh Prince of Bel-Air outfits were, this was the ultimate fantasy: being sucked into our own comic book and becoming its hero. We’d battle monsters of our own creation, with weaponry we drew ourselves. General greatness would prevail.

And so it did. Meet Comix Zone.

This brawly action platformer hit the Mega Drive in 1995. It’s the toontastic tale of Sketch Turner, a cartoonist who finds himself in that very predicament. One stormy, impending-doom-y night, lightning strikes the page as he draws. In that instant, the comic’s villain, Mortus, is able to escape into the real world. Needless to say, this is all kinds of not good.

And so we take the role of Sketch, trapped in the panels of his comic and assailed by all manner of ghastly flesh-things. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

"Dear Diary, today I went to the sewer and kicked angry mutants in the face. It was a good day."
“Dear Diary, today I went to the sewer and kicked angry mutants in the face. It was a good day.”

Every inch of Comix Zone is true to its brilliant premise. Levels proceed through page panels, each attack and hit gives a Batman-esque Pow! or Sock! or other terrible effect, and the characters’ speech is in speech bubbles. It looks brilliant, with some of the best 2D art the console could muster, and the music is suitably jangly.

But nuts to presentation, what of the gameplay? It’s simplistic but a lot of fun, a combat-centric experience with some light puzzle solving and platforming to be done. There’s some nice variety in the stages and mutant opponents therein, and a clever inventory system that makes it easy to utilise the selection of bizarre gadgets and weapons you’ll pick up.

Comix Zone is a short experience, but certainly an enjoyable, challenging and inventive one. It was released at an unfortunate time, which really doomed its chances at sales-tastic success. Still, in the almost-decade that has passed since, it has cemented its reputation as a cult classic. Definitely one of the Mega Drive’s hidden gems.

Retro Corner: Gunstar Heroes

Gunstar

Ah, Treasure. You crazy guys, with your legendary reputation for bullet-flailing, toontastic madness. These guys brought us Gunstar Alien Soldier, the lost classic in which a creepy bird-freak in a spacesuit blows up everything ever with absurd weaponry.

In the same vein, we have today’s slice of retro crazy. Feast your eyes on Gunstar Heroes.

This 1993 Mega Drive run and gunner is a game of simple tastes. It likes hordes of marauding enemies, far too many darn explosions, and ridiculous bosses. Naturally, we’d expect nothing less. Let’s take a look.

Gunstar Heroes is the tale of the titular Gunstars: Red, Blue, Yellow and Green. They’re heroic do-gooders of some sort or another, a kind of camp cross between the Power Rangers and the A-Team. When the world (which is to say, a world) is threatened by nefarious forces trying to reawaken a catastrophic power, they’re on the case instantly.

The Japanese and Western releases of the game have dramatically diverging plot lines. For the sake of familiarity, here we’re concerned only with the much-less-demented Western version. The robotic menace Golden Silver was once incarcerated by Professor White, and the gems that powered it scattered. This belligerent bot wanted to suck the planet’s resources dry, which is the kind of behavior that can ruin your whole weekend. Years later, the Empire want to gather the gems and release Golden Silver from its planet on an orbiting moon.

Gunstar Heroes 2

The game’s four main opening levels can be completed in any order, and a gem awaits at the end of each. They are in possession of some fearsome/ridiculous/ridiculously fearsome bosses, of course, so this is quite a challenge right here.

You play as either Gunstar Red or Blue, who play slightly differently. Blue can fire in eight directions, but cannot move while firing. Red, conversely, is more manouverable but less versatile in that sense. It’s standard left-to-right carnage-ery, with the addition of Treasure’s typical customizable weapons. Here, you have two weapon slots, and four varieties of shot to mix and match: Flame, Force, Chaser and Lightning. These have all kinds of effects when paired together (a close-range but deadly flamethrower/blowtorchy thing, a weaker but rapid-firing machine gun and the like), and are a lot of fun to experiment with.

Gunstar Heroes is a cult classic for its perfectly honed genre gameplay, its challenge and its pure imagination. Black’s Dice Maze is perhaps the most brilliantly odd stage a shooter has ever seen. As for the bosses, all you need to know is that this is the home of legendary transforming death-bot Seven Force.

My favourite Mega Drive game by a country mile, and a contender for my most beloved of all time.

Retro Corner: The Best Jurassic Park Game There Ever Was

Jurassic Park

Not Operation Genesis, in which you made your own dino-park. Although that was rather great, in a ‘Rollercoaster Tycoon with claws, screaming and guests fouling themselves when the Tyrannosaurus leaves his paddock for a stroll’ sort of way.

I speak –as if you didn’t know– of the Mega Drive/Genesis release, Jurassic Park. But not just any feeble, girly edition. We’re talking Jurassic Park: Rampage Edition.

Now, this Rampage business is my one and only experience with the Mega Drive Jurassic Park. I can’t say what came before it, what may have been wrong to warrant the need for a second, now with 500% more freaking rampage version. All I know is that this was some fantastic stuff right here.

In this 1994 action platformer, you take the role of Dr Alan Grant. The helicopter he’s riding crashes just as he thinks he’s making his escape, and so Grant is thrust back into this odd prehistoric world. Although this time, he’s kicking butt. With the army and the InGen agents contesting rights to the artifacts on the island, and the dinosaurs roaming free and eating man-face at their leisure, it’s a bad time to be sightseeing.

CHOCOLATE  BAR!
CHOCOLATE BAR!

Still, our ol’ buddy Alan makes the best of it. He must cruise through a series of stages, from the pterodactyl aviary to an inexplicable ancient city level, which is in here for no darn reason at all. It’s all charmingly 2D and side-scrolly, as you’d expect, and there’s a great vibrancy to the visuals.

More pertinently, though, there’s some real Grade A crazitude going on. You’re beset by enemies throughout; dinosaurs, army guys (the green ones) and InGen guys (the blue ones) all seem to want you deader than very dead. Fear not, though, because the oh-so-peaceful doctor from the movies is… nowhere to be seen here.

Jurassic Park: Rampage Edition is more shooter than anything. Along the way, you’ll pick up an absurd arsenal of weapons. Flamethrower, crazy electric rifle, rocket launcher, all of that fun stuff. The first two come complete with their own hilarious elemental death effects. You’ll see raptors burn to shrivelly crisps after a hit from your flamethrower, or the typical cartoon skeleton X-ray effect from the shock rifle.

What more do you need to know? Nothing, that’s what. Except that you can also play as a Raptor yourself, and bite and/or kick those blue and green dudes.

The Best Games You’ve Never Heard Of: ‘Haunting- Starring Polterguy’

Polterguy

My favourite console (bar none), the Mega Drive, had quite a long and relatively prolific life. Sonic the iconic, Alex Kidd with the craptacular sideburns, the RISE FROM YOUR GRAVE wonders of Altered Beast, it was all there. Which means, naturally, that retro heads will find all kinds of weirdness in its library.

Among it all, you probably won’t find a cult classic as inventively nutty as Haunting. It’s creepy, it’s kooky, it’s altogether ooky, it’s totally ripping off The Addams Family. Before the lawyers swoop down and slap us in the face with The Big Ol’ Book Of Copyright Law, let’s take a look at the game.

This obscure title from EA hit the console in 1993. It’s a charming, black humour-y tale of ghostly revenge, starring (as you surely noticed from the title) Polterguy. He was a punk teenager, killed in a skateboarding accident. The board was faulty, made by big business dude Vito Sardini to cut costs. Somehow learning of this after his death, Polterguy returns to haunt the Sardinis, by generally being really, really irritating.

As the pesky poltergeist, you find yourself in the middle of the family home. You can cruise through the rooms at will (though you have to use doorways, which is quite sucktastic for a ghost), and each of them contains a myriad of household items to interact with.

Haunting 1a

That’s interact in the sense of make a bratty little girl pee herself with. In the ghost’s hands, these items become Fright ‘ems. Everything can be used to frighten your quarry. You can possess posters to make the occupants move, or chase the Sardinis around with one of their toy aeroplanes. You can make kitchen implements fly around, like something out of Metal Gear Solid’s creepy boss battle with Psycho Mantis.

All of these –and there are around 200 Fright ‘ems in total– build the family’s Fright Meter, and you finish each stage by scaring them all out of the house. There are three varieties. Some are remote controlled, like the plane. Some must be ‘occupied’ and manually sprung at the right moment. There are also those that are booby trapped, which you simply ‘set’ and watch go off when a family member approaches.

You could call Haunting a lost classic. It’s quite a brief experience, but it’s an entirely unique one. As malevolent and sadistic as the premise may sound, it’s all presented with a cheeky charm. A tiny pool of blood spreading across a living room of its own accord has never been so adorable.

Retro Corner: Altered Beast

Beast

Our poor anonymous centurion friend. He was perfectly content being dead, moldering away and not bothering anyone. Out of nowhere, Zeus appears, all beardiness and thunderbolts-to-the-face fury, to resurrect him. Why? The god has a quest for us: to descend into the underworld and rescue his kidnapped daughter from the villainous Neff.

Why one of his non-dead underlings wouldn’t have been a better choice for the task, I can’t imagine. I suppose you just can’t get the staff any more.

So, anywho, this is the rather succinct plot of Altered Beast, the legendar(ily crap)y arcade brawler from 1988. You could call it a classical Golden Axe or Streets of Rage, but it’s older than both so… you couldn’t at all really. Stop your filthy lies, filthy liar.

Still, the general idea is much the same. As the centurion, you will progress through a series of stages, each adorned with the columns and caverns and such you’d expect of its setting. You’ll walk from left to right, punch things in the face, and kick things in the face. This being the underworld, though, said ‘things’ take a rather more macabre approach. Zombies, demons and other winged horrors will oppose you.

Altered Beast 2

But fear not, because you’re more than equipped to deal with them. Our impetuous hero can collect magical orbs from destroying certain enemies, which power him up no end. In fact, they are the source of the game’s notoriously terrible POWER UP! soundbite. When our hero suddenly and instantaneously spouts biceps like Popeye does, you know the monsters down below are about to have a bad time.

Particularly so when he collects three of them, and unleashes beast mode. This is an animal transformation, unique to each stage, which bolsters your power and gives you a new attack or two to work with. A werewolf, a dragon and a big ol’ magical bear-thing are among them, and you can’t defeat the end boss of each stage without their services. Literally, the level will simply continue on if you’re in your regular muscular-dude-in-speedos form.

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about Altered Beast’s gameplay. It’s just another early scrolling brawler, the kind that the Mega Drive was crapping out on a daily basis back in the day. Nevertheless, there’s an unmistakable allure to the game. Perhaps it’s the hilariously, cringe-ily bad voice acting (WIZE FROM YOUR GWAVE!) that cements its timeless appeal. Perhaps it’s the delusions of grandeur: not since Columns has a video game had such a fancy classic aesthetic for no reason at all.

Whatever the case, though, the fact remains: It’s hard to say whether Altered Beast is remembered particularly fondly or not, but it is remembered. That’s enough, really.

Retro Corner: Streets of Rage

Streets

Ah, Streets of Rage. A perfect example of early gaming’s ‘simple yet effective’ milieu.

You stride man-tastically from left to right (unless you’re playing as the woman, though she’s pretty darn butch too). You punch any villains you encounter in the delicate fleshy bits, and you stride forward some more. This wasn’t the era of bafflingly convoluted Da Vinci Code style plotting, it was the time of quick-fix arcade action. Few games embodied that spirit better than Streets of Rage.

In this 1991 Mega Drive beat ‘em up, the city (imaginatively named ‘The City’) has been overrun by thieves, muggers, murderers and every other sort of unsavory dude. The enigmatic Mr. X and his criminal syndicate have taken control, and the streets are as dangerous as a Gotham back-alley at midnight. But fear not, because three different Batmen are here to help.

Namely Axel Stone, Blaze Fielding and Adam Hunter. The trio were police officers, who left the force when the corruption began. The only ones who weren’t tempted to the dark side by Mr. X (and his promises of doughnuts, presumably; that being the old cop joke). Bar one other, whom we will meet later. But anywho, they have pledged to clean up all of the rage that has spilled onto the street. Via any punchy means necessary.

This whole situation has gone a little awry.
This whole situation has gone a little awry.

There’s a marginal difference between the three playable characters. You can choose speed over power, vice versa, or take the average-at-both route. In any case, with a friend or alone, it’s on to a series of sidescrolling levels, with a boss to dispatch at the close of each.

There’s some nice variety in the locations. On your homicidal sightseeing tour, you’ll take in a beach, a cruise ship, an odd sort of factory, the typical downtown area, and a couple more besides. That beat ‘em up favourite, the large moving elevator, is also included.

The combat is rather rudimentary in this first outing, with just a combo button, jumping attack and grapple available (other than limited pick-ups). Rather spangly special moves and such weren’t introduced until Streets of Rage 2 and 3. Nevertheless, there’s a timeless sense of fun to be had here, with a heaping helping of nostalgia to help it along. The genre is a dying art today, but indie releases with fancy new 2D art keep those old memories of taking down Mr. X at a friend’s house after a long school day alive.

Source of images: gamefaqs.

The VGamerZ Retro Corner: Flicky

Flicky

Before Sonic, there was Flicky.

This little bluebird can claim to be among Sega’s early almost-mascots-if-you-squint-a-bit. It was eclipsed in this role by Alex Kidd a year or two later, but let’s disregard him. His terrible sideburns and jumpsuit combo deserves to be consigned to the drawer marked ‘crap from the eighties that must never see the light of day again,’ after all (see also: Culture Club).

Anywho, Flicky was released in good ol’ chunky arcade cabinet form in 1984. It’s a simple story of motherly love, heroism and throwing plant pots at angry iguanas. Let’s take a look.

As far as plotting goes, all we need to know –and all we’re told, come to that– is that Flicky’s chicks have been stolen. To retrieve them, you’ll have to journey through a series of arena-ish levels, and guide the hapless younsters to the exit door. Opposing you are Tiger the cat and Iggy the lizard, both of whom will be hunting you along the way. In short, with all the platform-hopping involved, it’s a little like a vertical Pac-Man.

Flicky 2

This obscure, cutesy release is surprisingly frantic. There are a dozen or so chicks to gather in each stage, and they remain suspended in place until you gather them. Touching them will cause each wee bird to trail behind you, and huge score boosts are available for ‘delivering’ several at once. But there’s a catch. A big, irritating, furry catch.

Contact with the roaming enemies will break the ‘chain’ at the point they touched (contact with you, meanwhile, will merely KILL YOU IN THE FACE). The stray chicks, so docile before, will suddenly start dashing about like Usain Bolt after some questionable seafood. Once this happens, your panicking charges will be spread throughout the level, a couple of cats will be closing in, that darn lizard will be climbing up the walls towards you… It’s so easy for a tiny slip to cost a huge amount of sweet, sweet points.

Flicky is more fiendish than something with such an endearing exterior has any right to be. I have fond memories of the game, as one of the first I played on the Mega Drive/Genesis, but it’s also one of my gaming demons. There are 48 levels in total, and I have never seen half of them. One day, I shall reach that gloriously anticlimax-y congratulations screen. One day.