Friday, 11 March 2016

Hang on in Miracle World, Shinobi! It's the Revenge of Alex Kidd!

Retroactive review: Alex Kidd, The Revenge Of Shinobi & Super Hang-On

Time for another batch of retrogames, bundled together in a neat package for the Xbox 360 and One, titled: Sega Vintage Collection Alex Kidd & Co. Kind of a misguiding title as other packs of Sega Vintage Collection feature one single series. This is more of a collection of three famous Sega classics. They're spread over fairly different genres too, which may not be popular with everyone. I'd say you need to have some reason to buy two of them at least to make the bundle worth it. I'd guess that fans of any of these three games would have preferred them bundled with other games in it's respective series.

Sega has a ton of titles to revive in classic collections like this, I've really appreciated the Vintage Collections and I may buy more of them. For those interested, there are two further titles available for the Xbox 360 that work on the Xbox One through backwards compatibility: Sega Vintage Collection: Monster World and Sega Vintage Collection: Golden Axe. For Xbox 360 only, there's also Sega Vintage Collection: ToeJam & Earl. Check them out if they interest you. They're all ports that are handled with care and feature the same game room interface showing consoles hooked up to TV's and feature scanline effects, button mapping and music jukeboxes for each game. Every region version is also represented.

For now though, lets look at the games in the Alex Kidd & Co collection!

Alex Kidd in Miracle World (1986)

To compete with Nintendo, Sega released a lot of games during the 80's that were direct competitors with some of Nintendo's most popular franchises. While Sega's originality blossomed in the arcades, their home releases during the third generation, the8-bit consoles, often featured very Nintendo-inspired games. Sometimes almost blatantly obviously so. While Sega's more aggressive and originality focused style would truly come to form for it's home market with it's hugely successful 16-bit Mega Drive, there are some unknown and unique titles from the 80's library too. Alex Kidd In Miracle World is such a game.

Clearly an attempt at cashing in from Nintendo's gigantic success with Super Mario Bros. Alex Kidd In Miracle World is a Mario inspired platformer. Though their likeness only really goes so far. AKIMW is more about Sega trying to find a mascot and a game character to remember them by. While we all know that Sonic The Hedgehog would take this throne at a later stage in the early 90's, Sega pushed Alex Kidd into quite few games before leaving him to fade away into obscurity. Five in fact, and any Sega fan from the 80's and early 90's will most likely remember him.

Alex Kidd In Miracle World is the most successful of the Alex Kidd games, largely because it was a built-in game into many Master System console models. I own the European Master System II and it's built into that machine, though it's title screen will state a release date of 1990. That's how many years some games took to be released from Japan to Europa back in the day!

Considering that AKIMW is from 1986, only a year after SMB, it's actually quite impressive what Sega accomplished both visually and gameplay wise. It looks more advanced in it's graphics than SMB1, far more varied and has some uniquely designed levels. Some of them even go from land to water and alternate from vertical to horizontal scrolling during one level. We have helicopter, motorbike and boat sections too. The later levels, set in large castles, even remind me of some of the simpler 8-bit RPG games of it's time with multiple rooms that can be accessed back and forth, looking for items and the correct routes through them.

AKIMW doesn't quite control as precise as Mario, he was always the benchmark that all other platformers were compared, but it does feel a cut above the compåetition from it's era. Alex relies on punching his enemies, rather than jumping on their heads like Mario. He can also purchase items like fire shots and invincibility from little shops scattered throughout the game. Money is found in each level, inside boxes or just in the open shown as small and large money bags. These shops give the game a slightly deeper strategic element. Purchasing and keeping special items for the more difficult parts is key to completing the game, at least making the struggle a fair bit easier.

I recall fond memories of playing many hours of this game as a child and I still found the game fun to play now, albeit quite hard to complete. Some of the later levels are pretty unforgiving. I never managed to finish it as a child! Purchasing vehicles and using them carefully seems to be the easiest route through a lot of the levels. I still hate the Janken boss battles though, and their unfair and far too common appearances throughout the game. For those unaware: Janken boss battles are rock, scissors, paper battles. I'm not even kidding! They're just a test of trying and failing multiple times before you beat them, and later on they have the nerve to attack you if they lose! Thus resulting in a more traditional boss fight, which they should have just been from the beginning.

If you have fond memories of playing AKIMW as a child, and grew up owning Sega's cheap Master System alternative to the NES , then you most likely will have purchased this collection to replay the nostalgia. Newcomers however, can check it out to better understand what some of the alternatives to Super Mario Bros. were like back in the 80's. Though they never managed  to dethrone the 8-bit king! AKIMW is a colourful and fun platformer with a cheerful soundtrack and good controls. It's one of Sega's best attempts at beating SMB pre-Sonic.



The Revenge Of Shinobi (1989)

I recall playing this on the same cartridge as the first Streets of Rage. While I was initially intrigued by it's atmospheric opening location in ancient Japan, I was brutally reminded each time I tried playing it, how insanely difficult it was. Going back and replaying it has reminded me how frustrating old games can be when it comes to difficulty spikes and unfair gameplay. Luckily, I bit my teeth together and grinded through this with save states. Cheating, I know, but even with the save option I found it frustratingly hard!

Obviously so with it's title, this is a sequel to Shinobi, a Sega arcade hit from 1987. Though I've heard about it, I have no experience with the original. As such the whole storyline and it's incredibly random level designs left a bit to be desired. It's perhaps what I dislike the most about the TROS after it's difficulty; there's no coherent explanation to what or where you are going. It's only the title screen left rolling which explains a little back story, though never explains anything in detail.

The opening level, which is set in a traditional and samurai inspired Japan, is perhaps the best of them all. Sadly the game jumps to a random selection of locations like cities, train roofs, motorways, army camps etc. Making the ninjas you fight, one of which you actually play yourself, seem strangely out of place. Couldn't just the whole game be set in ancient Japan?! I get that older games don't really explain much in their often thin storylines in general, but it's kind of jarring in a game where you play a ninja to be in modern locations. But hey, I guess that's what they were aiming for; a ninja fighting modern bad guys.

There's a laughable amount of copycat stuff in TROS; we have a Terminator styled boss and a double boss fight featuring Spider-Man and Batman. Their appearance have been toned down to avoid similarities and copyright issues in this release compared to how they used to be back on the first batch of Mega Drive releases. They're still pretty obvious though! I don't know if these movie inspired bosses and especially the stupid end one, whom throws his huge hair around as a main attack, combined with the random location settings are supposed to intentionally make the game seem funny or comic.

For me however, it's humour, be it intentional or not, falls short of being something cohesive and totally ignores even attempting to have a thin red line through the game to follow. Again, I understand that old games really just threw a lot of ideas around without explanation, but even then TROS seems to lack at least a progression or reason as to why you're at all these places.

While I guess there's some nostalgia kicking in, I actually think the core gameplay in TROS is quite good. I enjoy throwing the small daggers at enemies, and I really like the first area of levels and it's huge samurai boss. The music, composed by Yuzo Koshiro of Streets Of Rage fame, has a varied and distinct sound. I really enjoyed some of the tunes and further enlightens the sheer genius Koshiro was with chiptune music. The visuals are fairly good to be such an early Mega Drive title too, we're talking the first year of console release here.

I wouldn't recommend this game for newcomers, I think it's purely for fans of the game back in the day. This collection is an opportunity to replay it on your Xbox 360 or One. These days it simply stands as a curiosity of how old Mega Drive games were. Gameplay though, is a try and fail affair, with some unforgiving platforming segments thrown in and tons of unfair deaths. Be warned this is for people looking for that hardcore retro difficulty level.



Super Hang-On (1987)

If you ever roamed the arcades in the 80's and 90's there's a good chance you played either the first Hang-On (released 1985) or it's sequel Super Hang-On (released 1987). The first game featured a red, Akira-anime inspired, plastic bike to ride and the latter a white and blue one with a screen built down into the steering handle. Acceleration and braking was down like on a real motorbike with the handlebars, while turning was done by leaning the whole motorbike chassis from side to side. It was an amazing experience for players back in the day and felt even more immersive thanks to it's, very early for it's time, motion controlled gameplay.

In this collection only the Super Hang-On version is featured, as it's probably the best of the two games. Designed by Sega's gaming guru Yu Suzuki, of Shenmue, Daytona USA, Virtua Fighter and Afterburner fame, it's an incredible technical marvel of it's 80's origins. Featuring 16-bit graphics way ahead of the home consoles and a scaling sprites technology to make a pseudo-3D visual appearance, without actually having 3D polygons on the screen. Both the Hang-On games were huge successes and have been ported to numerous home consoles in various quality.

For the modern eye Super Hang-On may just look like any old 2D racer, but it's strangely enough engaging even today. It's incredible how well the scaling technology gives a sense of moving into the screen and a great feeling of speed. This arcade perfect conversion smoothly speeds past at 60 frames per second and even offers a 3D mode for TV's with that capability. There are numerous ports for this game in both 8-bit and 16-bit versions, but seeing it in it's uncut and full arcade glory again is fantastic. No wonder I loved playing this game with it's moveable arcade cabinet bike back in the 90's!

While I'm guessing this is a another title that requires you to have fond memories of it back in it's prime day to be fully appreciated. It is, however, a great way of learning how racing games have developed and how far ahead in 2D graphics the arcades once were compared to home consoles like the NES, Master System, SNES and Mega Drive. The gameplay and controls still holds up, much like Sega other huge racing success OutRun, from the same time period. It's fast and addictive to play, and i'm still am amazed how 2D graphics can be used a way that give such a sense of movement and depth.

If you're curious about Sega's amazing arcade heritage or the development of racing games in general, then Super Hang-On is a great place to get an understanding on how such things as giving a sense of 3D movement were accomplished so many years ago. Now if only young gamers today could experience the fantastic arcade motorbike cabinet that followed along it!




My previous retroactive review featured the Streets of Rage games, which I still find to be very playable and relevant today, a lot of that being scrolling beat 'em ups are a fairly dead genre these days and that these games were excellent at what they did. Some of the best in their genre in fact. This Sega Vintage Collection doesn't really convey the same must-have titles and as such rely more on your nostalgic rose tinted glasses to relive your childhood memories.

While I would recommend them warmly to get a sense of Sega's wide variety of titles and genres within, they are perhaps not essential titles to play in retrospect. If you have a great interest in older games, and perhaps wish to find out what competed alongside classics like Super Mario Bros., or maybe want to find the origins of racing titles, well then both Alex Kidd and Super Hang-On are absolutely worth it. Revenge of Shinobi not so much.

A collection of games more for suited for the curiosity and nostalgia then.

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