Well as a remarkably rubbish year comes to an end it seems suitable to look back at what gaming highlights I can haul out of the wreck. Will these all be new games? No! These won’t even necessarily be things I haven’t played before – this is just a selection of cool games that have helped get me through the year
January: Maken X (DreamCast)
A relatively unknown title from Atlas, Maken X is a bit of an oddball. It was one I picked up on the cheap at the time and I remember being both surprised and excited by it. It felt like this is what gaming would be in the future.
It’s a difficult game to describe – playing the role of an artificial life form that can possess (well ‘brain jack’) other people, Maken is an interesting mish mash of FPS, Hack’n’Slash, RPG and Metroidvania games. It takes elements of all of these (First person perspective, melee based combat, leveling up and different characters unlocking new areas in previously-visited maps) and twists them into something that’s entirely its’ own thing.
The design IS a little incoherent in places and the dialogue IS a bit hammy in the UK translation, but with if you have a Dreamcast and have never experienced this it’s definitely one to give a go. You will literally never play another game like it – and that even includes its PS2-based remake…
February: Canon Dancer (Osman)
A game that features neither Cannons nor Dancing, Canon Dancer is a truly hidden gem. Created by Kouichi Yotsui of Strider fame, Canon Dancer shifts the setting from future communism to cyber punk Arabia and features a bonkers plot apparently based on Yotsui’s final days at Capcom. Crucially, the game feels pretty much like the true sequel Strider never received, combining Striders classic topsy-turvy climbing with some even more ridiculously over the top boss fights and amazing set pieces. It’s predictably as hard as nails, but since discovering it while writing my Strider article its been a game I frequently use to unwind.
March: Road Rash 64
Road Rash was a bit of an unfortunate franchise. Originally relatively slow titles that obviously had to be carefully choreographed to prevent the over taxing of 16-bit CPUs, Road Rash should have come into its own as hardware became beefier and more able to produce complete 3d worlds. Instead – after a couple of lukewarm PlayStation releases – the once system-selling series slid almost from view.
This was a shame as the THQ-Published N64 entry is perhaps the perfect Road Rash game. Ok perfect is a stretch: it has drab, flat visuals that only a mother could love and (even if the mild rock soundtrack was your cup of tea) it only had around 20 minutes of music which looped endlessly. However the chaotic gameplay was absolutely perfect: a rolling melee, Road Rash 64 taps into the same sort of chaos found in the best moments of Mario Kart, with bikes, riders fists and stun guns flying all over the place. It won’t make any greatest game of all time lists but it IS tremendous fun and a seriously underrated gem.
April (to December:) Yakuza Series
As a busy parent with a lot of stuff i want to get done in my free time, i’m generally not a fan of games that are disrespectful towards my use of that time. If I’ve got to the end of your ideas I really don’t need you to pad out your game with five hours of filler thank you very much. Consequently, as good as they are, 30-hour long Yakuza games are the kind I generally tend to steer clear from – so what a year for them to show up on Gamepass!
Complicated, convoluted and tonally inconsistent, the Yakuza series is one of the most interesting to emerge this side of the millennium. Taking traditional brawler gameplay and adding in RPG elements and 40 minute cut scenes where Japanese men smoke and complain about how rubbish being a Yakuza is, the series is one everyone who plays games should try at least once. I’m looking forward to the rest of the remade Yakuza games arriving on Game Pass next year.
April: Asian Dynamite
Here’s one to celebrate getting Sega Naomi games up and running on my Raspberry Pi: A Belated Sequel to Dynamite Cop (well Dynamite Deku 2) on the Dreamcast! Released some years after the previous title – and developed by Sega’s Shangai studio – Dynamite actually turns out to be an Asia-themed reskin of the previous title. It’s an impressive job, but considering the team went to so much trouble to create different locations and character models you have to wonder why they didn’t go the whole hog and create new level designs too. Needless to say, this one was never sold outside Japan. If you can emulate Sega NAOMI arcade games, this is definitely one that’s worth giving a try.
May: Target Earth/Cybernator
It’s surprising how many series western publishers screwed up when bringing them Westward. Though in Japan there’s an obvious link between Assault Suit Leynos on the Megadrive (Target Earth in the US) and SNES-based prequel Assault Suit Valken (Cybernator over here), the link isn’t obvious in their Westernised form.
In fact, aside from the frequent radio communication in each, they’re quite different games. Over here, Cybernator ended up being one of the best budget shooters you could buy. Though relative straight forward in its design (take your big stompy mech from A to B blasting everything in between) it ended up with a number of cool visual tricks such as flying shell casings and environmental damage that helped it stand from the crowd.
Released earlier, Target Earth is predictably a much simpler-looking title than its prequel. However, it is conceptually the most interesting of the two: while Cybernator gives the player additional lives and the ability to collect weapons during gameplay, Target Earth is more simulation like – the player has to choose their own weapons loadout before every mission and has just one life to get the job done. Both of these are underrated gems that are well worth the look (as long as you put up with the punishing difficulty)
June: Bulk Slash
One of the last titles I completed before moving house – and a good title to celebrate the arrival of Saturn emulation on the Pi4 – Saturn-exclusive Bulk Slash is a colourful anime arcade shooter that mixes three dimensional environments with traditional sprite characters. Concequently it feels a bit more like an enhanced Mega CD title rather than the kind of thing we were use to seeing on the Saturn – but that doesn’t matter. With high paced action, a cool transformation mechanic (which allows you to switch between a mech and a jet) and a strange dating element it’s a bit of a shame this never made it westward. You don’t really need to understand the dialogue to navigate the game but it would be nice to have it localised.
As I’d already broken my aversion to starting RPGs by getting back into the Yakuza series, I thought I’d return to a game i hadn’t played through in years – Climax Entertainment’s Landstalker for the Megadrive. Knowing nothing about the relationships between the Japanese and British computer scene at the time, I was a bit puzzled when we found out about Landstalker. Though clearly not a British game Its platform-heavy, isometric dungeons felt highly reminiscent of some of the all-time great Zx Spectrum titles. It’s a fantastic game within itself too – following the adventures of elven treasure hunter Nigel and his quick-witted fairy companion Friday, the game sees them as they look for the legendary treasure of king Nole – helping islanders, battling monsters and solving puzzles as they go.
Aside from the very last dungeon – which is admittedly a bit of a slog – the rest of the game is incredibly well designed and paced, with some fun optional side-quests and no where near as much back-tracking as I remember. I’d recommend this one to anyone – though I think the repetitive nature of the music might have begun to drive my long-suffering wife a bit potty.
August: Dark Saviour
Sticking with Climax, the game that defined my August was Saturn-exclusive Landstalker follow-up Dark Saviour. Though similar in its isometric approach, Dark Saviour had no real link to Landstalker. Where’s Landstalker’s Nigel inhabits a traditional fantasy setting, Dark Saviour’s bounty hunting hero Garian lives in a dystopian near future.
The game starts on a cargo ship where a hideous shape-shifting monster is being transported before it’s executed. When the game begins, the hideous shape-shifting monster has (rather predictably) escaped and it’s up to Garian to reach the captain’s cabin and confront it. The time it takes the player to do so sends the game down one of three different (but entwined) story routes, with the events that follow flowing naturally from whether or not Garian kills the monster in the ship or whether it’s able to make land.
It’s an interesting setup in terms of plot, but the actual gameplay is subtley different from Landstalker too. The dungeons (if you can call them that) are much smaller and based around platforming rather than puzzles. The simple button-bashing combat of Landstalker was also switched for one-on-one fighting mechanics, including giving Garian the interesting (pre-Pokemon) ability to capture enemies and have them fight in his place.
I’m really glad i spent the time to playthrough each of Dark Saviors three scenarios. It’s a much bleaker and more interesting title than most of the other RPGs from the era. Final Fantasy 7 eat your heart out.
September: Bonanza Bros
September was a bit of a busy month for me (or quiet in the gaming sense!) but one title I did enjoy firing up again was the arcade version of Bonanza Bros. A bonkers attempt at creating a high-paced arcade stealth game, everything about Bonanza Bros, from the weird blocky character design, through to the bouncy blues-inspired music and feature-filled map design, reveals a Sega at the top of their game. Is Bonanza Bros the best Sega arcade game? No – it’s not even their best release from 1990 – but it’s a title that demonstrates that in the 80s and 90s, even Sega’s middling and experimental titles were winners that competing companies would have killed for.
October: Battletoads (Megadrive)
Having played through the excellent modern reincarnation of the toads, I thought it only fair that i had a proper play through of the original. I have tried the original before (on both the NES and the Megadrive) but found it a bit too basic a game to make up for the punishing level of difficulty.
Having slogged my way through, I have to say it’s a very frustrating thing (in multiple senses.) Though I still think there are a couple of levels that are just plain crap (The snake climbing feels out of place) on the whole the game is a riot. I appreciate that there are weirdos out there who enjoy the gauntlet-like nature of tackling it at full difficulty, but considering how much joy and ingenuity clearly went into the level designs is such a shame that so much of it was hidden away from so many gamers for so long. Though the megadrive was already based on the slightly toned-down Japanese version of the NES game, the addition of a difficulty setting could have seen Battletoads become both the ultimate challenge AND the ultimate chillpout game.
November: Mirror’s Edge
When they were originally announced I wasn’t too fussed about the new consoles. Maybe I’ll buy one when they’re £250 or something. What’s that? one is £250? Sounds like fate…
I haven’t written anything about my Series S yet, but i’m happy with it despite the lack of software. One particular joy was using it for my bi-annual play through of the brilliant Mirror’s Edge – a game which looks even better with the dynamic improvements offered by the new consoles. Quite frankly if i bought a budget Indie game and it looked like Mirror’s Edge I wouldn’t feel cheated at all – which is incredible thing to say about a game coming up for 13 years old. In fact, the only snag is that the game now loads so fast it has a habit of cutting off the final couple of seconds of cutscene dialogue! Superb. I know Mirror’s Edge let a lot of people down when it came out, but I went into it semi-blind and found it absolutely immense. Both back then and today.
December: Time Stalkers
Climax Entertainment were definitely a big influence on the second half of my year, so it’s only fitting we finish up with their epic crossover RPG Time Stalkers! Though it already stands out as one of the few Dreamcast RPGs, Timestalkers deserves further recognition for being a highly original game. Though the obvious hook is the way it brings multiple Climax characters into one adventure (Players can use Shining in the Darkness’ Pyra, Land Stalker’s Nigel or even play as the hero from JP-exclusive ‘Lady Stalker), It’s cleverer than that – it’s an attempt to subvert many JRPG conventions.
The main way it does this is via the level system and dungeon design: Your character starts at level 1 every time they enter a dungeon and the level design is always completely random. With the player also only allowed to take up to 8 items in at once (including weapons and armour) this isn’t a game about loading up on health items and levelling up against low-level creatures, Time Stalkers is about improvisation and surviving with what you’ve got.
It’s not a perfect game and it doesn’t all work (one obvious issue is beating a boss with a weapon that requires a level 8 character and not having access to any of its powerful attacks when you enter a new dungeon) but it’s always refreshing to see a developer boldly tackling a genre’s flaws head-on. Like Land Stalker and Dark Saviour before it, this one is definitely worth a go.
So then, that was my 2020 in gaming. Well not all of it ( I actually completed about 80 games – including finally defeating the Speccy version of Bad Dudes vs Dragon Ninja) but that was some of my highlights. I look forward to seeing you again in 2021 and wish you a vaguely survivable new year!