Shinobi III

The office from which this site comes to you from has space in a building that also houses a Jewish preschool.  Recently, the kids drew pictures of what they were dressing up as for Purim.  So there were drawings of cowboys, Indians, pirates, and princesses and all the other things little kids like to pretend they are, with labels written by the teacher.  Included amongst this was one completely blank picture that was simply labeled “I’m a ninja!”.  Aside from being probably the best thing a 4 year old has ever done, it’s also one of the most accurate representations of a ninja ever conceived.

Pictured: A ninja.

Anyway, Shinobi III is kind of like the exact opposite of that picture.

Ecco the Dolphin

Brad:Every few years, people take up some kind of environmental cause.These days, it’s global warming.You notice people don’t really talk about the rainforests anymore, unless its in the context of reducing global warming. Nobody cares about saving the whales (still endangered, by the way), or cheetahs (practically extinct), or rhinos (also not doing so well).In fact the only endangered animal you ever hear people pitching for these days are polar bears, which conveniently (though they might disagree) are having their habitat destroyed by… you guessed it – global warming. Deforestation, polluted lakes, extinctions, and overflowing landfills were all old environmental causes that the majority of people have largely stopped paying attention to these days, regardless of whether or not they ever got fixed. And we’ll all do the same with global warming in a few years. Just you wait.

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These jellyfish hate Ecco.  Soon you will, too.

Back in the early 90s, our attention was focused on our overfished, polluted oceans. In the long-term, this didn’t help much – our oceans are probably as barren today as they ever have been in human history. On the other hand, this was an absolute boon for Sega who, showing an extremely rare occurrence of foresight, released Ecco the Dolphin, a game where you play as a dolphin and save Earth’s oceans from being swept devoid of life. Sega was wise to capitalize on the zeitgeist of the time, as players were so eager to take up the environmental cause du jour that they instantly declared Ecco a classic, regardless of whether or not it had any of the characteristics we might broadly define as being “fun” or “remotely enjoyable”.

Which, by the way, it doesn’t. The gameplay in Ecco primarily revolves around puzzle solving, and in the respect, the developers didn’t exactly go all out. In most stages, pathways will be blocked by giant blue crystals, called glyphs. The only way to get past a glyph is to find a different glyph and ram it, which somehow gives you the power to kill the original glyph.This is exactly the same kind of “puzzle solving” that you might find in a game like Doom, where you have to track down various keycards to open doors. Yet nobody ever talks about Doom like its some kind of triumph of brilliant puzzle-solving gameplay. What the hell do blue crystals have to do with anything?Or was that just the first thing the developers thought of?The whole thing reeks of unnecessary backtracking to stretch out the levels, and I seriously wonder if any less thought could have possibly been put into this.

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Blue crystals?  That’s the best thing they could come up with?

The rest of the game consists of swimming around, trying to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to be doing, and getting attacked by other marine life.Apparently everything in the ocean hates Ecco – in fact, no dolphin has ever been this universally despised since Bryan Cox retired from the NFL. Enemies come at you from all sides, completely immune to the various currents that are pushing you around or – oh, I don’t know – THE WALLS OF THE STAGE, which they swim through at will. Your only weapon against this assault for the majority of the game is a dash maneuver that lets you ram your enemies. In this way, most victories are pyrrhic – you might kill your opponent, but will probably crash into some other source of damage in the process. Later in the game, you get a ranged weapon, but it’s not much more effective.

A lot of Ecco fans like to point out that the game is hard, as if that somehow automatically makes it good.Difficulty is more like a multiplier – if a game is really fun, a challenging difficulty can make it more enjoyable. But if a game isn’t that enjoyable to begin with, cranking up the difficulty just makes it even more frustrating. So Ecco isn’t good because it’s hard, and if anything, it’s hard because its not designed very well.

Stryker:Usually, when we eliminate a game that’s generally well-thought of, I don’t hate it so much as I am bored by it. You play it for a little while, thinking it must eventually get better, and then if it doesn’t, you cross it off the list and wonder what people liked so much about it in the first place. For an example on this site, check out Earthworm Jim or Vectorman. So make no mistake when I tell you that this was not the case with Ecco the Dolphin. I hated this game when it first came out, I hate it still, and I hate all you people who keep insisting that it’s great. There’s nothing inherently brilliant about making a game where you play as a dolphin, and the entire game does little more than try to coast by on this thin premise.

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Hey look, it’s one of the few obstacles that’s not a blue crystal!

Mr. Do!:As a wise man once said, “If dolphins are so smart, why have I eaten so many of them?”

Minnesota Fats: Pool Legend

Stryker: Unlike most pool games, Minnesota Fats: Pool Legend comes with its own story mode in which you strive to defeat the legendary pool hustler.

Brad: And if you win, you get this shiny pool cue made of gold.  But if you lose, the fat man gets your sooooouuuuul.

Stryker: Of course, one does not simply challenge the great Minnesota Fats to a game of pool.  Explaining that he doesn’t waste his time on rookies, Fats sends you away to get more experience first.

Brad: Um, I’m not quite sure the fine folks over at Data East fully understood the concept of a “pool hustler”.

Stryker: No, Minnesota Fats is more like a “pool agent”.  He calls all the other players in town and sets up games for you.  I guess maybe your character is too shy to do it yourself or something.

Brad: Actually, given that half of his friends are hot women, I almost wonder if maybe he’s actually trying to set you up on dates.  Sure they’re all pool players, but that’s just the circle he runs in.  If you wanted to date tennis players, you’d go talk to Jimmy Connors.

Stryker: He sets you up with some guys, too.  Minnesota Fats doesn’t make any assumptions.

Brad: And he doesn’t judge.  His only love is pool.

Stryker: Minnesota Fats: Dating Simulator.

Brad: Now there’s a title destined to sell tens of copies.

Stryker: Let’s talk about the ending.  After you defeat all his friends, you get to take on Minnesota Fats, and if you win, he gives you his favorite pool cue as a souvenir.  What did you think?

Brad: Honestly, I felt a little bad.  People talk about games with endings that aren’t exactly happy, like in the Metal Gear Solid or Final Fantasy games, but here I am on a quest to rob an old man of his most prized possession.

Stryker: Yeah, I really didn’t expect a morally ambiguous ending from a Genesis game about pool.

Brad: Then again, there’s no telling just how valued that pool cue really was.  He called it his “favorite stick”, but he might have a closet full of cues that are a close second place.  It could be like me picking out a favorite pen.

Stryker: No, I prefer to think of Minnesota Fats as defeated, alone, his friends no longer speaking to him because he sent you up with them and then you never called after the first date.  Robbed not only of the only material possession that ever meant anything to him, but more importantly, his pride.  Feeling old and vulnerable, he will never play pool again.  You did this to him.  And all he ever wanted to do was help you.

Brad: Sure, he puts on a brave face and acts gracefully in defeat, but deep inside we all know that the gregarious man who used to yell out “Fancy Dance” before taking a shot is no more.

Rugby World Cup '95

How on fire was EA Sports back in the fall of 1994?  Looking back, it was one of the strongest lineups the brand has ever assembled:  Madden ’95, FIFA ’95, NHL ’95, and NBA Live ’95 are all arguably the best entries for each of their respective series during the 16-bit era, and while each of those franchises has had other successful years since, we’ve yet to see another season where so many of their games were peaking all at the same time.  Hell, these days, it seems like Madden and NHL are taking turns being good for each generation on consoles, and NBA Live seems like a punishment being inflicted on NBA fans for reasons we may never fully understand.  Maybe EA programmers are all Milwaukee Bucks fans.

Nevertheless, 1994 was a golden age for the EA Sports brand.  And it was during this time that EA decided to release Rugby World Cup ’95. It was certainly an inspired choice, with most of the brand’s other franchises being relatively “safe” bets, you know, in that they were sports people in this country might have actually seen before.  Who knows?  Maybe the world was really clamoring for a Rugby game back then.  Perhaps it was one of those short-lived 90s fads nobody even remembers anymore, like Y.B.T.  Or maybe EA, drunk on success, got cocky and assumed that they could make an awesome game about just about anything, although that explanation seems kind of unlikely.  I mean, it had only been a year since they released Power Monger, so they should have still remembered that lesson.

This is about 90% of the gameplay in Rugby World Cup ’95

Whatever the reason, Rugby World Cup ’95 was thrust into EA Sport’s otherwise spectacular lineup that year, not entirely unlike Don Beebe’s stint on the Super Bowl Champion Packers a few years later.  Yes, we are full of obscure references today.

If during the course of this review it appears that I don’t know a lot about rugby, it’s because I don’t.  My experience with the sport is limited to the few times I’ve caught glimpses of it on that cable channel that usually talks about the Mets but switches over to English sports after 11pm, and a British acquaintance of mine who once tried to get me to join a game by telling me “It’s just like your American football, only more violent.”  Most European sports are described to us in ways that make them seem more sophisticated than ours.  Soccer is the “beautiful game”.  Cricket is like baseball, except for smart people with a whole lot of free time.  But rugby – that’s just football with the violence cranked up to a catastrophic level.

That’s a simplification, but it’s still a pretty apt description, at least as far as describing how the sport is represented in Rugby World Cup ’95.  If American football is kind of an abstract simulation of war, then rugby is closer to a simulation of a riot, except there’s nothing abstract about it at all.  Which probably is a big part of its popularity worldwide – after all, New Zealand or Ireland isn’t going to win a war against Britain anytime soon, but a riot?  That’s 50/50.  Rugby is basically like watching two street gangs murder each other, with occasional attempts to move a ball up and down the field as a nominal means to justify this violence.  I’m convinced that 90% of Rugby players are clinically depressed people who have committed to killing themselves in the most spectacular way imaginable.  The other 10% are dumb American kids who didn’t fully grasp the apocalyptic scale of something that had been described to them as “like your football, only more violent.”

Oh, and they play without any kind of protective equipment.  Well, a few of them wear wrestling headgear, but they’re considered pussies by all the other players.  Hell, these guys would probably play naked just the avoid the minimal protection offered by a shirt if they could.  But of course that’s a terrible idea in a sport that sometimes involves tactics that the announcers describe as “jiggery pokery”.  To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what that even means.  I just know it’s the kind of thing I would want to have pants on for if it were going on around me.

Once you start playing, you’ll begin to see that the description of rugby as a more violent form of American football is pretty accurate.  However, a more precise description – and again, this in in the video game version, I’ve yet to see much “real” rugby – might be to say that it’s like a version of American football that has been fine-tuned specifically to maximize the amount of devastation.  Between two evenly matched teams it’s a nonstop barrage of assaults.  As the guy with the ball is getting tackled, he throws it to a teammate, who then immediately gets tackled and throws it to another teammate, until eventually everyone is laying on the ground with injured spleens.  Should a player fail to get rid of the ball before hitting the ground, players from both teams form what is known as – no joke – a maul, which is basically a big pile of guys murdering each other, until one guy emerges with the ball and the whole cycle starts again.  Unlike American football, it’s actually considered advantageous to kick the ball off to the other team and let them have possession of it, much in the same way it might be advantageous to allow your opponent to start with possession of a pork chop if you were both trapped in the lion cage at the zoo.  Speaking of lions fighting over scraps of meat, if the ball should go out of bounds, play is restarted by having both teams line up 3 feet away from each other, and then throwing the ball into the middle of both teams and having them kill each other for it.

This is actually a different picture than before.  This just happens a lot.

As I said, that’s what a game between two evenly matched teams is like.  If two mismatched teams should play, things are a little different, as the better team will have more more time and space to work with the ball.  This is closer to what I believe rugby is supposed to be like, with teams passing side to side, moving the ball up and down the field, and actually scoring points.  I assume this is closer to “real” rugby, as evidenced by the fact that real rugby games occasionally have survivors and scores higher than 0-0.

In the end, I suppose that’s the problem with Rugby World Cup ’95.  If you want to take a really good team, and play against a really bad team, it can be fun for a little while, at least until the score gets out of hand.  But between two teams that are fairly close to one another, the entire thing is just a series of instant tackles, mauls, and other moments where it really feels like the computer is playing the game for you.  Oddly enough, you can actually get a much more satisfying “rugby-like” experience playing Pigskin Footbrawl, which is set in Medieval Europe, is endorsed by Jerry Glanville, and isn’t even meant to be about rugby at all.

Puggsy

Brad: The harder it is to differentiate between “playing the game the way it was meant to be played” and “exploiting glitches in the game’s physics”, the more likely it is that the game needs to be fine-tuned, overhauled, or maybe just set on fire. Look, there’s “ahead of its time” in the sense that something might be innovative, and cutting edge, and then there’s “ahead of its time” in the “we probably shouldn’t be trying to pull this off on a Genesis” kind of way.

Chin-ups:  You’re doing it wrong.

 

Stryker: Hey Puggsy, I know you need to get on top your house, but this plan you have of stacking a couple of seashells on top of each other next to the building and then jumping up while trying to “catch” the edge of the roof with the barrel of a gun you’re holding over your head and then pulling yourself up seems like kind of a bad idea for many, many reasons.

Ristar

Ristar is another one of those well-made games that, for reasons we could never quite put our finger on, failed to hold our attention.  If I had to guess, though, I’d say it needed a more interesting character I mean, really, a star with arms?  Were they just throwing random nouns together that day?  Why not a rainbow that eats things?  Or an olive than can pole vault?

I don’t think I could explain this picture if I wanted to.

The real bummer is that I didn’t find this game sooner, because I think I would have enjoyed it more back when I was a teenager. Then again, I’m not sure “more video games” would have been the key to a better adolescence for me.  I think the answer might have actually been “fewer video games” and “more girls”.  But let’s stick to plausible scenarios, here.