King’s Bounty

Grade: A-
Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 11th
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Year: 1991
Genre: Oppression

In King’s Bounty, you play the role of a hero charged with retrieving the Staff of Order on behalf of the noble King So-Unimportant-His-Name-Hardly-Appears-Anywhere. This is of the utmost importance, because without the staff, the land has descended into its natural state. By which I mean chaos – all the other lords are in open rebellion, roving groups of monsters wander the land, and packs of wolves are crossing the plains in covered wagons. Or else they’re attacking covered wagons… it’s kind of hard to tell. Either way, the landscape has turned into some kind of messed up version of the Oregon Trail and it’s up to you to fix it.

We’ve been over this before, but this is exactly why imbuing magical powers into small objects is generally a bad idea. As soon as it gets lost or stolen, everything just goes straight to hell, and this is especially true since the power in question is almost always something like creating order from chaos or preventing the end of the world. That’s not the kind of magic you should just carelessly shove into a staff or whatever else you happen to have lying around. Plan it out a little. Go and find something big and kind of immobile, like a mountain or a Soviet tank, and enchant that with your magic powers. Then you won’t lose it. I grew up right next to a big freaking lake, and we never – not once – ever misplaced Lake Erie. What we’re saying is, if you misplace something more frequently than, say, your sunglasses, you probably shouldn’t infuse it with the power to save the world.

In fact, here’s a picture I took the last time I was at Lake Erie. As everyone in the Rust Belt area knows, the Great Lakes are totally overrun with giant Vikings.

Then again, it’s hard to say how much these rebellious lords were really helping you run the kingdom anyway. For the most part, they’re all kind of shitty. One of them is an active pirate who makes no effort at all to hide that fact. That’s a counterproductive occupation for someone in a position of leadership within your kingdom, and even if it wasn’t, that’s still not the kind of experience that trains you to become a less than awful ruler. Another, Murray the Miser, is so useless that the fact that he’s openly committing treason is considered secondary to his more serious offense of committing petty crimes. Another of them is just a rotting skeleton, and I can’t imagine there’s much of a practical difference between having him on your side or opposing you.

Truthfully, it sounds like this rebellion was a long time coming. What kind of king grants titles and castles to pirates and skeletons in the first place? That’s probably not a sign of good mental health, let alone effective leadership. I’m guessing living conditions for the average citizen in this kingdom likely weren’t that great, and were probably especially bad if you happened to live a fiefdom ruled by some random cyclops that the King gave a fortress to and elevated to the title of Count Rhhaaargh!!!

You can tell when Murray’s in town based on the sharp increase in petty crime.

Sometimes a crisis can focus a person, allowing them see the mistakes that lead to this situation in the first place, and making the solution to the problems crystal clear. Losing the Staff of Order hasn’t exactly granted your king this sense of clarity. He sends you off with a vague notion that you should go reclaim his kingdom and puts you at the head of a massive army of 20 guys armed with pitchforks who will die the very first time you get into a fight. This is a guarantee. In fact, they’ll probably die at the very thought of a monster.

This can make King’s Bounty seem frustratingly hard to an inexperienced player, but there’s an easy, logical way to avoid being immediately killed. Your first stop on this quest should be to do what any rational person would in this circumstance – turn right around, go back to the castle, and ask the king “Are you fucking kidding me?”. You won’t get any kind of a satisfactory answer, but at the very least, you’ll have the ability to get some actual troops from him. For a price. Yes, you actually have to buy your soldiers from the king that, for some inexplicable reason, you’re still trying to save.

Once you get an actual army and head out on your way, things get more interesting. The game is kind of a combination of exploration and turn-based strategy. The goal is to recover pieces of a map that will reveal the location of the missing staff. A few pieces can be found out in the open, most of them, however, are earned by defeating the rebellious lords. A lot of the game focuses on traveling the map, finding the castles of the enemies you need to defeat, as well as places to recruit more powerful troops than the ones you can get at the castle, and various treasures to help pay for it all.

 Apparently the mayor of Xoctan is a vampire with laser eyes. Also, he’s run unopposed in the last several elections.

One of the fun things about this game is that you’re pretty much free to assemble any kind of army you want, as long as you can find a place to recruit that kind of creature. Some types of units won’t get along with others, and will make each other weaker, but as long as you find compatible units, there’s nothing in the game telling you you’re not allowed to conquer the world with an army of demons and vampires. In fact, the “evil” units in the game are generally so overpowered that it’s actually advisable to do so.

This raises the interesting possibility that you’re actually playing as (or at least for), the bad guy. Let’s look at this from a different perspective. A tyrannical king keeps everyone in line with the magical Staff of Order, then hands out castles and lordships to a bunch of criminals and monsters who further terrorize the peasantry. When the staff is lost and the people are able to rise up against him, he sends you out to put down the rebellion, and encourages – no, practically forces – you to do so at the head of a massive army of monsters. I mean, if the king didn’t want you terrorizing the countryside with a horde of orcs and a couple of dragons, he probably would have given you a discount on cavalry units, wouldn’t he? I get the feeling calling it “The Staff of Order” is a bit of clever propaganda. The Staff of Oppression is probably a bit more accurate. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s some kind of super-weapon, like a fantasy equivalent of a nuclear bomb.

Anyway, the gameplay. Combat, whether against an enemy lord in a fortress or just a wandering group of monsters out in the field, is relatively straightforward turn-based strategy with each group of units maneuvering around a battlefield. The isn’t a ton of depth here – most units don’t have special attacks, and there aren’t any advanced tactics (such as splitting a group of 50 guys into two groups of 25 in order to fight two different enemies at once), so it’s really just a matter of getting close and attacking. Once you get a feel for the relative strength of each type of soldier it’s pretty easy, and you can usually predict the winner of a battle before it starts. It’s a bit of a stretch to even refer to this as strategy.
That kind of sounds awful, but it works mainly because those battles are really just a sideshow. The true focus of the game is strategy in a broader sense – there is a time limit working against you, so the game really is about figuring out the most efficient way to recover the map pieces and find the staff. You have to manage the size of your army, put together an effective mix of troops, and navigate the landscape effectively. It’s important to know when to avoid a fight, where to find the best troops, and how to keep the gold flowing in order to pay for it all. Balance is critical; too small of an army will get you slaughtered, but too large of one will take too much time to recruit (and replenish), and will cost more. Sure, most battles are over before they begin. But whether they’re a cakewalk or a nightmare comes down to how well you’ve prepared your army beforehand.

Though you might still be a little surprised at just how many knights 2 dragons can slaughter.

The fact that most battles can be fairly easy works in another beneficial way, too. There’s something deeply satisfying abound running around, kicking 25 different types of ass, and clearing the landscape of monsters and enemy castles. It just works on a psychological level – people crave the tangible benefit that comes from actually seeing the game world get cleaner and cleaner as the game goes on. This is also a big part of the appeal of games like Diablo, where you go into a dungeon and exterminate all the monsters. There are times where you’ll be exploring and you’ll see a small group of roving monsters, and even though it’s a little out of the way, and the reward isn’t going to be anything great, you still wipe them out anyway, just to get them off your map.

Hmm, it sounds so bloodthirsty when I say it that way. And this combination orc/zombie/demon army behind me probably isn’t helping my image, either.

Did I mention the zombies are vengeful, too? Because they are.

Availability: Ok, the availability is a little, um, complicated for this one. We’ll start from the easiest and let it go from there.

Sega Genesis: The game came out pretty early in the Genesis’ life, and falls into that grouping of “games that are sort of rare, but not expensive because nobody really cares about them.” So if you want to get a Genesis copy, it might be a little tricky to track down, and you’ll probably have to resort to buying it online, but it should be obtainable for about $10 or less.

PC: The PC version of the game is pretty similar to the Genesis version, but not identical. It wasn’t a huge hit, except oddly enough, in Russia, where an unofficial sequel was made and later on, a Russian developer made a remake called King’s Bounty: The Legend. Come to think of it, it’s entirely possible that King’s Bounty wasn’t a big hit in Russia either, except for one really obsessive fan. Anyway, KB: tL is available in the US, and if you look for it online, you can probably get a copy for less than what it will cost to have it shipped to you. Hell, find a copy with free shipping, and it’s almost as if they’re paying you to take it off their hands. That usually isn’t a good sign though, so buyer beware.

Here’s an interesting side note – King’s Bounty was also the forerunner to the Heroes of Might and Magic series, and is even included with some of the HoM&M compilations. So you could also try to get it that way.

Modern consoles: King’s Bounty hasn’t been made available for download on any of the current consoles, hasn’t been included in any kind of Greatest Hits anthologies, and nobody ever did a remake of it. Except for the time when they totally did for the PS2 and called it Heroes of Might and Magic: Quest for the Dragon Bone Staff. The game was not well-received (we haven’t played it, so I can’t tell you how faithful of a remake it is), and can be found online for next to nothing.

And you thought Shark Week was a big deal.

Overall, there are some options, but as long as you have access to a Genesis, we’d recommend going with that version ahead of any of the alternatives.


Gain Ground

Grade: A-
Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 12th
Publisher: Renovation
Year: 1991
Genre: Rescue

Renovation is one of those publishers that is beloved by hardcore gamers because they specialized in finding niche Japanese titles that nobody else wanted to release in the US, and brought them over here. Of course, there was often a reason no other publisher would touch these games, so their track record has been, to put it generously, kind of hit and miss. But not hit and miss in the sense that “They had some games that were pretty good and some that weren’t.” It’s more the way being attacked by a shark could be described as hit and miss – some of the bites hit you and some miss, but each one is being made with bad intentions, and the whole experience is both terrifying and scarring. Renovation is the publisher responsible for bringing Ernest Evans to the U.S. from Japan, and that damn game actually forced economists to start counting “human misery” as one of our country’s imports for a while. What I’m saying is that if hardcore gamers say they love Renovation’s games, it’s only because they harbor a burning disdain and hatred of humanity (all hardcore gamers are secretly witches), and try to trick the rest of us into playing games that will make us cry. This is also the same reason they occasionally try to convince people the Virtua Fighter series is remotely playable.

So coming from Renovation isn’t a particularly promising heritage for Gain Ground, and if that wasn’t enough to overcome, this game came out in 1991. For those of you too young to remember, take it from someone who lived through it – 1991 was not a good year. There was a recession, a Bush in the White House, and people wore Zubaz pants. The Top Five highest grossing films that year included both Hook and Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.The Buffalo Bills were in the Super Bowl again, and the Detroit Lions were a game away from being their opponent. Yes, Bills vs. Lions. In the Super Bowl. That nearly happened. Also, Vanilla Ice starred in a movie.

So, no, 1991 was not a great year, except, oddly enough, for games. This was the year the Super Nintendo was released and Street Fighter 2 hit the arcades. On the Genesis, we had Sonic the Hedgehog, the original NHL Hockey, and Rings of Power. In fact, this Top 50 Genesis list features as many or more games from 1991 as any other year, with an impressive 11. Gaming was the one good thing going in an otherwise terrible year. Well, that and the emergence of grunge music and the alternative scene. But keep in mind that the whole alternative thing was basically built around the idea of “Hey, from now on let’s try to make things as unlike 1991 as possible.”

Still, to look at Gain Ground, you’d probably never guess that it was one of the titles that made ‘91 such a banner year for gamers. Well ok, technically, if you were to look at it, you’d probably just guess that your TV was broken, because for all its good qualities, Gain Ground looks like ass. I mean, really, we had about a dozen different screen shots in this review, but we had to get rid of most of them because almost all of them just looked like a giant green and brown muddle.

“Man, they really assed-out the graphics in this one.”

So what is it then? What does this game do so well that we felt it worthy of being the 12th best game ever released for the Genesis? It must be the story, right? Well… no. Gain Ground’s story is so bad, they make absolutely no mention of it within the game itself, figuring it’s better for players to just wonder what the hell’s going on and why than to actually tell you what the “writers” came up with. And it’s hard to blame them. Gain Ground takes its name from some kind of combat simulator that was built during an era of peace to make sure people still had the ability to make war should the need arise. Because that seems like a likely scenario, right? That after centuries of peace, people would say “Well, this is nice, but let’s go back to that thing where we all waste resources, kill each other, and suffer. You know, that thing nobody even remembers how to do it anymore.” Anyway, one day the simulator goes nuts (of course), and kidnaps a bunch of people. Now it’s up to the greatest warriors to rescue them. Good thing they had that giant war simulator to train them how to defeat a… giant war simulator.

The best problems are always the ones you unnecessarily create for yourself.

By the way, these “greatest warriors” include a robocop look-a-like with a laser cannon, a couple of dudes with rockets launchers, and a, uh, medieval wizard who casts spells at his enemies. Oh, and also a guy in a loincloth who throws spears at people. Yep, that’s your dream team. Don’t send in the SWAT team or the future version of Navy SEALs or anything. We’ll just fill out this lineup with Merlin and a caveman and everything will be fine.

Actually, though, that makes perfect sense, because the Gain Ground simulator was designed to recreate combat from all eras. You know, because when this futuristic society that no longer has war decides that it’s going to start it up again, it’s only logical to assume that they’ll be doing it using badly outdated technology. Or maybe they were afraid of being attacked by some intergalactic Vikings and wanted to fight them with the invader’s own weaponry instead of just blasting them with lasers. Yeah, I think we’re all beginning to understand why this story didn’t get mentioned anywhere in the game.

So if it’s not the graphics, and it’s not the story, and I’ll just save us the paragraph and come right out and tell you it’s not the music, then it must be the gameplay. I mean, it’s either that or the box art, right?

It’s definitely not the box art.

Gain Ground blends action and strategy in a way that few games even try, let alone pull off successfully. Your goal in each stage is to lead your troops, one at a time, across a battlefield littered with enemy soldiers. To finish a level, you either need to kill every enemy on the map, or get every one of your characters to the exit. Additionally, there are bonus characters scattered on some maps that you can rescue and carry to an exit, and any character of yours that gets hit by an enemy can also be rescued in a similar fashion. However, anyone left on the map when the last enemy is killed on time runs out is lost. So the objective is to come up with and execute a plan that minimizes casualties, rescues all of the bonus characters, and then either kills all the enemies or evacuates all your troops before time runs out.

That might not sound like much, but the key to this setup is the careful way the game balances the action and planning portions of the game. When a stage begins, you can spend as much of the time limit as you wish formulating a plan – your characters are safely off-screen until chosen and sent into battle. This means you also have an opportunity to reevaluate your plans after a character exits the battlefield. But the timer never stops counting down, either, meaning that every second spent figuring out how you’re going to clear a stage is one less second you can spend actually doing so. It’s a delicate balance.

And the “rescue” aspect of the game opens up further strategic possibilities. Will you open with an expendable character (by which I mean the loincloth wearing guy with a spear) and let him find the nasty surprises the stage may have in store for you? Or will you try to save time by starting with a powerful character? If he gets ambushed and killed, will you try to rescue him? How will you retrieve a bonus character way off in the corner while still leaving at least one enemy alive (so as not to end the stage before the rescue is completed)?

Your best bet? Don’t use the samurai. He can’t do anything.

The action portion of the game plays like an overhead shooter, and the many different characters all have unique qualities, which adds yet another level of strategy to the mix. Some warriors are faster than others, some can shoot over walls, and some have longer range, or the ability to strafe. The game is challenging enough that no matter how good your planning is, you’re still going to have to be good with a controller to survive, and some of the stage layouts are absolutely devious.

As an interesting side note, this was one of the only games on our Top 50 that was also released for the Sega Master System, though this was only in Europe. So if you happen to be a European SMS enthusiast, you could try to track down a copy. However, given the unlikelihood of finding Master System games at any time other than late 80s, that option might only available to British time travelers.

 I suppose you could ask for a copy if you ever meet Dr. Who.

Availability: Gain Ground came out too early in the Genesis’ life to be a big hit, and as a result, copies of it are kind of rare. Maybe not “travel to an ancient Inca temple and recover it from a chamber full of traps” rare, but definitely “pay $8 on eBay for a cartridge-only copy with a torn label” rare. Fortunately, Gain Ground was included as part of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, which is available on the Xbox 360 and PS3. Wii owners can also snag a copy for the virtual console. If you have the option, we’d recommend the Ultimate Genesis Collection, since it has a ton of other Top 50-worthy games and is an absolute bargain at the price. Also, it gives you the ability to save whenever you want, which is a worthwhile feature we only wish the original game came with. Believe me, you’ll be glad for the ability to save after every stage the first time you lose your archer and can’t rescue him.

Castlevania: Bloodlines

Grade: A-

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 13th

Publisher: Konami

Year: 1994

Genre: Exterminator

World War I doesn’t get a lot of attention in history books or other media, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t significant. Most obviously, it set the stage for World War II. But there were a lot of other historically important consequences of the Great War. It was essentially the final blow to any kind of meaningful aristocracy in Europe, led to the collapse of some previously powerful empires, and ushered in a modern era of warfare, with astronomically higher casualty rates than nearly any previous conflict in history. Perhaps most significantly, it nearly led to the premature resurrection of Dracula.

Ok, so that’s not something they teach you in school. When we about learned the the four “-isms” that led to World War I, Vampirism wasn’t on the list. And our history books never told us anything about the sorceress working behind the scenes, creating tensions between nations and plotting the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to start the war, so that Dracula could harvest millions of souls and return to power. I had to learn that lesson from the intro to Castlevania: Bloodlines.

It does start to seem pretty obvious once you think about it, though.

Fortunately, the Belmont clan is there to stop Dracula before his resurrection. Well, not the Belmonts exactly, but a distant relative, John Morris, a fully trained vampire hunter living in Texas. Kind of interesting that even vampire hunters eventually started immigrating to the US in the late 19th century. I guess it truly was a land of opportunity, where even the most humble killers of the undead could have a fresh start, and with hard work and a little ingenuity, could slay their way from rags to riches.

That’s one thing that’s always overlooked in these Castlevania games is the professional aspect. I imagine hiring a Belmont (or a Morris) to clear out all the skeletons and mummies in your haunted castle would probably be a pretty expensive undertaking. It would be like hiring a really specialized exterminator, except the work is extra dangerous and one family has a monopoly on the entire industry. I’d love to see one of these games end with a scene where the protagonist is going over the invoice with the owner of the infested castle: “Well, you had a lot of zombies in your basement that I took care of, and there were some mermen in your underground lagoon. And up on the roof, there were a bunch of harpies dropping tiny men armed with swords. I think I got all of them, but I left some traps, so check those in a week and call me if any more turn up. Also, your main dining hall is full of pits – I don’t know if maybe your last slayer made those to try to get some of the werewolves to fall into, but if so, it’s not working. You might want to call a carpenter and get those fixed up – I had to swing on chandeliers to get across the room. And actually you should probably have someone look at your foundation, because this whole castle is built on top of a series of caverns, an abandoned mine, and some catacombs. The last place I was in that was like that actually collapsed right behind me moments after I killed the head vampire. Besides, caves and stuff like that very attractive to undead, so there’ll be more infestations unless you get that taken care of… Anyway, the total comes to 50,000 gold, but with our Spring Special promotion, it’s actually only 45,000. And actually, I’m going to knock another 200 off that price, because I destroyed just about every candle in the place. I… I really just hate candles.”

…and the moon. That was the real reason I took this job.

Yeah, in my imagination, the Belmonts are very honest vampire slayers, who explain all the charges, pay for anything they accidentally damage, and offer unsolicited advice to their clients on how to prevent more attacks, even at the cost of future business. They would get really good reviews on Angie’s List.

Of course, Angie’s List doesn’t cover vampire hunters, since that’s not a real profession and you should be extremely suspicious of anyone claiming to be one. Nor do they review video games. Luckily for you, we do, and I can tell you that Castlevania: Bloodlines is excellent. The visuals and music are great, there are some really creative boss fights, and the entire thing is just well-designed and executed.

Look out! A boss who can argue with himself constantly.

There are also some really innovative touches.  What’s interesting about the special effects in this game is that few of them rely on some kind of revoluntionary technological breakthrough. Rather, it was a lot of taking things we knew the Genesis could do and using them in a unique way – tricks like upside down rooms, or un-aligning parts of the screen to disorient the player. It’s less “I’ve never seen that before” and more “why hasn’t anyone else thought of doing that?”

Still, gameplay is what counts in the end, and Bloodlines is one of the most well-balanced games we’ve played. The game is extremely challenging, yet at the same time, there are very few times that you take damage where it feels like you couldn’t have avoided it. This, combined with a limited number of lives and very few healing items, turns this into a quest to make near-perfect runs. You only get  two continues to complete the game’s 6 stages, which means only 15 lives (assuming you go into the options and set the lives from three to five which, for the love of God, just swallow your pride and do that),  to complete the game. In most other games, this would seem impossible, but because Bloodlines is so well designed, it never gets frustrating. You will do better almost every time you play it, and with a little practice, this impossible feat doesn’t seem quite so daunting.

Admittedly, it’s not the best game in the Castlevania series, or even the best Castlevania of its generation (the SNES’ Super Castlevania IV is a little bit better). But that really says more about the utter dominance of this series than anything negative about this particular entry. Until the past few generations of consoles, Castlevania was consistently one of the best games on any system it appeared on – the NES, the SNES, the Genesis, even multiple evolutions of the Gameboy. And don’t even get me started on Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which is not just the original Playstation’s finest moment, but one of the greatest games ever made. Bloodlines may not be a masterpiece, you can see the connections between it and the later games that were.

The detailed sculpting around the clock face is a nice touch you don’t see in many games.

Availability: Castlevania: Bloodlines never made it to any platforms other than the Genesis, hasn’t been included in any compilations that we know of, and is not available for download for any of the current consoles. This means that if you want to play it, you’re going to have to track down a Genesis copy, and that’s not going to be easy. Well ok, in the internet era, it’s extremely easy to find a copy, it’s just not going to be cheap. The game is slightly rare, and this combined with its quality and dedicated fan base mean prices can get a little out of hand.

A quick search online revealed several copies going for more than $100. Now, I’m not one to tell you how to spend your money, but good lord, don’t do that. Seriously, if you’re even thinking about spending that much, I’ll sell you my own copy for $60. More realistically, most copies tend to fall into the $20-25 range, though patience and persistence might lead to better results. I picked up a copy a few years ago for $15, which I suppose makes my offer to sell it for only $60 seem a little less charitable.

Flowers may not seem like a fearsome enemy, but these are evil flowers.

Whether or not this is a good value to you depends on a lot of things, but it’s worth taking into account the availability and cost of other Castlevania games out there. Super Castlevania IV is available for the Wii for less than ten dollars and is a slightly better game. Symphony of the Night is available on the Playstation (and by extension, the PS2), and used copies sell online for about the same price as a copy of Bloodlines, and it’s also available for for download on the Xbox 360 for a mere $10, despite being pure heavenly glory translated into game form. And the series has several entries available on the Gameboy DS (and Advance) which are also less expensive and arguably better games. With those considerations, Bloodlines is probably best left only to Genesis enthusiasts and hardcore Castlevania fans who have already played most of the aforementioned titles.

Having said that, the offer to buy my personal copy for $60 is still on the table. It doesn’t have the instructions, but I’ll throw in a poster for the Game Gear that probably didn’t originally come with it. Hello? Anybody?