Pirates! Gold

Pirates Gold015
Grade: A+
Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 1st
Publisher: Microprose
Year: 1993
Genre: Pirates!

Pirates! Gold is one of those rare games that was so far ahead of its time it doesn’t even seem possible. The mostly unstructured, non-linear, open world game – which combines aspects of the action, strategy and business genres – feels like it should have been more than the humble Sega Genesis could handle, and that even it could, it would have been far too advanced conceptually for a generation of gamers used to playing stuff like Streets of Rage and Sonic the Hedgehog; like a tribe of cavemen suddenly coming into contact with an aircraft carrier. Or a typical Genesis owner coming into contact with an aircraft carrier, for that matter. It’s a truly groundbreaking title with such a completely fresh perspective that it gave us ways to play that we didn’t merely think weren’t possible, but had never even conceived of.

Well… unless you played the original Pirates!, that is.

Pirates Gold025Pirates! Gold is actually the new-and-improved version of Pirates!, a PC game originally released in 1987 by genius game designer Sid Meier (this hopefully explains the reason for the otherwise insane use of an exclamation mark in the middle of the title). And if you think about how revolutionary Pirates! Gold seems for a Genesis game, just imagine something like that appearing on the NES, which it totally did. Having been shown the future of video games, both gamers and game developers of the mid-80s responded with a collective shrug – the game sold decently (on the PC, anyway), but wasn’t a blockbuster. Only a handful of other games showed any kind of influence from it, and video game pirates (as in, pirates that appear in video games, not dudes who illegally copy video games) were once again relegated to taking roles as flamboyantly dressed characters in terrible platforming games.

Pirates Gold020

Which is way less fun than leaning on a crate and scowling all day.

Still, you can’t keep a good idea down, and six years later Pirates! came roaring back to the PC and Genesis, with improved graphics, music that actually kind of sounded like music, and an impressive “Gold” at the end of it’s title. The gameplay was improved, but not too drastically, because when you’ve got a game where you play as a pirate and sail around a geographically accurate recreation of the Caribbean while getting into sword fights and stealing people’s gold and ships, there honestly isn’t very much to improve upon.

Pirates Gold039Pirates! Gold is great for a lot of reasons, but its most appealing feature has always been the freedom that it gives you. You can side with one nation and fight on their behalf, play each faction against each other, or just be a bloodthristy pirate who attacks everybody and then has a lot of trouble finding places to sell all those bags of sugar he keeps stealing. Those of you looking for a non-violent option can even play as a trader, buying goods at low prices and sailing to other cities to sell them for a profit. That’s actually pretty boring, but honestly, if you’re the kind of person who would think to play a game about pirates that way in the first place, it’s probably about all the excitement your tender heart can handle anyway, Princess.

Pirates Gold004While this freedom is awesome, it also makes it a little easy to get distracted at times, so it’s a good idea to have a goal in mind. Are you trying to complete all ten pirate quests? Reach the highest rank of nobility with all four nations? Get together the biggest ship and crew you possibly can? As your character ages, the game becomes more difficult – and eventually impossible – so there is something of a time limit in the game, and you’re not going to be able to do it all in one playthrough. Therefore, it can be helpful to focus on whatever is most important to you and set an appropriate goal, something that really works with how you want to play the game and what pathway you find to be most rewarding.

For example, Stryker and I made it our goal to marry this chick:

Pirates Gold013

Catalina?

Now, our reasons for wanting to do this may seem kind of obvious, and longtime readers of this site may remember that we have a certain fondness for buxom redheads. But there’s more to this that meets the eye. In Pirates! Gold, not all ladies look alike, and the prettier the woman you want to marry, the rarer she is and the more accomplished you need to be before she’ll notice you. In this particular case, we’re probably going to have to wreck havoc all over the Caribbean and get a rum named after us before she notices us (by the way, here’s some quick advice for real life: it’s probably not a great idea to pursue a woman who only recognizes mascots from liquor bottles). So by making this our goal, we’re actually setting ourselves up to experience the majority of the game.

Plus, you know, if we succeed we get to marry a superhot redhead. So there’s that.

Pirates Gold001The first thing you do in Pirates! Gold is create a character, and since our goal was to seduce a beautiful woman, we based all of our decisions on what we felt would create maximum sex appeal. For historical period, we went with “The Buccaneer Heroes”, which represents a brief time during the mid 1600s when pirates were looked up to and admired; as opposed to pretty much all the rest of human history when they were generally thought of as smelly murderers with questionable dental hygiene. For nationality, we chose French (naturally), and for special ability, we went with wit & charm, which seemed like a better choice for getting a girl to like us than, say, navigation. Plus, we liked the idea of our character distracting an opponent in the middle of an intense sword fight with a humorous remark (this is about 90% of how I play defense in pick-up hockey games).

Pirates Gold016

To seal the deal, we also named our pirate after notorious ladies man Gary Sinise.

Of course, before you can woo the most attractive woman in the world, you have to, you know, actually know where she is (I swear, this was always my problem in high school, too… well, that and also, possibly, that I wouldn’t shut up about Genesis games). Finding her is kind of tricky, because all the marriageable women in the game are daughters of governors, who keep them hidden away and will only introduce them to people they like. To modern reader, that might seem overly protective and paternalistic, but it actually makes a lot of sense in a world where nearly all of the population is male, and the #1 profession of choice is killing people and stealing their money. If I had a daughter in that situation, I’d probably try to prevent her from meeting random strangers, too.

Unfortunately, it’s not very easy to impress a governor in this game. You can’t just make a whole lot of money trading between colonies and then donate the profits to the governor’s re-election campaign like you would today. You can capture some pirates, and sometimes one of the governors will ask you to deliver a message for him – because despite being notorious thieves and killers, pirates still remained trusted mail carriers – but both events are fairly rare occurrences that only impress the rulers a little bit. If you really want to get in good with a governor, meet his daughter, and rack up some impressive titles and lands while you’re at it, you’re going to need to find out who that country is at war with and then start pirating the shit out of them.

Pirates Gold027

Which was the official term for it in pirate days. As in “surrender or we will pirate the shit out of you.”

In the time period we chose, Spain is at war with both France and England, with the Dutch having an alliance with France, but not the kind of alliance where they actually fight Spain together. I guess it’s more of an alliance where France comes over to the Dutch’s house to watch a game or something, and complains about Spain the whole time, while the Dutch just kind of nod sympathetically but never really get involved, because they don’t want to deal with all that nonsense. The Caribbean in the 17th century was a lot like high school – Spain is the jocks, France is the stoners, England is the preppies, and the Dutch are, well, the Dutch are whatever clique you had in your high school that there were only like two kids in, because seriously, the Dutch generally only get two or three cities in almost every scenario. On the flip side, they still have some of those colonies today in real life, making them the only European country with even a slim chance of ever winning the World Baseball Classic.

Pirates Gold037In a normal game of Pirates! Gold, it’s advantageous to side with the French and English and fight the Spanish, because the Spanish control most of the cities and have the most money, and  there’s more profit to be made robbing the guys who already have money, as opposed to robbing the poor on their behalf. It’s not a game about Wall St., after all. But the marriage aspect alters this logic a bit, because by having the most cities, Spain also has the most governors, the most governor’s daughters, and therefore the highest chance of being home to the hot redhead. The counterargument to that however, is that it’s going to be hard to impress the Spanish governors with so few French or English targets to choose from. The only people who have ever gotten famous from plundering Haiti over and over have been its presidents.

Pirates Gold019

Hmmm, Santa Claus is actually kind of mean.

The gameplay in Pirates! Gold is probably best described as inexplicably fun. There’s no reason for the game to be this enjoyable – it’s repetitive and a bit on the easy side, with each battle made up of two minigames – ship to ship (or ship to fort) battles, and sword fighting. Neither of these is particularly deep; the ship fighting is largely matter of reaching your target as quickly as possible to trigger the sword fight, and the sword fight, well, let’s just say it ain’t exactly Soul Calibur. And yet, it’s a lot of fun to do. While it’s tempting to claim that Sid Meier somehow figured out the two most fun things in the entire world, then boiled them down to their purest essence in minigame form, it’s probably safer to say that these action sequences are really a distraction, and the true game lies in the strategy that takes place between battles – managing your crew, figuring the best targets to attack at a given time, and knowing when to return to friendly ports to resupply and collect your rewards. Remember, time is always against you, so while swashbuckling and sailing the high seas might get all the attention, at its heart, this game is really all about cold, ruthless efficiency.

piratesgold_011

And pirating the shit out of Spain.

In addition to plundering gold after a successful raid on a ship or town, you also have the ability to help yourself to their food, sugar, and trade goods. Sugar and goods are merely for reselling, while food is necessary for keeping your crew from starving, making it critically important. When you’re surrounded by professional murderers, it’s best to keep them from getting too hungry. For this reason, I usually just take all the food and leave the sugar and goods behind. While this is surely an additional disaster for the town I’ve just plundered, I like to imagine them using the sugar to bake a series of cakes to stay alive until the next harvest or  food shipment arrives. I am the notorious (not to mention charming and witty) Captain Sinise, raiding the Spanish Main, and leaving a trail of diabetes and tooth decay in my wake.

Pirates Gold009We could go on and on at great detail about the other features, visuals, music (which is amazing), and just how great this game is, but we’ve never really been that kind of a site. If you really want a thorough, serious review, here’s a good one. But really, all you need to know is this: Nearly five years ago, we decided to come up with a list of the Top 50 Genesis games, starting with a list of all 707 games that were released for the system in the US. We played all 707 games (except one), and 706 times we asked ourselves “Is this game better than Pirates! Gold?”. And all 706 times, that answer has been no. A few – very few – came close, but none ever managed to surpass it.

Pirates! Gold is the best Genesis game ever made.

Pirates Gold029

They still pick their governors this way in Florida.

Availability: Pirates! Gold isn’t available for download on any of the current-gen consoles, but there was a remake in 2005, called Sid Meier’s Pirates!  for the PC and Xbox (which works on the Xbox 360), and later the Wii, and iPad. The remake is actually really good, and mostly faithful to the source material, with nearly every aspect of the original gameplay intact, but also more fleshed out, so the game is a bit deeper. I honestly can’t say which version I like better – sometimes I prefer the quicker, simpler, and slightly more charming Genesis game, and sometimes I like to play the somewhat more complex Xbox version. Either way, it’s certainly a worthy remake and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the game but unable to play it on the Genesis.

Pirates Gold011Those of you looking for a Genesis version might have to do a little bit of searching. The game wasn’t really well-known back when it came out, so copies today are somewhat rare. That doesn’t mean that it will be prohibitively expensive, though. A decent used copy might cost as little as ten bucks, and even ones with the box and instructions can be had for about $25. There are certainly more expensive copies floating around out there, but for the most part, it looks like the days of selling a single copy of Pirates! Gold on eBay to fund your retirement are over. This is good news for gamers, though not necessarily for me and Stryker.

Pirates Gold002

This is pretty much what shopping in Stryker’s  game store was like.

One last thing: So that’s it – after nearly 5 years, we’ve now played and written about every single Sega Genesis game released in North America. Stryker and I just want to offer a big “Thank You” to all the readers who have stuck with since the beginning, as well as to the many others who have joined us along the way. I sincerely hope we made you laugh, mostly because the thought of anyone reading our poorly-written, barely researched, misshapen piles of words and thinking they were our best effort at serious journalism is pretty depressing.

Pirates Gold035

Advertisements

NHL Hockey (Series)

NHL Hockey (USA)001

Grade(s):
NHL Hockey (1991) A-
NHLPA ‘93 (1992) A
NHL ‘94 (1993) A+
NHL ‘95 (1994) A+
NHL ‘96 (1995) B-
NHL ‘97 (1996) B+
NHL ‘98 (1997) C
Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 2nd
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Year(s): 1991 – 1997 (see above for specific years)
Genre: Whalers Fans Forever!

Start up a game of the original NHL Hockey, and the first thing you’ll see is this:

nhlscreen

To long time NHL fans like myself, that right there ought to bring a smile to your face. Or maybe a tear to your eye. It’s a snapshot from what was about to become a bygone era. The very next season, the North Stars would change their uniforms. The year after that, they would drop the “North” from their name and leave the Twin Cities to move to Dallas. To play ice hockey. That actually happened. The Penguins, for their part, faced bankruptcy, nearly moved, changed their logo to something that looked like an airline, changed it back (more or less), and somewhere along the line, that little pixelated guy in the white uniform up there ended up owning the team.

We do our best to keep nostalgia out of the discussion when talking about the Genesis Top 50 games. Our focus has always been on which games are still fun to play now, and how much fun we had with a game twenty years ago doesn’t make it any more enjoyable today. In this case however, it’s not the game itself we’re getting nostalgic about, but the time period it represents. It’s a throwback to a better time for hockey fans when the games were exciting to watch and teams played in cities that actually gave a shit about them. Back before expansion and the New Jersey Devils ruined everything.

NHL94 001

I mean, no disrespect to the Florida Panthers and their 40 or so fans, but NHL Hockey is better for not having any of the crap teams in it. That’s not to say that all the teams in the game are great, but every single team in the game is at least interesting – they all have a history, some good players, and established fan bases. The only exception is the expansion San Jose Sharks, but they at least have a cool logo, the novelty of being new (this appeal wears pretty thin when its being shared by 9 other new teams), the an the allure of being that city’s first professional sports franchise. Plus they were the developer’s home team, so how cool is that?


NHL 95010

Hey, when they’re about to have the opening faceoff at a Phoenix Coyotes home game, do the visiting players look around and go “Shouldn’t we wait until some fans show up?”

The fact that the NHL has had trouble gaining popularity in its newer markets makes the success of the game series all the more impressive. Madden is always going to be popular because people like football. NBA games sell well because lots of people enjoy basketball. But with hockey, we’re talking about a game that is not only less popular than either of those two, but also finishes behind lower-profile sports like figure skating, competitive gardening, or watching roommates fight over a pizza. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that more people enjoy the video game NHL Hockey than actual NHL Hockey, but certainly a higher percentage of Genesis owners enjoyed playing the game, than the general public did watching the real thing. In order to pull that feat off, you have to have a game that is not only fun to play, but also appealing to people who don’t generally watch the sport.  This series has probably turned more people into hockey fans than all the teams from the Southeast Division combined.

NHL 95003It’s perhaps a little telling that the game is actually a lot more fun with the rules and line changes turned off, or that this is the default setting on the earlier games. The key to success for any of the 16-bit EA Sports games has always been finding the right middle ground between a game and a simulation, and the NHL series did this particularly well. By relaxing the rules, you get a free-flowing game thats easy to learn, and by eliminating the need for line changes, you avoid one of the things about hockey that hurts its appeal to fans – that the best players are often on the ice for less than a quarter of the game. Mix in some solid control and good-looking graphics and the end result is a game that looks like hockey, plays like hockey, but is approachable for someone who’s appreciation of the game is limited to “try to get the little black piece of rubber past the guy in all the armor”. In other words, Carolina Hurricanes fans could play it… you know, if they were a real thing.

NHL 97 (USA, Europe)003

What’s the difference between a Hurricanes fan and the chupacabra? Both are imaginary, but a few people at least claim to have seen a chupacabra.

And things only got better over the years. It’s easy to get jaded about annual updates to sports sequels these days, but back in the 16 bit era, this was a new and welcome idea. Before then, if your favorite sports game was pretty good but had a few noticeable flaws, well too bad – maybe if you were lucky, that company would come out with a better sequel in a few years. Probably not, though. EA changed this whole dynamic by putting out a new and improved version of their sports games every year. The NHL series wasn’t the first to experience this (the 2nd Madden game came out the same year the first NHL game), but it may have benefitted from these annual upgrades the most… at first, anyway.

Over the years, the NHL series underwent the familiar peak-and-fall progression that we also saw with Madden and the NBA series. For a while, things got significantly better. NHLPA ‘93 made drastic improvements both in gameplay (a little faster, much smoother, less unintentional interference and cheap goals) and presentation. The game lost it’s official NHL license that year, but managed to disguise it pretty well with the old trick of using city names and team colors in lieu of team names and logos (other than on the title screen, where the goalie’s blank, beer-league-worthy jersey is kind of hard not to notice). Instead, the game has the license from the players association, meaning that for the first time in a hockey video game, real-life NHL players had their names in the game. As an added bonus, this meant the box could have pictures of star players like Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque and, uh, Rick Tocchet. Sure, why not?

tocchet

In the game cover’s defense, Rick Tocchet was like the 4th or 5th most famous player on the Penguins that year.

While not as drastically improved from NHLPA ‘93 as that game was to the original, NHL ‘94 stands out for many as the high point of the series. With most of the major work already out of the way, the developer was freed up to improve upon the game’s core, making numerous subtle refinements to the gameplay. Once again, the game got a bit faster, the control became a bit better, the AI finally started to resemble the behavior of actual hockey players, and the goaltending was improved. The big new feature that year was the inclusion of one-timers, which for non-hockey fans, is a play where one player passes to a teammate, and instead of stopping it and skating with it, the receiving player just shoots the puck immediately. This is the play that most NHL teams spend their powerplay trying to set up, except for the Buffalo Sabres who, in keeping with a team tradition dating back to the 1980s, prefer to spend their time with the man advantage turning the puck over and listening to their own fans boo them.

There are those who claim the series took a step backward the next year in NHL ‘95, but having played the two games back to back, I don’t see it. The differences are pretty minor, but not in any way negative. Still, having refined NHL ‘94’s gameplay to a blissful, near-perfect experience, there wasn’t much left to do for NHL ‘95 but add features. So we finally got player creation, trades, and most importantly, a season mode. In fact, we got one of the best season modes ever seen in a sports video game.

NHL 95002

The thing I love about NHL ‘95’s season mode, the thing that hardly any other sports game gets right, is that, if you’re so inclined, you can play every single game, for every team. This means that if you and a friend each want to choose a team and play in the same league together, you can do so. Or you could play through as 5 or 6 teams if you wanted. Or if you’re playing as the Boston Bruins (maybe you have brain damage or something), but happen to see a particularly intriguing Chicago/Detroit matchup you’d like to play, you can. Just as importantly, the interface is clean and easy to use. Far too many games, even today, lock you into picking just one team and only being able to play their games. And even the ones that do let you play as multiple teams are set up in such a way that it becomes a nightmare. You could jump into NHL 13’s season mode (if you can find it buried near the bottom of the menus) and take control of multiple teams. But it’s such a mess that you won’t want to.

There’s just one problem with this – NHL ‘95 is notorious for losing save games. Rumor is there was a batch of bad batteries that went into the games, but I’ve had no luck even after replacing the batteries (yes, this is the kind of love the game inspires, I bought a 2nd copy, tore the cartridge open, and replaced the battery), so it might have been some other kind of glitch. Or maybe it’s just one of hockey’s great injustices. Tampa Bay won a Stanley Cup. People in Quebec supported the Nordiques like crazy and they still moved to Denver.  NHL ‘95 has an awesome season mode, but won’t save. Things don’t always work out the way they ought to. All I know is that I’m starting to wonder what would happen if I left a Sega Genesis running for eight weeks or so.

NHL 92000

Bad things. Bad things would happen.

So, we started out with the NHL Hockey, the first ever game with an NHL license, but no player names, then the next year NHLPA ‘93 gave us the player names but lost the league license. The year after that we got both team and players names (another historical first) for NHL ‘94, but still no season mode. NHL ‘95 had a season mode, but the damn game wouldn’t hold your save. Along the way, the gameplay evolved from excellent to near-perfect. So NHL ‘96 is the year everything finally came together and we finally got the perfect sports game, right? Well…

The best sports stories are always the tragedies. Those are the ones that really affect you emotionally, and stick with you until the end of time. Not the US Olympic Hockey Team winning gold in 1980, but Vancouver Canucks in 1994, coming out of 7th place to get within a game – within minutes, actually – of winning the Cup before falling to the Rangers, a big-spending team that everyone had known was going to win before the season even started. It’s those ‘91 Minnesota North Stars that we saw in the picture at the beginning of this article, fighting their way through every powerhouse team in the Campbell Conference, only to get destroyed by the Penguins. It’s the state of Connecticut doing everything that was asked of them to keep their team, and having the Whalers move to Carolina anyway; and it’s the 2006 Buffalo Sabres putting together the best team in their franchise’s history, but losing nearly all their defensemen to injury by Game 7 of the Conference Finals and finally succumbing to those same Carolina Hurricanes.

NHL 95008

Seriously, fuck the Carolina Hurricanes.

And so it is with NHL ‘96. It’s hard to fault EA, really. There was nowhere else to go, by this point the NHL series had gotten as good as it possibly was going to get and the only thing that could possibly make it better was to start over with a new engine. Bold move on their part – it would have been easier to have just done a roster update and watched the money roll in. But the resulting game was… broken. Not broken in the sense that, say, Gargoyles is broken, in that you can barely play it. But broken as in, hey you broke my NHL ‘95, and now it’s something less than what it had been.

NHL 97 (USA, Europe)002Is NHL ‘96 a terrible game? No. In a vacuum, it’s decent enough, and if you go to the used game store and it’s the only hockey game you can find… well first of all, seriously? Old sports games are like loose change – they just turn up everywhere, even in places where it makes no sense for them to be. I could probably go to an retro game store in the Deep South and still find a few copies of NHL ‘94. Nobody would know who bought them, how they got there, or even what hockey is, yet they’d be there. But anyway, if you go to this theoretical game store and all they have is NHL ‘96, yes, go ahead and get a copy. It’s fun. Just not nearly as much fun as the games that came before it. The control is loose, the game speed isn’t right, and the whole thing just feels off.

NHL 95000

A valiant effort was made with to improve things for NHL ‘97, and a lot of the problems from the year before are… well, not better, but less bad. It’s still not as good as the games from earlier in the series, but at least the gap is narrower. Of course, by the point, people were leaving their Genesis for the PSX, so this effort was largely unappreciated. Oddly enough, NHL ‘98 seems to have taken two steps backward, as though the people making it ignored the improvements in NHL ‘97, played a copy of ‘96 instead, and then said “Ok, now how can we make this worse?” It’s just as well that not many copies of this game were made, because the only enjoyment to be gotten out of it is as a collector’s item.

Hey, speaking of that…

Availability: Well, the NHL series is still going strong, so you could buy the latest entry in the series for either the PS3 or Xbox 360. But those games are drastically different than their Genesis counterparts, which you’ll need a Genesis to play. EA has teased the idea of re-releasing NHL ‘94 as bonus content on one of their new NHL games a few times, but it’s never come to pass. I keep hoping someday EA comes to their senses and just makes an XBLA or PSN game that’s basically NHL ‘95 except with today’s teams and players, but so far I seem to be the only person who likes that idea.

NHL Hockey (USA)005

Getting your hands on one of the Genesis games shouldn’t be a problem, though. I have a copy of every single game from this series, all boxed, with instructions, each one in nice shape, and it’s the pride of my Genesis collection. Combined, the whole thing probably cost less than my copies of Warsong or Castlevania: Bloodlines. Admittedly, when I bought them, I lived in Buffalo, which is basically a suburb of Canada. Finding a copy of an old hockey video game in Buffalo is like finding a person wearing pajama pants in public in Buffalo. You could go into pretty much any used game store and see stacks of them (the games I mean… well, no, actually that statement applies to both).

But even if you don’t live in hockey country, these shouldn’t be too hard to find, NHL '94 (USA, Europe)002and probably not that expensive. Like I said earlier, old sports games are everywhere. And if you can’t find them at a game store, they’ll definitely be online. Probably for less than a dollar. In fact, you’re actually better off buying them at a store rather than buying them online, because the shipping will likely cost more than the games.

The only game from this series that is rare and expensive is NHL ‘98, which is a blight on the series anyway, and you should only buy it if you’re a collector.

Note: of all the games in this series, these were the editor’s personal favorites:
Brad: NHL ‘95
Stryker: NHL ‘94
Mr. Do!: NHL Hockey (original)

Warsong

Warsong084Grade: A+
Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 3rd
Publisher: Treco
Year: 1991
Genre: Strategy/Mermaid/RPG

warquotes

What is it that is so appealing about turn based strategy games? It is the uncertainty of moving your troops around the battlefield without knowing how your opponent will react? The thrill that comes when the tide of battle turns and you suddenly pour through the enemy defenses like a tidal wave of ass-kickery? Or just the excitement of watching one of your generals ride his crocodile into battle, mowing down hordes of attacking luchadores?

Warsong003

Wait, what?

I guess this is a good time to tell you that Warsong is completely nuts. And I don’t mean that in the same way Shining Force was, where they let you have a werewolf and a Terminator on your team. Warsong is totally off it’s rocker. One of the units you get early on is a Crocodile Knight, which is exactly what it sounds like, and with enough experience, he can be upgraded to a Serpent Knight. Though I suspect that’s a mistranslation, because the guy’s clearly riding a plesiosaur. And that’s just one type one of two options for having a character riding a dinosaur into battle.

Warsong010Which is just the tip of this game’s ultra madness. Sure, the usual fantasy staples – knights, dragons, slimes, werewolves – are there, but there’s also Easter Island heads, giant ants, and some really pissed off sea shells. One battle late in the game seems to have been inspired by Godzilla movies. Fortunately on your side, you have the aforementioned dinosaur knights, and a priestess who tosses around crucifixes like throwing stars (I like to imagine her yelling “the power of the cross compels you… to die!” as she does this) and isn’t afraid to shoot her enemies in the back with them. Level her up enough, and she becomes an Egyptian Pharoh who annihilates her enemies with lightning bolts.

Unless you’re paying close attention though, a lot of this madness might actually go unnoticed. A heroic effort went into translating the game in a way that downplays its more bizarre elements. Mexican wrestlers becomes “bandits”, and our lighting infused Pharoh is simply called a “Saint”. The end result doesn’t really make a ton of sense, but it’s hard to say for sure whether it was poorly translated, or if it was just impossible to weave a coherent storyline out of nothing but sheer insanity.

Warsong079

Still, it would be unfair to characterize Warsong as a game that waltzed onto our Top 3 based solely on the appeal of its craziness alone. This is one of the deepest tactical strategy games we’ve ever played on a console. Where the game differentiates itself from similar titles such as Shining Force or Disgaea is that in addition to the main characters that you take into battle, each of those characters is allowed to have up to 8 support units. On top of that, each type of unit has it’s own strengths and weaknesses against other types of infantry, and is affected by the terrain as well. Cavalry charging out of a forest to attack foot soldiers will slaughter them to the last man; but against archers sitting atop cliffs, it quickly turns into a recreation of the Charge of the Light Brigrade.

On top of that, units suffer a dramatic decrease in abilities if they are too far away from their commander. This applies to your enemies as well, because even monsters can benefit from a little bit of leadership. You kind of have to wonder just how effective a commander a slime is though, especially since they seem to choose which one is the leader based solely on color.

Warsong046

Slimes are notorious racists, and their entire military is set up under an apartheid system, with the minority pink slimes ruling over the green majority.

That might sound like a lot to keep track of, but the game makes it easier by doing a nice job of displaying most of the relevant info for you and, more importantly, by putting you up against an enemy AI that doesn’t understand this stuff at all. The computer rigidly follows a few simple rules – always heal units when they get below a certain strength, attack the units with the lowest number of troops in remaining first, never ever move troops out of the range of their commanders, etc. And while these are all good guidelines in general, they don’t always account for additional complications, such as terrain/troops matchups or “hey, we just did that and it totally didn’t work.”

Here’s a perfect example – let’s say the enemy commander, El Diablo Rojo, has a group of 8 mexican wrestlers, and your own commander is sitting atop a wall in front of a large body of water, with some archers. Attacking ranged units firing from an elevated position with non-aquatic units standing in water is a suicide matchup, and if the situation were reversed, your best bet would be to try to create a more favorable situation by luring the luchadores to some sort of ambush point. But the AI isn’t that bright, so it sends its first wave of troops to fight your archers. The wrestlers thrash around in the water ineffectively and yell various insulting things at your archers in a feeble attempt to at least hurt their feelings while being murdered by arrows. This outcome is utterly baffling to El Diablo Rojo, who then sends unit after unit to the same fate. By the time his turn is over, all the wrestlers are floating dead in the water and the only thing he has to show for it is a dramatic decrease in interest in the town’s annual swim meet.

Warsong047

Somebody go get a pool skimmer.

This simplistic AI might seem like a problem, but it actually helps emphasize the value of strategy. Your opponents will frequently have advantages in numbers and strength, but they’re also predictable, uncreative, and not knowledgeable about how to get the most out of his troops. By relying on superior tactics, you can divide their strength, lure units into traps, and create favorable matchups for yourself. It’s a triumph of your strategy over their brute force, and while outsmarting a dim AI like this might not seem like a major achievement, the scales are generally tilted so far in its favor that you will be facing a lot of tough decisions along the way.

In fact the stakes are significantly higher in Warsong for two reasons. First, if a character dies, that’s it – they’re gone for the rest of the game. Second, experience is pretty limited – there are a finite number of enemies, and you can’t go back and replay battles in order to gain extra levels. Not only that, but killing an enemy leader automatically wipes out all his troops, but you don’t get any XP for troops eliminated this way. So there’s definitely an incentive to try to maximize experience by killing your enemies down to the last man, even though this tactic does tend to put your generals at more risk of being killed and lost for the remainder of the game. This is especially tricky because quite often, your Warsong015troops will fall victim to attrition throughout the course of the battle and late in the fight it will be up to characters to fend off wave after wave of troops all by themselves. Which most of the time they are perfectly capable of. Even so, it’s really hard to simply trust in their abilities and let one of your generals be the middle layer of a “hey let’s kill this guy” sandwich, while you sit back, hope for the best, and think about how long it will take to replay this damned battle again if he gets killed.

Warsong game doesn’t mess around, either. Press the start button and you get a quick introduction screen. Then it’s right to battle, and you’re getting your ass kicked. In fact, you basically spend the first few battles desperately running for your lives – the second battle teams you up with Mina, who eventually becomes St. Here’s Some Fucking Lightning Up Your Ass, but at this point she’s much weaker, being controlled by the computer, and has a deathwish. Also, her “troops” appear to be 10 year old girls that are quickly and mercilessly wiped out. Your job is to keep her alive. It will take a ingenious combination of strategy and foul language to pull that off. Around the halfway point, the game laughs at your silly notion of keeping your commanders alive at all costs, and throws you into a battle where your army is split in two, with your weaker generals surrounded by powerful enemies. I’m still not sure how I got through that battle without casualties, but I think it involved a lot of yelling and making the actual game cartridge genuinely believe that I was going to destroy it if it didn’t let me win.

Warsong035

Pictured: Me in real life.

One nice touch is that is each skirmish is accompanied by a brief cutscene that accurately illustrates what’s happening in the fight, including troop numbers, terrain, and if one side has the first attack. For example, if a group of eight archers on flat land attack ten cavalry units in a forest, you’ll actually see a scene with 10 mounted units rushing out of the woods under fire from eight bowman, with the ones that survive that barrage cutting down a few archers before returning to the trees. Besides giving you something fun to watch, it’s a very effective way of really understanding what’s going on in the battle and why. Besides, what’s the point of having a guy on a dragon fight a group of Easter Island heads, if you don’t actually get to watch it happen?

Warsong060

If this was a real thing, it’d be bigger than the Super Bowl.

In addition to all that, there are some other small details that contribute to Warsong’s appeal. If a battle takes place in a town, it actually takes place in a town – you can hide troops in buildings, set up choke points at the city walls, or prevent attacks on your flank  by lining up alongside a wall. This adds some variety, opens up a bit more strategy, and lends a much-needed feeling of believability to a game where priests occasionally fight giant ants. And though the game doesn’t give you much in the way of spare characters (because that would undermine the additional difficulty that comes from losing them), they can be promoted to different classes, which encourages replay so that you can go back and see how they turn out if you took them down a different path.

Warsong064

Though, much like real life, any career path that doesn’t end with them riding a dinosaur is going to be a little bit of a letdown.

Availability: Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that if you live in Japan, Warsong (which is known as Langrisser) has been a part of a few re-releases, and is available on both the Wii’s Virtual Console and on PSN (most of time when you see something available on the VC and PSN, but not Xbox Live Arcade, it means “only in Japan”). Langrisser is actually the first of a popular series, so you have a bunch of sequels to play, also. I haven’t tried them but I’ve heard several of them are very good. So that’s pretty awesome.

The bad news is that if you live in Japan, probably half of the jokes in this article didn’t make any sense, so, uh, sorry about that. If it makes you feel any better, most Americans don’t think I’m that funny anyway.

Warsong082

I really need to start more sentences with “Listen to me, stupid human beings”

The other bad news is that if you live in the US, your options for playing Warsong are a lot more limited. Basically, you have two options – get a Genesis copy, or don’t play it. Or move to Japan, I guess. That seems kind of extreme though, and while Genesis copies are rare and kind of pricey, it’s still cheaper than  moving to Japan. Copies online typically go in the $30-40 range, and can get even higher at times. A little footwork might save you some money though – two years ago I bought my own copy (box, no instructions) at a flea market, from a reputable vendor for $20. So maybe shop around a little.

What’s even worse is that almost all of the games I would recommend as substitutes are also expensive. Apparently not too many people like these types of games, because almost all of them are super-rare. Dragon Force for Saturn? Don’t even kid yourself. Any of the Fire Emblem games? Some are cheaper, but not much.

Warsong041

That still doesn’t justify jumping off a castle, though. Get a grip, man.

Anyway, it’s not for me to tell you how to spend your money, and for some of you, I’m sure it might be worth the expense. And if not, well, you’ll probably be able to resell it and recover your investment, anyway. Just know that this one’s hard to get, expensive compared to other Genesis games, and there aren’t any suitable alternatives.

Hmmm, now I feel a little bit bad for telling all of you how awesome this game is.

Kid Chameleon

Kid Chameleon000
Grade: A+
Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 4th
Publisher: Sega
Year: 1992
Genre: Nightmares and Children’s Tears

Let’s start this entry to our Top 50 with a little test. I’m going to show you a picture and I want you all to make a note of the first word that pops into your head. Ready? Here goes:

Kid Chameleon014
Some of you might have thought things like, I don’t know, “battle”, “courage” or maybe even “Genesis game”. The rest of you just fell on the floor and began screaming involuntarily. If you’re in the second group, then congratulations, you’ve been scarred for life by Kid Chameleon. Which is pretty much the same thing as saying that you’ve played it at all.

For the non-screaming readers, a bit on an explanation: Hills of the Warrior is a stage fairly early on in Kid Chameleon that offers up your first real taste of what the rest of game has in store. It’s an absolutely brutal stage filled with enemies, spike traps, disappearing floors, and, oh, the first appearance of a little something known as the “Murder Wall”. The Murder Wall is every bit as festive as it sounds – it’s an unstoppable barrier of drills, saws, and spikes that travels relentlessly across the stage, forcing you to adopt an uncomfortably brisk pace and punishing almost every misstep with a horrific death. The worst part of the Murder Wall is that there’s almost always a few seconds between the time when you realize you aren’t going to escape it, and the point where it kills you. Those are an agonizing few seconds – I’m not normally one to get too empathetic about game characters, but I have to admit to feeling guilty each of the countless times I trapped my guy in some area he wasn’t going to escape in time. Sorry Kid Chameleon, I’ve killed you again, and in pretty much one of the most horrifying ways imaginable.

Kid Chameleon001a

I was too busy running in terror to get a picture of the Murder Wall, so here’s Kid Chameleon turning into a tornado.

The Murder Wall only shows up on a few stages, but that doesn’t mean the game gets any easier. A few levels after Hills of the Warrior, you reach a stage called Dragonspike, which is essentially the point where the game looks back over its shoulder at you and says “Oh, you’re still here? Alright then, it’s on now.” and throws a controller-breaking series of jumps your way. Keep in mind, this is all before you even reach the first boss. Which is three severed heads with glowing green eyes, floating around on a spear, because if this game can’t break your will, it’s sure as hell going to try breaking you psychologically. You might play it on a Sega Genesis, and that Genesis might be plugged into the wall for electricity, but make no mistake, Kid Chameleon is powered by nightmares and children’s tears.

Kid Chameleon025

At first, I thought the bottom head was screaming, but it turned out that was just me.

So far, this sounds more like a title we would be revoking the seal of quality from rather than the fourth greatest Genesis game of all time. But here’s the thing – Kid Chameleon is brilliant. The game puts on an absolute clinic in level design, to such a degree that playing it should be a requirement for anyone seeking to get a job making video games. There isn’t a single level in the game that feels rushed, or bland, or careless. Nor do they start to feel repetitive – not a single stage in Kid Chameleon makes you think “Oh, it’s another one of these levels.” That’s a staggering achievement for a game that boasts over 100 stages. Admittedly, about a fifth of them are minor secret levels used as shortcuts, but that’s still 80 or so different stages, each thoughtful, challenging, and unique. That’s an incredible achievement.

Kid Chameleon020To be fair, most of the stages aren’t as hard as Dragonspike or Hills of the Warrior. And even at it’s toughest, the game never really gets frustrating. Part of the reason is that it’s just so much fun that you want to keep playing despite the difficulty. The gameplay was pretty much lifted straight from Super Mario Bros. 3 (and if you’re going to shamelessly mimic a game, that’s a pretty good one to go with), with platforming, block breaking and collecting powerups that give you different abilities. The other thing that keeps it from getting frustrating is that most of the stages can be cleared in just a few minutes, so if you keep dying and have to repeat a section over and over again, you’re not doing a ton of backtracking. Get through a tough stage, and you can breathe a sigh of relief knowing you won’t have to deal with that ever again. Oh sure, the next stage is just going to bring a whole new set of terrors, but at least they’ll be different ones.

Kid Chameleon’s gameplay centers around collecting “masks” which alter your appearance (they’re more like full costumes) and give you different powers, such as jumping higher or throwing projectiles. One of the best things about Kid Chameleon is the variety – there are several different masks, such as the samurai, who has a sword and can jump really high because… that’s what… samurais are best know for? Jumping high? There’s also the ram who can break blocks by charging into them, and the tank, who’s power is seeming awesome but then usually being kind of sucky.

Kid Chameleon029

There’s also a knight.

Although it doesn’t have the best graphics seen in a Genesis game, Kid Chameleon is still quite appealing visually. There is a great amount of variety between the different stages which keeps things interesting, and the game does a great job is making the color palette (as well as the music) feel appropriate

Kid Chameleon019

to the stage. Underground areas and dark and muted, while tropical scenes make use of bright, warm colors. There are a lot of nice little touches as well, detailing on some of the ruins, and ice levels which feature creatures that have been frozen solid in the background, and the creatures in question are enemies from other stages. Each level seems like it would have it’s own little back story, which is a nice touch.

Kid Chameleon028
Even the screens used to introduce each level are interesting. Simple images like these not only give a hint to the environment ahead, but also convey a sense of foreboding at what’s to come.

Kid Chameleon’s lack of passwords or save games is its most significant, and puzzling, flaw. I’m not sure why anyone thought it was a good idea to make a game with over 100 levels, many of which are pretty hard, and no way to save Kid Chameleon023your progress. It’s not like they didn’t have the technology back then – the ability to save your game to the cartridge was fairly common in Genesis games and dates back to the 8-bit era, so this wasn’t a novel concept in 1992. So it’s almost certain that this was an intentional choice, perhaps to follow in the steps of other platforming games that had influenced it, as well some of Sega’s other offerings. It’s worth noting that Sonic, Streets of Rage, and Toe Jam & Earl didn’t include saving or passwords either, so it’s possible that Sega was just waging some kind of crusade against everything else in our lives that wasn’t video games. Even if you have to skill to beat the game, just sitting down and playing through it requires about 3 to 4 hours of uninterrupted free time, which can be incredibly challenging in a completely non-game related way.

Fortunately, rereleases of the game, such as for the Wii’s virtual console or as part of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the Xbox 360 and PS3, allow for saving. So this is one of the rare cases where a game actually got better over time. If we were rating Kid Chameleon based solely on the Genesis version and nothing else, it would probably have scored a full letter grade lower, and finished about 20 places further back on the list.

Kid Chameleon005

“Oh, just another game where you jump over lava and fight diamonds,” said no one, ever.

Of course, we’d be letting you all down if we spent this much time talking about Kid Chameleon without mentioning it’s story. Basically, a nearby arcade gets a new virtual-reality type game that people can walk into and play, but it turns out that if you lose, you become trapped in the game. And this was before the ESRB, so it’s not like there was a warning or anything. The only way to rescue the kids who have been abducted is to beat the game (this was kind of a thing at the time), which is where you come in. So this is a game about playing a game, kind of like Assassins Creed, except less stupid. Well, no, actually those games are about equally stupid, but at least with KC, once you get past the intro screen you never have to think about it again, unless you get to the ending, which nobody ever does anyway.

Why does the game want to kidnap players? Kid Chameleon never explains that. Or where it puts its victims, or what it would do once it was full. The short explanation is “because if it was killing people, you’d just unplug it, and that wouldn’t be much of a game.” Still, if it was killing gamers, you could at least blame it on faulty machinery, or the simulation being “too real”. This is just an arcade machine that wants to abduct people… for some reason. So no, the story to Kid Chameleon doesn’t make a ton of sense, but at least it kind of explains why the game can be such a motherfucker at times.

Kid Chameleon007

Even Kid Chameleon doesn’t know what to make of this.

Availability: Kid Chameleon is available for the Wii’s Virtual Console, and is included as part of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection. I know I’ve been shilling pretty hard for Sonics UGC throughout this feature, but only because it is a great option for playing many of the games on our Top 50 list. Besides, if you’ve been paying attention to the review at all, you know those versions are the ones to get. I can’t possibly overstate how much better being able to save makes this game.

However, if you just want an original copy for your collection, or if you’re some kind of militant Genesis gamer who refuses to play the game on any other platform and has resigned himself to never beating it, at least it won’t be too expensive. Kid Chameleon wasn’t a huge hit when it came out. Part of it might have been a lack of advertising, part of it might have been the brutal difficulty and lack of passwords, and part of it was probably that it was named fucking Kid Chameleon and the box cover looked like a horrendous 80s movie starring Corey Feldman:

KC
Man, if this is what they went with, I’d hate to see the rejected covers. 

Anyway, I’d call this one moderately rare, with copies being sort of hard to find, but not exactly sought after, either. Last time I checked, there were a handful of copies selling online, and you might be able to find it at a decent used game store. Tracking down a decent copy could take a little while, but probably won’t cost more than $10 or so. And if none of the copies you find come with the box, at least you know you’re not missing out on much.

Kid Chameleon004

Oh, that’s why it didn’t sell that well – they were going for the 5,000 point “No Hit” bonus.

Shining Force

Shining Force026

Grade: A+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 5th

Publisher: Sega
Year: 1993
Genre: Werewolf Strategy

Shining Force offers lessons in efficiency that modern games really ought to take heed of. I played Assassin’s Creed 3 recently, and from the time when you first put the game in, it takes roughly four hours of sitting through cinematics and playing through tutorials before you can start the “real” portion of the game. Do you know how long it took to get to my first battle in Shining Force? Ten minutes. And that game has a both a plot and characters that I care a hell of a lot more about than AC3. There’s something to be said for the old storytelling adage of “show, don’t tell”… and also for the tried-and-true game designing advice of “Maybe don’t just assume that your player is an idiot who’s never played a video game before.”Shining Force gets that.

Shining Force061For the uninitiated, Shining Force is a hybrid of a traditional role playing game and turn-based strategy, one of the first of it’s kind to appear on consoles. The blending of these two genres was an absolutely brilliant move. Unlike a typical RPG, going into battle isn’t a frustrating grind that makes you want to throw the controller out the window. And unlike a typical turn-based strategy game, where the focus is usually pretty immediate, the RPG elements in Shining Force force you to think long-term. The key to being successful in the game isn’t only to win the current battle, but to do so in a way that maximizes experience for all your units and ensures that your entire force will be well-prepared for the following battles as well. So while it’s tempting to just have your strongest, most mobile units run roughshod over your enemies, such a strategy will ultimately make you weaker in the long run.

As I mentioned earlier, Shining Force doesn’t waste any time getting down to business. The game begins with a neighboring nation invading your land and attempting to open an ancient seal that your king has sworn to protect at all costs. And by “all costs”, he means sending out his least experienced fighters to Shining Force013 (2)defend it. The king explains this insane decision by saying he doesn’t want to start a panic (I guess you’re so rarely thought about in your own hometown that nobody notices when you march off to battle), but a more rational explanation is that perhaps, like you, the king is trying to level up his least effective soldiers against some low-level enemies. Given that your character looks like he’s about 12 years old and wears a miniskirt into battle, it’s not surprising that the King views your group much the same way you would some novelty character who barely do any damage to his enemies. Sure, an invading force is attempting to open up a gate that’s holding back some ancient evil power. But it’s also an invading force that, for whatever reason, is made up almost entirely of mentally deficient goblins. When else this band of child soldiers going to have a chance to gain some levels?

Shining Force002 (3)

Oh my, he’s dead? Well, I can revive him – as in, return the spark of life to his corpse and bring him back from the grave, allowing him resume all the joys of this world and be reunited with his loved ones once more. To perform this incredible miracle costs, eh, I don’t know –  does less than one percent of your money seem fair? You know, to come back from the dead?

This strategy turns out to be unintentionally brilliant, however, as the toughest enemies can’t be bothered to fight you until you become more powerful. It’s not that they’re too honorable to slaughter a bunch of rookies (they are the bad guys after all), it’s just that there’s no glory in it. These are officers within an organized military force – admittedly, it’s an evil organized military Shining Force019force on a quest to resurrect an ancient evil and destroy the world for no real reason in particular other than it apparently seems like a good time to them, but it’s a military force nonetheless. And the next time a round of promotions is coming, they need to have something impressive on their resume. Nobody ever got made a 5-star general for winning a battle against 6 or 7 soldiers with no combat experience; and that’s the kind of “victory” that sticks with you. No matter how many other great achievements they might have, everyone else in their army is always going to be thinking “Well, here’s our go-to guy if we ever get attacked by another orphanage.”

So no, if you’re an officer in an evil army, saying “I defeated a small, inexperienced, and poorly armed enemy force” isn’t going to impress anyone, even if they do appreciate your cruelty. But you know what would turn some heads? Being able to tell your superior officers “Yeah, it was a small and inexperienced enemy that we defeated. But our own main force was made up of some wild fruit bats that I convinced to attack them, and a couple of dwarves that honestly were so stupid I’m kind of surprised they knew which end of the axe to hold.” Now suddenly you do look like a genius commander. Resourceful, too!

Shining Force053

Demon Castle, eh? I wonder what’s there?

For the most part, the battles in Shining Force are pretty well done. The enemy AI isn’t brilliant (a favorite tactic of mine is to simply park a high HP unit in a crowded area with a bunch of healing items, and let him tie up several enemies at once), but it is effective enough in a brute force kind of way to make the game challenging. The maps are well designed, so that terrain and mobility plays a huge role in how each skirmish plays out. In order to keep things from getting too predictable, every attack has a slight chance to miss or landing a critical hit for extra damage, and some enemies can give your troops status ailments, such as poison or sleep. What’s interesting about the sleep effect is that the game simply informs you that your character fell asleep in a way that makes it sound completely unrelated to the attack. You almost start to wonder if your character simply dozed off in the middle of the fight because after a few epic battles with skeletons and zombies, he found fighting bats to be unexciting. This would actually make a lot of sense if Sonic was on your team.

Come to think of it, it’s sort of surprising that you don’t get Sonic, because the game isn’t stingy about giving you awesome characters. Want a werewolf on your team? You get one. A dragon? Yeah. A robot with a laser cannon? In a fantasy game with castles, and knights, and magic? Sure, why not?

Shining Force051

Hey, you know what? Let’s give this guy a magical flying octopus, too.

That might sound a little silly, but it’s actually one of the things I love most about Shining Force. Not the fact that you can have both a bazooka-wielding centaur and a ninja on your team, although, yes, obviously that’s fantastic. I just mean that I love the mentality that goes behind it. It’s as if every single time the people making the game had to decide between “do what makes sense, story-wise” or “let the player do something awesome”, they went with the second option. It’s not that the game doesn’t take itself seriously, it’s just that SF is not so rigid in this regard that won’t do something a little crazy for the sake of having fun. More games should be like that.

Shining Force036

Really, “make your game like Shining Force” ought to be the first thing they teach you in game design.

The sheer number of characters also adds a lot of replay value to the game. You can find as many as 30 party members, but only 12 can be taken into battle, meaning that many troops could be sitting on the sidelines for most of their time in the game. Each new party member represents a difficult choice between sticking with an established character that you’ve leveled up and grown attached to, or a new one with exciting new abilities. This encourages multiple playthroughs, so you can see how different characters turn out and experiment with different setups. Some of the best characters late in the game start out as total weaklings (that laser-armed robot I mentioned earlier is closer in battle prowess to supermarket scanner than a Terminator when you first get him), and it’s pretty interesting to go back and see if some of those guys who seemed like they had a lot of potential Shining Force017but you didn’t want to make room for the first time will pan out. Some of them don’t amount to much – at high levels, the birdmen Balbory and Amon are highly mobile flying weaklings whose most effective tactic usually involves going deep behind enemy lines and getting enemy mages to waste MP on them, and Arthur is an underpowered knight that if you stick with long enough becomes an average knight with the bonus ability of casting low level spells that you won’t want to use anymore. But others, like Domingo – a flying spellcaster who for some reason seems to attract every enemy to him like as if he’s coated in chocolate – can quickly turn into your best characters if you give them a chance.

Since this is both a strategy game and an RPG, there’s more to Shining Force than just battles. The non-combat portions of the game have you wandering across the landscape, visiting various villages and robbing them blind like a gang of roving bandits. In the classic RPG tradition, people have apparently grown so accustomed to being robbed by armed soldiers that they no longer even protest when you walk right into their houses and start helping yourself to whatever items they happen to have in treasure chests. More often than not, meeting with their leaders seems like a pretense for robbing the castle blind, so when you finally get Lando-ed by one of the kings, it’s kind of hard to blame him.

Shining Force021

Lyle lowers his bazooka and takes aim at the vicious Ramlady.

Of course, this crime spree is limited to property, as your character is too polite to even say a mean word to another person. If an old man is the only thing standing between you and the ship you need to save the world, well, too bad for the world. Sure, you could just knock him out of the way and take it, but we’re a criminal/hero with a moral code. Or maybe some kind of crippling social disorder that prevents us from asking more than once. Either way, we’re just going to go along with it, hope an evil circus comes to town and starts kidnapping people, and then we get the ship as a reward for rescuing them. That happens a lot, right?

Shining Force044

At least I hope that’s why we’re about to murder a clown.

In terms of a historical legacy, it’s hard to know exactly how much credit to give to Shining Force. It didn’t invent the strategy/RPG, as Fire Emblem and Warsong had come before, though Shining Force was the first to really succeed outside of Japan. But its success definitely had a huge influence on the genre it helped create, and its quality set a good example for later games to follow, providing sort of a blueprint for other SRPGs to follow later on. Without SF, great games like Vandal Hearts, Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea probably still would have been made, but they may not have made it to North America as quickly, if at all. And they were certainly better for being able to see what Shining Force did well.

Availability: Have I mentioned lately that if you haven’t done so already, you really ought to pick up a copy of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection? Because you really should! The collection not only includes both Shining Force and its sequel, but also an impressive number of other games from this Top 50 list, including the two previous entries (Sonic the Hedgehog, the Streets of Rage series), and the game that will be next on this list. Anyway, if you have an Xbox 360 or a PS3, that’s your best bet. Wii owners can pick up Shining Force from the virtual console, or it can be played on the computer you’re reading this page on right now. Unless you’re reading this on your smartphone, in which case you can probably play it on that, too. What I’m saying is that your options for playing Shining Force aren’t exactly limited.

Shining Force011

Seven seconds until you get a surprise! I hope it’s cake and not a blast from that death ray!

But let’s say you’re some sort of a Genesis purist, or a collector, or a time traveller from 1993 who can only brings things back to his own time if they already existed back then. Well, then you’re screwed, sorry. Ok, maybe not screwed (certainly not when compared to trying to buy a copy of Shining Force 2), but this game is both hard to find and expensive. As great as Shining Force was, word didn’t get out right away, and by the time people were tuned into it, it was sort of too late. So prepare to get gouged – expect to pay at least $20 for a copy, and probably over $30 if you want it to have a box and be in nice shape. In a vacuum, I’d be tempted to say that’s still worth it, but seriously, just get a copy of the Ultimate Genesis Collection already, sheesh.

Shining Force029

Streets of Rage Series

Streets of Rage000 (2)

Grades:

Streets of Rage (1991) A
Streets of Rage 2 (1992) A
Streets of Rage 3 (1994) B-

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 6th
Publisher: Sega
Years: 1991-94 (see above for specific years)
Genre: Criminal Justice

Note: Of all the games in this series, these are the editor’s personal favorites:
Brad – Streets of Rage
Stryker – Streets of Rage 2

The excellence of the Streets of Rage series doesn’t really require a lot of explanation. It has classic beat-’em up gameplay and a familiar storyline. You choose a character, walk around, punch criminals and awesomeness ensues:

Streets of Rage 2 (USA)036

Attention game designers: No matter what you’re working on, it needs to be more like this.

In fact, much like a gorgeous sunset or an artistic masterpiece, mere words cannot truly convey the power and beauty of the Streets of Rage series. Which is why we grabbed a bunch of screenshots, and brought in our old friends Bitterly Indifferent and Chris Delp to help us discuss them.

Streets of Rage 2 (USA)000

Brad: The Sinister Mr. X warms his hands by the comforting glow of Rage City.

Stryker: Axel is friends with a pro wrestler because video game, that’s why.

B. Indifferent:  Or maybe Mr. X is doing air quotes around this intro sequence? That’d be a whole new level of villainy, mocking Axel and Blaze as they set out to “help” their faithful “companion,” joined by Axel’s friend Max, a “wrestler.”

Chris: All that exposition and still know explanation of why Dolph Lundgren has painted himself purple.

Streets of Rage 2 (USA)022

Brad: This picture illustrates everything you need to know about why Streets of Rage 2 is great. Guys are leaping off of motorcycles to attack us on a bridge, and we’re going to crack them in the face with a lead pipe. The next time somebody’s going on about how moved they were by the story and artistic stylings of some indie game you’ve never heard of, ask them how many parts the game had like this. The answer is always going to be “not enough”.

B. Indifferent: I really feel like we lost something as a society when our video games moved away from bare pecs and tiger stripe sweatpants.

Chris: Come on B, you can bring back the Zubaz.  I believe in you.

B. Indifferent: I’d be all over it, but that judge was disappointingly specific in his restraining order.

Streets of Rage 2 (USA)054

Brad: One of my favorite things in the entire Streets of Rage series is the part where you fight former New York Jets great Mark Gastineau for a turkey.

B. Indifferent: Quite a crowd for this event – I see Buddha, his twin brother Buddha sitting a few seats over, and then one row up you’ve got a pair of guys wearing a dog’s ribcage for a hat.

Streets of Rage 2 (USA)035

Brad: Streets of Rage 2 represents the point where the circles representing “Rollerblades” and “Breakdancing” overlap on the world’s least plausible Venn diagram.

Stryker: Why did this totally-not-Disney-World theme park place one “Do! Base Ball!” poster directly on top of another one? I  thought maybe the one they covered up had some kind of spelling or grammatical mistake but, you know, it’s a poster that says “Do! Base Ball!”.

B. Indifferent: I think it’s the work of some enterprising young vandal who was stepping up his game: now that he’s mastered folding dollar bills to read “tits,” he’s trying to make posters say “BALLSE”

Streets of Rage 2 (USA)051

Brad: Man, the final season of Flava of Love was way more fucked up than I remember.

B. Indifferent: Look, Flava Flav is very particular about how he likes his glazed apples prepared. And he doesn’t like to share them with people. Is that really so wrong?

Streets of Rage005

Brad: Here’s the first boss of Streets of Rage, because apparently all the crime in this area is controlled by a boomerang wielding Aussie. Also, this is about the fourth time we’ve gone by the “Pine Pot”, so either Adam’s lost and going in circles, or else this stage takes place within a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

B. Indifferent: Pine Pot was an ambitious franchise that tried to use the Starbucks approach by opening a store every 100 yards. Back in the day, they were known for their signature product: a bloody trashcan full of children’s birthday party balloons.

Chris: Perhaps the streets of rage are in Colorado.  Mr. X is just pissed that the government has legalized all of his product to run him and his drug dealing buddies out of business.  That explains why the streets are clear of any bystanders.  The whole town is stuck in a continuous loop around the Arby’s drive thru.

Stryker: The worst part of using a boomerang as a weapon has to be those awkward 30 seconds where you just stand there with hand out, waiting for it to come back.

Streets of Rage 2 (USA)014

Brad: Whoa! Vin Diesel is so enthusiastic about crime that he’s leaping out of the sewers to attack you with a pipe!

B. Indifferent: I only wish I could get that enthusiastic about crime. It’s all I can do to lean out the window and flip off a cop.

Chris: So we were bludgeoning Aussies outside the Pine Pot but now fifteen minutes later we are brawling charismatic street racers that knock off 18 wheelers with neon lit cars.  Has every form of criminal in human history converged on this poor city?

Streets of Rage003

Brad: Tired of the failures of traditional crime-fighting methods, the police try a new approach, enlisting 2 officers to drive around in a cool sports car while firing a t-shirt cannon at crowds of street thugs in an attempt to turn them from their law-breaking ways.

Stryker: I’ve seen cop shows where the cops have to guide the suspect into the back of the squad car so he doesn’t hit his head on the door and sue them for brutality. Could you imagine trying to stuff a perp into the back of this two-door, though? “Ok, watch your head, and now put your first foot here… well ok, maybe if I move the seat up some more… no, wait, what if you kind of crouch first… ok, you know what, I’m just going to let you off with a warning. You’d better stop stabbing people from now on.”

Streets of Rage014

Brad: It’s a little hard to make out here, but Adam is armed with the most fearsome weapon in Streets of Rage – the pepper shaker! No, seriously, this is a game where you run around beating the daylights out of street thugs, and the best weapon in the game makes your enemies sneeze uncontrollably. Danny Cooksey is about to learn why you don’t bring a knife to a shaker fight.

B. Indifferent: The best thing to bring to a shaker fight is a lathe. Once they start making furniture and comparing notes on abstinence it’s only a matter of time before everyone dies of boredom.

Chris: And we are sure Adam’s not about to take a drag off a lollipop?  No wait, that makes more sense than saving the city armed with nothing but a ripped shirt and a pepper shaker.

Streets of Rage 2 (USA)042

Chris: This level always makes me want to reach for the horizontal hold knob.  These particle effects are truly a sight to behold.

Brad: I was going to explain that this Alien-themed level takes place within an amusement park, so it’s not as though Streets of Rage has completely gone off of the rails here. Then I remembered that still makes this is a level where you break into a theme park and start beating the shit out out of everyone, so I guess that’s kind of relative.

Stryker: Is Axel going to simply punch the crime out of them? Or is he actually beating them to death, and each time one blinks a few times and disappears, they are literally blinking out of existence? Is the only thing preventing Rage City from being littered with the bodies of slain thugs the Genesis’ inability to render it without crippling slowdown?

Streets of Rage 2 (USA)003

Brad: Ok, I get it, Max is a pro wrestler. Would he really be wearing his ring attire for this, though? I feel like it would be pretty weird to walk down the street and see Randy Savage bashing people in the head, but it would be even weirder if he was doing it while wearing his neon green cowboy hat and fringe-lined vest.

B. Indifferent: It’s aspirational. You don’t dress like the crime-fighting street vigilante you are, you dress like the vigilante you want to be. It adds another level of pathos to this story about a broken city full of people who had to give up on their dreams of mastering ballet, designing haute couture, and selling erotic novelties.

Stryker: Instead of making wrestling games, companies should have just made beat ‘em ups starring pro wrestlers. Acclaim published countless terrible WWF games during the 90s, and I gotta think a game where you just walked around as The Honky Tonk Man and beat up criminals would have been way more fun.

Streets of Rage012

Brad: You know when things in your city have gotten bad? When they start stacking tires on the beach.

Streets of Rage018

Brad: Adam calls for backup, only to discover why police departments shouldn’t order uniforms for their female officers off of the internet.

Chris: I think I’ve seen the movie adaptation of this.  Adam and Horatio Sanz are pretending to be gay so they can hook up with palette swap whip woman number three.  Mildly offensive non-hilarity ensues.

Stryker: Streets of Rage shows us that every woman in the world is some kind of whip-wielding psychobitch in a faux-nazi uniform, but one good crack in the jaw is all that it takes for them to drop on their knees and beg for your mercy. You can draw your own conclusions, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the guys who made this game probably didn’t get a lot of dates in high school.

Streets of Rage 2 (USA)034

Brad: See, this is why arcades are out of business. People just don’t want to pay three gold bars to play one game of Bare Knuckle when the console version only costs around five or six gold bars.

B. Indifferent: I don’t care if the console version costs twenty gold bars, it’s a small price to pay to avoid the sweaty pervert in the green half-trenchcoat. As an added bonus, you don’t have to breathe air that reeks of cigarette smoke and failure.

Chris: I’ll need more random air hockey pucks flying off tables and at my head to complete that 90’s arcade brawl experience I remember so well.

Streets of Rage 2 (USA)039

Brad: Having failed to secure enough new sponsors for the upcoming baseball season, the team starts advertising the general concept of “audio”.

B. Indifferent: They should fire their business development manager. If all their athletes are shaped like that guy in the air, it would be a slam dunk to get sponsorship from Bob’s Big Boy, Michelin Tires, or Sea World.

Chris:  The form on this belly flop is nothing short of masterful!  It looks like he’s cleared five feet, legs tucked, arms out.  We are looking at very high marks from the Texas judge depending on the divot he leaves.

Availability: For modern console owners, all three games are included in the excellent Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for Xbox 360 and Ps3. This is a collection that we’ve recommended many times before on this site, and I’ll do so again here. They can also be downloaded as a collection for $10, or Wii owners can download them individually (and you can save some money by skipping the less than great SoR 3). Those of you looking to buy Genesis versions shouldn’t have too much difficulty finding copies of the first two games – they’re not as easy to track down as some of the other games we’ve discussed here, but are still fairly common. If all else fails, copies can be found online for about $5. Streets of Rage 3 is much rarer and more expensive. Honestly, that was Stryker and I’s least favorite of the series, and it wasn’t even close, so unless you’re a collector or completionist of some kind, you can probably pass on it and just enjoy the first two.

A very special thanks goes out to Bitterly Indifferent and Chris Delp for all their contributions and advice on this article.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Sonic 1&2000

Grade: A
Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 7th
Publisher: Sega
Year: 1991
Genre: Asshole

Sonic the Hedgehog was essentially the Sega Genesis’ coming out party. Prior to its release, the Genesis was kind of like dark matter – scientists could prove that it existed, but nobody had ever actually seen it. If you feel the need to verify this, just ask someone what the first game on the Genesis was, and they’ll probably say Sonic even though the console had been out for almost two years before the little blue furball made an appearance. Go on, try to name a famous game that came out on the Genesis before Sonic.You can’t, because there weren’t any.

The closest thing that Sega had to a big-name game for the Genesis prior to Sonic was Altered Beast, the original pack-in game. That’s like buying a sports car and finding out that it comes with a smelly hobo. After a year of stagnant sales, Sega considered releasing a version of the Genesis that didn’t come with any game at all, and offering this package for a lower price. They scrapped the idea when they discovered people would actually be willing to pay extra for a Altered Beast-free Genesis. Ok, so we’re exaggerating. A little. But the point is, Altered Beast wasn’t putting any asses in the seats or any 3-buttoned controllers into gamer’s eager hands.

Sonic 1&2010

Possibly due to its lack of outdoor pinball casinos

Instead, we sat around patiently waiting for Nintendo to release the Super NES. Or more likely, since many of us were relatively new to gaming, we probably just expected our original Nintendos to simply have better and better games released for them every year until the end of time. Things were simpler back then, and only the most hardcore of gamers felt the need to shell out hundreds of dollars for some newfangled console that didn’t even have Mario.

Sonic 02That all changed with Sonic. Suddenly, the Genesis had a mascot character of it’s own (one could argue that there already had been a “Genesis” with a well known central character, but it would have been pretty ballsy, even for early 90s Sega, to have made God their new star video game character… not to mention His game probably would have been absurdly easy). Sega finally had a face – a maniacal grinning blue face, who spent most of his time acting like a total dickbag.

We’ve mentioned this before, but Sonic is kind of an asshole. This is established right from the start, as the little rodent pops up on the title screen and immediately starts wagging his finger at us.

Sonic 08

Perhaps he’s scolding you for buying his game secondhand in clear violation of the “NOT FOR RESALE” label printed right across the cartridge.

Of course, this is all part of establishing Sonic’s character as the “blue dude with a ‘tude!”, which leads us to one of the more interesting things about Sonic – he seems like he should be a pretty lame mascot. Think about it – he’s an amorphized rodent, and his defining characteristics are that he’s some color that is unnatural for his species, and that he has a rebellious attitude. That’s not a cool video game mascot, it’s an annoying supporting character in an animated kid’s movie. It’s exactly what you would expect some big corporation to decide was hip after several long meetings with focus groups. When Sonic debuted, cereal companies everywhere probably started checking to make sure none of their mascots had been kidnapped.

But instead of being lame, Sonic actually pulls it off, and as crazy as it sounds, he does it precisely by being an insufferable prick. While lamer characters might try to seem edgy by wearing a backwards baseball cap and spouting off annoying one-liners at their enemies, or skateboard everywhere while yelling radical, Sonic just acts surly all the time. And it’s not just directed at his enemies, either – plenty of this scorn is aimed directly at the player. When he starts giving you annoyed looks while you save his ass from falling into lava, it seems very genuine. Think about how ingenious this is – what other character would dare criticize his own game by acting bored in it, and by extension, questioning the player’s tastes for enjoying it?

Sonic 1&2012

Which is crazy, because how could you not enjoy this?

You couldn’t have picked a better mascot for the Genesis. Sonic, this character who seemed genuinely rebellious even while shilling for a video game company, embodied everything that the Genesis strived to be – a hip, innovative alternative to Nintendo’s more predictable, established offerings. It was a brilliant strategy for Sega. Rather than try to take on the NES or SNES head-on by claiming it could do everything those consoles could do, but better, they instead promoted the idea that the Genesis would do things that other consoles simply wouldn’t try. In hindsight, it seems like an obvious strategy for a company in that situation, but it really wasn’t, and if you need proof, just think about how many games this site has reviewed for the TurboGraphx 16. Or the 3DO.


Sonic 01
Perhaps most importantly, this rebel console with it’s punky blue mascot appealed to teenagers, and that might have been the most brilliant thing Sega has ever done. Again, it seems obvious now, but back in the early 90s, video games were considered kid’s stuff that you kind of graduated out of when you hit puberty. So the really smart thing about this strategy was that Sega was appealing directly to the kids who had grown up playing games, and were just about to reach that age where the fantastic exploits of magical Italian plumbers and wood elves no longer seemed that enticing. Rather than try to bring in all new customers, Sega could just scoop up the ones that were “graduating” from the NES. It’s worth remembering that, as shocking as it seems to anyone who’s watched the company over the last twenty years, there was a point in the early 90s where Sega actually knew what the hell they were doing.

Of course, while those accomplishments are important historically, they don’t factor in at all when it comes to our Top 50 list. The only thing we care about is whether the game is still fun to play, and on that front, Sonic is an indisputable success. This is one of the all-time great platformers, a game so hard to equal that even today, you can play it and not think of more than maybe a handful of games that do the same thing, only better.

Sonic 1&2001For example, no other game has been able to recapture… this.

A big part of what makes this game great is that it takes one core idea – that Sonic is a character who can go really fast – and builds everything else in the game around that idea. Levels are designed to include areas that enable Sonic to go fast. Instead of obstacles that force you to slow down and go through the stage methodically, many of them actually require you to go faster in order to get past them. Some stages have multiple pathways, so that if you fall off one or take a wrong turn, you can just keep on going down an alternate path, instead of having to backtrack. The stages are also pretty short, so that even the trickiest ones that do require you to slow down and navigate a tough area can still usually be completed in under three minutes.

Even the way Sonic takes damage is designed to minimize risk from going too fast and crashing into an enemy. You collect rings as you pass through the stages. If you hit an enemy or hazard, all your rings go flying off in various directions, but you immediately have a chance to recover some of them. You only lose a life if you get hit while not holding any rings, and even the fatal-in-pretty-much-every-game-ever falling in lava won’t kill you if you’ve got at least one ring (suck it, Gollum). Because of this, the danger of unbridled, reckless speed really isn’t so dangerous. Not only that, but many of the rings in each stages are put directly in your path, so you don’t have to slow down or alter your course to get them. This is a game that wants you to go fast.

Sonic 1&2008
The only thing that ever really slows him down is a big fan.

This isn’t to say that you can just hold down the directional pad and watch the entire stage blur by, like Billy Joel driving home after a night out on the town. What really stands out about the original Sonic is the delicate way is balances difficulty and speed. Yes, the game does everything it can to enable you to go fast for considerable stretches, but there will still be places where you’ll need to slow it down and think about what you’re doing. The thing that’s really well done about Sonic is that there’s generally a “break” between fast parts and slower parts – some kind of wall or other obstacle to slow you down before you go crashing into a really dangerous area. In fact, the game is so good about this, that the few spots in the game where this doesn’t happen, its really noticeable and feels kind of cheap. Contrast this to lesser games, where you’d normally just shrug and go “Well, it’s Strider, it’s not really supposed to be fair or well-designed.”

The other thing that’s really brilliant is that in the places where you have to slow it down, it’s usually because you’re waiting on something beyond your control – for a block to cross a lava pool, for a an air bubble to appear, or for a floating block to reach its destination. The game does a good job of making the slow parts slow for reasons that aren’t your fault. That doesn’t stop Sonic from getting pissed off and glaring at you, but like we said earlier, he’s just an asshole.

Sonic 04

Here he is looking grumpy while surrounded by frolicking animals.

If there’s anything about this pick that might be even a bit controversial, it would probably be the placement of the original ahead of the other Sonic titles. Ultimately, this came down to a question of Sonic 1 vs Sonic 2, as were weren’t really impressed with Sonic 3 or Sonic and Knuckles, which seemed to break away from the “speed at all costs” ideal, and not in favor of anything better. Still, it was a close call between the first two games in the series – both play nearly identically, and Sonic 2 adds a second character and a co-op mode (of sorts), as well as having slightly better visuals. Still, we preferred the music in the original (some of which is just brilliant, by the way), as well as the bonus stages, and the level designs. Perhaps most importantly, by the end of Sonic 2, we were starting to get a little sick of it, while the original stayed interesting all the way through. Sometimes you gotta know when things are running a little long and stop before people lose interest. You know, like we should have six paragraphs ago.

Sonic 05Availability: Honestly, it would probably be easier to just list the formats Sonic the Hedgehog isn’t available on. As far a current formats are concerned, the game can be purchased for download for the Wii, PS3, or Xbox 360, and is (obviously) featured in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the 360 and PS3. Sonic’s UGC, as we’ve said many times before, is probably the best bang for your buck, featuring several other games that made it onto our Top 50 list. Alternately, it’s probably also available for your phone, unless you’re like Stryker and have a cell phone so ancient that when it drops a call, it blames it on Soviet espionage.

If you’re a purist, finding a Genesis copy isn’t too hard or expensive. Just about any used game store should have multiple copies, and they shouldn’t cost more than a couple of bucks. They’re also available online, but when you factor in shipping, this is one of those games that it generally makes more sense to buy in person. The only thing to be careful of that because it was the pack-in game for the Genesis for a while, most copies out there are cartridge only, and most of them have “Not For Resale” stamped across them. This doesn’t make the game any less fun, but it can be sort of a hassle for the more hardcore collectors out there.

Sonic 06