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?

Greatest Heavyweights

Grade: A-

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 14th

Publisher: Sega

Year: 1993

Genre: Punching

Someone once asked me what the best fighting game on the Genesis was, and when I told him it was Greatest Heavyweights, he told me, no, Greatest Heavyweights wasn’t a fighting game, it was a boxing game. It was at that point that I began to wonder if I had somehow fundamentally misunderstood the sport of boxing. But I stand by my assessment – Greatest Heavyweights is the Genesis’ best fighting game. Given that the console’s emphasis on sports games, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that its best fighting game is also a sports game.

Now I could go on and tell you all about GH’s gameplay, career mode, and other features, all of which are brilliant. But let’s leave that to the experts. What really stands out to me about Greatest Heavyweights, and what I think helps put it near the front of the pack of so many other really well-made Genesis games, is just how unapologetic macho it is. This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise – it is after all a game about really strong dudes punching each other in the face for money, starring some of history’s most skilled face-punchers. That alone should already gives it a ranking of “Tom Selleck” on the Machismo Scale, and it only gets tougher from there.

Consider:

Steak is For Training, and Stamina is for Wusses

I love training with the Power Glove. It’s so bad.

How do you become a great boxer? Spend countless hours in the gym? Spar to work on your technique? Greatest Heavyweights says to hell with all that and gives you the only training option anyone should ever take seriously – eating a ton of steak. In the game, this is referred to as “Protein Diet” but what it essentially comes down to is eating a dead cow for every breakfast lunch and dinner, along with a side of a dozen eggs and a tall glass of milk. This is the way all the great boxers trained. Sure, the game gives you plenty of more “traditional” training regimens, like exercise bikes or wearing sneakers, but any boxer worth a damn knows you can’t get into fighting shape without devouring several hundred farm animals in the process.

See, you train your boxer in three different skills – power, speed and stamina, and all that steak gives you a big boost to power and speed. Which is the perfect balance, because stamina is pointless. Greatest Heavyweights doesn’t get all caught up with nonsense like “proper boxing technique” or winning on points. Sure, you could try to box effectively by keeping your guard up, waiting for an opening, and countering your opponents punches, but that approach is just going to get you killed. Instead, you need to learn how to fight like a man. By which I mean sucker punching your opponent in the gut, and then caving in his face with an uppercut while he’s doubled over.

It’s also not a bad idea to fight someone much weaker than you.

It Features Some of the Toughest Guys Ever…

As the title implies, Greatest Heavyweights features some of the most successful boxers of all time, including Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and Jack Dempsey. As somebody who is only old enough to remember the Mike Tyson era and everything after, it’s kind of interesting to see these guys in action. Although every legend has maxed out stats, the game still makes each of them unique by recreating their signature style. If the game is accurate, then Floyd Patterson was completely unafraid of being punched in the head, and Joe Louis was a boxer, not a Hall of Fame center for the Detroit Red Wings, as I had previously assumed.

But with clubs, while riding dinosaurs.

Each legend has unique taunts as well. Evander Holyfield quotes MC Hammer (seriously, saying “It’s Hammer Time!” is a coincidence. Saying both “It’s Hammer Time” and “You Can’t Touch Me” is not), while Rocky Marciano (not that Rocky) likes to tell his opponents “I’m gonna embarrass you” in what sounds like a bad Marlon Brando impersonation. While I assume he meant he planned to embarrass me by beating me up and displaying my lack of boxing skills, as opposed to, say, pants-ing me in the middle of the ring, it’s still not as effective of a threat as “I’m gonna punch you in the face a whole bunch of times,” which is what he actually ended up doing.

…And the Computer Isn’t Even a Little Bit Afraid of Them

What’s surprising is how little respect the fictional computer opponents give these legends. Imagine what you would do if you found yourself in a boxing ring with Muhammad Ali – and not modern day, wheelchair bound, crippled by Parkinson’s Ali, but the “I’m the Greatest of All Time”, George Foreman slaying Ali, in his prime. I like to think I’m not a total coward, but even so, I’m fairly certain I would spend the entire match apologizing and trying to find the softest part of the ring to fall down onto.

Not the computer, though. In one fight, a CPU controlled opponent by the somewhat less than intimidating name of Sleepy Crowe got into the ring with Ali and managed to get himself knocked down in about 30 seconds. Rather than doing what a rational person would do and staying the fuck down, Sleepy Crowe popped back up and began calling Ali a pansy. Ali, never one to shy away from trash talk himself, responded by punching all the knowledge out of Sleepy Crowe’s head.

Admittedly, what’s manly isn’t necessarily what’s wise. In fact that’s rarely the case. Which is something Crowe would do well to remember if he still had that capability.

You Can Hit Somebody So Hard That They Start to Like It

That brings me to the manliest thing Greatest Heavyweights – it’s sheer savagery. Generally, the violence in fighting games is either a bit understated, with guys shrugging off blows that would put a person in the hospital in real life. Or else the violence is so completely over the top that it’s cartoonish. But the violence in GH feels very real. Landing a knockdown punch usually results in a little grunt from your opponent as he crashes to the canvas, but sometimes you’re rewarded with a much more satisfying yelp that lets you know that your foe probably just received some significant loss of brain function.

But even that pales in comparison to the time I managed to land a right hook that sent my opponent crashing to the floor while he screamed “YEAH!” That’s right, in Greatest Heavyweights, I once punched a guy so hard that even he was excited about it. This is normally the point where a responsible referee would stop the fight, but the refs in this game are apparently paid by the round,so after an eight count, my opponent got back up and the fight resumed. A few seconds later, he was on the mat again, and did not do so much as lift his head.

I’m pretty sure I killed him.

Availability: Greatest Heavyweights has not been included in any retro collections or made available for download. If I had to guess, I’d say the licensing for the boxers probably expired. However, the game is relatively common, and a copy of Greatest Heavyweights should only set you back a couple of bucks and be easy to find online or at a decent used game store. If that should somehow become impossible, you can also scoop up the game that GH was a sequel to, Evander Holyfield’s Real Deal Boxing. Greatest Heavyweights is the better game, but if you’re not really into the legendary boxers, improvements between the two games are slight.

Wait, Dixon does what?

One side note, Greatest Heavyweights supports the Genesis 6 button pad, but we actually found it easier to play with the standard 3 button controller. So you might want to pick one of those up too, if you don’t already have one.

Rings of Power

Grade: A-

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 15th

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Year: 1991

Genre: What RPGs of the 90s should have been

Before we get started, let me make one thing perfectly clear – Rings of Power isn’t a game for everyone. It’s unfamiliar, it’s difficult (especially early on), and it has a non-linear structure that is going to turn off some gamers.  There are quests that are laid out in such an inefficient way that you’ll start to wonder if the designers thought walking from one place to another was one of the more interesting activities in the game. It’s also one of the very earliest Genesis games, and suffers from some of the all-too-common ailments of games from that time – it runs a bit slow, the control is clunky, and the interface is somewhere between “unintuitive” and “actively trying to fight you”. Oh, and the combat is the same menu-driven stuff that I’m always slamming RPGs for.

In this particular example, I am a hideous fat lady, and “you” is most old-school RPGs.

And you know what? I don’t care. There are games you appreciate and then there are games you love. The games you appreciate are the really well-made games where a big part of what makes them enjoyable is that they don’t have any significant flaws. But the games you love, those are the ones that you keep playing despite whatever problems they may have, because the rest of the game is just so much more interesting, fun, and charming than the other stuff out there.

I love Rings of Power.

Rings embodies a completely revolutionary approach to role playing games. In a typical console RPG, you’re given some mostly useless party members, fight a bunch of random battles by picking “fight” off a menu, go to a town, meet with someone who needs an item retrieved or some monster slain, fight a bunch more random battles, retrieve the item, pick “fight” off a menu some more, return to the guy who gave you the quest, and then progress on to the next town to go through the whole ordeal over again. Sometimes you get some extra sidequests to go after at your leisure, but the main story is almost always a linear, point-to-point affair. Eventually you run out of items to retrieve and menus to choose fight off of, and the game ends.

Rings of Power is different, because the focus isn’t on the “traditional” aspects of RPGs like grinding through battles to level up and get new equipment. Combat is a sideshow, something to add a little variety while you go about the real business of exploring, picking up clues, and trying to solve the mystery of the rings. This is an old-school adventure game disguised as an RPG.

The isometric view adds a nice level of detail to the world map not often seen in other RPGs.

Rings of Power takes on a much less structured approach. Basically, there are eleven rings out in the world you need to find, and five other characters who will join you in obtaining them. You’re given a few clues as to where to start looking and… that’s it – you’re free to go explore the world, follow up on your leads, and track down allies and rings in whatever order you want too.  Each party member and ring requires you to go through a series of tasks, but you’re allowed to pursue most of them concurrently (though you will probably want to get those party members recruited first). This non-structured approach puts a lot more emphasis on exploration and figuring stuff out for yourself, which makes the whole thing feel like a real adventure in a way that few other games are capable of.

“I have a hot date for the seance…”

Interactions with characters in the game are handled in a similar fashion. In an ordinary RPG, you only have one possible interaction with most characters – townspeople will repeat the same phrase over and over, merchants will buy or sell things, and certain characters will give you quests. In RoP, all the conversation topics are available to everyone. If you want to chat with a merchant about life in the city, or try to buy things from some guy who’s just hanging out in his home, you can. Admittedly, it generally isn’t too useful to chat up a shopkeeper on what he knows about the legendary rings, and I was never able to convince a townsperson to sell me his furniture, but just having the option feels a lot more logical and less restrictive than the typical RPG. Not only that, you can also start a fight with just about anyone in the game, so for those of you who always wondered what it would be like if the guy saving the world was also a homicidal maniac, you finally have your chance.

Of course innovation is only part of the game’s appeal, and what was groundbreaking in 1991 is much less so today. What really makes this game hold up after two decades is that it’s just so damn likeable. From the characters, to the artwork and music, to the incredible amount of thought that went into the setting, the whole thing just oozes charm.

First and foremost, Rings of Power is funny. In fact, it might be one of the most humorous games made for the Genesis. Some of this is in the form of dialogue that fairly obviously was meant to get a laugh, such as city guards professing their love for marching around the city aimlessly. But a lot of it is of the more subtle, weird variety. The game is constantly breaking fantasy and RPG conventions by adding “modern” touches like a tavern that is actually a dance club with techno music and flashing lights, or a temple that hosts bingo. There’s also just something amusing about going on a quest to retrieve a fake mustache or asking a townsperson about his abilities and having him come right out and admit that he’s really not good at anything.

This humor creates a light atmosphere that the visuals support rather well. From a technical standpoint, the graphics look a little primitive, but that seems fair considering that the game came out so early in the Genesis’ life cycle. More importantly, they’re also really interesting to look at and fit the theme really well. The isometric view gives the game a unique look, and there are all kinds of neat things to find, which is important for a game that features so much exploration. Character animations, despite being kind of limited, are really fun to watch, and some of the spells that you unleash in battle are pretty impressive. There’s nothing like crushing your enemies with a torrent of rushing water to really give you that feeling of “Oh my God, look at how badly I’m kicking their ass!”

The most impressive spell of all being the one that summons Slash from the Appetite for Destruction album cover to attack your enemies.

Musically, Electronic Arts has never, ever failed on a Genesis game, and Rings of Power is no exception. That’s actually kind of unusual, because it’s not like EA just had one guy write all the music for every game they published; they generally left this up to the individual developers. Anyway, there’s not a lot that can be written about game soundtracks without getting into mind-numbing detail, so let’s just cover the three really important things the Rings of Power soundtrack does well  – it sets the appropriate mood for in-game events, has variety while keeping a consistent theme, and just plain sounds good. If you want to hear it for yourself, follow this link or just check out the video:

Things get good around the 0:26 mark

The other thing that really adds to Rings of Power’s appeal is the staggering level of thought that went into its setting and story. This isn’t just some run of the mill world-saving quest through a bunch of generic towns that have no purpose or explanation for being there. The world that the game takes place in has an extensive history, and every city has its own little backstory, an economy, and unique features. More importantly, this is all handled in a logical way. If a city is on the shore with a big natural bay, it’s a trade city, and if a city is in some deserted, out of the way place, the people who live there have a reason for being off in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like most RPGs where the designers will put a major city in the middle of a forest crawling with giant, aggressive spiders, and then not bother to have any of the townspeople mention what they find so advantageous about living in Spideropolis (even really low rent seems like a bad trade-off for being part of an all-you-can-eat spider buffet).

This level of detail shows up in other places, too. The different schools of magic in the game each have their own philosophy that ties in to how the magic works. Even minor details, like why the battle screen is set in what looks like outer space, are explained. It’s the level of attention and background information you might expect to see in a particularly lengthy and well-crafted fiction novel.

And that’s what’s truly amazing about Rings of Power. As you play it, you really begin to appreciate that this was a game made by a couple of young guys who were putting their heart and soul into making the kind of game they had always wanted to play. That’s a much different vibe than you get from playing, say, Judge Dredd, which presumably was developed by some unfortunate people that Acclaim had kidnapped of the streets and held at gunpoint until they made a game.

Again, Rings of Power isn’t going to be for everybody. Not everyone wants to play a game where you spend most of your time walking around and talking to people, no matter how unique or humorous it is. And Rings certainly shows signs of its age. But those of you who do get into it will find yourselves wrapped up in one of the most rewarding experiences the 16-bit era has to offer. Games like Rings of Power are why I fell in love with EA, why I fell in love with the Genesis, and why I still get nostalgic for the 16-bit days.

Wait, so my reward for saving the world is even more responsibility?

Availability: Rings of Power wasn’t released as part of any retro collections, and isn’t available for download on any of the newer consoles, so the only way to play it is to track down a Genesis copy (a Genesis would also be helpful). The game had a limited production run, so copies of it are somewhat rare, but on the flip side, it’s also pretty obscure, so there aren’t a lot of would-be buyers out there driving the price up. We’ve had pretty good luck finding it at flea markets and some of the better used game stores, usually for about $10-15, and copies are also available for sale online. Be a little careful about the pricing on this one though, as there are a few sharks out there charging outrageous prices. You really don’t need to spend more than $20 to obtain one.

Or maybe get lucky and find a copy inside a bagel.

It’s also worth noting that the instruction manual comes with a complete walkthrough / hint guide. Rings is a pretty challenging game, so that’s a nice bonus which may make it worth paying a little extra to get a “complete” copy. Of course, there are also places to find help online, as well. I highly recommend this site, or checking out these videos, both of which were a tremendous help to us.

I tried really hard to find a way to work in the names of the guys who made the game into this article, but it didn’t happen. So here they are.

Interview with Naughty Dog Co-Founder Jason Rubin

This is a very exciting week for us, because after 35 entries to our Top 50 list, we finally get to write about Rings of Power. It might seem a little unusual for us to get this excited about one of our Top 50 entries, but Rings really made an impression on us and was one of the games we specifically had in mind when we decided to write lengthy features for each game on the list. You could say we’ve been waiting this whole time just to write about Rings of Power, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. I think I’ve been waiting to write about Rings since I first played it twenty years ago.

With that in mind, we wanted to do something a little special, so I got in touch with Jason Rubin, one of the two people most responsible for making the game. Jason might not be one of those super-famous game designers, but he and Andy Gavin really ought to be. They co-founded Rings of Power developer Naughty Dog when they were still teenagers, made Rings of Power a few years later, and then went on to make several other really successful games, including Crash Bandicoot, and Jax and Daxter.

To put that into perspective, in the late 80’s, while still in college, Jason and Andy were making Rings of Power for a company they had created themselves. Ten years later, also while in college, I was working a part time job at the mall selling some of the more recent games their company had made.

You know what? I had better get on to the interview before that starts to sink in:

Q: You and Andy Gavin made your first game when you were 15, and Rings of Power was made while both of you were still in college. How did you learn this craft at such a young age?

Jason: When we started making games there were no courses taught, and barely any books to read.  You just sat and hacked.  Andy and I were lucky enough to get computers early and we spent a huge amount of time on them.  Cracking games turned into bad games which became decent games which became good games.  Eventually we got published.  Learning in such a fashion became harder and harder in the 90’s because there wasn’t a good outlet for the games new developers made.  But today, in 2012, it has never been easier to learn to make games and get your titles in front of the audience.  I get a lot of emails asking what to do or what school to enroll in to “get into the business.”  The truth is, if you have a computer and an internet connection you have access to everything you need.  Just do it.

Q: You guys also founded the developer Naughty Dog, which has created a lot of successful games, the most famous of which is probably the Crash Bandicoot series. With so many bigger successes under your belt, does RoP even stand out in your mind at all?

Jason: I have fond memories of Rings of Power.  We spent 3 years on the game, mostly because we were developing the game by modem from two different universities.  It was a huge game, and testing it took forever.  It was also our first console game, and the first game that put us in the mainstream.

Q: Compared to most console RPGs available at the time, Rings of Power is really innovative – the game is much less linear than other RPGs, allowing you to go after the rings in any order you choose, talk to any character about any topic, and you can even fight almost anyone in the game if you choose. Was this a conscious choice to do something really different, a reflection of your PC gaming background, or just the natural result of making the game that you wanted to make?

Jason: Rings was definitely the game we wanted to make.  Back then we took development much more casually than we did later.  We were still making the games we wanted to play rather than the games our audience wanted to play.  As hard core gamers we made Rings detailed, open, and difficult.  Later games were more casually entertaining and easier to love.  That isn’t to suggest that there was anything inferior about Rings, just that it was always going to appeal to a smaller, more dedicated audience.

Q: Was it at all disappointing that not many other console games followed your lead – do you wish Rings of Power had been more influential?

Jason: Rings of Power had a single major challenge: It sold out quickly but was never restocked by EA.  There were multiple reasons for this, from the cost of the cartridge vs. other games (it had more memory and expensive storage), to our royalty (really high), to the internal competition for limited space in the print run (Madden).  Rings became the best selling used game on Genesis very quickly because it simply couldn’t be found new.  So Rings never had a chance to become a major hit.  Frustration with this led Andy and I to leave the game business… briefly.

Q: Were there any major influences for Rings of Power in terms of game design, story or art style?

Jason: Oh sure.  Rings was influenced by dozens of games, books, and other media.  Andy was the leading designer on Rings, a position I would take over there after.  This was a combination of his strong love of RPG’s, and the fact that he was the one who was writing the code and it was impossible for me to have that much influence from 1000 miles away!  It would probably be better to ask him what the specific inspirations were.

Q: During the Sega Genesis era, Electronic Arts seemed like a company that published a lot of really unique games and was willing to take some chances that other publishers might not have. What was it like to work with them back in those days?

Jason: Electronic Arts was named Electronic Artists when it started.  It was completely run by development.  Developers had their pictures on every box.  But larger budgets and teams brought larger risk, and the wild west days of game development led to much more structure.  There was initially no malice in this change, and it happened in every publisher.  I would argue (and have – see my DICE speech) that the pendulum swung way too far in the other direction in the early 2000’s, with publishers believing that games were “packaged good” like cereal or bleach to be differentiated by marketing, but things seem to have worked themselves out in the long run.

(Editor’s note: for those of you who can’t watch the hour long presentation, or perhaps believe that internet video is some kind of evil magic, Gamespy has a pretty decent article on the speech here)

Q: One thing that we really enjoyed about Rings of Power was how funny some parts of it were. Was this something you had intended to do right from the start, or did more and more humorous elements and dialogue work their way in as you went along?

Jason: Andy was responsible for writing all of the dialogue and I think a combination of a twisted sense of humor, and ungodly long hours of writing led to the Rings sensibility.  There were a huge number of lines of dialogue for a game in those days.  I think over time that the humor crept in and then stayed.

Q: Is there anything about the original you would go back and change if you could?

Jason: Rings was abusively long.  While a small percentage of players got benefit of that, I would imagine that most didn’t get close to finishing.  This size led to the expensive memory chips that had to be on the cartridge, and so indirectly led to Rings being a short publishing run.  I would imagine that had Rings been split into two games that EA might have been able to manufacture more of them, and the games would have had a larger impact.  Is there such a thing as too big?  Perhaps there is!

Q: Are you surprised that 20 years later the game still has some fans posting videos, running websites and discussing it on message boards?

Jason: Every creator wishes that his or her creation is appreciated.  So of course we always hoped that this would be the case.  Having said that, there are so many great games out there, not to mention other forms of entertainment, that it is still incredibly gratifying when something I have created strikes a chord with someone. Rings was probably Andy and my last “pure” game.  After Rings, we tried to make the broadest number of people happy, rather than focusing on what we wanted to play ourselves.  So if Rings still has devoted fans, then these are probably gamers who are, or at least were, as close to Andy and my game sensibilities as could be.  Today, with connectivity through the internet it is easy to find someone who shares your tastes.  Hell, these days Zynga changes its games continually based on the audience’s feedback.  When we made Rings, that wasn’t the case.  You just put it out there and hoped that there was someone who appreciated it.  I’m always excited by the fact that we found those souls.

Q: And finally, will there ever be anything Rings of Power related in the future – a re-release for something like PSN of XBLA, or a sequel, or merchandise? I would definitely buy a Rings of Power t-shirt.

Jason: Haha.  You would have to ask Naughty Dog and Sony that question.  Sony owns all of the rights to the games that Andy and I created through their purchase of Naughty Dog.  So neither Andy or I have any say.  It would be cool though!

Aerobiz Supersonic

Grade: A-

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 16th

Publisher: Koei

Year: 1994

Genre: Biz Simulation

Koei has published some pretty unusual games in their day, but Aerobiz Supersonic is one of those ones that absolutely should not have worked. In Aerobiz Supersonic, you’re the CEO of an airline. You spend your time crunching numbers, taking in meetings with your advisors, and negotiating deals. That’s it. You don’t get to fly the planes, or beat up coach passengers who try to sneak into first class, or come up with creative ways to sneak in hidden fares. At least with Koei’s hyper-detailed strategy games, you still get to fight a war, assuming your pre-battle mismanagement doesn’t cause all your troops to desert first. And while a lot of the Uncharted Waters series is about shipping and trading, at the end of the day, you still get to explore the world and can commit piracy. There’s nothing “adventure-like” in Aerobiz; it’s just you trying to do the one thing that nobody in America seems capable of – keep an airline from declaring bankruptcy.

I’m the CEO of Australia? Thanks, Ron Jeremy!

On paper, this sounds pretty dreadful, but somehow it manages to be fun. Hey, you know the old cliché: that’s why they don’t play these games on paper. Well, except for D&D, I suppose – that’s a game that you do play on paper. Also, paper football. But not video games. You don’t play those on paper… although in the case Aerobiz Supersonic you’ll probably need to play it WITH some paper, you know, to write all your budget spreadsheets and airfare rates on.

At heart, all business simulations are strategy games, so if you’re not big on the genre, you’re probably not going to find much to enjoy here. And even if you are, you still might not like it. There’s big a difference between launching a well-timed invasion into enemy territory and hitting them with, say, a fleet of tanks they didn’t see coming, versus doing the same thing except your weapons are a steep price cut and aggressive marketing campaign.

In fact, it’s hard to say exactly WHO the target audience for this game was. I’d say it was meant for Genesis-playing adults who enjoyed strategy games, but would be like saying the game was designed the game for the iPhone – neither of those things existed back then. I first found out about the Aerobiz games from my friend Jay, back when Aerobiz Supersonic had just been released. Now Jay was an extremely brilliant kid who grew up to be a doctor, and he was a little bit eccentric, too, so you might think this kind of game would be right in his strike zone. But he was also 15 years old at the time. His favorite part of the entire game was renaming all the airlines. It was all downhill from there.

Though he also enjoyed playing in the 1970s time period so he could pretend he was watching Starsky and Hutch after he got home from running the airline.

I’m still tempted to chalk this up as more evidence that Koei’s business plan back in the Genesis days was to make a bunch of games that wouldn’t sell, then hold them in warehouses and auction them on eBay twenty years later when people finally came around to appreciating them. Talk about visionary – instead of making games for the average gamer, they made them for the adults those gamers would eventually grow into. Oh, and they apparently predicted the existence of eBay. Either that, or they just had no idea what they were doing at all.

Aerobiz Supersonic is definitely not a game for everyone, but it does have a certain geeky appeal to it. Part of it is that it’s not too hard to get into. I’ve never run any kind of business before (unless an unpopular blog about Genesis games that generates negative revenue is considered a business), let alone an airline, but I managed to figure out what I was doing before very long. Compare this to many of Koei’s wargames, which can get to be pretty demanding, and generally result in me executing the brilliant strategy of having my navy dump my entire food supply into the ocean, while I spend all my money researching more efficient ways to dump food into the ocean. This plan generally leads me to step two of my grand strategy – surrender to whichever rival seems the least genocidal. So I give Aerobiz a lot of credit for the fact that I’ve never had to contemplate which competing airline would be the most likely to murder all my customers by the second turn.

For the record, though, it’s Air LA. They’re monsters.

But while it’s easy to understand, it’s still very challenging. It’s not quite that old “easy to learn, impossible to master” thing, because AS isn’t impossible to master – you just have to be very attentive. There’s a lot here that you’ll need to keep track of – money, your inventory of planes, rights to use certain airports, and perhaps most importantly, timing. Keeping everything on the proper schedule is perhaps the most challenging and most critical part of the game, because it affects everything you do. You don’t want to spend three turns negotiating the rights to have a flight between London and Paris, and then have to wait an additional turn before you have a plane available to actually make the flight. The game is a race to accumulate wealth and market share, and every wasted turn brings your enemies that much closer to defeating you.

That’s another thing about Aerobiz Supersonic – it gives you a real appreciation for the cutthroat nature of business. Everyone is trying to maximize their profits, and the easiest way to do that is to wipe out the competition. There’s no silver medals here. First place is control of the skies. Second place is you and everyone who works for you loses their job, and whatever city had been unlucky enough to house your corporate headquarters receives irreversible damage to their local economy and goes into a slow death spiral (ok, that last part isn’t actually in the game, just some speculation I have from growing up in the rust belt).

Sometimes on the news you’ll hear about corporations screwing their workers just to save seemingly inconsequential amounts of money, and you’ll think “Why wouldn’t they treat their employees better? They made $1.4 billion last year, would have been so awful if they made $1.3 and paid their employees better instead?” Well, a nice thing about a game like this is you can follow your morals and do the right thing. Go ahead, give everyone raises. And guess what? That insignificant $.1 billion (which is $100 million, by the way) that your competition didn’t spend on wages they didn’t have to, they used that money to undercut you in your most lucrative market. Now spending that extra $100 million just cost you $200 million in sales that went to your rival. Next quarter it’ll be a billion. Quarter after that, instead of raises, you’ll be giving out pink slips, which in turns floods the labor market and gives your amoral competitor the leverage to drive employee wages even lower. Isn’t capitalism awesome?

It is when you’re the one winning.

Availability: Aerobiz Supersonic is a hard one to come by. For reasons that should be all too easy to understand by now, this wasn’t exactly a huge seller when it first came out. And unfortunately, it’s also not available as part of any retro compilations, or for download on any of the current gaming systems. That means the only way to play this one is to track down a copy for the Genesis (or SNES, the two versions are pretty similar).

Now we’ve tried to take a somewhat neutral tone while discussing the prices of the games on our Top 50. After all, what we’d be willing to pay for an old game might be a lot less than what you would. In fact, we’re pretty cheap, so it’s actually pretty likely that many of you would be willing to spend more for a rare game than we would. Having said that, the prices being asked for copies of Aerobiz Supersonic are completely outrageous. The cheapest price we were able to find online was $35 (before shipping), and most copies were going for far more than that. On the off chance you actually see one in a store (which we haven’t), don’t be surprised if they demand you pay them in diamonds or precious metals.

Or trips to Saipan.

Still, if you ever do find one for a better price (maybe at a garage sale or something) or can borrow a copy from a friend, don’t hesitate to do so. Alternately, you could try to track down a copy of its predecessor, Aerobiz. The differences between both games are pretty minimal, so it wouldn’t be much of a downgrade. Unfortunately, it’s also not much cheaper, so you’re still paying a king’s ransom to obtain a copy. Don’t do that.

Sorry to say, but right now your best bet is probably just to keep your fingers crossed and hope that Koei decides to bring it out for the Wii’s Virtual Console, as they did with New Horizons.

Road Rash Series

Grades:

Road Rash  (1992) – A-

Road Rash 2 (1993) – A-

Road Rash 3 (1995) – D

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 17th

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Years: 1992-1995 (see grades for specific year of each game)

Genre: Commuting

Note: Road Rash 2 was the editors’ unanimous favorite game in this series

We don’t write this blog with a conscious effort to be anti-establishment or populist, but it’s not hard to imagine “hardcore” gamers and other Genesis enthusiasts getting a little bent out of shape upon seeing the Road Rash series finish so high our list. Certainly, this is not a series of games we would expect to see do well if a similar list had been published by, for example, Gamefan magazine back in the old days. The Road Rash games are the kind of thing likely to be looked down upon as mindless, or “just another racing game”, completely lacking the interesting characters or narrative depth of, say, an RPG. To this I would argue that if you can’t properly enjoy a well-made game about racing motorcycles while punching people in the face, then perhaps you’re all taking yourselves just a bit too seriously.

I mean, video games are supposed to be fun, right? It seems like sometimes we get so caught up arguing about their artistic merits that we kind of forget that. And despite what the pundits of “hardcore” gaming will tell you, not every title needs to be an RPG with a complicated story, a 2D fighter with 400 characters that are all slightly different variations of Ryu, or the world’s hardest vertical shooter. It doesn’t make you any less of a gamer if you enjoy, say, a sports game, as long as the game is well designed and satisfying to play. Road Rash isn’t a sport (tragically), but the same principle applies.

Oh hey, there’s a bike based on one of my ex-girlfriends.

Road Rash wasn’t the first game to combine racing in combat, but it does so in a way that’s much more believable and almost perfectly balanced. Think about how weird it would be if you saw a bunch of heavily modified cars racing down the street while firing machine guns and other weapons at each other. Aside being expensive, that’s the sort of thing that would probably attract a lot of attention and probably a military intervention. That probably explains why most “car combat” games take place in some dystopian future. But Road Rash is a motorcycle race, where the competitor’s just happen to punch each other when nobody else is looking because… well, why wouldn’t they? I mean, besides the fact that it’s incredibly dangerous? That’s believable. In fact, for all you know, that sort of thing could be happening right now. You should probably look out a window to check – you wouldn’t want to miss something that awesome.

Of course, the “why wouldn’t they?” aspect of Road Rash’s combat will ruin all normal motorcycle racing games for you going forward. You’ll never be able to battle it out in a tight race without thinking “why can’t I just punch him on the face and take the lead?” ever again. On the plus side, it’s not like there are a lot of great motorcycle racing games out there anyway, so no big loss.

 

They’re neck and punch-able neck going into the final turn.

 The other nice benefit about only allowing hand to hand combat is that it forces the focus of the game to be on racing first, and combat second. After all, you’re going to have to catch up to your opponent before you can kick him into the path of an oncoming car. It feels less cheap than a racing game with ranged weapons, where you can drive poorly but bring down a distant opponent with a missile. Compare this to any of the Mario Kart games, where you can get a red turtle shell that will home in on an opponent so long as you’re close enough to see him in the distance. That doesn’t feel fair at all. In a more Road-Rashian world, instead of firing shells at each other, Mario would pull up alongside Toad, reach over, and slam that little bastard’s face into his own steering wheel, preferably while doing his “Yahoooo!” laugh as Toad skids into the nearest wall.

There are times when Road Rash’s combat feels a bit unnecessary, particularly when you have a significantly faster bike than your opponents and can blow past them before they even have a chance to make a fist. But in a close race, it’s an important aspect of the game, as it allows you to (quite literally) beat back an opponent to take or hold onto a lead.  Besides providing an alternative way to win instead of boring old stuff like, you know, racing well, it’s also incredibly rewarding to pound a tough opponent into falling off his ride. This creates a nice balance between the racing and the fighting – you still have to race well enough to catch up, but it’s your ability to really whale on your opponents that will put you over the top. It’s perfect.

The first Road Rash comes from a time when EA was a fast-growing but still only medium-size publisher from San Mateo, and still developed many of the games they published in-house. It’s sort of interesting to see how the company’s California roots sometimes show through in subtle ways in their earlier products. It’s probably why the cover of the first NHL Hockey has a picture from a LA Kings home game (as well as a secret message about the brand new San Jose Sharks). It’s also a likely explanation of why all of Road Rash’s tracks take place within California. It’s their home territory after all – places the designers probably already knew, or could hop in the car and check out on a slow afternoon. And that’s kind of cool in itself – it lends the game sort of a personal touch, by creating a connection between the player and the people who worked on the game as you get a glimpse of the places where they live. Admittedly, these tracks aren’t anything remotely close to accurate maps of the area, so much as just a collection of California-themed backgrounds. Still, it’s kind of fun to imagine the people who made them driving in to work one morning and thinking “This commute would be awesome if I was on a motorcycle and fistfighting cops.”

Wave to the designers as you go past their house.

Road Rash 2 was sort of the ideal sequel, making minor refinements to the gameplay, improving the graphics a bit, adding some new bikes and weapons, and expanding the courses to locations all across the nation. One nice little touch here is that each course has its own unique background music, and each track’s music seems really appropriate for that location. The Hawaii course emphasizes island-sounding drums, the Tennessee music has a definite bluegrass feel to it, and to the extent that Vermont has a signature musical style, let’s just assume that the game nails it as well. The differences between Road Rash and it’s sequel are almost negligible, so the best way to describe RR2 is that it’s basically the same as the first one, but a little bit better. That might seem a bit unambitious, but as the flaming trainwreck of ineptitude that is Road Rash 3 demonstrates, it is all too easy to mess up a good thing.

Ah yes, Road Rash 3. Well, our goal in doing this Top 50 list was that after years of being negative and hateful towards games, we were going to write positive, loving articles about the 50 games we did like. Let’s just say that Road Rash 3 isn’t amongst those 50 games. Oh, it might have rode in here on the coattails of the more successful Road Rash games, but when we say “Road Rash series”, we really mean Road Rashes 1 & 2. It’s like the Godfather movies – the first two are excellent, and the third is something that people generally don’t acknowledge and eventually everyone sort of forgets it exists.

Still, it’s probably worth discussing Road Rash 3 a little bit, because its badness is pretty symbolic of its time. It’s a bad game from a bad year, put out by a publisher that was in the midst of going from our most to least favorite game company, on a system that was over the hill and practically crumbling before our eyes. For those of you who don’t remember 1995, it was mostly awesome – the economy was going well, there was good music on MTV, good TV shows and movies to watch, it rained gumdrops, and just about everything was great. Except for gaming, where 1995 was this awful year where games had already gone about as far as the technology could take them, but the next generation of consoles weren’t out yet. This hit the Genesis especially hard, because it was weaker technology than the SNES, and also because the games for the system had been so innovative right from the beginning that there wasn’t much left to do design-wise. As a result, you got a lot of newer games that were just way beyond what the system could handle technologically – attempts at 3D graphics, first person shooters, and new animation techniques that looked awful AND made the games less responsive. That’s what happened to Road Rash 3 – the big innovations came right at the beginning of the series (“Hey, let’s have these motorcycle dudes punch each other!”), and by 1995, all that was left to do was add a new graphics engine that ended up looking worse and being harder to control. You ever have a pet that you really loved, but it got old and sick and you had to put it to sleep? The Genesis was kind of like that beloved pet, and Road Rash 3 is a symptom of the disease that forced you to put it down.

Road Rash 3, a broken leg on the horse that is the Sega Genesis.

 Availability: For reasons I’ll never understand, EA has been pretty reluctant to re-release their classic games on a collection for modern consoles. This truly baffles me – I know I can’t be the only one who would rush out to buy a collection with Rings of Power, Road Rash 2, and NHL ’94 all on one disc. My best guess is that EA makes so much money off of Madden that they simply don’t have any room for the additional piles of cash such a collection would generate. Whatever the reason, the Road Rash games aren’t part of any collection (other than the PSP one, which doesn’t count due to the fact that the PSP sucks), and aren’t available for download either. If you want to play these games, you’re going to have to get them for the Genesis.

That shouldn’t be too hard, though. Copies of Road Rash 2 are plentiful and dirt cheap, and you ought to be able to find one at either a used game store, flea market or just order it online. One small caveat is that many of the copies in existence today seem to be cartridge-only, as people who buy games about brawling on motorcycles apparently aren’t real big on keeping their stuff all nice and pristine. Copies of the original are a little harder to come by, but by no means impossible, and only slightly more expensive. Road Rash 3 is the rarest and most expensive of the bunch, but not by much, so if you really wanted a copy… well, then you’re obviously not reading these articles very closely. I did compare playing RR3 to putting your favorite pet to sleep only a few paragraphs ago.

Beyond Oasis

Grade: B+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 18th

Publisher: Sega

Year: 1994

Genre: Zelda-Envy

Beyond Oasis is the story of Prince Ali (and if you can read that name without automatically saying “mighty is he” to yourself, than I think it’s safe to assume we’re from different generations), who is apparently the sole heir to the Kingdom of Totally Not Giving a Fuck. This is a guy who thinks nothing about going off to explore abandoned caves on long-forgotten islands without telling anyone, and when he finds himself alone and in pursuit of some enemies fleeing by ship, he does what any rational person would do in that situation – he hops on board and starts murdering everyone. Does he know how to sail the ship or even where it was headed? No. But why worry about such trivial things? When the time comes, he’ll just crash the ship into the nearest land mass, assume any nearby structure is an enemy fortress and proceed to kick some more ass. That’s the kind of guy Prince Ali is. Traits like “a reasonable amount of caution” or “forethought” are not among the his best qualities. You can’t help but like the guy. Especially when his game looks like this:

Look at that. Believe it or not, that screenshot is from a Genesis game. The whole game looks this good, if not better. If Beyond Oasis isn’t the best-looking game on the system, it has to be pretty close. It’s as though somebody over at Sega flipped over the Genesis, and found that the “nice graphics” switch  had been set to the off position for the last 5 years. Which, given the way they run things over there, doesn’t seem all that unlikely, actually.

Then again, graphics aren’t supposed to matter, right? Gameplay is supposed to be the only thing that counts. Well, except for those times when we arbitrarily decide that its actually the story that’s important, and gameplay doesn’t matter at all (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy). And in rare occasions, it’s even ok to like a game purely for the soundtrack. But never graphics. Real gamers are above such trivial things. Good graphics are for slack-jawed casual gamers to drool over while playing their games based on the latest Michael Bay movie.

But  that’s complete nonsense. The quality of a game isn’t determined by any single aspect on an all or nothing basis. Gameplay might be the most important part of a game (and by the way, “gameplay” itself is sort of a catch-all of numerous important things, such as control, difficulty, and level design), but the other stuff goes a long way to supplement it, too. A good story can make you more emotionally involved in a game, and provide extra incentive to see what happens next. A game’s music engages a player’s mind, can provide a pleasant distraction through a slow part, and is a surprisingly strong motivation to play through a game again (at this point in my life, I’m pretty sure I keep replaying Megaman 2 purely for the music). And graphics set the mood of a game, as well as help players visualize the things going on in the game, which often can be abstract concepts. Don’t think so? Try to imagine Super Mario Bros. as a text adventure:

 

World 1-1

You are standing on a grassy plain. Off in the distance, large green pipes emerge from the ground, and remnants of a brick wall are floating in the air above you. One of the bricks has a “?” carved into it. A path leads right.

A large turtle is approaching you.

>Jump on turtle

You jump on the turtle, causing it to retreat inside its shell and flip over. You bounce off the turtle shell into the floating “?” brick. Doing so releases a gold coin from the brick, which flies into the air and disappears.

You now have one gold coin.

>Wait, what?

Between the hair, the headband, and the people constantly trying to shoot him with a crossbow, the Prince is actually a lot like me.

Better yet, Beyond Oasis plays nearly as well as it looks. The game is an action RPG cast in the Zelda mold – open world, with lots of sword fighting, exploring dungeons, and solving puzzles. Is it better than the SNES masterpiece The Legend of Zelda 3: A Link to the Past? No, but to be fair, that’s an almost impossible standard. A Link to the Past is probably one of the top ten games of all time. Obviously a game that finished #18 on our list of top Genesis games isn’t going to beat one of the ten best games ever made – for it to do so would defy the principles of mathematics. And we hate it when people go around defying the principles of mathematics – it makes our checkbook so much harder to balance. So no, Beyond Oasis isn’t better than Zelda 3.

Thanks to the advanced graphics of Beyond Oasis, this is the most realistic… whatever the hell it is, that we’ve ever seen in a game.

Even so, it does manage to do a pretty respectable job in a lot of ways, and some aspects of the game, such as the combat, are actually better. Was it enough to satisfy the typical Genesis owner’s raging Zelda-envy? I doubt it, but I think that envy was probably a little misguided anyway. Zelda 3 was arguably the SNES’ best game and, as I said a paragraph ago, one of the best ever made. In fact, at the time it was released, a lot of people probably would have said that it WAS the best game ever made. So while a lot of Genesis owners may have thought what they wanted on their system was a really good action RPG like Zelda, what they really wanted deep down was for the Genesis to have one of the all-time great games… like Zelda.

Those are some pretty unfair expectations for any game to live up to. Instead, appreciate Beyond Oasis for what it is – a great looking, fun action RPG with a main character who kicks ass first and asks questions, well, never.

Availability: Beyond Oasis came out a little late in the Genesis’ life, and was released during the dreaded “red box” era, when Sega switched over to flimsy cardboard boxes instead of the superior plastic ones they had been using. As a result, most of the boxes and instructions for the game were lost or destroyed, making complete copies hard to come by (and expensive) for hardcore collectors. If this is what you’re looking for, expect to pay upwards of $20.

Those of you who just want to play it should be in luck, though. Unlike a lot of later games, this one isn’t too difficult to track down. Cartridge only copies can be found online for around $10, and we’ve seen it in a few used game stores for slightly more than that. Additionally, the game is available for the Wii’s virtual console, and was included in the excellent Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the PS3 and Xbox 360.

Uncharted Waters: New Horizons

Grade: B+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 19th

Publisher: Koei

Year: 1994

Genre: Travel

I hate to admit it, but Uncharted Waters: New Horizons has been one of the tougher games for us to write about. It’s not that this isn’t a great game, because it absolutely is It’s just that while we love New Horizons, it’s not that gushing, romantic infatuation we have for many of the other games on this list. It’s more like the quiet, respect-borne kind of love you might feel for your favorite author or a really talented monster truck driver.

Still, we’ll do what we can here, because damn it, this game deserves some praise.

Yes, please. Teach us to make fun of you.

Uncharted Waters: New Horizons is kind of like a sea-based Grand Theft Auto game – there’s a story, and you’ll have to complete certain missions to advance the narrative, but in between doing that, you’re pretty much free to do whatever you want. There a whole world to explore (literally), and plenty of side missions to keep you busy. Or you can just fool around – if you want to take an unsatisfying, pixelated version of that Mediterranean cruise you’ve always dreamed about, go ahead. Or if you prefer to go to a tropical area, buy a bunch of bananas, and then visit every town in Europe giving them away and declaring yourself the Banana Emperor, you can do that too. For those of you of a more serious mind, the most important thing to do in your free time is to make some money, because although the various kings and nobles seem to have no problem tasking you with carrying out important duties, they are a bit reluctant to actually fund these missions.

Go out and explore unknown areas for the glory of England! Just be sure to stop by Denmark first and do some wool-trading. Ships are expensive after all, and we’re running a kingdom here, not a charity.

Luckily, there are lots of ways to earn an income, such as trading commodities, delivering messages for guilds, and investing in businesses. Or, since those ideas are all kind of lame, you can just do them for a little while to make some money, then strap a bunch of guns to your ship and start raiding other ships to steal their cargo. I’m assuming that’s sort of the unspoken expectation a king has when he just hands a ship to some captain he barely knows without bothering to check if he’s, you know, actually from that country, and then gives him a dangerous task to do without any funding or guidelines.

Or, if high seas villainy isn’t you’re thing, you can gamble. Oh sure, you might lose everything in a hand of blackjack, but at least if nothing else, your king will learn a valuable lesson about trusting his navy and the fate of an entire nation to the whims of a gambling degenerate.

Perhaps the coolest thing about New Horizons is that the game world is a reasonable approximation of the Earth, you can sail just anywhere you want, except for the poles. Or places that are landlocked, obviously. Still, if there’s a coastline or a big river near it, you can sail there. It’s hard to convey just how much bigger of a world this is compared to what we’re accustomed to seeing in games, including modern ones. It actually came as a bit of a surprise the first time we left the Mediterranean Sea to sail up the Northern European coast and the game actually let us. Then we started sailing down the coast of Africa, the whole time thinking that sooner or later, the game would run out of room. Next thing we knew, we were rounding the southern tip of the continent, yelling at Bartholomew Diaz to suck it, and making our way to China to load up on bootleg DVDs which we planned to sell back in Europe to fund our next expedition.

It probably says a lot about how conditioned we’ve been by other games that even after this much exploring, the first time we attempted to cross the Atlantic, we still fully expected to hit an invisible wall at the edge of the screen. I mean, there’s no way they put the Americas in the game, right? In fact, we were so sure of it that we didn’t stock up on nearly enough water, and everyone died on the voyage. But on our second attempt, we managed to sail across the ocean, and before we knew it, we were cruising up and down the coastline of the future United States.

Of course, being a Koei game, the attention to detail is just insane. Forget about just managing inventory, the game actually lets you decide exactly which cargo you want on each individual ship (and knowing Koei, this probably has subtle effects on the ship’s behavior). You also assign your crew to various duties, splitting them between lookout, navigation, and combat. That might be a little bit of overkill on the game’s part, though, as I imagine being boarded by an enemy ship would be sort of a “everybody grab a sword and start stabbing” situation. Still, the game leaves no minor detail untouched – you can even adjust the crew’s wages, which goes a long way toward recruiting the best officers for your ship. Never, ever underestimate the importance of offering a good heath plan when trying to convince people to take on the Spanish Armada with you.

New Horizons gives you six different characters to choose from, and each one has a completely unique story, objective, and circumstances. That’s pretty impressive when you think about it. In most games, different characters may offer various strengths and weaknesses, and maybe a few unique special moves, but that’s it. Even in games where the characters have drastically different play styles, they generally still have those characters playing through the same levels, progressing through the same narrative, and striving toward the same ultimate goal. Not so in New Horizons – every character has a unique story, circumstances, and objective. It might be a stretch to say that this game is six games in one, but it’s definitely like getting one really good game with 6 full-length campaigns.

32 members of your crew saw this town had a zebra and decided that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives there.

 Of course, having all these characters is almost a moot point, because of those six characters, one of them is a superhot Spanish redhead named Catalina. Oh, and she’s a pirate. Let’s not kid ourselves here, when a game gives you a choice of characters – and really, it doesn’t matter if that choice is six, or two, or one hundred – and one of them is a sexy female buccaneer with flame-orange hair, that choice has already been made for you. It doesn’t really matter what the other characters are – you could have a choice between Catalina, Blackbeard, Batman, Macho Man Randy Savage, President Reagan, and a T-Rex, and you’d still have to be crazy not to pick Catalina. Remember all that stuff I said earlier about not feeling a romantic love for this game? That line of thought doesn’t apply to Catalina. It was all I could do to keep this review from turning into an incoherent 7 page love letter to an imaginary video game character.

 

Loss of her fiance? That means she’s single!

I know what you’re thinking – sure, but once you beat the game with Catalina, then you could play as one of the other five characters. Yes, you could. And about 5 minutes in, you’ll remember that you could instead be playing again as a superhot redhead pirate. At which point any sane person will be reaching for the reset button.

…and that’s kind of the thing about New Horizons in general – you get lots of great options throughout the game, but all too often one choice is so ridiculously awesome (piracy, redheads, not running out of water while crossing the Atlantic) that you’ll almost always take it. On one hand, it seems like kind of a waste, because a lot of pretty good options are being passed over. But on the other hand, those best options are so good you won’t even mind. Or to put it another way – superhot redhead pirate.

Did we mention that her chair is a puma?

 Availability: Like just about all of Koei’s games from this era, New Horizons is pretty rare, and it’s unusual to see a copy selling online for less than $30. To be honest, we sometimes wonder if Koei’s entire business model isn’t based on releasing games that they know people won’t be interested in at first, then hoarding all the unsold copies in a warehouse, and selling them on eBay 15 years later when they finally become popular. There’s a slight chance of coming across one at a really good used game store, but don’t expect to pay any less than you would online.

Fortunately, there are a couple of alternatives here. New Horizons is a sequel, and the original in the series, simply called Uncharted Waters, typically sells for about half as much. New Horizons is the better game of the two (hence it’s the one that made our Top 50), but Uncharted Waters is almost as good as it’s sequel, with the exception of one glaring flaw – no Catalina. That’s a sacrifice you’re going to have to think long and hard about before making. Unless you’re a Wii owner, in which case you can spare yourself the dilemma and just snag the nearly identical SNES version of the game on the virtual console, thereby saving some money and still getting all the sexy pirate action your little heart desires.