Landstalker

Grade: B+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 20th

Publisher: Sega

Year: 1992

Genre: Pain

Do a Google search for the word “dominatrix” followed by whatever city you happen to live near, and you’ll end up looking at a listing of nearby ladies who, for a modest fee, will happily tie you up, whip you, walk on you, or – I don’t know, make you do the dishes or something? This sort of thing isn’t really my bag, so I’m not exactly sure how it works. Given how many professionals are out there though, I’m assuming this has quite an appeal for at least a fair number of people. When we first found out about this stuff (by the way, thanks yet again, internet), neither of us could really understand what would cause a person to get their wires crossed and start mixing pleasure and pain in such an extreme way. This is a completely alien concept – my love of Double Dragon instilled in me a supreme aversion of whip-wielding women, and Stryker prefers to get lady-tortured the old-fashioned way, through marriage. But now… now I think I know:

Those dudes probably all played Landstalker back in the Genesis days.

 

Kind of puts a whole new spin on this guy’s upcoming “session” with Madame Yard, doesn’t it?

See, Landstalker combines fun and suffering in a most dangerous sort of way – the enjoyable parts are so completely interlaced with moments of annoyance and outright sadism that it’s sometimes hard to know where one ends and the other begins. A typical game usually eases this transition – you might play through a hard level followed by an easy level, or an area where you face a bunch of pushovers followed by a challenging boss fight. By contrast, Landstalker flips back and forth between fun and frustrating like a small child playing with a light switch. If you’re not careful, both will start to blur together until each part of the game seems equally cruel and enjoyable, and that’s when you’re in trouble. Once that happens, you’re really only a couple of steps away from paying some leather-clad chick to kick you in the junk. And that’s probably not good.

In fact, to make sure that doesn’t happen, we recommend taking a break from playing Landstalker every couple hours or so to do something purely enjoyable and pain-free. Maybe have a bowl of ice cream or play with a puppy or something. You know, just to remind yourself that delight doesn’t necessarily require any suffering. It’ll be good for your mental health plus, hey, ice cream.

Or raw meat, I mean, whatever you like, really.

Landstalker is an Action/RPG, and simply by mentioning that hybrid genre we’re obligated to compare it to The Legend of Zelda. There’s actually a law that says that. Some have even gone as far to call Landstalker Sega’s own version of Zelda, but the games really aren’t all that similar. Yes, both of them have swordfighting, exploration, and puzzle solving, along with visiting towns and interacting with NPCs, but Landstalker  puts a much bigger emphasis on platforming. Whereas the Zelda games have little to no jumping sequences, getting from one ledge or floating platform to the next accounts for maybe as much as 50% of Landstalker’s gameplay and about 99% of the accompanying swear words. Have I mentioned that this game gets difficult at times? Oh, I have? Well, it does.

By the way, if you really want a truly Zelda-like game for the Genesis, check out Beyond Oasis or Crusader of Centy… actually, you know what? Just check out Beyond Oasis.

Before we go any further, let’s make something clear. Many games are hard. Landstalker is cruel, and believe me, there’s a difference. Usually, a game will present you with a difficult area, say a series of really hard jumps, and you might get stuck and have to do it over and over a thousand times before you get it right, but if you ever do get through it, you’re set and won’t have to do it again. What Landstalker will do will put the next series of hard jumps directly above the previous series, so that if you miss one on the second set, you fall all the way through the first area, and have to do that again, too. This is pretty standard stuff for Landstalker. There were some mean spirited people at work on this one.

Most games just test your skill, but thanks to its sinister design, Landstalker challenges your patience, too. The toughest parts of the game have as much to do with fighting enemies or making jumps as they do with not throwing your Genesis out the window. We failed numerous times on both fronts.

So why bother with a game that presents a hazard to the well-being of both your sanity and the Genesis you happen to be playing the game on? Because Landstalker, despite all its evil, is still a lot of fun. The combat is a simple, fast-paced affair that you don’t mind doing over and over again. There puzzle parts are even better – a lot of them require genuine brain power, and it’s not unheard of to get stuck on one for a while, before finally having that satisfying “Aha!” moment.

In fact, it’s the puzzle/exploration aspect that will really keep you coming back for more. What’s really impressive about this part of the game are how many false leads this game throws at you. Most games, both new and old, are actually very efficient; just about everything put into a level – a switch, a room, an item – is there for a reason. Once you begin to understand this, solving parts of a game become a lot easier. If you get stuck, it’s usually just a matter of looking around and going “Well, they must have put that ledge (or “empty” room, or dead hooker, etc.) there for some reason,” and then figuring out what to do with it. Even games that do include empty areas tend to put secret items there as a subtle hint to the player that they have no further purpose. Conversely, Landstalker adds in some legitimate dead ends, useless areas, and other red herrings. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with a few extra pieces in it – you never know for sure if something that seems extra truly is or not, and it makes the game a lot more interesting. It’s noteworthy because this is such a rare thing in gaming. If you don’t believe me, think of a few other exploration and puzzle solving  games where you would expect to encounter this – Tomb Raider is basically an entire game just running from one thing you jump or grab onto to the next, and Zelda’s idea of throwing you off the scent involves adding an extra statue next to the one you have to push. Most games are remarkably streamlined when you really think about it.

Difficulty has sort of an interesting effect on how much you enjoy a game. Whether someone finds a tough game to be utterly frustrating or refreshingly challenging really depends on how much fun the rest of the game is. This makes sense – if a game is really good, you don’t mind as much if you have to play parts of it a few extra times before you get through them, and when you finally get through a tough part, you’re rewarded with new levels or areas to enjoy. This is completely reversed in a bad game – there isn’t much point to suffering through a level of Cliffhanger over and over, if the only reward is going to be having to play more Cliffhanger.

 

Whereas in Landstalker, your reward is a refreshing “NOT” joke.

Besides, there’s something satisfying about getting through a difficult game. Being good at Landstalker may not be as useful of a skill as, say, talking to supermodels or being Batman, but there’s something kind of cool about finally breezing through a tough part and thinking, “I used to be really bad at that, but now I’m pretty good.” I think that’s a feeling people crave psychologically, and it’s probably a big part of the appeal of video games in general… or at least it was back when they still made challenging games. It’s kind of hard to get that feeling these days when you’re beating everything on the first try.

In a weird way, you’re probably better off playing Landstalker now than you were then. The game came out in an era before the widespread internet, and back in a time when few games had hintbooks. Back in 1993, if you got stuck in a really tough part of Landstalker, your options were basically to either hand the controller to one of your friends and watch him die over and over in the vain hope he’d figure it out, or call a 1-900 hint line and pay $3 a minute to get helpful advice like “Stop sucking at the game”. By our calculations, it would have cost approximately $7,000 in phone calls to beat Landstalker in the early ‘90s. These days you can just look up a free strategy guide online, or go on YouTube and watch of video of the part you’re stuck on to see if you’re at least on the right track.

The story is good, too – it’s fun and moves the action along without taking itself seriously. There are some genuinely funny parts, and the game never gets too bogged down explaining plot points when it could be giving you more things to kill. The game centers around Nigel, a treasure hunter seeking the legendary treasure of King Nole. What’s refreshing about this is that at first, Nigel’s interest in the treasure seems to be purely monetary – as far as he knows, the treasure doesn’t have some great power, and isn’t the key to unlocking some ancient evil or destroying the world. Think about how rare that is. Two of the other games on this list – Shining Force 2 and Gunstar Heroes, center around stolen gems that unleash doomsday scenarios. Even games you think would be about pursuing treasures simply for treasure’s sake, like Tomb Raider, usually end up being about all-powerful world-ending artifacts. In fact, near the end of the Landstalker, when the treasure’s secret powers are finally revealed (I’d apologize for the spoiler, but I mean, really? It’s a treasure in a video game, of course it was going to have mystical powers), it actually seemed like a bit of a disappointment. What’s so wrong with going after a treasure just so you can get rich? That’s a lot more relatable if you ask me. There seems to be this notion that gamers need to have some sort of higher goal is order to play through the game, but… I mean have you ever met a gamer? We’re not such noble creatures as you seem to think.


Seriously. You could toss a bag of Oreos at the back of a cave and most of us would murder a hundred virtual giant dragons or demonic warriors to get at them.

One last thing that adds to Landstalker’s appeal is the fact that a lot of the people who made Shining Force worked on this (it was actually made by the same developer that made Shining in the Darkness, the game that Shining Force is the sort-of sequel to). Although the games are completely different in terms of gameplay, there is an obvious influence in both the graphics and (especially) the music, which is a very good thing. A game that looks and sounds like Shining Force and plays like Zelda, except with improved exploration and puzzles? Impossible jumping sequences or not, that’s something we’ll sign up for.

Availability: While Landstalker is respected by many hard-core gamers, it’s never quite achieved the cult status of games like Gunstar Heroes or Toe Jam and Earl, meaning that it also doesn’t suffer from the price inflation that those games have. See? The next time you complain that some great game never got the respect it deserved, just remember it’s that same lack of respect that allows you to buy it for considerably less. Anyway, we had no luck trying to find it in stores, but copies can be found online starting at around $10, or closer to $15-20 if you want a box and instructions. Alternately, it is also available for download on the Wii Virtual Console.

Gunstar Heroes

Grade: B+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 21st

Publisher: Sega

Year: 1993

Genre: Treasure

Before we get started, I should let you know that I’m not totally clear on the storyline of Gunstar Heroes. There’s a guy in a red military uniform trying to take over the world (this was apparently a pretty big concern in the post Street Fighter 2 era), and there’s some gems you’re trying to find or something and then… you shoot things. That’s really the most important part of the story. I could tell you that I’m not perfectly clear on the details because the game went through a somewhat incomplete rewrite of backstory when it came over to America, but the truth is, I was too busy shooting stuff to really pay much attention anyway. So let’s just say that this is a game in which you prevent a bad guy from taking over the world by retrieving some gems before he does. And you retrieve said gems by blasting the crap out of everything you see… you know, the way God intended.

I know we discussed this earlier when we reviewed Shining Force 2, but I still don’t know why gemstones keep getting used as the key to taking over/destroying the world. Gems aren’t inherently dangerous or powerful – nobody’s ever made a nuclear bomb out of rubies, or successfully harnessed an emerald’s mind control powers (I suppose you could make an argument of diamonds’ behavior to make people act in irrational ways, but even so, De Beers hasn’t been able to take over more than a few small third world countries). Likewise, weapons grade plutonium doesn’t have an attractive sparkle and isn’t something you’d carve into a stunning necklace. So lacking this natural tendency to be dangerous or powerful, we must assume that people are taking ordinary gems and enhancing them with incredible powers.

See that gigantic robotic bird with all the firepower? Yeah, it’s chasing you.

But this doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. It would better idea to imbue these powers into something more ordinary such as, say, a salad bowl. See, unlike a salad bowl, gems tend to be both small and valuable.  This makes them easy to lose, and more likely to be stolen. Sure, there are some larger gemstones out there, but those just end up being even more valuable. It’s bad enough that as a powerful artifact, there are going to be people out there who know what they’re capable of and will try to steal these things. No need to make them attractive to people who don’t even realize they’re super-powered. The last thing you want is for some team of jewel thieves to pull an Ocean’s 11 style heist on the Diamond that Rules the Entire Freaking Universe, and next thing you know, George Clooney and Brad Pitt are calling all the shots.


On the other hand, when’s the last time someone tried to steal your salad bowl?

Besides, think of the start-up costs it would take to enhance a large ruby with world destroying powers. First, you have to obtain a pretty large ruby, and that’s no small task. “Fist-sized” is considered insanely large for a jewel, and most of the ones you see in video games are at least the size of your character’s head. Something like that would probably cost millions of dollars. That’s well out of the question for the average citizen, meaning it could only be done by a very large corporation or the government. Could you even imagine the uproar in Washington if the government did that? I can see the ads now: “In an time of increasing government deficits, Congressman Smith voted to spend your tax dollars to buy himself million-dollar rubies…” And large corporations are generally a lot more cost conscious than the government. All it would take is one decent accountant in the company to point out that hey, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to power up the filing cabinet over in the corner than it would to buy the Hope Diamond and give it magic properties.

Silly plots concerns aside, Gunstar Heroes is a fantastic game, and easily one of Treasure’s finest efforts. And when I say it’s one of Treasure’s finest efforts, I mean for that to be impressive. This isn’t like when I say Batman Forever is one of Acclaim’s finest efforts, meaning that it was a bit better than Revolution X, but still well within that range of games that should be treated with the same sort of avoidance you would have toward a guy giving away candy out of the back of a nondescript panel van.

Here’s the thing about Gunstar Heroes – it’s filled with so many innovations that even today it still feels a few steps ahead of anything else being offered in the genre. And keep in mind that it comes from a time when people still thought full motion video was a great idea. Pretty incredible to think that while some companies were doing it so, so wrong (why hello again, Acclaim!), a few were coming up with games that seem innovative two decades later.  It’s pretty awesome to have a health meter instead of instantly dying every time you get hit, be able to fight enemies hand to hand up close, choose the order in which you play through the stages, and be able to combine powerups to create new weapons. Individually, none of these are ground-breaking improvements – I mean, it’s not like they did anything really radical like having you start from the right side of the screen and run to the left (because that would just be crazy right?), or have you NOT shoot things – but the total of the game’s many, many small improvements has the effect of making GS feel really fresh and original. It plays like Contra but feels vaguely like Megaman, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off.

And about as explodey as both games combined.

That’s what Treasure does though, bless their little hearts. They just keep trying to drag video games kicking and screaming into the future, and hardly ever having a big commercial success to show for their efforts. That’s kind of the downside of this approach to game making – it takes a real experienced gamer to appreciate all that’s going on here. It’s easier to get people excited about a really groundbreaking game that’s drastically different from anything we’ve seen before (Doom, Metal Gear Solid) than it is to take a well-established genre, take it all apart, and rebuild the whole thing with better parts. To fully appreciate how excellent Gunstar Heroes is, you sort of need to have seen a dozen similar games do it less well. This earns them a lot of cred with hardcore gamers and the gaming media, but it isn’t getting them onto any bestseller lists.

It’s tempting to think of Treasure as some sort of purely benevolent game design studio, flitting from genre to genre, seeing which types of games are in need of some innovation and attempting to show us all the way to a brighter future. They get little in the way of a reward for their efforts other than the gratitude of a dedicated few, but that’s ok, because they’re really just in it for the games, man.  And maybe that’s really the case. Or maybe not. Maybe these games sell like gangbusters in Japan, and releasing them to critical acclaim and modest sales in the US is just a way to establish a pipeline in case they suddenly get a wild urge to release a football game one day. Or who knows – maybe games like Gunstar Heroes and Mischief Makers represent their best attempts to “sell out” and make a derivative, commercially viable game, and they just don’t know any better. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what their motivations are, just be glad that a few developers like this still exist.

Availability: Possibly due to the somewhat unusual relationship Treasure has with publishers – they’re sort of a freelance design studio that doesn’t work with one publisher exclusively the way most do – Gunstar Heroes doesn’t appear in any compilations that we know of (in the US, anyway). It is however, available as a download for the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii, making it one of the more accessible Genesis titles, and an absolute bargain at the price. We also recommend these versions because the ability to save at any time takes some of the frustration out of the more difficult parts (and believe me, there are some difficult parts).

Those of you looking for a Genesis copy should be a little bit careful, though– this is exactly the type of game – somewhat hard to find, with a cult following – that makes some unscrupulous sellers’ eyes light up with dollar signs. The game is a little bit rare, but by no means impossible to obtain, so don’t listen to the guy charging $40 dollars for a copy and telling you it’s the only one you’ll ever see. You should be able to find a few copies online or a some of the better used game stores. A decent one will probably go for at least $15 and usually closer to $20-25. A bit pricey, but not outrageous.

Toejam and Earl

Grade: B+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 22nd

Publisher: Sega

Year: 1991

Genre: Funky

The early nineties battle between the Genesis and the Super Nintendo could be generalized as a choice between competence and creativity. The Super Nintendo had the games that were technically “better” – familiar, well-executed titles in established genres, while the Genesis had the games that were more innovative – original concepts, ports of PC games people had assumed would never work on a console, and radical blending of genres. This divergence wasn’t intentional; Nintendo didn’t get all their management together in a meeting one day and decide “Hey, you know what? Fuck originality, we have Zelda.” But as time went on, the SNES fell back on its experienced publishers and well-known franchises, while the Genesis countered by becoming a breeding ground for new ideas.

Of course, establishing your console as a haven for unique games is no small feat in an industry where the mushroom-fueled exploits of an Italian plumber through a pastel-colored acid trip are considered “normal”. You need to seek out designers who have original ideas and nuture them. Then you need to back off and let their creativity flow. And most importantly, you need rapping aliens from a distant planet called Funkotron. Enter Toejam and Earl:

If you’re looking for an explanation as to why people regarded the Genesis as the home of innovative gaming, you’re not going to find a better one than this

Now to be fair, it’s not like people lined up and chose to buy a Genesis over a SNES based on TJ&E. But just having it in the Genny’s library made people appreciate the system more. It was different… really different. This was a game that practically screamed “You’d never see anything like this on the Super Nintendo,” which was appealing to a certain set of gamers and helped build the Genesis’ reputation as the more innovative console.

Even people who had never played the game loved the two characters, but what truly makes TJ&E unique is that it genuinely isn’t like most other games. First of all, it’s hard to even classify into a genre. The best description is probably to call it a scavenger hunt – you explore each level, try to avoid enemies whenever possible, and seek out parts of your missing ship and the exit to the next stage. There isn’t much combat, and the best survival tactic is generally to give your foes as wide of a berth as possible. It’s not a completely unfamiliar concept – a lot of us play a game like this in real life called “going to visit that friend who lives in the sketchy neighborhood” – but generally speaking, this isn’t how video games work. Usually, obstacles (and enemies) are to be dealt with directly, and levels are simply a means to take the player from one challenge to the next, not the core of the game in of themselves.

Oh sure, it looks weird here, but within the context of the game, this nearly makes sense.

The unconventional approach of TJ&E might sound kind of boring, but the game makes up for it in a lot of ways. The simple act of walking around and exploring is far more interesting than you would expect, mostly because everything in the game is so weird that you really never know what you’ll find next. But the game isn’t just weird for the sake of being weird, Toejam and Earl is one of the few games in existence that is genuinely funny. From the odd enemies (such as the shopping cart pushing lady who ignores her screaming toddler, except to occasionally yell at him), to the sound effects (the maniacal laughter of the crazy dentist is awesome), to simple things, like watching Earl hula dance (or just the idea that hula dancing is “contagious”), this game provides plenty of humorous moments. And in the end, it is the humor that makes playing the game so damn entertaining.

Besides, by flipping the concept of a game on its head, it makes everything feel more “alien”, which is one of the things that Toejam and Earl does really well. Games have all kinds of ways for getting you to identify with the characters you control – by giving them elaborate back stories, by setting the game up around a captivating narrative, or simply by giving the character traits likely to be shared by the player or someone they know. Toejam and Earl goes one better by giving the player a gameplay experience that’s quite similar to what the characters themselves are going through. Not only is the gameplay unusual, but the landscape of this “Earth” that they are exploring is vaguely familiar but ultimately quite different from the planet we call home. People attack them for seemingly no reason and it’s often difficult to tell friend from foe. The entire world is strange and confusing to the player, which is also exactly how it would feel to two aliens that had crash-landed here from another planet.

Of course, you can’t have a game about two rapping space aliens from the planet Funkotron without some appropriate music, and in this regard the game is… well kinda minimalistic, actually. There are only 2 songs that get played often, one is an 80s hip-hop inspired track that plays between levels and whenever you get a really awesome powerup, and the other is the main theme, a catchy little funk tune that basically plays whenever the other song isn’t (about 90% of the time). That’s not a whole lot of songs for a game that at its core is about music (did I mention that TJ&E are trying to reassemble their spaceship, and most of the missing parts are speakers?), but it works fairly well. Due to what I can only assume is black magic, the main theme somehow doesn’t get annoying and repetitive, and the other song provides just enough variety. There’s also a little minigame where you can make up your own raps by pressing buttons to play sound effects over a background beat, you know, for those times when you just have to hear someone yelling “Big Earl” in a deep voice over what sounds like the preprogrammed melodies from a Casio keyboard.

It took me twenty years to beat this game, you’re damn right I’m showing a picture proving it.

A big portion of the game’s humor and charm comes from the graphics. While they aren’t exactly spectacular, the cartoonish art style fits the theme of the game well (a super-realistic look for a game like this would probably be pretty scary, actually). More importantly, the animations are superb. Watching Toejam make a “hallelujah” gesture after getting an extra life, or seeing Earl float around in an inner tube is funnier than you would expect. However, it’s the enemies that really benefit from this treatment, as many of them have interesting behaviors, and as dangerous as they are, you still almost want to hang around them just to see what crazy things they do. I’m assuming this is the same reason people keep cats as pets.

In other words, there’s a lot more artistry involved here than what you might expect from a game about rapping aliens. You can tell that somebody put a lot of thought into the game, figuring out ways to make the game weird, the characters interesting, and the gameplay unique. That’s a part of the appeal of the game, too – knowing that not only are you getting fun, unique gameplay, and an interesting experience, but just taking a moment to appreciate that you’re getting somebody’s best effort at making a video game. That’s not a feeling you get while playing, say, Crystal’s Pony Tale.

Earl sneaks up on an old man in a carrot suit. Just go with it.

Availability: Toejam and Earl came out before the Genesis really caught on, and wasn’t a huge seller, but enjoys a real appreciation among gamers these days. Unfortunately, that combination means that copies of the game are hard to find and expensive. This rarity is somewhat compounded by the fact that Greg Johnson, one of the original designers of the game, retained the rights to the characters. Because of this, it isn’t available on any of the Sega compilations (even though Sega originally published it for the Genesis), and the only re-release we know of is for the Wii’s Virtual console (at a price of $8).

However, for those of you without Wiis, playing the game means buying a Genesis copy, and that’s easier said than done. Stryker only had one ever come through his store (which he snatched up for his personal collection), and in our searches for it, we only found a single used game store that had one – which they kept in a fancy glass case away from all the peasant games like Sub-Terrania, and were selling for $35. Buying a copy online looks to set you back at least $15, and more likely somewhere in the $20-$25 range.

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Grade: B+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 23rd

Publisher: Sega

Year: 1994

Genre: Cyber-Grunge

In 1994, the internet wasn’t anything like it is now. I know that sounds like an obvious statement that probably got the older readers of this site thinking about guestbooks, frames, embedded midi files and little notices indicating that the page you’re visiting looks best when viewed in Netscape Navigator in 800×600 resolution. Maybe a few of you even got nostalgic and opened up a new tab to Lycos or WebCrawler (yes, they both still exist) so that you could browse the internet of yesteryear, under the mistaken impression that using an outdated search engine somehow magically turns back the clock on all the websites that it links you to.


X-rated website, circa 1994.

But even that really describes the internet as we knew it a few years later, around 1997 or so. For all but the most tech-savvy of us, going online in 1994 pretty much just meant logging on to America Online, browsing a few chat rooms, and maybe checking out some of AoL’s own online content. There was a “Go to the Web” button tucked away in the corner that most of us didn’t click on, and the ones who did generally came upon an incomprehensible mess, without much to see. The early internet is often compared to the Wild West, implying that it was unorganized and lawless. But this was more like the West in a different sense – a vast wilderness that only an expert could navigate, with miles of empty space and only a few tiny settlements scattered here and there.

In a way, this was the perfect time for a game about futuristic computer hackers like Shadowrun to come out, because the internet was an almost blank canvas with unlimited potential. Games could come up with any kind of interpretation of what it would look like and they all seemed plausible. For example, let’s take a look at Shadowrun’s cover art:

Kind of an exciting scene here, as the two heavily armed team members try to protect the other as he jacks into the network of whatever entity they’re trying to raid. Still, it raises the question, why are they doing such a dangerous operation out in the open like this? Because in the world of Shadowrun, you connect to the internet via payphone. So to carry out a cybercrime, you first have to go to a public phone on the street, plug your brain into it (because apparently they have THAT technology, but not the iPhone) and start hacking. In the mid-nineties, this still seemed totally plausible.

This isn’t a commentary on the “realism” of Shadowrun, a fantasy game (based on a pen and paper RPG that had come out 5 years previously) that takes place in a future where corporations rule the world, and elves, orcs and dwarves walk among us. Rather, it’s just interesting to see what forms of technology the people who invented Shadowrun imagined for our future, and consider that for the original game to have become popular enough to make a video game about, a lot of people must have found it at least somewhat believable. That’s a big part of the appeal of sci-fi – it’s a glimpse into the world that could be. And now, almost 20 years after the Genesis game came out, it’s fun to see which of these technological innovations actually did happen, could still happen, or seem hopelessly dated.

In the world of Shadowrun, the key to success is having a good Johnson.

Interestingly, it’s not always the stuff you think it will be. For example, in the game, you communicate with everyone by phone, and when you make a new contact, it’s done by obtaining their phone number. Of course, these days we have email and social networks for those kinds of things, so the idea of doing it all by phone seems silly. Especially the idea of doing it on a payphone, when even little kids have cell phones these days. On the other hand, one of the defining characteristics of Shadowrun is that magic exists, having been discovered in the near future. And while I think it’s safe to say that such a thing is extremely unlikely to ever happen, we only feel that way because it hasn’t happened yet – there’s nothing out there actively preventing it from occurring.

In other words, it’s slightly more likely that scientists will discover magic someday than it is for people to go back to using payphones.

As for the game itself, Shadowrun is an action/RPG set in the future. Also, Seattle. Although, having been to Seattle a few times in real life, it already seems like the future there. Or maybe that’s just because my hometown of Buffalo is so behind the times everywhere else feels futuristic… That could be our new tourism campaign – Remember how much fun the 80s were? Well, come to Buffalo, where it’s still the 80s, every day. 100 years from now, Buffalo will still feel like the 1980s, and we can turn the city into a theme park, like Colonial Williamsburg, except with more fringe-lined jean jackets.

Anyway, Shadowrun is an action RPG, although it might be more accurate to say that it’s really a pure role-playing game that just happens to disguised very convincingly as an action game, not unlike, say, Baldur’s Gate. The game mechanics are pure RPG, but because there are no separate battle screens, or menus to pick your attacks off of, and you retain control of your character and can move around throughout combat, it feels very much like an overhead shooter. It might be hard to imagine what a big deal this was, so I’ll just come out and say it – this was goddamn revolutionary in the 16 bit era. No RPG had ever pulled off its gameplay so seamlessly, and it would be several years before anyone else even came close. It’s only been during the current console generation that this has started to really become mainstream. When I criticize some critically-beloved, all-time great RPG for having terrible gameplay due to a half-assed, menu-driven combat system that involves picking “fight” off a menu over and over, what I’m really saying is that it should have been more like Shadowrun.

Shadowrun is also a non-linear game, allowing you to explore where you want and do some parts of the story in the order that you choose. This was still pretty uncommon at the time, but what’s really unique about it in Shadowrun is that it’s absolutely essential to the way the game is played. Even some of the most famous open-world style games, like Grand Theft Auto or Fallout 3 could still kind of work if they were completely linear – they’d be much less fun, sure, but they’d still work. Not so with Shadowrun, because Shadowrun is all about trying to solve a mystery, and this requires you to explore, figure stuff out for yourself, and take on odd jobs to earn the money to get the access or contacts it will take to find your next clue. Playing Shadowrun makes you realize that games where the story is purely mission-driven (such as GTA) are wasting a fair amount of the potential this kind of structure offers them.

Contacts can provide you with leads, but rarely spell everything out for you.

In fact, I can’t really think of any recent games that follow Shadowrun’s approach to non-linear gameplay. The best comparison I can make is the the old PC Adventure games like King’s Quest. Today’s games give you the main quest broken out into step-by-step directions, with a little note telling you what you need to do and often times a marker on your map showing exactly where to go. Shadowrun doesn’t work like that. Instead, you have things you need to accomplish, and you might have a few clues as to how to do it. For instance, you might meet an important contact, and he’ll offer to help you, but not until you take care of something for him, or bring him some hard to obtain item. But – and here’s the big difference from newer games – that contact doesn’t tell you HOW to complete the task or obtain the item. You’ll have to figure that part on your own. It makes more sense this way. After all, if the guy knew how to get the thing he’s sending you after, he’d just do it himself instead of paying you.

Compare this to a Grand Theft Auto game, where the person giving you a mission typically has the entire job plotted out to the last detail, gives you any equipment you may need, and was even kind enough to put a tracking device on your target so you can watch it in your GPS (even if it’s the 1980s, or the Wild West, and there is no such thing as GPS yet). Or Fallout: New Vegas, where not only do the leaders have the whole mission planned out for you, but they also have hundreds of soldiers at their command that they could easily send instead of some outsider. In Shadowrun, people are having you do jobs for them because they can’t do them themselves. In most other games, they don’t seem to be sending you for any reason other than to advance the plot of the game. It’s like “Oh hey, could you do this for me? I’d take care of it myself, but there’s a Law and Order marathon on USA that I really want to watch.” This is the difference between having an actual adventure (Shadowrun), or running errands for your Mom (most other open-world games).

I just have a weird feeling that if I went into a seedy Seattle bar and said I was looking for a Johnson, I’d end up on an entirely different kind of “escort mission”.

Availability: A combination of coming out fairly late in the life of the Genesis, and being a game with a cult following but lacking mainstream appeal, has led to Shadowrun being a somewhat rare game today. There was a remake for the Xbox 360 a few years ago, but it has little  in common with this one. Even searching online, we only found a few copies of the game up for sale. A nice, complete version will probably set you back $15-20, and even a cartridge-only one won’t cost much less. That’s more expensive than many of the other games in our Top 50, but given the uniqueness of Shadowrun, along with the fact that it’s a long, entertaining game, that’s not too surprising. Just watch out for the guys trying to pass it off as a $40 game, as there are better deals out there.

Sunset Riders

Grade: B+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 24th

Publisher: Konami

Year: 1992

Genre: Cowboy

At first glance, Sunset Riders appears to be the story of Billy and Cormano, two flamboyantly dressed cowboys who live in the worst town in the world. All the men are trying to kill them, herds of cattle stampede through the main street constantly, and the only woman who isn’t a prostitute is constantly being kidnapped. It’s the kind of place where a guy will just run out of a tavern and throw a stick of dynamite at you for no reason, and should you survive that, he’ll whip out a knife and try carving his initials into your face.

In other words, it’s the 1800s equivalent of modern-day Detroit.

This seems like a lot of well-organized, heavily-armed resistance, so it got us wondering – why all the hostility? Our first theory was that they saw Cormano’s pink shirt, assumed the two protagonists were gay (calling themselves the Sunset Riders probably doesn’t help), and started attacking them. We’re assuming a hyper-violent Old West town probably wouldn’t be all that progressive on gay issues, such as the right of homosexuals to not be stabbed. This could have made Sunset Riders a pretty interesting narrative – the struggle of a gay couple’s quite literal battle against intolerance and bigotry.  However, this seems unlikely considering most of the guys attacking you are also dressed in bright pastel colors, so they’d be unlikely to draw such an assumption; and even if they had, it probably would have been put into doubt after the tenth or so time that Cormano ran off in the middle of a heated gun fight to jump into the arms of a whore.

Festive clothing and violence rarely come together like this outside of Mardi Gras.

So if it’s not the most obvious explanation – a bunch of heavily armed homophobes misinterpreting a fashion statement – then what is it? Having started life as an arcade game, Sunset Riders doesn’t offer much in the way of story. Stages alternate between rescuing kidnapped women and fighting guys seen on reward posters at the beginning of the stage, neither of which seems like it should provoke an entire town to rise up against you. In fact, criminal gangs usually don’t work together, so about the only time you ever see a united front like this in old Westerns is when the townsfolk finally get brave and join together to stand up to the bad guys… Hey, wait a second…

Sunset Riders actually makes a lot more sense if you think of the two main characters not as justice-seeking bounty hunters, but rather as dangerous outlaws on a criminal rampage. Not only does it explain why everyone seems to be joining forces to against you, but it also gives us a more believable idea of what’s going on in each stage. Let’s take a look:

Level 1 – This is an assault on a small town combined with a bank robbery (the target of the first reward poster is an allegedly greedy banker). The townsfolk have been warned of your approach, and the bravest men have stayed behind to defend their homes from you. At one point, they even rile their cattle up to stampede through town in a desperate attempt to stop your attack.

Actually, they did stumble upon another more effective way of slowing you down.

Level 2 –Starting at the back of a train, you fight your way through waves of enemies and work your way toward the front. Eventually you fight your way to the lead car, and kill the engineer, taking the train for yourself. This is generally interpreted as you trying to prevent a train robbery, but that theory really only holds up if you believe a gang of train robbers would number in the hundreds, and that they are trying to steal the actual train instead of just its valuables. You have to admit that the guy who sneaked onto the back of a train and then shot every single person he came across seems more likely to be the robber.

Level 3 – You rampage through an Indian village and kill their chief. Really, that’s it. Given that this game came out in 1992, and not 1870, it’s hard to imagine how this level was ever compatible with the assumption that you were playing as the “good guys”.

Although it’s equally surprising they got away with this, too.

Level 4 – No longer satisfied with small time jobs, you stage a bold home invasion of Sir Richard Rose’s heavily guarded mansion. After slaughtering his private security force, you murder him in his own home and take his money. The only justification the game gives for this behavior is to portray him as a British Aristocrat, which apparently we’re supposed to assume was a crime in the Old West. Also, considering that in the previous level, you laid waste to an Indian village for no apparent reason, and that the boss of the second level was Mexican, it would seem that the game has taken a rather disturbing turn towards xenophobia in its second half.

“But wait,” you’re saying “those guys you killed were on wanted posters! That means they were criminals.” Well, technically, they’re not on wanted posters, they’re on reward posters. There’s no indication of any crimes that they’re wanted for, or reason to believe that the person/organization offering these rewards has anything to do with law enforcement at all. You could just as easily be a couple of freelance hitmen. Not all bounty hunters are the side of the law, after all – don’t forget that the most famous one of all time worked for Jabba the Hutt.

Ok, but what about the girl you rescue on the first stage of every level? Surely, anyone who’s willing to take out a bunch of heavily armed men guarding a tied up woman can’t be a villain, right? Sure, unless these aren’t rescue missions but rather jailbreaks. Rather than a perpetual kidnapping victim, she’s actually the third member of your gang. This is proven during the bonus stages, when she assists you in robbing a stagecoach:

Jesus Christ, Cormano! Where did you even find a pink horse?

Having her get caught every level might even be part of the strategy – a way to get a person on the inside. She gets captured, the Sunset Riders observe and watch where she is taken, and then they know where their next target is. Or she just might get caught a lot. You do have to admit that their scheme of having her hide inside a covered wagon and throw the valuables out the back to the trailing Riders doesn’t offer a lot of good exit strategies.

Gameplay-wise, Sunset Riders is basically Contra set in the Old West and with the difficulty scaled back a bit, which is to say that the game is kind of possible. Unlike Contra: Hard Corps, the emphasis is less on boss fights and more on stages where you move left to right while hundreds of henchmen take potshots at you. We’ve seen hundreds of these games before, and Sunset Riders doesn’t really add much innovation to the mix, but the execution is where it shines. The game might not be doing anything new, but it’s doing the same old thing a lot better than just about anyone else has done.

Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize you were the Billy Cool. You keep on rocking that purple hat, sir.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a great run-n-gun game like this came from Konami, who were the kings of this genre back then. Where Sunset Riders excels compared to most of their other games is in pacing and difficulty. Most of the platforming elements are taken out, leaving the focus on shooting and dodging without having to worry about jumping over gaps very often. Weapon power-ups are frequent, eliminating the negative feedback loop that often occurs in games of this type where you die, lose your powerups for the rest of the stage, and then are severely handicapped and end up dying again. The game is challenging, but not nearly as tough as many other shooters, resulting in an experience that keeps you on your toes but generally doesn’t feel impossible or unfair. It never approaches the blistering pace of the Contra (then again, what does?), but the whole thing feels fluid thanks to tight control and level designs that minimize obstacles in favor of keeping you moving from one swarm of hot lead to the next.

Everything I know about physics says that these guys probably shouldn’t be able to shoot at each other right now.

Unfortunately, by the time Sunset Riders was released, the run-n-gun genre was already losing popularity among gamers, who were looking for more sophisticated thrills than simply going left to right and mowing down everything in your path. Video games have always evolved along a path of becoming more complex and involved, but the 16-bit days were around the time where this march toward complexity passed this genre by. Games like Sunset Riders thrive on being straightforward and stripped of extraneous elements, and there comes a point where you can’t add much more to these games without changing them completely. As a result, gamers started to see shooters as simplistic, repetitive, and not all that different from each other. The same thing happened to beat ‘em ups around the same time – both genres essentially reached evolutionary dead ends during the Genesis era.

Instead of a dead end, however, I like to think that each of these genres reached sort of an evolutionary perfection. That’s not to say that Sunset Riders, or any other shooter for that matter, is a perfect game, but rather that the genre reached a point where it couldn’t be drastically improved. Tweaks could be made here or there, but all the major improvements were already made. A big part of why this game is still fun after almost two decades is because nobody has, or will, make another one like it that’s significantly better.

This is what happens when you don’t coordinate your Village People tributes properly – four guys all come as the Indian, and you end up without any cops or construction workers.

Availability: Because it didn’t sell a ton of copies back then, Sunset Riders is one of the harder games to come by today. To our knowledge, it was not released as part of any compilation, isn’t available for download on any of the current consoles, and copies of the original are somewhat tough to find. The only one we stumbled upon in our travels was from a somewhat disreputable vendor at the local flea market, crammed into a filthy cardboard box amongst a bunch of other games that it looked like he had been using to clean up coffee spills. There are a few copies to be found online; nice, complete copies seem to be running in the $20-$30 range, while cartridge only versions are a more reasonable $10 or so. That’s less than the price of a purple shirt, and way less likely to get you shot at.

John Madden Football (Series)

Grade(s):

John Madden Football (1990): C

John Madden Football ’92 (1991): B-

John Madden Football ’93 (1992): B+

John Madden Football Championship Edition (1992): B+

Madden NFL ’94 (1993): B+

Madden NFL ‘95 (1994): B+

Madden NFL ‘96 (1995): C+

Madden NFL ‘97 (1996): C+

Madden NFL ‘98 (1997): C-

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 25th

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Years: 1990 – 1997 (see grades above for exact year for each game)

Genre: Boom!

Note: Of all the games in the series of EA’s Madden titles, these were the Editor’s favorites:

Brad: John Madden Football ‘93

Stryker: Madden NFL ‘94

In the grand scheme of things, there really aren’t a lot of video games that had a significant influence on the world. Sure, many of them inspire other games that come out later, some even go on to form all-new genres, but there really aren’t a lot that have had far-reaching, world-changing effects on the entire industry. There’s Pac-Man, which popularized video games with the mainstream, there’s E.T., which killed the industry, and there’s Super Mario Bros., which brought it back from the dead. But 99.9% of games, even really good ones, don’t have much of an impact at all. For example, if Golden Axe had never existed, we’d be out a couple of fun games, and Sega would have made a little less money, but that’s about it.

John Madden Football is one of the important games. In fact, it’s quite possibly the most important video game to come out in the last 25 years. I realize that sounds like I’m wildly overstating it, but you have to consider that Madden’s success didn’t just make Electronic Arts a tidy little sum of money. It quickly became EA’s most popular title, not to mention one of the best selling game franchises of all time, and was the key to company becoming the behemoth it is now. Don’t forget that in 1990, EA was a modest-sized company that had been putting out PC games, and the Genesis was their first true console.

In fact, Electronic Arts actually had to “pirate” a Genesis development kit, because Sega gave out all of the ones they had to higher-priority publishers and ran out of them before an insignificant also-ran like EA got one. These days, of course, console makers bend over backwards to make sure EA is publishing on their platform. To not have Electronic Arts games available on your console is a deathblow – just ask the Dreamcast.

With a special halftime appearance by Gozer.

Madden’s success lead EA to create an entire brand of realistic simulation-style sports games – something which were virtually unknown to consoles at the time. Besides basically creating what would be the most popular genre of video games, this also established the Genesis as THE system for sports games which, as much as hardcore Sonic fanboys might want to deny it, is what really made the Genesis a legitimate competitor to the Super Nintendo. As we’ve mentioned a million times before, most sports translate pretty well to video game adaptions because, well, they’re already games.

Sports games also appeal to a slightly older fanbase than most console games of the time. This opened gaming up to a wider audience as older players came in, or more likely, a lot of kids that would have gotten too old for Mario or Zelda found a new way to stay interested. Prior to the Genesis, video game consoles were considered kid’s stuff – the kind of thing you give up once you hit puberty in favor of more mature interests… you know, girls. Or at the very least, things that were less likely to turn away girls. But Madden and EA’s other sports games kept those Genesises from getting buried in the closet. That’s how powerful the EA Sports games were – it got teenage boys to continue engaging  in a behavior that was almost certainly making them less likely to touch boobs.

Seriously. Those Vikings have a better chance of touching Barry Sanders, and you know that ain’t gonna happen.

This became sort of a self-sustaining cycle, as more older gamers led to more games being made that were targeted to older games, which led to more older gamers, etc. And not just sports games, either – almost every type of game “grew up” during this era as a result of a slightly older gamer demographic. The fact that there are plenty of 30 and 40 year old men out there today who still play video games is largely attributable to Madden, both directly and indirectly. And the fact that many of them somehow have wives and children says a lot about women’s willingness to adapt in order to keep the species going.

So, to recap John Madden Football’s achievements:

  • Became one of the highest-selling game franchises of all time
  • Turned Electronic Arts from a modest sized PC game company into a third party behemoth
  • Legitimized the Sega Genesis
  • Created an older demographic for video games or, more importantly, kept the (then) current generation of gamers interested in gaming
  • Popularized realistic sports sims on consoles
  • Changed humans mating habits

Those are six HUGE things, all of which have a major impact on today’s gaming industry. Now, just for the sake of comparison, let’s take a look at the impact of the game that finished at #1 on our Sega Genesis Top 50 Games list, Pirates! Gold:

  • Gave Sid Meier something to do until he invented Civilization (the game, not actual civilization)
  • Spawned a mildly popular Xbox sequel a decade later
  • ARRRRRRRR!!!!

That’s only three, one of which isn’t even a real thing. And even the two real ones aren’t all that influential. You could even throw in the other three games that round out our Top 4 – NHL Hockey, Kid Chameleon, and Warsong, and still not even come up with ONE influence that looks significant compared to anything on Madden’s list of accomplishments. Hell, NHL Hockey owes its existence to the success of Madden.

Of course, that’s just a generalized list of Madden’s impact on the world. When you start to really look at these things in detail, you begin to notice how deep the rabbit hole goes. What if EA had stayed small, the Genesis had struggled, or Nintendo had remained absolutely dominant through the 16-bit era? How long before realistic sports games caught on with console gamers? Or would they STILL only be popular on the PC? If the Genesis failed and Nintendo established a near monopoly in the early 90s, would there have ever been a Sony Playstation?  Without a Playstation would we have ever had Resident Evil, or Tekken, or Metal Gear Solid? Or the Xbox, Halo, or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2?

In sports parlance, that’s what we would call Madden’s “off the field” accomplishments – they’re nice, they’re important, but they don’t really help you win games. As interesting as this little history lesson was, it had pretty much nothing to do with the series finishing #25 on our list. That was earned “on the field”, with gameplay that strikes a nice balance between a fun game and a decent simulation of the real sport.

We refuse to review a football game without somehow referencing Andre Rison. Here he is catching a pass.

For a series that’s often credited with making video game football more like a TV broadcast, Madden’s greatest innovation was actually making the game less like television by adopting an overhead, behind the line of scrimmage perspective as opposed to the sideline camera angle used by almost every broadcast and other sports video game at the time. Now you could look downfield to see how the play was developing, what the defense was doing, and spot open receivers. Previously, once a receiver ran more than 10 yards or so, you couldn’t see him and had no way of knowing if he was open, covered, tripped and fell down, or had been murdered by Raiders fans. All you could do was rely on the “Tony Romo method” – throw the ball in his general direction and hope for the best. To give you an idea of just how cutting edge this camera angle was, 20 years later, no football game would dream of not using this perspective. And to give you an idea of how inept TV networks are, they’re still using sideline cameras… I don’t know, maybe they think it’s more dramatic to watch a game that way, never knowing if a guy is open or about to get tackled until the last second.

Thanks to the revolutionary camera angle, we can see that all of Buffalo is covered in snow.

Which is not to say that the presentation was always perfect. For the first few years, the game was plagued by “passing windows” – little picture-in-picture boxes at the top of the screen that zoomed on your receivers. It wasn’t a bad idea, but the boxes didn’t show nearly enough to know whether a guy was truly open, and the windows covered up critical parts of the screen which, ironically, were usually where your receivers were. These were eventually eliminated, giving players an unobstructed view of the whole field, to which gamers showed their appreciation by no longer throwing incomplete passes 85% of the time.

Compared to the current generation of football titles, the Madden games on the Genesis are more player-centric. On defense, it’s easier to change the guy you’re controlling multiple times without screwing things up too badly (haven’t we all, at some point, tried to break up a pass in a newer football game, and gotten control of a different guy than you expected, and ended up running away from the ball?). And offensively, the success of a play depends a lot more on what you do than your computer-controlled teammates. It’s less realistic this way – since football is the ultimate team sport, it makes sense that the ten players you aren’t controlling would have a bigger influence on the game than the one that you are. The upside though, is that the Genesis games feel like you have a lot more control over the outcome, which is a lot more enjoyable. There’s not much fun in watching the computer win or lose games for you. That’s really what it comes down to – these old Madden games might not seem very realistic anymore, but they’re still a lot of fun.

Much like EA’s series of basketball games, the graphics in Madden have their own unique charm to them. Electronic Arts had sort of a signature art style, and while it’s hard to describe, it is oddly beautiful, and it’s amazing how good a game with basically 22 pixelated, identical guys running around on a field can look at times. A lot of this has to do with the animation, which is surprsingly fluid, detailed and varied. It looks like a real football game not because the graphics are super-realistic, but because the players run, tackle, and catch like real players do. One other thing Madden’s art department deserves credit for is that few other football games have ever gotten the look of a muddy, rain soaked natural grass field accurately. Madden uses a yellowish-greenish-brownish color mixture that just feels absolutely right somehow.

Here’s photographic proof that yellowish-greenish-brownish is a real color.

The Madden series had an interesting evolution, in that the features kept getting better, but after a few years, the gameplay started getting worse. None of the Genesis games have the now ubiquitous “franchise mode”, in which you build a team up over multiple seasons, but people might be surprised to find out most of the Madden games don’t even have the option to play a season. In the earlier titles, you had the choice to either play a single game, or the playoffs. Forget about all the statistics we’re used to seeing in our sports games, Madden ’93 couldn’t even keep track of your win-loss record. This seems especially surprising considering not only that PC football games (such as Joe Montana Football) had offered season modes for a while, but so had Tecmo Super Bowl, on the NES.

Stryker and I were unable to agree on the “best” year of Madden, but the general consensus was that the series peaked sometime in its middle years. The game switched to a different engine for Madden ’96, making it harder to control and overall just feeling a bit sloppy. And Madden ’98, the very last year of the series, is kind of a mess.

At least it’s a nice-looking mess. Sort of like a sideline reporter.

For what its worth, the Madden series has always been one of my favorite franchises when it comes to storytelling. The story in every Madden game is basically the same – you’re a football team, and you want to win the Super Bowl. Along the way, you play football games and meet interesting characters like “opposing running back” or “referee”. Of course, the genius part is that the game never comes right out and tells you the story with an elaborate intro, or cutscenes or anything like that. Instead, the entire story is told to you through from playing the game. Admittedly, the narrative lacks the depth of, say, Bioshock, but I do find it’s straightforward efficiency kind of refreshing.

Yeah? Well, it was Atlanta who went to the playoffs that year.

Availability: Because the game was so popular, and a new version came out every year, buying a copy of Madden isn’t difficult. Almost any store that sells old Genesis games will have copies of it, probably more than they know how to deal with. Don’t be surprised if they’ve been using extra copies to prop up wobbly table legs, as doorstops, or as an inexpensive building material for an expansion of the store. Or doing this. Earlier and later entries from the series are a bit harder to find (though generally not much more expensive), but those are also the worst years, so unless you’re a collector, it’s no big deal. Barring that, you can find plenty of copies for sale online, though the shipping will likely cost more than the game.

The only exception to that is the extremely rare John Madden Football Championship Edition, which is basically Madden ’93, except with an additional 38 historical teams. This was a Blockbuster “for rental only” exclusive, which was released in limited numbers, and fewer still found their way into the hands of gamers. These fetch pretty high prices online, often more than $50, and sometimes over $100. While it’s certainly tempting to have a version of Madden ’93 where you can play as the ’66 Packers or the ’75 Steelers, it’s probably not worth anywhere near that amount of money. Keep in mind that the scouting in these early Madden games was sort of an imperfect science, so it’s not exactly a flawless recreation of these old teams… and besides, when you’re playing a football game that came out in the early 90s, all the teams in the game already are already “historic teams” in a sense.

Yep, just keep telling yourself that. We’ll be over here watching the 2 greatest teams in NFL history play each other.

Finally, I’d be derelict in my duty if I wrote this much about Madden games without including a video of the psychotic ambulance driver from Madden ’92:

As Madden would say – “Where’d that truck come from?!?!

Shining Force 2

Grade:  A

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 26th

Publisher:  Sega

Year:  1994

Genre: Child Labor

Shining Force 2, much like its predecessor, proves once and for all that the best people to handle a dire situation are almost always whoever happens to be standing nearby.  Skill, training, experience… those things are all well and good, but when it comes right down to it, proximity is really the most important quality for a hero to have. Never mind if he looks like he’s about 10 years old and is armed with a stick.

Hey, before we head off with PETER, would it be too much to ask if I could go the armory and get a real sword? It would, huh? Well, ok then, hopefully those devils that are taking other the world will be discouraged by a good bonk on the head.

This is the protagonist of Shining Force 2. Let me give some advice to all the up-and-coming rulers of RPG kingdoms: do not send 4th graders on quests to save the world. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: if the kid gets killed, the world will end, so you don’t have to worry about writing an apology note to his parents. But that’s exactly the kind of “glass is half empty” mentality that is constantly putting the world at risk in the first place. Let’s have a little optimism and maybe send someone who has a chance of surviving. I mean, it’s not like it’s hard to find qualified heroes – the little kid seems to stumble into at least one in every town he visits. Then again, he’s a child, so his judgment of who a “qualified hero” is might be a little off, too. Not sure I’d run into battle with a dagger-wielding giant rat or my pet bird.

Shining Force 2’s story revolves around two gems, the Jewel of Light and The Jewel of Evil, which seal the doorway to the Evil World. You can probably already guess where this is going, and yes, the jewels are stolen. Not by an evil guy or anything, either – just some jewel thief who apparently wasn’t very big on research. One thing video game characters never seem to learn is that you probably shouldn’t use valuable objects as a means to seal away evil. Gigantic jewels, golden axes, fancy ninja swords – those are the kinds of things that if you just leave them lying around in the open, somebody’s eventually going to walk off with them and unleash hell. Maybe next time use one of those extra vases or crates that seem to be stacked in everyone’s houses to seal the evil gate. Or if that’s not possible – you know, if the evil power or whatever you’re sealing away is really materialistic and DEMANDS to be imprisoned in only the finest of gilded cages – at least maybe post some guards nearby or put up a sign saying “Hey, don’t steal this or we’ll all die.”

Why would someone steal the Jewel of Evil anyway? It can’t be worth much, you know, being an evil jewel and all.

The most honest way we could describe Shining Force 2 is to say that it’s almost exactly like the original Shining Force, except that the first Shining Force is just slightly better. We’re well aware that a lot of Shining Force fans – probably a majority, actually – disagree with us on that point, and prefer the sequel to the original. It’s not hard to see why – Shining Force 2 has more characters, more battles, a more fleshed-out narrative and overall is just a larger game than its predecessor. But a fair amount of that “extra stuff” felt like filler to us. There are sections of the game’s storyline that feel like it could have been cut out entirely without really impacting the narrative, and were probably included as a way to lengthen the game and add a few more battles. Battles which, in more than a few cases, weren’t all that memorable anyway. By contrast, the original Shining Force seems a bit tighter and better designed.

Having said that, if we were restricting our list only to games that we liked better than the original Shining Force, we would have had to cut it from a Top 50 to about a Top 5 or so. Which, in hindsight, might not have been such a bad idea, since we’d maybe be done by now.

He’s just jealous – it’s the Beastie Boys.

Ultimately, I suppose this reveals some irony in the way our Top 50 was set up.  Shining Force 2 was too good on its own for us to shrug our shoulders and say “Eh, just lump it in with the first one, they’re both pretty much the same thing.”  But by breaking it out, we also put it into an indirect competition with its predecessor and, not wanting to place them too close together, SF2 ends up just barely missing out on the top half of out list.  Had this been the only Shining Force game ever made, it would have been a shoo-in for the Top 10 (you might have noticed that its letter grade is higher than the other games in this part of the list). Instead, it will have to settle for being one of only two franchises with multiple entries on our Top 50.  The only other series to pull off that feat was Sonic, so at least it’s in good company.

Two centaurs, a bird, a rat, and a chick with blue hair. Oh yeah, we got this.

Availability: Luckily, experiencing Shining Force 2 for yourself isn’t an expensive proposition. Admittedly, Genesis copies of Shining Force 2 are somewhat hard to find, and the prices can get pretty high. But unless you’re either a collector or a Genesis purist, you can just pick up a copy of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the PS3 or Xbox 360. It’ll probably cost about the same as buying a copy of SF2 online, and comes with BOTH Shining Force games, as well as a decent number of other games that made our Top 50. Alternately, Wii owners can get this for the Virtual Console for $8.


Really, any game where you can yell at a bird is automatically worth eight bucks.

Super Off-Road

Grade: B

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 27th

Publisher: Ballistic

Year: 1994

Genre: Bikini

Brad: Super Off-Road is one of those “guilty pleasure” kind of titles – the video game equivalent of watching a marathon of Melrose Place reruns or going back and listening to pop music from when you were in Jr. High. It’s the sort of game you know in the back of your mind isn’t supposed to be very good, but you still find yourself enjoying it anyway while your brain screams out “screw you, better judgment!”

Fun fact: the conversion to the Genesis was so half-assed that they forgot to change the year and publisher on the title screen from the SNES, neither of which was correct for this version. Oops!

When we originally came up with the idea for doing this Top 50 list, the plan was that each game on the Top 50 would get a long, loving tribute talking about it’s history, it’s impact on gaming, and what made it better than at least 657 other Genesis games. But I think we’re going to end up cutting things a bit short for this one. I mean, what is there to say? This is an old coin-op game about dirt track racing. There’s no story to analyze, no innovative features to discuss, and the main character is a red pickup truck. It’s a simplistic, straightforward arcade game, and almost nothing was added to the home version to make it deeper or add variety.

Though to be fair, “trucks driving in mud” is kind of a hard concept to really expand on.

So how did a game like this end up not only getting onto our Top 50, but almost cracking the Top 25? Super Off-Road may not be sophisticated, but it delivers simple pleasures rather effectively. First of all, the game is flat-out fun to play – there might not be much to it, but it’s an enjoyable racing experience that anyone can pick up and play, and somehow stays challenging in the long term. It’s also one of the few overhead racing games that lets you see the entire track at once. This avoids one of the biggest frustrations of most games of this type – the tendency to suddenly throw an unexpected sharp turn at you without giving you a chance to prepare for it. Each race is only about 30 seconds long, which is kind of the ideal length of time for something like this. You do a race, upgrade your truck with the money you won, and head on to the next race to see what those upgrades did (spoiler: not much, just buy a bunch of nitros). Oh, and in between races you get to look at some girls in their swimsuits, so there’s that too.

Super Off-Road might be simple fun, but it’s still fun. It’s a really good way to kill a few minutes, or even and hour, and the sort of game you can come back to after a long break without feeling like you forgot something or lost some critical skills. Games like this went out of vogue a long time ago, but to be perfectly honest, I think the hobby loses a little something when there isn’t room in the marketplace for games like Super Off-Road.

Having said all that, this is still the kind of game that I take out of my Genesis and hide in a drawer any time I have company coming over.

Stryker: Rather than dig into the specifics of Super Off-Road, I wanted to just highlight one of the most significant changes between the Genesis version of the game, and the Super Nintendo. Here’s the awards screen you see after winning a race in the Super Nintendo version:

And here’s that same screen on the Genesis:

Oh I see, they made the girl on the right’s hair a lot redder.

I suppose this makes sense. The Super Nintendo had more powerful hardware, so it’s entirely possible that the Genesis was simply incapable of processing all those clothes without getting glitchy or having a massive slowdown. Then again, another explanation is that the designers were simply trying to distract us through the gratuitous use of breasts. Tough to say for sure what the motivation was, but I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. It’s just like Napoleon once said: “Never attribute to conspiracy that which can be adequately explained by boobs.”

Still, for what it’s worth, I actually just enjoyed this game for it’s hot racing action and dirty tracks  featuring tight curves and voluptuous mounds.

Like this one.

Mr. Do!: The Genesis version of Super Off-Road came out 3 years after the SNES version, and the only real change was the bikini girls Stryker mentioned. That comes out to roughly one year per girl which, even for video game programmers, seems like an awful long time to get a woman to take her clothes off.

Availability: Super Off-Road is dirt cheap, but also sort of hard to find, so you’ll probably have to pick one up online. Not a bad value, if you don’t mind seeing “People who looked at this also looked at” banner ads featuring Larry the Cable Guy merchandise. Alternately, it’s also included in the Midway Arcade Treasures 3 anthology for PS2 or Xbox (it’s not Xbox 360 compatible, though), which is pretty inexpensive and also includes the long-lost arcade hit Badlands, a game that is basically Super Off-Road except with missiles and destructible scenery.

Wiz N’ Liz: The Frantic Wabbit Wescue

Grade: B

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 28th

Publisher: Psygnosis

Year: 1993

Genre: Hoggit

When I was in fifth grade, our school was one of many across the nation that enrolled its students in the DARE program. For those of you who don’t know, DARE stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, and the basic idea is to teach kids about the dangers of illegal drugs, usually through a combination of watching movies from the early 1970s and lectures from a member of the local police force. This was considered to be the only way to save our generation from drug addiction, as our hippie parents surely couldn’t be expected to do this sort of thing.

It was also up to the schools to explain to us how rabbits managed to reproduce so quickly.

As noble as the program sounds, the effect ended up being the exact opposite of what was intended. Before the DARE program, all I really knew about drugs was that they killed all of our really good rock stars and comedians, turned your brain into fried eggs, caused your crazy girlfriend to smash up all your shit with a frying pan, and would make you jump off a skyscraper because you thought you could fly. Those are some pretty strong disincentives. DARE build on that foundation by teaching us that drugs could also give you feelings of euphoria (we didn’t know what that word meant, so it was described to us as “the feeling that everything is awesome”), cause you to write really great rock songs, see things you’d never be able to see in the real world (they left out the part that most of these amazing hallucinations would eventually turn into a pile of cobras), stay up all night, be better at sports, and make pain go away. You can see where that information might have confused the message a bit. We also learned a whole bunch of really outdated “street terms” for drugs, which may have been a last line of defense to prevent kids from getting them, as the dealers of 1989 probably wouldn’t have known what to make of a bunch of 11 year olds trying to buy “red devils” and “black beauties”. On the plus side, learning this lingo made episodes of Starsky and Hutch a little easier to follow.

Nevertheless, I am thankful for what I learned in DARE because without a solid understanding of narcotics, games like Wiz N’ Liz would be impossible to understand. Don’t get me wrong, Wiz N’ Liz isn’t Grand Theft Auto. This is a kid-friendly game with almost no violence at all and has absolutely nothing at all to do with drugs – there’s no references to drugs, or addiction, or magic pills that make you “feel good” or grant you “powers” or anything like that. It’s just that whoever designed it must have been tripping balls at the time.

Really, it’s less disturbing than the idea that they came up with this without chemical assistance.

Wiz N’ Liz is a game about two wizards who run around at a frantic pace collecting rabbits while hopping around like a couple of meth-fueled lunatics. Doing so allows them to spell made-up words, such as Hoggit, and collect fruit, which they mix in a giant cauldron to cast spells which do things like turn all the rabbits blue or let them play a knock-off version of Space Invaders where they shoot at the bunnies they had been trying to rescue a few seconds earlier. And as insane as that probably sounds, it really can’t do the game justice. The characters run around at incredible speeds, and the stages are looped so there’s rarely a reason to slow down, all the stuff you’re trying to collect floats, so you have to jump constantly, and the whole thing is going on so fast that you barely have time to comprehend it. Which is probably for the best, because none of it makes any damn sense anyway.

How do you even classify a game like this? I’d call it a puzzle game except there’s nothing to figure out. There’s also no enemies to fight, no obstacles to overcome, and for most of the game, the only way to die is when you fail to collect all the items within the game’s merciless time limit. You could almost call it the most abstract racing game ever made. It’s also part tribute to the generation of games that came before it, since between stages, you mix the fruit you collected and try to unlock various mini-games that are based on the arcade hits of yesteryear (you can also unlock other “prizes”, but why would you want to?). The whole thing is vibrant and upbeat, and the stages go so quickly that it’s like the game equivalent of eating M&Ms. It’s basically fun boiled down to its purest components.


Or as Stryker so eloquently put it when I asked him for an opinion, “I don’t know, this game just makes me happy.”

Anyway, God bless Psygnosis and their odd little hearts. Yes, the company published some of the worst games I’ve ever played, but their willingness to touch things no other company would also brought us the only halfway-decent demolition derby game ever made, as well as Wipeout, and this little gem.

Availibility: As far as we know, Wiz N’ Liz wasn’t released as part of any compilations, or been made availible on download, so if you want to play it, you’re going to have to dig the Genesis out of the attic. However, finding aGenesis copy of the game is fairly easy. We were able to locate it in multiple used games stores being sold for just a of couple of bucks, and online prices seem to be in the sub $5 range as well. Outside of a DARE class, you’re not going to find out about too many others ways to have fun for so little cost.

Rock N’ Roll Racing

Grade: B

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 29th

Publisher: Interplay

Year: 1994

Genre: Radar Love

On paper, Rock N’ Roll Racing looks like the kind of thing we would have made fun of mercilessly back in the elimination rounds before unceremoniously revoking its Seal of Quality and never speaking of it again. It’s an overhead racing game who’s main selling point is that it features a handful of mediocre licensed songs that have been Genesynthesized into something that sounds like a ring tone from 2003. Rather than a straight up racer, this is “combat racing”, with wacky characters, “rock n’ roll attitude”, and tricked out cars firing weapons at each other.  Oh, and it takes place in space, obviously.

Let’s come back to the last point for a second – Rock ‘n Roll Racing takes place in a world where interstellar travel is commonplace, the galaxy is inhabited by all sorts of intelligent creatures, and… they all enjoy auto racing, apparently. Not racing in rocket ships, or planes, or futuristic hover-vehicles. Just regular-looking automobiles. Trucks mostly. And they do this while listening to George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone”.

It’s certainly an interesting future we live in.

Of course, just because the idea behind a game sounds stupid doesn’t mean the game will be bad. In fact, some of our favorite games are based around unlikely-sounding premises. Pac-Man is about a ravenous yellow creature who lives in a haunted maze. Final Fight is the story of a mayor who cleans up the crime in his city by wandering around and punching people (presumably criminals) in the stomach. And one of our personal favorites, EA’s NHL series, is based around the far-fetched notion that people actually give a shit about the National Hockey League. So a weak concept doesn’t necessarily mean a weak game.

Rock N’ Roll Racing started out as the sequel to the SNES game RPM Racing, a game which, aside from the fact that RPM stands for “Radical Psycho Machine”, was a fairly conventional racer, set on earth, without any weapons or licensed music. It’s conceivable that those things were added after fans had complained that it wasn’t nearly radical or psycho enough. If that was the case (and it almost certainly wasn’t), you still have to think the game’s publisher would have gotten a little nervous about making such drastic changes for the sequel. Not Interplay, though. They must have had a lot of faith in the developers, a small, up and coming studio nobody had ever heard of, who had just changed their name to Blizzard Entertainment.

Yeah, that’s right – long before they drew their first orc, the company behind World of Warcraft and Diablo was making games about auto racing in space.

And considering their tendency to make drastic changes to their “sequels” and even rename them, that kind of makes Rock n’ Roll Racing a prequel to Starcraft.

So that probably explains how such a terrible-sounding game could actually turn out to be pretty fun. After all, Blizzard has never made a bad game, have they? Well, actually, they made a couple of pretty lousy superhero games, back in their early days before they stumbled upon the winning Warcraft/Diablo/Starcraft trifecta. In fact, going by their track record, I’d say pretty much every Blizzard game ever made is exactly one Superman appearance away from being awful. Which just proves my long-held belief that Blizzard is actually a shell company run by the Legion of Doom.

He’s on fire!

I suppose it would be inappropriate to discuss a game called Rock n’ Roll Racing without talking about the game’s soundtrack. RnR Racing features six real-life songs, dutifully translated onto your Genesis to sound vaguely like the song they originally were. It’s hard to get excited about this now, when video games not only allow you to listen to the real version of “Radar Love”, but also pretend to play it on a tiny plastic guitar, but this was a pretty big deal back in 1994. Then again, so was Urge Overkill. Anyway, here is the songlist for Rock N’ Roll Racing, with our own brief overview of each song:

  • “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath – Ozzy’s fairly accurate-sounding depiction of mental illness works surprising well as a driving song.
  • “The Peter Gunn Theme” by Henry Mancini – You probably know this one as “The Spy Hunter Music”, which raises an important point. If you’re going to use real songs in your video game, try not to use ones that were already prominently used in one of the greatest video games ever made. Especially if that other game was also about cars.
  • “Highway Star” by Deep Purple – Sadly, because of the technical limitations of the Genesis, all of the songs are instrumentals. It takes something away from most of them, but none more so than “Highway Star”, where you end up missing deep, meaningful lyrics like “Nobody gonna steal my head”.
  • “Radar Love” by Golden Earring – Originally, I thought this was a song about a guy who was trying to hook up with a policewoman, and he would drive really fast so she’d pull him over. Upon closer inspection of the lyrics, it’s actually about a guy who I guess can communicate telepathically with his girlfriend, but only while he’s driving. Pretty sure my version would have been better.
  • “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf – This is another one that loses a bit in the process of being Genesynthesized. The exaggerated “wiiiiiiiiild” in the song’s chorus ended up sounding like someone accidentally held down one of the buttons on their phone.
  • “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood – Surprisingly, this one sounds so natural as video game music, that you almost wonder if Thorogood originally wrote it to be background music in an shitty NES game, and then hastily added lyrics later on. Let’s face it, it probably didn’t take him all night to come up with “Ba-ba-ba-ba-bad.”

Anyway, Rock N’ Roll Racing doesn’t do much to revolutionize the racing genre, other than adding a small bit of combat into the mix, but it’s good at what it does. Yes, like almost every racing game, you’re still trying to drive in a circle faster than other cars, but this game really has some pretty enjoyable circle-driving, plus the ability to occasionally shoot missiles at your opponents is extremely satisfying, even if it rarely affects the outcome of the race. Given the changes in technology since the game came out, it’s hard to get excited about the soundtrack, but then again, there’s a good chance people weren’t all excited about being able to hear Genesis versions of mediocre songs in even back when the game first came out, so it’s difficult to say whether that aspect of the game has truly aged poorly or not.