This Week in Games - Retrogame Roundups Rated

by Todd Ciolek,
Well, here I am, guest-hosting again and just in time for the holidays. Winter and Christmas are upon us, and that's relevant because this the only season with which I associate certain games. I'll go through spring, summer, and fall without much thought, but when winter arrives I feel the need to revisit particular places: the snowy military base of the original Metal Gear Solid, the ice planet of EX Troopers, and, of course, Secret of Mana.

Why Secret of Mana? It's a sunny and upbeat game at first, and its verdant fields, swaying foliage, and catchy music help ease those wintertime blahs. I'll also forever associate it with December, since the original Super NES version of Secret of Mana launched in America right before Christmas 1993, and many a kid spent the winter break on a quest for Mana seeds and Flammie drums.

Of course, I cannot mention Secret of Mana and Christmas without noting that the game features Santa Claus himself. Going on a tip from Rudolph, the heroes find that mana energy transformed Santa into a monstrous Frost Gigas. Once reverted to normal (by being lambasted with fire spells and sword-whacks) Santa explains that he only turned to using mana because children had stopped believing in him. This made Secret of Mana a perfect fit if you happened to get the game specifically from Santa that holiday season.

NEWS

PANZER DRAGOON RETURNS REMADE, REBORN, RE-HYPED
I was starting to think Sega had forgotten about Panzer Dragoon. The series gets a reference or two in Sega All-Stars games or a reissued soundtrack once in a while, but we haven't had a new Panzer Dragoon, with rail shooting and dragons and a world that's half Nausicaa and half Moebius, since 2003's Orta (which you can play on your Xbox One now). And no, Crimson Dragon, a swiftly forgotten Xbox One outing by series creator Yukio Futatsugi, doesn't really count.

Well, Sega remembers. They recently joined up with Forever Entertainment and announced remakes of Panzer Dragoon and Panzer Dragoon Zwei. The press release is coy about just how much of the game will be revamped in terms of level design, but it promises “completely new graphics” along with “several modifications.” Oh, the possibilities. Panzer Dragoon drew a lot on the work of Moebius and even got him to contribute some illustrations, and it would be astounding if a Panzer Dragoon remake actually looked like a playable Moebius comic. As for the gameplay, the first two Panzer Dragoon games could use some features from later games—such as the ability to switch dragon forms mid-battle. There's a lot that could be done.

The press release is silent on any possible remake of Panzer Dragoon Saga, the most venerated piece of the series. For years, the word was that Sega had lost the source code to the game, making any sort of extensive remake or remastering difficult. Anyone who wanted to re-do Panzer Dragoon Saga and its fantastic mix of shooter and RPG would have to start from scratch. Maybe Sega and Forever Entertainment will attempt that if these initial remakes do well. Maybe we'll even get a reissue of the humdrum Game Gear Panzer Dragoon or a Blu-Ray of that terrible Panzer Dragoon anime!

And who is Forever Entertainment anyway? They're based in Poland, do a lot of business in mobile games, and are best known for the lukewarmly received Fear Effect Sedna. They are, however, a publisher rather than a development house, and the Panzer Dragoon remakes appear to be the work of MegaPixel Studio, a newly formed outfit also headquartered in Poland. That's nebulous, but the mere concept of Panzer Dragoon or Panzer Dragoon Zwei (above) remade is highly promising.

Well, it's at least more promising than the initial poster for the Sonic the Hedgehog movie, in which Sonic is apparently much more humanoid and also naked. Please be careful who you trust with Panzer Dragoon, Sega.

SMASH BROS. ADDS JOKER, WILL CONSUME ALL
Everyone is playing Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for the Switch. Your friends. Your co-workers. Your family. Heck, I'm fairly certain that anyone reading this column is merely glancing at it while playing Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, which frees me to write a dozen paragraphs about how the old NES game Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth contains the secrets of humanity's next major intellectual evolution.

The best thing about Super Smash Bros. Ultimate? Just about anyone could join the game. Well, Sony and Microsoft's first-party creations might be off-limits, but Nintendo could conceivably rope in characters from any other company. For example, the latest roster addition is Joker from Persona 5. The initial trailer is a slickly animated piece of work that introduces him and his excitable fellow thieves. It also pronounces the title as “Smash Bros,” which makes me wonder if I'm wrong to call it “Smash Brothers” in real-world conversations. And does this mean I've been pronouncing Super Mario Bros. incorrectly for over THIRTY YEARS?

Setting that aside, this invites us to cast an even wider net for possible Super Smash Bros. inclusions. I suspect other companies are jockeying to get more characters into the mix, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see Bandai Namco contributing a Tales character (I vote for Velvet Crowe) or Capcom cramming in another fighting-game star (I vote for Morrigan from Darkstalkers because she's the least Nintendo-safe). There's no guess too farfetched! Except for maybe Bowsette.

DORAEMON IS ON THE SWITCH, AND WE SHOULD LIKE THAT
You'll forgive me if I set aside bigger news and focus on the prospect of a new Doraemon game for the Switch. It's based on the latest semi-annual Doraemon movie, Nobita's Moon Exploration Chronicle, it's due out in Japan this February, and it might be good.

Why might this rise from the swamp of routine anime-based games? Well, it's part adventure game and part simulation wherein the player grows plants, builds cities, and gradually crafts an entire lunar kingdom. Doraemon games rarely turn out to be anything special, but they have a lot of potential in the underlying premise of a malfunctioning blue cat robot from the future pulling all manner of weird inventions from his trans-dimensional pouch. Perhaps this Switch outing will at last make good on the idea and create an engaging, perhaps even Pikmin-esque game from it.

And hey, I like Doraemon.

THE YEAR IN RETRO-GAME COLLECTIONS

As 2018 draws to an end, it's time for us to reflect. We'll pick out the best games of the year, which means fawning over the new God of War just because the giant crap it took all over Norse mythology stank slightly less than the one it took all over Greek mythology. We'll discuss prevailing trends, which means finding more ways to make fun of Detroit: Become Human. We'll mention the titles we're most looking forward to next year, which means I'll get depressed because there's no Gravity Rush game on the horizon.

Here's one major staple of 2018: retro-game compilations. The idea of old game collections is nothing new, but this year brought us new ways of presenting classic games along with some titles never before seen on home consoles—and a few things never before seen in public. I picked five standouts.

5. MEGA MAN X LEGACY COLLECTION
(Switch, PS4, PC, Xbox One)
The Mega Man X series is the second largest branch of the Mega Man phylum, presenting a sleeker, grittier successor that borrows as much from Casshern as the original did from Astro Boy. At their best, the Mega Man X games are fantastic side-scrollers full of inventive foes, sharp level design, and the Mega Man staples of an arsenal gathered from defeated bosses.

The two volumes of the Mega Man X Legacy Collection gather up everything from the successful Super NES outings to the dismal Mega Man X6 (which no one wanted to make) and Mega Man X7 (which no one should have made). This makes the second half of the collection much weaker, though Mega Man X8 is a decent upswing from the lowest points.

All isn't well, though. The Switch and PC editions have some emulation snags, which seems especially absurd in the case of the first three Mega Man X games, mere Super NES titles at the core. The anthology isn't complete, either. Perhaps the Mega Man Xtreme games don't fit into this anthology, but Mega Man X Command Mission, an RPG from 2004, is cruelly shunned here. Capcom also didn't want to spring for a good-size Switch cartridge, so that particular version makes you download the latter half of the whole collection.

Best Game: The original Mega Man X stands proud, but the series arguably peaked with Mega Man X4, which turned ally Zero fully playable and expanded its storyline into cutscenes now enshrined in the halls of infamous video-game voice acting.

Worst Game: Mega Man X7 beats out X6 for two reasons: it takes the series into awkward 3-D levels and introduces Axl, a new Maverick Hunter obnoxious in every way.

4. STREET FIGHTER 30TH ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION
(Switch, PS4, PC, Xbox One)
Yes, 2017 was Street Fighter's 30th anniversary. This may confuse folks who swear that Street Fighter II didn't come around until 1991, but we're counting from the original Street Fighter; you know, the one seen in It. The collection includes that clumsy relic as well as its universally better descendants, including five different variants of Street Fighter II, the Street Fighter Alpha series, and all three outings of Street Fighter III.

Just about every game here was part of some previous anthology, but the Anniversary Collection is a thorough summary of the series. Four games have online play (albeit with some lag, especially on the Switch), and the custodians at Digital Eclipse included a heap of supplementary material: art galleries, design sketches, unused character ideas, animation breakdowns, and a never-before-seen screenshot of Capcom's aborted attempt at putting Street Fighter on the NES.

Best Game: Street Fighter III: Third Strike is the pinnacle of the series for competitive types and fans of 2-D animation, but always will I carry a torch for Street Fighter Alpha 2. The birthday party full of Capcom cameos shoots it to the top of my list.

Worst Game: The original Street Fighter, almost by default.

3. SEGA GENESIS CLASSICS (AND SEGA AGES)
(Switch, PS4, Xbox One)
Sega will never again be Nintendo's equal, but give them this: they're better at reissuing older games. Nintendo offers a Disney-like slow drip of favored titles, while Sega routinely brings back piles of major arcade and console games for modern systems. Observe the Sega Genesis Classics set and its 50-plus lineup of Sega-brand highlights from the company's most successful console. That spans everything from the Streets of Rage trilogy to lesser-known delights like Gunstar Heroes and Wonder Boy in Monster World. It's an older collection, but it technically made its Switch debut this year.

Some things are missing, though. The Ecco games, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and Sonic & Knuckles aren't here, even though they're part of the compilation's earlier PC release. The set is also light on shooters, which the Genesis had in droves, and only Bio-Hazard Battle represents the genre here. Was Arrow Flash too much to ask?

For more substantial fare, look to the Sega Ages lineup that arrived on the Switch this year. It features perfect versions of older Sega titles, brought over by M2 with new features: Sonic the Hedgehog has the spin dash and drop dash, Thunder Force IV/Lightening Force lets you use Thunder Force III's ship, and Phantasy Star (available this week!) has an auto-map option that makes the dungeons flow much smoother. You'll have to buy each game individually, but it's worth it to get some new material and counteract those insufferable types who tell you that you can just "emulate these games for free."

Best Game: In the Sega Genesis Classics collection? Heidi will have me blacklisted if I don't say Alien Soldier, a beautifully complex action-shooter from Treasure, makers of the equally amazing Gunstar Heroes. My personal favorite, however, is Phantasy Star IV. It's the capstone of the sci-fi RPG series, and it has just about everything you might want: quick pacing, fun battles, and a parade of amazing sights from sandworms to spaceships.

Worst Game: It's a toss-up between Kid Chameleon, a drab platformer, and the completely unmemorable RPG Sword of Vermillion.

2. SNK 40TH ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION
(Switch)
Sometimes presentation is everything. The SNK 40th Anniversary Collection has only a few standouts, as it's mostly average arcade fare from the company's unsteady first decade. You'll get an amazing action-RPG in Crystalis and some fun with Psycho Soldier, but woe befalls anyone hoping to rediscover Ikari Warriors or Athena. Their redemption lies in the many extras: a museum details even SNK's most obscure titles, twin-stick arcade controls adapt well to the Switch, and a watch-and-play mode lets you skip to any point in certain games.

If the collection's initial lineup seems meager, buyers got a free assortment of additional arcade games this past Tuesday. It enriches the selection with the intriguing shooters SAR: Search and Rescue and Time Soldiers, plus a spread of other SNK titles stretching across the 1980s. Even if they're not always classics, the collection treats them like they should be.

Best Game: Crystalis, hands down. It's a great Zelda-esque outing from the NES, and its unique post-apocalyptic setting and diverse combat make it all the more tragic that SNK didn't attempt more games like it.

Worst Game: The NES version of Athena is a legendary train wreck, no matter how many nice bonus features you might hang on it.

1. CAPCOM BEAT-'EM-UP BUNDLE
(Switch, PS4, PC, Xbox One)
Capcom was its own worst enemy in the early 1990s. Street Fighter II dominated arcades, but it also pushed aside the steadily evolving realm of beat-'em-ups, which Capcom did better than just about anyone. The Beat-'Em-Up Bundle is a modest apology, gathering up every Capcom arcade brawler not impaired by licensing issues (so there's no Alien vs. Predator). It's not as thick with extras as other compilations, though you'll get a nice art gallery as well as some scanline options that Capcom scrambled to add after fans griped.

Genre standards like Final Fight and Captain Commando are still good, simple fun, but the collection truly excels with Armored Warriors and Battle Circuit. Representing the arcade brawler at its peak, they deliver upgradeable attacks, extensive multiplayer features, and some of the most marvelously detailed sprite art of the era. They're fun in short bursts or half-hour journeys, and the collection offers online multiplayer, though not without the occasional delays.

Best Game: Battle Circuit has a lot going for it in its four-player mode and wealth of special moves, but I'd tag Armored Warriors as the slightly more consistent game and an impressive showcase for someone's love of mecha anime.

Worst Game: Knights of the Round slouches behind the rest of the collection, with only a parry attack to enliven its standard-issue gameplay and mundane Arthurian trappings.

And what was your favorite retro-game cavalcade this year, good readers? Did you dig into Splatterhouse and Rolling Thunder with the latest Namco gathering on the Switch? Did you get a PlayStation Classic and immediately hack it to add more games? Did you buy one of those chintzy 1up arcade cabinets? Or did you just dig your Super NES out of the closet and play some Firestriker and Metal Warriors? Let me know!

THIS WEEK'S RELEASES

Really, game industry. You always spend the last few weeks of each year in the doldrums, with publishers having shipped their major releases earlier in the year or delayed them to the next. How do you expect to be taken as seriously as the movie industry if you don't deluge the market with prestigious releases clamoring for self-congratulatory awards?

BELOW
(PC, Xbox One)
Many games pattern themselves after the basic dungeon-crawls of old, but they often dress up the punishing play mechanics and random levels with detailed storylines, cartoony flourish, or pink-haired ninja girls. Below isn't having any of that. Its world is harsh and gloomy, building an aura with misty caverns and forlorn landscapes often illuminated only by the player's torch. There's a lot to do in this stark environment, however, as the adventurer under your control can amass many different tools and craft new ones. Comparisons to Dark Souls are inevitable, but Below reaches back farther, to the base Roguelike atmosphere of exploring treacherous depths with no idea of what lies ahead of you.

For another throwback to old RPGs, you can grab the above-mentioned Sega Ages version of Phantasy Star on the Switch. It was a groundbreaker in its debut on the Sega Master System in 1987, and while it's heavy on battles and light on story, it's still an impressive genre outing. The Ages version improves on it with a map feature, a monster guide, and difficulty settings that lessen the odds of poor Alis getting slain in her first battle outside of her city. Of course, you can always go for the original settings and take things the hard way. And if you want a less flattering Sega antique, a remastered version of the Sega CD full-motion-video adventure Double Switch is out for the PlayStation 4.

More approachable pleasures await in Earth Defense Force 5, the latest PlayStation 4 installment of Sandlot's series about giant alien invasions. This time the enormous spiders and ants are joined by huge froglike creatures, and it's up to the player and an attendant squad to wield dozens of different weapons in bringing them down. The series has never been glitch-free, but fans have learned to appreciate that by now, and they'll likely take right to this new EDF.

Lastly, Gungrave makes its sorta-return with Gungrave VR, a PS4/PSVR prequel to the actual upcoming big return, Gungrave GORE. The VR outing reimagines Gungrave's rampant shooting in brief, arcade-style bursts, and, well, it's not exactly getting good reviews.

And now I'm off to play some Secret of Mana and save Santa once again. You'll find me at my website and on Twitter, and perhaps I'll see you here again sometime in 2019.


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